Our all-time favourite RPGs with a school setting

The RPG genre tends to primarily be associated with heroic fantasy stories, because the mechanics of gradually growing in power over the long term lend themselves well to a “hero’s journey” sort of narrative. But there’s another type of story for which they’re particularly fitting, too: those set during the main cast’s school days.

School settings are incredibly popular in anime and manga because of what they represent: a defining time in characters’ lives, during which they learn who they really are, how to express themselves, and, in many cases, what they want to end up doing with their lives over the long term. If you think that sounds like prime fodder for a lengthy RPG, you’d be absolutely right, and there have been some great examples over the years.

So let’s take a look at some of our favourites from both yesterday and today!

Valthirian Arc: Hero School Story 2

School setting RPGs: Valthirian Arc - Hero School Story 2

While it’s the newest title on this list, Valthirian Arc: Hero School Story 2 has very much been proving its worth over its time in Early Access on Steam, and is sure to find plenty of new fans with its console release on June 22, 2023.

Casting players in the role of principal for a hero-training school, the game combines elements of management sims and RPGs as you not only ensure the school is treating its students well, but also follow those students as they head off on various adventures around the world.

Unlike many other titles on this list, Valthirian Arc: Hero School Story 2 doesn’t follow a fixed cast over the course of a short period like a single year; instead, you’ll have to look at the big picture over the long term. As you progress through the game, your heroes will get older and eventually graduate from your school, so you’ll have to ensure that the next generation is also staying well-trained if you want to keep on top of things — not to mention ensuring your school has a good reputation so you have a “next generation” in the first place!

Valthirian Arc: Hero School Story 2 has a very distinctive blend of gameplay elements. You’ll have to keep the school running efficiently and effectively for it to maintain a good reputation and continue to attract new students. You’ll need to manage diplomatic relations with surrounding territories, both through financial support and dispatching your would-be heroes out on expeditions. You’ll have to explore and fight in the game’s RPG sequences. And there are plenty of fun minigames to experience along the way, too.

All this — along with the fact you play a member of staff rather than a student — makes Valthirian Arc: Hero School Story 2 a distinctive, standout title even among the niche that is RPGs with a school setting, so be sure to set aside some time to enjoy it for yourself. It’s available for Windows PC via Steam, PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch and Xbox platforms.

Blue Reflection

School setting RPGs - Blue Reflection

While Blue Reflection: Second Light is a better game in most respects, the first entry in Gust’s emotional series places a stronger focus on its school setting, with main heroine Hinako juggling her social life at school with her ability to enter the world’s collective unconscious and deal with the troubles that are occurring therein.

Blue Reflection works so well as an RPG with a school setting because in many respects, it feels like a teenage girl simulator as much as it does an RPG. Hanging out with your friends, talking about completely mundane things and fiddling with your smartphone is as important a part of the game as exploring dungeons, finding items and beating up monsters.

The social aspect isn’t just for the sake of story, either; the various characters you encounter all provide the opportunity for Hinako to earn equippable emotional “Fragments”, which let her power herself up in various ways. Plus under various circumstances, you can even get your new girlfriends to help you out in battle — and some of them have rather unconventional styles of fighting, shall we say!

Blue Reflection is available for Windows PC via Steam and PlayStation 4.

Persona 3

School setting RPGs - Persona 3 Portable

While Persona 5 is probably the most famous, well-known and well-loved entry in the series, it was the original western release of Persona 3 on PS2 all the way back in 2007 (2008 in Europe) that showed audiences outside of Japan what a powerful and effective setting school could be for an RPG.

While most of the well-known and well-established console RPGs prior to Persona 3 had allowed players to take their time as much as they wanted building up characters, Persona 3’s calendar and fatigue mechanics meant that you had to strike a careful balance between making the most of the limited time you had available to you and ensuring you didn’t exhaust your characters ahead of a major confrontation.

Persona 3 also established what has become one of the series’ most famous and iconic features: Social Links, or Confidants, as they are known in Persona 5. This is another great example of how RPGs with a school setting can highlight the importance of close personal bonds established in adolescence — in both mechanical and narrative terms.

Persona 3 is available for PlayStation 2. Its PSP port Persona 3 Portable recently got a rerelease on Windows PC via Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox platforms, and a full remake was recently announced for a 2024 release — though for some inexplicable reason, the remake is set to only include the material from the original game, not the extra content from the later FES or Portable versions.

The Mana Khemia duology

School setting RPGs - Mana Khemia

Despite the name not featuring the word “Atelier” anywhere, Mana Khemia and its sequel, both for PlayStation 2, are canonical installments in Gust’s long-running alchemy-based series — though they are distinctive enough in their own right to justify the different title.

Unfolding in an academy that trains both alchemists and warriors, the Mana Khemia games see players taking on the role of a student working through their classes as well as uncovering various ongoing plots according to which game they’re playing — and, in the case of the second Mana Khemia title, which of the two playable characters they’ve chosen to take control of.

While the games aren’t as strict with its time aspect as the Persona games are, you’ll still need to figure out the best time to get various things done if you want to make the best of your virtual school days. As you might expect from a Gust game, there’s a lot of mechanical depth on offer in both the games’ battle and crafting systems, and the influences of these two games can still be felt in the Atelier series to this day — in terms of aesthetics, narrative themes and mechanics.

Mana Khemia and its sequel are exclusive to PlayStation 2, and Mana Khemia 2’s only western release was in North America. Expect to pay a premium for both these days!

The Class of Heroes series

School setting RPGs - Class of Heroes 2

The dungeon crawler subgenre of RPG fits nicely with the school theme, because these games typically have a large cast of playable characters, a selection of whom you take out at any given time. Thematically, this is a good means of representing various groups of characters going out for “classes” or “assignments” as well as providing a good excuse for them to interact with one another between expeditions.

Class of Heroes allows you to create your own party of characters to take out on expeditions, choosing their names, genders, races, stats, moral alignment and major at school. The latter two aspects can be changed over the course of the game via various means, allowing for some flexibility in character development — and helping to reflect the fact that one’s life at school doesn’t always go completely according to plan.

The original Class of Heroes was released for PSP in 2008 (2009 in North America) and was succeeded by several follow-ups, each of which built on the first game’s principles in various ways. Most recently, the series had a considerable reinvention in the form of tactical RPG Adventure Academia, though as the title suggests, this is perhaps best regarded as a spinoff rather than a canonical entry in the series. The well-regarded Class of Heroes 2 also supposedly has a remaster in development, though we haven’t head much about that since its initial announcement last year.

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Pete Davison
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