Attack! 10 turn-based JRPGs that dared to be different

A battle of patience

The typical Japanese role-playing game runs on a predictable cycle. Step one: Run around fields while world-threatening events unfold. Step two: Watch as the screen fizzles into a battle scenario. Step three: Tap buttons while your rag-tag team of heroes stares awkwardly at assailants until an invisible gauge gives them permission to attack. Step four: repeat steps one through three. For, like, 100 hours.

Sometimes, though, JRPGs–such as the recently released Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch–step outside the safety zone of traditional turn-based battles, implementing an interesting spin on a tried and true system. Even if you’re bored by the classic JRPG formula, there are many games that provide wholly original takes on combat, spicing up the status quo by providing you with something totally different. Thought turn-based JRPGs were all the same? Here are 10 that will prove you wrong.

Legend of Legaia (1998, PlayStation)

Legend of Legaia is basically a Pokemon tale gone wrong. For years, humans lived in harmony with Seru. These magical creatures bestowed mankind with badass powers, such as the ability to fly, or to shoot electricity from the eyes (which serves no practical purpose, but is awesome). Then a foreign mist enveloped the land, driving the Seru mad and causing them to brutally murder, like, 85 percent of the world’s population. With the power of Ra-Seru–sentient beings immune to the maddening effects of the mist–your party is the world’s only hope.

Combat in Legend of Legaia allows you to specify the location of each character’s attack. For example, you could strike with your left or right hand, dealing damage based on your equipped weapon or Ra-Seru’s level; alternatively, you could perform a high or low attack, which would only connect with enemies whose heights were appropriate to the input. Because you could select multiple inputs for each attack phase, you could uncover special Arts by experimenting with various striking combinations, adding tons of depth to the traditionally static JRPG battle system.

Xenogears (1998, PlayStation)

Often regarded as one of the best JRPGs ever created, Xenogears is heavy handed with its philosophical and religious undertones. Though its complex plot and sci-fi themes wowed millions (and bored others to tears after 80-plus hours of Freudian mumbo-jumbo), it’s also revered for its interactive combat system.

During battle, you can attack with a variety of martial arts moves, varying between strong, moderate, and weak strikes. Each requires a certain number of Action Points to use, but by chaining certain combinations of attacks together, you can unlock special moves called Deathblows. Many of the game’s battles also take place in Mech form, as most playable characters have access to a giant robot, called a Gear. Here, combo chains work much in the same way as they do in character battles, with AP replaced by a Fuel resource. Whether or not you can comprehend the high-brow narrative, bashing in enemy robots with a giant mech translates to pure unadulterated fun 100 percent of the time.

Grandia (1999, PlayStation)

While many JRPGs in the late ’90s featured edgy teens with radical attitudes, Grandia showcased the campier side of adventuring. Its protagonist, Justin, was just a normal tween dude who wanted nothing more than to explore the world and… ladies’ underpants. Okay, so Justin had a bit of a perverted side to him. Aaaand, for a kid, he sure was good at killing things–in the name of self defense, of course.

At first glance, Grandia employs the typical turn-based battle system found in most JRPGs. But the real difference is in the way you can cancel out enemy attacks. During combat, a bar at the bottom of the screen shows when each character and enemy will be allowed to select an action for that turn–and once an action is chosen, a brief window of time must elapse before it can be carried out. Attacking enemies during this window will cancel their turn, forcing their action bar to reset. This imbued each fight with an element of strategy, and some of the tougher boss battles became more a game of learning how best to keep your foe from striking.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003, Game Boy Advance)

The Mario & Luigi RPG series immediately separates itself from its JRPG brethren with its light-hearted charm and goofy personality alone. While its witty dialogue and fun narrative are sure to entertain outside of battles, the brawls themselves will keep a smile on your face thanks to their interactive nature.

Battles place an emphasis on timed button presses, as hitting a certain button at the same time an attack lands grants extra damage. Conversely, doing so when an enemy attacks allows Mario and Luigi to mitigate incoming attacks or dodge them all together. In fact, some players can get so precise that they can clear most random encounters without taking a single point of damage.

Resonance of Fate (2010, PlayStation 3)

Resonance of Fate is basically a John Woo movie in JRPG form. Unlike just about every other game in the genre, it ditches swords and spells in favor of firearms and fast, stylish battles, where your characters slide across the ground while firing, or effortlessly cartwheel through the air while raining death from above. Combat in Resonance of Fate is like watching an anime with guns–unfortunately it’s a bit difficult to fully grasp.

At the start of each battle, you can choose to move your character across a linear path. Once movement begins, you select the targets you want to attack. Then, if you want to get John Woo fancy, you can launch your characters into the air and perform an aerial assault with the push of a button. There are all sorts of strategic tactics necessary for taking down some of the game’s toughest foes–but every battle, no matter how insignificant, is a visual eyegasm.

Valkyrie Profile (2000, PlayStation)

The tragedy of each of your party members in Valkyrie Profile is that they’re dead. Well, technically they’re souls of fallen soldiers, but yeah–they’re totally dead. As the valkyrie Lenneth, it’s your job to travel the world, recruiting said warriors in preparation for the final apocalyptic battle in Valhalla. Fortunately, the lost souls in this Norse mythology-inspired JRPG make for great combat companions.

To prepare your recruits, you’ll have to engage in plenty of fights to show them the ropes. During Valkyrie Profile’s combat, all party members share a turn during the attack phase and can attack simultaneously. Because each party member is mapped to one of the controller’s face buttons, you can string together attack combos for extra damage while building up the Hit Gauge. If you succeed in maxing out the Hit Gauge in a single turn, one of your characters will unleash a powerful special attack dealing insane amounts of damage.

Fate/Extra (2011, PSP)

Fate/Extra follows many JRPG tropes to the T. An amnesiac hero/heroine wakes up in a strange, foreign world, where he or she must fight in some war, because apparently that’s the only way to recover lost memories. Oh, and you get to own a servant, who is forced to aid you in to-the-death battles, which are challenging encounters for everyone involved because surviving said battles requires more luck than skill.

Combat here will definitely keep you on your toes, as it takes a rock-paper-scissors approach to the turn-based formula. You and your opponent must select a series of inputs: Attack, Break, or Guard, each of which trumps another. As the combat phase unfolds, each selection is revealed one by one, and damage is doled out based on how many of your moves overpower those of your enemy. The key here is memorizing enemy attack patterns. Death can be a tad annoying considering it often requires you to sit through lengthy bits of exposition to get back into the fight.

The Legend of Dragoon (2000, PlayStation)

Dragons are fruit. Humans are fruit. Every living thing that exists, technically, is a fruit according to The Legend of Dragoon, because in its lore, all life is born from the branches of a Divine Tree. Which, as it turns out, was being threatened by a few… bad apples. While the game’s story was your typical “save everyone” affair, its combat system was rather revolutionary.

During battle, each attack would turn into a time-based Guitar Hero-esque mini game, where you’d have to hit a button with exact precision as a moving window overlapped with a static one. Successfully completing these “Additions” leveled up the power of your attacks while accruing Spirit Points, which allowed you to transform into an awesome dragon/human hybrid called a Dragoon. The cool-factor here is reduced significantly once you realize that Dragoons, too, are fruit.

Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier (2009, Nintendo DS)

Imagine a Firefly video game full of awesome mechs and space pirates, but replace every Chinese curse word with a boob joke. Then follow every boob joke up with a cartoon animation of a female character moving, which in turn causes her impossible bust to jiggle with the ferocity of a thousand suns. Also, make the whole thing an anime. That’s basically Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier. Half the fun of playing it is getting your mind blown by its ridiculous presentation and surprisingly witty dialog. The other half is derived from beating things up.

While it’s certainly not the first JRPG to feature combo-driven battles, it’s definitely one of the only ones to allow you to chain together 400-plus attacks with the successful execution of timing-based inputs. It’s whacky in all the right ways–and even if you don’t find its crass humor particularly amusing, you’re sure to be spellbound by its balls-to-the-wall brawls.

Radiant Historia (2011, Nintendo DS)

Atlus’ Radiant Historia is interesting for many reasons. For starters, it features one of the most non-linear time-traveling mechanics in RPG history, where each action you take in one era will greatly affect the events of another. But Radiant Historia has also garnered a lot of praise for its adaptation of the turn-based battle system.

Combat here is all about positioning and turn control. Each skirmish takes place on a 3×3 grid, where damage is based on the distance between you and your foe. More importantly, using certain attacks allows you to move enemies to certain locations on the battle grid–if you can manage to stack them on the same spot, your attacks will strike all of them at once. Turn manipulation also plays a big role in the game, as you can choose to have a character swap a combat turn with another, a mechanic of great strategic importance that often means the difference between life and death.


Some JRPGs focus so heavily on story that they often neglect to make the battle system interesting, so it’s refreshing when one comes along and spices things up a bit. What are some of your favorite turn-based JRPGs? Let us know in the comments below.

About Fox

Check Also

Best Spider-Man movies ranked, from No Way Home to Spider-Verse

Spider-Man has been brought to the big screen many, many times by now, so it …

Leave a Reply