Some (Adam. Just Adam – ed) would argue this is the best of The Elder Scrolls games and that Bethesda should be looking to it for inspiration as they prepare to enter the fray once more in a post-Witcher 3 world. No region of Tamriel since has been as grand and open as Daggerfall’s Hammerfell and High Rock, and while every inch might not be hand-crafted, there’s something to be said for a place so vast that you can legitimately lose yourself in it. The dungeons are byzantine nightmares and the first time you contract lycanthropy absolutely anything seems possible. Daggerfall is as flawed and magnificent as the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and occasionally as confused and wrong-headed as the ownership history of that stone, but it remains a singular achievement.
Notes: Bethesda made Daggerfall free to all in 2009 to mark the 15th anniversary of the Elder Scrolls series.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There are enough Elder Scrolls games to last a lifetime but Westwood’s Lands of Lore series is a fine alternative; first-person RPGs packed with old-fashioned oddities.
29. Sunless Sea [official site] (2015)
Developer: Failbetter Games
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Ah, the rare art of the slow jam. Almost every RPG takes an age to play through, but so few are measured, and even fewer actively encourage sombre patience. Sunless Sea is a nautical-themed roguelike (insert own acceptable number of additional likes here) in which your primary activity is sailing slowly across the titular vast and night-clad ocean while watching fuel and food meters nervously and praying nothing monstrous catches sight of you. There is admittedly rudimentary combat, but it’s first and foremost a game of cautious exploration, opening up a map littered with impeccably written vignettes which pull knowingly from across the spectrum of Lovecraftian, steampunk and gothic styles, then asking you to make potentially deadly or tragic decisions. Both literate and pulpy, and oozing playfully doomy atmosphere from every unspeakable orifice, Sunless Sea is a true original.
Notes: Though broadly comprehensible, Sunless Sea does presume a certain familiarity with the Fallen London setting created in the free to play browser game of the same name. It’s definitely worth checking that out know more about the drowned world and key concepts, and to experience more wonderful words in the same vein, but it was very much made during the social game rush of a few years back and can be a bit of a drag as a result.
28. Ancient Domains Of Mystery [official site] (1994-present)
Developer: Thomas Biskup
Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM) is one of the (relatively) early roguelike big-hitters. It is differentiated from many of its ASCII brethren as much by its development process as its actual content and structure, having been maintained by a single developer from 1994 to the present, albeit with a nine-year-hiatus beginning in 2003. From its freeware base, Biskup has successfully converted ADOM into a modern roguelike, with tileset integration, an upcoming Steam release and crowdfunded costs to support development.
The game itself is the most successful marriage of overworld and narrative structure to the randomisation and chaotic sense of discovery that is the hallmark of the great roguelikes. While characters are the usual jumble of numbers, class and race, they tend to last longer than the hapless sorts thrown into the depths of SLASHEM and Nethack. Small touches such as the assignation of a starsign make each hero more than a roll of the dice and another attempt at victory. As mutations corrupt a character you’ve guided through dungeons and wilderness for days, you’re likely to feel a twinge of sadness along with the bitterness of failure.
Notes: Biskup has been talking about JADE (ADOM II) since the earliest days of the internet. Or so it seems. Development continues.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Head to the depths of traditional roguelikes: Nethack, Angband, ToME, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.
27. Din’s Curse [official site] (2010)
Developer: Soldak Entertainment
Publisher: Soldak Entertainment
If somebody were to tell you that ARPGs in the Diablo mould are clickity-click fests with nothing to recommend them beyond the slot machine of loot gathering, you could point them toward Soldak’s library of games to prove them wrong in an instant. For more than ten years now, Steven Peeler’s company has been producing games that examine, explore and expand the possibilities of the ARPG. All are worth playing but Din’s Curse is still the crowning glory. It’s Diablo set in a fully randomised dynamic world, in which townspeople and monsters alike act independently when you’re not on the screen. It asks a very simple question – “What would happen if the monsters really were plotting something and Tristram could fall in real-time?” And then it provides the answer.
Notes: Adam believes the failure of mass audiences to embrace Soldak’s games is a sign of the decline of civilisation.
Read more: Our Review.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Soldak’s other games offer interesting takes on action-RPG mechanics, most notably the dynamic sci-fi adventures of Drox Operative.
26. UnReal World [official site] (1992-present)
Developer: Sami Maaranen
Publisher: Enormous Elk
The first release of Finnish survival roguelike UnReal World didn’t contain all of the seeds that would make it one of the world’s greatest and most distinctive RPGs. By the mid-nineties, solo developer Sami Maaranen had discovered the formula that would allow the game to endure for more than two decades. Still in active development, with regular updates adding major features as well as applying tweaks, UnReal World is a game about survival in harsh, realistic conditions. It’s a survival/crafting game that existed before the flood of Early Access survival/crafting games, and it offers a more complete and compelling vision than anything else in the genre.
Notes: UnReal World has been free to download since 2013. Maaranen accepts donations to support development.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Catacylsm: Dark Days Ahead is a post-apocalyptic roguelike that strives for similar depth of simulation.
25. Avernum: Escape From The Pit [official site] (2011 Mac/2012 PC)
Developer: Spiderweb Software
Publisher: Spiderweb Software
If Spiderweb Software didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent it. The studio, lead and operated by founder Jeff Vogel, has been responsible for some of the finest RPGs of the last twenty years. When Kickstarter kickstarted an “old-school” RPG revival recently, anyone clued in to Vogel’s work would have been entitled to raise an eyebrow in wry amusement. Through several series and one standalone game, Spiderweb have never shifted from their recipe of wide-ranging plots, turn-based combat, isometric graphics and detailed worlds. Avernum: Escape From The Pit, the latest revisit to Spiderweb’s original Exile trilogy, is a great starting point into these wonderfully well-crafted non-linear behemoths.
Notes: Avernum: Escape from the Pit is a remake of a remake, the first game being Exile and the original remake being simply Avernum. There is now a sequel to the remake of the remake.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Vogel has been making RPGs under the Spiderweb moniker for two decades and there’s plenty in the back catalogue to sink your +4 teeth into. The Geneforge and Avadon series are both fantastic, and the former contains unusual gene-splicing.
24. Fallout: New Vegas [official site] (2010)
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
New Vegas crafts a more believable world than any other Fallout game to date. Where the other games in the post-nuclear series have been crammed with colour and flavour but somewhat lacking in theme, Obsidian’s take on the Wasteland borrows inspiration from the water wars of Chinatown and the great Western landgrab. It asks how and why people will struggle to survive in a place that is at best inhospitable and at worst outright hostile to human survival, and it plants the player character in the burned-out remains of a region that was already parched. There’s an attempt to make sense of the weird clash of cultures and styles that had become a hallmark of Fallout’s world and it’s all wrapped in a story, engine and reputation system flexible enough to allow for free-form roleplaying within the boundaries of its blighted territories.
Notes: Lead designer Josh Sawyer instructed the art team to make sure that there was a visible water source for every settlement, so that the underlying themes of the game were visually represented.
Read more: Modding New Vegas, Josh Sawyer talks Pillars of Eternity and New Vegas, Old World Blues DLC review,.
Where can I buy it:Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Fallout 3 is an option, of course, but doesn’t have the old-world-meets-broken-world weirdness of New Vegas. Obsidian’s own Alpha Protocol might be a better fit and there’s always Wasteland 2.
23. Anachronox [no official site so here’s Wikipedia] (2001)
Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
It might be ageing faster than Julian Glover in The Last Crusade, but Deus Ex studio Ion Storm’s other great game remains Ion Storm’s other great game. A delirious science-fiction / noir adventure which resolutely refuses to take itself seriously and willingly embraces every wild idea its drawing board ever saw, whether or not it’s able to depict it well, Anachronox is the antidote to roleplaying’s tendency towards over-earnest. Also you get a talking planet as a party member, but that’s the first and often only thing anyone ever says about Anachronox, innit? It’s far more important to know that this is a game about roleplaying as a gumshoe in a case which only ever gets stranger.
Notes: There’s never been any sign of a sequel despite a cliffhanger ending, but current rights-holder Square did offer the IP up to devs who could make a decent pitch earlier this year. If that might be you, it might not be too late.
Read more: Have you played Anachronox?
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s nothing else quite like Anachronox – you’re probably better off poking around outside RPG land, although there’s a certain amount in common with its stablemate Deus Ex. Beyond Good & Evil is a more heart-led approach to crazy sci-fi, while Sam & Max Hit The Road offers more nonchalant absurdity.
Lots of games are the best Star Wars game, but KOTOR can lay claim to being both the best Star Wars RPG and the best Jedi/Sith game. This was Bioware both hitting their populist stride and being unabashed Star Wars fans, folding the guns’n’conversation structure they’d later nail in Mass Effect into a sort of greatest hits tour of the house of Lucas. By rewinding the timeline to centuries before the original films, they had free reign to use everything we so badly wanted to see in a Star Wars game without any fear of toe-treading. Add to that persistent choice to be a cosmic hero or a galactic prick (or something in between), some chunky plot twists and what might just be the best-ever Bioware supporting cast, and you’ll find that KOTOR remains a classic despite increasingly showing its age.
Notes: KOTOR’s probably non-canon now, as part of the Disney buy-out of Lucasfilm involved wiping the expanded universe slate clean in order that they could have complete control of a new, slimline Long Time Ago / Far, Far Away history. Still, don’t let that keep you away.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Obsidian-developed KOTOR 2 is, in many respects, the better game, and it wasn’t an easy decision to settle on a single KOTOR for this list. As was something of an Obsidian trend, KOTOR 2 wasn’t entirely finished however, and while fan patches have restored much of the cut and broken content, the first game remains far more self-contained and complete-feeling.
Developer: Square Enix Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Deus Ex was a formative game and remains a classic whose DNA is ingrained through both games and most of the writers of this website. It’s high praise that Human Revolution lives up to that legacy, and higher praise still that it improves on the original in so many different ways. It might not have quite the same breadth of choice, but it does have a better skill system, a striking art style, parsable AI behaviour, and the satisfaction of stacking bodies in order to kebab them with your fist chisels.
Mainly what Human Revolution gets right is level design. Easily mocked though they might be, Deus Ex are really a game about its vents; or rather, about the multiple routes through each environment that are always provided to the player. Whether it’s augmenting your cyberlegs to hop a fence, or simply discovering an alternate route that lets you sneak among the rafters, Human Revolution continually rewards your experimentation with access to new chunks of story, with the recognition of the other characters in the world, or with merely the pleasing realisation that the designers made something and trusted you were smart and creative enough to find it.
Notes: The boss fights in the original release are total guff, but the boss fight in The Missing Link DLC is much better: you can do it non-lethally, you can find ways to skip the fight entirely, you can sneak into the boss’s office beforehand and steal their special gun for yourself. It turns out that this design was originally intended for the first boss fight in the main game, against heavy soldier Barrett. Time constraints meant that the plans had to be scrapped and the original boss fights were outsourced to an external company.
Where can I buy it: Get the Director’s Cut from Steam, which has includes the (excellent) Missing Link DLC mission and insightful developer’s commentary.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The original Deus Ex, of course. Or if you want something more modern, Hitman: Blood Money offers a similar blend of sneaking and infiltration, while Gunpoint converts the pleasure of hacking and guard manipulation into a 2D puzzle platformer.
Read more: John’s original review of Deus Ex Human Revolution will outline its qualities and flaws.