It’s no secret that life in Japan becomes so much easier when you can read your own email, make small talk with your Japanese friends, or relish that sense of accomplishment from finishing a Netflix J-drama series without subtitles. But before you grind yet another afternoon away at Japanese for Busy People II, try an alternative studying method that won’t feel like a chore: learning Japanese through video games.
Gaming is fun and interactive. It can also serves as great practice for listening and comprehension, as well as being a good way to test your kanji and grammar knowledge through game dialogue. Before you begin, it’s important to be realistic about your current Japanese level. Brute forcing your way through a game that only has fast paced and advanced dialogue isn’t going to help you improve your language skills or advance in the game.
It’s also important to ascertain the kind of game you like, whether it’s a deck-building card game, a mysterious visual novel, or an action Japan role-playing game (JRPG). Lastly, it’s important to be patient with yourself, as you’ll naturally be progressing much slower through the game in Japanese than you otherwise would in your native language.
Final Fantasy VIII (or any earlier Final Fantasy titles)
Final Fantasy is the name behind some of the most genre-defining titles the JRPG category has ever seen. Dig through the archives for some of the older Final Fantasy titles that still employ the classic turn-based mechanic to facilitate slower-paced yet easier understanding. Pausing dialogue can happen at any time and you only need to click through once you’ve finished reading it. Game scripts can also be found online, allowing you to download the in-game text to study and keep a record of the kanji you’ve learned along the way.
Final Fantasy VIII gets a particular mention for an immersive storyline about magic-wielding mercenaries fighting sorceresses from the future and addicting gameplay that will keep you so engaged you won’t realize you’re actually studying.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Visual novel games are excellent for testing your reading, and few are as genre-defining as Ace Attorney. Players take on the role of Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney who investigates crime scenes and gathers evidence before defending his clients in court. The witness-examining game mechanic itself is a great comprehension exercise, as it requires you to spot inconsistencies in their statements. The nature of the game will also expose you to some interesting legal terminology that may come in handy in real life (but hopefully not). While the game does have its serious moments, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself interrogating a parrot on the witness stand.
Ace Attorney is one of Capcom’s most celebrated games. If you end up falling in love with this first entry point into the series, there are about 10 more Ace Attorney games for you to play.
If the 1990s courtroom vibes aren’t your thing, another visual novel to try is the curiosity piquing and chaotic Danganronpa, a high school murder mystery game featuring a psychotic black and white bear. Part visual novel, part world exploration and part trial, there are three mainline games in the series — and you must play in order because they are connected. Dialogue is abundant and deductive skills are important as you must find the culprit of each round through investigation and from speaking with the in-game characters. Because the characters of Danganronpa are high school kids, many will be using slang and dialects, akin to what you might actually be hearing when you’re out and about in Japan.
While there are a couple of downsides to the game, such as partial voice acting and the lack of a text log to refer back to, it’s still an overall incredible game to play and to learn Japanese.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Studio Ghibli fans rejoice, there is a game you can play that will feel like you’re within one of Hayao Miyazaki’s cinema masterpieces. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an RPG about a young boy journeying to another world to find his mother and triumph over evil. As with many RPGs, there’s a lot of world-building and conversations between characters which will test your reading ability. The added benefit of Ni No Kuni is that you’ll see furigana over kanji, which helps you read words you don’t understand and makes it easy to look up later. There is also an in-game guide called the Magic Master that reads like a well-designed document explaining the game, also with furigana.
The sequel to this game, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, is also available, but fret not. You can start with one or the other without worrying, as the stories aren’t interconnected.
Pokemon needs no introduction. It’s a series that is loved and played by the young and old alike. Because of this, an all-ages approach is reflected in the language and dialogue of the game. You’ll find that Pokemon games largely use hiragana and katakana, with only rare instances of kanji. This makes it a great game to pick up for those who are nervous about not understanding kanji characters and just want to get used to reading the other two Japanese syllabaries. Apart from the latest Pokemon Scarlet and Pokemon Violet games, which are more akin to an open world, predecessors follow a straightforward and linear plot of going from town to town to battle gym leaders as you build out a strong Pokemon team. This means, even if you don’t understand everything, it shouldn’t be too hard to use context to advance your progress in the game.
AI: The Somnium Files
This is a mystery action-adventure game with visual novel elements. Players take on the role of Special Agent Kaname Date, a futuristic detective who uses Aiba, an artificial intelligence unit in his eye, to help him overcome challenges in his work. The game is split into two parts: the investigation, where the player speaks to characters to hear their stories and obtain clues, and the Somnium, where Aiba takes on a human form to extract information and solve mental locks within a person’s dreamscapes.
On top of extended dialogue and a game that is fully voiced, AI: The Somnium Files also has a text log and a flow chart that will allow you to revisit past scenes, should you need to check up on words you didn’t understand. Compared to previously mentioned visual novels, the story of AI is darker and the game, albeit beautifully rendered, does have a more mature air to it. Ultimately, it will come down to personal preference as to which gameplay and setting you prefer.
Other Alternative Ways to Study Japanese
Studying Japanese doesn’t have to remain within the limits of language learning textbooks. Check out our other articles about fun ways to level up your Japanese: