JRPG Collection

Best JRPGs with romance systems

You’re a globetrotter and a skilled fighter, on a quest to save the world with a team of brilliant men and women who are fast becoming your best friends. What would make this adventure even better? How about… falling in love?

Some of the best romances in videogames are from JRPGs. Cloud and Arieth. Tidus and Yuna. Pairings that inspired joy and jealousy as you watched the characters falling in love. But these couples do not appear in this article. It’s one thing to watch a romance story unfold, and another to play an active part in it!

When romance becomes a gameplay system, we want what we want in any gameplay system: interesting decisions. Yes, that includes a choice of which character to romance, but we also want to choose what to say to them, and whether we fight alongside them in battle. Decisions should also have consequences. If you court one character, that’s probably going to put off another character, or perhaps them jealous.

But this list is not just about gameplay mechanisms. Feelings play a big part too! The most interesting systems won’t impress us if the datable characters don’t make our hearts flutter. Sometimes a lack of complexity is made up for with, well… je ne sais quoi. That’s the case with the first game in the list. 

Dragon Quest V (1992)

Bianca from Dragon Quest V

Here’s a story that demonstrates that lasting impact of the romance system in Dragon Quest V. Three full decades after the game was released in Japan, a shareholder of Square Enix asked the new president, Takashi Kiryu, a very important question at his first shareholders meeting:

I would like to know whether Director Kiryu chose Bianca or Nera.


Bianca and Nera are the original two “Heavenly Brides” that could be married in Dragon Quest V (a third, Debora, was added in the Nintendo DS remake). Kiryu himself explained the differences in personality between the two: “Bianca is vivacious, whereas Flora is quiet.” Kiryu choose Bianca, but we can be sure his answer will not settle this debate, which has lasted over 30 years now.

What makes the heavenly brides worthy of note is that your choice of partner is also a choice of party member. Nera is more magically attuned; Bianca is better at hitting things with sharp objects. If you choose one, you cannot choose the other. It’s a simple system, but it has all the elements we’re looking for: the player has an active role in choosing to build a relationship with the women they vibe with the most, and this choice is reflected in the gameplay and the story. That the two brides were great enough characters to stand the test of time is a very nice bonus.

NPC comments "Ah, what a beautiful wedding it was" in Dragon Quest V screenshot

Enhancing Dragon Quest V‘s romance is a narrative arc that spans multiple generations, which, in typical Yuji Horii style, is equally inventive and compelling. The protagonist embarks on a quest that sees them grow from a child to an adult, experiencing various trials and tribulations along the way. Central to this journey are the relationships forged with a diverse cast of characters, including those potential love interests.

To this day, Dragon Quest V stands as a shining example of how romance can be integrated into JRPGs to enrich the player experience. It’s a great place to start the discussion, but the complexities of the romance systems take off from here. 

Thousand Arms (1998)

Released during the late ’90s, this PlayStation cult classic is one part Breath of Fire, one part Tokimeki Memorial. The system it devised was the first of it’s kind, making Thousand Arms the prototypical JRPG/Dating-Sim hybrid, and still quite a good one. 

Intimacy level with Kyleen increases in Thousand Arms screenshot
Screenshot taken by Bobbin Threadbare and uploaded to Let’s Play Archive.

At the core of Thousand Arms lies a dating sim mechanic that intertwines seamlessly with the traditional JRPG format. Players step into the shoes of Meis Triumph, a cheeky blacksmith with a penchant for both forging legendary weapons and capturing the hearts of various love interests. The game breaks away from the one-size-fits-all approach often seen in romantic subplots by allowing players to actively pursue relationships with different characters. These aren’t just aesthetic choices; each romantic path unveils unique storylines, character developments, and even specialised abilities that tie back into the main quest.

Decision-making takes centre stage in this romantic ballet. Meis must navigate through dialogue choices, gifts, and actions to woo the chosen companion. However, this isn’t a mere flirtation simulator – the consequences of these choices ripple through the fabric of the wider game. A successful romance isn’t just about personal satisfaction; it often means unlocking additional gameplay perks, offering a tantalising blend of emotional investment and strategic advantage.

The cast of Thousand Arms

Yet, the million-polygon question remains: does Thousand Arms pull off this romantic rendezvous with flair? For the most part, yes. The variety in romantic pursuits and the tangible impact on the overarching narrative are commendable. The game succeeds in making romance not just a side quest but an integral part of the gaming experience. However, some might find the system a tad formulaic, with certain decisions leading to predictable outcomes. Despite this, the game’s ability to blend heartfelt connections with tangible gameplay benefits ensures that the romantic journey in Thousand Arms is a worthy detour from the main quest – a detour that adds both depth and dimension to the JRPG experience.

Star Ocean 2 (1999)

Rena from Star Ocean 2

Released in the late ’90s for the PlayStation, this space-faring epic not only took players on a cosmic journey but also allowed the player to navigate various romantic pairings. The Private Action (PA) system, which facilitates these romantic options in the Star Ocean series, is quite clever. It works like this: instead of entering a town as a party, you can always choose to enter the town alone, and your party members split off and do their own thing too, activating new dialogue options and events.

So “Private Actions” can be described like this: what do the protagonist and other party members get up to when the rest of the group aren’t looking? It’s no surprise that by the second game, Star Ocean: Second Story, Private Actions were used to explore romantic pairings between the characters. Claude can meet Celina at the shops and buy her a nice piece of jewellery, or meet Rena at the library and agree to become her tutor, and eventually the character you have the most affinity points for get a special moment with the protagonist in the game’s ending. 

Affinity and choice of partner doesn’t affect the gameplay too much, but the system is undeniably praiseworthy. It goes beyond the typical ‘choose your sweetheart’ mechanic and weaves the romantic subplot seamlessly into the larger tapestry of the game. In doing so, Star Ocean 2 manages to offer a satisfying blend of emotional storytelling and player engagement.

A historical note: the developers of Star Ocean worked previously on the Tales series, and Private Actions fill a similar role to the skits of Tales, though with the player taking a more active role. We could also say Private Actions were a precursor to Social Links, the system that the next games on the list are known for.

Persona 3 (2006) and 4 (2008)

Developed by Atlus, these JRPGs are masterpieces of videogame romance systems. They manages to do it all: make the romance relevant to the monster-raising-dungeon-crawling mechanics at the core of the series, while also giving us heart-warming connections to nurture across a range of lovable characters.

Whichever of the Persona games you choose, the romance system is Social Link mechanic. As the protagonist navigates the towns of Tatsumi Port Island (in Persona 3) or Inaba (in Persona 4), they forge bonds with various characters, each represented by a distinct arcana.

For example, players can pursue a romantic relationship with Rise Kujikawa, a former idol who temporarily moves to Inaba. Players can support Rise as she grapples with her identity outside of the limelight, leading to a deeper emotional connection, which also levels up the arcana associated with Rise. 

This makes you more powerful in battle. As you level up the Lovers arcana by romancing Rise, the monsters your fuse that are associated with the Lovers arcana get a flood of bonus experience. Brilliantly, social connections and romance become the pathway to unlock some of the most powerful monsters in the game. 

Persona even tries to simulate break-ups. If you leave a lover in the cold for too long, or offend them, their social link will reverse. This happened to me when I accidentally ignored Yuko the sports captain in Persona 3, despite intending to complete her social link, after many hours of learning about her and winning her affection. I was genuinely shocked and upset! Thankfully, these reversed social links can be recovered.

What sets the romance in the Persona apart is the emphasis on character development. Yes, the social links are a linear checklist, but they’re also about delving deep into the psyche of each character and uncovering their vulnerabilities. When you add that to the advantage you get in battle as a result, it makes for one of the most addictive JRPG romance systems of all time. It’s easy to get totally lost in it!

JRPG Collection

Why Xenosaga Episode 1 is still great


A crowd at the Kukai Foundation in Xenosaga

Part 1: Story and Characters

In the first few hours, Xenosaga Episode I drops an action cutscene that shows it isn’t playing around. Your dreadnought is attacked by the Gnosis, enemies impervious to their weapons because they exist out of phase with the material world. This fact doesn’t, unfortunately, limit the alien’s offensive capabilities, and the Gnosis tear through the human fleet unopposed, leaving starship debris and cold bodies in their wake. 

That is, until KOS-MOS is activated. The female cyborg who can fight the Gnosis has been at the centre of our attention since the start of the game, but this is the first time we see her awake, and the outcome is devastating. Spinning, flipping and shooting lasers in all directions, staring with red eyes of death, we are left in awe of KOS-MOS — and of Monolith Soft’s ability to construct an action scene.

KOS-MOS is an action figure, in more ways than one. She has movable parts. Take her arms off, replace them with weapons: a gun, a spear, a scythe. Went she enters battle mode, her visors clicks down over her face. 

She is the coolest toy, which is just one of the ways KOS-MOS is similar to Weltall, the coolest toy in Xenogears. As Weltall was to Fei, KOS-MOS is to Shion: an overpowered machine, allied to the main character, but with a mysterious and grand role to play in the cosmic story.

Whether we can also draw lines from KOS-MOS to Aegis in Persona 3 or 2B in Neir Automata, I can’t say: a full genealogy of hot female androids was beyond the scope of my research. But the developer’s sanitised explanation for KOS-MOS’s creation satisfies me. This is a mech-ridden universe, but even the most powerful giant robot cannot fight the Gnosis. The secret weapon had to exist on a different technological path, and the design — small, human, dexterous, feminine — reflects this. 

It has been awhile since I’ve fallen in love with a group of characters like these. Every time Ziggy asks a question with cyborg stoicism but human concern. Every time Jr., the physically smallest character, is the first to step forwards in the face of danger. Every time Shion is filled with sympathy for another character. I love them all. I had no complaints with the voice acting.

Xenosaga is part prequel to, part remake of Xenogears (which was rushed to completion, and the planned sequel never greenlit). Canonically, however, they are separate entities, Gears owned by Square and Saga by Namco. In other words, this universe has been made twice, and that is a testament to the faith of Tetsuya Takahashi and Soroya Saga (husband and wife co-writers) in their ideas. 

Sadly, Xenosaga, planned as a six game series, ended after three. The fate of a Takahashi-Saga universe is to fizzle out prematurely. This is a canon event.

I want to say “The candle that burns fast burns bright”, but it would been ironic considering the slow burn of the game itself. That’s where most critics leave their analysis of Xenosaga: the length of the cutscenes. They should be talking about the depth of the mystery, the richness of the universe, and the quirks of the characters. These are what makes Xenogears and the Xenosaga series, however truncated, exceptional.

From the sci-fi megabuildings like the Durandal (a spaceship which becomes the government building for a planet when it lands vertically) to the design details of the UMN (just a menu screen, but with the in-universe role of being a popular app), this world is big, original and immersive. It has the production values to back up that ambition: despite leaving Square, Xenosaga can almost compete with Final Fantasy in the department. 

Lots of JRPGs, especially in the Final Fantasy series, reference Star Wars, but Xenosaga draws on a deeper creativity, feeling like Star Wars while looking nothing like it; capturing the imagination and excitement of a sci-fi classic without referencing any. Xenosaga is, simply, great science fiction.

Part 2: Mechanics

Earlier I compared a character to an action figure. Well, that metaphor also extends to the levelling, where there is not just one system to play with, but several. EXP, TP, SP, and EP are gained after battle, and they can all be spent on different aspects of your character. EP is spent in a tech tree to acquire new magic. TP is spent making your technical attacks faster or more powerful. 

UX designers aim to delight their users; I find the various systems in Xenosaga delightful. They are like a sushi selection: simple, varied, and finely crafted. Levels are dotted with enticing red doors, the keys to which are found in other levels. Behind the doors you find unique accessories that impart skills. Spend enough SP teaching your characters skills, and you level up to a new skill tier. Every stage of this process is enjoyable in itself. Combined? This is the stuff addictive side activities are made of. 

It’s a shame the decoders, which open the doors, are so well hidden you might need a guide to find them. Occasional obtuseness in Xenosaga can be a small impediment to fun. It also made the end of the game challenging for me, as I didn’t understand what the appropriate way to spent TP was. Somewhat counterintuitively, you should spend a lot of them on stats, not techniques. I understand that obtuseness also affects Xenosaga Episode II, but I’ll be prepared for it when I get there.

In Xenogears, I was unimpressed by how characters had a random selection of ether skills, rather than ones that best fit their character. Xenosaga does better. First, because characters can transfer ether skills, there’s no requirement to make their natural spells balanced. Therefore, the spells a designed to fit the character. Second, each character has a unique spell intro animation that fits the nature of their power. 

Attack effects are a work of art. They hit hard, supported by a sharp and varied library of sound effects and screen shake or a camera swing when appropriate. They are visually complex, with unique particles, glows and overlapping layers. They suit the character that uses them. KOS-MOS attacks with quick slashes and lasers, while Shion, the scientist, uses a type of magic that requires the use of a multicoloured “ether circuit”.

Rule-bending is a thrill in any game, and the most thrilling mechanic in Xenosaga battles is the boost system, where at the press of a button you can force one of your characters to the front of the turn order. It works in tandem with the second most thrilling system in Xenosaga battles. Three battle bonuses rotate from one turn to the next: act on a particular turn and you can guarantee yourself a critical hit. Kill a foe on a particular turn and you multiply your end of battle rewards. Getting a 10x bonus is a euphoric experience.

Xenosaga is not more concerned with philosophy and world building than fun and mechanics. It is filled with systems that are delightful, good-natured, smart, and original. In my head, the Xenosaga lead designer has a curly white beard and smiles a lot.


This review is in two parts because that’s how Xenosaga Episode I is. One half epic sci-fi anime, one half addictive character levelling adventure. There were times I wanted a cutscene to end and give me control again, and I’m a pretty patient guy.

Some will argue that this is an inelegant way to tell an epic story in a videogame, but I disagree. It does what all JRPGs were doing at this time. It just goes hard as fuck on both parts of the experience: the anime, and the RPG.

Takahashi and Saga made a JRPG like no other, and I’m only one-third of the way through it.

Arcade Collection

What is bullet hell?

A bullet hell is a 2D action game about dodging intricate patterns of bullets and shooting enemies. They have a higher bullet count and slower bullet speed than traditional shmups. Examples are the Dodonpachi and Touhou series.

Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu (or Resurrection), the fourth game in the series

At first, you might think increasing the number of bullets is just a way to increase the difficulty, but that’s not quite right. Yes, bullet hell games tend to be very difficult, but not more than any shmup subgenre that started in the arcade. Whether it’s Raiden, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, or Mushihimesama, arcade game intensity is high across the board.

So, if it’s not difficulty, what is bullet hell all about?

Bullet hell is a different flavour of shmup

Yes, there are lots of bullets in these games (sometimes hundreds on-screen at once), but they are slower. Also, the player’s ship will have a very small hitbox — sometimes a single pixel and this gives players more opportunity to avoid danger even when the gaps between bullets is very narrow. 

Because bullets linger on the screen, they can be used to build up more complex patterns or even mazes. Massive variety is possible just by utilising different shapes, sizes, speeds and colours of bullets. 

Subterranean Animism, the 12th game in the Touhou series

There is usually a feeling of pressure from all sides in a bullet hell game, resulting in relief and elation for surviving such situations. The player is forced to pay constant attention and move in interesting ways to overcome the challenges presented. 

This flavour isn’t for everyone. Arguably the biggest divide in shmups is between bullet hell fans and the fans of “traditional shmups”.

Bullet hell vs traditional shmup examples

Most shmups that you’ve heard of aren’t bullet hell. R-Type, Raiden, Space Invaders, Gradius, Galaga, Thunder Force, Zeroranger — these are all “traditional shmups”. 

That means, firstly, that bullets come at you fast, and once you get out of the way they’re usually not an issue any more. Traditional shmups also tend to have more variety in the types of obstacles, so there might be physical walls and traps, or enemies with more varied behaviours.

Gunbird by Psikyo is a traditional shmup

As arcade technology progressed, developers had more power to add more detailed graphics, more exciting visual effects, and yes, more bullets. Various games and studios pushed the genre along this trajectory in this period (Toaplans Batsugun, Raizing’s Battle Garrega, and Cave’s Donpachi), the game that solidified bullet hell as a new style was Cave’s second game, Dodonpachi, released in 1997.

Why bullet hell?

These games showed how bullets could be interesting because they can become anything. They are like atoms of danger: a fundamental building block of challenge. Instead of walls, you can make walls of bullets, or some other form of compressed play area.

You can create beautiful geometric patterns, or you can create obtuse chaos. You can have direct bullets, homing bullets, bullets from any side of the screen or in the middle of it.

Whatever flavour of 2D dodging you want to throw at the player, you can build it with bullets. To me, this is what bullet hell means: games that understand the versatility of bullets.

Bullet hell communities




YouTube channels


Non-bullet hell

Bullet Hell vs Bullet Heaven

In 2021 a new genre was created with a familiar name. “Bullet heaven” refers to Vampire Survivors and the imitators spawned by its viral success. Though everyone recognised this label as a reference to “bullet hell”, it led to the questions “What is bullet hell anyway?”

My playtime in Vampire Survivors rocketed out of control in just a week, but as I’ve also devoted more hours than he wants to admit to the shmups of Cave and Zun, I think I’m in a good position to explain the connection. 

The boss of a bullet hell game expels a terrifying barrage of bullets at the player, and it is only through sheer skill, concentration, and pattern memorisation that you, the player, can find a narrow route to victory. 

But what if, instead of your underpowered player ship, you played as that boss? That the overwhelming firepower belongs to you? That’s what a bullet heaven game can make you feel. 

These two genres are fundamentally different. Bullet heaven is a character building genre. There are decisions to make in how you upgrade your character, but there’s very little dodging or aiming, which are the elements that make up the core of any shmup. 

Anyway, if I wanted to leave things on a confusing note, I might refer you to the series of bullet hell shmups called Bullet Heaven:

Buy Bullet Heaven 2 on Steam

Metroidvania Collection

Best multiplayer metroidvanias (available on PC)

Fuse the exploration of a Metroidvania with a multiplayer dynamic and you get the small be special gaming niche that we are talking about today. Multiplayer metroidvanias feature both cooperative challenges and character progression, set within interconnected worlds ripe for exploration.

These titles often present a refreshing alternative to other multiplayer genres, offering both challenge and companionship. The satisfaction derived from synchronised teamwork to conquer intricate levels, or races thought those levels to claim elusive treasures, has a distinct flavour that can’t be found elsewhere.

The PC platform, known for its versatility and expansive player base, hosts an array of these gems. In this feature, we’ll recommend our favourites, explaining the multiplayer dynamics and rating their overall appeal so you can pick the games that align with the gaming preferences of you and your friends. 

One note: We’ve avoided examples where a second player can only take on a small role, like Timespinner, Outbuddies or A Robot Named Fight — though all of those games may be worth trying, depending on what you’re looking for. For this list, anything where both players can have a roughly equal experience is in the running. 

Without further ado, here are eight amazing multiplayer metroidvania available on PC. 

1. Guacamelee! 2

Four players in a spiky room in Guacamelee 2 co-op
Guacamelee! 2 screenshots from Drinkbox Studios

Guacamelee! 2 (2018) takes its predecessor’s vibrant world bursting with Mexican folklore, punchy combat, and a seamless blend of platforming challenges, and amplifies it, which includes introducing a refined multiplayer experience.

The co-op feature was no afterthought: the game’s main campaign was developed with it in mind, and it shows. Joining forces with a buddy to navigate the vibrant, interconnected world of the Mexiverse adds a new layer of enjoyment. Don’t get us wrong, the campaign is compelling for solo players too, but the multiplayer dynamic amps up the fun factor, allowing for strategic cooperation or chaotic hilarity as you and your partner unleash moves and combos in tandem.

Four players in combat in Guacamelee 2 co-op

The PC version is feature rich, catering to keyboard and controller preferences alike, with no performance issues. The game is also available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. 

By the way, if you purchase “Guacamelee! 2 Complete”, you will be treated to all the DLCs. It’s nothing too exciting — just an extra level and some extra characters — but it ensures you and your friends dive without missing any content.

It’s worth noting that while the local co-op is a highlight, the absence of an online multiplayer option might deter some players seeking remote collaboration. However, for those eager to share the thrill of this visually striking world side by side on the same screen, Guacamelee! 2 offers an inviting invitation to leap into its colourful Metroidvania universe.

Co-Op Footage

See the Guacamelee! 2 multiplayer in action in this four-player gameplay video from Dan’s Travel Tips.


2. Unepic (Co-Op Dungeons)

Two players fighting boss Ulakk in Unepic co-op screenshot
Unepic screenshots from Steam user VebonT

Unepic (2011), an indie gem developed by Francisco Téllez de Meneses, blends the charm of classic RPGs with the exploration elements of metroidvania, offering a compelling experience for PC gamers, including those seeking a multiplayer adventure.

The game has a main single-player metroidvania campaign, but it also has a suite of multiplayer modes that permits gamers to team up with friends online to delve into the labyrinthine dungeons and overcome challenging foes together. The main attraction are the co-op dungeons. 

Those playing on PC can amplify their gaming experience by adapting their control schemes—whether using a keyboard and mouse or a controller—or by installing user-made mods. The selection of unofficial maps is quite impressive, and even today there are new ones made every year!

Two players fighting boss Sux Mortis in Unepic co-op screenshot

While Unepic excels in blending genres and offers a multiplayer aspect, the game’s difficulty spikes and complexity might deter those seeking a more casual gaming experience, as progression often demands strategic planning and skillful execution. The lack of local co-op might also deter some interested parties.

Nevertheless, for enthusiasts of metroidvania games looking for a unique blend of RPG elements and multiplayer capability on PC, Unepic presents an intriguing proposition. Its intricate level design, character progression system, and mod support add layers of depth. If you’re up for a challenge and enjoy exploring dungeons with friends online, Unepic might just be the right addition to your PC gaming library.

Multiplayer Footage

See the Unepic multiplayer in action in Wagner Afonso’s four-player gameplay highlights.


3. Rainworld Downpour (Jolly Co-Op)

Four slugcats exploring Rainworld Downpour co-op screenshot
Rainworld: Downpour screenshots from Akupara Games

In the realm of metroidvania games, Rain World (2017) is a unique experience. The DLC expansion, Downpour, takes things even further by introducing a collaborative twist to Rainworld’s previously solitary, survival-based metroidvania experience, allowing players to team up locally and explore its unforgiving world together.

Rain World: Downpour comes with the “Jolly Co-Op” mode for up to four local players. Here, friends join forces to tackle the Monk, Survivor, and Hunter campaigns, in which they navigate the treacherous landscapes as Slugcats, creatures navigating a harsh and dynamically evolving ecosystem. Each Slugcat variant boasts distinct abilities. The DLC amplifies the challenge of the base game by introducing evolved predators and environmental conditions, making teamwork a necessity for survival.

Rain World: Downpour doesn’t merely toss players into a multiplayer frenzy; it demands collaborative strategies, communication, and mutual understanding. The game’s mechanics, such as piggybacking on fellow Slugcats or utilising gestures for coordination, add a playful yet strategic layer to the cooperative gameplay.

Four slugcats exploring Rainworld Downpour co-op screenshot

While primarily designed for local co-op, the game extends its multiplayer allure through Steam Remote Play for online gaming sessions. However, a crucial note for online play is the necessity to adjust keybinds to avoid control conflicts among players, emphasising the importance of smooth coordination for a seamless gaming experience.

For PC gamers seeking a metroidvania experience that challenges both individual skills and collaborative tactics, Rain World: Downpour stands tall as an offbeat yet captivating choice, beckoning players into a world where survival demands unity amidst a beautifully harsh setting.

Co-Op Footage

See Rainworld Downpour’s Jolly Co-Op mode in action in the official reveal trailer.


4. Sundered: Eldritch Edition

Sundered four-player co-op mode screenshot

Sundered (2017), a game exclusively available for PC, effectively intertwines eldritch horrors with cooperative gameplay. Imagine a subterranean world, teeming with ancient  terrors and ever-shifting landscapes. This is the realm of Sundered, where players navigate a procedurally generated labyrinth of challenges, armed only with their wits and their blade. 

The Eldritch Edition stands out from the original game, which only included a single player campaign, by welcoming up to four players into its haunting depths, embracing the spirit of camaraderie in a genre often associated with solitary exploration.

One of the game’s central mechanics revolves around shards – valuable resources scattered throughout the cavernous expanse. These shards are pivotal for character growth, enhancing abilities and survivability. However, the twist lies in the shared ability tree, controlled by Player 1. All players contribute to the collective upgrades, while Player 1 decides how to allocate these enhancements, fostering both collaboration and coordination.

Sundered’s combat is  cooperative gameplay, starting with rudimentary swordplay and evolving into a spectrum of potent abilities. Encounters with nightmarish foes and monumental boss battles amplify the thrill, urging players to synergize their attacks and embrace strategic cooperation.

Navigating Sundered’s treacherous world is a blend of discovery and danger. Players grapple with environmental hazards, puzzle-like terrain, and elusive pathways while scavenging for shards and confronting menacing foes. Yet, the challenge lies not just in surviving the nightmarish landscapes but also in manoeuvring as a cohesive team, facing unforeseen dangers together.

Multiplayer Footage

See Sundered: Eldritch Edition’s co-op mode in action in this footage from the YouTube channel Local Multiplayer


5. Salt and Sanctuary

Salt and Sanctuary co-op mode screenshot
Screenshot from Steam user Sr.Maou

Salt and Sanctuary (2016), developed by Ska Studios, transports players into a dark and foreboding world, reminiscent of the classic titles that defined the genre while incorporating its unique style. It offers a deep metroidvania experience with RPG elements, allowing character customization and diverse playstyles. Its unique visuals, while evocative, might not cater to everyone’s taste, but the game’s dark and atmospheric landscapes, coupled with its challenging combat, create an immersive journey for dedicated adventurers.

Like Dark Souls, which inspired it, Salt and Sanctuary allows for co-op play, so you and a friend can tackle the intricately designed levels and formidable bosses together. The multiplayer component has been balanced appropriately. Enemies and bosses are buffed, but not unreasonably. Having a friend alongside you feels like assistance and not hindrance, but both players can still get their teeth into the challenge the game is known for. 

Starting the cooperative mode isn’t as simple as selecting it from a menu, though. It requires a specific item—the Stone Sellsword. Before a friend can join your world, you must acquire this item and reach the first sanctuary. The complexity doesn’t end there; once a Sellsword is placed in a sanctuary, players must return to that location to summon their friend. 

Salt and Sanctuary co-op mode screenshot
Screenshot from Steam user Edy


It’s interesting to have an in-game mechanic to initiate multiplayer, and reminiscent of the multiplayer setup for Bloodborne and Souls, but some players find this intricate process a source of shared frustration. The impracticality means Salt and Sanctuary might not be the best multiplayer metroidvania for those seeking more accessible or casual cooperative play.

Furthermore, the steep difficulty curve might not suit the tastes of everyone in your co-op party. The unforgiving nature of the game demands perseverance and a penchant for challenging gameplay.

If you can look past these, you will find that the depth of character development in Salt and Sanctuary, coupled with the game’s challenging combat mechanics creates an addictive loop that keeps both solo and co-op players engrossed for hours — provided you’re up for the relentless challenge it presents.

Salt and Sanctuary offers customizable controls and optimizations that cater to a wide range of gaming setups. Whether you’re wielding a keyboard and mouse or a controller, the PC version ensures a responsive and engaging gameplay experience 

Co-Op Footage

See Salt and Sanctuary’s co-op mode in action in the official reveal trailer.


6. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Lantern Run)

Lantern Run in progress
Screenshot from Anowi on Steam

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (2011) is a visually captivating and thrilling 2D adventure, and is a surprise standout in the realm of multiplayer metroidvania games for PC. In this game, players are invited into a gorgeously animated alien world, the titular “Shadow Planet”, which is rendered in deep silhouettes and teeming with hostile lifeforms and puzzles. 

While originally acclaimed for its solo exploration, its multiplayer mode, “Lantern Run,” elevates the game into a frenetic yet exhilarating cooperative experience. Up to four players embark on a frantic dash to outrun the menacing lantern monster, embracing the chaos while holding onto their precious lanterns for dear life – and dear points.

Each player pilots their ship, armed with a unique lantern, a versatile claw, blaster tools, and an open slot for various tools found during the challenging rounds. This mode is an endless pursuit that progressively intensifies in difficulty, evolving from simple enemy dodging to intricate cooperative puzzles demanding synchronised efforts and strategic battles against formidable foes.

Lobby of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet co-op mode
Screenshot from Steam user Mr Afternoon

What sets this multiplayer experience apart is its individualistic scoring system meshed with collective survival. While teamwork is crucial to prolonging the game, players are pitted against each other to amass points, fostering a ‘cooper-tition’ where the distance travelled and lanterns retained contribute to the team score. Losing a lantern amplifies the stakes, ratcheting up the tension and introducing more daunting puzzles and obstacles, enhancing the thrill of the frantic escape.

The beauty of “Lantern Run” lies in its combination of collaboration and cutthroat competition. For PC players seeking an adrenaline-pumping multiplayer metroidvania experience, “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” stands as a compelling choice. Its captivating visuals, challenging gameplay, and the adrenaline rush of cooperative yet competitive escapades make it a worthwhile addition to any multiplayer gaming library.

Multiplayer Footage

Watch the multiplayer mode of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet in this live Lantern Run video from GameReviewsandMore.


7. Rabi-Ribi

Four-player co-op fight in Rabi-Ribi
Screenshot from the developer Yue on Steam

Rabi-Ribi (2016) stands as a curious outlier in the realm of multiplayer metroidvanias for the PC. Developed by GemaYue, this pixel-art wonderland blends the exploratory fervour of a metroidvania with the bullet-hell intensity of a shmup, creating a concoction that’s both charming and challenging. 

The co-op mode spices things up, allowing a second player to join the chaos as Ribbon’s trusty partner. Coordinating with a buddy during boss battles or traversing through the labyrinthine world does add a layer of camaraderie to the exploration. Coordination is key as you and your partner unleash a barrage of attacks, combining your magical bunny prowers to conquer formidable bosses and unlock new areas.

It is an enticing addition, though it’s worth noting that it’s more of an auxiliary feature rather than the game’s focal point. Dubbed as a beta experiment within the game, the co-op mode carries a cautionary note regarding its untested nature. The multiplayer functionalities were only trialled during development, not fully tested, and while it introduces exciting dynamics, it may lack the polished finesse found in dedicated multiplayer titles. While the co-op adds a cooperative flavour to the adventure, its untested nature might result in occasional hiccups or imbalance, making it more of an intriguing diversion rather than a polished multiplayer feature.

Four-player co-op fight in Rabi-Ribi

The co-op takes place in the same mode as the single-player adventure but adding a second player does alter some gameplay nuances, intensifying enemy challenge levels, modifying health mechanics, and restricting certain actions like initiating events or changing rooms to Player 1. Also note that the leaderboards are permanently disabled for a save file if an additional player is introduced, because of the change to the balance of the game’s difficulty. 

The game’s design and mechanics accommodate the PC gaming experience, from precise platforming to responsive controls, ensuring a seamless transition for players on this platform.

Its multiplayer element, though not groundbreaking, adds a sprinkle of collaborative fun to the metroidvania formula. For those seeking a metroidvania with a side of cooperative play and a PC-friendly disposition, “Rabi-Ribi” stands as a solid contender.

Co-Op Footage

Watch the experimental multiplayer mode of Rabi-Ribi in this video from SilentChaos512.



Let’s distil our findings. Salt and Sanctuary beckons with its challenging 2D combat, perfect for those craving a skillful duo experience. For the brave souls seeking survival in a post-apocalyptic world, Rain World: Downpour delivers a gripping cooperative adventure.

Sundered: Eldritch Edition invites exploration and strategy in its Lovecraftian landscapes, offering an unpredictable, collaborative journey. Unepic adds a touch of humour to dungeon crawling, making it an ideal choice for those who enjoy a good laugh while conquering challenges.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet offers a visually stunning, alien-infested multiplayer experience, blending exploration and puzzles. Rabi-Ribi injects frenetic energy into the mix with its bullet-hell mechanics, promising a fast-paced cooperative escapade.

But our favourite has to be Guacamelee! 2, with its luchador charm, that has the most developed and essential cooperative gameplay, while providing vibrant visuals, clever puzzles, and more than a splash of Mexican folklore — and that’s a combination that you don’t find everywhere!

Whether you’re drawn to challenge, atmosphere, humour, or nostalgia, these titles ensure that your multiplayer Metroidvania escapades on PC are far from ordinary. Choose your co-op companion wisely, and have a great adventure!

Read next: Is Blasphemous a metroidvania?

Nosgoth Collection

Games like Legacy of Kain

Legacy of Kain is an (almost) unique dark fantasy drama that plays out across a series of exceptionally creative action-adventure games. Sadly, there hasn’t been a new game in the series since Legacy of Kain: Defiance, released in November 2023, almost exactly 20 years ago.

For many fans, it would be impossible to match Legacy of Kain’s lofty combination of gothic dystopia, tragic anti-heroes and a theatre-worthy script. However, there are some games that I think could sate our appetites, at least for a spell. 

To have a chance of filling this hole, a game would have to have a few things. We counted four:

First, Brooding anti-heroes who are not quite human

The protagonists of Legacy of Kain, Kain and Raziel, are not optimistic do-gooders. Kain is driven by a desire for power and revenge, and he often makes morally questionable decisions to achieve his goals. Raziel is not above snacking on the soul stuff of innocent human villagers. 

Given their past, it’s not too surprising. Both characters were wrenched from their mortal lives and returned to the material plane in different ways. Kain is a vampire and Raziel is a wraith, and they have abilities befitting their undead status. For example, Raziel can climb up sheer cliffs with his oversized claws and he can traverse a spectral realm where dead souls cry out unceasingly for peace. 

On their journey, they each add new inhuman abilities to their repertoires. For Kain, it is by finding artifacts and spells stashed in crypts and castles; for Raziel, consuming the souls of vanquished vampire lieutenants steals their dark gifts for him.

Raziel points in a Legacy of Kain Defiance screenshot
Legacy of Kain: Defiance

A traditional human do-gooder would be a poor substitute as a protagonist, so on this list we are looking for more unusual heroes with more unsavoury abilities. 

Second, a dark fantasy world with gothic inspiration (or similar)

Legacy of Kain takes place in Nosgoth, a world filled with vast, ominous landscapes, towering religious architecture, and an atmosphere of decay. 

Nosgoth is held in balance by the power of the nine pillars, which each represent a metaphysical concept, but in Soul Reaver the land has been thrown out of balance and carved up by six vampire clans. Each of their regions has a distinct flavour, from the drowned quarters of Rahab to the underground warrens of Melchiah. 

Therefore, the environment is both a reflection of the game’s deep lore, and a medium to convey an immersive, often eerie atmosphere. This is the quality of the world we want to see in the games on our list.

Raziel explores Vorador's mansion in a Legacy of Kain Defiance screenshot
Legacy of Kain: Defiance

Third, both bloody action and puzzly adventure

Much of this series could be described as a dark version of Zelda. When the protagonists aren’t impaling lesser vampires on spears, they are probably delving into ancient temples and solving complex puzzles to reveal long-forgotten secrets. 

The balance depends on which game we are looking at. The original Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen had more RPG elements, which were absent for the rest of the series, and more freedom. The last game, Legacy of Kain: Defiance, was much more linear than anything that came before it. 

In general, though, Legacy of Kain is known as a series where the player has a world to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to slay, and powers to obtain, and we want to see all of these elements in any game chosen for this list.

Raziel fights in a Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 screenshot
Soul Reaver 2

Finally, skilful, imaginative writing filled with twists and turns

Plot and dialogue can sometimes be under-prioritised in videogames, as there are so many other aspects to making a good game. So when a writer like Dennis Dyak or Amy Henig has a lot of control in the development process, the results can be rare and amazing, 

That’s exactly what the story of Legacy of Kain is. The world and characters, introduced by Dennis Dyak in Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen, have been constructed with care and dark imagination, and that lore is developed spectacularly by Amy Hennig throughout the sequel, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

The opening cinematic of that second game, that so brutally and convincingly sets up Raziel’s initial motivation against Kain, is seared into our memories. From there, we are treated to dramatic developments like the shattering of the Soul Reaver, and the revelation of the true origins of the vampire lieutenants.

No less attention has been paid to the dialogue, which is theatrical and complex. A game that competes for Legacy of Kain in our hearts should have similar devotion to storytelling.

Raziel prepares to stab Kain in a Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 screenshot
Soul Reaver 2

The best games like Legacy of Kain

In particular, there are four games or series that I believe match most or all the above requirements, and would likely do a fantastic job at igniting the same feelings of a Soul Reaver or a Blood Omen, or at least tide you over until a true successor is announced.

There are a few other games that might not tick every box, but are worth mentioning anyway, which I will include afterwards.

1. God of War series, particularly God of War 2018

On the surface, God of Wars may seem like a poor substitute for Legacy of Kain, for one good reason: the protagonist. While Kain is noble, calculating and eloquent, God of War’s Kratos is mostly just angry. Testosterone overload permeates many aspects of the series and seems at odds with the tone of Legacy of Kain.

However, you don’t have to dig far to find the depth in Kratos’s character, even in the first game, where the tragic events that turned him into a cursed demi-god are front and centre.

The original series of games (God of War to God of War Ascension) are mostly linear and are hurt by their hamfisted scripts and throwaway characters. But the 2018 revival, again called simply God of War, embraced much more of what made Legacy of Kain successful. It has a small but open world to explore freely, high-quality vocal performances for all of the main characters, and a more sombre Kratos who fights his way through a story that focuses more on characters and a range of emotions than ever before.

Furthermore, the 2018 game builds on the lore of the earlier games, building it into a multi-generational epic. In a narrative sense, it is to the earlier games what Soul Reaver is to Blood Omen. 

Kratos speaks to Atreus in a God of War 2018 screenshot
Kratos explores Midgard in a God of War 2018 screenshot

The world of God of War 2018 is the world of North myth, and while it might not be gothic it is certainly a dark fantasy. The Norse myths, in their strange and brutal tradition, inform the history of the world Kratos finds himself in. And like everything in God of War, it is a world with the potential to be violent and twisted at a moment’s notice. 

Speaking of violence, in Legacy of Kain, the cursed blade that both of the protagonists wield is an essential and beloved part of the lore. If that’s what you want, Kratos’s Leviathan Axe and iconic Blades of Chaos aren’t just fun for mowing down draugr, as they also have emotional histories to them.

God of War 2018 made me feel I might not need a new Legacy of Kain, as long as games like this keep being made. It isn’t the only game that has made me feel this way, as you will see from the rest of this list, but it was the best, in my opinion. I recommend it to any and every Legacy of Kain fan. 

Kratos finds draugr in a God of War 2018 screenshot
Kratos fights a dragon in a God of War 2018 screenshot

2. Darksiders series, particularly Darksiders 2

The vampires of Legacy of Kain sit on the edge of life and death, between good and evil. The same can be said of the Nephilim of Darksiders, who are one part angel, one part demon. Under the yoke of the charred council, and stuck in the middle of a war they didn’t ask for, but capable of devastation and violence when it is needed, these four horsemen are tragic anti-heroes.

They might have wider shoulders, bigger swords and more cell shading than the residents of Nosgoth, but the aesthetic isn’t too different. A kind of comic-book metal vibe permeates both franchises, from the clunking metal greaves and giant claws on Raziel’s feet, to the skull mask and unkempt hair on Death’s head. Roaming a ruined earth in Wrath of War (the first game) matches the ruined world of future Nosgoth in Soul Reaver, and you’ll find towering cathedrals and castles in both.

But it is in Darksiders 2, which takes you away from earth to the fantastical but moody Forge Lands, with more freedom to roam, that made me most nostalgic for Legacy of Kain. Perhaps it is because Death reminds me a lot of Raziel, even down to a scarf and a penchant for wall climbing. 

Death explores a castle in a Darksiders 2 screenshot
The crowfather talks in a Darksiders 2 screenshot

The Darksiders series are fantastic action adventure games with highly engaging combat and quality puzzles, the latter much better than God of War. The reason it doesn’t take the number one spot is related to the writing. The lore of Darksiders is amazing, and the plot isn’t bad either — if they weren’t, Darksiders wouldn’t make the list at all. However, the dialogue is forgettable at best, and for a Legacy of Kain fan that’s not an insignificant flaw. 

Regularly, I wish for a Darksiders with a better written plot and characters, because that game could match Legacy of Kain if not exceed it. Until then, Darksiders might only sate the hunger temporarily, but that’s still pretty impressive. Very highly recommended.

War and an angel in a Darksdiers screenshot
Death and a volcano in a Darksiders 2 screenshot

3. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series

The goal of this article was to find games comparable to a vampire epic fantasy, but neither of my first suggestions starred any vampires! This entry changes that. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, puts you in the boots of a vampire lord who is fighting against an even greater, almost godlike evil. It’s a very similar role that Kain takes in his game.

Gabriel on his throne in a Lords of Shadow 2 screenshot
Gabriel fights in a Lords of Shadow 2 screenshot

Likewise, the skills at your disposal will be familiar to Kain players: healing by drinking blood, transforming into animals, mist-form, all that good stuff.

The small problem here is that you don’t take control of a vampire protagonist in the first Lords of Shadow, which is well-recognised as the superior game. There are vampires to play as in Mirror of Fate, an optional part of the story in the form of a sidescroller, but most of the vampire action takes place in Lords of Shadow 2. Unfortunately, the forced stealth sections along with some other niggles, made this sequel unpalatable for some fans. 

Despite these differences to the Legacy of Kain formula, the Lords of Shadow series is still worth your time to explore. It tells a story that stretches across centuries. Characters are tortured and tragic. Dialogue has a lyrical quality. The protagonist has undergone a dark transformation, which is the fate of almost every major Legacy of Kain character.

It’s worth noting that Lords of Shadow takes place mainly on Earth, though it is a dark fantasy in all other ways. 

Gabriel and a castle in a Lords of Shadow 2 screenshot
Lore about Belmonts in a Lords of Shadow 2 screenshot

Also, it’s not the only Castlevania game that might fit your tastes. In particular, Symphony of the Night, starring Dracula’s son, and Aria of Sorrow, starring a reincarnation of Dracula, are excellent choices.

4. Souls series, particularly Dark Souls

I am certain fans will feel equally at home in the majestic ruination of Lordran, the setting of Dark Souls, as they were in Nosgoth. Both have a dark, gothic aesthetic with a strong focus on death/afterlife/undeath.

The similarity extends to the level design: The interconnected world design of Dark Souls is very similar to that of Soul Reaver. Both have loosely been described as 3D metroidvanias. 

Admittedly, there is one thing that makes the Souls games seem very different to Legacy of Kain. Once again it relates to the story. Legacy of Kain tells a story with cutscenes and dialogue, and these are the things fans most love about the series. However, the Dark Souls story mostly sits in the background. 

I don’t think this should be a deal breaker, though. Both have rich world building and lore, so both are “well written” in their own way. 

Nito cinematic Dark Souls screenshot
The chosen undead climbs a ladder in a Dark Souls screenshot

They both have memorable characters, too. In particular, the ancient Lords of Dark Souls (Gravelord Nito, Seath the Scales etc) take me back to fighting the varied forms of the aged, corrupted vampire lieutenants in Soul Reaver (Melchiah, Rahab etc). The deified Gwyn has a dash of Kain to him also.

Speaking of fighting, while the three other main games on this list are fluid “character action” games, Dark Souls has a different feel that might appeal to Legacy of Kain players even more. The characters of both franchises tend to feel weighty. Think of Raziel’s finishing blows and compare to The Chosen Undead’s parry counter.

One more similarity I noticed: in Dark Souls, you can be human, or when you die revert to being an undead “hollowed”. It’s not a two-worlds mechanics like the spectral/material realm in Soul Reaver, but it did remind me of the wraith-like Raziel who exists in two forms.

If the next Legacy of Kain game was like Dark Souls but with cutscenes, it would be pretty faithful to the other LoK games. Though known for being hard, Dark Souls will be an easy game for Legacy of Kain fans to fall in love with. 

More games like Legacy of Kain

The following games might not look like Legacy of Kain at first glance, or they might have some other fundamental difference that excludes them from the main list above, but they all have some important similarity that means they deserve to be in the conversation.

In other words, they might not be the full package, but they might have the specific Legacy of Kain elements you are interested in.

Zelda, particularly Majora’s Mask

What excludes Zelda from the main portion of this list is the light-hearted tone. Mechanically, however, Zelda fits perfectly: it is a series about exploring a fantasy land, fighting monsters, solving puzzling temples, and getting more powerful and finding new abilities/tools along the way. 

Majora’s Mask gets a special mention, because it’s apocalyptic sorry is a bit darker than average for the series, and you also get the chance to play as non-human characters by wearing masks. Twilight Princess is also worth a look for similar reasons.

Nier Automata

The main character that looks like a fanservice robot might immediately make you question this choice for the list, but I’m confident you will agree if we look at it a bit more. 

For one, Neir is all about writing. Tragic characters, coherent world building, exploring themes of life, death and violence — other than Legacy of Kain itself, Nier is the game in this article that most feels that a writer was in charge and given free reign.

Moreover, the world of Nier is post-apocalyptic, like Soul Reaver, and the androids vs machines conflict might resonate on some level with those who enjoyed the human vs vampire conflicts of Nosgoth.

Prince of Persia trilogy

As Raziel was a vampire prince, taking on the role in Prince of Persia should feel natural to Legacy of Kain fans! Both protagonists have a knack for climbing walls, too. 

However, as with Nier, it’s the storytelling quality that really puts these game series in the same category. Prince of Persia might not have any bloodsucking to speak of, but it doesn’t shy away from weaving a compelling tale in a thoughtful and original way. Plus, like Legacy of Kain, subsequent games in the series build on the story, 

Its time-travel elements are central to the story, with Kain and Raziel shifting through different eras, altering history, and facing the consequences of their choices. Prince of Persia also shares a fascination with time.

Tomb Raider series

Soul Reaver was developed by Crystal Dynamics, and it is not their only hit action-adventure series, as they are also the current developer of Tomb Raider.

Though this suggestion isn’t a fantasy game and has no brooding protagonist – and certainly no vampires – it does have a reasonably well-written story and a perfect balance of action and puzzles. A similar game design philosophy that went into the Soul Reaver series has persisted in this studio’s future work, and Tomb Raider is the evidence.

It’s also worth noting, Crystal Dynamics are still part of the company that owns the Legacy of Kain franchise. This company, the Embracer Group, has expressed interest in using the intellectual properties in their catalogue to make new games or reboots of old ones. We can only hope this means there is more Legacy of Kain in the future.  

Can you think of any others?

Disclaimer: I’ve not played every game. If you played a game that gave you the same buzz as Legacy of Kain and I haven’t included it here, I would love to know about it. No, seriously. I am a life-long Raziel fanboy who has waited a long time for a new game in this series. If you have something similar to recommend, I’ll probably play it. 

Comment below or send me a message at

JRPG Collection

The Cowboy JRPG: What Makes Wild Arms Great (Video)

Note: the video and the text are the same review.

Wild Arms seems like a standard SNES-style JRPG. Yes, it’s on the PS1, but it feels like a SNES JRPG with higher resolution 2D sprites and 3D battles — with questionable models, though I admit they did grow on me.

The point is it seemed pretty standard… until I realised Wild Arms is doing some unique things.

1. Character Skills and Upgrades

Probably my favourite thing is how the three characters boast distinct abilities and distinct ways of upgrading those abilities.

Cecilia has magic, Jack had sword skills, Rudy Roughknight (cool name by the way) has big guns — doesn’t sound like anything that interesting yet. But the way you upgrade each of these ability sets is also distinct. And each of the upgrade systems has a component of choice: like which spell do you pick from this wide selection, which attribute of you gun do you upgrade, which sword skill do you make cheaper to use. They’re not drastically different character builds, but you will end up with a Cecilia, Jack and Rudy that is good at different attacks than a friend playing Wild Arm’s might 

And each of the upgrade systems also has an element of exploration. For Jack’s skills you need to find statues that initiate combat challenges, fo Rudy you need to find special chests, for Cecilia you need Crest Graphs scattered across the world. 

It’s not complex, after all it’s only three characters and one unique menu of abilities for each, but it’s a very smooth and polished system that ties together the level design, battles and characters in an elegant way that a lot of JRPGs frankly struggle with.

And it takes the exploration or level design aspect even further, with the second thing I really like about Wild Arm’s, which is the tools. 

2. Tools and Puzzles

The convenient way to describe these is like the items in Zelda, acquired throughout the game and used to overcome obstacles in dungeons. There are even bombs and a hook shot. The bombs let you blow up walls with cracks, and sometimes you find hidden stashes of chests, that sort of thing. It adds so much to the variety of dungeons, add the fun of exploring them, break up the monotony of trudging through them. This sort of level design is something JRPGs have only got worse at over the years.

And this is the bit that really reminds me of Golden Sun. In that game, it was psynergy that was used outside of battle to solve puzzles. The balance between puzzles and battles feels very similar. And Golden Sun even has that combination of 2D levels and 3D battles.

Now I know there are a lot of Golden Sun fans really disappointed that Camelot haven’t continued the series, and I agree, but now I’ve got a series of four other Wild Arm’s games to explore instead, and Armed Fantasia after that maybe. It really feels like they fill the same niche of polished, puzzly, bright JRPGs with close knit parties.

What else makes this cowboy JRPG great?

I haven’t mentioned this, but all the Wild Arms characters and some of the side characters are extremely likeable. They’ve got motivations, they’ve got arcs; my favourite is Calamity Jane. And the backstory and the lore of the world of Filgaia is pretty fleshed out too. 

And that’s another way Wild Arms is like Golden Sun. Overall, they’re both series that look very traditional, but in their own way, are subtly quite ambitious. 

If you want more SNES-style RPG goodness, if you want more of puzzly JRPG like Golden Sun, if you want to see what Zelda might look like as a JRPG, Wild Arms ticks all of those boxes.

How does Wild Arm’s stack up against other PS1 JRPGs?  It’s an extremely competitive field, and Wild Arms was an early release. I can point to JRPGs with more brilliant stories or battle systems, but Wild Arms, with it’s original ideas and excellent pacing, delivered a very consistent level of fun that even some of the genre classics don’t always manage to achieve. For that reason, I think it’s top tier, or at least almost top tier, and I’m looking forward to playing the next one.

Read next: My review of Persona 3

JRPG Collection

Was Dragon Quest the first JRPG?

How RPGs reached Japan

Dragon Quest (1986) could rightly be described as the first JRPG due to a genre convention, but it wasn’t the first RPG made in Japan. Dragon and Princess (1982) was probably the oldest, though there were various other interesting attempts, including The Black Onyx (1984).

A battle in Dragon & Princess
A battle in Dragon & Princess (1982, PC88, Koei)
A battle in The Black Onyx
A battle in The Black Onyx (1984, PC88, Bullet-Proof Software)
A battle in Dragon Quest
A battle in Dragon Quest (1986, Famicom, Chunsoft)

Thank you to Moby Games and Hardcore Gaming 101 for the images.

Why we think of Dragon Quest as the first JRPG

An older term almost synonymous with JRPG (meaning Japanese Role-Playing Game) is “console RPG”. These were more streamlined, accessible and usually came from Japan, whereas “computer RPGs” were played on PCs and recreated more of the complexities of tabletop RPGs.

This helps us understand the place that Dragon Quest had in history. It wasn’t the first RPG from Japan, but it was the first Japanese RPG to work with the strengths and limitations of the NES, Nintendo’s first console, and therefore introduced a new design paradigm that we now think of as the JRPG genre. 

The great game itself, released for the console that created the “console RPG”. Image from Tokyo Game Story.

Before Dragon Quest

Much as western CRPGs had a history before Wizardry (almost a pre-history, as it is not always well-documented) in the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired games made for college mainframes, so did Japan have RPGs before Dragon Quest. 

Though this period was a short one, the variety found in these experimental early years might surprise you. You’ll also certainly recognise some of the companies involved, because they remain known for JRPGs even today!

How Japan played their early RPGs

The pre-history of JRPGs played out on Japanese personal computers. While the names of personal computers in the US were Apple, Commodore and Atari, things were different overseas.

The first personal computers to take over Japan were the PC-8000 series introduced by the NEC Corporation. They followed it with the upgraded NEC PC-8800 series, or simply “PC-88”, and the lower cost PC-6000 series. Competitors included the Fujitsu FM-7 and the Sharp X1

The PC-88, one of the most important personal computers ever manufactured. Image from Wikimedia.

Many games discussed below were ported across this range of computers, but the PC-88 deserves special recognition: it was as important to PC videogaming in Japan as the Apple II was in the US.

How and when RPGs reached Japan

The progenitor of all RPGs is Dungeons & Dragons, published in English in 1974. It was soon known in Japan, but it would be ten years before it was released officially there. 

American videogames had a head start, and D&D’s influence there led to Ultima and Wizardry in 1981, but again not in Japan, where it wouldn’t officially be released until 1985. 

A battle in Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
A battle in Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981, Apple II, Sir-Tech)

That gap is the period we are interested in. In this time, the idea of RPGs was making its way across the ocean unofficially: with exchange students, though import businesses, and after holidays abroad. 

As this period progressed, Japanese magazines feature more information about Wizardry, Ultima and D&Do, though access to the products themselves was limited:

When I created Hydlide, I had never played any Western games at all. Back then, Japanese people didn’t have a defined sense of the RPG genre. I suspect the creators took the appearance of the RPG as a reference, and constructed new types of games according to their own sensibilities.

Tokihiro Naito, (Japansoft: An Oral History)

The games that emerged in this primordial era sometimes seem conceptually incomplete, but they are fascinating relics. 

The company that pioneered JRPGs: Koei?

Best known today for Dynasty Warriors and Nobunaga’s Ambition, fledgling Koei were persistent in their efforts to make RPGs big in Japan.

Koei was formed in 1978 and made programs that automated business functions, but the co-founder, Yoichi Erikawa, was more passionate about games. He programmed a wargame, Battle of Kawanakajima, which became Koei’s first published title.

The board game and war game influence would continue in Koei’s Dragon and Princess, which is best described as a tactical RPG. It was the work of Y. Hayase and Locke, according to the title screen, though to this day we know nothing about these creators. 

Dragon and Princess: The first JRPG?

The stat sheet of your heroes in Dragon and Princess is extremely basic, consisting only of Pr and Sp — and nobody seems to know what Sp does. The weapon selection is sparse. Though matching the theme, Dragon and Princess doesn’t much resemble Dragon Quest. Exploration is in the form of a text adventure, and battles occur on a tactical grid. 

Despite the differences, the spirit of a JRPG seems to be here: it’s an adventure with a party of characters, upgrades for your characters, NPCs and a story about killing a dragon. What more does a JRPG need? 

It even has the random encounters that would become a staple of the JRPG genre. Whoever, Y. Hayase and Locke were, they seemed to understand the assignment immediately.

The cover art of Dragon and Princess
The cover art of Dragon and Princess. Image from Gaming Alexandria.

Read more: Dragon and Princess walkthrough from Hardcore Gaming 101

The rest of JRPG prehistory: 1982 to 1984

With Dragon and Princess, Koei had an early start on RPGs, and they didn’t stop there. Another early Koei release was Danchizuma no Yuuwaku (1983). 

A static screenshot of this game resembles a dungeon crawler, so you might not be able to tell it’s actually an erotic game starring a condom salesman and featuring censored sex scenes. The name translates to something like “Seduction of Apartment Wives”.

Khufu-Oh no Himitsu (lit “Secrets of King Khufu”) saw the player explore a pyramid avoiding traps and killing enemies. 

It amusingly had the tagline “A Roll-Playing Game”, which is indicative of the state of affairs at the time: many of the attempts to make an RPG in this period were merely flirtations, programmers circling around the concept RPG but not quite making a full leap into it.

Koei was by no means the only company in this market. Before Dragon Slayer, Legend of Heroes and Ys, Nihon Falcom published Panorama Toh. It had shops, an inn, an overworld, equipment and even wireframe dungeons, though no level-ups and no companions. It evokes Ultima, but might fall closer to the adventure or survival game category.

It was a similar story with Enix. Before Dragon Quest, they published Parallel World, described as ““A true role-playing game”. 

Back to Koei. Rumours have it Danchizuma (the condom salesman game) was such a success that it helped establish Koei as a videogame company. Perhaps that is the reason they were persistent in their effort to make an RPG.

At least, that is what I imagine led them first to Ken to Mahou, and then to Dungeon.

It has been reported that Yoichi Erikawa, the aforementioned founder of Koei and programmer of many of their hits, recognised that Dragon and Princess, Khufu and Danchizuma may not have been true RPGs, but that Ken to Mahou (“Sword and Sorcery”) would be different. It makes a good first impression on this front, offering nine character classes to choose from, including druid and black knight. The world map has a rather unique look to it.

Dungeon achieves even greater accuracy in what it borrows from its inspirations. The tiled world map and cities of Ultima, the wireframe dungeons of Wizardry, and some very traditional Dungeons and Dragons monsters. It is probably the most refined Koei proto-JRPG.

Koei weren’t the only ones who were figuring things out. In September 1983, I/O magazine printed the code for Seiken Densetsu (lit. Legend of Holy Sword), for readers to type into their own computers. When they did, they were treated to an adventure very similar to Ultima, which was later published by Compaq in boxed form.

Ramping up: major developments in 1984

The theme of this article is ideas being slowly, unofficially imported, so let’s continue with probably the two most important importers of RPG ideas into Japan.

At the time, I was in love with The Black Onyx and The Tower of Druaga. So Hydlide was roughly inspired by those. 

Tokihiro Naito

The Black Onyx was created by Henk Rogers, who spent half his time at The University of Hawaii playing D&D before moving to Japan. He found the RPGs on sale there were lacking compared to what he was used to, so he programmed his own. While Japan had struggled to get to grips with the idea for a few years now, The Black Onyx pretty much hit the nail on the head. It was simpler than Wizardry, but it included all of the essential parts, except classes (all characters in The Black Onyx must be warriors). 

The Tower of Druaga came from somewhere completely different. After creating Xevious (1982), Masanobu Enbo visited America where he played Wizardry. What he enjoyed there he put into his arcade game: the resulting fusion, The Tower of Druaga, was possibly the first action-JRPG. It probably influenced Zelda, and many other RPG creators besides.

While we might associate Druaga more with The Legend of Zelda than the traditional JRPG genre that would soon be spawned by Dragon Quest, we shouldn’t understate its influence.  The third game that Tokihiro Naito mentions in the quote above is Hydlide, released by T&E Soft. Along with Dragon Slayer (Nihon Falcom’s next RPG after Panorama Toh), these two games were the next steps in action-JRPG development.

One more important game released in 1984 was Mugen no Shinzou (“Heart of Fantasy”). It was the closest to a western RPG yet, though unlike The Black Onyx it came from a Japanese company, XtalSoft. At the time, this was a widely respected game. One of the developers, Kazunari Tomo, would go on to work on the Lunar series.

You can really tell how far the production of these RPGs in Japan can come by comparing the title screen and the monster sprites of Mugen to Ken to Mahou/Sword and Sorcery, which was only from one year prior. Doesn’t Dragon and Princess feel like a really long time ago!

There is at least some evidence that Mugen was an inspiration for the creators of Dragon Quest. On that topic, it’s about time to speak about that.

What happened next? The release of Wizardry, Ultima and Dragon Quest

Eventually, Dungeons and Dragons, Ultima and Wizardry all received official Japanese releases which attained mainstream success, immersing the Japanese gaming culture in a new gaming experience. Among those swept along were manga writer Yuji Hori and game developer Koichi Nakamura, who were creating games for the NES at the time for Enix as the company Chunsoft. 

The combination of Nintendo’s new console, and the love for RPGs shared by these creators, led them to create Dragon Quest. It won a raft of awards from Famitsu including game of the year, and it sold exceptionally well, lagging behind only some first-party Nintendo games and a few sports games for that year. 

Dragon Quest was so successful that it became the new blueprint for Japanese RPG developers. All attempts up to that point culminated here, and most later attempts can be traced back here. 

That’s what people mean when they say Dragon Quest was the first JRPG.

Further Reading

Want to know the first PS1 JRPG?

What about the last PS1 JRPG?

What is a JRPG anyway?

Image credits: 

Thanks again to Hardcore Gaming 101 and Moby Games for cataloguing screenshots of these important games. See more here:


Derboo’s introduction’s to these games originally posted at the Hardcore Gaming 101 blog were absolutely vital for this article. Find more from Derboo here:

The J-RPG Wiki had surprisingly detailed explanations of how some of these games are played. I think my research for this article pushed little known games into the trending pages for the site:

Several of these early titles were developed and/or published by Koei, and the Koei Tecmo Wiki was very helpful for cross-checking information.

Other articles and forum threads that helped in small and large ways:

JRPG Collection

Is Secret of Mana good?

Note: the video and the text are the same review. There are additional observations below the text review that are not in the video.

Secret of Mana is going thorough a re-evaluation. It has traditionally been considered one of the best JRPGs or action-adventures on the SNES, and sits near the top of many “Best of” lists. 

Today, similar to the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games, people are playing Secret of Mana and coming away with some quizzical looks. “Is this it?”, they are saying. “What’s all the fuss about.” 

I don’t think either Sonic or Secret of Mana are getting a fair assessment from these newer players, but as somebody who recently completed Secret of Mana, there were times I wanted to quit, too. 

Fighting in the Pure Land, Secret of Mana screenshot

The combat is particularly unpalatable to those of us acclimatised to modern game design. Unlike most action games, you can rarely dodge enemy attacks, and are forced to take them on the chin. You regularly have control taken away from you as you recover from long stun conditions. When you attack, sometimes you hit the enemy, and sometimes you don’t, but it seems to be random, making the player feeling like they aren’t in control. Enemies can be spongy, and if hitting them again and again doesn’t wear on your patience, the pathfinding of your AI companions certainly will. 

It seems like textbook “bad game design”, but I want to defend Secret of Mana. It comes back to something I said a moment ago, that Secret of Mana used to be considered a great action-adventure or JRPG. But which is it: an action-adventure or a JRPG? It certainly looks like Zelda and has action-game controls, but as you explore the mechanics you realise it has a lot of mechanical similarities to an ATB system like Final Fantasy IV. You have to wait between each attack for your attack gauge to fill up, and special attacks are chosen from a menu. Looks are deceiving here, but Secret of Mana isn’t really an action game.

In JRPGs combat isn’t enjoyed for the fast-paced skill involved. Rather you enjoy them for some slower paced decision making and, most importantly, the spectacle. In Secret of Mana, When multiple spells are popping off in real-time across the screen — attacks, buffs, heals all at once, from enemies and party members at the same time — you start to see the appeal that Secret of Mana would have had in 1993: of seeing the spectacle of a JRPG battle from a top-down, real-time perspective. 

Boss battle against dragon in Secret of Mana screenshot

Blowing up an enemy in one magic that hits a weakness never gets old, and though charge attacks take an age to reach full power when they hit, and the big numbers start flying, it’s totally worth it. 

It is also worth it because each enemy you kill helps raise your weapon level, and this is where Secret of Mana starts to get a bit addictive. 

It starts with weapon orbs, which are found in the world and they are extremely enticing because they allow you to transform your weapon at the blacksmith, which gives more damage, a new charge level, and usually some sort of secondary effect. But you don’t get the benefit of the new weapon until the character has used that weapon type enough. All characters can use all weapons, but they only gain proficiency with whichever ones you use for them, which encourages you to mix up which weapons you use while also creating a uniqueness to your party: in your game, the girl might be proficient with the axe and the bow, in another player’s game, the girl might be proficient with the fist and the whip. 

(Your companions don’t have default names in the Western translation. I called the girl Tangle and the spite Brave).  

It’s a similar story for magic spells. Spells are grouped by magical spirits as if they were spellbooks: the more you use that spirit’s spells, the more powerful that spirit and its spells become. 

Remember that the first mana game was The Final Fantasy Legend, and I find it interesting to consider that in a different timeline, this second mana game might have been “The Final Fantasy Legend 2”, and Udine might have been Shiva, Djinn might have been Ifrit, and so on. That’s just theoretical, but what isn’t theoretical is how these systems make it really rewarding to keep fighting enemies, even when the combat feels a little janky.

Now we’re talking about Final Fantasy, we have to point out that while action adventure games might get away without, JRPGs require a strong story, but Secret of Mana doesn’t have that. It has a handful of characters with a thimbleful of development each. It really lacks the complexity you expect from Square Enix.

But to me, it makes up for it with the world. Maybe not so much in level design — which is fine, nothing special. But in atmosphere and variety? Absolutely yes.

  • There is an eerie forest make of crystal.
  • There’s a desert town, which seems downtrodden until you return the water, then everyone wants to party like they’re in Dubai. 
  • There is the mana forest, which haunting, dangerous, and vibrant.
  • There’s even a cheery mushroom kingdom. Mario would be proud.

It’s a bit like Mario, actually: it might not have a story, but it has a vibe, and that’s enough to draw you into the worth. I’m fact, I don’t think any JRPG beats Secret of Mana for feeling sunny and adventureful. It comes out in the pixel art… and even more so in the music (composed masterfully by Hiroki Kikuta), which strikes an exceptional balance between chirpy and ethereal, truly appropriate for a light-hearted quest about nature and the threat of losing it. Indeed, that is the one theme that does shine through in Secret of Mana. Particularly at the end of the game, where the hero has a genuine dilemma to face, the one time that the storytelling matches — very, very briefly — the heights of the game’s audiovisual qualities.

This is a bit of an out-there comparison, but Secret of Mana reminds me of Diablo II. A real-time RPG, but not one known for its story or responsive combat mechanics. Rather, one that thrives on a finely tuned atmosphere and a satisfying sense of progression. That’s the lens Secret of Mana deserves to be seen though, and when you do, you realise it deserves to be known as a classic.

Victory post after beating a boss in Secret of Mana screenshot

Additional observations

Spirit order: Once you get Sylphid, you can learn if an enemy has a magic weakness without trying each type. Before Sylphid, you only have two elements to experiment with. So Sylphid being the third “spellbook” you get access to makes a lot of sense.

The Pure Land difficulty spike: Progression is generally good in this game, but there is one difficulty spike that is handled very poorly. The enemies in the Pure Land hit mega hard, which on one hand is expected: it’s a narratively important area so it feels appropriate that it is dangerous and special. However, the only way to stand up to enemies here is to buy armour that is sold by a single merchant who is easy to overlook. I didn’t even know this armour existed until I looked up a guide, because I assumed I was missing something. This transition was rushed or otherwise underthought.

The shrine pacing: the first few shrines take a long time to get to, but by the time you’ve got four you’re probably ready to get to the end of this quest, so the last four shrines come one after the other in much quicker succession. This might also be an indication that the game was supposed to be longer but the second half was truncated, but in this particular way it works out for the best: it’s fun that the quest speeds up rather than gets dragged out.

Flammie: Flammie is the best airship in a JRPG. He has a button that toggles between top down and from behind views as well as ascend and descend controls in both views. That makes Flammie the airship with the best controls and features in any SNES JRPG?! Also being able to call them from almost anywhere, not having to go to the world map and walk to find it again. He swoops out of the sky and picks you up wherever you are.

The Script Augmentation Project: The fan retranslation released as Secret of Mana: Reborn purportedly clarifies the story and adds events that were not included in the official Western release. As I already feel there is a hint of a great story in the Ted Woolsey script, I’m excited to explore this retranslation further to better understand the Secret of Mana lore, but I haven’t done so yet. Read more about this project on the thread.

Finally, let me leave this game for now by sharing this beautiful collection of Secret of Mana song covers organised by Rebecca Tripp and played by various musicians:

JRPG Collection

What made Persona 3 great

When I think back to the very beginning of the P3 project, I remember trying to accomplish two things: to create a worthy sequel to a great series, and to create the ideal hybrid of game elements to introduce a new RPG experience.

– Katsura Hashino, Persona 3 Producer & Director

Hybrid. I can’t think of a better word to describe Persona 3, a game of two halves in beautiful harmony, entangled but separate. There is a dungeon crawler and there is a social sim, and if you don’t like one of those genres it might be a deal breaker. However, if you can at least tolerate both, this game might become very special to you.

Persona spawned from the Shin Megami Tensei, a series of punishing dungeon crawlers about convincing demons to fight with you against other demons. Though Persona 3 reuses both the exceptional monster taming mechanics and the high difficulty, it pairs it with a captivating aesthetic, world and characters that the progenitor series lacked. That makes Persona 3 a double threat, sinking one hook into you with its style and another with its systems. 

All this took me totally by surprise. As a JRPG veteran who thought he had a great understanding of what the genre had to offer, I didn’t expect to play one this year that felt like no other game I had played before. 

This might have been because I didn’t have good enough points of comparison. There are other games that have done a similar genre mash-up, and I haven’t played them yet. The Sakura Wars series, for example, are half dating-focused visual novels and half tactical battles, and that sounds like a pretty close match to Persona.

And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that Persona 3 is something truly special.

Like the game itself, this review is split into two parts, plus a middle section about social links, the connecting mechanic that make this game work as a whole. Enjoy. 

Part 1: A Game About People

Your party are people

Persona 3 is partly a dungeon crawler. It has one dungeon, which is actually a tower, called Tartarus, that you return to again and again. You have a party, of course, who follow you through those dank halls. One common method that JRPGs use to might handle a party of followers is to hide them until a battle breaks out, though in other games your party follow you at all times. 

Persona 3 goes a welcome step further: each member of your party is a  mechanically separate entity. They can be told to split up and explore the dungeon independently, opening chests and bringing you the booty (I was rarely brave enough take advantage of this option). They can get lost, and even end up in fights without you, agitating you to race to their rescue. 

These characters are independent agents, and the game wastes no opportunity in conveying that fact to you. You can’t even access your party’s inventories from your own main menu: you have to talk to them. It’s one of the dialogue options. When you want one of them to heal the party, you talk to them. When you equip them with new items, they say thank you. 

We become endeared to characters in JRPGs because of how they look, how they sound, and how they act. Persona 3 ticks off all three, with exceptional voice acting and beautiful character portraits that I never stopped enjoying even after 100 hours: these are portraits that stand up to 1000 views.

But it isn’t the individual parts, but how they are consistently implemented across all levels of the game that makes Persona 3 special. When you are in a battle, characters do not lose their personality: it is only another opportunity for them to express it. When Iori says “Keep it up Yuka-tan!” when Yukari gets a good hit on the enemy, I think about what a great little team and social circle I am part of here.

The most fundament example of your characters acting like people is that you cannot control your party’s actions in battle — at least, not in the original release of the game. Rereleases offer the option of full party control, though I’m more fond of the original implementation. The developers were sticking to a theme, and I respect that. 

Your demons are your party

Another way in which Persona is a hybrid game is that is has both the appear of a traditional JRPG, starring a colourful cast of human party members, as well as the appeal of a monster-taming game with an army of demons to do the fighting for you.

Those demons are inherited from Shin Megami Tensei, Persona’s parent franchise, which is a bit like Pokemon for masochists. Persona 3 is by no means an easy game either: it demands that you create strong monsters and makes it a pleasure to do so. Fuse a new monster when you have a social link associated with the correct aracana, and the new monster will receive a waterfall of experience, levelling up multiple times in a row and obtaining higher-level abilities without a moment of grinding needed. 

That’s something you get in SMT games but not in Pokémon. You can use your new monster and they are effective immediately. There’s a trade-off, though: you don’t keep a monster long enough to form a strong bond with them, like you would with a Pokemon. You enjoy their company and their power, then you trade up. They are temporary friends only. 

Though these connections are brief, they can be meaningful. At the top of the second block of Tartarus me and my party met groups of nasty beetles that hit for big physical damage. They killed me a few times. Back in the purple room, where you fuse new monsters, I noticed one that had good lightening skills, which the beetles were weak too. Plus, I could fuse him with passive abilities that increased my defence, allowing me to tank the deadly horns of my foe. Plus, this new monster looked very cool. I brought him into battle against the beetles and he made short work of them. When I ordered him to attack, the main character even shouted his name: “Take-Minakata!” Why can’t Pokémon games do that?


I know I would replace him after a few floors, but for that moment I was extremely pleased with my strong new monster, and felt a bond with him. That’s what makes the heart of a great monster raising game. 

Demons drive the mechanics of the game, but they are fenced off there: they are rarely relevant in the story, except in a generalised way. Each character has a unique persona (the correct name for the monsters they fight with), but they have no individual personality or role. 

It’s almost if these monsters were only a Alice In Wonderland-like metaphor, and it makes me question if this is a game about monsters at all, or if they are just a obligatory carry-over from the parent series.

A pentagon spread (five-demon fusion) with Inugami, Take-Minakata, Orthrus, Vasuki, Ubelluris performed by Igor in the Velvet Room of Persona 3
A pentagon spread (five-demon fusion) with Inugami, Take-Minakata, Orthrus, Vasuki, Ubelluris performed by Igor in the Velvet Room of Persona 3

Would the game be meaningfully different if all demons were replaced with spells? I don’t think so. They add to the atmosphere and they support the mechanics, but that’s about it. They are superficial, and that’s fine: this game isn’t about demons. 

Sense of place

If not demons, what is Persona 3 about? While we try and figure that out, let’s take a walk through the town. Persona 3 takes place in Iwatodai City and Tatsumi Port Island. Your characters are high school students and must spend some of their time in their lessons at Gekkoukan High School. If you join the swimming team, you might visit the pool after school, which glistens as it reflects the overhead sun. As you leave the school, passing gossiping students at the water fountains, you pass are shelves at the entrance that overflow with student’s shoes. 

Each detail in the world feel true to life. That goes for the surrounding town, too. The ramen restaurant, the fast food restaurant, the book store, all these tiny locations have a unique atmosphere to them. I want to visit these places. I want to drink coffee in Chagall Café. I want to sit on the lawn by the persimmon tree. I want to walk the dog in the shrine and run into somebody I know on the way. 

Just like in real life, in is in these regular places that you find peace, and in these pointless moments that you find pleasure.

Time is your enemy

Days pass and winter turns to spring, at which time the characters no longer take their jackets to school with theim, and at the weekend they wear lighter casual clothes, too. Though you path you walk to school hasn’t changed, the music has, and the cherry blossoms are blooming. 

Persona 3 takes a lot of care in portraying the passage of time. That because the whole game is based around it. You play this game day-by-day, and when you have taken your last action for the day, you go to sleep, and the date changes – unless you enter “the dark hour”. 

The dark hour is when demons called shadows walk the streets freely, and most humans are frozen in place. If you end the day by entering the dark hour, a ticking clock counts down to midnight and then… shatters. 

Early on, during the dark hour, you are visited by a mysterious boy in striped clothing. He tells you this: in one week you will face your greatest challenge yet. 

One week is no simple narrative device in Persona 3. That is a week you have to live though, choosing what to do with each of your days. Which friends do you spend time with during the day? Which nights do you train and which do you rest? Do you continue to study, or leave that till after the challenge? 

In the days before the big challenge, the usual chirpy music at the school gates turns ominous. The friends you pass there confide their fears, doubts and determination. 

At the gates of Gekkoukan High School, Yukari talkes about Mitsuru, in Persona 3

Unlike a traditional JRPG, time can be “lost”: you have a number of opportunities each week to spend on stat-building activities, and if you waste them you cannot get those opportunities back. You cannot go back in time. Vacation and the school trips last a set number of days, and when they are over you cannot return to those locations. Similarly, you can’t speak to your classmates during the school holidays, so you spend time with them while you can. 

Much later, the game puts its skill at crafting atmosphere to make something chilling. The  world turns cold, crazy and depressing, and you walk through the mall where you used to go to sing karaoke, where it has a wallpaper of cult flyers, and human sufferers of apathy syndrome stand as static as furniture, and it is a sad sight. 

You always want it make the most of what time you have, both in terms of being efficient about building social links, social stats and levelling in the dungeon, but also making the most of your time in this world with the characters, before something dreadful happens.

The message of Persona 3 is trite if you spell it out, but the game doesn’t spell it out. It makes you experience it, it makes you live it though how you play the game and how you experience the story. 

Gekkoukan High School classroom 2-F, talking to Kenji, in Persona 3

People are your world

Take a stroll to the shrine in the evening, and you will run into Meiko. She is one of the many residents of Iwatodai City that you can build a “social link” with. Each time you spend a slice of your day with these characters, and you will live a small chapter of their story, learning about their challenges, flaws and futures. 

What sets Maiko apart from the other social links, who are all teenagers or adults is that she is nine-years old. For a long time, I was reluctant pursue the Meiko social link because of this. It felt too strange to be hanging out with an nine-year old school when character I was controlling is in high school. It occurred to me how ridiculous that would look to my classmates and who suspicious it would look to any adult passers-by. 

The fact that this even occurred to me is a clear sign that this game had deeply immersed me in its world.  

Talking to Maiko during a social link event in Naganaki Shrine, in Persona 3

Eventually, I started using my time to talk to Maiko. It wasn’t long before I sympathised with her story, which revolves around a precarious home situation. 

I started thinking way too seriously about how to respond to her so that I didn’t upset her or give her harmful advice. At one point, she starts crying, and the options are “Tell her to stop crying” or “Let her cry it out.” That’s a tough one.  

Social links usually just progress, but they can also be broken. I was left gaping the first time this happened. Yuko, the captain of the swim team, is one of the romanceable characters. As the social link progressed, our conversations became more intimate. However, I must have gone too long without speaking to her, because she broke up with me.

When I got back to the dorm, I wanted Junpei should give me a slam on the back and tell me better luck next time. I wanted Yukari to be sympathetic. I wanted Akihiko or Mitsuru to give me some practical advice. Of course, that’s expecting way too much from the game, which does not react to my loss. Nonetheless, the emotion I felt was quite real. 

Now I have reason to be concerned. Have I unintentionally activated a degenerate part of the brain gets overly attached to fictional characters? How long before start talking about waifus unironically? 

Fuuka's bedroom in Iwatodai Dormitory/the dorm, for Fuuka's social link in Persona 3
Fuuka > Yukari

Part 1.5 The genius of social links

The early steps you take into Persona 3’s “real world” (the half of the game in which you have school work and a social life) introduces you to some curious game terminology. After you progress a socia link, time stops. There is the sound of glass breaking. Unsettling music plays while a mysterious card appears on the screen, and you are told that you now “Create Personas of the Fool Arcana” up to a certain level. 

This dramatic version of a “level up” is part of what makes social links addictive to pursue, but at first it is confusing, because the game hasn’t told you what an arcana is or why it matters. 

Soon, you discover that arcana are how the two halves of Persona 3’s gameplay slot together, and it’s a brilliant mechanism. The reason you build up social links in Persona, (other than to hear a selection of stories about depression, disconnection and growing up), is to be get bonus experience when you fuse a monster. The higher the social link level, the more bonus EXP gained by demons matching that arcana. 

For example, spending time with Meiko means stronger demons of the Hanged Man arcana, and spending time with Yuko means stronger demons of the Strength arcana. 

It’s a JRPG, there is a lot of dialogue, and the relationships you build through dialogue in the “real world” translate to increased strength when you enter the dungeon. That character development is the story is also part of your training. It’s mechanically relevant.

Levelling up the strength arcana during Yuka's social link even in Persona 3

This is easily my favourite mechanic in Persona 3, and maybe my favourite mechanic in any JRPG ever. If Persona 3 was the first JRPG to do this, it’s quite incredible. It’s a genre in which story and battling are bread and butter, but Persona 3 seems to be the first one that buttered the bread!

Part 2: Mechanics


Let’s go back to the dark hour. At the stroke of midnight, you can choose to enter Tartarus, This is the game’s solitary dungeon, where shadow roam through twisted hallways and the floors go up seemingly forever.

The monsters you find here are surreal creatures, typically black blobs with a mask glued to a random object. There’s a stag beetle with the purple mask at the end of its horn. There is a tiger’s head grafted onto a spiked chariot wheel. There are floating snakes that coils around themselves in an unnerving fashion. 

Fighting Carnal Snakes in Tartarus, within the Adamah Block, in Persona 3. Battle Screen.

After a few fights with these abstract abominations, I had a revelation: Persona 3 has almost everything I want from a turn-based battle system. 

How often do you choose Attack in a JRPG because you can’t think of anything better to do? That’s not how it is here. For one, the reward for hitting an enemy’s weakness is just too juicy to ignore. Not only do you get an extra turn for knocking them to the floor, but if you can do that to all foes you can perform an “all-out attack”, usually ending the battle It is very like watching a row of monster-shaped dominos fall in slow motion.

This makes having a range of magic essential, and a range of physical attacks too, but it goes beyond that, because eventually you find enemies without weaknesses, or enemies that hit so hard that they will still kill you before you kill them. How do you deal with those? Buffs, defuffs, status ailments and elemental resistances become the counters that you can’t get with elemental attacks alone. 

Fighting the Fanatic Tower, the Hierophant miniboss, while Fuuka warns you, in Persona 3

Almost every move in your menu has a purpose, and almost every turn makes a difference. 

Persona 3 is a game of counters, hard counters even, and they’re not always obvious. Sometimes the solution you need is found in an item, such as the a magic mirror that reflects magic, versus the magic bomb dropping Sleeping Table mini-boss). Other times, the trick involves a sequence that you repeat throughout the battle. Bosses can be discouragingly brutal until you find the right approach, but when you do it’s like activating a cheat code. 

This results in battles where every correctly chosen attack feels powerful and every major success feels earned. I think back on how easy it is, in other JRPGs, to ignore the attributes of battle, and how flat and redundant those systems seem now. 

Oh, and because these battles involve a variety of hard counter, it really does incentive you – well, force you – to change your personas, weapons and party members according to the situation. And I love the variety that arises from that.

Persona 3 is long, maybe repetitive, but almost to the end I was still making mistakes and learning new ways to succeed. 

A critical hit in battle of Persona 3


The field is what connects your exploration experience to your battling experience. In Persona 3, it means the halls of Tartarus, in which you can enjoy a highly developed “field-game” that exceeds that of most other JRPGs. 

It is reminiscent of Earthbound, but better. Enemies, visible in the halls as a slimy blob, will chase you, but they can always be avoided. The size of the blob indicates the number of enemies, but not their strength. A large blog is likely a group of weak enemies. Counterintuitively, it is the small blobs you should watch out for, but not as much as the red blobs, which represent truly threatening battles.

There is an even greater threat than that to be found, too: if you stay on a floor too long, the grim reaper shows up! On the other hand, if you out level a group of enemies to the point that the encounter would be trivial, they will run away from you. 

Hit a foe before they hit you to get a better chance at a first turn advantage. Let them hit you first, and it’s probably going to hurt. Swinging your sword (or spear, axe or fist) in the dungeon screens feels surprisingly nice. It never got old to surprise an enemy by dropping the end of my sword down their back. 

The hero of Persona 3 about to hit a foe in Taratus to get Player Advantage in battle

Here’s an example of those systems in action. This happened while I was climbing from floor 90 or so. I was ready to retreat at around floor 93 but I couldn’t for the life of me find a teleporter. So I kept climbing, avoiding battles where possible, but also hitting enemies first if I otherwise risked the enemy hitting me. If they got the initiative I was confident they would could wipe me out, so I removed enemies from the field where I thought it was prudent. The red enemies scared me of most of all. On floor 97, Fuka told me the teleporter was on the next floor. Then, a red enemy appeared just a few steps from the room with the stairs! I snuck around him, and punched the air as I reached safety.

This is a lot more positivity than you might expect of a discussion around Tartarus. While the systems here are excellent, the level design is generic: randomly generated floors of a single dungeon, with a different tile set every 30 or 50 floors, but functionally almost identical from the first floor to the last. 

It’s hard not to think about Jade Cocoon at this point (What is Jade Cocoon?). The first game had forests that were everything I wanted from JRPG levels, with something visually interesting on every screen and with many-non combat interactions with NPCs and the environment. In Jade Cocoon 2, released on the PS2 but pre-dating Persona 3 by about 5 years, the forests had become repetitive, endless identical paths resembling Tartarus’s endless identical corridors. But in Jade Cocoon 2, there were still, rarely, NPCs to speak to.  

Persona 3’s dungeon is fantastic for facilitating combat encounters, but it fails at integrating into the narrative or into the world in a moment-to-moment, floor-to-floor manner (the dungeon does have a broader purpose in the story, of course).

But because you can run from enemies, and because it’s not too rare to get lucky and find the stairs leading upwards right next to where you arrived, and because you can choose when to enter the dungeon (ignoring it for many days in a row in favour of the social sim mechanics), the game doesn’t force you into engaging with its tedious level design too often. It is easy for me to overlook this flaw. 

Fuuka talks to the party in the Harabah Block of Tartarus in Persona 3

Moreover, little pleasures like figuring out the weaknesses of new monsters you encounter, or seeing higher numbers on the minor arcana cards you pick as a reward at the end of some battles, helped keep the climb engaging. 


As a gun should feel good to shoot in a FPS, so too should a level-up feel good to achieve in a JRPG. But not all level-ups are created equal. When reflecting on RPGs, I often ask myself, did I care about getting those next levels? 

In Persona 3, the answer is “Extremely yes!” New main character levels do something much more significant than small stats boost: they let you fuse personas up to your new level. Every time, it excited me to get back to the velvet room to explore what powerful monsters I might be able to add to my arsenal next.

Seeing the silhouettes of monsters that are beyond your current level in the fusion screens gives you a tantalising hint at what will be possible in a few levels time, or sometimes much later.

Also, the music that kicks in on the victory screen when you level up pumps me up.

The interesting decisions you make as you get stronger are just dramatically higher than any other JRPG I have played: 

  1. Resistances and weaknesses matter massively, so you probably look at those first when fusing a new monster. 
  2. You still need to out-stat the opponent, so you check which option improves your attack and defence the most. 
  3. Then, does the new monster have abilities that are going to make you more deadly, or can they inherit good abilities from your current monsters? 
  4. And at all times you team needs to be fairly balanced, dealing damage and defending damage against as many of the types as possible. 

This is nothing like Pokemon, where you can get comfortable with a team that you like and just keep them levelled up. No, you are always having to reinvent your team in Persona, and you better do it the right way because these battles won’t let you get away with much less.

Samael levels up and learns a new skill, Dekunda, in Persona 3

There is equipment for your characters, but compared to the monster fusion this is a uninteresting element of getting stronger. In most games, finding or buying some a new weapon or amor piece is a big part of the fun. In Persona 3, everything else is so fun I almost wanted to ignore the equipment.

Getting stronger together

We’ve explored the entire process of getting stronger in Persona 3, and what stands out to me most of all is how social links marry the story and the levelling together so beautifully. 

You spend half of this game with people that don’t know that demons exist. Your daytime life does not resemble the time your spend in Tartarus at all. Superficially, they are two separate games. 

And yet, the the contribution of these people to your strength and your success in battle is palpable at all levels of the game. 

When you spend time with them, you level up their arcana. When you fuse a monster, you are grateful to that character for the additional experience you receive. Then you take that monster into battle.

I imagine the anime protagonist who receives the thoughts and prayers of their friends they made throughout the show to level up their attack to beat a boss. That’s what Persona does, but not just as a narrative trope, but as a mechanic. 

It is that this, of all the great accomplishments of Persona 3, from the visual flair to the soundtrack to the battle system, that is most impressive to me. 

The party of Persona 3 stand in front of Tartarus where Aigis and Ikutsuki stand


A lot of people think of Persona 3 as the lesser sibling of Persona 4 or 5, which is horrendously unfair. Not only because Persona 3 has its unique qualities, but also because it was the first. 

Today, we recognise that Persona 5 as a masterpiece that has drawn new fans in to the franchise and into JRPGs as a whole. Yet it builts firmly on the foundations of Persona 3. You can’t say the same thing about Persona 3 and Persona 2, at least not to the same degree. A tremendous creative leap was made by this franchise in 2006, and it was a leap not only for Persona, but for all JRPGs.

Persona 3 popularised the combination of social sim and a dungeon crawler. Post-persona, we see more games making a mechanical connection between character relationships and battle effectiveness: Fire Emblem already had a support system and character conversations at the base, but post-Persona they were combined into a system that effectively mirrored social links. 

We can see influences, subtle and otherwise, across the genre. I don’t think Trails of Cold Steel or Final Fantasy Type-0 exist without Persona 3. Frankly, with the way Persona 3 reinvigorated Atlus, there might not even have been a Shin Megami Tensei 4.

Both Atlus and fans of Atlus games owe Persona 3 some gratitude. It might secretly be one of the most influential JRPGs ever. It deserves to be in the same conversations as Final Fantasy VII. It will remain a blueprint for any designer wanting to combine two genres and them both to tell one story with one strong theme. 

CRPG Collection

How to play Ultima VI in 2023

Ultima VI: The False Prophet, released in 1990, remains a timeless classic that continues to be enjoyed in 2023 (and beyond).

Though the last in a loose trilogy of Ultima games (4, 5 and 6), Ultima VI is easy to recommend as an entry point for players new to the series. Developed for the IBM PC and with the luxury of 256 colour VGA graphics, the visual jump from the earlier Apple II-developed games is drastic. Also, Ultima VI removes the first-person dungeons and two-scale maps and instead presents one coherent, consistent world, making it much more palatable to modern players.

However, as is to be expected of a game that is almost 35 years old, it can be inaccessible in some ways. This article aims to get you settled into the world of Brittania as painlessly as possible.

Screenshot of Ultima 6 title screen
Screenshot of exploring a castle in Ultima 6

Tips for getting started

Some things that might be useful to know to make your first sojourn into this world more pleasant:

1. Play on Nuvie. Ultima VI ran on MS-DOS, which doesn’t exist on modern PCs, so when you download it from GOG or somewhere similar it will play in an emulator called DOSBOS.

However, there is a better solution, and that is to play Ultima VI through Nuvie, an engine for playing Ultima VI on modern systems. If you’re playing this classic CRPG in 2023, Nuvie will make your experience a lot smoother, without changing the game.

After these tips I’ll explain how to set up Nuvie, so skip to here if you’re ready to get started.

2. If you want your companions to help you in a scrape, switch to battle mode. Otherwise, they’ll just scratch their heads while you all get pelted with throwing axes. The keyboard shortcut is B. Sometimes they are shy about attacking, but you can fix that by changing their behaviour in their stats screen. Change to “Control” to manually command that character on their turns.

I put this one here because when you start the game you’re dropped straight into a battle.

3. Answer the copy protection questions. When that battle is over, your first instinct will probably be to talk to the king you just saved. That’s Lord British. But he’s not very welcoming, insisting that you take a quiz before he will say anything useful to you. This is Ultima VI’s piracy protection. The answers were contained in the manual that came with legitimate copies of the game. If you bought your copy from GOG, you can download this “Compendium” digitally, which you should do anyway because it’s a beautiful booklet and delves into the lore of the game. However, for the sake of getting past Lord British’s questions, just find the answers on Ultima Codex, the main Ultima Wiki, here: 

4. Find out what to do next by talking. You get information out of people by typing in keywords while talking to them. A good place to start is with the NPCs “name” and their “job”: this will usually lead to other key subjects, which will be highlighted in a different colour of text. This game will not make things easy for you if you aren’t listening to what people say and seeking more information by interrogating other people on the same subjects. Take notes, because the game won’t do that for you either. It’s pretty hands-off, in this regard and others.

On this topic, a good place to start your enquiries would be to ask Lord British about the orb you found in the game’s introduction. You’ll want to figure out how to use it to cut down on travel time in the game, but you might want to leave that until you understand the geography of the world a bit better.

Talking to Lord British about the Orb of Moons in Ultima 6

5. Controlling other characters and their inventories. The number keys switch control to other characters, also giving you access to their inventories, so you can carry more loot and keep it better organised. The avatar’s backpack will be full before you leave the castle, so knowing this immediately will save you some frustration. Press 0 to switch back to the default “party mode”. 

6. Embrace the old-school interaction method. Ultima VI doesn’t have a context-sensitive button that allows you to do everything from pick up items, to talk to somebody, to open chests, to read a sign. In fact, these actions are all separate buttons (or keystrokes): get, talk, use, and look. When you choose your action, you then target something with it. It’s a bit of a habit change, but when you get used to it you see some advantages, like how you can talk to everyone in a bar without leaving your seat. 

7. Learn these keyboard shortcuts. You can play this game entirely with the mouse but it’s quite a bit slower this way. I feel my clicking finger could get tired. Learning the keyboard shortcuts will make your adventure smoother. F1, F2 etc switch to the inventory of party members, and F10 brings up the full party screen with the time of day indicator. Crtl-1, Crtl-2 etc bring up stats screens. 

Setting up Nuvie

Nuvie adds, among other many other things:

  • An in-game settings menu for audio, visual and gameplay tweaks
  • Enhanced and modernised controls like drag-and-drop for items
  • More comfortable default key bindings and the ability to customise key bindings
  • Overhaul of save/load system
  • Convenience features like automatically using keys on doors becoming 
  • An option for a UI overhaul similar to the style of Ultima VII

Step 1: Download Nuvie

Download Nuvie from this page: 

Choose the official release binary for your operating system.

Step 2: Install Nuvie on your computer

Nuvie Setup program

Install Nuvie anywhere you will find convenient. You can install it directly into your Ultima VI game folder, but the official documentation suggests you install Nuvie somewhere else and copy your Ultima VI game files into the Nuvie folder, which we will do next. 

Step 3: Move Ultima 5 game files to the Nuvie folder

3.1 By default, Nuvie looks inside the Nuvie folder for a folder called ultima6, where it expects to find your Ultima VI game files. That folder doesn’t exist yet, so make it. Your Nuvie Folder should now look like this:

Make new ultima6 folder in Nuvie folder

3.2 Find your Ultima VI game files, wherever you installed the game. If you have installed via GOG Galaxy, you can find the game files with this option in your game library:

Finding Ultima 6 game files via GOG Galaxy

3.3 Copy all the game files…

Copying the Ultima 6 game files

3.4 …and paste them into the Nuvie ultima6 folder.

Step 4: Tweak the config file (if you want)

Some settings are changed by updating the text in nuvie.cfg, which is a file in your Nuvie installation folder. Most of the settings you will be interested in for playing Ultima are found in the <video> section (for general Nuvie display options) and in the <ultima6> section. 

The Nuvie config file in Notepad

Even if you don’t make changes now, keep these settings in mind in case you want them later. 

For more guidance on the config file, check the Nuvie documentation.

Step 5: Start playing Ultima VI

Welcome to Britannia!

Ultima 6 introduction screenshot