2021 may have tripped over a bar set on the floor and stumbled headlong into a tire fire burning at temperatures once thought unreachable, but we did get at least one good thing this year. A whole bunch of good things, actually, all of them JRPGs. This was a fabulous year for turn-based combat, giant swords, and all things anime. Many of the biggest and oldest JRPGs around got new installments in 2021, and most of them are among the best in their series, if not the best. There were spinoffs, remakes, and even some newcomers, with plenty of surprises between them.
Better versions of games we love
I'm still thinking about Bravely Default 2, a game I never actually expected to come out. The sheer cajones it takes for a series to disappear for six years (mobile spinoff notwithstanding) only to walk up at the start of 2021 and remind us that it's still doing more interesting stuff with turn-based combat than almost anyone else. As I said in my Bravely Default 2 review, the series' titular system of storing and spending action points feels like the kind of thing turn-based combat has always been leading up to, and I can't think of another JRPG from this year that's given such a well-worn formula so much vigor and personality. With endearing characters and an engrossing job system on top, this was a phenomenal start to the year.
Bravely Default 2 was also the start of an encouraging trend of more JRPGs coming to PC. The underserved PC demographic got Tales of Arise, too, and it quickly surpassed Tales of Xillia and Tales of Berseria to become my favorite in the series. It's the best of both worlds: combat is an invigorating power trip of create-your-own combos and flashy team attacks, and the story is propped up by more mature themes, clear stakes, and truly likable characters. The plot sometimes wobbles when you ask it to actually unpick its themes of slavery and racism, and some dramatic moments are so played up that they almost veer into comedy, but the main cast is rock-solid and carries the whole thing, warts and all.
More recently, I've spent nearly every night sinking hours into Shin Megami Tensei 5, which could almost be mistaken for an HD remake of Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne – except Nocturne actually got a remake for PS4, Switch, and PC this year, letting new generations experience the unrelenting RNG of this famously difficult PS2 classic. I'm approaching 70 hours in the fifth game in the series, and it's already my favorite, too. It really is a better Nocturne. The story is cut from the same post-apocalyptic cloth, but combat is fairer while still being punishing and there's actually a world outside dungeons this time, plus it's filled with tantalizing secrets that reward exploration. The open-world-ification of games continues, but it really works here.
Speaking of remakes: y'all heard of Pokemon? There's a new one out. It's like the old one, but it's new. Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl dragged one of the weirder Pokemon generations out of Nintendo's graveyard and polished it up for Switch for a downright inoffensive, if bewilderingly easy re-release. Fans responded as expected by buying it without hesitation, criticizing the lack of changes while praising the nostalgic elements, and immediately asking for the next remake. Here's hoping Pokemon Legends: Arceus can break the cycle and deliver something truly fresh next year.
Give me something weird and new
Being a JRPG fan, obviously I love playing more of the same, but this year I also appreciated the games that forced me out of my comfort zone. How do you get me to play Dynasty Warriors? You turn it into Persona 5, one of my favorite games of all time. Such was the brilliant plan of Persona 5 Strikers, a crossover that managed uncannily authentic storytelling and atmosphere despite jarringly different combat. Mechanically, Strikers couldn't be less like Persona 5. We've gone from pinpoint turn-based actions to idly cleaving through dudes like so many blades of grass, yet Strikers presents itself so well that the jump doesn't even phase me. I still find the 'one versus a billion' combat a little inelegant, but it is turn-your-brain-off fun, and I'll do anything to spend more time with the Phantom Thieves. Maybe that isn't so much leaving my comfort zone as it is vacationing at another comfort zone, but hey, baby steps.
In the same vein, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin wound up being just what I wanted after Monster Hunter Rise. The first Stories game felt like such an obvious win: pack all these iconic monsters into a cute, collect-'em-up JRPG and let us raise them. Bam, job done. And it worked! Well enough to secure a sequel, clearly. Wings of Ruin has refined that idea with more tactical depth and added monsters, not to mention a much better story. It's so easy to get attached to your favorite creatures, and it's uniquely empowering to fight alongside these things after learning first-hand how deadly they can be in a fight. Between this and Shin Megami Tensei, 2021 really showed up for people who wanted something like Pokemon but actually care about game balance.
I was equally surprised by Scarlet Nexus, a standout newcomer which benefited greatly from the efforts and leadership of former Code Vein and Tales of designers. I was a bit iffy on its purported "brainpunk" aesthetic when Scarlet Nexus was first announced, but I'm glad I gave it a shot. It's got some unexpectedly strong world-building chops on it, and its combat develops into a fast-paced storm of melee and ranged attacks accentuated by a range of fun psychic powers. It's also one of those JRPGs where your teammates get stronger as you progress their individual storylines, and I'm nothing if not a sucker for weaponized characterization.
There's always a JRPG
This might get my weeb card taken away, but this was the first year where I played a JRPG literally every single day, and that's thanks to Genshin Impact. With the arguable exception of Final Fantasy 14 – which is still more of an MMO despite being a Final Fantasy game – you don't really see JRPGs in the "Still Playing" portions of award shows and round-ups, but here we are. Genshin Impact is the JRPG I can't quit. This year's Inazuma expansion was an all-timer, the latest Dragonspine event was shockingly good, and Genshin continues to deliver some of the best music in games. Its gacha trappings have certainly shaped how I play it, but it's Genshin's world, combat, and characters that keep me coming back. It still blows my mind that my most-played JRPG is absolutely free and playable on smartphones (in addition to PC, PS4, and now PS5 if you can get one), but that just makes it easier to recommend.
Partly because of Genshin Impact, I haven't been able to get to every JRPG released this year – and I'm sure I've totally missed some, too – so I did want to mention a few well-received games which remain near the top of my to-play list. Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & The Secret Fairy seems to be more Atelier Ryza, which is exactly what this world needs. Neo: The World Ends With You thrilled fans despite disappointing the bean counters at Square Enix. Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny streamlined some of the series' more finicky elements in its transition to 3D. And Ys 9: Monstrum Nox looks like a solid follow-up to the stellar Ys 8, which is a tough act to follow.
The variety and quality of JRPGs out this year was staggering, and the early months of 2022 are poised to keep that momentum going. Pokemon Legends: Arceus ought to be an interesting way to ring in the new year, and it'll be followed by Project Triangle Strategy, Sea of Stars, Atelier Sophie 2, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, and Rune Factory 5, with Genshin Impact's next big regional update arriving later in the year. We're expecting some big hitters in 2023 and beyond, too, with Final Fantasy 7 Remake Part 2, Final Fantasy 16, and Dragon Quest 12 all in development, Persona 6 almost certainly in the pipeline, and let's not forget Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes. Exact release dates still need to be hammered out for a lot of these, but JRPG fans have plenty to look forward to, whether they're looking for something turn-based, open-world, or action-heavy. For now, I've got some catching up to do. Ain't no backlog like a JRPG backlog, after all.