Felt like finally putting together an actual list like this after seeing the number 5 around so much lately in the world of vidya, so here it is! As a note though, by JRPG for this I don’t literally mean “any video game from Japan with RPG elements”, I mean more typically what you’d call a JRPG. So things like Valkyria Chronicles, Nier, etc, won’t appear on this – not because I don’t love them, but because they just aren’t part of the types of games I’m trying to list out. I don’t really know how these work, so I just made some comments on each one. I was originally not going to put them in any order, but they ended up the way I’d have numbered them, so whatever.
The pinnacle of the Atelier franchise, for me at least. I’ve loved all the ones I’ve played (all of those available officially in English, including Iris ages ago and Annie) but Ayesha is the fullest and most polished game of all of them at this point. To be honest, I was having a hard time with thinking of a fifth – I just can’t remember all the games I’ve played off the top of my head as much as I’d want to (especially older ones – even those I do remember having played, I don’t remember the games themselves well enough), especially not when putting myself on the spot, so this is probably not my actual fifth, but it is for this list! The other 4 are solidly in place though. Good examples of games I don’t remember well enough or haven’t played recently enough again to say are my ‘top 5’ would be things like FF7 or 8, Chrono Cross, Suikoden 3 which I really enjoyed but I barely remember, and one of the wild arms (but i don’t even remember which, which proves my point) – so those are kind of like ‘runner ups’ I suppose for the fifth spot. I also wanted to put Xillia (1) here, but with the next game I felt it a bit silly to have two Tales games here – I mean its my list so I could have, but whatever.
Anyway, Ayesha is the first Atelier that I know of with a genuine serious story. The game maintains the usual lightheartedness and wonderful slice-of-life feel, but at the same time its one of the only games out there where you are actually playing DURING the apocalypse rather than after or before – a slow one, but still the end of humanity. Not only that, but – and this is a big end game spoiler! – you actually help push it to happen faster in the end.
The world building and overall foreboding atmosphere really makes you feel like you’re living out the last days of humanity, yet manages to handle it subtly instead of forcing it into your face – it’s nowhere near Sora no Woto’s world building, but it brought me the same types of feelings at times. On top of that, it boasts the most perfectly polished synthesis system (said system being very unique to this franchise and easily the best part) we’ve seen and some of the best feeling combat. The characters are also great and I really felt like I cared about saving Nio.
I made a short mini-review at the number one spot of this post before, if you’d like to know more about why I love it so much.
Tales of Graces F
While what I linked above shows Xillia as my “top of the Tales franchise” – it’s only the top in terms of story and pacing (and that mid-way reveal, which is still one of the most awesome ever conceived)! I love all the Tales games for the most part, but Graces F has the PERFECT chemistry between each and every member of the cast. No other game has this kind of connection between the characters done so naturally and intriguingly, not just within the franchise, but in general. Many people hate on the story for being childish, but really the theme being “friendship” doesn’t make it “a kiddy story” because the point wasn’t about the actual plot events, but of the development of friendships and relationships between the cast members throughout their adventure (and some of them, their childhood as well).
It wasn’t about Richard and Asbel and how ‘the power of friendship’ wins, it was about everyone in the game and how their relationships with one another bond them together and form who they become in their lives. Friendship is the THEME – not the STORY. With some of the best and most lighthearted comedy and the most incredibly well done character interactions, this really is the pinnacle of that aspect of any video game for me. Along with that, the gameplay itself was some of the best in the franchise’s history, and the “Title” system was perfected. Even the childhood arc is something I really liked and felt was a perfect way of setting up the story. I literally played this through fully 4 times within the first 3 weeks of it launching in the US, and I intend on playing it plenty more in the future.
The Legend of Heroes : Trails in the Sky
This game is the most well made all-rounder I’ve played to-date, and on top of that it has unquestionably the most fleshed out and lore-filled world in any game I’ve ever seen. I actually wrote a rather lengthy review with a lot of focus on that aspect because it really sets this game apart from everything else out there – JRPG or otherwise. Everything in this game is built as it should be, designed realistically within the canon and within basic life needs, the pacing of the story is perfect, the story itself is extremely exciting and gets intense later on after slowly building itself up through a slice-of-life-esque progression, and features great concepts all executed perfectly.
On top of that is beautiful music, wonderful visuals throughout (including real cute sprite art), and a great combat system. This is a must-play, just be ready to put in a lot of time reading, as the best way to play this game is talking to every single NPC (EVERY SINGLE ONE) after every tiny step (I mean even the most miniscule) within the main story. Everyone in this game without exception has their own story going on, their own life happening as the story (and thus time) marches forward. It’s an incredibly memorable game for all sorts of reasons, the cast is fantastic and you grow very attached to them, the world is completely alive, the story is outstanding and full of unexpected twists and turns (including at the very end, as a teaser for the next game), and it is a one of a kind game in many regards. Truly an experience that nobody should miss out on – and one of the only ones that really makes you feel like you’re on a genuine adventure throughout.
I’m gonna cheat a little for this one only; when I say “Xenosaga” I mean the trilogy – yup, even 2…well okay, not really 2, but it’s necessary for story purposes. Easily the most complex (in the good way), deep, intricate, and intriguing storyline in any game series (even more than muh nanomachines and liquidocelots), extremely fun and fairly unique combat, a cast like no other, a legitimately overpowered weapon in the story that is legitimately overpowered in your party (I love the consistency about that, as it’s usually forgotten in most games), THE MOST INCREDIBLE MUSIC IMAGINABLE – very much Yuki Kajiura’s magnum opus, great graphics that even hold up today, some of the most emotional and powerful moments in game history, and so much more.
Xenosaga is truly the full package and then some and absolutely nothing in video games comes as close to being a classical epic as Xenosaga managed (epic as in the actual word, not the memey ‘totally epic dude’ way). It features the most memorable moments in games for me and ever since I played the first game, let alone all 3, I always do my best to play through the full almost 200 hour long story on an annual basis and the OST is some of my most played music over the years. This is a must play without question.
Star Ocean 2
Very specifically 2. The first game is average and after 2 this franchise went to COMPLETE shit and has since produced some of the worst JRPGs rather than the best and if you consider them canon they even manage to somewhat ruin the perfection that is 2, avoid them at all costs. SO2 though is without question probably my number one favorite video game of all time, let alone my number one top JRPG. This is another game I make sure to play pretty consistently once a year and have never gotten tired of. There aren’t even any flaws to it aside PEARS INTO PEACHES and SOUTHERN CROSS spam which, if anything, are more charm points rather than something to complain about.
A perfect mix of sci-fi and fantasy with a lot of romance and huge plot twists thrown in constantly. This game also has the most perfect example of how to do a game with two protagonists to pick from. Their stories are perfectly intertwined – yet they are so hugely different depending on who you pick and you can really see a full game’s effort put into writing each. Extremely memorable events throughout, a wonderful soundtrack, great combat (very similar to that of Tales), a massive world with lots of extras. Oh, and for some reason my favorite thing – an iron chef style competition you can actually compete in. My one actual complaint about this game is that the PSP version does it a disservice while in other ways makes it much better, but I’ll always prefer the original PS1 version.
Well, that’s it. Maybe some of these coincide with your own top 5?
*Update: I’m not going to rewrite this post, though some day probably make a new one if need be, but I would like to point out that Persona 5 Golden (specifically Golden, not the original) has taken the spot of Ayesha from this list.