If you’ve listened to the podcast in recent months, you know that I’ve fallen back in love with Japanese RPGs. I could do without the grinding and 40+ hour running times, but the sub-genre has taken some major step forward in the past 12 months or so. It’s a shame that financial realities have kept many of these games out of the limelight, but if you gave up on JRPGs after Final Fantasy XIII crapped the bed, it’s time to come back into the fold.
However, as the title of the post clearly states, I’m leaving out Ni no Kuni for now. I’ve been having a mostly great time playing through its opening-hours, but so many insist that this is the old-school role-playing savior, and I just can’t get behind it. Underneath the gorgeous Ghibli-fueled animation and charming world, there’s a really clunky battle system and more dull fetch quests than I care to see in a modern “classic.”
No beefs with the following games though…
My runner-up for 2012 Game of the Year, Xenoblade Chronicles rethinks almost every JRPG convention that has driven so many to Skyrim and the like. The scenario is novel enough – a group of adventures trek across the backs of two suspended titans – but it’s the wonder and ease of exploration that makes Xenoblade so memorable. Huge, verdant fields rival the scope of maps in your favorite MMOs, and you can instantly travel to any major landmark – no need to wait for a mid-game ostrich or airship. Real-time battles with smart A.I. teammates finally realize the potential Final Fantasy XII showed years ago. Every character is highly malleable and quests are streamlined to minimize return visits. If you can get past the time demands – at 60+ hours, an admittedly tall order – Xenoblade Chronicles is an absolute joy.
Sorry that it’s selling for ridiculous prices on eBay!
The Last Story
The other Wii RPG, The Last Story would’ve been a strong contender for that Game of the Year list if I had gotten to it sooner. Thankfully, I was able to rectify this oversight in January. Much like his underappreciated Lost Odyssey, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story tells a familiar story with the usual archetypes, but he breathes new life into it all thanks to brisk pacing and a natural tone that stands in stark contrast to most over-the-top anime melodrama. The combat is brilliantly paced, too – there are only so many enemy encounters in each dungeon, meaning less repetition and more tactical options.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
I’ve played every localized Fire Emblem, but this 3DS sequel is the first I’ve ever played to completion. The team-up options and street/spotpass rewards may tend to tip the series’ brutal difficulty curve a little too far in your favor, but it’s hard to complain when there’s so much to experiment with. Better yet, Awakening‘s baby-making really does get you invested in the fates of your characters. Before, losing a delicate Pegasus Knight simply meant less cannon fodder later in the game, but now you also risk losing a potential parent, with a corresponding potential side-mission and bonus ally. If that sounds too intense to you, don’t forget that there’s a more forgiving casual mode. (But you’ll hate yourself if you use it.)
I don’t know how I haven’t celebrated this one yet, as it bridges the gap between my co-hosts’ tabletop favorites and the most arcane works of Yasumi Matsuno. If you’ve played Final Fantasy Tactics or Vagrant Story, you know how absurdly labyrinthine his plotting and dialogue can be. Now, imagine all of that detail crammed into an $8 eShop download. The writing may hearken back to Matsuno’s PlayStation favorites, but the dice-rolling and character figurines trace back all the way to Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk. A dungeon master narrates all of the action, with rolls for initiative often deciding your fate. A few obtuse puzzles may frustrate, but this a fascinating, engrossing experiment.
Persona 3 Portable & Persona 4 Golden
So this is a bit of a cheat, as I’m just starting off my school year in Persona 4, but I’m so thrilled to experience the series for the first time. Persona 3 Portable was a great time – lots of fun dungeon crawling, social links and Japanese virtual tourism. But it was also clear that this PSP version was compromised; lots of concessions had to be made to fit it on a handheld at the time. I’m excited to play the more fully-realized Persona 4 Golden on my Vita in the months ahead.
Honorable Mentions (some of which I haven’t played…yet): Dragon’s Dogma, Denpa Men: They Came by Wave, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Etrian Odyssey IV…and fine, Ni no Kuni. I’m not a total crank.
Did I miss one of your favorites? Am I way off on Ni no Kuni. Let me know in the comments!