As the source of countless legendary games and series, Japan is surely one of the most alluring locations in the world for any RPG player. Still home to the majority of big game developers, a tour of country will take you around some of gaming’s most iconic settings and the places that inspired them.
Not only are its cities steeped in gaming history, but Japan is a wonderful tourist destination in its own right. The bright lights and bubbling energy of its big cities are contrasted with the peaceful elegance of immaculate shrines and gardens. Impeccable service and profound respect are juxtaposed against a huge emphasis on leisure and fun. With something for absolutely everyone, there is nowhere quite like the birthplace of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Persona.
A trip to Japan may well be on your bucket list, but if general life, finances or Covid are getting in the way, the next best thing is to experience it in an equally authentic Japanese fashion – through gaming. It’s time to look at 8 JRPGs that perfectly capture the land of the rising sun’s modern essence.
BONUS FACT: I took the cover image myself from Roppongi Hills in Tokyo!
Persona 5 Royal
Platforms: PS4, PS5
The enhanced, definitive edition of Persona 5 is a tremendous way to experience modern Japan. Set in the capital, the hustle and bustle of lively city streets is captured superbly. Slick loading screens show packed subway cars fly past, or silhouettes pacing by with their umbrellas. Faceless, transparent NPCs blend into the surroundings, capturing that big city feeling of a busy population passing in a blur.
Persona’s true immersion comes from the day-to-day activities. Studying, dining, part-time work and spending time with friends take up at least as much time as battling shadows and saving the day. The cast comprises of high school misfits who enter the mysterious Metaverse to steal the hearts of wrongdoers, clad as the stylish Phantom Thieves. The many aspects of a Tokyo social life are balanced against the deadline for each mission, where the player has a choice of how to best tackle it.
You can’t exactly call Persona 5 Royal an open world affair, but many real-life locations can be visited and explored such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and nerdy haven Akihabara. Further landmarks like the Skytree and the Meiji Shrine are available for hangouts, and it’s these slice of life elements that truly make Persona 5 a modern Japanese experience like no other. Meanwhile, the polished turn-based battle system and clever dungeon design add up to one of the highest rated JRPGs of the generation.
Anyone who has not played the original Persona 5 should go straight to the Royal edition, which adds significant gameplay improvements and dozens of additional hours of content. As one of the best RPGs in recent memory, it is simply a must-play for any fans of the genre.
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Tokyo Xanadu eX+
Platforms: PS4, PS5
If you’ve already played and enjoyed Persona 5, then Tokyo Xanadu eX+ could be the next best thing. This version of Tokyo is fictionalised, and set against the backdrop of a devastating earthquake prior to the game’s opening. The protagonist, Kou Tokisaka is a high schooler who gets caught up in a struggle to prevent attacks from Greeds. These monsters spawn from an alternate dimension called the Eclipse, and feed on negative human emotions.
The setting of Moriyama, perched on the outskirts of the city, isn’t as vibrant as the real deal but still has plenty of wonderful Japanese elements. When not entering the Eclipse to enjoy a fun action-based battle system, Kou can spend time at the lush green park, an arcade packed with mini games or just slurp down some soba on the shopping street. There’s also a trip to a hot spring resort, nicely representing one of Japan’s most famous and relaxing pastimes.
Like Persona, there are social aspects that affect gameplay and improve strength in battle. Bonding events with other party members can help unlock extra attack combinations, and boosting Kou’s social stats by reading books and completing quests can earn some nice rewards from his grandfather.
Tokyo Xanadu eX+ improves on an already solid RPG on the PS Vita, available on PS4 (and now PS5) with several extra gameplay segments.
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Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Things might be starting to feel familiar by now, because Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore is another definitive edition of a game set in Tokyo about youngsters fighting demons in another dimension.
Instead of high schoolers, the cast of characters features young adults aiming to break into Japan’s crazy idol world. While trying to further their careers as pop stars and actors, the party cross over with distorted versions of Fire Emblem heroes to take on mirages, evil beings seeking to steal the power of performing arts.
This time, Tokyo isn’t overly deep or packed with activities. Only a handful of areas are available for exploration, but the charm comes in its music-video cutscenes that showcase catchy, bopping hits that’ll stick in your head for days.
The turn-based battle system takes place on a stage, and literally involves characters busting into song to power up attacks. Changing costumes prompts a dramatic reveal and party members often team up for duets that unleash devastating moves or grant special effects. They joyfully bounce around battles linking combo attacks that look sleek and impressive.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore adds some changes and improvements to its outing on the doomed Wii U. It is admittedly rather niche, and its appeal isn’t for everyone, but JRPG players with a passion for J-pop should certainly not miss this one.
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The World Ends With You
Platforms: DS, Nintendo Switch
One of the best RPGs on the DS has found a new home on the Nintendo Switch with a port that has received some mixed feedback for its approach to one of the core battle mechanics. Trendy fashion features heavily, with special pins literally touched on the screen to activate. When playing on the Switch, this innovation works far better in handheld mode than docked mode.
The World Ends With You is based in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, nailing its vibe with a wonderful soundtrack and an unusual plot. The teenage protagonist Neku finds himself participating in ‘the Game’, an unusual competition that leads him through a gripping story with twists aplenty. It favours quality over quantity with a streamlined runtime that remains pretty exhilarating throughout.
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There isn’t a huge amount of exploration of Tokyo, but it’s neat to shop at the Shibuya 104 building (rebranded from real-life Shibuya 109), cross the famous pedestrian scramble and fight battles with the iconic Hachiko statue in the background. A recent announcement has declared the welcome news that a sequel is on the way, with its trailer suggesting an action-based combat system. Check it out below.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon
Platforms: PS4, PS5
The Yakuza series has long had RPG elements, but its action-based combat had often provoked debate as to whether it actually fits into the genre. Not anymore. Like A Dragon flips the arcadey beat-em-up combat on its head, supplanting it with turn-based battle mechanics in a brave move that firmly cements it as an RPG.
Since a lot of the RPGs in a modern Japanese setting feature high school students, Yakuza offers a more mature alterative. Members of the Japanese mafia engage in matters of assault, blackmail and murder, prowling the streets using environmental items in battle to beat down enemies. On the other hand, there’s also lots of quirky humour and plenty of time for fun. Karaoke, cards and kart racing are all included in bonanza of addictive mini games.
These escapades add considerable depth and life to the cities visited, including Tokyo and Osaka along with the main setting of Yokohama. This vast array of activities is typical within the Yakuza series, and can easily distract from the main story for dozens of hours. There are 24 in total, more than any other previous Yakuza game.
The gameplay changes are accompanied by a switch to the main character, meaning Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a great entry point to the series if the previous titles passed you by.
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Persona 4 Golden
Platforms: PS Vita, PC
Released from its PS Vita shackles onto Steam, Persona 4 Golden’s gameplay may not be quite as polished as is successor Persona 5 Royal, but it remains a fantastic RPG with a very different sort of Japanese setting. Like Persona 5 Royal, this is another definitive edition that renders its original version obsolete by adding a plethora of brilliant extra content.
The town of Inaba plays host to Persona 4 Golden. A far cry from Tokyo’s hectic chaos, Inaba is small and sleepy, except for its growing murder problem. Beat dungeons in the barmy TV world each month whilst hanging out with party members or attempting the local restaurant’s mega beef bowl challenge. Inaba’s modest size evokes a different impression – before long, you’ll feel like a local who knows every corner of the little town and all its locals.
Various spin-offs including fighting and rhythm titles give the best indication of the love out there for Persona 4. What it lacks compared to Persona 5’s gameplay tweaks and dungeon design is made up by the superb set of characters, whose camaraderie and chemistry is arguably the best in the series.
Despite being first released in 2008 with Golden following in 2012, the success of the Steam release suggests Persona is as popular as ever. On a personal note, it was Persona 4 Golden that inspired me to finally take the plunge and visit Japan myself. It remains my favourite place to visit.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth
Platforms: PS Vita, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, PC
Another modern take on Tokyo comes in the Digimon series. With a choice of male or female protagonist, Cyber Sleuth’s story leans heavily into the world of technology, cyber-crimes and hacking. Players investigate the cyberspace network called EDEN to solve the recent cases of EDEN Syndrome, a strange condition causing innocents to become comatose.
The presence of 249 collectable creatures who evolve (or rather, “digivolve”) makes comparisons to Pokemon inevitable. Digimon is a tad more mature in tone than its Nintendo rival, but still has enough of its own adorable critters to encapsulate that good old Japanese “kawaii” cuteness.
Cyber Sleuth is a great way to take a good look around Tokyo’s many areas. Unsurprisingly, Shibuya and Akihabara pop up again, with plenty of other well-known districts like Asakusa and Shinjuku also on the map. Realistic depictions of landmarks such as the otaku shopping spot Nakano Broadway and the highrise Metropolitan Office.
Cyber Sleuth’s gameplay is solid but not spectacular, with random encounters and a fairly bog-standard turn-based battle system. Still, its decent sales performance led to a sequel and ports on both Nintendo Switch and PC. The sequel, Hacker’s Memory, is largely more of the same.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Platforms: PS2, Nintendo Switch release date TBA
Nocturne is the most challenging game on this list and unlike others, its apocalyptic horror setting is hardly a glowing advert for Japanese tourism. However, it’s still easily good enough to deserve an honourable mention and remains one of the most popular and acclaimed games of the Shin Megami Tensei series.
The opening events of the game are set in a normal, modern-day Tokyo, but the city is soon transformed into a spooky, derelict shadow of itself known as the Vortex World. The silent protagonist is bestowed with demon powers and becomes a demi-fiend, who must use his dark abilities to battle the Great Will and attempt to salvage the world.
Recruiting enemies is crucial to navigating the brutal difficulty spikes regularly thrown your way during Nocturne, and is achieved by negotiating during battle. Since the likes of Persona and Tokyo Mirage Sessions are spin-offs from the series, there are some similarities to find in some of the gameplay mechanics, but the tone and challenge make Nocturne a different beast altogether.
The upcoming HD port to Nintendo Switch will interest anyone with a penchant for punishment who missed out on the 2003 PS2 version first time around.
Do these RPGs set in Japan make you want to visit? Are there any others out there we’ve missed?