More and more Japanese-style role-playing games—commonly abbreviated as JRPGs—are making their way onto the PC these days. It’s an interesting development, given that Japanese publishers have typically shied away from PC gaming, and it also offers a nice change of pace from the many, many Western RPGs on PC.
If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, though, you may not know where to jump in. Here's your chance! We’ve compiled a list of noteworthy PC JRPGs from both Japan and the West that we recommend you check out. Most are available now, but a couple are coming soon.
Final Fantasy VII
We'll start with the most obvious. There are only a handful of games that can be called 'genre-defining,' and Final Fantasy VII is definitely one of them. This is the game that popularized the JRPG like no other before it, and while some elements of the game haven’t aged well (the graphics and localization in particular), the core tenets of what makes JRPGs unique and distinct are all here: primarily linear event-focused storytelling, elaborate combat mechanics with various interlocking systems (in this case, the Materia system), and characters that have endeared in the minds of gamers for almost two decades. The many, many mini-games, sidequests, and secrets help, too.
Sure, you might hear arguments that it’s “overrated” or “not the best Final Fantasy,” but in terms of helping to understand the JRPG genre, it’s a must-play. The version available on Steam has been tuned up to run smoothly on modern PCs.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky First Chapter
Falcom is a company that has been making JRPGs for Japanese PCs for literal decades, and in recent years several of their titles (including the famed Ys series) have been localized through XSEED Games. Trails in the Sky is among their most beloved games, and once you play it, it’s not hard to understand why: engaging characters that develop over the course of the story, charming sprites and vibrant art, a stellar English script, a fantastic soundtrack, and deep, engaging turn-based combat with plenty of strategy and challenge. Trails in the Sky First Chapter is available on Steam and GOG now, but don’t be fooled by the title into thinking it’s brief—you’re looking at a 50-hour quest here. The Second Chapter, which continues the sprawling saga, releases later this year.
One of the most high-profile JRPG releases on Steam recently, Valkyria Chronicles is an intriguing mix of role-playing, turn-based strategy, and third-person shooter. This uniquely beautiful saga puts you in the middle of World-War-II-era-Europe-inspired setting of Gallia, a country which finds itself under attack as the aggressive neighboring eastern empire looks to expand its influence and obtain Gallia’s rich abundance of natural resources. Instead of fighting in frequent skirmishes against enemy mobs, you’ll take control of several units within a militia, carefully coordinating their movements across a 3D map to accomplish various mission objectives. It’s a gorgeous, challenging, and memorable game, and once you play it it’s easy to see what the fuss was about. The PC edition of Valkyria Chronicles also contains all of the DLC from the original PS3 release, making it a fantastic value.
Cthulhu Saves the World
Zeboyd Games is a group of US-based indie developers who specialize in making retro-JRPG-style games with flair and humor. They have multiple games out on Steam, including Breath of Death VII and two Penny Arcade themed titles, but Cthulhu Saves the World is probably the best place to start. The almighty Elder God is awakened from his slumber and emerges from the sea, only to be stripped of his powers and told that he needs to complete rote heroic tasks to save the world, which he finds none too appealing. It’s goofy, it’s retro through and through (check those turn-based battles and pixel graphics), and it’s a lot of fun. If you get all the Lovecraftian mythos references, that makes it even better.
Half-Minute Hero I and II
If your biggest complaint about JRPGs is that they’re a time sink, then I may have the game for you. The Half-Minute Hero series is all about taking the tropes of JRPGs and condensing them down into fast-paced races against the clock. The world is in chaos—a spell which can destroy everything in thirty seconds has fallen into the hands of numerous wicked villains. It’s up to you to battle, level up, upgrade your gear, complete vital quests, and defeat the threats before time runs out. At least you’ve got a Time Goddess on your side to rewind the clock, but she asks for more and more gold each time she does.
Half-Minute Hero might seem simple at first—you literally just smack into stuff until you or the enemies die—but the silly situations and the challenging time management make it fast, fun, and addictive. The first Half-Minute Hero also features portions based around RTS, scrolling shooter, and tower defense gameplay, while the second installment is pure JRPG speedrunning.
The Last Remnant
While The Last Remnant didn’t set the world on fire when it first released on the Xbox 360 years ago, the PC version is a significant improvement, and shows that there is a brilliant, meaty JRPG beneath the technical issues that plagued the console release. The art design has held up very well, giving the game a distinct East-meets-West flair, and the cast of characters is noticeably more varied than the stereotypical troupe of older teens JRPGs are known for. The unique squad-based combat is what really sets The Last Remnant apart from the pack, however. This one tends to appear on Steam sales with some frequency, so it’s definitely one to look for if you want to play something more modern in terms of visuals.
Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden
A PC favorite, Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden is a freeware JRPG parody by Tales of Game’s that is every bit as entertaining as the games it’s satirizing. The game stars the titular famous basketball personality in a future where the world has been decimated by the power of the Chaos Dunk and basketball is illegal. (Oh, and the events of Space Jam are considered canonical.) It’s weird, it’s hilarious, but most importantly, it’s a ton of fun to play, thanks to an enhanced turn-based battle system that keeps you on your toes with timing. Best of all, it’s free to download. It’s probably best to play this after you have a few other JRPGs under your belt, though—you’ll appreciate the jokes a lot more.
One of the most fascinating freeware JRPG-style games out there, OFF by Mortis Ghost is a strange and engaging trip. Playing as “The Batter”—who is dressed up like an old-timey baseball player—you explore four starkly colored realms on a “sacred mission” to purify them of evil forces, all under the watch of a sinister cat-like creature called “The Judge.“ OFF is a memorable and haunting RPG, filled with tricky puzzles, bizarre symbolism, and challenging thematic elements. Initially released in French as freeware in 2008, the game has seen an English fan translation effort and is available to download here.
Tales of Symphonia
This one actually isn’t out yet as of this writing, but if you have even a passing interest in JRPGs, it’s one you definitely want to play. One of the biggest selling points of the Tales series is its combat, which is more akin to a beat-em-up than the usual turn-based fights associated with JRPGs. In Tales of Symphonia, you and the enemies move and attack in realtime, using spells and special combat artes in tandem to create hyper-damaging combos. With a lengthy campaign, fantastic and frantic combat, and a charming and memorable cast of characters, Tales of Symphonia makes for a great JRPG entry point, both for the sprawling Tales series and the genre in general.
Like Tales of Symphonia, this remastering of a Dreamcast-era classic isn’t out just yet, but GOG and Steam will have it very soon. Grandia II follows surly Ryudo and his companions as they are sucked into a quest to cut down the impending resurrection of a dark god—one twisted manifestation of a body part at a time. The Grandia series has one of the most-loved combat engines among JRPGs, combining turn-based combat with realtime action and careful positioning to create unique, strategy-heavy battles.
Grandia II has been a favorite for many years, and is getting a remaster and re-release on PC thanks to demand from fans. If you haven’t played it before, then the perfect time is almost upon us.