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The 15 best JRPGs

The 'J' in JRPG isn't just a signifier of its country of origin - it's a statement of mood, intent, and game design ethos. Early JRPGs like Dragon Quest found inspiration in Dungeons & Dragons and modeled its stylings for an audience raised on consoles, giving birth to a whole new genre in the process. By the late '90s, JRPGs would become synonymous with video game storytelling, finding a worldwide audience hungry for games that didn't just give them an empty role to fill, but fully-realized characters to control and fall in love with over dozens of hours of gameplay.

The JRPG may have fallen out of favor in recent years, but with the release of Final Fantasy 15 and Persona 5, the genre is making a ferocious comeback as a whole new generation of fans discover their thrilling, intricate, and strategic combat systems and unconventional, off-the-wall narratives. This list is just a small celebration of some of the best games the genre has to offer, organized by some of GamesRadar's biggest JRPG fanatics. 

15. Shadow Hearts: Covenant

Release date: September 27, 2004 (NA) / March 11, 2005 (EU)
Format: PlayStation 2

There is an inky, fast-beating heart beating inside the Shadow Hearts series but it was Covenant, the third game, that started wearing it on its sleeve. There is no one genre of pulp that easily applies. Historical fiction? It explores how World War 1 ravaged Europe, but it also has you collecting porno magazines so your party’s wizard can teach his terrifying dolls new, hilarious spells. Goth? Lead character Yuri is a brooding heartthrob in black who can turn into a monster, but one of his best friends is a magic wrestler that hits people with a lamppost. There’s only one thing you call a game where the 1917 Russian revolution ends with a series of grand boss battles in hell: one of the best RPGs ever made. Shadow Hearts: Covenant’s wild love story takes world history and warps it into something grand and funny, delighting equally in humor and terror. Propping it all up is a remarkable variation on the three-hero turn-based battle system, where carefully timed button presses determine the success or failure of every action. The studio and publisher of Shadow Hearts is long dead but the game’s legacy lives on in games like Lost Odyssey. - Anthony John Agnello

14. Panzer Dragoon Saga 

Release date: April 30, 1998 (NA) / June 5, 1998 (EU)
Format: Sega Saturn

Panzer Dragoon Saga has taken on a legendary status thanks to the circumstances surrounding it. Notoriously difficult to emulate even on modern PCs, Sega printed fewer than 20,000 copies in English for Sega Saturn and then lost the source code for the game; it became a “lost” game almost as soon as it was released. Those lucky enough to have played Panzer Dragoon Saga know the truth, though: it is as good as it is notorious. Mixing the surreal, desolate natural landscapes of the original Panzer Dragoon shooters with an un-imitated, turn-based battle system and a melancholic story about surviving an endless cycle of war, Saga is a bizarre and beautiful mutation of JRPG tropes. While you never control more than one character - just the young man Edge and the messianic dragon that adopts him - there’s a surprising amount of variety to the fights. Fights force you to constantly move around your foes, looking for an opening from the front, back or flanks to attack. Between fights you can change the physical makeup of your dragon, changing it to be heavy, slow and strong or smaller and faster depending on the situation’s needs. Everything about it is special: Saori Kobayashi’s music, Katsumi Yokota’s quiet art. Do not hesitate to play it if you have the chance and hope that Sega somehow finds a way to rescue it from obscurity. - Anthony John Agnello

13. Valkyrie Profile

Release date: August 29, 2000 (NA)
Format: PlayStation, PSP, PS3/Vita (via PSN)

Death is a core element of Valkyrie Profile's story. As Lenneth, you must scour Midgard in search of einherjar - recently deceased warriors who will join you in Valhalla to do battle in Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. Each of its 24 recruitable characters all deal with their own death in their own ways, finding an opportunity to right the wrongs and overcome regret in the end of the world. While Valkyrie Profile's writing and characters will draw you in, its dungeon design and combat will keep you coming back. Battles combine turn-based strategy with action-packed combos, and dungeons are two-dimensional labyrinths, built in the style of the winding passages of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It's a challenging, emotional tale, one that rewards multiple playthroughs in order to see everything it has to offer, and it still holds up nearly twenty years later. - David Roberts

12. The World Ends with You 

Release date: April 18, 2008 (EU) / April 22, 2008 (NA)
Format: DS, Mobile

The World Ends with You is absolutely wild. It's set in an alternate version of Shibuya where the recently deceased battle for their souls in a game hosted by the gods. In order to win, players in the game must solve puzzles throughout the Japanese city before a timer imprinted on the back of their hands counts down to zero. They must also fight all sorts of demons, with combat taking place across both of the DS' screen and attacks and abilities activated by equipping specific pins and using the D-pad in conjunction with swipes on the touch screen. The World Ends with You is strange and esoteric, but everything is explained perfectly and executed with style to spare. There's seriously nothing else like it. - David Roberts

11. Pokemon Sun & Moon

Release date: November 18, 2016 (WW) / November 23, 2016 (EU)
Format: 3DS

Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon shook up the 20-year old series in ways that are hard to imagine a company doing with such a sacred series. Gyms were cut, old Pokemon got new Alolan forms, a new "Z-Power" move system was invented, and there are even creatures that aren't quite Pokemon known as Ultra Beasts for you to fight and use in battle. There was also a ton of quality-of-life improvements that made the game less clunky and more enjoyable, from having the game tell you if a move was effective to making the throw Poke ball option a single button press. And hey, the designs for this generation of Pokemon were actually pretty alright. No living piles of garbage here. - Sam Prell

10. Fire Emblem: Awakening

Release date: February 4, 2013 (NA) / April 19, 2013 (EU)
Format: 3DS

Why Fire Emblem: Awakening and not Fire Emblem: Fates? It's true that Awakening lacks some of the mechanical refinements and grand battle scenarios that make its sequel a superior tactics game. But while the main cast members of Fates rarely transcend their trope-y origins (not to mention getting mired in some creepy sibling love), the stars of Awakening grow into friends that you'll cherish for years to come. Watching Chrom mature from an idealistic prince to a noble, tempered king is an unexpected delight, as is meeting the future-offspring of all your favorite character pairings. After more than a quarter century of Fire Emblem history, Awakening remains its finest hour. - Connor Sheridan

9. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Release date: May 13, 1996 (NA)
Format: SNES, Wii/Wii U (via Virtual Console)

While Nintendo's Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series have come close, none have quite replicated the charm, humor, and sheer density of surprises that Super Mario RPG has to offer. Developed in conjunction with Squaresoft, Super Mario RPG follows the Italian plumber on his quest to save the Mushroom Kingdom from a mysterious invader, forcing him to partner up with an old nemesis, side with a cast of loveable new characters, and beat up goombas in a groundbreaking timing-based combat system. The attention to detail is so impressive - especially for a SNES game - that Super Mario RPG allows you to stay in a hotel, run out of money, and pay off your debts working as a bellhop. It's an adventure as timeless as Nintendo's own mascot. - David Roberts

8. Suikoden 2

Release date: September 25, 1999 (NA) / July 28, 2000 (EU)
Format: PlayStation, PlayStation 3/Vita (via PSN)

Don't worry about playing the first game. Suikoden 2 contains a few call-backs but otherwise stands alone, and it's the one you should definitely play. It's a sweeping military drama on a grand scale, using Chinese mythology and history as a backdrop and then expanding on it to tell its tale of how the fated 108 'Stars of Destiny' converged to put a stop to the bloodthirsty General Luca Blight. Each 'Star of Destiny' is a specific character you can find and recruit into your ever-growing army. Many of them are party members who will join you in its turn-based RPG combat, but many others work in the background, opening shops in your own castle, providing you with necessary services or upgrades, or assisting you in strategic Fire Emblem-style tactical battles. It's like Pokemon, if all of the Pokemon had their own interesting backstories, and one of the Pokemon opened up a bathhouse for you. - David Roberts

7. Final Fantasy 15 

Release date: November 29, 2016 (WW)
Format: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

For decades, Square Enix has been chasing Final Fantasy 7's ghost, trying to recapture that magic blend of fantasy and science fiction that has come to define the series. In Final Fantasy 15, director Hajime Tabata and his team finally did it, crafting a believable open world filled with 1950s Americana, chocobos, delicious food, and giant crystals just hanging out in the middle of a canyon like it's a totally normal thing for a giant crystal to do. It also helps that Noctis and his pals are people you actually want to hang out with, their playful banter punctuated by energetic team-based combat and a narrative that will test the very limits of their friendship. And I'm just going to say it: Ardyn Izunia is the best villain in a Final Fantasy game since Kefka, and absolutely steals the show every second he's on screen. - David Roberts

6. Final Fantasy Tactics

Release date: January 28, 1998 (NA)
Format: PlayStation, PSP, PS3/Vita (via PSN)

Final Fantasy Tactics is a lot like chess, and I don't just mean in how its turn-based tactical combat offers a ton of depth, especially after you unlock dozens of different classes that open up a range of magical spells and interconnected strategies to exploit. Its story is one of deception, political intrigue, and double-crosses, a surprisingly mature and somber tale of a forgotten young man named Ramza who played a key role in a kingdom-spanning war before having his efforts covered up by the church. Yasumi Matsuno's world of Ivalice bleeds history, perfectly accompanied by the painterly art direction of Hiroshi Minagawa and the symphonic compositions of Hitoshi Sakmoto and Masaharu Iwata. Or to put it another way, it's like Game of Thrones, except with yellow, ostrich-sized birds who will fight for you and let you ride them. - David Roberts

Read on for the top five JRPGs of all time!

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