I’ve been meaning to put this guide together for a while because I have a bunch of friends that don’t know where to start when it comes to JRPGs. Which is fair — there are a million of the things, and a lot of them are pretty bad. That said, what’s nice about the JRPG is that despite what sounds like a niche genre, there are tons of options for all kinds of people to get into them based on their own preferences, from action games to the more traditional turn-based affairs.
Disclaimer: Blah blah blah opinions, this isn’t a book of gospel, blah blah, tell me what you’d suggest as a start, yadda yadda.
The format of this guide is as follows: I’ll name a game, and then I’ll name who it’s for. The only exception to this is what game you should play first, which, if you’re a beginner in the genre, should always be…
Chrono Trigger, for all intents and purposes, is pretty much the perfect game in its genre. It’s JRPG nirvana. It never slogs, never forces you to grind, and has a combat system that’s easily approachable while still being cool to experiment in. It’s an expertly paced game that teaches you all the standard JRPG systems. The only thing that might cause me to hesitate when it comes to recommending Chrono Trigger as your first JRPG is that everything after it might feel weak by comparison. And that’s the best praise I can give it!
Child of Light
Child of Light is a great intro into JRPGs, and a good indicator that just because something is made by a Western developer, doesn’t mean it isn’ta JRPG – I promise you, that sort of conversation isn’t worth arguing about. It’s relatively short, grabs the amazing combat system from Grandia 2, and is family-friendly as well. The art and music are also phenomenal. Plus, you can play it on literally every modern system out at the moment.
If you’re a fan of anime, or miss high school (which, honestly, why?) but haven’t played a JRPG, Persona 4 is right up your alley. A satisfying blend of high school sim and traditional JRPG gameplay, with a dash of pokemon-esque strategy, Persona 4 is an addictive trip. Pick this if you miss summer trips with your friends. I went with this one over Persona 3 and Persona 5 because the former takes forever to get going and the latter is so mechanically perfect as a turn-based game that it’d be hard to go back to earlier games in the series. Persona 4 is available on the PS2, PS3, and in enhanced form on the PSVita.
Shin Megami Tensei IV
Maybe you read all that and your nose wrinkled in disgust. “This is why I never got into JRPGs,” you’re thinking. “I don’t want dating mechanics or slice of life skits!” You’re probably looking for Shin Megami Tensei IV, then. If you ever thought “I want Pokemon but instead of being my friend they want to kill me” then this is actually the perfect game for you! What you get in exchange for a brutal game is an interesting storyline about the nature of humanity and what words like law, chaos and neutrality really mean.
Seriously though…be careful making this your first choice if you’re not ready for it. And IV is on the friendlier end of the spectrum!
Nier / Nier Automata
Are you looking for more interesting and weird storytelling as present in SMTIV, but without the brutal difficulty? Do you like good music? Are you a dad? If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, you’ll love Nier and/or Nier Automata! Though the latter is a sequel to the former, you can jump into them in whichever direction you like, in my opinion. The original game in the series is a bit less polished than the first, so if that sort of thing is important to you, start there before moving to the silky-smooth gameplay of Automata. Either way, you won’t be disappointed!
Paper Mario / Mario Bros. RPGs
The Paper Mario and Mario Bros. RPGs have the benefit of being attached to the most iconic videogame character in gaming history. Both series have simple but interesting and active combat systems that are easy to grasp as a JRPG beginner, and include all the characters you love — including some wacky new ones. Any of the games are a great place to start, but I recommend Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door and Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story from each series, respectively.
Tales of Berseria
Maybe you’re the type that finds the turn-based nature of JRPGs to be a snoozefest. If you’re willing to not to shy away from some Big Anime Archetypes, The Tales series is right up your alley! These are fast-paced action games that make combat fun even 30 hours into a story. Before last year, I would have recommend Tales of Symphonia or Tales of the Abyss as good places to start. And they still are! But Tales of Berseria gets bonus points for being on the current generation of consoles, as well as including an interesting group of characters and some quality of life choices that help set it apart from other games in the series.
Final Fantasy X
Of course there was going to be a Final Fantasy game on this list. It’s hard to avoid the JRPG Juggernaut. Out of fifteen games, I went with FFX. It has a simple but effective battle system, isn’t incredibly long like some other Final Fantasy games, and is straightforward — sometimes literally, depending on the area you’re in. Plus, if you find yourself wanting to dig deeper, there’s a metric ton of post-game content you can dive into that will test your JRPG skills to the limit. It’s also available on pretty much every platform in existence, so it’s easy to find a copy.
Blitzball still sucks, though.
Fire Emblem Awakening
Are your turn-based JRPGs not turn-based enough? Let Fire Emblem give you the strategic rush you need. Fire Emblem games can be extremely difficult, but Awakening gives you enough options to ease your way into the game’s addictive RPS strategy systems without having to worry about getting your entire team killed. Couple that with a fantastic localization and tons of customization options, and you’ll be knowledgeable enough to be one step closer to playing Final Fantasy Tactics, the graduate-level equivalent of the strategy-jrpg.