The turn-based combat systems in Japanese RPGs (JRPGs) are one of the oldest and most traditional means of performing combat in the genre. For many critics and gamers, the system has become antiquated over the years in favor of more action-orientated combat systems like the ones seen in the Final Fantasy VII Remake.

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However, being traditional doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t stand the test of time or has to become a stagnant experience. Furthermore, many of the most traditional JRPGs still have huge fan bases and followings among the gaming community. When done right, turn-based JRPGs can be just as balanced and even more innovative than real-time combat systems. Let’s take a look at the best JRPGs of all time based on their combat, story, and characters.

Updated March 2nd, 2021 by Michael Llewellyn: The turn-based combat system isn't going anywhere. With the Yakuza series adopting a turn-based combat system, and Dragon Quest XI still proving to be one of this generation's most popular titles in the genre fans are still craving some of the old school magic that such a system can have. Thankfully, there are lots of games old and new worth visiting and revisiting many of which deserve a slot on any greatest of all time list.

18 Golden Sun

images of Golden Sun characters

Fans of this series still don't understand why it hasn't gotten a Nintendo Switch port or some kind of update. The first game released in 2001 for the Game Boy Advance and later for the Nintendo DS. But the last game in the series was Golden Sun: Dark Dawn in 2010. Though the series has stagnated, the fandom remains ever ardent in their love.

The game features a silent protagonist and a unique magic system that utilizes creatures called djinn. Not only do characters have special powers and summon abilities (via the Djinn), they have their Psynergy (magic) and other unique abilities on top of that. The game features elemental lighthouses, world-ending dragons, and even the mythical civilization of Lemuria.

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17 The Legend Of Dragoon

image of combat from Legend of Dragoon

Like a few others on this list, Legend of Dragoon is an iconic classic in the JRPG realm. It puts the player in the role of Dart, a warrior trying to stop the end of the world. It originally released in Japan in 1999 for the PS1. But it stands out as one of the most classic JPRG experiences to date.

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The game has three play modes: the battle screen, the area map, and the field. Though players were bound by routes on a 3D linear map, they could explore the world nonetheless. The game inverts expectations early on, however, when Dart is saved from a Dragon by a woman named Rose.

16 Phantasy Star IV

Phantasy Star 4 remains innovative to this day

Released in the West in 1995, Phantasy Star IV is a futuristic science fiction JRPG which even today breaks the mold of typical Tolkien-esque fantasy-themed games. As the fourth and final entry in the single series before it became an MMORPG on the Dreamcast, it was by the far the most refined.

Incredibly it features a turn-based combat system that will remind many players of Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit System. While not as complex, players are able to stack commands and program their characters with the use of Macros. If the Macros were combined in certain sequences this would initiate special moves and techniques.

15 Yakuza: Like A Dragon

weapons and armor are upgradable

Released in 2020 for Xbox and PlayStation systems, it may seem a little early to rank Yakuza: Like a Dragon as among the best turn-based JRPGs of all time. However, despite the modern setting and characters Like a Dragon combines its already beautifully established world with traditional turn-based gameplay.

This new entry in a long-running series is inspired by classics like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Sega classics like the original Phantasy Star series. The surprising move into turn-based combat fits perfectly with both its whacky characters and the gritty street gang elements. More importantly, for fans of classic JRPGs the story, content, and character development is up there with some of the best in the genre.

14 Skies Of Arcadia

Skies of Arcadia is an all-time classic

Originally released on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000 and then the Nintendo GameCube in 2002 Skies of Arcadia is still considered by many fans as one of the greatest JRPGs of all time. It invokes the classic happy-go-lucky feel one would expect from an old-school Sega title.

At the same time, Skies of Arcadia has endearing heroes with great antagonists that will keep players glued to their seats and screens throughout its epic story. Additionally, the turn-based combat transcends the usual on-foot combat by including epic airship battles that always keep the gameplay interesting.

13 Dragon Quest XI

image of gameplay from Dragon Quest XI

Released for the PlayStation 4, the Nintendo Switch, and the PC, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a modern classic in every sense of the word. It’s one of the best-looking JRPGs of a generation while also harking back to classic entries in the series.

Even though Dragon Quest XI is as traditional as they come, its turn-based combat has enough new and entertaining ideas to keep it fresh. It’s a massive game that can last even the most seasoned players around 70 hours and that’s not including the endgame activities and storylines which is another 40 hours of worthwhile content.

12 Chrono Cross

Chrono Cross cover

Released as an official sequel to Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross was initially considered something of a disappointment to fans of the original. This was only because fans were hoping for a continuation of already established characters like Crono, Frog, Marle, Luca, and Robo.

As time passed, this underappreciated JRPG is often widely regarded as one of the greatest games on the PlayStation. The stunning visuals still hold up today, the soundtrack is absolutely incredible, and the Chrono Cross’s antagonist Lynx remains one of the genre’s best.

11 Legends Of Heroes: The Trails Series

image of characters from Legends Of Heroes: Trails Of Cold Steel

Developers Nihon Falcom has created some of the best and longest-running JRPGs of all time with the likes of Ys, Xanadu, and the Dragon Slayer series. However, the studio’s real jewel in the crown is The Legend of Heroes series which has peaked with the recent successes of the Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel series.

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Both Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel are interconnected and for fans to fully appreciate Trails of Cold Steel IV which brings together all of the characters in an Avengers Endgame-style finale they should be played as a whole. The games are so well written, however, that gamers could dive into either series without any issues and still enjoy a detailed world, amazing character development, involved strategic combat, and emotional narratives capable of hooking players from the start.

10 Shadow Hearts: Covenant

image of promotional art for Shadow Hearts: Covenant

Released worldwide for the PlayStation 2 in 2005, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is the third game in the series after Koudelka on the PS1 and the original Shadow Hearts on the PS2. It’s a Gothic fantasy game set during the First World War in an alternate universe and is widely praised as being of the best RPGs for the PS2.

The game’s turn-based combat feels unique as it uses the Judgement Ring which requires skill and timing as much as it does stats. A similar gameplay mechanic would be seen again in Mistwalker’s Lost Odyssey which included many of the same developers behind the Shadow Hearts series.

9 Lunar Silver Star Story Complete

Lunar Silver Story Story Complete Cover Art

Developed by Game Arts and released in 1998 for the Sega Saturn and for the PlayStation in 1999, Lunar Silver Star Story is a remake of the 1992 classic JRPG that released exclusively on the Sega CD. It implemented FMV cutscenes that weren’t possible on cartridge-based consoles at the time.

It was visually dated by 1999 standards when compared to the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. It more than made up of its aging design with its endearing fully voiced characters that broke away from the typical brooding teen angst that fans were becoming used to at the time and compelling love story. Additionally, it has one of the best antagonists of all time, establishing the silver-haired fallen hero Ghaleon long before Sephiroth became a pop culture icon. The combat system performs like a combination of Game Arts’ Grandia combined with Final Fantasy’s ATB system, where the turns and actions are stacked and performed based on a character’s speed.

8 Grandia 2

image of promotional poster for Grandia 2

First released on the Sega Dreamcast in 2001 and the PlayStation 2 in 2002, Grandia 2 is still highly regarded as having one the best turn-based combat systems of all time. Despite being turn-based the combat runs in real-time and players have to think both quickly and strategically to be successful.

Grandia 2’s story is more mature than its predecessor but the characters and plot still have their moments of light-heartedness. It has a great cast of characters and one of the most underrated protagonists in the genre with Ryudo.

7 Radiant Historia

On the DS and 3DS Radiant Historia JRPGs available

Released on both the Nintendo DS and the 3DS, Radiant Historia is considered by fans of the JRPG genre to be a modern classic. Developed by Atlus, Radiant Historia puts players in the role of its excellent protagonist Stocke. Stocke is a warrior that is capable of navigating multiple timelines with the use of a tome called the White Chronicle.

As a time-traveling story with multiple timelines and interweaving stories, it could have been very easy for a game like Radiant Historia to trip itself becoming overly complex and confusing. However, the game handles this beautifully without ever confusing its players while keeping things interesting with its exciting turn-based combat system that feels both familiar and new. More importantly, it does away with the usual predictable tropes of the genre while also paying tribute to the 16-bit classics that inspired it.

6 Chrono Trigger

image of combat from Chrono Trigger

Developed by Square, Chrono Trigger was released for the Super Nintendo originally. But the game's appeal has led to mobile and PC ports after earlier PS1 and DS releases. The DS version is considered to be the most complete version of the game and it includes the bonus content from the PS1 version, a revised translation, and an ending that ties into the sequel Chrono Cross.

Chrono Trigger remains one of the most well-put-together JRPGs of all time. It features an amazing battle system, stunning character designs, and tremendous replayability. The game’s creation included a dream team of developers and artists that were made up of the likes of Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yuji Horii the creator of Dragon Quest, Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame and Dragon Quest artist, and famed JRPG composers Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu.

5 Xenogears

Xenogears is the pinnacle of mature storytelling

Released in 1998 for the PlayStation, Xenogears is a science fiction RPG that was way ahead of its time in terms of mature storytelling and character development. The game incorporates heavy religious and philosophical themes.

Xenogears was developed by the team that would eventually form Monolith Soft - one of the most revered studios in the world. As a result, Xenogears’ incorporation of religious and philosophical symbolism would continue in the equally complex Xenosaga Trilogy and Xenoblade Chronicles in what is affectionately known as the Xeno metaseries.

4 Persona 5 Royal

image of Joker holding his mask on a Persona 5 Royal red background

Persona 5 Royal was released in 2020 and functions as something of a director’s cut of the already brilliant Persona 5 that was released worldwide in 2017. The game, like its predecessors, is set in modern-day Tokyo and puts the players in the shoes of a transfer high school student.

In addition, Persona 5 has a fantastic narrative with an excellent dating sim system known as “Confidants”. School life mechanics play a big part in the game’s plot and the combat system. An argument can be made for all the Persona games of being worthy on this list but with Persona 5 being the most approachable in the series it takes the top spot here.

3 The Suikoden Series

image of characters from the Suikoden series

The Suikoden series launched worldwide on the PlayStation in 1997 by the time it reached European territories. It was then followed by Suikoden II -- a game that many fans of the genre quite rightly believe to be one of the greatest JRPGs of all time.

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The series continued on the PlayStation 2 all the way up to Suikoden V. The entire series is worth any JRPG fan’s time. But the best two games in the franchise are arguably Suikoden II and Suikoden V. The brilliant character development, world-building, and storytelling work together pull gamers right into its universe.

2 Final Fantasy VII

image of Cloud Strife, Sephiroth, and a Mako Reactor from Final Fantasy VII Remake

Released in 1997 for the PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII is arguably the most iconic and influential Japanese RPGs ever released. Of course, the game comes under some criticism from fans of the genre, for its age but mostly because of its mainstream appeal.

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However, it’s difficult to be debate the fact that it helped open the floodgates for many JRPGs that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in the West if not for Final Fantasy VII. Yet, despite all this, Final Fantasy VII still has a fantastic cast of characters, a great story with excellent world-building, and an amazing world that incorporates elements of fantasy, sci-fi, and cyberpunk.

1 Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

image of battle from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

Released worldwide in 2005 for the PlayStation 2, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is also known as Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call in the West. It is the third entry in the mainline series. Fans might recognize the spin-off series Persona and Devil Summoner games, too.

Even though the Persona series has gained far more mainstream appeal and success, its roots and many of its gameplay mechanics have been heavily derived from the mainline series. However, the SMT series is far more punishing (but fair) to players that don’t learn their enemy’s weaknesses and their allies' strengths. Despite its difficulty, Nocturne is one of the most compellingly addictive JRPGs of a generation, and its successors as good as they are, have yet to match it.

Next: Nintendo Switch: 10 Best JRPGs Of 2020, Ranked According To Metacritic

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