20. NEO Scavenger (2014) [official site]
Developer: Blue Bottle Games
Publisher: Blue Bottle Games
NEO Scavenger initially seems like a roguelike. You wake up in a cryogenic facility with no idea as to who or where you are, and then stumble across a countryside wasteland populated by mutated animals, radioactive sludge, and most terrifyingly, other NPC humans trying to survive in the wilderness. You get in a fight and you die. You get in a fight and win, but your wounds become infected and so you still die. You try and try again, eventually learning to tear old tshirts into bandages, to boil water to avoid illness, to select the botany trait at the start so you can tell the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms and berries.
Then, as survival begins to seem possible, you unearth a whole different genre of game: beneath NEO Scavenger’s survival mechanics lies a proper, Fallout-style RPG world, with scripted characters to talk to, cities and towns in fixed locations to explore, and factions vying for control of the wasteland to work for, to fight, to be killed by.
The best part however is undoubtedly the combat. Most games that let you kill other people are power fantasies, ultimately depicting you as stronger than your opponents whether or not you’re good or evil. NEO Scavenger depicts fights that play out like two shoeless drunks fighting in a parking lot; there’s lots of scratching, scrabbling, tripping over, desperate attempts to crawl away, and even if you win, the high likelihood that your night will be ruined by the experience.
Notes: Daniel Fedor, founder of Blue Bottle Games, spent seven years at BioWare working on altogether different kinds of RPG.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead is a more traditional roguelike take on a similar scenario.
Read more: We named NEO Scavenger the game with the best combat of 2014, but we’ve written a lot of other articles about it too. Five stories of Graham dying in the game, Adam and Graham discussing its merits, Adam’s diary series of a single life and death, Graham singing the praises of its text action log.
Developer: Troika Games
A broken mess in many ways, but as, if not more, timeless than anything else here. This adaptation of the modern-day vampires pen’n’paper RPG is steeped in sex, grime, horror and manipulation, and despite no small degree of pulp sensibilities it still goes to places other mainstream games dare not. To places other vampire fiction dare not, too. Though it boasts a particularly excellent haunted house sequence and the option to play as someone genuinely insane, it’s Bloodlines’ dark exploration of sex, control and dependency which prove most memorable. It’s this, rather than the outright horror elements, which makes Bloodlines’ LA such a sinister and destabilising place – and one in which you get to experiment with your own dark side.
But yeah, bugs: Bloodlines comes from that grand tradition of uncommonly ambitious RPGs which shipped before they were finished. The worst ones are fixed now, but expect a bit of a rough ride unless, well, see ‘Notes.’
Notes: Bloodlines survived its own rocky launch and subsequent publisher abandonment thanks to a still-ongoing series of fan-made patches, the main branch of which is now up to release 9.3. Even to this day, irregular releases tackle minor technical issues and typos, and some go as far as changes and additions. As with all things game community there’s division about what is ‘best’, plus you don’t have to wander far to find copious nudey mods.
Where can I buy it: Steam and the second-hand market.
Read more: Cara Ellison (RIP) revisits Bloodlines paying particular attention to its sexy side, part 2, Kieron Gillen (RIP) on power, seduction and NPC thrall Heather, Jim Rossignol (RIP) on the tragedy that there are so few games like Bloodlines
What else should I be playing if I like this: The original Fallout games are Bloodlines’ ancestors – though lacking the gothy or erotic aspects, the amorality’s there. Alternatively, one of Bloodlines’ lead designers, Brian Mitsoda, went on to co-create the recent zombie RPG Dead State, which though less wild offers another pairing of horror tropes with smart, character-led writing.
Developer: Topi Ylinen (original developer)
Zangband is the fantasy roguelike with everything. It’s unfocused, messy and as hyperactive as a turn-based game with a complicated keyboard command system can be. In comparison to the relatively sedate and carefully structured Ancient Domains of Mystery, Zangband is at the ‘kitchen sink’ end of the classic roguelike spectrum. There are games with more variety in their enemies and equipment – PRIME and AlphaMan come to mind – but Zangband’s 32 races, 11 classes and various possible builds within that range are as comprehensive as any fantasy RPG available. From a randomised overworld, you’ll take your chosen character through various dungeons, and then you’ll die. And die. And die again. In thousands of attempts over a decade and a half of playing, you might not succeed. But you’ll have a bloody good time failing.
Notes: The original Angband was inspired by Tolkien. Zangband, one of many variants, added elements from Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber (hence the ‘Z’) but, in all honesty, it feels like it contains elements from everything.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Temple of the Roguelike database will keep you going forever. A random selection just now offered a game called Infection, filed under the category “Medical Horror”.
17. Pillars of Eternity [official site] (2015)
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Both a love letter to the cRPGs of the past and a sort of what if? continuance of what might have been if publishers hadn’t lost faith in that model for the best part of a decade. Obsidian’s crowdfunded fantasy roleplayer is vast in scope and rich in words, as well as offering its own take the
fiddly highly-strategic, D&D-inspired combat seen in Infinity Engine games such as Baldur’s Gate. A paradigm of both quantity and quality, and with a party system which evokes pen and paper roleplaying, this is basically your 1990s RPG comeback wish-dream made flesh. It is a bit rough around the edges when it comes to fights, but the extensive mythology, bags of choice and surfeit of side-quests more than makes up for this.
Notes: It’ll take you forty lifetimes to complete Pillars, but just in case that’s not enough, first expansion pack The White March should arrive later this year. Its much-needed improvements to combat will be patched into vanilla copies of Pillars too.
Where can I buy it: Steam, GoG, retail, basically any download service
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Baldur’s Gate series – especially II and its expansion, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, The Temple of Elemental Evil
16. Mass Effect 2 [official site] (2010)
Were this a Guns and Conversation list, the middle act of Bioware’s sci-fi trilogy would surely be atop it. Yes, much of what purists consider an RPG to be has been excised in favour of direct action and on-the-spot decision-making, but in terms of spirit, playing a roving space captain trying to restore peace to the galaxy one planet at a time and in her own sweet time has never been bettered. Mass Effect 1 didn’t quite know what to be and Mass Effect 3 was a victim of the need to resolve dozens of dangling story threads, but 2 has focus, a meaningful sense of behavioural choice and most of all momentum. It all culminates in one of the most thrilling and potentially tragic third acts in recent memory. Mass Effect 2 also boasts what might just be roleplaying’s finest musical moment. I am the very model of a scientist salarian indeed.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Obisidan’s wonky but appealing Alpha Protocol has much in common with Mass Effect, but goes for a secret agent theme rather than alterna-Star Wars. The Witcher 3 also offers arguably superior behavioural roleplaying.
15. Dwarf Fortress [official site] (2006-present)
Developer: Bay 12 Games
Publisher: Bay 12 Games
A great game. So much is written about Dwarf Fortress the development curiosity, Dwarf Fortress the strange two-person passion project, Dwarf Fortress the anecdote generator, Dwarf Fortress the steep learning curve. Very little is written about Dwarf Fortress the great game. It’s a fantasy simulator which doesn’t simply do a lot, it does a lot well.
It’s not simply that it generates a vast fantasy world with history, culture and enormous landscapes; it’s that choosing your starting location within that world works like a kind of granular difficulty setting, letting you pick the level and type of challenge you want to face. It’s not simply that its physics simulation allows for the creation of complicated machinery; it’s that the game incentivizes those creations as dynamic goals in a way that suits the in-game fiction, sending nobles with increasingly grand demands to stay in your colony. There’s so much that’s weird and intimidating about Dwarf Fortress, but there’s also a lot of game design behind the stories of mourning pets and the simulation of growing finger nails.
And if fortress mode doesn’t appeal, there’s always adventure mode, which lets you explore those same generated worlds – and your own failed fortresses – as a single explorer in a traditional roguelike experience. Dwarf Fortress may have twenty-years left in its development, but it’s very much worth playing today.
Notes: Dwarf Fortress has been in development for nearly 13 years and has decades left to go, but Toady One and his brother released others before embarking on such a long adventure. For example, here’s Kieron doing a diary of Liberal Crime Squad back in 2007.
If you’re looking to get into Dwarf Fortress, download a starter pack from here, which will set you up with a pre-installed tileset and some useful third-party applications for managing your fortress. Then hit the Dwarf Fortress wiki.
Where can I buy it: You can’t, because it’s free.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If you can overcome the initial learning required to play Dwarf Fortress in Fortress mode, then you can learn to play anything. Why not pursue similarly grand and human anecdotes in Crusader Kings 2.
Read more: Dwarf Fortress is famous for being hard to play, but Graham argues that there are easy entry points that are worth using. Or here’s Adam and Graham celebrating the game’s in-development procedural poetry.
Developer: Blue Sky Productions
Publisher: Origin Systems/Electronic Arts
It doesn’t seem right that Ultima Underworld came out a year before Doom. Even if Blue Sky (later Looking Glass) had released their first-person RPG half a decade after Doom, it would have felt like an enormous leap forward – after all, you can speak to the monster.
To the uninitiated, Ultima Underworld is still a revelation. While the graphics have dated, the core concept – of an underground world full of convincing living things – is timeless. It is differentiated from almost every other game on this list, and almost every other RPG in existence, by nature of its adherence to simulated systems, creatures and objects. Behaviours and properties collide, allowing for emergent events, and Underworld uses processing power to take the idea of a fantasy dungeon from the prescription of paper and rulesets to the unpredictability of a digital world driven my complex mechanics.
We’ve chosen the second game, Labyrinth of Worlds. It’s a sequel that improves on most of the qualities of its predecessor, as well as broadening the playing field. Few games since have introduced so many bold concepts simultaneously and if the upcoming Underworld: Ascendant can live up to the legacy, it might be the most significant CRPG for years.
Read more: Gaming Made Me: Ken Levine, What I Write About When I Write About Games (featuring Ultima Underworld).
Where can I buy it:GOG, Labryrith of Worlds as a Memory Palace.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The prequel is an obvious choice and an excellent game (some might argue it’s the better of the pair) and Arkane’s Arx Fatalis is an excellent spiritual successor of sorts. And if you fancy walloping fantasy foes without all of that pesky RPG stattery, try Arkane’s own Dark Messiah.
13. Legend Of Grimrock II [official site] (2014)
Developer: Almost Human
Publisher: Almost Human
After the delightful Dungeon Master tribute that was first-person RPG Legend Of Grimrock, Almost Human could likely have rested on those laurels and created another series of descending dungeons packed with monsters and puzzles. But they decided to go bigger, and indeed better. Grimrock II takes things upstairs and outdoors, with an enormous, sprawling map of multiple regions, to explore one tile at a time.
It’s a much more difficult game, not just with tougher puzzles and enemies, but by being open enough that you can wander into areas far too tricky to cope with early on. Then it’s packed with multi-floor dungeons all over the place, each a trove of challenges and treasures.
Superbly put together, and surprisingly tricky, it’s perhaps the Chaos Strikes Back tribute no one was expecting. Ooh, and that fireball spell – what a treat.
Notes: The original Legend Of Grimrock is now available for iPads, but not for Android, at least yet. Which makes us want a tablet release of Dungeon Master too. There’s a thriving mod community for LoGII, with lots of new user-made levels and adventures to explore once you’re finished.
Read more: John’s review.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Of course check out the first Legend Of Grimrock, and if you somehow never did, get Skyrim.
12. Divinity: Original Sin [official site] (2014)
Larian have always marched to the beat of unusual drums. Their fantasy RPGs are more likely to indulge in a comic interlude than an elven romance, and there has been an experimental streak running through the Divinity series since the earliest entry mashed randomised hacking and slashing into a complex interactive world, packed with ‘intelligent’ NPCs. CRPGs usually fall into one of several categories – party-based, dungeon-crawled, plot-heavy epic, hack and slash, roguelike and so forth – but in Divinity: Original Sin, Larian defied expectations. It’s a two-player cooperative game that captures some of the social aspects of pen and paper RPGs, throws in an accomplished turn-based tactical combat system in which you can freeze pools of blood, and dunks the whole recipe into one of the most reactive RPG worlds ever created. That it succeeds on all fronts is impressive; that the attempt was made at all is astonishing.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Original Sin’s success is that it will allow and encourage Larian to push further with their old-meets-new take on RPG design. As this list shows, there are plenty of solid RPGs and plenty of talented teams working on the various types and subgenres that fall under the roleplaying umbrella. Larian have the experience to create something solid, and the flexibility and ideas to make something strange.
Notes: The upcoming enhanced edition will be free to owners of the original.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Larian’s earlier Divinity titles are a mixed bag but all have something to recommend them, particularly the absurdly titled original entry, Divine Divinity. Ultima VII was a major inspiration and is one of the best games ever made.
11. Dragon Age: Origins [official site] (2009)
It seemed like the epic RPG might be done. The Witcher had come out two years previously, but was divisive and didn’t manage the scale of a Baldur’s Gate. And while Dragon Age had been known about for years, and in development for more (perhaps even more than a decade), expectations were dampened by one of the worst marketing campaigns in gaming history (trying to reflect on what relevance anyone ever thought Marilyn Manson might have had to the game proves bewildering), and a ludicrous emphasis on its far poorer console port. So when one of the best RPGs of the 21st century was released, it was perhaps something of a surprise.
Despite following a very traditional structure (visit four different enormous regions, building up to a climactic battle), the overwhelming volume of history, lore, culture and conflict that was in place from the very start let Dragon Age define itself as a massive new world. Stepping away from D&D, it was all BioWare’s creation, and create they had. With six different openings, each providing a significant insight into the varying races and cultures and their fraught co-existence, there was this incredible sense of place, and of place in time. The story of which you were a part – the re-rise of an ancient army of specialist warriors, the Grey Wardens, in response to the return of Darkspawn to the lands of Thedas – began a thousand years ago, and stretches wide around you.
This was combined with an absolutely superb real-time/turn-based combat system, where you could pause at any time and give orders to your party, or even pre-program their AI to behave in ways useful to you. BioWare’s incredible ability to write fleshed out, memorable companions was in full effect, among them the marvellous Alistair, troubling Morrigan, and really peculiar Leliana. Oh, and the officious Sten, and hilarious stone golem Shale. At over 100 hours long, each location is enormous, packed with quests, and bursting with character. Looking back on Origins is like remembering a year of your life, those weeks you spent under the Frostback Mountains, the political machinations of your time in Denerim, visiting the rebellious elves in the Dales. Or remembering the horror of the elven slavery at the hands of the Tevinter Imperium, or the disturbing treatment of magic users by the religious rules in the Chantry. Or simply camping under the stars with your friends, listening to a song from Leliana, and maybe having a flirt with Zevran.
Its enormity never feels like filler, its scale justified by quite so much to do, change, or meddle with. Its characters feel like friends, its battles like something that genuinely mattered. Dragon Age: Origins is an extraordinary creation, unmatched since in terms of its meticulously detailed vastness. Although, bloody hell, Oghren was a dick.
Notes: Dragon Age was presented so badly by BioWare that in 2009 its E3 presentation caused press to laugh out loud at its attempts to impress with a sex scene. Few games sites told the truth about that – we did. It’s hard to think of any game that has had such a chasm of difference between its abysmal pre-release campaign and its stunning finished product.
Read more: Matt Lees on how DA:O got evil right.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Dragon Age: Inquisition has proved a touch divisive, but definitely give it a look. You’d also do well to play The Witcher III, and the mighty Pillars Of Eternity. But go backward too, and check out Neverwinter Nights 2, and both Baldur’s Gates.