There are roughly two types of RPGs: the ones where players can create their own characters and personalise them in many possible ways; and the ones where players are given one or more established characters that can be chosen and/or personalised in limited ways. One is not necessarily better than the other; there are advantages to both in terms of gameplay and narrative. This was one of the criteria to choose the games for this list, which, like any such list, is obviously arbitrary and subjective.
The other criteria are tied in with the very definition of RPG, which comes down to the fact that different roles played by different players must have different solutions and outcomes in quests and the overall story arc. In other games it makes sense to have the same solutions and the same outcomes for all players, but not in RPGs, which is what makes them unique and more personal than other genres, simulating a reactivity to the player’s interactions.
There are many games with RPG elements such as experience points, levels, quests, dialogue trees or wheels, but offering the same solutions and the same outcomes no matter how personalised the characters may seem, which makes them cosmetic RPGs—not necessarily a bad thing in itself; many such games can be excellent and fun, but they do not fit in this particular list. For a more in-depth definition of RPG, refer to The CRPG Addict.
10. Chrono Trigger (1995)
As the only non-Western RPG that made into this list, Chrono Trigger stands out as the most compelling, complex and fascinating JRPG of the SNES era, excellent in every facet: gorgeous, detailed pixel graphics; intriguing worldbuilding without excessive lore dumps; fun, gripping turn-based combat gameplay; memorable quests with great writing and character development; and, above all, a variety of 13 endings.
There were several great RPGs during the SNES era: Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Secret of Mana, Terranigma, Secret of Evermore, Illusion of Gaia… But Chrono Trigger was unique, even irreplicable; a true treasure of console gaming that went beyond the mindless fun of button-mashing and platforming; a game where the player could actually affect the story.
9. Deus Ex (2000)
The argument can be made that Deus Ex is more of a stealth game or a first-person shooter than a proper RPG; or better yet, an immersive sim. Or even a cross-genre blend, if you will. But these arguments miss a major part of what made it such a groundbreaking game. You play as JC Denton, a nano-augmented UNATCO agent caught in a web of conspiracies, and as you unravel these conspiracies, your choices and interactions shape the narrative in a variety of ways, most of which are not immediately apparent.
The variety of possible solutions and outcomes for missions makes it immensely replayable. Head-on assault, stealth and cybernetic enhancements allow players to combine different approaches to combat and mission completion, while level exploration offers opportunities to improvise and interact with terminals, surveillance cameras, turrets, and so on. Observation often pays off more than hand-eye coordination.
The graphics do look dated, and the Eidos Montréal prequels do look much better and more stylish, but there are a couple of mods that can greatly enhance the experience: Deus Ex: Revision and GMDX. A vanilla playthrough is still worthwhile nevertheless.
8. Arx Fatalis (2002)
Arkane’s first game was originally planned as a sequel to Ultima Underworld. Unable to obtain the licence, Arkane rebranded it as Arx Fatalis (Fatal Fortress in Latin). Set in a fantasy universe where the sun failed, you explore a vast multilevelled underground dungeon as an amnesiac man trying to make sense of the environment, the people and the usual creatures found in fantasy games: goblins, trolls, golems, liches, a dragon.
It features one of the most creative spellcasting systems ever imagined: a set of runes that can be drawn on the screen with cursor movement. Its greatest strength, however, is its immersive atmosphere and the way quests and puzzles are presented, with different possible solutions and highly non-linear paths to achieve those solutions, which became the Arkane signature as they moved on to Dishonored and Prey.
The current Steam version requires Arx Libertatis to run properly, but it is otherwise a very accessible dungeon crawler RPG that stands the test of time quite well. It is vastly underrated and very little known, but it belongs in this list for all its roleplaying possibilities.
7. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004)
Based on a well-known tabletop RPG, Bloodlines is as rough a diamond as they come. A troubled development cycle did not diminish its brilliance as an RPG, no matter how flawed it was as a product upon release. Designed by the creators of Fallout, it is even more complex in its roleplaying mechanics, in major part for the clan-based approach to character creation, allowing for countless variations in playstyle with each clan and its stats and abilities. Some will say that no other game offers as much replay value as Bloodlines.
As a Source game it looks and plays much like Half-Life 2, though definitely not as polished upon release. The Unofficial Patch is a must to play it in current systems, which is also one of the greatest examples of the fact that players make the game as much as devs. And it shows that great RPGs (or just great games) can survive even the worst development cycle.
6. Baldur’s Gate II (2000)
Dungeons & Dragons requires no introduction. While the original Baldur’s Gate was a great RPG, it was also more typical D&D with the usual trappings and tropes that will now seem mostly generic to a contemporary RPG player. But Baldur’s Gate II was a more evolved, mature take on the D&D universe, following another D&D Infinity engine game, Planescape: Torment, which subverted the usual D&D tropes and expectations.
“BGII” is remembered and cherished not for its gameplay or graphics, but for its simulation of tabletop RPGs and their interactions between players and their companions. Actions have reactions; side quests play like standalone adventures; companions have original and entertaining banter; and it all merges into a cohesive whole—the ultimate D&D experience.
5. Planescape: Torment (1999)
I have already written a full-length backlog review for Planescape: Torment. Although a D&D game as well, it takes place in a campaign setting unlike any other in the D&D universe. Not so much fantasy as a kind of fantastical science fiction with an overwhelmingly complex cosmology, it is a very niche RPG, requiring investment in characters and dialogue above all.
Its narrative interactions are highly reactive: there are so many possible interactions, based not only on stats and skills, but on inventory items, companions, and so on; above all, it is the characters who make these interactions fascinating. The plot itself is secondary to the characters, whether companions or random NPCs. Thoroughly fleshed-out, complex and reactive, heartwarming and entertaining, these are “round characters” through and through.
4. Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992)
Developed at the dawn of first-person games right before Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, it was never as popular as those games (few were), but its cult following was and remains much more faithful to its groundbreaking immersive sim design that influenced many games and RPGs in particular. The Stygian Abyss is an eight-level underground dungeon where you, the Avatar, are imprisoned in as punishment for a crime you did not commit: the kidnapping of a baron’s daughter. To redeem yourself you must somehow find the girl in the mazelike halls and ruins, where you will meet men, dwarves, goblins, lizardmen, and so on.
While its interface and controls did not age well at all, the gameplay remains fascinating. When arrested by goblins, you are able to open the cell portcullis by reaching a wooden pole through the bars to hit the switch outside that opens it, but there are also other ways to open it. This is just one of many instances where you can accomplish a solution in different ways, but one of the most memorable ones for its immersion.
The legacy of Ultima Underworld is well-documented.
3. Fallout (1997)
In terms of scale and playtime, the original Fallout is very small compared to all the sequels that followed it. But greatness can be measured in different ways: a large scale is worthless when packed with lifeless characters and repetitive quests; playtime means nothing when the story is stretched thin. What made Fallout great was that it defined itself first and foremost as A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game, and it didn’t try to be anything more than that. It excelled as a pure CRPG, one of the greatest in the most prolific decade of the genre.
It’s now over twenty years old and it shows: it’s very dated, requiring some tweaking and plenty of getting used to its UI and mechanics. Most players will be put off by its difficulty and struggle to build a character that can survive the wasteland. Most will not see the multitude of possible solutions and approaches and stick to the violent paths that often have the poorest outcomes. Most will not see the forest for the trees and will fail to understand how rich in possibilities the Fallout universe was from the start.
2. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
Wild Hunt is a groundbreaking accomplishment in terms of production value and storytelling. The sheer amount of quality content in the game, even if you don’t count the excellent expansions, is more than enough to warrant this place in the list. Though the combat gameplay can get repetitive and twitchy, there is more than enough quality content to make up for it. In terms of storytelling variety, the side quests, much more elaborate than the usual fetch errands, are unmatched for their gripping and interesting characters. Character animation still looks excellent and lifelike, almost three years since the original release.
With three main different endings and several minor endings, all based on the player’s choices that often dwell in grey areas, Wild Hunt offers immense replay value. And even apart from the endings there is a good deal of reactivity: for instance, if you choose to brew a potion to try to save a girl’s life in the first chapter, much later on a soldier will approach you and tell you what happened to her. This is just one of many cases where the choices you make come back to either haunt or surprise you.
It is flawed as only the greatest masterpieces can be; a tour de force to be reckoned with; a world built by some of the most creative and innovative minds in the games industry; a game carved and handcrafted as a labour of love with only the varnish of commercial appeal.
1. Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
Everything I wrote about the original Fallout also goes for New Vegas. Yet it deserves the top position on the list for taking everything that was great and immersive about Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and making it better, more complex and reactive, more mature, more RPG-like. Developed by some of the original developers of Fallout 2, New Vegas is more of a sequel to it than actual Fallout 3, taking place in the same West Coast setting and including some characters who are related to the original characters, as well as dozens of references to the original games.
For a very thorough analysis of New Vegas quest design, watch Anatomy of a Side Quest by the brilliant Game Maker’s Toolkit. A single side quest can be completed in a variety of ways and playstyles, all of which is accommodated by the game. Reactivity to the player’s choices and actions is staggering, particularly when you interact with a diverse cast of companions, all of whom are interesting and include their own side quests. This comparison of the number of quests in each game also shows how much work was put into New Vegas. No wonder it won IGN’s Most Bang for Your Buck award in 2010.
No matter how flawed it may be due to a troubled and rushed development, New Vegas is a gold standard by which open world RPGs can be judged in terms of real roleplaying value.
A remastered version of the original Diablo would be nice too…
Basically a steampunk Fallout, developed by the same creators.
Baldur’s Gate’s little brother, by the developers of Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment.
BioWare’s last D&D RPG.
Precursor to The Witcher-style grimdark fantasy RPG.
Oblivion and Skyrim were good, but Morrowind was great.
What if Fallout 3 had been made as an isometric RPG instead?
Reimagining of Baldur’s Gate with original worldbuilding and ruleset.
Post-apocalyptic low-magic fantasy turn-based RPG set in the fall of a Roman-like empire.
I haven’t played it yet, but I know I have to, soon.
What The Future Holds
I have great hopes for it, as already written.
Very likely to be for the Pillars franchise what Baldur’s Gate II was to Baldur’s Gate.
One of the best-looking indie RPGs currently in development.
The first Mount & Blade games were good. The sequel promises to be great.
CD Projekt RED’s hype machine makes it sound truly groundbreaking.