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The Best RPG Video Games

RPG Video Games

Ranking the best RPG video games in order of brilliance is the stuff online arguments are made of. Tastes vary, times change, and our perception of ‘best’ is linked to many different factors. Nostalgia plays a part, to be sure. Older games conjure up memories of couch-bound summers, 5 am finishes and the fuzzy warmth of a misspent youth. Newer games fight back with all the spit and polish that modern technology can throw at an RPG.

The Best RPG Games

Even some of the earliest games had some sense of the player as the protagonist. In Space Invaders, you defended the earth from an invading horde. In Donkey Kong, you were an Italian plumber tasked with saving a princess from an oversized gorilla. As to what the Pacman’s beef was, perhaps only Toru Iwatani himself knows.

Still, while some of the games on this list might seem primitive to the younger generation, each one is a masterpiece in its own right simply because the core element of a genuinely brilliant RPG has nothing to do with graphical fidelity.

It is the story that drives the game.

Dark Souls

The spiritual successor to From Software’s PS3 Demon Souls game, Dark Souls, saw release on PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2011. The action occurs in Lordan’s single, continuous location, a labyrinthine world filled with hidden depths, stunning vistas, and weird denizens.

NPCs offer only the most cryptic of advice. Indeed, the story is deliberately opaque. How you got to Lordan is far less important than the need to escape. Combat mechanics are superbly implemented but also immensely unforgiving. Not only does death lurk at every corner permanently losing souls – the game analogue for XP – creates a sense of real jeopardy. Tension mounts as the number of bankable souls in your inventory rises. Performance issues marred an otherwise near-perfect game. A remastered version released in 2017 on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch fixed most of the glitches.

Dungeon Master

Although initially an Atari ST game Dungeon Master eventually made its way to the Amiga, PC, and SNES. The action occurred in real-time from a first-person perspective as your party descended through a dungeon, learning spells, fighting monsters and solving puzzles. The game oozed atmosphere, creating genuine moments of white-knuckle terror. Battles that went badly saw you backtrack with furious speed brewing and then guzzling healing potions on the fly.

Casting spells was a particular delight. Players were forced to memorise combinations of symbols and input them in real-time. A misstep resulted in a failed spell and lost mana; accidentally casting a fireball while facing a wall incinerated the entire party.

Secret Of Mana

When the Secret of Mana was released in 1993, the concept of a co-op RPG did not exist. The ability to drop in and take control of other characters in the party was a real selling point. The game also featured real-time combat and a circular menu system well ahead of its time.

The high fantasy storyline pitted three young heroes against the power of an evil empire armed with the power of an ancient flying fortress. The villain of the story – Thanatos – is filled with nuance. An ancient sorcerer in a failing body, his ruthless quest to find a replacement stems from a desire to forge a lasting peace.

Diablo 3

Diablo 3 divided fans upon its release and remains divisive today. Its immediate predecessor, however, was and remains universally adored.

Bleak visuals crafted from a deliberately muted pallet set the tone. The diverse cast of fine-tuned playable characters added replay value in ways few other games managed. The story dragged you along behind it. Greed kept you playing long after the narrative winded down. Indeed, the game helped define the concept of the loot-em-up subset of RPG gaming. Kill, loot, upgrade, rinse, repeat and obsess.

The Elder Scrolls Morrowind

Who doesn’t love the Elder Scrolls? The franchise began in 1994 with the release of Arena. Since then, the series has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. Everyone has their favourite, of course, but Morrowind – the third entry in the series – broke new ground and helped redefine what gamers could expect from an open-world game. For the first time, players could explore a genuinely vast landscape that felt alive.

The main quest remains mostly forgettable but to focus on that is to miss the point. You could go anywhere you liked and complete activities in whatever order suited you. But nothing was consequence-free. Break the law, and the local militia would pursue you with single-minded hostility. Fines, once issued, need paying on the spot. Failure to do so landed you in jail.

Mass Effect 2

The first Mass Effect looked like an attempt to cash in on the prior success of Knights of the Old Republic. Eschewing the Star Wars license in favour of creating an all-new sci-fi milieu of their own, the final product was well received and much beloved.

When it arrived in 2010, the sequel set a new standard for interactive storytelling. Forced to work with untrustworthy allies, a newly resurrected Commander Sheppard is tasked with leading a team on a suicide mission to save the galaxy. The dirty dozen style recruitment drive that follows brings you into contact with a cast of memorable NPCs unmatched in RPG history.

The fast-paced tactical combat interspersed with moral choices, love interests, side quests, and betrayal was something most players had never seen before. The choices you made had real consequences. Characters sacrificed in the prequel did not feature in Mass Effect 2. At all times, you were aware that your decisions might come back to bite you in the ass later as everyone playing it knew that Mass Effect 3 was coming.

Divinity Original Sin II

Larian Studio’s Divinity Original Sin II had much to live up to. Its immediate predecessor received near-universal acclaim upon its release in 2014. Critics praised the turn-based combat mechanics reminiscent of the glory days of RPG gaming.

The sequel arrived in 2017 on PC and instantly cemented its place on best RPG games of all-time lists. Blessed with a complex and gripping narrative, the interactivity on display complemented the world-

building beautifully. Characters dripped with so much charisma and customisation that replays were a virtual must.

Knights Of The Old Republic

The idea of Star Wars RPG Video Games has obvious appeal. The franchise – long noted for its epic storylines, memorable characters and simple, good vs evil dichotomy – is perfect roleplaying fodder. Still, manoeuvring around the existing canon is no easy task. Bioware’s decision to set the game 4000 years before the movies was a stroke of genius. It gave them a blank – yet strangely familiar –canvas.

Although the story was typical saving the galaxy from evil Jedi fare, the Edmonton-based studio infused the cast of characters with a complex set of wants, needs, and motivations. Winning the respect of your companions requires that you invest some time in their mini-story ark. The game offered a distillation of everything that makes Star Wars special. Action, drama, loss, redemption; it was all there, set against the sweeping backdrop of John William’s symphonic masterpiece.

And then there was that twist at the end — Videogames greatest ever ‘gotcha’ moment.

Planescape Torment

The third entry on this list to use the ruleset of Dungeons and Dragons as its base, Planescape, is something of an odd man out. Set in the titular world of Planescape, the story revolves around an important being known only as the nameless one. Cursed to eternal resurrection, players navigate the world searching for a lost diary that might give clues to their identity.

The immersive dialogue is unmatched by almost any other RPG on this list, mixing as it does dark humour with genuine surrealism. Unable to die, players are confronted by the inconvenience of resurrection instead. A masterpiece of storytelling, Beamdog released an enhanced version in 2017.

Panzer Dragoon Saga

As with Shining Force III, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a Saturn exclusive and, as such, remains one of the least played games on this RPG Video Games list. The first two Panzer Dragoon Sage games were on the rail shooters, and Sega's decision to make the third entry an RPG took a lot of people by surprise. Released in 1998 towards the end of the Saturn’s life, the gaming public largely ignored it.

The story saw young mercenary Edge traverse the game world on the back of his pet dragon. On the face of it, the plot centres on a simple quest for vengeance upon a group of murderous mutineers. The journey, however, subverts expectations at every turn. Outgunned and demoralised, a beleaguered Edge eventually teams up with his most hated enemy to defeat an even more significant threat.

Combat sequences mixed real-time and turn-based elements into epic pulse-thumping confrontations. The ability to morph the dragon in real-time in response to incoming threats remains a coding masterpiece. Despite the initially lukewarm reception, word of mouth eventually elevated this game to legendary status. Seen today as one of the greatest video games ever made, it earned its spot at the top of this list of the best RPG games of all time.

The Sweet And Low Down

It’s subjective, of course. Mostly.

Defining what an RPG is requires almost as much thought as compiling a list of the best RPG games of all time. Is Half-Life an RPG? You take on the role of a voiceless protagonist as well-defined a protagonist as you’d find in any modern RPG. Sure, there is no levelling-up mechanic but isn’t the segue from a crowbar to a pistol to a machinegun a levelling up of sorts?

Regardless of how you describe the term, the games left behind define any list of the best RPG games ever made. Persona 5, Eldent Ring, Final Fantasy XII the Zodiac Age, Fallout 2, Fallout New Vegas, and Pokémon Yellow; all deserve a spot on the list.

But are not on this RPG Video Games list. Hard choices aside, each ‘best of’ inventories are a testament to those little slices of gaming brilliance. Those moments of sheer unadulterated joy when you tune out of the real world, jump into the shoes of your favourite hero or heroine and get lost in an endless stream of escapist perfection.