This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
But times have changed. Many of the old PlayStation standbys have aged rather poorly, and modern RPGs are more complicated and time-consuming than ever. There are more high-quality JRPGs out there than the average person might think, but many of them are tough to recommend to newcomers.
But from time to time, I'm approached by a gamer who has barely even played Pokemon, let alone Xenoblade Chronicles, and they ask me to recommend a good JRPG. It's a moment that can be every bit as delicate as recommending a good entry point into something like Star Trek. The goal is to recommend something that starts fast and makes sense, but also highlights the genre's relative strengths.
Chrono Trigger (If They Don't Mind Going Retro): My girlfriend has played exactly one JRPG to completion in her lifetime, and that is Chrono Trigger. Bear in mind that this is the same woman who found watching both Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII deathly boring. It was Chrono Trigger's great music and relative accessibility that got her hooked.
Thinking on it though, I think Chrono Trigger's secret strength is the fact that it's a turn-based game that never truly transitions to a battle screen. Instead, when an enemy approaches, the menu pops up and the battle simply begins. It's a method that makes Chrono Trigger feel oddly less threatening, mainly because the seamless transition makes more sense to the naked eye than the more abrupt shift found in other RPGs. Somehow, it makes the battles feel more real.
It's little details like that, as well as the fact that it's now easy to find on the Nintendo DS and iOS, that makes Chrono Trigger easy to recommend.
A reasonable compromise, I feel, is The Last Story. It's not really a menu-based RPG like Final Fantasy VII, nor is it really a Kingdom Hearts-style experience. It falls somewhere between the two in the way that it treats each enemy encounter to be solved with a mixture of the party's special abilities. It also moves at a good pace, tells a nice story and is available on a platform that practically everyone has owned at some point.
Anyone with a Wii U should pick up The Last Story regardless. Might as well put that patched-in backwards compatibility to good use, right?
The World Ends With You (If They Like Japan Even a Little Bit): I think I've purchased maybe 10 copies of The World Ends With You by now. It's cheap, it's one of the best games on the Nintendo DS, and it makes for a great gift. If the person in question is even a little bit interested in Japan, then The World Ends With You is the answer.
Why The World Ends With You and not... say... Persona 4? Well, I'm always happy to recommend Persona, but the sheer depth combined with the occasionally plodding pace gives me pause. It's an arresting game, don't get me wrong, but maybe not one I would recommend to someone who has mainly subsisted on a steady diet of action games. I think Persona 3 or Persona 4 would be the second JRPG I would recommend.
The World Ends With You, however, is just about perfect for first-timers. If nothing else, it has the benefit of being unique. And if you're worried about them being overwhelmed by the top-screen, then simply point them to the newly-released iPad version, which does away with the dual-screen contrivance entirely. Like the other two games I listed, it has just enough action to grab one's attention, plus enough depth to whet one's appetite for more.
If nothing else, the old standbys are still somewhat viable. Dragon Quest IV and Dragon Quest V are both fabulous 16-bit RPGs that got very good remakes on the Nintendo DS, and Final Fantasy VII has gotten a new lease on life on the PlayStation Store. If your friend has a PSP or a Vita, I feel like the latter is practically a given at this point. It still shows its age, but it doesn't feel as glaring on the small screen.
As always, the right recommendation is up to the individual tastes of the people in question. Think hard on it. More often than not, the right game is all it takes to bring a new fan into the fold.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.