The first Suikoden doesn't get nearly the same amount of love in the collective memory of RPG fans as its younger brother Suikoden II, and that is real a shame. Not only did it establish many of the conventions and recurring characters that its sequel refined with such success, but it is a well-designed, well-executed, and exceptionally fun game in its own right. It embodies everything that the classics of that era are known and lionized for: emotional (if somewhat simple) storytelling, engaging combat, and engrossing gameplay systems. Many games purport to place the player at the head of a rag-tag rebel uprising, but Suikoden may have been the first to truly capture that feeling with its large cast and mix of traditional turn-based and strategic war combat. The sense of adventure, as you travel between regions recruiting allies and liberating the masses, is grand, but the game's ambitions never outstrip its ability to tell a tight, personal story. It has everything we love in an RPG; perhaps more modern games should start to take their cues from this PS1 classic.
In Persona 3, you spend your days going to school building relationships with classmates and studying for exams, while spending nights fighting your way up a tower full of deadly shadows. It's a kooky premise with a fantastic execution that results in one of the best RPGs released on the PS2. P3 leans heavily on relationship building as a core function of its gameplay but it's done incredibly well, including the NPC characters' backstories and their evolving relationship with the main character. The social element is intricately woven into both the battle system and player progression in such a way that the relationship-building and dungeon portions of the game flow back and forth seamlessly. The battle system, in which the characters use the somewhat controversial Evoker to summon Personas to attack, requires genuine strategy and forethought, lest you be wiped out by a regular enemy party. Sure, it can become a bit mundane scaling the many, many, many floors of the dungeon Tartarus, but the game manages to keep combat feeling mostly fresh throughout. Persona 3: FES improved upon the original release of P3 in several ways, including new Personas, additional side missions, and balance tweaks. The biggest addition, however, is the 30-hour epilogue called "The Answer" that builds on the ending of the original journey. P3 FES amazingly improved on an already excellent title and is most certainly the definitive version of the game.
The original Wild ARMs is a game that relies on a few simple concepts, executed to perfection. The arc of its story is no less grand than any other RPG, involving ancient civilizations, guardian spirits, and even a moon colony, but nonetheless its success boils down to the elegant simplicity of three things: its setting, its combat systems, and its dungeon design. The game's spaghetti western setting is both iconic and unique for an RPG: Iconic because it spawned a successful (though now seemingly defunct) franchise of wild west RPGs, and unique because very few, if any, RPGs have managed to capture the spirit of the old west so well. The barren, dying world of Filgaia, with its vast deserts and rocky canyons, expresses the American southwest in 2D sprites and is further enhanced by a spot-on soundtrack heavy on acoustic guitar and whistling. When mixed with the genre's signature flair for fantasy and the fantastical it resembles nothing that Clint Eastwood could recognize, but captures the western's yearning for freedom and adventure all the same. Combat is yet another perfect blend and balance of simple premises: Jack uses a sword, Rudy uses a gun, and Cecilia uses magic. Each character compliments the others while having their own unique growth system. It is simple without being boring. Finally, reliance on character specific tools to solve clever puzzles in the various ruins of Filgaia extended the interdependent relationship of the characters from the battlefield to the dungeon design. In an era of open world fatigue and convoluted cinematic universes, Wild ARMs is a refreshing reminder that sometimes the simple pleasures are the best.
There are two ways to go about creating a sequel. You could go for the iterative/safe/boring/predictable route by reintroducing favorite characters, recycling assets and environments while concocting a new, yet familiar adventure for the player to embark on... or you could do something bold. Original. Fresh. These are all words that can be attributed to Chrono Cross, along with melancholic, beautiful, and above all else, cohesive. Chrono Cross may have very little to do with Chrono Trigger in terms of gameplay, but its story and themes are direct counterparts to those of its predecessor; a yang to Trigger's yin, and this not only makes Chrono Cross a unique experience in its own right, but also the perfect companion piece to Trigger. Where Chrono Trigger showed players a bright and breezy adventure about time travel, Cross pulls back the curtain and shows the darker side; the consequences of meddling with time. It doesn't hurt that this is an exceptionally beautiful game for the PS1 era, a time where Squaresoft was consistently at their A game when it came to audiovisual design, and Chrono Cross' vibrant visuals and lush soundscapes alone would make it a curiosity to an aspiring role-playing gamer. Chrono Cross may not have been what players expected from a Chrono Trigger sequel, but it's all the more interesting for it.
Let's face it: For all its style and flair, the first Raidou Kuzunoha adventure was a clunky game with a confusing battle system, in which capturing demons was a chore when it should have been a joy. Fortunately, Devil Summoner 2 managed to address everything wrong with its predecessor. SMT's trademark demon negotiation returns, allowing the onmyōji detective Raidou to use the power of persuasion and the charms of his inhuman allies to rally demons to his cause.
As Raidou and his mentor/pet cat Goto strive to uncover the mystery of a shady village on the outskirts of Tokyo, strange insects called luck locusts feed off the fortunes of the population, Raidou included! Aside from its narrative consequences, Raidou's bad luck affects gameplay in numerous surprising ways, from slipping on banana peels in battle to surprise encounters with the deadly Four Horsemen at inopportune times. Trust us, it's more fun than it sounds. Raidou's final adventure is over-the-top ridiculous and well worth your time.
Nobody could be surprised to see this game on our list. The PS1 original had its rough spots, between using Japanese controls and a poor translation, but even those didn't stop Final Fantasy Tactics from becoming one of the all-time legends. Two sequels and a retranslated port later, the original is still a beloved game for many, and well worth going back and playing. The story of Ramza and Delita is epic enough to both require and deserve more than one playthrough, and the broad class system means that there's no end to the ways you can set up your team. Yes, if you set things up "correctly," you'll steamroll your enemies so flat you could use them to line a chocobo cage, but you are also free to choose a different path and give yourself a challenge.
There's an inside joke among die-hard fans of this game that goes, "If someone asks you what the best Zelda game is, tell them it's Alundra." While not following the Zelda formula in its entirety, this action adventure title from many of the same developers that made Landstalker and Climax Landers is well-remembered, and well-loved, for its dark story themes, challenging puzzles, and memorable soundtrack. The entire premise of the titular hero's ability to enter dreams, becoming known as "The Dreamwalker" among the townsfolk, adds many unique elements to the gameplay. The world map is enormous and filled with plenty of hidden treasures and brutal dungeons, and those dream sequences are unforgettable. To top it off, there's the gorgeous anime FMV awaiting players who finish the game, a montage that highlights all of the game's events up to and including the bittersweet farewell. Alundra is worth far more than the PSN asking price.
In the build-up to its release, Hironobu Sakaguchi stated that Final Fantasy IX was his favorite entry because it was the closest to his "ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be." Surely there's no higher praise than that? Initially, many saw FFIX as childish and inferior to its predecessors, but they couldn't be any more wrong. FFIX has one of the most mature stories in the whole series, exploring themes such as purpose, life, love, and loss. Zidane's optimism and sense of humor provides the perfect antidote to the heavier themes as well as the series' previous two entries. FFIX feels like a breath of fresh air, while also taking all the best bits from the 16 and 32-bit eras. The game's ability to propel you into a convincing and beautiful fantasy world torn apart by war and secrecy is amazing, and still manages to do this over 15 years later. The combat is solid and engrossing, and the ability and skill system will keep you grinding away for hours. It's vintage Final Fantasy. There isn't another mainline entry in Square Enix's premier series packed with more charm than this game. And if that doesn't convince you, a quick look at Vivi might change your mind.
Are you looking for an RPG that makes you feel like a little kid who's exploring the world and uncovering some of its greatest secrets? Grandia is just the game you're looking for. Originally released for the Sega Saturn in Japan, the west was gifted this game 2 years later, and thus we were introduced to one of the best turn-based battle systems not just on the PS1, but ever. The whole feel of the game is centered around making you feel like an excitable teenager who's discovering every nook and cranny of the world. Justin is more than sufficient as the hero who dreams of rewriting the history books and making his mark on the world, as his father once tried to do. Whether he and Feena can stop the Garlyle forces from unleashing a hidden and evil power is up to you. What's definite is that you'll have a hard time putting the controller down on this game. Although it's often overshadowed by its Dreamcast sequel, Grandia deserves its own recognition for kickstarting the series and introducing us to a bright, cheerful and fantastic game that perfectly encapsulates the experience of becoming an adventurer.
If you've ever wondered what it would look like if a storybook came to life, you haven't played Odin Sphere yet. Odin Sphere is a beautiful 2D side-scrolling beat 'em up mixed with just the right amount of RPG elements to create a truly fantastic game, and one that didn't get the attention it deserved when it was originally released back in 2007. The game follows the stories of five different characters as they deal not only with their own problems, but also the ever-impending threat of Armageddon. The PS2 version did suffer from a lot of slowdown when the on-screen action got intense, but thankfully this was fixed in the PSN release. If you own a PS4 or Vita, your best bet is to pick up this year's Odin Sphere Leifthrasir which is the game's definitive version, but those who only have a PS3 will greatly enjoy this PSN Classic.