Here is a fact: There are a lot of incredible cities in Japanese role-playing games. From the simplicity of Pallet Town to the squalor of Midgar, JRPG cities are usually interesting, memorable, and full of dressers to crack open.
But when we're determining the BEST JRPG city — and determining THE BEST THINGS is what we do here on THE BESTS — we have to narrow down the list to one. Sorry, Midgar — you're gritty, but you're not my favourite. Lindblum, you're up there, as are Fourside and Rabanastre and Zeal and Inaba and North Window Castle and many, many more. Lots of strong runner-ups here, but they can't all be THE BEST.
The best JRPG city is a little place called Etrenank, best known as the capital city of Solaris, from a video game called Xenogears. You don't get to visit Etrenank until very late in the game, and when you do, you've really earned it. You've been fighting against Solaris's enigmatic agents for hours and hours, gradually learning that this technocratic country — which floats in the sky, concealed from human sight — has been the source of the world's woes for generations.
You've figured out how to dismantle all three of the "gates" that protect Solaris from being spotted or entered by surface-dwellers — lambs, as they're called. Taking down these gates is an ordeal in and of itself.
Once you finally reach Etrenank, you discover that gravity is reversed and that everyone lives upside down. Also, you find out that Solaris is a draconian society where the elite first-class citizens brainwash, enslave, and subjugate the lower class through an elaborate dystopian system involving ID cards, security drones, and immutable castes. Third-class citizens live in a honeycomb of tiny pods, only leaving when it's time to work. If they speak out, they're killed by drones.
As you explore Etrenank, you'll make your way from the miserable third-class block to the elaborate homes of the first-class, who live on the backs of those below them. (Could this be a metaphor for something? Hmm.) I mean, check out this sweet sky mansion:
You'll also sneak through tunnels, watch an emperor speak, uncover all sorts of twisted secrets, and leave feeling like you only got a taste of what Solaris has to offer.
This is all to say that Etrenank is the best JRPG city. You probably wouldn't want to live there, but in a video game it's fascinating, a place that's visually astonishing yet incredible at evoking nausea and dread. Xenogears gives you a nice chunk of Etrenank but won't let you see all of it, which is perfect — both you and your characters are left wondering just how much bigger this country is, and how its citizens can live with themselves, and just how the hell you can fight them.
As you wander through the sewers and mansions of Solaris, discovering how they live and where the city's food comes from (hint: it's called "soylent"), it's hard not to feel at least some level of queasiness at how Etrenank's people live. And that's what makes it so interesting. Not because it's gritty or cool — plenty of JRPG cities are gritty and cool! — but because it can evoke emotions in a way that very few other cities can. That's why it's the best.
Screengrabs via The Dark Id.