A good RPG is hard to find.
It’s become significantly easier since 2014 (we’ll get to that), but otherwise fans of reactive storytelling and/or immersion don’t exactly have dozen of titles to pick from.
To make things a little bit easier for everyone, we’ve prepared a list of ten RPGs which can certainly fit the bill on both (or either) accounts. More importantly, they remain perfectly playable in 2018 despite being even, gasp, seven years old, which in video game years means an advanced age and onset of dementia.
The games are arranged in to particular order, but numbered for reading convenience.
10. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Sure, Skyrim gets a ton of flak thrown its way, often not without merit, but for what it’s worth: there’s still no RPG more immersive than Skyrim, at least not within the last decade.
While your Witchers and your Divinities are perfectly fine experiences in their own right, they don’t exactly let you spend a stupid amount of time at a furnace smithing daggers, or running around like a maniac getting resources to build a home from the ground up.
Add a couple…hundred mods or get a VR headset and you’re in a game that’s vastly different from the somewhat lacklustre initial offering launched by Bethesda in the distant past of 2011. Although the dungeons get repetitive, and there’s more nebulous stuff than content, it’s still easy to go off the beaten path because something undiscovered has appeared on your radar.
If the game doesn’t accommodate the role you’ve set for yourself, there probably is a mod that does. It’s the epitome of a freeform roleplaying, as opposed to being shoved into a gripping tale taking you forward in carefully crafted sequences of excellent storytelling relying on you having a predetermined character. Here, you’re a Dragonborn….so what. You can play the game just fine without ever taking on the main quest.
RPG quality: Tourist without a guide.
9. South Park: The Stick of Truth & The Fractured But Whole
Childish humour for adults
The staple of Adult Swim programming has never had luck for video game adaptations until Obsidian Entertainment rolled along.
The Stick of Truth turned out to be a really well-made, cleverly written game that never fails to be a sincere homage to the cartoon, but also manages to poke fun at fantasy and RPG tropes on which Obsidian (and Black Isle before that) has built its reputation. The Fractured But Whole on the other hand aimed at the superhero Zeitgeist, mercilessly mocking both DC and Marvel cinematic universes, boiling the overblown conflict to bickering of children trying to one-up each other. Judging by the self-professed fans’ attitudes, somewhat fitting.
Both games provide a very robust tour of the titular town, interactions with familiar characters taking part in the games the kids are running, a turn-based battle system, and some really silly, crass, but clever humour. It’s rather light on role-playing as such, but it has the writing and mechanics to make up for it.
RPG quality: Fartastic.
They know what you did last playthrough
Undertale is probably one of these games that makes for interesting articles on serious websites. There’s a lot to be said about a lot of serious aspects of storytelling, metanarratives, and breaking the fourth wall in order to play mind games with the players themselves.
See, Undertale knows what you did in previous playthroughs, and it judges you for it. A simple story about a child who fell into an underworld filled with magical creatures turns into a game where choices carry weight, and the story might unfold in different ways depending on which, if any, monsters you killed.
Undertale is nothing like what we now consider to be traditional RPGs in terms of presentation, and many people may well bounce right off, but for those who stick around will probably find themselves somewhat less eager to just up and murder a bunch of goblins. For a little while, anyway. Murder hobos gonna murder hobo after all.
RPG quality: What do you mean murder is bad?
Law & Disorder
Tyranny launched out of virtually nowhere and it quickly gained a following because it is a refreshing take on fantasy, and the character is allowed to be an utter bastard without devolving into a chaotic evil Snidely Whiplash wannabe who kicks puppies and kills for no reason.
The Fatebinder, Tyranny protagonist, is a mix between an inquisitor, Judge Dredd, and a diplomat. We are allowed to make law our weapon, and through clever loopholes upset the status quo in the ways that suits our mission and ambitions.
The base game has four paths: of cruel order, chaotic freedom, ambition, and rebellion, while the expansion The Bastard’s Wound provides a fifth one, of loyalty. But even within each path there are gambits you can play if you find the opportunity, and you may find yourself having to defend your actions against your immediate boss, which is where being clever is rewarded.
And the game is in favour of calculated choice, it’s the stupidity and chaos that are punished, not moral choice. Morality is subservient to the law, as far as your superiors are concerned. And when in doubt you can always glare silently.
RPG quality: Lawful Evil
6. Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV probably won’t come down in the annals of the genre as its greatest achievement, but it remains a pleasant experience with likeable characters, even though players used to Western sensibilities may suffer some culture shock. Isn’t it like this with any Japanese bit of popculture anyway, though?
There isn’t much reactivity to the plot, however what easily places FF15 in the RPG category are the moments of brotherhood shared between the protagonist prince Noctis Lusic Caelum’s three-man entourage. The four lads are on the way to reclaim the throne fallen in the movie Kingsglaive (a pleasant, if confusing watch in its own right), and they feel and interact like long-time friends would.
Better yet, the game has recently come to PC, with a bunch of mostly visual upgrades expected from PC releases these days. It’s nothing ground-breaking, mind, but you likely will recall it fondly when you’re done hunting giant monsters and reclaiming your birthright.
RPG quality: Nakama.
5. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Witcher gonna do when they come for you?
What’s left to say about The Witcher 3? Perhaps the most beloved action RPG in recent memory, with stunning visuals, frequently well-told story, and a decent plot. You know the drill. We’ve written about TW3 before, and half the gaming media have been heaping praise on it since 2015.
Which is well deserved, and CD Projekt Red’s work didn’t go to waste at all. If you’re in for a good storytelling with a bit too much faffing about on the open world, The Witcher 3 is the way to go.
Oh, and the expansions are top notch, especially the Hearts of Stone, so there’s that.
RPG quality: Witcher neutrality.
4. Divinity games
I am a Rivellon to my people
If you thought that Divinity: Original Sin 2, last year’s RPG sweetheart, was the second Divinity game, you are very wrong.
Larian Studios has been doing them since the early 21st century, starting with Divine Divinity, which, despite a tautological title was a rather fun Diablo-like with more emphasised story, and so was its sequel, Beyond Divinity. On the other hand Divinity 2: Ego Draconis was an TPP action RPG. Okay, why not, changes sometimes happen…okay, now there’s a strategic Dragon Commander. Just pick a style and keep goi- turn-based, huh? The last one stuck so far, but there’s no certainty the next Divinity game won’t be a Battle Royale. Larian certainly like experimenting and playing with their license.
Jokes aside, Original Sin games especially, and Ego Draconis to a lesser extent are mighty fine productions, and through the level of story reactivity varies, they remain engaging journeys, partly because of the franchises signature light-hearted approach.
RPG quality: Divinitely worth a shot.
3. NieR: Automata
How did we get to this point?
NieR: Automata is a child of Platinum Games, founded by the creator of Devil May Cry, and Yoko Taro, a man who has turned exploration of possibilities into game-building philosophy. It could have either been a hellspawn or one of the most impressive games in recent years. Thankfully, it was the latter.
There’s a good chance NieR: Automata’s story isn’t going to make much sense to you. It stems from an obscure ending of a half-forgotten sequel to game that people mostly know by name only at best. And that’s before we facture Japanese-only things like Drama CDs and theatre plays (no, really).
NieR: Automata isn’t a game you play once. In fact there are several endings, each of them requiring you to play the game again (albeit with some shortcuts for reducing the amount of faff) to figure out the full complexity of the story. Sometime the playable character changes, sometimes something else about the mechanics… It’s certainly a non-standard New Game+.
The game itself is a largely open-world action-RPG production following combat androids on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Although the story had people confused and enthralled for months, the gameplay is a tight and diverse blend of slasher and bullet hell, occasionally diverting in something else entirely.
RPG quality: Android superiority.
2. Monster Hunter World
Brave new hunting grounds
Monster Hunter World is a franchise that until its latest release wasn’t wildly popular in the West. Of course it had its loyal following, but Monster Hunter World was like the second coming as far Western audiences were concerned.
At its most basic it’s a game about killing massive monsters for ingredients and cash, but thanks to its robust (and much-ridiculed) gob-creation, immersive (that filthy word again…) word and gameplay it strides the blurry line between an RPG and action game with pride and head raised high.
RPG quality: apex predators.
1. Pillars of Eternity
Aloth of reading
With the sequel just around the corner at the moment of writing this list, it’s only reasonable that we’d put the game which revived the full glory of isometric story-heavy cRPGs somewhere on the list. While not my favourite here (that would be Tyranny, come at me), it’s definitely a success story, and one of the gifts given to us by crowdfunding.
While PoE’s story sometimes gets drowned by exposition-intensive writing, the world itself in rather interesting, taking the classic D&D-variety fantasyland and adding some elements to make it Obsidian’s own. It asks some questions about the function and origin of gods, the metaphysical weight of a soul, and while it’s never as poignant as Planescape: Torment it gives the setting a fair amount of depth beyond the genre’s standard dungeon crawling.
The dialogues even pay attention to how people see you. If you’re known for Honesty or Cruelty some doors may close, while others may open. For once some game takes into account that your character has a personality in addition to being in good standing with a faction for services rendered.
RPG quality: classics reincarnated.
Gather your party
That concludes the list of RPGs you might well want to (re)play this year. Probably after you’re done with Pillars of Eternity 2, but who knows. We’ve deliberately omitted grey-haired classics, if only to make space for a possible future lists.
What are your favourite RPGs of the last decade or so? Let us know, so we can recall or get to know new stories and, ahem, immerse* ourselves in new world.
*what, you expected a relevant footnote? I have on good authority that footnotes are immersion breaking. Like pretty much anything, if you believe comment sections.