2015 was an astonishingly generous year for RPG fans. We were showered with an embarrassment of riches, from massive triple-A behemoths like Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3, to the mid-size stars of Kickstarter like Pillars of Eternity. Standouts appeared in the oddest places, from the Wii U’s stunning Xenoblade Chronicles X to bizarre indie gems like Undertale, peppering the 2015 landscape with incredible role-playing experiences on almost every platform, at every level of development.
It may sound like an impossible act to follow, but mark my words: if you love RPGs, 2016 is set to rock your world. Here’s how.
Final Fantasy XV
There was a long period of time quite recently where JRPGs seemed stuck in a rut, shackled to rusty, ancient mechanics and unwilling or unable to innovate. But a breakout crop of releases in the last few years, led by the likes of Ni No Kuni and Persona 4, have lit the way forward for a genre that seemed intent on endless navel gazing.
Who better than Square and their flagship franchise to shepherd a new generation of RPGs into the modern era? Final Fantasy XV promises to shake off the dated trappings that have long been the hallmark of Square RPGs, eschewing tired combat conventions for clever 3rd person action bolstered by the sort of novel systems we’re used to in the best Final Fantasy entries. Throw in open environments brimming with interesting diversions, a generous handful of Monster Hunter, and a customizable sports car, and you’ve got our full attention.
Mass Effect Andromeda
While details about the upcoming Mass Effect remain scant, the hype machine is already building tremendous momentum. After spending an hour with the game, Bioware producer Cameron Lee warned players might “hyperventilate” after getting their first taste of the studio’s latest space opera epic.
Set in the Andromeda galaxy some time after the events of Mass Effect 3, the latest entry will reportedly feature a game world four times the size of its predecessor, and will allow players to once again pilot the much maligned Mako. While much of the information we have about the game has come via unsubstantiated leaks and rumors, the Bioware pedigree and Mass Effect’s track record are enough to whet our appetite for more space shooting, alien seducing adventure.
Dark Souls III
If the Mass Effect hype machine is starting to ramp up, Dark Souls III’s is already screaming along at a fever pitch, with publisher Bandai Namco preemptively anointing it 2016’s game of the year (https://twitter.com/BandaiNamcoUS/status/689870067790548993). That may be a bit premature, but From Software’s return to its roots does look very promising, sporting improved, “snappier” combat, a new battle arts system that lets players wield powerful special abilities, and the promise of closure regarding several of the series mysterious narrative threads.
Torment: Tides of Numenera
Planescape: Torment is one of the best-regarded western RPGs of all time, a high water mark for that distinctive, mechanics-heavy isometric roleplaying first made famous by Black Isle’s legendary Infinity engine franchises, Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. Those titles dominated PC gaming, particularly the role-playing genre, through the mid-to-late 90s, but the genre slowly sank into obscurity with the rise in prominence of console gaming and the decline of the PC as a gaming platform.
But all that is changing, thanks in no small part to Kickstarter and the current renaissance in PC gaming, and [em]Torment: Tides of Numenera promises to bring that golden era of top down, turn-based dungeon crawling back into the limelight. Preceded by the success of games like [em]Pillars of Eternity, Torment promises a rich, full realized fantasy world (based on the tabletop RPG [em]Numenera, designed by legendary creator Monte Cook), a personal narrative that reacts and evolves in response to players’ actions, and flexible, tactical combat that seeks to emulate the freedom of a tabletop environment.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Looking like the result of careful evolution and extensive refinement, Mankind Divided is poised to take all of the lessons from Human Revolution and push them out to their logical extremes. While Deus Ex has always been a series renowned for offering multiple ways to accomplish your goals, Mankind Divided promises to layer those choices back into the narrative in meaningful ways (and not just as a binary or trinary choice at the very end of the game that determines which of a limited set of endings is revealed.)
It’s not just player interaction with the narrative that’s been expanded, though, as Mankind Divided also ratchets up themes that have been established in previous entries. The subtitle refers to a rift in mankind, between unaugmented “natural” humans and transhumans that have accepted any of a growing suite of cybernetic or mechanical improvements, some of which returning protagonist Adam Jensen will be able to wield to great effect, like detachable arms he can deploy as lethal projectiles, or Tesla darts he can fire to silently disable his foes.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Horizon: Zero Dawn features one of those tantalizing combinations that makes RPG veterans’ hearts race: ancient ruins, primitive technology, and pseudo-magic layered over futuristic technology that eclipses our own current level of development by several generations. If that’s not enough to prime your engine, Horizon also features another exciting hybrid that every young heart has at some point yearned for: the robot dinosaur.
Horizon stars Aloy, a young hunter from one of the few surviving tribes of humanity that has endured an apocalypse, the nature of which is hazy and indeterminate. As she scavenges her way through this shattered, open world, she is pursued by robotic mammals and harried by mechanical birds, gathering experience and loot to stay one step ahead of the dangerous predators that are the only remnants of a toppled civilization.
Ambitious, sprawling, and novel, The Technomancer is looking at every turn to be the game we wished Mars: War Logs had been (and is being developed by the same studio.) Featuring the stark beauty of the red planet as the backdrop, The Technomancer is the story of technologically fueled battle mages embroiled in savage conflict for Mars’ most precious resource: water.
The protagonist, Zachariah, is the eponymous technomancer, and finds himself pursued by a cadre of secret police. Through the course the game, players will be able to build out Zachariah in one of several directions, developing combat abilities, crafting unique weapons and armor, and investing in the game’s four skill trees. It is our fervent hope that The Technomancer is able to live up to the potential of War Logs, and won’t be hamstrung by the same crippling technical issues and scattershot storytelling.
Fire Emblem Fates
While the Fire Emblem series has never been accused of being light on content, Fates takes it to another level, providing what is essentially three games in one (one accessible as DLC), each with different play-styles, narratives, and objectives. The Birthright fork of the main campaign provides newcomers to the series with a suitable level of challenge without overwhelming them with impossible choices or pyrrhic scenarios, whereas Conquest is aimed squarely at veterans who are looking for an intense challenge. Even for a series that’s always been fraught with consequence, with permanent character death and meaningful choices, Conquest sounds like an intimidating (and rewarding) proposition.
Arguably Japanese developer/publisher Atlus’ most important sequel ever, Persona 5 will live or die on the edge of some very sharp expectations. Despite being the fifth game in a series, Persona 5 feels a lot like a sophomore effort, because of the way Persona 4 reached into a much broader audience and represented such a new tier of achievement for the franchise.
That said, the tidbits that have trickled out thus far suggest that Persona 5 might very well live up to those inflated expectations. Not unlike Persona 3 and 4, the fifth entry will feature a group of teens with semi-mystical abilities hunting evil, except this time they’ll track evildoers (so as to “steal their corrupted hearts”) via a phone app, instead of through some department store flatscreens. Our heroes, the “Phantom Thieves,” will split their time between school, exploring various Tokyo districts, and battling evil in Palace, a twisted parallel dimension that features environments like a modern museum and ancient pyramids.
And luckily for us, that’s only the tip of a vast iceberg, an embarrassment of riches for gamers who love deep, immersive experiences. Honorable mentions, and games that will likely get a Japanese release but may or may not make their way to western shores include Bravely Second, Ni No Kuni 2, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, Nier: Automata, Odin Sphere Lefithrasir, Valkyria: Azure Revolution (and Valkyria Chronicles HD), and many, many others. Regardless of what flavor of RPG appeals to you, if you like roleplaying games, you’re about to have a banner year.