If you’re looking for a good RPG to play here’s a list of some of the top RPG video games ever made. These games span decades, but they all owe something to the earliest pen and paper RPGs. The influence of RPGs on video games has been tremendous. This list of the best RPG video games explores some different ways that RPGs have been implemented in video games.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
It’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of content that Skyrim offers. Sure, there have been bigger games, but Skyrim set the bar for what an open-world RPG could be. While there are loyal fans of earlier Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim brings together improved combat, nearly endless storytelling, and graphics that were astounding at the time. Today, Skyrim also benefits from an incredibly prolific modding community. The customization you can put into the game in mods alone is remarkable. This is a game that is definitely still worth playing. At least until you take an arrow to the knee.
Final Fantasy VII
From the moment Final Fantasy VII begins it establishes itself as something entirely new. The opening sequence is a breathtaking 3D full motion video that introduces us to not only the city of Midgar, a flower seller named Aerith, and an arriving train, but also the first 3D Final Fantasy game. That opening sequence establishes the tone for this game’s character design as well. 3D graphics aren’t employed here as a gimmick. Instead, Final Fantasy VII makes use of extensive full motion video to propel the story forward in a way that connects us to the characters like never before. This has made Final Fantasy VII one of the most memorable games of its generation. And who can forget Cloud’s sword?
While many of the best RPG video games listed here can be categorized as Action RPGs, Diablo II has easily set the standard for ARPGs. Even its sequel, Diablo III, has not seen as much critical acclaim. Diablo II was not a radical innovation compared to Diablo, but it still improved on it in nearly every way. The game features five playable classes, a randomly generated loot system, a crafting system, and increasing difficulties unlocked with successive play throughs. The result is a game with incredible replay value. As the game has aged others have tried to develop games that retain the spirit of Diablo II while modernizing the systems and graphics in a number of ways, demonstrating the lasting influence of this RPG.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, or KotOR as it is lovingly called by fans, is a high watermark for Bioware. Many online discussions of new and upcoming RPG video games still compare these games with KotOR. Not only did the story have one of the most surprising plot twists in film or video games, but it tapped into the Star Wars fandom with a game that lived up to even the best of the movies. KotOR put character decisions at the forefront, along with character customization and combat. The alignment system tracked these decisions in a character’s tendency towards the dark side or the light. This tendency manifests itself in the physical appearance of the character and ultimately affects the ending, and that incredible plot twist.
Dragon Age: Origins
Dragon Age: Origins owes a great deal to Bioware’s earlier Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and it is one of the best RPG video games for similar reasons. However, Dragon Age offered Bioware a chance to deliver a graphically superior game with some important improvements. While RPGs don’t need to rely on better graphics to be exceptional, it certainly helps to increase the feeling of immersion. Dragon Age is an RPG that gets world immersion right, even if its story is not as strong as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Another improvement that Dragon Age made was in the combat system. The combat system allows you to shift from third person to top-down and pause combat to give orders at any time. The result maintains both the immersion and excitement of real time combat as well as the tactical decision making that defines so many great RPGs.
Chrono Trigger is a game whose narrative challenges you as a player, not simply as a character. It plays off of certain tropes in the top RPG video games that had already developed by 1995. It does this by judging your behavior when you didn’t think you were playing the game. In the beginning of Chrono Trigger you attend the Millennial Fair and a number of activities delay you from what you, as a player, know to be the real game. During this time you have the opportunity to take part in some typical RPG behavior, like eating a lunch you find unattended or looting some lost jewelry. Whatever your actions, the game shows you no consequences for them in this chapter. However, in Chapter 5 you are put on trial and testimony against you is based on your actions at the Millennial Fair. This wonderful device challenges you to think about your actions even when the consequences are not immediately apparent. This is ultimately an important approach because Chrono Trigger has multiple endings depending on your actions. Don’t expect that any of them will let you off easily.
While many RPGs rely only on skill trees to track customization, Deus Ex ups the ante by also forcing you to make decisions about what augmentations you will add to your body as you play. Each of these directly effects the style of play most appropriate to your character along with the skills you choose to customize. The multilayered customization system makes for an endlessly replay-able game with multiple endings. Will you go in guns blazing or sneak around and take your opponents out silently? Deus Ex offered a level of customization that changed not only how you played your character, but how you approached every level and environment.
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2has received widespread praise from critics, but as an RPG it is often a very divisive title. This is likely due to the balance that Mass Effect 2 strikes between action/adventure and traditional RPG. Where Mass Effect focused less on action and featured many menus of customization, Mass Effect 2 is sleek and simplified. While the game took a great deal of criticism for this, what is unquestionable is that Mass Effect 2 made the RPG genre accessible and attractive to a large community of gamers who might never have tried a traditional RPG. This likely accounts for its widespread acclaim as a video game despite the fact that its status as one of the top RPG video games is in question. Still, Mass Effect 2 belongs on this list for the way it opened the genre up to a new audience and demonstrated how elements of the RPG genre could be implemented in nearly any game.
System Shock 2
System Shock 2is an incredibly influential game, though its spiritual successor Bioshock is perhaps better known and also receives high praise. Yet System Shock 2 didn’t experience widespread commercial success at the time of its release. This is largely because the game was so far ahead of its time. While remaining very much an RPG, with excellent character creation and customization, it also implemented the first person shooter and survival horror genres flawlessly. The story telling is organic and makes use of environmental clues. The horror is pitch perfect. Every sound is terrifying in the silence of the Von Braun. The antagonist SHODAN has inspired so many incredible video game antagonists and yet she still stands as one of the best. Ultimately the excellent character customization offered by the RPG elements of the game are put to the test by the oppressive horror of one of the best RPG video games of all time.
Earthbound is a fairly straightforward RPG. It differs only in subtle ways from other games of its time. Enemy encounters are not random. The world map is continuous. Advantage can be gained in combat. Oh and a bee from the future tells you to save the world from an alien invasion by collecting melodies in a sound stone. Meanwhile the game itself, as well as the characters, pokes fun at American culture and video game and RPG tropes. The game was even advertised using a campaign that proclaimed “This game stinks.” This marketing campaign and the strangeness of the game itself might explain why it was so unsuccessful in North America upon initial release. In the years that followed, however, the game has taken on a cult status and deserves a position on this list for its subversion of the genre.
The defining feature ofPlanescape: Torment has to be the story. This game is heavily story driven and light on combat. (Which is good, because the combat system isn’t very good.) Depending on your choices, the complex narrative allows you to avoid much of the game’s combat. Planescape: Torment is built on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset and set in the D&D Planescape. The traditions of old school D&D permeate gameplay. You are the “nameless one” and you are on a quest to discover who you are. In the process of discovering who you are your choices end up defining you. Planescape gets at the root of what makes RPGs so great and for that it deserves to be called one of the best RPG video games.
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
Here’s another game straight out of the D&D multiverse and true to the spirit of traditional RPGs. Like Planescape: Torment, the game’s mechanics are derived from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. Add to that the D&D setting of the Forgotten Realms, an enormous world, focused story, an interesting antagonist, six-person party capability, and you may have the closest video game approximation of a game of D&D. It is unlikely that any fantasy RPG world has been more perfectly realized and implemented in a video game thanBaldur’s Gate II. Bioware improved on Baldur’s Gate in every way they could and implemented a world that was narratively and mechanically complete. Baldur’s Gate IIis not just one of the best RPG video games, it is also one of the best video games ever made.
Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy Tacticshas got it all. Not only does it have an engrossing story, it also has one of the most complex and nuanced character customization systems ever developed, along with an incredibly good battle system. While earlier Final Fantasy titles rely on combat systems that are predominately two dimensional, Tactics introduces a three-dimensional isometric battle system complete with movement that takes into account both distance and elevation. The resulting combat system introduces a level of tactical complexity that had not been previously seen. On top of a wonderful combat system, Tactics also features one of the best Final Fantasy plots. While Final Fantasy is known for its audacious and whimsical stories, Tactics is also darker and more somber. Between a combat system that offers endless possibilities and a story worth revisiting Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that gets replayed over and over again, and deserves to be called one of the best RPG video games.
While no list of the top RPG video games can be complete, this list has aimed to include some of the best examples in the genre. They all owe something to the earliest pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, yet each is unique in what it adds to the genre. What did you think of our list? What do you consider some of the best RPG video games?