So, being a big RPG fanatic, I felt it was about time I compile my list of the top 10 RPGs of all time. First things first: Let me go over what’s important to me in an RPG:
- Characters – This is by far the most important factor. The NPCs are the heart of every RPG, and creating a strong cast of characters severely enhances replay value.
- Story – The overall plot arc of the game, including twists and turns. Once again, a strong story is of central importance
- Optional grinding – the best RPGs take grinding out of the game by making it largely optional. If you have to grind heavily for the best gear, that is a huge detriment
- Varied gameplay – minigames and things of the like are very important to keeping the experience fresh. If all I’m doing is walking around and swinging my sword, I’m going to get bored of it very quickly.
All in all, Story and Character are by FAR the most important thing for an RPG though, and an RPG with excellent story and character can overcome other flaws.
Well, let’s start with some honorable mentions:
The Elder Scrolls series:
Generally the failing of this series is the lack of a strong central plot and fairly repetitive and dragged out gameplay. I tend to find running around the world to various locations to be cumbersome (the reason I don’t play most MMO’s), and the lack of any strong central plot (and thus central NPCs) sinks these games.
Pillars of Eternity:
Call me finicky, but I just don’t particularly like any of the characters in this game. If it wasn’t for that, Pillars would make the list.
I found the overall game in Fallout 2 to be a little slow and unresponsive, but maybe this is just a game speed thing. I also didn’t particularly become attached to any characters in Fallout 2, and thus, while it has some strong elements, it just never drew me back to it or it’s sequel – Fallout 3, which I did not play.
Deus Ex/Deus Ex – Human Revolution:
Both of these suffer from the same issue – the lack of any NPCs for you to really get into. This is a product of game structure, where you are one guy doing your thing. Human Revolution is way better than the first game in this respect, and very nearly made the list.
Now, on with the list:
NUMBER 10: Shin Megami Tensei – Persona 4
Persona 4 is the best JRPG in recent memory for me. It really covers all the bases. The game has a strong central cast (Yukiko, Teddie, Chie in particular) combined with good supporting characters (Nanako stands out here). Combine that with unique plot of going into and out of a TV, a look at the darker sides of personalities, and two entirely different game structures (during the day you manage your activities almost like a dating sim, in the TV world it’s more like a typical JRPG) and you have a game that really checks all the boxes.
NUMBER 9: Dragon Age: Origins
This is still, in my opinion, the best entry in the Dragon Age series. Dragon Age 2 had a stronger NPC cast (Varric is the best NPC in the series, and some of the dialogue and banter was great), but suffered from overly repetitive level design and an overarching plot which wasn’t particularly strong.
Dragon Age: Inquisition has a very strong cast and plot, but suffers from being an incredibly slow and repetitive game. The need to run around giant areas on foot, collect crafting materials, and then backtrack over large areas makes long stretches of that game feel like a grind.
Origins as a whole suffers from issues in all areas. The cast isn’t the greatest (Alistair really needs to go, I didn’t particularly care for Wynne either), the plot is very cookie-cutter and unexciting, and the gameplay can be repetitive and slow at times, but overall none of these issues are glaring and deal breaking. Thus, Dragon Age: Origins finds its way into the ninth slot on the list.
NUMBER 8: Final Fantasy VI
Now this is a fun game. While nothing in this RPG is super exciting, it is just loads of fun. Kefka is one of the better villians, and many members of the massive cast carry their own (Sabin, Edgar in particular stand out). There are some unexciting characters (Gau, Gogo, looking at you), but the cast is big enough that you can essentially ignore them.
Grinding can be a bit of an issue in this game (getting Economizers, learning Ultima), but none of the grinding you do is necessary, and thus FFVI doesn’t get docked heavily for that. If you are semi-competent you can easily proceed through this game quickly without grinding out all the spells and items, and it is still a fun game to play.
NUMBER 7: Chrono Trigger
This is the first game I played which introduced to me the “multiple endings” concept. While a lot of them were silly, they added a ton of replay value and depth to a very strong cast (Lucca will always have a special place in my heart).
This also avoids the standard JRPG trap of fairly slow gameplay. This is one of the few RPGs where I found the overall gameplay to be quick. Maybe this is due to the active battle system or a decreased amount of side content, but Chrono Trigger is a game which moves itself along, which is a big plus.
NUMBER 6: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Damn is this game fun. As a game, this is one of the best ever made. The gameplay is intuitive, the game itself is reasonably paced, the puzzles are varied, and you always feel like you are accomplishing something or going somewhere. The story is also top notch. So why is it so far down the list?
It suffers from the exact same thing the Deus Ex series suffers from – the NPCs are largely tangential, and thus at the end of the day, you are still just playing Link running around and saving the world. The game doesn’t really build any relationships or interesting characters. Even so, the other elements of this game are so strong that it hauls itself up to this rank. If you don’t really care about character and character interaction in RPGs, then this is probably the best one out there, as the game-play itself is more fun than every game ahead of it on my list.
NUMBER 5: Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 1 suffered because of the Mako. Mass Effect 3 suffered because of its ending (yes, I played it before the big ending revision, and that’s what counts for me).
Mass Effect 2 is a masterpiece though. The game is extremely streamlined and efficient, and this is a big deal with game-play. You proceed from area to area and mission to mission reasonably quickly, and it very rarely feels like you get bogged down. The bigger fights could feel a little more epic, but that has never really been the strength of the series as a whole, so we leave that one out.
Where Mass Effect 2 really shines though is its characters. Thane, Miranda, Tali, Garrus, Legion and, last but not least, Mordin really put the game over the edge. Overall the NPC cast in Mass Effect 2 is insane, and each one ends up being a well-fleshed out character who develops a relationship with Shepherd.
Also, Mordin sings. I mean, that’s hard to top.
NUMBER 4: Final Fantasy X
This game makes it on its strong central plot arc as well as refined gameplay. The overall plot line of this game is famous by now, and the twist at the end has made itself into gaming legend. Yuna, Tidus, Lulu, Wakka and the rest of the cast end up being a group that you can really get into, and their trials become your trials.
Final Fantasy X takes the gameplay experience of its predecessors to heart. The game is a bit linear, but moves quickly. The addition of a number of mini-games also really helps, especially since the big one is Blitzball, which is really fun in and of itself. I’m sure I’m not the only one who spent 10+ hours in game just playing Blitzball. When one of your mini-games is essentially good enough to be its own game, you’ve really hit on something game-play wise.
The other thing here I want to highlight is the cinematics. This was one of the first games I played that really made excellent use of its cinematics, both to develop character and advance plot lines. Yuna’s soul-sending sequence is still one of the most beautiful pieces of animation to ever come out of a game.
NUMBER 3: Final Fantasy VII
This game is legendary for a reason. It’s plot twist is legendary for a reason. This game and Final Fantasy X stand heads and shoulders above every other game in the series as far as writing is concerned, and that is what puts them at numbers 3 and 4 in the list. However, Final Fantasy VII has a couple other things going for it:
First, the materia system. This was one of the better ideas Final Fantasy has ever had as far as customizing equipment and spells is concerned. The Esper system from Final Fantasy VI had the flaw that you needed to level the Esper on EVERY character. With the materia system you just level the materia, and that is a huge time savings
Second, the limit break system. While this sort of appeared in FFVI, it was formalized in FFVII, and it really adds some cool attacks and variety to gameplay. It also contributed greatly to my own personal experience to the game, as I had Great Gospel on my first run through the game, so you can imagine my sadness a little while later when it was taken from me.
NUMBER 2: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
What’s not to love? Any game where you can run around, slice people up with lightsabers while firing lightning bolts out of your fingers is a good game in my book.
But beyond the gameplay, the writing itself for KOTOR shines as well. Excluding Juhani, the cast is fairly well defined and fleshed out, even if not necessarily likeable (Carth, looking at you). The overall plot has a real choice between light and dark (unlike most games nowadays), and has a plot arc which actually makes sense for both (due to a legendary plot twist). These two factors make this an extremely well-written game.
Add that to gameplay which doesn’t drag (well, doesn’t drag after you get Force Speed), fun combat, as well as varied and interesting quest lines, and you get a game which you can come back to and play again and again without getting bored.
Oh, and I forgot to mention – this game has the best NPC of all time. Now, if you haven’t played it, go and do so you damn meatbag.
NUMBER 1: Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn
This is the masterpiece of RPGs in my book. An expansive, well-written plot, a strong central villain, interesting combat, and an awesome NPC supporting cast combine to make this the best RPG of all time.
Really, this is the only game that checks ALL the boxes. Awesome plot? Check. Awesome characters? Check. Varied gameplay and quests? Check. Moves at a reasonable speed? Check. Provides challenges in a number of areas? Check. Has strong replay value? Check.
Beamdog did a phenomenal job with the enhanced edition as well, adding content and characters to an already great game.
Now go and play this if you haven’t already.
You point, I punch.