Yesterday, we chatted a little bit about how important and necessary it is to choose the perfect “first” JRPG. You need something that has a great storyline without being too convoluted, and something with accessible depth that won’t scare away newcomers with an impenetrable wall of text or complicated mechanics.
Those are not these games. Today, we are going to talk about the JRPGs which you should avoid if you are new to the genre. These are games you should absolutely not try without a firm, solid grasp on what JRPGs mean. Ideally, that means a firm understanding of what it means to “level up,” what it means to “attack” and “defend,” and a basic understanding of magic and elemental weaknesses.
And then turn those expectations on their heads and send them through a meat grinder for twenty years! The JRPG genre has evolved magnificently since 1995 when Chrono Trigger perfected the basics. Battle systems have become more complex. Stories have become more convoluted. A nice simple adventure is only reserved for Dragon Quest anymore, and even it has pushed its boundaries with the last few entries.
The following five examples are all great games, but this is the equivalent of learning to underwater backstroke in the Mariana Trench. If you see one of these on a shelf, put it in your memory banks and save it for later in life, preferably after you graduate from our list of games from the previous list… and the tier of slightly more difficult ones which hover above them… and then one more tier up, graduate from it, and you might be ready.
Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy X made our first list as the best for beginners, but its immediate single player successor, Final Fantasy XII, is not a good place to follow it up. Director Yasumi Matsuno is a perfectionist to his detriment when it comes to development, and he had to quit development on this one because the intricacies he created proved to be too much. His replacement, Akitoshi Kawazu, is also a bit of a mystery with his game design.
Essentially, Square Enix’s number 1 and number 2 most unconventional guys worked on this project, so you can see where this is going. First, Final Fantasy XII is an open-world game, a bit smaller in scale compared to Skyrim but still easy enough to get lost in. Unlike Skyrim though, it has a very thorough an though out political plot, and most players find themselves at constant odds between freely exploring and looking for that next, evasive cutscene. It works in a game where you shouldn’t care about the plot, but that’s not here. Newcomers will find themselves torn between where to go next. Final Fantasy X, nice and linear. This? No way!
Second, equipping weapons requires characters to purchase licenses, meaning you’ll have to shop for the ability to shop, an extra layer of complication for people who still need to learn the first.
I won’t even begin to touch on the secret bosses, limit breaks, summon monsters, or the subtler moments in this game’s story. Just understand that none of that will matter unless you know how to program. Yes, instead of a nice simple JRPG battle system, Final Fantasy XII essentially asks players to program the battles on their own! For example, if an enemy has full health, you can create a “gambit” that will cause the character to “attack” or to “steal” an item or cast a “poison” element.
If your character falls beneath 50 percent health, you can create a “gambit” that will allow someone to heal them. It’s no different than a normal JRPG, but the difference is that you program the fight before it happens. Much more complicated than hitting “attack” or “defend” in a menu. Certainly impossible for someone who’s never seen the words.
Final Fantasy XII is a great game, but not for those who lack a doctorate in computer science.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together
Again, we find ourselves confronted by Director Yasumi Matsuno. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together takes the simple attack/magic/defend commands of Final Fantasy and drops them on a chessboard, a “strategy RPG” as we call them. Simple enough, right? Well, right away, that’s one more statistic newcomers must learn how to manage on top of the rest.
How far can this character move in battle? That is one thing you’ll never find yourself asking when playing Chrono Trigger. If he moves here, will his attack do enough damage to kill his target, or will it leave him exposed to a counter? Furthermore, will putting him on this tile leave him in range of that archer on the roof? Or that hulking soldier six blocks away. Can he get close enough to perform a brutal melee attack?
Unlike a chessboard, Tactics’ Ogre’s battlefields are also not flat. Some are towns with houses, others are forests with trees, and some even have mountains and canyons, requiring the management of a “Jump” statistic. Can your character leap to safety if need be? Not to mention, can the projectile motion of arrows and other ranged attacks be blocked by obstacles?
Often times, you’ll find a “Guest” character on the battlefield whom you must protect. Can you save the stupid AI from itself in time to rescue that poor soul? Or will you save yourself the trouble, laugh as archers snipe the foolishly aggressive NPC down, and trudge through the story without him or her?
Oh, and enemies will also almost always be a level or two higher than your characters. Don’t forget that.
Tactics Ogre stands out as challenging also because each character can be customized from the ground up. Weapon proficiency, strengths against elements, attack, defense, special abilities. A simple character menu in Tactics Ogre reads like a college thesis, and imagine that being applied to the dozens of nameless characters you’ll be recruiting along the way.
And then there are branching story paths, which follow along the classic ideas of Dungeons & Dragon’s “Law” vs “Chaos.” Certain points in the game will present a choice, and send you down a very different story depending on which one you choose. A single pathway alone can take nearly a hundred hours. Will you play through each of them to see the different outcomes, each more fascinating than the last? Best pick up the PSP remake if you said yes, because there goes your life otherwise.
Yasumi Matsuno’s most popular game, Final Fantasy Tactics, is pretty infamous for catching Final Fantasy VII newbs off guard. Some got it, others didn’t. It’s not super impenetrable, but thank goodness we got it instead of Tactics Ogre. Otherwise, all Americans might hold a particular loathing this “strategy” RPG genre. Thanks goodness we were let in slowly.
Resonance of Fate
This game required even a 20+ year veteran like myself to break down everything I thought I knew about JRPGs and rebuild it from the ground up. Resonance of Fate has the most infamously complicated battle system in the entire genre, and it will not let itself down by coming up short on that reputation. Play it for the fascnation. Don’t play it with the expectations of mastering it. It will win.
Ten hours into this game, I still had trouble positioning my characters on the map, positioning them in a perfect triangle, learning the differences between the two types of damage that could be dealt, building weapons to make sure my party could deal a balanced amount of both.
Oh, and even jumping around like a John Woo stuntman is tough. Knowing when to dive, knowing when to flip, knowing when to shoot, knowing when to land. It’s all part of the flow of Resonance of Fate, and I can’t do it justice through writing. Seriously, watch the battle system in the video above and tell me what is going on here!
It’s not that I don’t like the challenge. Far from it! This is a great game with huge rewards for those who really enjoy digging through a complex battle system. But you’re going to have to work for your characters to look so impressive in battle. Nothing comes cheap in Resonance of Fate.
Simply pushing “attack” won’t work. Resonance of Fate is a tower of systems piled on top of one another, each more complicated than the last. Stay away from this one until you are good and ready.
A favorite of mine and the return of Final Fantasy XII Director #2 Akitoshi Kawazu onto our list. If I had read this list back in 1998, I would have known better and would have avoided this game like the plague. However, I was still in my beginner Final Fantasy VII phase at the time, and wanted everything that JRPGs could offer.
Needless to say, I hated this game with a fiery passion. It was a present, so I forced a smile while people laughed at me for not understanding a thing… and yet kept playing and kept playing and kept playing even to this day. I now accept it as a favorite of mine because I can better understand what makes it a great game after 15 years, but this is by no means a good game for beginners.
Mostly because SaGa Frontier gives you absolutely zero direction. It charges you with picking one of seven heroes, and after a brief introduction scenario, it sets you off on your way to complete the rest of the game. You’ll have to find the next part of the story on your own, figure out how to find sub-quests to level up on your own, figure out how to recruit characters on your own. Basically, you’re on your own in this one.
Speaking of leveling up, SaGa Frontier’s batty and random style provides zero explanation for character growth either. Sword users might gain Strength and Speed after every battle… or maybe not. Magic users might learn a new spell if they use enough magic in battle… or maybe not. Special attacks are learned at random by using similarly random abilities on random enemies. There’s whole lot of random going on behind the scenes of SaGa Frontier, and not a whole lot of explanation on top.
Don’t even get me started on how monsters level up because I still don’t know. 15 years later, I never use them. The biggest kicker of all are the combination attacks which you will need to defeat bosses later in the game. Unlike Chrono Trigger’s, which spells out each combination attack nicely between the three characters of you choice, SaGa Frontier of course provides little insight into how to pull these off.
Experts have mapped each of these seemingly random elements out at their risk of their own sanity, but you won’t find their carefully calculated findings represented tangibly anywhere in the game. And once you barrel through the finishing line of storyline, you get a “Congratulations” and a choice of six more stories to start completely over from scratch on.
Newcomers need a little direction, a little guidance, a pat on the butt, and a little encouragement to keep them going. That’s exactly what they won’t get in SaGa Frontier, the ultimate “do it yourself” JRPG.
No! Under no circumstances should this be your first JRPG! I know the allure of “the” first JRPG being “your” first JRPG might come off as authentic, but that is not the way it works. While complexity can certainly scare away newcomers, simplicity can just as easily bore them.
And besides, The Black Onyx was the first JRPG, not Dragon Quest. You’re digging in the wrong place.
I know this from first hand experience. Dragon Quest, or Dragon Warrior on the NES, was not my first JRPG, but it was my first game in the series. I dug into it in high school a full fifteen years after its prime, and it convinced me to hate Dragon Quest for many many years. Little did I know how wrong I was and how marvelously the series evolved over time. That is the damage that playing the wrong first game can do to your perception.
I can describe Dragon Quest is a single compound sentence. A dragon kidnaps a princess, and your hero grinds through monsters until he is strong enough to kill the dragon. That’s all this game is! There might be a pitstop and a treasure hunt through a dungeon or two, but nobody will argue against this game’s over-simplicity. Attack, defend, heal, maybe cast a magic spell if your physical damage isn’t strong enough.
If you die, gain a level or two to try again with the exact same tactics, and you might win.
It is prototype of a JRPG. The genre at its absolute most primordial levels, plagued with an experience point imbalance, items that cost too much gold, an encounter rate that ts too high, and graphics that require a dump truck load of imagination.
I’m not saying it can’t be fun. I actually had a blast going back and playing the Super Famicom fan-translation… after I became a Dragon Quest fan. Again, under no circumstances should the original NES release of Dragon Warrior be your first JRPG. Despite its simplicity, this is one for the veterans to enjoy as an adorable relic, not a gateway into a bright new world.
And there you have them. Steer clear folks! If you want to play these games, I would recommend mastering more intermediate level JRPGs before giving these bad boys a try. Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 and 4, Star Ocean: The Second Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, Etrian Odyssey, Radiant Historia, Parasite Eve, Xenoblade Chronicles, Chrono Cross, Xenogears (which was my sixth place choice, just shy of making the cut for this list), and Valkyrie Profile come to mind.
Beat and perfect a few of those, and you’ll be ready to take on the baddest brutes in the genre.