40. Darklands [fan site] (1992)
Darklands takes place in a geographically accurate recreation of 15th Century Europe, in lands that were part of the Holy Roman Empire. That in itself is worthy of note, most RPGs being set in The Realms of Wibbledy-Woo or the Kingdom of Wotsitsfacealot. While not strictly historical, thanks to some brazenly supernatural cults and their chums, Darklands is shot through with authenticity, from the names of the places scattered across its open world to the efficiency of weapons against armour types. Even age is important. Start with older characters and they will bring knowledge and better gear to the party, but as they grow older still, their physical skills will decline. It’s an unusual and fascinating game that differs from its peers in playstyle as well as setting, and its influence can be seen on some modern giants, including Pillars of Eternity.
Notes: The manual contained an explanation of the game’s religious themes and the depiction of witchcraft, Catholicism and the politics of the time. It’s a thoughtful piece of writing. Here’s an excerpt: “The portrayal of witches, witchcraft, and the Templars in Darklands is based entirely on 15th Century ideas, from careful reading of primary and secondary sources. There are no covens, no nature ceremonies, no pre-Christian rites or worship of Diana. The witches here come from the “Malleus Maleficarum,” the classic book about witchcraft, written in the late 1400s by two Dominican friars. The ultimate purpose of the Darklands witches is entirely in keeping with philosophies of that era, especially the recurring millenarian themes.”
What else should I be playing if I like this: Mount and Blade is entirely different but somewhat the same.
Publisher: Sierra Online
Set in the world(s) of Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar novels, Betrayal At Krondor is a sprawling game that belies its own literary structure. Separating into chapters and narrated in third-person, Betrayal initially seems to be based around strict linear progression but each chapter covers several areas of an enormous world, each of which is open for exploration and looting. Rather than typical D&D-style traps and dungeons, Betrayal’s lands are riddled with riddles, as well as a smart tactical combat system that makes good use of a novel attributes system, which is itself backed by a practice-makes-perfect set of skills. These systems, backed by strong storytelling, are the mark of a game that still feels fresh.
Notes: Feist didn’t write the dialogue and plot himself, but did create a novel based around the events several years later.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Return to Krondor, Betrayal’s sequel, is inferior but still worth playing, particularly as the pair are bundled together on GOG. Dynamix were also responsible for MissionForce: Cyberstorm, an unusual 1886 strategy game set in the Earthsiege universe, home of the Tribes games.
Developer: Sir-Tech Canada
The Wizardry series reached its zenith and its nadir in its eighth and final chapter. By this entry, the first-person party-based RPGs had incorporated high-tech alien races and galactic politics alongside its more traditional fantasy races and classes. Even with the added space-synths, the song remained the same. You pick a party, you explore, you loot, you pick sides, you fight. Mostly, you fight. The game’s somewhat abstract approach to turn-based first-person combat is initially disconcerting but becomes one of the feather’s in the hat of an extremely accomplished and expansive game. Sadly, the nadir was in the fortunes of developers Sir-Tech. Following a troubled production, Wizardry 8 was their final game.
Notes: Brenda Braithwaite (now Romero) was the lead designer of Wizardry VIII, having previously worked on Sir-Tech’s Jagged Alliance series.
Read more: A collection of interviews with Sir-Tech’s Brenda Garneau.
Where can I buy it:Steam, GOG.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Previous Wizardry games, in particular 6 & 7, which form a trilogy with 8. The Might and Magic games are similar, and the Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Master and Legend of Grimrock series offer excellent first-person party-based adventures.
37. Wasteland 2 [official site] (2014)
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher: Deep Silver
You can’t always get what you want and on the rare occasions that you do, you might realise that your desires are as mysterious and undirected as dreams. Wasteland 2 is occasionally fiddly, repetitive and too busy for its own good. It has heaps of character in some areas and feels scrubbed bare in others. There are skills that feel like deadweight on a character sheet, barely used throughout and apparently a bad choice that you didn’t know you were making.
It’s also charming, strange, funny, inventive, unpredictable and packed with things to do. In short, it’s almost everything that the original Wasteland and Fallout games were, for better and for worse. Sometimes the lack of concessions to modern design sensibilities can seem stubborn but inXile almost certainly realised how far they could tip the balance, and carefully balanced their enormous and intricate project to ensure that it broke through the charred crust of the Wasteland to keep in touch with its roots at all times.
Notes: Wasteland 2 was one of the first games to ride the Kickstarter wave and its $2,933,252 takings are among the highest of any crowdfunded game.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Wasteland 1 perhaps? If you don’t want to go that far back, Fallout 1 & 2 are wonderful games, very much in the spirit of Wasteland 2.
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Clearly, the vast majority of RPGs on this or any other list are fantasy-themed, but the other great roleplaying setting is cyberpunk. The Deus Ex games have arguably claimed the crown there, but for solid, generous, fully-fledged cyberpunkery in the classic 80s and Gibsonesque vein, Dragonfall hits the spot despite throwing a whole lot of fantasy into the mix. Into its West/East fusion-world, replete with cybernetic implants, Blade Runneresque neon’n’noodlebars and ubiquitous hacking, are thrown elves, dwarves, trolls and dragons. It sounds faintly absurd on paper, but seems like the most natural thing in the world in practice. To see these fantasy races adopting the world-weary, hard-bitten cynicism that is the de facto cyberpunk tone is to redeem them from the often cloying earnestness with which they’re usually depicted. It’s taken the 21st century revisitation to the 80s pen’n’paper RPG three goes to really get it right, though: the Director’s Cut of Dragonfall finally adds the relative freedom of action and depth of conversation that the hitherto restrictive series sorely needed.
Notes: It’s not the end of the world if you wind up with the non-director’s cut version of Dragonfall – you’ll be upgraded to the newer version for free. The original Shadowrun Returns is a bit flat though, and bear in mind that this year’s Shadowrun Online was made by a different team entirely and is an altogether less impressive project.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Deus Ex: Human Revolution will give you a more action-led yet introspective cyberpunk experience, while the steath-focused Invisible Inc is the better experience if you want more turn-based, hacking-augmented ‘combat.’
It’s odd that NWN 2 tends to get forgotten when listing Obsidian’s RPG works. Although it’s likely for the finest of reasons – it’s so close to the glorious work of BioWare and Black Isle that you’d think it was originally theirs. With Chris Avellone behind the pen, it took BioWare’s much more DM-focused original and developed it into an elaborate, enormous single-player RPG. Seeking silver shards, and ancient baddie called the King Of Shadows, it closely followed D&D’s 3.5 edition, and indeed came with the tools for people to play their own campaigns. But where it shined the brightest was its companions. The star is Khelgar Ironfist, a furious dwarf who is probably the best RPG companion to have been written, alongside KotOR’s HK47. But tiefling Neeshka and sorcerer Qara also stand out. It is a stunningly funny game.
Then along came expansion Mask Of The Betrayer – more of a sequel than anything – and was perhaps better than the main game. Split into two mirrored worlds, it borrows rather heavily from Zelda as it lets you explore two versions of the same areas. Spirits are devoured, gargoyles kidnap and the soul of the Founder is up to naughty business. The companions aren’t nearly as fun, but the story is epic and compelling, exploring themes of religion in a deep and intelligent way.
Notes: Betrayer added in some interesting classes to play at, not often seen in D&D games including a Half-Drow, and any of Air, Earth, Fire or Water Genasi. Neverwinter Nights 2 was the first 90% John gave a game for PC Gamer since Force Commander. Ask him about that sometime. He LOVES that.
Where can I buy it: GOG
What else should I be playing if I like this: Dragon Age: Origins for sure. If you’re after something that’s as hardcore D&D, have a look at Black Isle’s Icewind Dale.
34. Darkest Dungeon [official site (2015)
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
That this is the only game on this list that’s still in Early Access says much about how brilliant Darkest Dungeon is. It’d be an inventive and challenging roguelike even without its two major innovations: ongoing, reactive narration and an extended investigation into the psychological effects of repeatedly chucking adventurers into dungeons full of unspeakable horrors. The more you make them fight, down there in the dark, the more vices and phobias they develop, steadily becoming greater liabilities even as their skills improve. This is presuming you can keep them alive in the first place, of course – Dark Dungeon has a high staff turnover. Where the Bioware model of RPGs has you chat to team members at length to keep them happy, Darkest Dungeon is a thoughtful – and stressful – management game. There are no magic bullets to cure insanity – it’s ongoing and expensive work, and if things get too out of hand you simply need to let your heroes go. The papercraft visual style is a treat too, while the turn-based combat is massively strategic and full of deadly variety.
Notes: Again, it’s still in Early Access, so all is theoretically subject to change. It’s improved enormously over the last six months though, including getting rid of some significant irritations, so the signs are good.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: Dungeon Of The Endless for another very different take on the roguelike formula, or there’s Sword & Sworcery: SuperBrothers EP for a far more maudlin and scripted look at the heavy toll adventuring can take on its heroes.
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
The two things Elder Scrolls games do well are landscape and what we’ll call choice-yness. Skyrim has both in spades.
Where Oblivion was criticised for being trad-fantasy to the point of blandness, Skyrim is a far more interesting world to explore. Huge mountains with snow-covered peaks roll into forests, marshes, bogs, ice caves, and each towns and city has something unique about it. It’s a game in which you want to go on an adventure, and where you can feel like you’re on a grand journey simply by endeavouring to walk from one end of the world to the other.
The other, the choice-yness, comes from Bethesda’s continued commitment to covering their world with a dozen equally-engaging activities. Yes, you’re the Dragonborn, the one and only, and the world depends on you to save it, but also there’s a mage’s guild to lead, a fighter’s arena to conquer, the murderous Dark Brotherhood to join, and so on. None of these activities is as fleshed-out as they might be in a more focused game, but the variety and number of possible experiences is the whole point. Skyrim is a game to lose yourself in.
And then, of course, there’s the mods. It’s not commonplace for Elder Scrolls games to receive tens of thousands of updates from its players, but keep in mind how remarkable it is that Skyrim’s audience have written whole new questlines, re-balanced combat, introduced new genres, and prettified the entire world far beyond what Bethesda could hope to accomplish on their own. Buy Skyrim today – and its only £10 in most places – and you could be playing it for the next decade.
Notes: Bethesda and Valve recently tried to introduce paid modding to Skyrim, prompting the community to tear itself apart. The decision was later reversed, but here’s Bethesda’s reasoning and some thoughts from the creator of the Skyrim Nexus mod site
What else should I be playing if I like this: Bethesda’s game follow a similar structure, so if you like Skyrim, you might also like their post-apocalyptic shooter Fallout 3 or the earlier, weirder Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
Developer: Iron Lore
At a glance, the action RPG seems like it should be a synch to get right. And yet so few ever do. Alongside Torchlight, Diablo, Grim Dawn and Path Of Exile, Titan Quest makes up the top five aRPGs, each a league ahead of sixth place.
Part of its success is its relative simplicity – whether in solo or co-op, it’s the most pick-up-able of RPGs, letting you immediately get into bashing your way through a series of mythological settings, hoovering up loot, and constantly upgrading your equipment. With Brian “Age Of Empires” Sullivan at the helm, and a team featuring at least one ex-Looking Glass developer, it certainly had an advantage starting out. But despite just how brilliant a game they made, and the continued brilliance of its expansion, Immortal Throne, it wasn’t enough of a success for Iron Lore to keep going. Which remains one of gaming history’s great injustices.
If you’re looking for a way into action role-playing games, then this is the one. Incredibly accessible, enormously fun, and so ridiculously re-playable, Titan Quest stands over the gaming landscape like a… well, you know.
Notes: Oddly, during development Sullivan said he believed this game would have the breakout mainstream success of The Sims. Which seemed as odd a thing to say then as it does now. Former Iron Lore developers went on to form Crate Entertainment, responsible for the huge success of Grim Dawn, still being actively added to two years in.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: Get yourself to Torchlight II, and of course take a look at Grim Dawn.
31. The Banner Saga [official site] (2014)
Yes, the pseudo-rotoscope, Norse-themed art is glorious, evoking some dark animation dimly remembered from the late 70s, but what gives The Banner Saga staying power is that it’s a sort of rolling mood more than anything else. A disaster-strewn trek across a dying land, multiple, oft-changing perspectives, awful decisions with terrible consequences made at every turn, more a tale of a place than of the individual characters within it. The feel of Banner Saga is what’s most memorable, elevating choose-your-own-adventure tropes into real atmosphere. There’s a reasonably robust turn-based combat system in there too, in which you regularly get to field armies of horned giants. A few punches are pulled, perhaps, but The Banner Saga has far more substance than might have been expected from a game which seems so very art-led.
Notes: The Banner Saga was last year subject to legal action by Candy Crush owners King, who decided they should have sole domain over the word ‘saga’. Read about that misery here, then breathe a sigh of relief that The Banner Saga 2 is now happening.
Where can I buy it: Steam