List by Matt S.
With the release of Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark this week, I’ve found myself musing over tactics JRPGs all week. It’s not a genre that we see that all that frequently, but is has been around for many years now, and has, over that time, developed a a clear identity, tradition, and loyal fanbase.
So, in the spirit of nostalgia, I’ve gone and crafted up a list of ten of the finest tactics JRPGs. As JRPGs I’ve left off games in the western spin on the genre (XCOM clones and the like), and of course, this is all from my own perspective. Usual disclaimers about not claiming some kind of objective truth over anything here. Do let me know if there are any games that you love that don’t show up on this list, though! There’s plenty out there!
Final Fantasy Tactics
The grandfather of them all, in the eyes of many. Final Fantasy Tactics wasn’t actually the first tactics JRPG. Nor the second. Nor the third. The genre has actually been around since the original NES, but what Final Fantasy Tactics did do was leverage the brand name to establish the modern formula that is so familiar now to fans of the genre – if Fell Seal looks familiar to you, it’s because so many games aped the Final Fantasy Tactics structure. Challenging, and with a cracking narrative, Square Enix would go on to produce two Final Fantasy Tactics titles for Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, respectively, but otherwise has not done anywhere near enough with this brilliant little property.
God Wars (Our review)
The newest member of the bunch, God Wars gets to be on this list by virtue of the gorgeous, traditional Japanese art, spirituality, and storytelling that it evokes. Some might point at it as too traditional of a tactics JRPG, but for my mind that’s what’s so delightful about it – it offers excellent characters and level design, along with excellent characterisation and a great sense of mythological Japan. If you know the various kami and Shinto stories of Japanese history, then this game gets even better.
Fire Emblem – GBA
The first Fire Emblem to release in English came out on the Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo could not have picked a better title to kick things off with. Fire Emblem – the first GBA one – is a masterpiece of character-driven storytelling, with each and every character being an intriguing person in their own right, with a lovely story to tell. The overarching plot isn’t so ambitious – Fire Emblem titles never are – but the interactions between individuals as they set off on an epic quest together, meeting new friends and foes along the way, is a time-honoured storytelling tradition, and this particular Fire Emblem does it better than any other. Also, this is the one with Lyn, and Lyn’s just the best.
Shining Force is basically SEGA’s take on Fire Emblem. It follows much the same structure – a bunch of heroes, across a wide range of different skillsets, go on an epic adventure together to defeat a great evil, meeting other unique personalities along the way. It’s a little more focused on the RPG side of things, perhaps, and has larger maps to battle across, but really, you can’t go wrong with either Fire Emblem or this one. It would have been nice if SEGA could have continued this series on like Nintendo has been able to.
(There was also a really good one released on the Game Gear, which you can play via the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console)
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (Our review)
Ogre Battle was a pure-play strategy game, but Tactics Ogre is, much like Final Fantasy Tactics, a genesis of the genre. It even came first, as a SNES tactics RPG, but it was only released in Japan on that platform. The one we all know came to us on the PlayStation 1, and plays out as a beautifully classic tactics RPG, with a rich range of character development options, and a sharp difficulty curve. There was a Tactics Ogre released on the Game Boy Advance too, but once again Square Enix has let a genuinely good franchise slip subsequent to that. It’s well past time that Square revived both.
Disgaea… 3 (Our review)
Each Disgaea is much of a muchness to the others. They’re comical tactics games, with outrageously silly plot development and characters. They’re also truly massive in scope, thanks to the ability to delve into random dungeons and power up your characters well (well) beyond the traditional level 99 for JRPGs. I think it’s safe to say that it was with Disgaea that the tactics JRPG started to grow in size, to the point where a relatively brief example of the genre, such as Fell Seal, can draw some criticism for not being “long enough” (even though Fell Seal is still dozens of hours of play in itself). I’ve chosen Disgaea 3 to represent the series here for a simple reason – its hub world song, which plays in-between levels, is the most catchy bit of music, and should come with a warning, because it’ll be stuck on autoplay in your brain for weeks once you hear it.
Front Mission 3
Remember when Front Mission wasn’t a survival game that just about everyone tore to shreds? Probably not. It was a relatively obscure franchise back in the day, but Front Mission 3 is a particularly good example of the genre. Tactics changes a bit when you can construct hulking battle machines – wanzers – out of different pieces of equipment, and then target those arms, lets, and other key parts of the body in battle. It makes for some spectacularly strategic fights – go for the head (literally), or try to incapacitate the enemy by destroying the weaponry on their wanzer’s arms?
Incidentally, this makes a third tactics JRPG series that Square Enix is no longer working on (at least as far as tactics RPGs go in this case). C’mon Square Enix. Get back on it.
In Japan, Pokemon Conquest is known as Pokemon + Nobunaga’s Ambition, but in deciding that the Nobunaga name doesn’t hold much weight in the west, Nintendo and developer, Koei Tecmo, decided to focus in on the Pokemon side of things. This is a tactics RPG in which the leaders of sengoku Japan find themselves in possession of Pokemon, and then using those Pokemon to start invading the territories of their rivals. It works far better than it had any right to, and manages to strike that delicate line between charming nonsense and downright silly.
Valkyria Chronicles (Our review)
This is the most different title on the list, but it’s assuredly a tactics JRPG. Players take turns to move units around the map and attack one another… the only difference is that the enemy can fire back while they do it – which immediately changes up the standard tactics you’d take into a game from this genre. Putting aside the combat, though, what makes Valkyria Chronicles so noteworthy is the brilliant intensity of the narrative, which is stridently anti-war and, given that this is a game about war, you can probably guess that it leads to some rather emotional moments. On top of that, Valkyria Chronicles has one of the most enjoyable cast of characters in the genre, and the sense of relationship and camaraderie between them is one of the most genuine that I’ve seen in a game about war.
Utawarerumono (Our review)
Last, but certainly not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Utawarerumono. It’s reasonably common for the visual novel and tactics JRPG genres to be melded together these days, but that just exposes the game to criticism from multiple angles – if it doesn’t work as a visual novel, it will disappoint. If the tactics side of things is poorly executed, it will also disappoint. Utawarerumono gets it all right, with a lovely narrative, visual design based loosely on the aesthetic of Japan’s native Ainu people, and excellent, enjoyable tactical action to highlight key moments and battles in the narrative.
– Matt S.
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