Recently we took some time to mull over what some of our favorite space combat sims of all time are. Many of these were games we spent hours and hours of our younger years on, but truth be told, if I had pin a single genre to the Escapist Staff it has be RPGs, no contest. We love delving dungeons and min-maxing characters nearly as much as we love tracking down every sidequest and exploring all the details of a well-crafted setting. Role-playing games are the ones that stick with us, and some of the best times in the office are the weeks following a big RPG release. The office chatter continually returns to subjects like who found what cool piece of loot or friendly arguments about which skill tree is best.
Here are a few distinctions for how we decided to arrange and fill this list. In case you missed it in the title, we restricted our choices to games released only in the last five years – though you could see an all-time list sometime in the future. The cut-off date was for games initially published after Jan 1 2009, i.e. Fallout 3 was from 2008 before you go jump in the comments. Second, no MMOs or remakes. MMOs are essentially their own beast now, and deserve their own list. As far as remakes go, they just don’t make for a terribly interesting choice, at least in this context. Just because a timeless classic like Chrono Trigger got ported to handhelds doesn’t mean it needs to capstone every list.
Finally, the big, dreaded discussion of what gets considered to be an RPG. Rather than trying to weigh each game on the merits of its mechanics, gameplay, story and player agency to somehow classify it as being an RPG, we instead tried for a simpler approach. We examined if a game could more conceivably be placed into another genre and kept those off the list. For instance, a game like Borderlands, while having many RPG elements, could be argued as being a shooter where another game like Bastion might not fall out of the RPG category as cleanly.
So with those criteria in mind, and our own opinions flame-shielded, The Escapist is proud to present our list of the 25 Best RPGs of the Last Five Years.
25. Dragon’s Dogma
Developed and published by Capcom. Released on May 22, 2012. Available on PS3 and XB360.
Greg says: There’s something of a schism between so-called “western” and “Japanese” RPGs – many writers have argued they are distinct styles which shouldn’t be conflated in the same genre. After the financial success of games like Skyrim and the relative low sales of longtime series like Final Fantasy, Japanese developers experimented with games that were more like those made across the Pacific. Enter Dragon’s Dogma, developed and published by Capcom, and the experiment could be seen as a success.
Dragon’s Dogma began with an exciting action sequence that pitted the player character against a huge dragon, and then twists the damaged hero trope by having the dragon grab your still-beating heart out of your chest. You don’t die, and your fellow villagers now believe you are the only one who can defeat the dragon menace. Along the way to figuring out why you are connected to the dragon, you kill other large monsters like griffons and ogres alongside a party of “pawns”. These pawns formed the basis of the interesting asynchronous multiplayer mechanic of drawing from the pool of pawns other human players have created.
There was a lot of originality in Dragon’s Dogma, but it did suffer slightly from a muted color palette, silly medieval wordings in the dialogue and the lack of a good fast-travel system. All of it added up to an RPG worth playing to see how the genre can adapt and change, even from developers not used to the tropes of “western” gamers.
24. Fallout: New Vegas
Developed by Obsidian Entertainment. Published by Bethesda Softworks. Released October 19, 2010. Available for PC, PS3, and XB360.
Mike says: New Vegas starts as a tale of revenge , as being killed by Chandler from Friends is pretty humiliating. Well, almost killed. After waking up from being shot in the head, the player journeys across the Mojave Wasteland to the city of New Vegas, working with and against the various factions and towns along the way. Facing down your would-be murdered Benny (voiced by Matthew Perry) leads to a showdown for control of the city. During their adventures, players found themselves in weird and dangerous stories with a dark humor that made the post-apocalypse not so depressing. Hardcore mode also brought a new element to open world RPGs, making players maintain their food and hydration levels as well as resting to prevent exhaustion.
Fallout: New Vegas had big shoes to fill as the follow-up to Fallout 3, which just missed the five-year limit for this list. Bethesda, developers of Fallout 3, had to work on some other game (which might have made it onto this list), so Obsidian rose to the challenge by improving on the narrative while taking what worked from Fallout 3. Of course, New Vegas‘ biggest problem was that it also carried what didn’t work. The game was buggy to the point of making it impossible to complete quests, and those glitches are the only reason we gave the game four stars instead of five.
23. Mass Effect 3
Developed by Bioware. Published by EA. Released on March 6, 2012. Available on PS3, XB360, Wii U, and PC.
Mike says: The Mass Effect series has been one of the most successful crossover hits in gaming. The accessible combat mechanics of Mass Effect 2 and 3 brought in plenty of gamers that would normally avoid something described as an RPG, but still delivered a story-telling experience wholly unique to video games and serves as one of the best examples of story in games. Mass Effect 3 brought back some of the RPG depth lost in Mass Effect 2 by giving players more options in the skills available as they leveled up, but still lacked the deep weapons and armor system of ME1.
The strongest point of BioWare’s games is the story and the relationships between characters, and if anything Mass Effect 3 succeeded as a send-off to the characters we fell in love with. Almost everyone shows up and gets a resolution to their story and a chance to say goodbye to Shepard, as long as you didn’t get them killed (you monster). The last thirty minutes of the franchise disappointed innumerable fans and even the biggest BioWare apologist has to admit that the ending is questionable at best, but we shouldn’t forget the amazing experience delivered by the rest of the game and its predecessors. Oh, and The Citadel DLC proved the best piece of fan-service ever while providing a true farewell to the Normandy crew.
22. Divinity: Original Sin
Developed and published by Larian Studios. Released on June 20, 2014. Available for PC and OS X.
Paul says: The latest RPG from Larian Studios (of Divine Divinity and Divinity: Dragon Commander fame) has players controlling two heroes in the fantasy world of Rivellon to solve the murder of an important councilor. What really makes Original Sin an impressive RPG deserving a spot on this list, though, is how it drops you into a huge open-world environment where you have a liberal amount of free range to experiment, explore and interact with the game world and all its inhabitants, NPCs and enemies alike.
With a well-placed lightning bolt, your wizard could zap an entire group of enemies if they just so happen to be standing near water or in a pool of blood. You can kill off key characters by accident, or con poor villagers out of their possessions by having one of your characters distract them while the other sneaks around and rifles through their pockets. You can make box forts out of empty crates, talk to animals with the right perk, get trapped listening to long-winded dialogue or even have your party members argue among each other (just like a real tabletop RPG game!). If you can think of a crazy idea, chances are Original Sin will let you give it a shot.
21. Dark Souls II
Developed by From Software. Published by From Software in Japan, Namco Bandai worldwide. Released on March 11, 2014. Available on PS3, XB360, and PC.
Mike says: The Souls franchise shouldn’t be this successful. The series is famous for its difficulty, and that challenge does draw in an audience. What amazes me about these games is that the difficulty goes beyond the combat. The gameplay mechanics are largely unexplained, the importance of the stats and how they affect combat are learned by trial and error, and even the story does not make itself readily accessible to players. Playing a game in the Souls franchise requires players to invest a huge chunk of time into just learning how to play, either through experience or researching online.
Dark Souls II still maintained its difficulty, but some minor, precise changes in the game made it more accessible. The cost of those changes would result in more challenges down the road, however. The penalty for death, for instance, changed to a system that would reduce a player’s max health with each death, down to 50% (compared to Demon’s Souls putting you at 50% immediately). And while players were given more opportunities to recover that max health, these increases were incremental. Adding a rare item to re-spec your character also takes off the pressure a bit when playing without a character build planned out.
20. Diablo 3
Developed and published by Blizzard Entertainment. Released on May 15, 2012. Available for PS3, PS4, XB360, Xbox One, PC, and OS X.
Josh says: Diablo III returns you to the demon-infested world of Sanctuary, just in time for another attempt by the Lord of Terror, Diablo, to add Heaven and Earth to the list of his domains. You play a Nephalem, a powerful champion for the human cause, as you battle Hell’s greatest minions to keep Diablo and his henchmen’s forces from taking hold. During your journey, you’ll rescue a fallen angel, battle covens of witches, and, eventually, defeat Diablo himself.
Of course, Diablo III is a tad less story driven than many of its RPG counterparts. Action RPGs, as they are known, don’t tend to tell the most profound stories, as players are typically eager to just start clicking repeatedly to wipe out screens full of enemies. I quite enjoyed the story, though, and eagerly watched every cutscene.
Despite a fairly light, linear story, the gameplay lent itself well to the basic notions of the tale; hordes of demons are attacking, slaughter them all with extreme prejudice. Whether you’re lighting signal fires to fend off a siege or killing Belial’s scores of reptilian soldiers, cutting a swath through an army of cursed beings is exactly what this story is about. I was particularly fond of the early hints at the late-game reveal, which you’ll likely only catch on a second playthrough. But who am I kidding? Diablo III‘s appeal is the frenetic gameplay, not the third telling of basically the same story.
19. South Park: The Stick of Truth
Developed by Obsidian Entertainment & South Park Digital Studios. Published by Ubisoft. Released on March 4, 2014. Available on PC, PS3 and XB360.
Devin says: When I entered fifth grade in 1997, life for me and the other little scamps in my class revolved around three things: Star Wars, Nintendo 64, and South Park. I remember walking out to recess more than once to quietly, and secretly discuss the previous night’s episode — too loud and some nosy teacher could rat us out to our then-unknowing parents.
Still, I was thoroughly shocked at how well South Park: The Stick of Truth turned out. A lover of South Park and Obsidian Entertainment both, you can’t help but be suspect of games based on licensed content in this day and age, no matter who is involved. I still remember the Nintendo 64 South Park game – mindless fun for an 10-year-old, but a decidedly crap game otherwise.
The Stick of Truth takes a TV show that many of us know and worship, and manages to transition it to a new medium without any iota of awkwardness. The Stick of Truth plays out like a long, deep, interactive episode that hits all the right references, includes every character you want to see, while set in bundle of quests that rarely leave you bored or frustrated.
Not only does The Stick of Truth hit all the right Quiet Little Mountain Town notes, but its RPG mechanics are solid, if a little basic (a good trait for such a simple game). The Obsidian special sauce is apparent throughout, leaving role-playing buffs swimming in a sea of Cheesy Poofs, fart jokes, and alien probes.
Oh, and play with a controller if you’re goin’ down to South Park, and you’ll have yourself a (better) time. I guarantee it.
18. Bravely Default
Developed by Silicon Studio & Square Enix. Published by Square-Enix & Nintendo. Released on February 7, 2014. Available on 3DS.
Justin says: Bravely Default is like one of those children books about some anthropomorphized household appliance or railroad equipment learning an important life lesson. The little-RPG-that-could, tugging firmly on nostalgia, managed to change hearts and minds with its charm and clever mechanics. Ok, that might be a bit of a dramatization, but the game did succeed in selling a million copies, not bad for a little 3DS game. It did however contribute to Square-Enix recommitting to making proper JRPGs. Big surprise, when you make the games all your fans want to play instead of some new offshoot of Final Fantasy XIII
Bravely Default was made firmly with nostalgia in mind. Battles are turn-based. There are jobs to master, which unlock new skills. And your band of characters is swept up on an epic quest to save the world. There’s even an airship. It’s a classic Final Fantasy in all but name. That’s not to say that the game didn’t make any improvements. The central mechanics, and namesake, are the options for Bravely and Default during combat. Default defends the character, but it also stores up an action. Bravely lets you expend several actions in a turn, either using stored up ones or going into the negatives – forcing you to wait out until you recover. It’s a fun system that let you burst through weak enemies quickly and rewarded balancing flexibility and power. Speaking of enemies, while Bravely Default still operated with random encounters, you had the option to control the rate of them appearing. Want to grind and level up for a boss fight? Then you can crank the occurrences up to max and get into a fight every few steps. But if you just wanted to quickly move along the story, at risk of being a little under-leveled, you could turn them down or off entirely.
All of this was paired with some great Street-Pass content. I would frequently take my 3DS to events or gatherings with no intent to play, but knowing that I’d reap the benefits of making a few more connections. The game slips a little in the later sections, but it’s still otherwise fantastic.
17. Shadowrun Returns
Developed by Harebrained Schemes. Published by Harebrained Schemes. Released on July 25, 2013. Available on PC, OS X, iOS, Android and Linux.
Justin says: There’s just something about the Shadowrun setting that I just can’t get enough of. The set-up isn’t even terribly deep, built on a simple premise of what if you took a cyberpunk setting and shook that up with an equal parts fantasy. So you end up in a place where that elf is just as likely to throw a fireball at your face has she is to use her cybernetically enhanced reflexes to blow you away with an assault rifle. The central conceit is that players are “shadowrunners”, in a world all but run buy megacorperations they often need jobs done off the books and will hire mercenaries, shadowrunners, to do their dirty work.
Shadowrun: Returns comes to us via Kickstarter crowdfunding. The Shadowrun setting hasn’t been treated too kindly in recent years, so it’s not a big surprise that ended up being one of the Shadowrun: Returnsearly darlings of Kickstarter.
The game itself hits all the important notes for a Shadowrun adventure, it’s almost as if it got pulled straight out of book. What really sells the game though is the great characters and equally great writing. You’re free to develop your character however you want: maybe a cyberteched up combat machine or would you rather be a stealthy decker/hacker. Some of the payoffs don’t feel quite as strong, but there’s a big cast of NPCs you can hire to accompany you on runs. Even that aspect is really well implemented. Unskilled runners might demand less of a cut of the reward than the best-of-the-best, but you want a bunch of chumps covering your back when the mission inevitably goes sour.
16. Path of Exile
Developed by Grinding Gear Games. Published by Grinding Gear Games. Released on October 23, 2013. Available on PC.
Jon says: Serving up a novel and interesting twist on the Diablo isometric hack and slash formula, Path of Exile freed that genre from stale patterns and lack of innovation by killing sacred conventions, starting with boring gold and exclusive class systems, and ending with allowing you to customize and define how each of your individual abilities work. Path of Exile then added a weird setting, with varied types of monsters and odd things to discover in the world. Even better, Path of Exile proved that it could keep the magic flowing, relatively quickly releasing a first expansion of game content. Add all of this to the ranked score and tournament system, with incentives for starting new and varied characters to keep the game fresh, and you’ve got a real winner in the world of not just RPGs, but free to play games in general. Path of Exile seems to escape the expectations of grind that come with isometric games, because reworking your character’s skills is never much further than collecting a new set of gems.
15. Xenoblade Chronicles
Developed by Monolith Soft & Nintendo SPD. Published by Nintendo. Released on April 6, 2012. Available on Wii.
Paul says: A sci-fi RPG for the Nintendo Wii, Xenoblade Chronicles takes place in a world of endless ocean where two races, the humanoid Homs and the mechanical Mechons are locked in an epic battle for survival over the corpses of two slain titans of ages past. Players control Shulk, a young man who after gaining control of a legendary energy blade, sets off to battle the Mechon that destroyed his home town.
Although originally released in Japan, this game received such high acclaim and hype that it was one of the targets for Operation Rainfall, a fan campaign hoping to persuade Nintendo to localize several games made for the Wii but never released in North America. Once it did land, though, critics praised how it revitalized the JRPG genre and set a high bar for those to follow with excellent characters, voice acting, and game play. It’s most definitely a title any Wii owner should have in their library.
14. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Developed by 38 Studios & Big Huge Games. Published by 38 Studios & Electronic Arts. Released on February 7, 2012. Available on PC, PS3 and XB360.
Greg says: In a game created by a studio head known for Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, written by a bestselling fantasy author and bankrolled by a baseball pitcher, what could go wrong? Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was the first release in a new IP that would form the basis of a major MMO set in the same world and it may have contributed to the demise of 38 Studios by not selling enough copies to recoup costs. Despite all that, Amalur was a pretty amazing action-RPG set in a vibrant colorful world that was a joy to explore.
The world of Amalur is dense – there are many different factions of elves, fae (which are not the same), gnomes and humans. Understanding the cultures and conflicts is a steep cliff to climb, but once you are on top of it all you can really appreciate the beauty. R.A. Salvatore’s talent in world-building made the game feel lived-in, but it was the action and customization that made it fun. Similar to games like Fable, you could specialize in three combat “trees” but it was a robust system that let you destroy monsters whatever way best suited your style. I especially liked how the mechanics of fate and respeccing were all explained through the lore itself rather than a gamey “just because” feel.
It’s sad we never were able to explore Amalur more fully, but, hey, the IP is still up for grabs if you’re interested. At least you can enjoy Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and wonder at the possibilities of what could have been.
13. Dragon Age II
Developed by BioWare. Published by Electronic Arts. Released on March 8, 2011. Available on PC, OS X, XB360 and PS3.
Greg says: I know, I know. Look, Dragon Age II was a fantastic role-playing game that had the unfortunate problem of being too far removed in tone and form from its predecessor. It was set in the single city of Kirkwall and told a more intimate story of the rise of that city’s champion. The combat system was more action-oriented, but it had a surprising amount of depth in how you could combine your party member’s attacks for devastating effects. You could form strong relationships with your friends, and even fall in love with them, but that’s not what made DA2 special.
Bold storytelling choices set the game on the pedestal. You played as the Champion, but you were a part of a family. The reactions of your sister or brother (different depending on what class/gender you chose) and your mother to your deeds and decisions made those events feel incredibly real. Because you were in a single city, the sense of community you gained from helping dwarves, merchants, nobles and poor city elves with their plight was something I hadn’t experienced in a game before. And, of course, the fun of the unreliable narrator in Varric was amazingly clever – The events you played through were all focused through the lens of what the dwarf revealed to the Chantry interrogating him.
Dragon Age II attempted things no other game had before, and succeeded in making you feel you were experiencing a story carefully improvised by a game master instead of a pre-programmed script. Yes, it reused dungeons and you couldn’t equip shoes on your companions. These are extremely minor complaints compared to the leaps DA2 made in actual role-playing and storytelling.
If I had my druthers, Dragon Age II would be higher on the list, but I recognize my opinion is in the minority. That said, you who hated on DA2 when it came out should give it another shot. It is a superb game.
12. Demon’s Souls
Developed by From Software and SCE Japan. Published in Japan by Sony, NA by Atlus. Released February 5, 2009. Available on PS3.
Mike says: The first game in the experiment that is the Souls franchise proved a huge success, earning two multi-platform follow-ups and building the name of director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s upcoming Bloodborne for PS4. Deep, challenging, and realistic combat is the first building block of the game. Even the weaker enemies hurt with just a single hit and your armor and shield add real weight to your character, not just slowing down your sprint but a well armored character was never going to pop up from a roll.
Beyond the combat, the signature of Demon’s Souls was the souls themselves. Killing enemies and using some items grant souls to players, and those souls would be used to buy, repair, and craft items, learn magic, and level up your character. Redeeming these souls could only be done in the hub of the game, and they were lost upon death, but could be reclaimed if the player could reach the spot where they died. This simple mechanic carried the tension of the game, the truest consequence for death. The further you progress, the more you have at stake as you are carrying more souls and recovering those souls after dying would be all the more difficult.
11. Monster Hunter Tri
Developed by Capcom Production Studio 1. Published by Capcom. Released on March 19, 2013. Available on Wii, 3DS and Wii U.
Jon says: In every single one of its incarnations across all the platforms it appeared on, the third installment in the famous Japanese series about turning dragons into pants was a smashing success. From the Wii, where it innovated with new weapon and control schemes, to the final versions on the 3DS and Wii U, where cross-play and internet play allowed seamless access to an increasingly MMO-like world of quests, the game never failed to delight. Monster Hunter requires a level of skill and timing that can only be compared to other action RPGs like Dark Souls. Monster Hunter simultaneously has hidden depth, with secret items and materials only coming from monsters when you hit them in specific ways, and the game isn’t going to explain how that happens. Didn’t know you could shatter the monster’s horns? Well, too bad. You don’t get the horn component. You don’t get to craft new shoulder armor. That might seem unforgiving, but it really just adds a continual sense of wonder to the game as you find out new things you didn’t think you could do.
Focusing all its RPG progression into the equipment you’re wearing is the huge secret to Monster Hunter‘s success, though. It means that your ability at the game drills down to your talent at learning how your weapon works, what its combos are, and the monster’s attack abilities. Monster Hunter serves up the kind of in-depth difficulty and rewarding learning curve that few other games can, in a way that nearly none of them do.
10. Torchlight II
Developed by Runic Games. Published by Runic Games. Released on September 20, 2012. Available on PC.
Justin says: The original Torchlight had a seemingly simple design goal, “let’s make a better Diablo II“. In fact many of the team at Runic Games are Blizzard North vets. Torchlight II took all the groundwork that was laid with the original and ran with it. Most importantly it added much needed multiplayer to the series. Torchlight was a mighty fine game in many rights, but the lack of multiplayer was a thorn in an otherwise nearly flawless product.
At its core, Torchlight II is all about refining a bunch of little, almost invisible, aspects of the action-RPG looter and also giving you a lot of freedom to play how you want. While other games were cramming all kinds of DRM between the content and the players, Torchlight II was letting you play with friends over the internet or by LAN, and modding was actively encouraged. I still have a bunch of fun every few months opening up the Steam Workshop and playing around with someone’s custom creation.
Developed by Supergiant Games. Published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Released on July 20, 2011. Available on PC, OS X, Linux, XB360, iOS, Chrome and Onlive.
Justin says: Bastion is a prime example of a game that really straddles the fence on RPG. There’s a pretty strong argument that it’s more action-adventure, similar to the game like Zelda, but we ultimately felt that it was more at home as an RPG. Regardless, what was never in question was that Bastion was one or our favorite games released recently.
At the time what made Bastion truly special for me was how unexpected it was. Being in and around the industry it’s pretty easy to be inundated with press releases, previews and trailers to the point of feeling like there are no surprises. Bastion managed to fly under the radar a bit though. While Bastion certainly got some points for its decently tight gameplay, it was really the overall aesthetics that made it something amazing. A narrator that actually dynamically responded to the actions on screen, a gorgeous design and a deeply memorably soundtrack. If you missed Bastion the first time around you owe it to yourself to check it out.
8. Fire Emblem: Awakening
Developed by Intelligent Systems. Published by Nintendo. Released on February 4, 2013. Available on 3DS.
Justin says: Fire Emblem has a special place in my heart. It’s a game I played the crap out of on the GBA. I’d been holding off for the longest time on getting a 3DS, I still maintain that the DS-Lite is nearly unmatched in design, but a new Fire Emblem was going to be a system seller. It doesn’t hurt that the game is awesome, and is in part contributing to a resurgence of RPGs on Nintendo’s handheld.
If you’ve never played a Fire Emblem game, they are tactical RPGs with a twist that most players are likely not used to, perma-death. If one of your party members falls in battle, they are gone for good. Granted, you can disable this feature in Fire Emblem: Awakening so that they only fall unconscious, but it really does make you play in a unique way. The game really digs the knife in too by having a stable of entertaining and likable characters and developing the relationship between the characters is an important part of the game as well.
7. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Developed by Eidos Montreal. Published by Square Enix. Released on August 23, 2011. Available on PC, OS X, PS3, Wii U and XB360.
Justin says: It’s always going to be hard following up a well-regarded or loathed game. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was in the unfortunate place of being stuck between both. The original Deus Ex is a classic among classics, breaking ground on much of the multi-path open gameplay we know and love, but Deus Ex: Invisible War was well, not as good.
Even under this pressure, the developers at Eidos Montreal were able to still make a really solid entry into the series. Players had a ton of options for how to develop their Adam Jensen, the main character, between all the augmentations and character options during the story. And the same freedom in approaching any problem from a number of paths was still present throughout the game. This even included the option to play an entirely non-lethal “Pacifist” playthrough.
The only downer are some less than stellar boss fights, outsourced to another developer, that pull the player away from the freedom they normally get, but the rest of the game is completely engrossing.
6. Pokemon X / Y
Developed by Game Freak. Published by Nintendo. Released on October 12, 2013. Available on 3DS.
Jon says: Pokemon games are quite similar, and they’re all different, but X and Y took the series to a new level of fun. Returning much of the series’ accessibility to its early stages and explaining mechanics that weren’t properly explained before were huge benefits, bringing fun to not just the casual young players, but to the hardcore gamers who’ve always enjoyed Pokemon but haven’t been able to easily explain the series’ hidden depths. We haven’t even mentioned, then, the series’ upgrade to 3D environments and battle animations, making everything look lovely and upgrading the series’ hundreds of critters into new forms. Pouring hundreds of hours into the game not just “beating” it, but then moving on to the extensive content available – the dungeons, battle mansions, and exclusive clubs – is a blast. Catching them all? Still fantastically fun. That hasn’t changed, and Pokemon X & Y are the best the series has ever offered by leaps and bounds.
5. Dark Souls
Developed by From Software. Published by From Software in Japan, Namco Bandai worldwide. Released September 22, 2011. Available on PS3, XB360, and PC.
Justin says: In an era of hand holding and an increasing trend to make games accessible for a wider audience, Dark Souls says bugger all to all that and knows exactly what it wants to be. A dark fantasy action RPG, with punishing, but ultimately fair, gameplay. This laser focus helps Dark Souls rise to the top in a sea of games all clamoring to be increasingly similar.
What makes Dark Souls so much fun is that it’s deeply satisfying in ways that few games can match. Getting through a tough section or finally besting a challenging boss recreate the feelings of gaming’s trials of yesteryear. You’ll sigh in relief when some nasty monster finally gets put down, only to groan when just beyond its corpse opens up a whole new set of worse dangers. Dark Souls captures a perfect risk vs reward with a number of its mechanics, which lets the game really dial up the tension and then bleed it off as needed.
Something else that keeps fans coming back for more is Dark Souls approach to storytelling. As the player you know that you’re the chosen undead and that you’re running around the kingdom of Lordran, but much of the remaining details are left to players to guess or fill in the gaps fro themselves based on the world and items descriptions. This intrigue and mystery goes a long way to make Dark Souls more than just another tale of saving the world.
I also absolutely adore the level and map design in Dark Souls. Each area has its down hazards and enemies, they are all interconnected in a semi-open world. It’s oh so enjoyable to unlock a shortcut and see how that connects one section to the next or just instinctively know the best route between areas.
Mike says: The highest Souls game on our list, Dark Souls capitalized on the popularity earned by Demon’s Souls and brought the game to Xbox and PC, too. A number of changes were made in bringing the Souls franchise to a larger audience. Along with finessing the combat, From Software got rid of the hub world from Demon’s Souls and put players into a proper open-world experience. The cohesion of that world and the paths to travel between locales is what places the first Dark Souls higher on our list than its follow up, Dark Souls II.
Another feature that stands out is the minimalistic story-telling. Unlike most modern RPGs, Dark Souls is mostly free of cut-scenes, scripted events, or exposition. Players have to work to piece together the lore of this world through item descriptions, the environment, or short lines of dialogue from NPCs. The Souls franchise also features a unique multiplayer system. There’s no matchmaking or raids in this RPG, but players join up with strangers to take down bosses or invade each other’s worlds.
The Souls franchise is famous for its challenging combat and uncompromising in presenting its challenge to players, forcing them to learn the game rather than teaching them. And players loved it for that, with Dark Souls being one of the most loved RPGs in recent memory.
4. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Developed by CD Projekt RED. Published by Atari, Inc. Released on May 17, 2011. Available on PC, OS X, Linux and XB360.
Justin says: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is not a game for everyone. Our own Greg Tito praised the game for its world-building and atmosphere, but has a number of problems and gripes with some of the execution. I however respectfully disagree.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is hands down one of the best RPGs released in the last few years, while it dials back some of the characters customization you might be normally used to it uses that to reinforce its world, setting and story and what the players, as Geralt, place is in all of that. Most importantly The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings pushes more real choices onto the player in a way that few other games do. Your player agency in the game has lasting consequences and results beyond some simple save the puppy or burn down the orphanage that you might be used to. Whole chapters and endings of the game will hinge on your decisions, and the game revels in not making them very easy, pretty much everyone is morally reprehensible in some way in the Witcher universe.
The player dons the role of Geralt of Rivia, a titular Witcher. Witchers are first and foremost monsters hunters, who already have strained relationship with normal folks do to their mutations. Geralt has a tendency to get himself wrapped up in larger conflicts, and the start of the game finds him falsely accused for the murder of the king. All along the way Geralt is still struggling with the loss of his memories, a plot point that despite being the most cliche of cliche never quite feels as bad here.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which will wrap up the story, is due out early next year and promises a number of improvements, including a much larger and open world. In fact it’s been said by the developers that it’s “a living open world larger than any other in modern RPG history.” Yeah, Feb 2015 can’t come soon enough.
3. Mass Effect 2
Developed by Bioware. Published by EA. Released on January 26, 2010. Available on PS3, XB360, and PC.
Mike says: Commander Shepard begins recruiting the best soldiers, assassins, thieves, scientists, and mercenaries in the galaxy in order to take on a suicide mission to stop a mysterious race from abducting humans. The second game in the Mass Effect series ditched the unwieldy (but admittedly deep) inventory system, completely overhauled the combat, and introduced moral ambiguity that challenged many players in their choices. This ambiguity carried over into the actual story, as well. Now, Commander Shepard is following the direction of Cerberus and its enigmatic leader, the Illusive Man. It’s clear Shepard’s boss isn’t a paragon himself, and some of her closest friends challenge her for allying with him.
Mass Effect 2 is a more intimate story than the first game, with players stopping a smaller force than the Reapers while managing the relationships of their crew and the galaxy’s residents. Anyone who played Mass Effect 2 can reflect on the moments that were most important to them, whether it was the opening scene (one of my favorite moments in gaming), watching an ally struggle with their past, or seeing a companion fall during the final mission. Mass Effect 2 delivered one of the best stories in video games, and is in fact a story that can only be told as a game, with characters the player feels they helped shape. The rich lore, fascinating galactic society, and near perfect gameplay (for its time) also help to make Mass Effect 2 an amazing experience.
Justin says: Reflecting on Mass Effect 2, it becomes apparent that what BioWare consistently brings to a the table is the best damn cast of characters around. While the 5 year restriction keeps Mass Effect out of the running and in some ways Mass Effect 2 felt like a step backwards from the original, I think there’s no denying that it brought some of the most memorable and interesting characters to the series or expanded on existing favorites. Some of the character meet-ups and reveals are just pitch-perfect, and it’s always a struggle trying to determine who to bring with you on missions. The writers over at BioWare are really able to tug at your heartstrings and get you to feel and care for these characters. The bro-mance relationship between my Shepard and Garrus is still one of my favorite interactions between characters.
Also, one typically unsung aspect to the whole experience is the pacing. Certainly there are some fatiguing elements like needing to scan down minerals, but the game otherwise manages a perfect pacing of one mission to the next. It compels you to continue playing, slowly building for the final mission. And what a final mission it is. It’s possible to perhaps nitpick certain elements of it, but just the entire implementation of needing to collect all these characters at get to know and trust them all comes together in how the mission is designed.
Oh, and the whole soundtrack is kickass.
2. Dragon Age: Origins
Developed by Bioware. Published by EA. Released on November 3, 2009. Available on PS3, XB360, PC, and Mac OS X.
Greg Tito says: BioWare was the king of fantasy RPGs in the 1990s, but the company moved away from that fare to explore other cultures (Jade Empire) and genres (KOTOR). Most forget that the return to high fantasy in Dragon Age: Origins with a brand that was wholly new and not dependent on Dungeons & Dragons was a bit of a risk. The team succeeded in capturing the spirit of a bygone era of games while simultaneously jumpstarting a new series with Origins, as the name implied. The story told felt similar to those many fans loved, but still had fresh interpretations of concepts like the Fade, the corruptibility of mages, and the danger of human politics.
Origins also boasted a refreshing top-down strategic mode that seemed custom-made for the mouse and keyboard. You could pause combat and easily queue up spells and attacks from your party of four characters. Console players could too, but the game was just more fun when played in a tactical mode.
One of my favorite aspects of Origins was the friends the Grey Warden met along the way. Morrigan was a memorable character, as were Leliana, Alistair and the old female mage Wynne. But perhaps the reason why I love Origins was the choice in how you dealt with Logain, the antagonist for most of the game’s story. Everyone you speak to who has played Origins has a much different story to tell, and I love how it can sometimes be related to the personality of the player. Me? I gave the man a second chance to redeem himself and I don’t regret it for a second.
Mike says: “The mages had sought to usurp Heaven. But instead, they destroyed it.” Dragon Age: Origins introduced players to a world populated with traditional fantasy RPG tropes, but with twists on those concepts that made Thedas truly singular. Mages are powerful, but are either watched over or hunted by the Templars, as mages are constantly at risk of demonic possession. Elves are slender and at home in the woods, but are still recovering from centuries of enslavement. Even the dwarves in their underground city are unique, their population suffering from vicious politicking.
BioWare created a rich world, and while the life is grim in the world of Dragon Age, the characters players encountered and worked with were full of life. With distinct personalities and abilities, the companions to the Warden, the hero of Dragon Age: Origins, are memorable and shaped by the player. The composition of the party you took into battle played a major role in how those battles were played, but there was never a single best way to handle every situation. This cohesion in combat makes it even worse when a party member leaves because you sided with the Templars or defiled the Urn of Sacred Ashes.
Forcing players to make decisions is what BioWare is best known for, and Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening doesn’t pull any punches. Many moments left me staring at the screen, characters waiting for my decision for up to ten minutes when there was no “right” answer. I’m both excited and anxious to see what difficult decisions await in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
1. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Developed by Bethesda Game Studios. Published by Bethesda Softworks. Released on November 11, 2011. Available on PC, PS3 and XB360.
Greg Tito says: Skyrim is all about possibility. As a limitless role-playing game, the fifth Elder Scrolls game from Bethesda holds the distinction of being the greatest video game that no one ever played all the way through. Well, that’s not precisely true, but, anecdotally, nearly all the people I speak to confess to ignoring the main story quests in Skyrim and instead find joy in just exploring the frosty wilderness of the huge open world. There’s adventure to be had around every hillock and dell, and the feeling of immersion is just greater there than in any other game.
Graphically, the wonders of Skyrim hold up extremely well since its release 3 years ago – especially on the PC where mods and tweaks can improve the visuals immensely. The sound design and vocal performances were exemplary and the complaints of hearing the same phrases repeat was only due to the huge amount of time players spent in the world. According to Steam data, Skyrim is consistently in the top ten list of games played – amazing considering it came out so long ago.
What made Skyrim special wasn’t the combat – it was all you could do with the combat system. It wasn’t the story or the races you could choose – it was the infinite combination of choices and role-playing you could exhibit. Skyrim was the greatest blend of mechanics, customization, and freedom found in any role-playing game. And that might go beyond the five year scope of this list.
Schuyler says: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, or just Skyrim to its friends, came out in 2011 and it is still being played in houses around the world. The game on its own is pure genius, a world so huge that it will take hundreds of hours to master it.
Add players and mods into the mix and the game takes on a new life, no two people play the game the same way, which makes it one of the most versatile games to ever have been released. Skyrim can be a stealth game to one person, it can be a much quicker brawler to another, and yet a third person will get immersed in all the little details. Bethesda is the master of the small things, in their games they offer you a plethora of places to explore, people to meet, and very dangerous enemies that just want to hug you with their massive claws.
Skyrim is a game that really takes after Fallout 3 in the sense that you’re going to want to pick it up again in a few years and play even more. That’s what happens when you create a truly immersive sandbox, you get a game you don’t want to stop playing. Bethesda made a sprawling epic of a game that will really stand the test of time, expect to still be playing this off and on for years to come.