2016 is quietly shaping up to be another landmark year for gaming, a worthy successor to 2015, one of the best on record. We’d forgive you for not noticing, but there are a ton of hidden gems stealthily creeping up on us, amongst them some of the most promising Japanese RPGs in recent memory. If even a handful of these games live up to their potential, 2016 could easily be one of the greatest years for JRPGs ever, and maybe for gaming period.
1. Persona 5
The Shin Megami Tensei franchise has been getting better with every release, and Persona 4 was a prime example of a developer honing their skills and breathing new life into stale JRPG tropes. Far from resting on their laurels, though, the team at Atlus is set to continue pushing the boundaries of the form with Persona 5, which expands on the ideas and scope of its predecessor in some novel ways. A broader, denser setting (modern day Tokyo and the mysterious Palace, home to the game’s dungeons), a more complex narrative, and some explosive, hyperkinetic combat look to make the fifth entry the most engaging Persona yet.
2. Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV promises to bring a storied (and slightly dusty) franchise into the modern era in a big way. A proper open-world; responsive, action-oriented combat; and some mechanics borrowed from popular Japanese titles like Monster Hunter are set to drag Final Fantasy (with no lack of kicking and screaming from a segment of its old school fans) away from its staid turn-based roots. This modern approach means players will track monstrous prey by following their trail of destruction, and tool around in a customizable black convertible that can be driven manually or set to automatically pilot characters to their destination. Also, if that’s not enough to hook you, Final Fantasy XV likely represents a new apex in terms of over-the-top anime hair in videogames. Seriously, dat coif tho.
3. Nier: Automata
Nier: Automata is a game with a bizarre lineage. The original Nier was a bit of a strange beast, a cult classic with striking, gloomy visuals and a haunting soundtrack that seemed to slink back out of sight almost as soon as it appeared. While the original developer Cavia is now defunct, the property has been handed off to star Japanese studio Platinum Games (the brilliant minds behind Bayonetta, Vanquish and the upcoming Scalebound) and what we’ve seen of the sequel sparkles with promise. Bombastic melee and ranged combat are Platinum’s bread and butter, and Nier’s distinctive brand of brawling looks much improved in the studio’s capable hands, bolstering a unique post-apocalyptic setting in which monstrous robotic invaders strive to exterminate the last vestiges of an embattled human race.
4. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
One of the most popular and acclaimed releases in the storied franchise, Dragon Quest VIII is finally getting a proper English 3DS release in 2016 (alongside Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past). The first game in the series to feature fully 3D graphics, Dragon Quest VIII remains a fan favorite because of its diverse and endearing cast of characters, lush cel-shaded graphics, and the straightforward but compelling action that has fueled the series throughout its 30 year history. Dragon Quest VIII also features the first instance of the Tension system, a storing energy mechanic that allows players to build up power and then vent it in powerful attacks on subsequent turns.
5. Valkyria: Azure Revolution
One of the most underrated, overlooked games of the last generation, Valkyria Chronicles delivered a unique cocktail of strategy and action. A proper console sequel has been long overdue, the second and third games in the series having been relegated to the PSP. Luckily for us, Sega appeased long-suffering Valkyria fans this year with the announcement of Valkyria: Azure Revolution (alongside a new HD remake of the original). While details remain scant, a recent livestream from developer Media.Image (of Wild Arms fame) showcased the new combat system, more real-time than the pseudo-turned-based action of the original, and parties of characters simultaneously traversing levels together with the player freely switching between members. While the gameplay may represent a slight departure, the charming art style and methodical pace of the action seem very much intact.
6. Bravely Second: End Layer
Bravely Default was a surprise breakout hit on 3DS when it finally landed on Western shores in 2014, easily one of the most stylish and unique handheld RPGs of the last several years. The sequel, which has already launched in Japan (to positive reviews), promises more of what made the original so successful while incorporating a sprawling new narrative set two years after the events of the first game. Returning is the novel combat, which has players banking points and defending, or overspending them to take multiple actions in a turn and unleash deadly combos. End Layer also features 30 job options, the game’s version of classes, including bizarre offshoots like the catmancer and patissier (who destroys enemies with an arsenal of poisoned foods).
7. Genei Ibun Roku #FE (Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem)
This merging of two of the biggest JRPG franchises has all the hallmarks of a chocolate-meets-peanut-butter-type of union. Fans of both series will find elements to sink their teeth into, like the Mirages based on Fire Emblem characters that you merge with during battle to launch special attacks. The combat most closely resembles Shin Megami Tensei, a turn based affair initiated by attacking on-field monsters while exploring dungeons. Like Persona 5 the game is set in Tokyo, with a narrative focusing on a group of young people battling an invasion by hostile Mirages. The player characters are recruited by a talent company called Fortuna Entertainment, a front for a resistance group dedicated to defeating the mysterious alien beings, and work to drive out the intruders with the help of a group of friendly Mirages.
8. Odin Sphere Leifthrasir
The original Odin Sphere was an incredible game with some very original ideas that was the victim of strange timing and an aging platform, releasing on the PS2 well after most developers (and players) had abandoned it for the next generation. It was nonetheless a beautifully drawn, artfully executed take on action role-playing and Norse mythology, and it’s heartening to see it getting a proper HD remake in the form of Odin Sphere Leifthrasir for PS3, PS4 and Vita. The developer, Vanillaware, is promising more than just a cosmetic update, saying the game will feature fully evolved gameplay systems and brand new art.
9. World of Final Fantasy
A playful tonic for the intense self-seriousness of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, World of Final Fantasy is looking like fan service done right. More a distant, chibi cousin of the series than a mainline release, World of Final Fantasy features a brother and sister duo exploring the many worlds of the franchise and battling some of its most iconic monsters and characters. Oddly, like Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, it also features Mirages who serve as mounts that characters can be stacked atop of to deal massive damage combo attacks.
10. Dark Souls III
The fourth game in the infamous Souls series (or fifth if you count Bloodborne) promises to uphold all the punishing traditions of its forebears, while also opening up a suite of new combat options for players getting a little tired of the methodical Souls combat. Developer From Software promises snappier, more responsive combos, and is talking a big game about “battle arts,” special abilities tied to a cooldown timer that are linked to both weapons and magic. From what we’ve seen, they allow players to do things like spin into a group of enemies while duel-wielding, attacking in all directions, and are designed to make the game more accessible but not necessarily easier.
Alan Bradley is a freelance journalist, vagabond, and aspiring ornithologist (some of these descriptors may not be strictly accurate). Find his work on GamesRadar or follow him on Twitter @chapelzero.