I discovered my love of role-playing games in the nineties, back when Pokemon: Yellow Version first hit the shelves. Barely seven-years-old, I had no idea what I was getting myself into as I blew into the cartridge and popped it into my Game Boy. All I knew was that the box art had lightning bolts, which, like most kids, I took to be a promising sign.
Within minutes, I had forgotten entirely about those lightning bolts.
I lost myself in the game, in its world and characters. And as soon as I had beaten the Elite Four and captured Mewtwo, I circled back and played the game once – no, twice – more. I had an insatiable appetite for RPGs, and it took me deeper into the genre where I fell in love again, this time with Final Fantasy.
There’s a reason why most people consider these two series the crown jewels of the genre. They are accessible, rich, and completely engrossing. However, if you haven’t explored further beyond them, you’re missing out. There is so much more that RPGs have to offer, but sadly, most people never get to see this for themselves.
That’s why I decided to share some of my favorite series that you may not have tried and what makes them special. If you’re on the hunt for a new RPG to sink your teeth into, here are four places to start.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
In terms of storytelling and world building, The Legend of Heroes by Falcom is unparalleled. The series began in the late 1980s, and since then, Falcom has released fourteen installments divided into five interconnected mini-series. Trails in the Sky, a recently completed trilogy, is my favorite of the bunch, and it is also the best entry point for anyone new to the series. It’s playable on PC, PSP, and Vita.
Trails in the Sky completely blew me away in its storytelling. The trilogy has it all: plot twists, drama, romance, betrayal, you name it. With over a hundred hours of game play, Trails takes you through a complex story full of mystery and intrigue. If you value strong writing, this is not a series you want to skip.
Nowadays, games trend towards large, open worlds that, unfortunately, usually end up feeling empty. Trails in the Sky bucks that trend with its dense, dynamic world. Even the most seemingly insignificant NPCs have their own personalities and stories that develop as you go through the game. Everywhere you go, there are secret quests and maps. There is so much to discover, and none of it feels contrived.
Every respectable RPG needs an interesting combat system, and Trails in the Sky delivers. The combat is turn-based and set on a grid that your party must maneuver through. This is not a game you can get through with thoughtless button mashing. The battles challenge you to think strategically and customize your characters in intelligent ways.
Etrian Odyssey is easily among the most unique games I have ever played, which is no surprise considering it is developed by Atlus. The series is playable on the Nintendo DS and 3DS, and fans speculate that future installments for the Switch are on the way. The games have little in the way of stories, but if anything, this is part of their charm. They draw you into mysterious settings and leave you to explore, rather than walk you through plot point after plot point.
The Map-Making Feature
Etrian Odyssey makes full use of the dual screens of the DS and 3DS by letting you make your maps yourself. As you venture through vast, winding dungeons, the game allows you to chart your course and map out doors, chests, monster spawn points, and more.
A huge part of what makes Etrian Odyssey so addicting is its crafting component. When you’re not drawing maps, the game gives you tons of resources to discover and create new gear with. If you’re a fan of loot, this is a dungeon crawler series you should definitely check out.
Two words best describe the combat system: pure and complex. Etrian Odyssey is a series that prioritizes the player’s freedom. Each game sets up an intricate system with many different classes and skills to mix and match so that no playthrough ever feels the same. These games do not hold your hand. They go as far as showing you your options and then let you figure out how you want to do things.
Disgaea, in a word, is quirky. These tactical RPGs never take themselves too seriously and take every opportunity to showcase their characteristic weirdness. They are available on PS2, PS3, PS4, and PC.
If you had a good time with the Final Fantasy Tactics games, you’ll enjoy Disgaea’s grid-based combat. With varying heights and objects to interact with, the board acts like a puzzle through which you and your enemies must navigate. Characters can perform all sorts of actions, from throwing party members to transforming into weapons, and winning battles requires players to combine these mechanics in creative ways.
The Post-Game Content
It is no exaggeration to say that each game boasts hundreds of hours of content. The games are so vast that the main stories are minuscule compared to what comes afterwards. In fact, most fans consider the end of the story to be the true beginning of the game. Fans of grinding, collecting loot, and maximizing character stats will have a field day with Disgaea.
Shin Megami Tensei
Simply put, Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei is Pokemon for adults. It offers a brutal challenge that would reduce most kids to tears, and it tackles deep, often dark, philosophical questions. The series spans multiple systems, including the DS, 3DS, Playstation, PS2, PS Vita, and soon, the Switch as well.
Shin Megami Tensei is not for the faint of heart. The games feature dark, often post-apocalyptic, settings that depict some of the most frightening and disturbing aspects of humanity. As you travel through these worlds, you learn bit by bit how conditions got to be so horrible. The explanations are rarely pleasant, but that’s what makes these games so rich and thought provoking.
Shin Megami Tensei is, by far, the most difficult RPG series I have ever played. Frustration is ingrained in the experience, but this is why the games feel so rewarding. For anyone seeking the ultimate challenge, SMT is the perfect RPG.
SMT is commonly compared to Pokemon, and this is largely due to its demon recruitment and fusion mechanics. The games feature hundreds of different characters, monsters, and deities from the folklore of countless cultures, and players must fight them, recruit them, and fuse them to create even stronger demons. Players have so much to tinker with that they may find Pokemon to feel shallow in comparison.
Off the Beaten Path
Are you ready to expand your RPG repertoire? These four series may stand in the shadow of their more mainstream counterparts, but that is by no means an indication of their quality. Gives these games a shot, but fair warning first: you may not want to leave your room for a few months.