A Place to Return To, Part 1: RPGamer’s Favorite Towns
When you’re feeling tired from a long day of dungeon diving or level grinding in your RPG of choice, does your heart yearn to mosey on back to the nearest town? Though not quite so expansive and grandiose as their city counterparts, towns and villages have their fair share to offer rising adventurers as they pass through on their journeys. Sometimes they’re a hometown, sometimes they offer a cozy bed in a quiet inn, and sometimes they’re the unexpected stage of some pivotal plot drama.
For the first part of our two-part celebration of our favorite settlements great and small, we would like to show our appreciation for the little guys. Please join us now as we introduce you to some of our most beloved RPG towns. However, keep in mind that some passages will contain story spoilers! If city life is more your speed, we invite you to check out part two.
A noteworthy village for me is Final Fantasy VII’s Cosmo Canyon. This one made an indelible impression on my mind decades ago, and I enjoyed it all over again recently. Its rugged design reminds me of the sparse American desert to the west of the Rocky Mountains, with randomly spread out cave-like entrances and cliffs to explore in a maze-like fashion.
Home to Red XIII, as well as the origin of Avalanche, Cosmo Canyon impressed me with its musical theme as well as its observatory and planetarium scene, where Cloud learns more about the lifestream and the precious planet he calls home. Its use of full-motion video graphics blended with in-game, pre-rendered backgrounds still sits on a trophy shelf in my mind. The canyon hamlet is also a place where the story’s main characters have pointed exposition and interaction, building them up, deepening their relationships, and expanding the lore of the game. So while its presentation is a highlight, it’s also the character-building events and plot points revealed there that make it a shining memory. — Jason McFadden
Beset by earthquakes and nestled in a cave of a volcanic zone, Fireburg is a town with a lot of personality. But the biggest part of that is the catchy theme that plays while the player is in town. Years after playing this surprisingly good game, that song still pops into my head. The soundtrack itself is a high-energy, almost dance track, which blends in unexpectedly with the screen shake that happens for each feel of the earthquake.
As for the town itself, it is home to one of the more forgotten secondary characters in the game, Reuben. As the only character without a good magic skill, he needed something, in this case a morning star animation that was pretty cool. This stands out as one of the few weapons the protagonist Benjamin cannot get himself. Also memorable is a hotel that features a rock band on a stage, which I attributed as a kid to the reason this town had its new upbeat theme.
I remember Fireburg fondly with nostalgia, as Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is one of the first RPGs I played as a kid. It was also one of the first towns I encountered that featured its own theme song, complemented by the earthquake screen-shake visual effect. These kinds of alterations are of course seen much more in games these days, but as an early one it sticks out as memorable even all this time later. — Ryan Costa
Persona 4’s Inaba is easily the most distinct setting in the series. Previous titles took place in largely generic fictional cities, while Persona 5 was another title set in the familiar metropolis of Tokyo. The small, out-of-the-way town of Inaba, however, almost becomes a character of its own as a series of mysterious deaths and disappearances beset it.
Persona 4 does a magnificent job of making players understand both the appeal and drawbacks of life in Inaba. It has the positives of small-town life, being much less hectic with plenty of space and lots of lovely scenery, but this also means fewer things to do and fewer opportunities in general. Part of its success in evoking Inaba’s small-town nature comes from how easy the game makes it to identify with all of the characters as they deal with their emotional struggles, many of which are directly related to the town’s nature or their standing within it.
The series’ day-to-day calendar system helps flesh out Inaba and bring the package together, giving characters and places their own schedules, while the town gets excited about local events and builds up towards festivals. The key role weather plays in the game further makes it feel alive, and Shoji Meguro’s pop-inspired soundtrack ensures that players have an incredibly catchy audio background to their time spent in the town. — Alex Fuller
One part of Final Fantasy XV‘s game world that felt truly alive was Lestallum, and that is perhaps because it is one of the only true towns to explore in the game. This is only expanded upon in the multiplayer expansion, Comrades, which has Lestallum serving as the home base for players between quests.
Like much of Final Fantasy XV, Lestallum is served an absolutely stunning soundtrack which is evocative of tropical vacations in warmer climes, with a matching aesthetic to boot: sprawling stone roads, a gorgeous cliffside photo opportunity, a Cup Noodle truck, and a power plant. What more could you ask from the only town in the whole game? Like Narshe in Final Fantasy VI, Lestallum feels like a real place where actual people live, and what they say reflects what is happening during the story.
Moreover, Lestallum is basically the only location players are able to experience in the first section of the game before a time jump. Players are able to read about so much of what happened during this gap, but they are only given the opportunity to experience a small portion of it in Lestallum during the Comrades expansion. Like the game it comes from, Lestallum is far from perfect. However it provides a much-needed respite from the tour of male friendship and leather jackets that have occupied the bulk of Final Fantasy XV to that point. — Paul Shkreli
In terms of pure creativity and imagination, Ni no Kuni has set a high bar to clear. Level-5’s gorgeously-animated RPG was and still is a feast for the senses, and this comes across as much in its world design as anywhere else. The various cities and towns Oliver and his friends visit on their journey through the magical realm are extremely charming and inviting, and most of them could easily be contenders for this list. However, it’s Oliver’s real-world hometown of Motorville that tops them all because it’s the kind of place that, somehow, just feels absolutely lovely to come back home to, no matter how extraordinary a journey we’re returning from.
Motorville is, by design, quaint and old-fashioned, being that it’s modeled after 1950’s small-town Americana. It feels like the kind of place where folks would never dream of locking their door at night and where everyone’s on a first-name basis with one another. For our young protagonist, it’s the perfect place and time to grow up in: a peaceful and safe place to play and be a kid, where life-long bonds of friendship are forged. It’s also the perfect little town for a budding car enthusiast like Oliver to pursue his interest — maybe even build himself a prototype race kart to test out down by the river?
As Ni no Kuni unfolds, each visit back to Motorville becomes something to look forward to. The contrast of this mundane little town to the colorful, magical world the game mainly takes place in is always refreshing. Given Oliver’s recent loss of his mother, each return to his hometown becomes a bittersweet experience, the escapism of the other world forgotten for a moment as reality sets back in; the beautiful music here also does its fair share of keeping the emotions close to the surface. In the end, Oliver’s journey of growth and learning to cope with his loss works all the better given that, when all is said and done, a part of his mother will always live on in Motorville, and simply being there evokes the feeling of not being alone anymore. — Pascal Tekaia
The opening set piece of Final Fantasy VI is absolutely iconic, with Magitek soldiers standing atop a cliff and discussing the raw power of the silent woman in their employ. As their mechanical beasts lurch towards Narshe, a sense of foreboding permeates as the overworld theme begins to play. Narshe is where the story of Final Fantasy VI begins, and it serves as a North Star of sorts for the cast during the first portion of the game. Something about this snowy village has always spoken to me. Final Fantasy VI was a testimony to the power of the Super Nintendo, and Narshe was a window into the soul of this game.
Narshe is a mining village nestled in the northern part of the continent. From the onset, Narshe gives off vibes that are more indicative of the industrial revolution than a tale of knights and dragons, even if a group of Moogles lives in a cave underneath it. This thematic pivot only hints at what is to come with the rest of the series, and this sense of adventure and promise pulses within the town as there is always something else to uncover. Players would be forgiven for thinking Narshe is a place you’d visit once and never again, but the focus of the story continually returns to this location.
Narshe sticks with you because it feels like a real place that evolves with the story. Rare items, hidden characters, and even Espers await players on return trips hours after they’ve first fled the town. There’s also something comforting about the warm glow of the fire against the walls in the snowy locale that reminds me of winters up north in Michigan. Maybe after nearly thirty years of repeat visits, Narshe doesn’t just feel like a real place — it simply is one. — Paul Shkreli
One of the most memorable RPG towns I’ve had the joy of visiting is Onett in EarthBound for Super NES. Onett might seem like the least likely prospect, yet that’s why it works so well. Often, the most outlandish or biggest of cities easily stands above lesser-built locales where NPC denizens reside; an obvious example of this phenomenon being Midgar from Final Fantasy VII.
Contrast that with Onett, humble hometown of Ness. Its super-simple art style, easily navigable size, quaint small-town American charm, and even its cleverly unclever name, designating its playthrough sequence, make it a winsome area in my RPG book. As the origin of EarthBound‘s unwitting hero, the town’s unimpressive design belies the fact it will be shaken up by an intergalactic time-traveling alien. I enjoy its welcoming layout, with a distinct downtown that sports a burger shop and city hall separated from its small suburb on the outskirts. Maybe Onett is memorable because its down-to-earth vibe is so uncommon amongst the rather commonplace high-fantasy settings found in most RPGs. Being so different makes it distinct. — Jason McFadden
The world of Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean has several wondrous, richly detailed locations, but the strange island nation of Mira is the most fantastical of them all. Mira spends years at a time shifted into another dimension, so the country has developed in unique and bizarre ways. While Mira has Parnasse, a village literally made of cake and candy, and Detourne, a garden that contains an elaborate homage to the arcade game Tower of Druaga, the most extraordinary location has to be Reverence the Picture Book Village.
As its title suggests, Reverence looks like something out of a children’s pop-up book. As soon as the player enters, they are bound to notice objects with faces. There is a green cat’s face just barely visible in the bottom right corner, a gaudy rock with a wiggling face on it, a purple clock with crooked hands, a clownish doll head with googly eyes, and a large pop-up antelope, and these are just the most obvious things. There are also some strange robot-looking beings that walk about and say cryptic things. The village would probably seem more creepy if not for the bright colors and whimsical cut-out designs (although perhaps creepy is in the eye of the beholder). The humans there are either just as perplexed as the player is probably feeling, or are enjoying how offbeat everything is.
Reverence plays a relatively small role in the game, as it serves as a waypoint between the first place Kalas and his companions visit in Mira en route to the next major story beat, traveling from Parnasse to Nekton. The party members do meet an old fortune teller who says she cannot feel any Magnus, the essence found in everything, within Kalas. The significance of this won’t come to light until much later in the game, but it’s fittingly enigmatic for such a strange place. Before they can even talk to this fortune teller, though, the party has to bring Mirage Weed to one of the robot-like denizens, who opens the path with an elaborate Rube Goldberg-inspired chain of events. While there are few reasons to come back to Reverence, players may want to visit the Picture Book Village again and again just to remind themselves of how wacky it is. — Cassandra Ramos
The Rune Factory series is all about settling down to live the slow, relaxing life of a humble farmer, one who happens to take up weapons on the regular to delve into local dungeons and fight monsters to protect the townspeople. Therefore, each entry’s town is designed to be memorable and inviting. But to me, Selphia of Rune Factory 4 is the high point for town design in the series. Let’s unpack some of the factors at play making this a place I’d want to live.
Selphia is a town of modest size with notable features like an inn with a hot spring, an observation tower with telescopes, and a castle with a friendly dragon. On your initial visit, you find the role of prince or princess somehow foisted upon you and have to oversee leadership duties for the residents. There are some strange people here like a perpetually lazy blacksmith, a woman whose bad luck always turns into good luck, or your butler who apparently has superhuman capabilities. But every day, living among these lovable weirdos comes to feel increasingly more like home.
As you pass them in the streets, the townspeople will greet you daily. If you strike up a conversation with them, you will find that everyone has enough different lines of dialogue to keep things fresh for a long time to come. Festivals are special occasions to share in the antics as you compete to see who can shave a giant sheep the fastest, or toss turnips at your neighbors with reckless abandon. However, everything is not all fun and games. Sometimes bad times hit the town and its people, but nobody in Selphia turns their back on a friend in need. Because of the warm support of people who will laugh with you on your good days and go out of their way to lend a hand on your bad ones, Selphia is my favorite Rune Factory town. — Casey Pritt
The whole of the Trails of Cold Steel subseries is far too expansive to be centered around any one location; exploring the entirety of a civil war from its origins to its conclusion, each game in the series sees the varied cast of characters traveling around the entire country of Erebonia. Still, home is where the heart is, and Trista and its annexed Thors Academy serve as an anchoring point for players to forge an emotional bond with a key geographical location.
From the first steps we take into Trista as we exit the train station in Cold Steel I, the town’s quaint beauty becomes immediately apparent. It’s the first day of the new school term for the incoming students of Thors Military Academy, so we take in this brand new setting for the first time just as the characters do. Trista and Thors play different roles in various entries in the series, but the first game really lets us fall in love with it as it acts as a safe space to return to between field studies, a place that is as charming as it is familiar even when events in other corners of the country are spiraling out of control and shadows of unrest begin to reach toward the beautiful little town.
Situated just a stone’s throw from the bustling capital of Heimdallr, it’s remarkable that Trista has remained as untouched by the outside world as it has. A picturesque little park marks the town’s center, flanked by a florist, a cafe, and a handful of shops. Up the hill, past Trista Chapel and a convenient fishing spot, the sprawling campus of Thors Military Academy is visible, easily as large again as the town itself. Trista also houses its own radio station, which broadcasts the immensely popular Abend Time radio show, and evenings spent in Class VII’s dormitory while tuned in to the orbal-radio program are as relaxing as they are memorable. It’s just one more amenity that sets Trista apart and makes it a town unlike any other in Erebonia. — Pascal Tekaia
What makes Twilight Town memorable is more how it is used, specifically in the three-hour-plus prologue of Kingdom Hearts II. While this opening has been criticized for giving the game a slow start, as players don’t get to play as Sora until it’s over, it has probably some of the most emotionally affecting moments of storytelling in the entire series. A young boy named Roxas is spending the last days of summer vacation with his friends. As they spend this time investigating the Seven Wonders in the inconspicuous town, mysterious incidents occur that lead Roxas to discover that the Twilight Town he knows is actually a computer simulation created by DiZ, an identity taken up by Ansem the Wise.
While not exactly the most engaging from a gameplay standpoint, the prologue does a great job of showcasing the relative mundanity of Roxas’ existence, showing how he and his friends live their day-to-day lives in the town. From doing menial jobs in order to buy train tickets to participating in Struggle competitions against Seifer and his cronies, this normalcy is contrasted with the incidents that force Roxas to have revelations about his own existence that eventually lead him to re-enter the heart of series protagonist Sora. It’s a pretty tragic tale, but it at least ends on a more positive note down the line of several spin-offs, and its humble beginnings were in Twilight Town. — Ryan McCarthy
Thanks for joining us on this textual tour of some of our favorite smaller towns and villages in RPGs! That’s not all we have to share, however, and our second part covering the larger cities will be available in the coming days. We’ve covered a lot of ground, but there are plenty more great towns populating the wide world of RPGs. Did we forget to mention one of your favorites? We invite you to show some love for your favorite RPG towns in the comments!