Like RPGs but don’t have the time to plant yourself in front of your TV or PC for a hundred hours? Well, fear not, because there’s a bunch of worthwhile RPGs available on the DS and the PSP that’ll manage to sate your needs without the need to skip work, school, or engage in agoraphobic behavior. These games provide the full RPG experience and can be played on your commute for 15 minutes at a time and are also very well-suited for some classical, poop-socked marathon gaming sessions as well.
In case you’re new here and couldn’t figure it out from the title of this post, this is the second part of my feature on handheld RPG’s, dedicated to original titles made specifically for the DS or the PSP. In the first entry, I listed my favorite ports and remakes of classic RPGs for handhelds, as well as giving a few brief recommendations as to the best multiplayer RPGs available as well. Keep in mind that this list is by no means intended to be a conclusive listing of every RPG on DS and PSP: it’s merely a list of personal recommendations of games that I enjoyed. If a game you loved isn’t on here, it’s because I either haven’t played it or I simply didn’t like it. By all means though, please feel free to vent your pointless nerd rage in the comments section if you disagree with my choices.
Now, I mention that upfront because there’s no way I could possibly list every RPG for the DS and PSP in one article. As Japanese RPG’s have waned in popularity on consoles, J-RPG developers have found a profitable niche in making games for handhelds. As such, this past generation of handheld RPG’s has been filled with games that are easily on par with some of the classic PS1 and PS2 generation RPG’s, and some of these games, especially Square-Enix’s, still manage to retain their bombastic, cinematic presentation despite being played out on a four inch screen. While the future of J-RPG’s on consoles continues to look bleak, outside of a few noteworthy releases like Nintendo’s upcoming Wii opus Xenoblade (which is fantastic, by the way,) and Square-Enix’s supposedly drastically improved Final Fantasy XIII-2, fans of the genre can at least take solace in knowing that the classic J-RPG experience still has a home on the DS and PSP, and will assumedly continue on the PS Vita and 3DS.
As for Western style RPGs, well… You won’t find any of them on this list. No, fanboys, it’s not because I’m some weeaboo who hates Skyrim or Mass Effect (I love those games and their developers, by the way,) but it’s because Western developers, especially those that make RPGs, still generally don’t show handhelds much love. Outside of Bioware’s very flawed Sonic Chronicles, I’m having a hard time thinking of any other handheld RPG’s created by American or European developers, much less one that’s good enough to deserve a recommendation on this list. So yeah, before you complain, keep in mind the only reason this list is dominated by J-RPGs is because there are no worthwhile handheld Western RPGs.
But of course, in the end that doesn’t matter, because you’re smart enough not to get hung up on pointless genre distinctions and you’re not the (stupid) type that would go and dismiss one type of RPG because you simply prefer the other, right? Of course you are. So without further ado, here’s my recommendations for the best original RPGs available on for the DS and PSP:
Though its been around as long as Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star, Falcom’s Ys series has never enjoyed the popularity that it deserves. And yes, I’m not sure if it really belongs on this list — this action-rpg hybrid easily has more in common with Zelda than it does with Dragon Quest or Persona — but hey, regardless of whether or not you would classify it as an RPG or not, it’s undeniably a great game that never gets the attention it deserves, so let me say my peace about it here.
Previous games in the Ys series have been competent action-RPGs in their own right, but with Ys Seven, the series finally manages to join the ranks of Zelda and Secret of Mana: you will simply not find a better game of this style on the handheld. Combat is given additional depth thanks to the addition of multiple characters: each character has their own strengths in weaknesses, and while the game isn’t as punishingly difficult as older Ys games, the new character-switching mechanic forces you to think strategically while still have the reflexes to properly dodge and strike back with precision timing. The game gets off to a slow start, and the story recycles pretty much every J-RPG cliche in the book, but the gameplay in Ys Seven should be held up as a text book example of how to do an action-RPG right. If you own a PSP, you need this game.
Dragon Quest IX
As I mentioned earlier, you won’t find any Western style RPG’s on this list, but Dragon Quest IX is pretty damn close — with its wealth of side quests, craftable items, rare loot drops, and post-game content, DQIX is probably the closest thing you’ll get to a portable Bethesda RPG. Of course, it’s still an entry in Japan’s premiere (and most conservative) RPG franchise, so all the J-RPG traditions are still fully observed as well: turn-based battles, beautiful art by Akira Toriyama (best known for creating Dragon Ball Z, among others,) and lots and lots of good, old fashioned dungeon crawling.
DQIX’s biggest addition to the series is a new multiplayer mode that lets you tackle any of the game’s content with up to 3 friends, because, after all, what’s the point of gathering all that god-tier armor if you can’t show it off? While the multiplayer component still played second fiddle to the single-player campaign (where you’ll likely spend at least 50 hours,) its still good, solid fun if you have a good party, and it did lay the groundwork for the upcoming Wii/Wii U-exclusive Dragon Quest X, which is a full blown MMO.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7
Let me make a confession: I don’t really like Final Fantasy 7. The game undoubtedly influenced every J-RPG to come after it, but it also manages to be the epitome of everything that’s wrong with the genre: I think its characters are annoying and derivative, its battle mechanics are overly simple and lack challenge, and, let’s face it, the game’s biggest draw – its cinematic presentation – hasn’t aged particularly well. While the game has legions of fans who think its the best game ever, I will emphatically state that all of those people are wrong. Oh yeah, and I laughed when Aeris died. I laughed so much.
Well, now that I’ve pissed off every nerd and lonely fangirl on the internet, let me talk about the one thing about Final Fantasy 7 that I do like: Crisis Core, which differs from the game its spun-off of in almost every meaningful way possible. It’s a mission-based action RPG for one, which makes it perfectly suited for quick sessions of on-the-go gaming, and two, its written in such a way that it manages to make FF7’s cast actually likable, something which FF7 and Advent Children never managed to do for me.
Perhaps it’s Crisis Core’s main character, Zack, whose outgoing, easy-going and agreeable personality pretty much makes him the antithesis of FF7’s bitchy, self-absorbed Cloud, or maybe its Aeris, who manages to seem more like a real person and less like an aloof, ultra naive crazy cat-lady who everyone likes for no reason at all. While Crisis Core eventually devolves into the cheesy melodrama that’s come to define the series, the story is written with enough heart and class that I genuinely felt something during the game’s depressing conclusion. I started playing Crisis Core because it was a fun action-RPG with addictive combat and deep character customization, but I kept playing it because I genuinely cared about what would happen in the story next, which isn’t something I can say about a lot of the recent Final Fantasy’s. Give it a shot, no matter what your opinion of FF7 is.
Videogames have always been a good outlet for wanderlust: it’s human nature to want to explore and see what’s over the horizon, and games provide a uniquely satisfying way to immerse oneself in a foreign environment. The sense of exploration is a key aspect in many games, and finding out whats hidden in every nook and cranny of the game world is what makes games as diverse as Zelda or GTA so much fun. While a lot of games have featured worlds that were fun to explore, Etrian Odyssey makes exploration its central focus.
At its core, EO is a traditional dungeon crawler: you form a party using custom-created characters and then spend the next 100 hours or so fighting your way through a vast dungeon, inching slowly but noticeably towards your final goal while collecting lots of loot along the way. EO differentiates itself from the scores of dungeon-crawlers that came before it via two methods: its character classes and its manual map taking. While EO features the usual tank/healer/mage/theif class archetypes that are in every game of this type, it also encourages players to try out some new, weirder classes like the Royalty class, who can heal teammates via innate skills that don’t require a turn, or Ninjas, who can create clones of themselves. While the traditional style character classes certainly get the job done, playing the game with a party made of some of the more non-traditional character classes makes Etrian Odyssey a much different experience from other dungeon crawlers.
Then there’s the map taking– Most games simply fill out your dungeon map automatically as you explore, but Etrian Odyssey makes you draw your own map as you go along. It sounds like it’d get annoying, but its strangely entertaining; there’s a weird, undeniable sense of satisfaction as you manually chart your course through the games’ massive dungeons, and, for reasons I can’t really put into words, the sense of exploration is heightened when you’re using a map drawn by your own hand rather than one that’s been given to you. There are 3 Etrian Odyssey games available for the DS, and while they’re at the core mostly similar, I prefer the third game for its wealth of new character class options.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Thanks to the popularity of Persona 3 and 4, a lot of games are probably familiar with the name Shin Megami Tensei. The series has been around since the 8-bit days in Japan, and while seemingly everybody who’s into J-RPGs has played one of the PS2 Persona games, there’s still a sizeable chunk of gamers who haven’t played one of the “main series” Shin Megami Tensei games, of which Persona was a spin-of off. It doesn’t help that the only entry in the main SMT line of games to come to the US was the PS2’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, which only saw a limited release and now fetches a decent price on eBay.
Thankfully, we now have Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, which is more or less the next entry in the “main” SMT series. Like Persona, you’ll be spending most of your time exploring deep dungeons and fighting/recruiting a horde of bizarre demons, but unlike Persona, there’s no life-sim/adventure game aspects outside of the dungeon– the main SMT series is pure dungeon crawling, all the time. Strange Journey takes the series out of its traditional Japanese environs and puts players in the shoes of a research team sent to Antarctica to investigate a mysterious temporal anomaly, which, as per series traditions, turns out to be a gateway to a world of demons. Strange Journey doesn’t pull any punches in regards to its difficulty, with complex dungeon designs and brutal enemy encounters, but its nothing that proper strategic thinking can’t overcome. If you liked Persona, Strange Journey offers a very different, but similarly satisfying adventure on your DS.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
In case Etrian Odyssey and Shin Megami Tensei weren’t obscure enough for you, Xseed has kindly released The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky in the US, the PSP port of a previously Japan exclusive PC title from several years ago, that takes place within the same setting as another Japan-only PC game that never came out here. Still, despite being a sort of semi-spin-off of a game that you haven’t played, The Legend of Heroes is still accessible even without prior knowledge of the series, and is definitely one of the more solid traditional RPGs available on the PSP.
While it comes from Ys developer Falcom, The Legend of Heroes is a turn-based RPG rather than an action RPG, and it has one of the best turned based battle systems to appear in a J-RPG since Grandia; like Grandia, one of the central strategies that you’ll have to master in The Legend of Heroes is using the game’s turn order (which is displayed on screen) to your advantage: attacks only have a certain range, and spells take a certain amount of time to be cast, and characters can use their turns to move around the battle area, allowing them to avoid potential attacks. This lends the game an almost chess-like strategy, where your goal is to anticipate your enemy’s next move in order to put them in range of a devastating attack, or likewise, make sure your own characters are out of harms way once the enemy’s turn comes up. The game possesses a level of strategy that is sadly missing from most modern J-RPG battles, and its intensely satisfying when a battle pans out exactly as you planned.
The Legend of Heroes also succeeds thanks to its cast of characters. While the story doesn’t possess any twists or turns that J-RPG fans haven’t seen before, the characters are written well and believably enough that you’ll grow to like them more than you realize: when the game finally hit its cliff-hanger conclusion, I found myself genuinely concerned for the fate of The Legend of Heroes’s cast.
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
The original Valkyrie Profile was one of the best RPG’s of the PS1 era, and that’s saying a lot, especially when you consider the amount of great RPGs that were released for that system. It’s sequel, the PS2 exclusive Valkyrie Profile 2: Slimeria, wasn’t quite as great. DS strategy spin-off, Covenant of the Plume, falls somewhere in between those two games in terms of quality, but while it may not be perfect, CotP’s main gimmick — being able to permanently kill off your own allies in order to gain an upperhand in battle — makes it one of the most unique RPGs available for the DS.
Lots of games let you choose between playing a good character or a bad one, but rarely do your choices actually result in the deaths of your own comrades. Covenant of the Plume gives you a lot of genuinely difficult choices to make: each member of your party isn’t some faceless foot solider, but rather, an actual character with their own back stories and goals they want to achieve — that is, if you let them live. If you chose to sacrifice your friends, you gain a temporary God Mode that will let you decimate your enemies for the next few turns, as well as new skill that you can pass on to your surviving allies. Each battle in Covenant of the Plume offers a genuine moral dilemma: do you sacrifice one of your allies in order to give the rest of your team a better chance of surviving, or do you try to play the good guy and keep everyone alive, even if it means the game will be much more difficult as a result? I found myself genuinely struggling with that choice every time I had my back against the wall in one of the game’s many challenging battles, and even when a sacrificed ally gave me the strength to pull a come-from-behind victory or yielded a particularly useful skill, I found myself genuinely feeling sorry that I had ended their lives prematurely. How many games, especially a handheld one at that, offer you choices with that kind of weight?
The World Ends With You
Most of the RPG’s on this list are great because they manage to successfully translate the home console RPG experience over to a handheld. The final game on this list, Square-Enix’s sleeper hit The World Ends With You, succeeds because it’s a game that could only be done on a handheld: the game uses almost every feature of the DS’s unique hardware in a way that feels fresh and innovative without being gimmicky, and also manages to be a hell of a game in its own right.
It’s easy to dismiss The World Ends With You at first glance; the protagonist, Neku, is cut from the same unlikeable, emo cloth as Final Fantasy’s Cloud and Squall, and the game’s battle system, which requires you to control two battles on the DS’s 2 screens at the same time by using the touch screen and buttons simultaenously, seems impossibly complicated and chaotic. But give TWEWY a chance, and eventually it’ll all click: the rhythmic battles start to make sense and, once you gain a decent set of customizable abilities and powers, actually becomes a lot of fun, and the narrative manages to trade in the insipid teenage angst for genuine character development and growth.
Then there’s the game’s style: while first impressions might lead you to believe it’s another example of Tetsuya Nomua’s cookie-cutter style of character design, the game’s ornate, graffiti like backgrounds and unique take on modern Japan (the entire game takes place in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district,) easily make it the most stylish game since Jet Grind Radio. It’s got a soundtrack to match too, and like JGR, it’s an eclectic mix of avante-garde J-Pop and hip-hop that give the game a unique sound to match it’s unique look.