Like many of you, I love RPGs. Taking a group of misfits through an adventure through strange and mysterious lands hits that spot in me deep down that longs for adventure. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Tales, Shin Megami Tensei: I love all the big franchises, but I love the lesser-known RPGs, too. Throughout the years have there have been many RPGs that, while not forgotten and lost to the mists of time, are less well known than they should be yet still deserve to be explored by fans of the genre. For every Final Fantasy VII there’s 5 games just like the ones listed below.
The World Ends With You
Platform: Nintendo DS
This is probably the best game Square has released in the past decade. This isn’t even a condemnation of their quality, just that TWEWY is that good.
What’s most striking about The World Ends With You is it’s unique setting – it’s not high fantasy nor cyberpunk nor a strange combination of the two; instead it takes place entirely within modern day Tokyo. The second most prominent thing it’s incredibly unique two-screened battle system that takes some getting used to but is unlike anything else you’ve ever played. On the top screen you control a character with the d-pad, while at the same time you control the character on the bottom screen with the stylus. It takes a lot of getting used to, but is frantic and challenging once you get used to it.
Keep playing and you’ll find yourself engrossed by the surprisingly dark story and enraptured by the game’s keen sense of style. It’s just so damn unique, from the emphasis on fashion and cellphones to the diverse soundtrack featuring everything from your standrad RPG fair to hip-hop to modern J-pop. You’re never going to confuse TWEWY with another game. It oozes enough style that even from a brief glimpse you can immediately tell what game it is.
The World Ends With You is often ignored in certain segments of the gaming community, but it’s an absolutely essential game if you consider yourself a fan of RPGs.
Platform: Nintendo DS
I’ve often affectionately referred to Radiant Historia as “The time travel RPG that’s not Chrono Trigger“. Luckily, Radiant Historia compares very favourably to it’s more famous cousin, and has the same feeling from the get go that you’re about to play something very special.
Radiant Historia is broken up into many small timelines, and at the end of each one you have the option of travelling to the other timelines. This creates an intricate web of storylines as you travel from one to the other and as you perform actions in one it opens up new paths in others. Going back to save allies from certain doom in one timeline means they’ll be available to help you in another, which will then spill over into a third timeline. At times it almost seems like a puzzle game when you’re trying to figure out how to proceed.
If it weren’t for a somewhat unwieldy tactical-grid based combat system Radiant Historia would be the greatest RPG since, well, Chrono Trigger.
Baiten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean
Platform: Nintendo Gamecube
Baiten Kaitos is unique in many respects: Not only does it have one of the weirdest names in gaming, it’s also one of the only Gamecube exclusive RPGs and has one of the strangest and most addicting battle systems ever seen in an RPG. It essentially acts as a collectible card game, featuring 1000 cards that act as everything from armor to attacks to healing items. Cards can be found or purchased nearly anywhere, and can either be a one time use (like a healing item) or be useful forever (like an attack card). Anytime outside of battle you can build your deck to take into combat with you.
Baiten Kaitos is also notable for being one of the last RPGs to make heavy use of prerendered backgrounds. The game takes place amongst a chain of islands floating high in the sky, and the environments are incredibly varied and beautiful. Even today the backgrounds hold up thanks to the incredble imagination and artistry put into every single one. An inventive battle system and interesting choice of setting, along with one of the coolest plot twists ever seen in a videogame, make Baiten Kaitos a unique and memorable game.
Baiten Kaitos eventually got a prequel under the name of Baiten Kaitos Originsi that’s every bit as good as the original. Both of them deserve your attention.
Skies of Arcadia / Skies of Arcadia Legends
Platform: Sega Dreamcast / Nintendo Gamecube
Skies of Arcadia holds the honor of being the most popular RPG on the Dreamcast, which unfortunately still puts it somewhere near the bottom in terms of overall popularity. That’s a shame, because Skies of Arcadia is a fantastic game.
You play as Vyse, leader of a group of pirates who raid the skies of a civilization floating in the air. It features a great (and incredibly charming) cast, a fun turn based battle system, interesting world, and a neat team building mechanic. As you progress through the game you’ll get the chance to recruit new members of your pirate crew and build your own ship. Then you take your crew and your ship and engage in cinematic (if easy) ship battles.
Skies of Arcadia was later released on the Gamecube under the title Skies of Arcadia Legends. It’s mostly the same game, but it has some additional crew members, a few extra quests, a greatly reduced encounter rate (it was a little excessive on the Dreamcast), and, unfortunately, reduced music quality.
Lufia II: Rise of the Sinsistrals
The original Lufia & The Fortress of Doom was another lesser known Super Nintendo RPG and was great in it’s own right, but Lufia II was on a whole other level. Taking place 99 years prior to the original game, Lufia II follows the story of now-legendary Maxim during the rise (and eventual fall) of the villainous Sinistrals. While Lufia II has everything you’d look for in an RPG (and does it all really well) the real genius lies in the dungeons. In Lufia II, dungeons aren’t just an obstacle in getting from point A to point B, they’re the entire point of the game. You get these massive, sprawling dungeons expertly filled with devious puzzles that require real thought and give you a sense of satisfaction like nothing else.
Lufia II was actually remade for the Nintendo DS in 2010 as Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals, but I’d still recommend the original if you can get your hands on it. The remake changed the battle system from turn based into a more Zelda-like system and cut a lot of the content, including some of the amazing dungeons. If it’s the only way you can play it then go ahead, but you’re in for a real treat if your can get your hands on the SNES original.
Those are some of my favourite lesser-known RPGs, what are yours? I’m always on the lookout for great RPGs that I may have missed so I (and the rest of the RPG fans reading this) would love to hear suggestions.