These games have taken the RPG genre to new heights!
The 2010s have been an amazing decade for video games. We've seen some iconic titles release since the new decade began - and it's allowed the genre to break off into about million different directions. We've seen new series rise and take control of the industry and we've seen old ones change beautifully with the times. But what are the best of the best? Hopefully, I've answered that question below.
10. Final Fantasy XV
Oh Final Fantasy XV, you are such a flawed masterpiece of a game. I mean, you are the Final Fantasy's first step into an open-world, action RPG direction. And while you certainly had your missteps - you were a compelling addition to a franchise that has gotten more than it's fair share of flack in recent years (I mean, who thought FFXIII was good?).
FFXV is the latest installment in the Final Fantasy franchise. In it, you play as Noctis, a prince whose kingdom, Lucis, has just been usurped by a foreign power, Niflheim right under his nose. You and your protectors are tasked with finding ancient weapons of Kings' past, all the while fighting nocturnal monsters called Daemons and the mysterious Niflheim counselor, Ardyn Izunia.
The game gets a lot right. The game play is interesting and exciting, it throws away the turn-based battle system of yore in favor of a real-time action-based system. During battle, you have simple commands in a menu at the bottom of the screen: attack, defend, and item. Another great edition of this game is the battles taking place in the environment and not a separate screen. Yes, FFXII did this... but this one did it well. It's main characters are also compelling. They have an astounding chemistry that keeps you interested in them.
Still, it had some issues. The story was not executed all that well. The few female characters that exist in this game weren't given near enough screen time, and that's a cardinal sin in my eyes. And despite it's compelling characters - the overarching story felt rushed at points and clunky. This popped the bubble for me - but still, it was a good game. And definitely one of the best in the FF series.
9. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2013)
What do you get when you merge Studio Ghibli with prolific developer Level 5? You get magic, that's what you get. That's the only thing you can really say to describe this game. It takes you back to the basics, and provides you with a grand story and astounding character design. It's definitely an RPG that's made it's mark in the community.
In Wrath of the White Witch, you play as Oliver, on a quest to save his mother from the curse of the evil White Witch. To fight her, he must travel from his hometown of Motorville and the magical other world. As Oliver travels through this mysterious world, he meets a lovely cast of characters and must deal with the perils of a world broken apart by evil.
But, there are some problems. One is the seemingly endless tutorial. I basically got sixty hours into the game and I was still learning new mechanics. This isn't a terrible thing, but geez, come on already. And as much as I loved everything about the story and the character design, it almost seems like I've seen some of the characters before. The characters felt cliched. And cliched isn't always bad, but in this case, it took me out of the experience.
Bottom line, Ni No Kuni could have been higher on the list. It just need to iron out a few kinks, and it's still a game that everyone should play.
8. Borderlands 2 (2012)
How could I make a top ten list and not include one of the best RPG shooters ever made? I couldn't. So, here it is, Borderlands 2. It is gut-wrenchingly funny, and beautifully crafted. It's characters are interesting and fun, and unlike some games on this list - it's quests (although repetitive and cliched) are made better by the people who give them to you. Honestly, it's wonderful.
In Borderlands 2, you take control of the Vault Hunters: Axton the Commando, Maya the Siren, Salvador the Gunzerker, and Zer0 the Assassin (and others, if you get the DLC). And you travel around the lawless wasteland of the planet Pandora, and find yourself caught up in a fight for power between the evil corporation Hyperion and the Crimson Raiders who oppose them.
The one big issue I have is that, despite the amazing story and characters - the gameplay can feel very pedestrian. It didn't grow all that much, there were some interesting battle mechanics but it wasn't enough to save it from getting old after a while. But that's the thing with first person shooters, and it's easy to overlook.
7. Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver
I know, I know, having a Pokemon game on an RPG list is weird. I am usually under the impression that all Pokemon games are in a genre of their own. But these are RPGs. You take control of character and guide through an overarching quest, and level up a party of different characters as you go. Sure, it's not the first thing that pops into your head when you think RPG, but that's what Pokemon is. And to say that they don't deserve a place on this list is dumb.
I picked HeartGold and SoulSilver specifically, because I thought they were astounding remakes of two already amazing games. They were engaging, and fun and offered enough nostalgia with just a hint of change that made them stand out to me. They were also the first games where you could actively interact with your pokemon more, which I thought was a nice touch.
The reason I didn't choose X/Y or Sun/Moon, is because those are too simple. They're very easy pokemon games - these still had that standard Pokemon. It's just hard enough to be enjoyable and not frustrating. This keeps it from getting any higher on this list. That, and there wasn't any real newness. Still, you sit and play this game and tell me it isn't fun as hell!
6. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Skyrim, anyone who knows me knows that I have very mixed feelings about this game. It's important and definitely groundbreaking for its time. It's world is vast, and it's story is steeped with lore that has built over the entire Elder Scrolls series. There so much to do, and the world is beautiful. And though I do not care foe this game, I recognize it's importance - thus it's place on this list.
In Skyrim, you take control of the Dragonborn, after witnessing a dragon attack, you find that you are destined to fight an ancient evil that has recently awakened. And if you don't, the world will be destroyed. There's also a war going on between Nords of Skyrim and the Empire. Not to mention, there's about a million other side quests you can complete. There's a lot to do in Skyrim.
It is a great game, too. It's scope and size provide one of the best, most intricate open world experiences in modern gaming. The main character's arc is compelling, and the powers you get (YOU CAN BREATHE FIRE!) are nothing short of awesome. The controls are simple, and they're effective. It's an all around good experience.
BUT, my issues stem from the lack of good voice acting (most of the characters sound exactly the same), and the fact that some of the quests just feel so hollow. Even quests that have overarching narratives feel so bland and basic. There's nothing that attaches me to this game emotionally - which I think is very important in an RPG. Still, I'd be dumb to say it's not one of the most important RPGs of our generation, I guess.
5. Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
Two years after the release of Bethesda's iconic, but flawed, Fallout 3, Bethesda released the Obsidian Entertainment developed Fallout: New Vegas. It wasn't welcomed with open arms. It's release was met with backlash due to the sheer volume of bugs that made the game basically unplayable. Still, they fixed their mistake and now the game is considered the best installment since Black Isle Studios' Fallout 2.
It's hard to pick exactly what makes the experience so good. The gameplay improved immensely from Fallout 3, and added a layer of difficulty. With different kinds of ammo, you had to be strategic about what enemies you fought. You wouldn't want to get caught fighting a armored Radscorpion without an armor piercing rounds for your hunting rifle.
Then you've got the engaging storyline. You are a courier who takes a job that almost gets you killed. After a man named Benny shoots you in the head, you are left for dead and out for revenge. You start on a journey that takes you across New Vegas, a post-nuclear apocalypse version of Las Vegas. The story is rife with
Still, what keeps it from getting any higher on this list is it's odd difficulty spikes. These take the forms in cazadores, exquisitely annoying mutated insects that can kill you in ten seconds flat. And you can't even run away, because they are super fast! And you don't want to accidentily wander near the quarry, lest you be ravaged by about a million different types of deathclaw (enemies that were already insanely difficult in the previous Fallout titles).
Still, though this game is not perfect, it is a beautifully done entry in Fallout series. And deserves it's spot on this list.
4. Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)
Dragon Age: Inquisition will always hold a special place in my heart for many reasons. Once you get outside of the technically amazing gameplay, and the super engaging storyline, you have astonishingly human characters. Despite it's fantastical fantasy setting, a lot of these people feel very real. Even the hulking horned-giant man. Plus, as a queer gamer, the Dorian storyline still kills me every time I play it!
In Inquisition, you play as the Inquisitor, a person with a mysterious power who has been tasked to lead a continent-wide inquisition. You must act as both a political leader and an active participant in the war against the ancient evil that is responsible for mysterious rifts that have opened across Thedas. If you fail, it could mean the destruction of Thedas, or even the world itself.
I can't praise the game anymore, honestly. I spent hours wandering across this vast world. I played the side quests. I maxed out all the companions. I worked my ass off, and I enjoyed every minute of it. When I wasn't exploring, I was in the game's War Room. I made political decisions for two countries. I did my best to rule Thedas fairly and justly. It was hard, sure, but this game made it worth it.
We're at a point now, where my criticisms are small. For instance, the only real criticism I have for Inquisition is it's camera angles during battles - sometimes it felt like a sensory overload when you fought a lot of enemies at once. Still, that's not a small criticism - nitpicky even.
3. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (2015)
This is one of the best video games I have ever played in my life. I am not exaggerating. This is one of the most involved RPGs I've played in a very long time. It's placement on this list is only affected by a very specific, but important reason. But make no mistake, this game is done masterfully. The story is gripping, and it's side quests are some of the most involved I've ever experienced. There was never a moment where this game did not keep me engaged - and that's so important.
In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, you play as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher (an enhanced human who hunts monsters for money) as he searches for Ciri, a girl with mystical abilities. He's not the only one searching for her, however. A ghostly army of powerful warriors called The Wild Hunt, also searches for Ciri. And it's up to you to make sure that you find her first.
Let's start with the gameplay - it's difficult, but mastering it leaves you feeling both accomplished and powerful. You have two swords - one for human targets and one for supernatural ones. You also have a variety of weapons you pick up throughout the rest of the game. You have set of different magic you can use, and upgrade throughout the game - the powers are limited, but they're fun.
The world itself is also phenomenal. It feels alive, that's the dynamic AI system. The NPCs and the monsters react to the world around you, and it shows. Often times you fight enemies who can only appear in certain times of night. And beware of a full moon, because werewolves are stronger on nights of a full moon. There's just so much going on in the world - often times I felt pleasantly overwhelmed.
Although, a big issue I have is that there just aren't any people of color in this game. Like at all. I played through the entire campaign and I don't think I met a single person who wasn't pale white. This is a problem, because a lot of gamers are not white. And don't give me the whole "it's based on such and such and so and so!" This is a fantasy game. If werewolves, banshees, and witches can exist - so can people of color.
This is a huge issue that takes away from the larger game. But, it's still an immersive RPG. And thus it is included on this list.
2. Persona 4: Golden (2012)
The Persona series has a long history of being an incredibly involved roleplaying experience. The entirety of their gameplay revolves around building social links (well, Personas 3-5) with your party members and the massive amount of NPCs that are sprinkled throughout the games' very long campaigns. I think Persona 4 Golden clocks in at 69 hours and that's without doing any extra stuff. According to howlongtobeat.com, to complete the entire game 100%, you need a whopping 144 hours to beat the full game.
In Persona 4 Golden, you follow a group of young teens in the rural town of Inaba. You must investigate a strange world inside your TV that seems to be connected to a series of near-unsolvable murders. Eventually, you and your team use the power of Personas to investigate this strange new world and save potential victims from facing a grisly fake.
The game is very involved, as I said before. Everything you do depends on who you talk to, when you talk to them, and what you say to them. Talking to certain friends and progressing their social link gives them new powers in the TV world. Interacting with the world in general bumps up your character's stats, which in turn help when you fight monsters. The battle is a typical turn-based structure, but it's also so visual stunning that it somehow feels very new and exciting.
The reason it's ranked so high on this list is due to how real it feels, despite it's strange storyline. It's still an RPG, but it's also a social simulator, and they merge the two together masterfully. Yes, The Witcher 3 is a brilliant game - but doesn't strike the same personal chords that Persona 4 Golden does, especially as a queer-identifying gamer.
1. Undertale (2015)
Taking the number one spot is a game that I can safely say destroyed me on so many different levels. Not only did this game provide a unique take on classic RPG conventions, but it offered an astoundingly meta story with characters that were crafted with so much care - and that's not just the main cast! Literally every monster you meet in this game is it's own, unique character. The best part? You don't have to kill anyone (and you shouldn't want to).
In Undertale, you take control of an unnamed human child who falls down a hole into an underground world full of monsters. You must travel across this vast underground world, solving puzzles and talking/flirting/interacting your way out of different fights. If you don't, you could be stuck down here forever. But, the farther you go, the more you realize...that might not be such a bad thing?
Undertale is a meticulous RPG. The world design is simple and inherits a lot of it's style from classic RPGs like Earthbound, Shin Megami Tensai, and other games such as the Mario & Luigi series and the bullet hell genre. There's so much that you can absorb. The main story runs about thirteen hours (at least that's how long it took me). And it's an emotional roller coaster!
The gameplay is simple and fun - during battles, you are your character's heart. You must dodge the obstacles that the enemies throw at you. And you have an option, you can fight and kill them. Or you can talk them down until you can finally spare them. It was a welcome change to a format that usually involves mindlessly slaying creatures for XP and gold.
I can't say anything bad about Undertale, it is the best RPG of the 2010s so far. And I would dare say that it is one of the best RPGs of all time.
And there you have it folks. My list of the best of the best RPGs to come out so far! Did you agree with me? Did you not? Do you want to see another fun list? Send me an email with the link below!
Shann Smith is a writer, screenwriter, playwright, and gamer based in NYC. If you'd like to write to him or have an idea for another top list or just want to submit a game for any future lists, hit him up!