Yes, we know we're cheating a little here, but Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has experience points, gear, items and much more besides, and these make it an action-RPG in our eyes.
When the gaming industry continued to push for 3D graphics, Symphony of the Night proved that 2D sprites – much like Dracula – wouldn’t stay dead. Assistant Director Koji Igarashi spawned a new genre by incorporating the non-linear design of Metroid titles along with some RPG elements into SotN, giving the waning Castlevania franchise new life with two massive, twisting castles to explore and different styles of play. Unlocking the Inverted Castle ranks as one of the most awesome gaming moments. When a game with smooth sprites, an amazing soundtrack, and tight gameplay gives you a whole secret castle to explore, you don’t forget it.
The second entry in Namco's "Tales of" series, Tales of Destiny would follow in the footsteps of the Super Famicom title Tales of Phantasia, released in 1995 and developed by Wolf Team. Many of the same developers were involved in this 32-bit sequel, which charts the story of the hero Stahn and his sentient weapon named Dymlos. The game was remade for PlayStation 2 in 2006, while the series would continue with entries such as Tales of Eternia (2000), Tales of Symphonia (2003) and Tales of Arise (2021). A direct sequel, Tales of Destiny 2, would come to Japan in 2002 but sadly never got a Western localisation.
While this is technically Shade's first game, it has some serious pedigree behind it. With Kouji Yokota at the helm, this action RPG is intended to be a follow-up to Quintet's SNES classics Soul Blazer and Terranigma, it has a unique approach to combat. When a battle takes place, the perspective switches as you'd expect in a normal JRPG – but in The Granstream Saga, the player has real-time control over the actions of their character. While the game was released to rave reviews, it didn't sell as well as many other PlayStation RPGs, and has been unfairly forgotten by many players.
The Persona series – a spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise – is now one of the most famous names in the world of RPG gaming, but back at the turn of the millennium, it was still only just finding its feet in the West. 1996's Revelations: Persona kicked things off, but its sequel Persona 2: Innocent Sin never made it out of Japan at the time of release (this would be fixed with the subsequent PSP version in 2011). Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, despite its title, is actually a direct sequel to Innocent Sin, and sees journalist Maya Amano lifting the lid on the 'Joker Curse', which is causing people's wishes and rumours to come true. An excellent localisation meant that Eternal Punishment did a lot to establish the series in the West; the next title, Persona 3, would be a commercial success all over the world.
Although this collection didn't arrive in North America until 2002, it pulls together three RPGs that span the entire life of the PlayStation. The original Arc the Lad arrived in 1995, the second game was released in 1996 and the third offering is from 1999. Created by Toshiro Tsuchida (Front Mission) as one of Sony's big in-house RPG franchises, all three games are worth a look – and this Working Designs triple-pack is the ideal place to start – it even includes a 'making of' documentary on its own disc. The series would continue on PlayStation 2 with Twilight of the Spirits (2003) and End of Darkness (2005).
A tactical RPG in the same style as Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force, Vandal Hearts made quite a splash when it arrived on Western shores in 1997. This style of game was still seen as something of a niche proposition at the time, but Konami's turn-based classic won over hordes of critics, establishing it as one of the PlayStation's most appealing strategy outings. The 1999 sequel is equally appealing, but the 2010 digital-only title Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment is less essential.
The Wild Arms series is unique for its 'Wild West' setting. A terrorist group called Odessa is threatening to take over the world, triggering a response from ARMS, an anti-terrorist organisation. As you might imagine, you're part of this team of do-gooders, and you'll see other heroes join your cause as the game progresses. Released in the wake of graphically stunning PlayStation RPGs like Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Wild Arms 2 caught some criticism for sticking with 2D sprites, although the backgrounds are at least rendered in 3D.
The first entry in Square's tactical RPG series to see release in the West, Front Mission 3 shifts the focus of Front Mission and Front Mission 2, with the role-playing elements given more attention. Deep mechanics and a captivating story make this one of the most beloved entries in the franchise; it was confirmed in 2022 that, alongside the first two games, Front Mission 3 will be remade on Nintendo Switch by Forever Entertainment.
With its high production budget and long development time, it was almost inevitable that Sony's Legend of Dragoon would fall short of expectations, but that's not to say it isn't a game you should try. Sure, it's not quite in the same league as Square's Final Fantasy entries on the same console, but the lavish CGI cutscenes and astonishing presentation make it worth a look, even today.
Square really was firing on all cylinders in the '90s, as this curious mix of street racing and RPG attests. Taking place in 1999 Yokohama, Japan, the game places you in the seat of a racer who is trying to uncover the mystery of his past life. It's possible to play the game as a straight racing title, but Racing Lagoon's RPG mode – where you take on missions and challenge other drivers whilst customising your car – is the real meat of the game. It was never released outside of Japan, but an English language patch is available.
If Chrono Cross was PS1’s swansong, Breath of Fire IV barged in at the beginning of its eulogy. While it’s true consoles back then had longer overlapping lifespans, releasing after the launch of Final Fantasy VIII and the PS2 did BoFIV few favours as most major studios had shifted development to Sony’s successor console, focusing on polygonal 3D graphics and pre-rendered cutscenes. Yet we can’t deny that its smooth hand-drawn sprites for its characters, the ability to play as Fou-Lu – the Dragon God Emperor antagonist – for some chapters, and the option to switch party members out mid-battle before Final Fantasy X made it the norm, were underrated for the time period. If BoFIV released a year or two prior, we think it would have challenged the PlayStation’s JRPG greats for the top spots while also visually ageing better than its peers.
Lauded as one of the finest Sega Saturn RPGs when it was released in 1998, Grandia sadly remained a Japanese exclusive on that particular console, but thankfully was afforded a PlayStation port shortly afterwards which did make it to the West. Created by many of the same people who gave us the sublime Lunar series, Grandia mixes technology with your typical fantasy setting, and was successful enough to spawn a series; Grandia II launched on the Dreamcast in 2000 (it was later ported to the PS2), while Grandia Xtreme and Grandia III were both PS2 exclusives.