I could've added Xenoblade Chronicles X to the list, but i didn't because i'd always stopped playing midway despite having liked it. The game was just waaaaay to massive to keep my attention for enough time.
Paltheos said:Generally these aren't in order, except the top 2 and if you were to ask me on a different day allot of my other picks could be switched around or replaced but I did spend allot of time thinking about this.
01) HIGHLIGHT VOTE Valkyrie Profile - There was a moment when I was playing Valkyrie Profile that I realized that all the planets had to have aligned to make this game. Maybe it was a happy accident, maybe it's true brilliance. Tri-ace has a penchant for experimenting on new IPs and they have a... spotty track record, but nearly everything in this game works.
As a representative of Odin, lord of the gods and Valhalla, you are set to task collecting worthy heroic souls from Midgard for Ragnarok and purifying the land of disruptive forces up to no good on it. The first thing this game does right is, after the tutorial stage, letting you do everything at your own pace. Want to go collect a soul now? Go ahead. Want to dungeon dive? Have at it. And it does all of these things well.
The very first vignette I read was told with a sad beauty and subtlety rarely found in the genre (often told to a wonderful track literally titled "Epic Poem to Sacred Death"), and I loved it. The dungeons and combat are on the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, with balls to the walls rock blaring as you dash and leap through levels and fight enemies in a turn-based but fast-paced timed button press-combination battle system (that I'm sure only tri-ace would come up with), and somehow the game suffers from no tonal whiplash.
Did I mention that this game is beautiful? It is. The character portrait work is absolutely without peer for any game I've ever played, and the sprite work is no slouch either. Every image of the protagonist Lenneth is simple beauty in motion. Motoi Sakuraba, more commonly known for mixedly received Tales of games soundtrack contributions, operates fully in his element here and at the peak of his ability. Sakuraba generally does a couple things really well: Anything with an ominous undertone, and heart-thomping action, and he's a perfect match with what tri-ace produced here. I can think of a handful of a scant tracks that aren't great.
There are a few flaws to the game, or at least things that might turn some off. The game practically requires a strategy guide from the beginning to get the true ending although oddly I didn't mind using one even a bit here - Likely because of how the chapters in the game are divided up. One dungeon in hard mode of the final chapter has an obnoxious gimmick of expelling you back to the world map if you miss a platform or are knocked into the void by an exploding chest. The dubbing, although largely very good (particularly for Lenneth), is also performed by the same cast that acted in Slayers and the old Pokemon anime, which if you've seen those shows sometimes results in their performances here feeling a bit... disorienting. Finally I'd note that while the main story progression (just the short stories, in other words) are 10/10 material for me, the actual main plot and the conclusion of in particular is just 'good'. Feint criticism but I judge this game by the highest standards because it really is this damn fantastic so I feel obliged to mention everything I can.
02) Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne - After this, the order starts getting muddy, but Nocturne is without a doubt my #2 pick. Most people will talk about the incredible artistry and amazing atmosphere this game produces, but I think the best summation of what Nocturne is is a title that begins and remains intensely interesting. Much of the surreal atmosphere and the desperate combat at the start becomes more normal and easier (respectively) as your options open up - And the early third or so is my favorite part of the game - But the game somewhat compensates for this by continuing to throw new ideas and different sights at you and forces you to adapt in combat by leveling up your demon teammates at a slow rate, forcing you to fuse them into higher-leveled, different demons whose chemistry with your current team and compatibility for the dangers ahead is an unknown.
Nocturne is not an easy or forgiving game (although relatively speaking to other SMT games, it is!), but it's the most rewarding. Most of the other titles in the series fall on a flat law-chaos alignment system. Or they aren't as visually interesting. Or they have an awful UI (I'm looking at you SMT4). Nocturne has some flaws, particularly related to character specing (although I believe that systematically randomizing fused demon abilities like in Nocturne is better than in later SMT and Persona titles), but what it accomplishes is something unlike anything else I've seen in the genre.
03) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - I'm generally not a fan of large, open-world western RPGs (this is the only one on my list!). I tried, hated Fallout 3. The Witcher was a slog. A contrast with the former I think is more illustrative of why I love Skyrim. Fallout is flat, barren, brown, and quiet. Skyrim is bursting with life, color, and sound at every turn. It's a world that the first time you step out of the starting town invites you to run in *every* direction at once... or just stop to look around where you are now and listen to whatever wonderful tune is playing.
*Sure*, allot of the dungeons are samey, and combat's not particularly elegant, but there's so much around every corner. Any NPC you feel could give you another quest that just gives you an excuse to go out, wander more, maybe pick up some loot, fight a dragon, or get some cool spell. It's just relaxing to play.
04) Xenogears - The one and only. I think it's impossible to discuss Xenogears with anyone who's heard the name and doesn't know it's famous for its story. Xenogears is a massive undertaking (for the player and the developers), an ambitious title I often believe that for its scope we'll never quite see the likes of again. Yes, Xenogears is famous for its story. It's long, it's demanding. And it's good.
Other details are largely superfluous but worth mention. The combat is generally just serviceable but at least is visually interesting. Platforming in certain sections has bothered people but I think in general the amount of freedom in movement the games gives you in exploring is net positive. Disc 2's style is very contentious but without spoiling, after thinking on this for a while, I think the game is better for it (PM me if you want to talk about it). Also the Mitsuda soundtrack is really good although you'll probably notice is a little... limited. For the time, Xenogears has a very low track count, but almost all of them being great largely makes up for it. I also think people sell the cinematography short in this game - It really helps sell the story.
05) Grandia - In my mind, Game Arts as a company is most memorable for making light-hearted adventure games focused on telling coming of age stories where inevitably the hero must conquer some evil. And with some romance elements in there for good measure. Very basic stuff, but they are very, *very* good at it. Better than anyone else I'd argue, and this point may be contentious among Game Arts fans (I legit don't know - how many of you are out there?) but I think Grandia is where they peaked, where their form and technique they'd nurtured from developing Lunar for years had matured the most and technology allowed them to do as much as they wanted but before they either lost talent, technology left them behind, or costs became prohibitively expensive (Grandia II is their last good title imo).
Grandia is a title that earns its name, and I think the spirit of the game is best captured in its theme song, one of my favorites of all time:
From excitement for the adventure ahead, to apprehension, to wonder, to somber appreciation, to sadness, to tears, to geting up and journeying on. Grandia wears its tone on its sleeve.
Plenty of others have talked about the game's really fun and cool combat system. Everything about that from its implementation to character skill development is really fantastic and not really replicated anywhere. ... Unfortunately it's also let down by the game being kinda easy. It's still a big draw for the game but generally light difficulty is a notable asterisk.
06) Final Fantasy XII - I'm simultaneously excited and apprehensive every time I recommend Final Fantasy XII. On one hand, it is without a doubt one of the most intoxicating gaming experiences I've ever had. When I was still in school I once binged it... for 36 hours straight. Then I slept for around 10 hours, got up at 9:30 PM, prepared breakfast, and sat down right back in front of the TV to eat and play. Progression in quests and hunts, exploring, and macro-managing combat in its still unparalleled Gambit system always keep enticing you back to do one more thing, fight one more battle, explore one more area. Unfortunately it also takes a long time to get there. By which I mean to say it takes a long time to 'get good', an ominous sign in any such discussion. In particular, I'd say Final Fantasy XII takes *20 hours* to get there, which is so much just to find out if you'd enjoy it. But I really can't in good faith still not recommend it, to anyone willing to take the deep dive. I ended up putting in a grand total 150 hours into the game, and that beginning slog was easily worth the difference.
And there are the typical beats - This is a Matsuno game (largely, mostly) so much of the storytelling is fantastic, if not quite as good as Final Fantasy Tactics. The English localization is wonderful, if the audio itself is a bit muddled. And Sakimoto is in form for the soundtrack.
07) Final Fantasy X - Fight me, but after replaying this one recently, I think Final Fantasy X might be the title I'd most recommend newbies to the series to play first for 'the Final Fantasy experience', by which I mean a title most like something I can see Sakaguchi making and why people love these games. Even after having played so many of them though I'm having trouble describing what exactly that is. Instead I'll just leave it at that and describe exactly what I like about this one in particular.
Final Fantasy X has a fantastically realized world, probably the best in the series. Ephemerality is weaved into nigh-everything in this world, from the architecture, lifestyles, religion, and customs of the land, all consistently contrasted well against its foreign protagonist. The NPCs you encounter and re-encounter along the long road go a long way in building on what you see and putting together a picture of Spira.
I'd also forgotten that this game is... kinda hard! Far more than any of the Playstation 1 outings at least. The game really puts you to task for getting the most of every member of your team particularly in boss battles (in its well-organized and straightforward battle system, by the way!), especially if you experiment in character builds in expert mode.
08) Radiant Historia - Promotional materials for this game put it forward as a successor to Chrono Trigger. I'm not entirely sure I agree. You skip around in time in Radiant Historia in much smaller intervals than Chrono Trigger, cutting down the variety of different environments to explore, but the scope and intent of these jumps is much different. They're largely investigative and reflective of many, smaller choices that could be made to avoid The Bad End. It's a smarter game, with a smarter protagonist (Stocke is one of my favorites). If a high flying adventure is what you want, play Chrono Trigger, but I found myself more attracted to this one. I enjoyed its slow progression, I loved the oh so fitting Shimomura soundtrack, and I think the grid, push-based combat system is a straight up improvement over Chrono Trigger's.
09) Resonance of Fate - Another tri-ace game! (The only other one on my list, unfortunately) Tri-ace is an experimental developer, but this one can be listed in the win column. You're put in control of a group of three mercenaries from various backgrounds as they take odd jobs in the... somewhat strange, tower world they inhabit. The strength of the storytelling here is in the character interactions on the jobs and solid performances from the dubbing, particularly from Nolan North on 'daddy' Vashyron. The main scenario itself is unfortunately Japanese tripe that not even the dubbing can save but thankfully the good stuff composes the vast majority of the game's cutscenes and is almost completely isolated from the main story.
Combat is turn-based on a large field, most closely resembling Valkyria Chronicles I suppose (if you're familiar with that title), featuring... high-flying, acrobatic gunplay. Listen, it works, ok? And weapon customization whose endgame is physically impossible firearms. ... Resonance of Fate is a weird game. It's intensely focused on style. There are hundreds of outfits and cosmetics you can change on any of your characters on a whim. And the combat system, though complicated, once figured out doesn't offer that much more depth. It just looks really cool. As a game, it has some problems - A brutally difficult beginning, seemingly random and massive difficulty spikes, and a recovery system for mistakes that's so unforgiving it might as well be a game over most of the time. It's also one of the most different RPGs I've played, and I recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone looking for something off the beaten path.
10) Persona 4: Golden - I won't repeat what many have almost certainly already said for one of the most popular RPGs out there. I'll just explain why I listed this title over other series' titles I've played, Persona 3 and Persona Q.
Persona 3 is less evenly paced. It's strongest at the beginning and end where the experience is most personal imo (and indeed, last month Persona 3 is better than anything Persona 4 has to offer I think). Most of Persona 3 feels like... a business exchange. Your teammates are just that - teammates - not friends, and the insidiousness of some of the 'correct' choices for the Social Links, the NPC character interactions, disengaged me. Some of these elements are intentional but not as engaging. Persona 4 is clearly designed, from beginning to end, to be as personal as possible, and it succeeds seemingly effortlessly.
Persona Q I didn't pick because... you need to have played Personas 3 and 4! I think Persona Q is the best of the lot, fixing the poor dungeon design that's been a sore spot for the mainline games and expanding on the character customization and combat to something a little more interesting, but the barrier to entry is way too high for an 'essentials RPG' list, so I leave it as a footnote here.
Paltheos said:11) Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals - This right here, this one right here is what I refer to as 'the quintessential Super Nintendo RPG'. It's tough to describe to the uninitiated, but as someone who had played most of the major RPGs for the system except for this one prior to a few years ago, I confidently put forward this claim.
Lufia II is a standard 'hero embarks on a quest to save villain trying to take over the world' and no veneer for it being anything but on top. It is wholly and totally committed to this and to its benefit adds no long, overarching fluff on top to get in the way. It just does this all really well and... sorta grabs ideas from wherever else it feels like if it feels like doing so well make the game more fun. For instance, you get a bow&arrow and bombs and a *hookshot* to explore your environment. You get pocket monsters that you can train and evolve to fight alongside the rest of your team in combat. You collect magical balls that summon a dragon to grant you a wish. You can explore a 100-floor procedurally generated dungeon for items and to fight a boss at the end for more stuff.*
*-For those of you keeping track, in order - The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, Dragon Ball, and Disgaea, although Lufia II does predate Pokemon and Disgaea at least!
Lufia II is just a fun game. If you're looking for that type of game, an RPG with the style and aesthetic of a game from the Super Nintendo's era, one that you probably haven't played before, pick it up. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
12) Bravely Default - This one was contending with a spot with Final Fantasy V, for which Bravely Default is a closely designed spiritual successor, but despite that game's many strengths in endgame content, I elected to go with the newer title for its many quality of life improvements. Bravely Default is a job-type, turn-based RPG. Similar to allot of the older Final Fantasy titles in design, the particular hook here being that you can assign your characters various 'jobs' - Black Mage, Knight, Summoner, Ninja, etc. - Through which they can learn various abilities that they can in part mix and match with other jobs that combined with general leveling up allows you to create progressively stronger and more versatile builds to deal with whatever combat scenario the game throws at you. That's it. The game does some other stuff alright, but that's the main catch and it does this well.
13) Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter - Dragon Quarter is another odd title. It's one of the shortest Japanese RPGs I've played. Casual playthroughs can run through it in a dozen hours or fewer (speedrunners in under an hour, and this is a game with no major sequence breaks). Part of the allure comes from how layered the otherwise simple story can be, how much the game is ready and willing to let you *go back* to a previous save point or to the very beginning with a little extra strength to start over. Dragon Quarter is a game that early on puts in a timer, a % meter at the top-right corner of your screen, one that you can keep low by just fighting encounters, tough as some may be, as normal or giving in and using an effective "I win" button that transforms you into a nigh-invincible beast that skyrockets the meter. Either way, once you hit 100%, you're dead. It asks allot from you in managing that or deciding to figure out how to handle some very difficult encounters on your own. But, if you do decide to go back, you're rewarded with additional story content. Also, depending on how well you performed during your playthrough, when you complete the game, you can restart over in a New Game+ that offers new content and new cutscenes.
I'm a little on the fence about my recommendation. Dragon Quarter is fun game with a unique combat system, but it's also been a very long time and I have wondered to myself how much the experience is buoyed by Sakimoto's soundtrack (which, even for him, I think is his best output, outdoing even his Final Fantasy Tactics and XII work).
14) Breath of Fire IV - A tough pick here, as I'd decided one of either this one or Breath of Fire III. I went with IV because I think it probably holds up *a little* better. Breath of Fire IV is the (then) latest installment of Capcom's RPG series in which you play the role of a young man from a dragon clan (of sorts) who can transform into various creatures (usually dragons, unsurpsingly) in combat as he journeys to come to grips with his power and place in the world and inevitably fights an evil of some sort. Breath of Fire IV is... a little long-winded as it takes a very long time to reach climaxes and unfortunately the bulk of your dragon powers too. The more insightful though would also identify though that this one's what we call 'a slow burn'. Breath of Fire IV has some great payoffs but takes a long time (definitely too long at some points) to get to them. It also features one of my favorite game villains, the god emperor Fou-Lu, a fantastical, powerful immortal who's just sick of everyone's shit but sees and experiences allot on his own journey, one which functions as a narrative and literal parallel to the hero's own journey. The game also has presents generally great sprite work from Capcom.
As a game, the combat is much without the superb dragon gene system from III but largely makes up for it by refining the combat mechanics to the best in the series, allowing you to combo abilities together for extra firepower that's sometimes required to break through or to switch allies on the fly, and carrying over and improving the master-apprentice system from III... and also the Faerie Village (and fishing, but IV does fishing worse by not letting you see the damn silhouettes!)
15) Undertale - Whoa, hey, hoo, it's Undertale. This one's deep in HM for me, and I don't have anything nor do I want to say anything that hasn't been covered already. It's Undertale. Play it three times: The first time blind, second Pacifist, third Genocide. That's the correct way to do it.
16) Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete - My heart told me another Game Arts game should fit into my top 20. Sadly Ryudo's peerless snark and his natural chemistry with Elena can't overcome Grandia II's other shortcomings, and Lunar: SSSC is too... uh, short, so that leaves Eternal Blue. Lunar 2 improves on the first game by, well, there just being more of it. I don't remember how much larger my final endgame time was comparatively, but it's at least twice as long (I think). Of particular note is the postgame content, which might be some of the best I've ever seen: A handful of full, entirely new dungeons with new stuff in order to reach the true ending credits. Fun stuff.
Lunar's about the same kind of story as Grandia. To quote myself from before about Game Arts' productions: "[They make] light-hearted adventure games focused on telling coming of age stories where inevitably the hero must conquer some evil. And with some romance elements in there for good measure. Very basic stuff, but they are very, *very* good at it." NPC interaction can also be a big part of the experience, as friendly villagers will often have several, different trees of dialogue you can scroll through. Ironically, their best game imo, Grandia 1, is the one out of the set I mentioned so far it's not in, but it is in Lunar! And it had the now defunct Working Designs at the helm for the localization, a team I was a big of fan of.
Combat in Lunar is a little more rudimentary comparatively: Basic turn-based, but Lunar 2 notably improves on the first game by giving you more of and an evolving skillset to play with on all your characters.
A few things I don't like about Lunar 2 is that some of the extra content is a little too fillery and your actions don't always feel as weighty as the first game's. Not being able to control Lucia in combat is also a minor annoyance but nothing too bad.
17) Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten - This entry I think best captures the Disgaea experience. Those who claim that the chemistry between the main trio of the first game and the writing in that game is the best... are correct. None of the subsequent entries have matched it. Later entries have however generally all built on the game systems though, and Disgaea 4 strikes that balance the best.
If you don't know what the "Disgaea experience" is, it's a grind. It's a grind in order to grind just to grind more. It's an exercise in maximizing your efficiency at grinding so that you can see big numbers on the screen when you hit enemies. You also sometimes play with various field effects on stages in order to best improve your position in combat. You don't worry about defending too much. Just kill everything in sight. (Although there are some stages that require you to think).
18) Tales of Graces f - This game is dumb. It makes little effort in hiding how dumb it is, from the hilariously simple environments and political spheres you encounter to the inability of any of the cast to recognize that their friend just might have been possessed by some obviously malevolent demonic force.
It also however has the most exciting combat system I've ever played with in an RPG period. It's so good. Tales of games are action RPGs where you chain artes that you've learned together - The ones you can combine are (at the very least) restricted by what you preset to certain inputs, so in the past there was generally only so much you can do. Graces instead sets them for you, based off your different directional inputs and your count in the combo, exponentially increasing the number of moves you can perform in combat without changing your presets. But that's not all. The presets are all generally very well positioned and compatible with your other moves, and combat in Graces in particular feels fast-paced and varied. It's the only Tales game I've felt comfortable and excited for picking up almost any member of the cast to play. The Tales team also best incentivizes you to play every one in this game, as titles provide skills and new artes and are rewarded based off player action. Really, Namco could pack it up now - You could make minor tweaks I'm sure but there's no improving on that, and every entry since Graces has just been a pale imitation (I mean, except Xillia, but we don't talk about Xillia).
Of note is that the character writing is generally.. still pretty good. Even with the worst story in the series (that I've seen), character skits are something that Tales team has to try to be bad at it. The writing also substantially improves in the several-hour epilogue which was written for the PS3 port. Pascal is my favorite character throughout - As Tales' "the smart one" characters go, she's my favorite. She's ridiculously quirky and super cute for it. Some people have reported that they can't get over how creepily clingy she is to Sophie at the start. Yeah, that first scene is pretty bad, and when you think about that being her stated, primary motivation for sticking around, it maybe should bother me, but I think it doesn't bother me because I'm just shoving it and most other details of the main plot out of mind.
19) Tales of Berseria - The latest and greatest(?) entry in the Tales franchise. This one's pretty neat for *not* ultimately becoming another Tales story about love and friendship. It's a story about a bunch of seriously fucked up people traveling together for plainly selfish ends who will do... just about whatever it takes to achieve their goals. I mean... sorta. There is some lesson learned near the end in a Tales-like anime fashion, but it's not quite the pure, lawful good message these games usually feed us. I'd have thought this kind of story would be hard to write and the solutions are surprisingly simple - Including one character with some kind of moral compass but under dubious circumstances and another whose state of mind would deteriorate if the rest of the cast morally completely jumped off a cliff and whose state of mind would be of peripheral concern to them - But it works (did that sound simple? It is in-game).
Most stuff is typical Tales fare. Plain environments and designs. Some of the character art designs are sketchy - I promptly changed out of Velvet's default outfit because it's dumb as bricks that an otherwise smart woman hellbent on murderizing a high-profile political target would be traveling the globe in literal rags.
Combat is an imitation of Graces, which makes it good, but still worse as it's running Zestiria's 'use arte x *thousand* times to improve your overall abilities' system, which encourages you to stick to one character, and because it throws dozens of artes at you and lets you set them however you like. Strictly speaking this is objectively better, but I always found myself struggling to find comfortable combinations that could handle most enemy types while also allowing me to accumulate arte experience.
This isn't too much of a deal though, as Velvet is super broken. I feel confident in saying she's the most OP Tales character ever. Play the game. You'll quickly understand why.
20) Final Fantasy VII - Another title I don't feel I need to say much on. ... Full disclosure - I've also been writing for like 5 hours now and I just don't want to write anymore and I thought, "Should I just add Skies of Arcadia here?" And decided - Nah.
Miscellaneous comments: Star Ocean 4 is the best Star Ocean game for actually sending you on a goddamn space adventure, and Suikoden I is a better game than Suikoden II for not loading you out with runes and consistently sending the leader of the rebel army on miscellaneous fetch quests and forcibly and at random removing members of your party while it's at it.