Best JRPG for a time-starved gamer?
March 30, 2012 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend a great JRPG based on some very specific likes and dislikes.

My video game playing time is increasingly limited, but I've got the itch to play a really good JRPG. I'm not very familiar with the genre, but several years ago I stumbled upon "Eternal Sonata" and LOVED it. Everything about it - the music, the story, the emotional core, etc. Loved it.

So, what should I play next? Preferred platforms would be Xbox, PS3 or Wii; PSP would be my second choice, but I'm including it because I'm vaguely aware that "Persona" is really good. Probably won't be getting a Vita for some time. Not interested in iOS games (tried Final Fantasy on my phone, hated it).

What I like:
* Great story with good acting
* Emotionally mature - ES felt "grown up" to me, not childish, which a lot of JRPGs strike me as
* Beautiful art and music
* Immersive world and setting

What I dislike:
* Grinding (ES had a bit of this, but it was so strong everywhere else I was able to get over it)
* Too long (100 hours? Sorry, I don't have the time. 10-15 would be perfect)
* Too hard (I'm in it for the experience and the atmosphere and the story, not the challenge)

Ideas, anyone?
posted by jbickers to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Tales of Vesperia
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:36 AM on March 30, 2012

Yeah, I've heard that one is great. But main story is almost 50 hours ... which puts me off somewhat.
posted by jbickers at 8:42 AM on March 30, 2012

10-15 hours for a jrpg is... unrealistic. Sixty is usually an average, but you'll have some in the 35-45 range and some in the 80-100 range.

Off the top of my head:

Lost Odyssey (360): Compelling adult characters, great writing, unique visual design. Got dinged for some technical issues when it came out, but if you install the discs on your 360 the loading problems are significantly improved.

Xenoblade (Wii, comes out in a few weeks). Amazing, generation defining jRPG that almost didn't make it out in the US, Xenoblade has a open world, gorgeous visual design, and great characters.

Valkria Chronicles (PS3): Gorgeous style, great story, innovative gameplay. Probably on the harder side for you, but it's relatively cheap and well worth a try.
posted by Oktober at 8:44 AM on March 30, 2012

If length is going to be a real problem for you, you're probably better off with more focused western RPGs like Fable and Mass Effect or older jRPGs from the Wii Virtual Console like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana.
posted by Oktober at 8:46 AM on March 30, 2012

Persona 3 Portable (PSP) is phenomal, but it's 1) relatively long (I clocked in at around 80 hours my first time, and I didn't do nearly everything I could have done) and relatively difficult.
posted by Oktober at 8:46 AM on March 30, 2012

I guess length isn't a deal-breaker, but given that I only get 1-2 hours of gaming per week, for a really long game, by the time I'm at the ending it's lost its emotional resonance because it's been so long since the opening. If the story is strong enough, I suppose that wouldn't matter.
posted by jbickers at 8:47 AM on March 30, 2012

Yeah, I'm sorry, you're not going to get 10-15 hours of a main story out of a JRPG. The genre is not concise. I'm pretty blank on possibilities because I did not like Eternal Sonata at all... maybe... Lost Odyssey (loved this as much as I loathed Eternal Sonata), Resonance of Fate, Record of the Agarest War.

There are a lot of great older RPGs that you can get on Wii virtual console or Nintendo DS. Super Mario RPG, Chrono Trigger, old Final Fantasies, etc. Super Mario RPG is still one of the best and funniest games you'll ever play.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

There was also a new Star Ocean game a year or two ago that you would probably like.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:49 AM on March 30, 2012

Yeah, portable RPGs may be a better bet for you. I got lost in the weeds playing Persona 3 on the PS2 the first time, but playing it in little 20 minutes bursts on my PSP during my commute was great, although it did take me almost 3 months to beat it.
posted by Oktober at 8:51 AM on March 30, 2012

If you're going to check out Star Ocean: Last Hope, do get the "International" version for PS3. The 360 version was a bit of a mess, but they significantly cleaned it up for PS3 (ie, you can use the non-terrible japanese VA and character art).
posted by Oktober at 8:52 AM on March 30, 2012

I do love portable gaming because I can create quick saves and play whenever. Dragon Quest IX now that I think of it was fantastic and I just beat it. Made waiting in a hospital waiting room very tolerable.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:58 AM on March 30, 2012

This is a little bit of an acquired taste, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE Final Fantasy Tactics, and they apparently made a PSP version.

It's a little different from a regular JRPG, in that it just moves from battle to battle, rather than having you trek across countrysides to new towns and such. It also plays out like a kind of chess, on a three-dimensional board. But it's like chess where you can turn one pawn into a barbarian, another into a wizard, another into a scholar, etc.

At any rate, this suggestion came to mind because each battle is its own discrete chunk of play-time, so it's easy to pick it up, have one or two battles, then put it back down. Each battle is maybe 5-20 minutes.

I recall the story being really good (and the dialogue being really bad, but apparently, the update has a whole new and much better translation). Here's a video; click to about halfway through to get a sense of what the play-style is like.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:02 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is fantastic and not too much grinding. The story line has a very dark background that doesn't become apparent quickly. It's a series of three, the first of which is out in English (so far). I don't dedicate too much time to gaming, but I finished it in less than a month at 52 hours.

Out of all the personas, I liked 3 best. My husband liked 4 best. Persona 3 has a darker storyline, Persona 4 is a lot more bright and cheerful.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:15 AM on March 30, 2012

Not sure if you know this already, but both Persona 3 and 4 are available on the ps2. They're excellent, but, indeed, they can last over 100 hours.
posted by OrangeDrink at 9:19 AM on March 30, 2012

I think the "1-2 hours a week" constraint is going to make this difficult. JRPGs require you to build character systems by accretion over many many hours, and require you to hold your place in ongoing plots and quests. It's easy to forget where you are and lose your momentum if you are only playing infrequently.

That said, here are some recommendations:

Persona 3 Portable (PSP) is a fantastic game that is a $20 download. It makes brilliant sense of systems that are stupid in a lot of JRPGs. Paradoxically, it is a story about teenagers that is simultaneously a lot less childish than most RPG stories. It's good for short play sessions where you do just a floor of a dungeon, or just a day in the social sim / scheduling game. On the other hand, it is quite long. P3 can be hard but has adjustable difficulties.

Chrono Trigger is a classic, and (I think) an easy choice for best short game in the genre (15-25 hours or so). The art is by Akira Toriyama (Dragonball), and it's a great example of how the superficially silly story-telling materials of videogames / anime can build very affecting and interesting stories -- very bittersweet. Good balance of focused plot vs. exploration. Minimal grinding. One of the best-loved soundtracks in video game history.

Final Fantasy Tactics (which yeah has a PSP release) is a "strategy RPG" with one of my favorite videogame stories. It's a little Game-of-Thrones-ish; I think both works are very loose retellings of the War of the Roses. It's pretty long (40-60 hours?), and it invites you to get deeply involved in its character-progression systems. You can spend ages in menus, choosing character skills, and (more damningly) ages grinding for experience, or using mood-breaking shortcuts like beating up your own guys. This is a game I love but find harder and harder to recommend.

However, Tactics Ogre, a similar game developed by many of the same people, was re-released last year in an excellent version for PSP. The story is low fantasy -- there are dragons and demons and necromancers, but the plot direction is driven by humans working towards human goals. The creator, Yasumi Matsuno, was inspired by the wars in Yugoslavia in the early '90s when he was making the game, and it shows in both the tone and the ambition of the plot. This is a game where a Machiavellian ally will order you to massacre the inhabitants of a village -- and you can choose whether you resist or comply. The gameplay systems have been reworked to reduce the importance of grinding, and a clever menu system allows you to revisit branching points in the story after you've finished the game, seeing the possible different outcomes without replaying all the battles.
posted by grobstein at 9:33 AM on March 30, 2012

I wonder if an action JRPG like Odin Sphere or Muramasa would also be enjoyable. There are definitely RPG elements, and there's a lot to explore story wise in Odin Sphere. There's not really any grinding, and it. is. beautiful. All hand drawn art by a company called VanillaWare.
posted by OrangeDrink at 9:39 AM on March 30, 2012

Persona 3/4 are both fantastic. However - if you're going to play P3, I highly recommend that you play the PSP version, because it uses the vastly improved combat system from P4. It also added a female protagonist that you can choose to play, with (some) new or different social links to progress through. Both games are quite long, however. They're a bit difficult too, but you can lower the difficulty if you need to (I did~).

Also longish, but available on PSN, is Suikoden. Suikoden was originally a PS1 game, so its graphics aren't the greatest, but it's a lot of fun. Holds a special place in my heart as the very first JRPG that I ever played, and the first game that I stayed up all night to finish.
posted by ashirys at 9:57 AM on March 30, 2012

Seconding Suikoden (and Suikoden 2, which is available on PSN, but not in the US) as great games that are also less than 20 hours each.
posted by Oktober at 10:35 AM on March 30, 2012

Muramasa's a great rec--I'm not a gamer but there's one in the household with verrry similar preferences and time constraints. He's all but given up on JRPG's because of the length, but he's been playing Muramasa recently and likes it a lot.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:25 AM on March 30, 2012

I found this very lengthy and good Listmania! on amazon. JRPG for the PS3.
posted by THAT William Mize at 11:44 AM on March 30, 2012

Skies of Arcadia (GC, but plays on Wii) is a good bet. It's not as "grown-up" a story as some of the others on your list, but I found the world to be really interesting and immersive.

Resonance of Fate might be worth checking out as well. I got bored of it after about 20 hours, but it has a really interesting battle mechanic and an unusual (for JRPGs at least) narrative style.

I believe both of these are on the shorter side for a full-out console JRPG, around 50-60 hours.

You really should player Persona 3/4, though. They're both on the longer side, and a little bit grindy, but so very worth it.
posted by aparrish at 12:24 PM on March 30, 2012

It's all text, no voice acting, (since it's a PlayStation game) but Vagrant Story is quick, can be finished pretty quickly, and has some absolutely fantastic writing, setting and immersion.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:25 PM on March 30, 2012

Concurring that PSP games, especially the "classics," might be more your speed. They are certainly a better fit for my limited free time.

I might get shot for this, but I'm going to recommend Final Fantasy 8 and Chrono Chross, both available from the PSP store.

When FF8 came out, many players (I guess the male teenagers) found the main character unappealing, emotionally cold, and difficult to identify with. I think he's a wonderfully written awkward, aloof teenager who gradually thaws out and learns to appreciate his life and the people in it. That sounds pretty formulaic, but the plot takes itself more seriously than it does in many similar games. The story has a mature emotional core, although line by line, the localization isn't necessarily great. FF8 is also a relatively easy game, and the main story can be completed within a reasonable time span.

Chrono Cross has a mute protagonist and a bunch of cyphers for playable characters, but the game has a brilliant, fully realized setting with lots of affecting little cameos. Instead of just ransacking houses, as you do in most RPGs, you witness interactions among family members, people's internal monologs, triumphs, little tragedies, that sort of thing. The game takes place across two parallel timelines — a successful individual's life in one timeline may have taken a bad turn in the other. There are many deep connections between events in the two timelines, and many interesting "what ifs." CC is also a pretty easy game that can be beaten relatively quickly.

Both games took a beating when they first came out and, I guess, some people who played them then still don't hold them in particularly high regard. I really enjoyed both of them, and I think you may too.
posted by Nomyte at 1:19 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's all text, no voice acting, (since it's a PlayStation game) but Vagrant Story is quick, can be finished pretty quickly, and has some absolutely fantastic writing, setting and immersion.

I haven't played Vagrant Story, but I can't help point out that it is another game from the core creative team that did Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, amazing games that I recommended above.

They also did Ogre Battle, an unconventional RTS / RPG that was originally released on Super Nintendo (now available on Wii Virtual Console).
posted by grobstein at 1:28 PM on March 30, 2012

Seconding Chrono Cross. It didn't so much "take a beating", it reviewed very well, it was just such a departure from Chrono Trigger that a lot of people were caught off guard.
posted by Oktober at 1:36 PM on March 30, 2012

Every high-profile game has "reviewed well" since 1997. In the case of FF8 and CC, however, there is a sizable and vocal contingent of regular gamers who enormously dislike these two games. "Off guard" doesn't really capture the vitriol. I've drawn double-takes at parties by saying "I like Final Fantasy 8."
posted by Nomyte at 2:23 PM on March 30, 2012

Yes -- the common cause being that each game was a sequel to a mega-popular breakout game, and each was a major tonal departure.
posted by grobstein at 2:32 PM on March 30, 2012

I would caution against FFVIII even though I enjoyed it, based on the preferences of the OP. There are significant plot holes, the protagonist's main line for a good chunk of the game is '...' and you have to grind for magic as the enemies level up along with you.

OP, do you want people to include Tactical RPGs in their recommendations? Some of them require getting to know more complicated battle mechanics compared to single-party JRPGs.
posted by ersatz at 2:59 PM on March 30, 2012

Don't get me wrong. Chrono Trigger is easily my favorite game of all time, I've beaten it at least a half-dozen times, but I still love Chrono Cross, it's just a radical departure both stylistically and gameplay-wise, and the way it treats the cast of CT leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
posted by Oktober at 3:03 PM on March 30, 2012

If 16-bit games are allowed, then I can't help but recommend Earthbound. Of course, I always recommend Earthbound. It's very different from other JRPGs, but despite the fact that the main characters are children it doesn't feel childish. It's just a whole lot of fun and has aged very well. Unfortunately it will probably never get an official rerelease, leaving you to either find an old used cartridge with a possibly failing battery or resort to emulation to play. Mother 3 is different, yet similar, and also highly recommended.

Chrono Trigger is also excellent in some of the same ways, the story is a lot better than most JRPGs in that the characters feel like real people.
posted by JHarris at 5:12 PM on March 30, 2012

I can't possibly recommend the Suikoden series highly enough for this question. The first two are PS1, the last 3 are PS2, but other than that they match all of your criteria. Huge immersive world that is persistent throughout the series, tons of characters with a frankly shocking amount of development, a battle system that completely eliminates grinding. 3 gets a bit long, and 4 is god awful, but the rest are basically perfect.

Chrono Trigger is even more amazing than everyone says it is. Yes. It's very, very amazing.

Oh god Vagrant Story. It's my favorite PS1 game. It is so awesome. It's more action than rpg, but not really, but kind of? It's from Squaresoft's wacky "let's put this genre in a blender with an rpg and see what happens!" period.

On the PSP, Final Fantasy: Crisis Core is a weird jrpg/action mix that works pretty well. You can also pick up Star Ocean and Star Ocean 2--though they are both very, very, very long, you get the ease of quicksaves. I also give a hearty second to Final Fantasy Tactics, which is awesome.

For PS3, Valkyria Chronicles is a super awesome trpg--you get instant in-battle saves, but the battles themselves are super, super long. There's really no grinding at all, though.
posted by billybunny at 10:28 PM on March 30, 2012

If you're looking for something really short but still RPG-like, you may want to at least try Mass Effect. It's not a JRPG but it does have a lot of the things you seem to be looking for. (As a note, it's definitely best on the PC, but a lot of people play it on 360.)

Chrono Trigger is a very old, very good game. Also easily available as a ROM at this point, and it's one of the few RPGs that might fit your time length preferences.

Tales of the Abyss (PS2) and Tales of Vesperia (360) are both highly recommended JRPGs. Abyss has a very well rounded cast and is primarily a coming of age story. Vesperia is quite good, as well. Abyss was the first Tales game I got into, though, so it will always have a very special place in my heart. It has a very dark, but very touching storyline, a lot of really great character interaction with some memorable lines, and the music is just lovely.

If you have a backwards compatible PS3, I'd also like to recommend Xenogears (PS1) and Xenosaga (PS2). It's scifi with a lot of religious overtones (Mary Magdalene has been remade into a combat robot, KOS-MOS, and Jesus, well...). Despite their similar names, Xenogears and Xenosaga are only loosely related to each other, so you can play one without playing the other. Again, the music is really beautiful.

Persona 3 and Persona 4 are also worth a shot. The latter might be more accessible to start out with, although reading through the above it seems like the PSP version might be a viable option for the former. Way back when, my first persona game was P3 on PS2, but the dungeons can be kind of merciless.
posted by Estraven at 2:32 AM on March 31, 2012

Wait, have you played the Final Fantasy games? If not, those are kind of commonly enjoyed for a reason, but they're so popular I think I just assumed that they'd already be known to you. FF7, FF9, and FF10 were my favorites. (also FF4 and FF6, although those are past the PS1/2 era and back in the SNES age...) FF7 is very grunge/urban, FF9 is more traditional fantasy themed, and FF10 is just kind of its own thing (a little bit of mecha...err, machina, but mostly fantasy setting).
posted by Estraven at 2:41 AM on March 31, 2012

i LOVE eternal sonata. i actually found this because i was searching metafilter for mentions of it as i just started playing it again today.

it doesn't fit in your time constraints because it's anywhere from 45 to 200 hours, but i adored dark cloud 2. to me the music and settings have a similar feel to eternal sonata.

my other favorite jrpg (and the first one i played) is skies of arcadia which clocks in at about 40 hours.
posted by nadawi at 11:19 PM on April 29, 2012

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