40. King Of Dragon Pass (1999)
Developer: A Sharp
It’s not the dragons you should worry about, it’s the duck people. King Of Dragon Pass is a management game about running a tribe of fantasy warriors, traders, farmers and priests. But keeping this village safe is as much about choices as it is about numbers. When you meet those duckfolk, for example, you’ll be able to offer a pact, steal their land, demand tribute in food, or simply cut them down in a violent ambush, feathers flying everywhere like you’re Tom & Jerry running through a henhouse. And when the consequences of that choice (and many others) come back to haunt you, you realise this is not a management game at all. It’s an RPG about being a put-upon leader in a faraway land with lots of questions and few right answers.
Notes: The decision ‘em up was first released in 1999, but it got a new life in 2011 when it was re-released on iOS (and later PC). The best result of its revival is that we’re getting a follow-up called Six Ages.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Crusader Kings 2 for more monarchical decision-making. The Banner Saga trilogy might also float your longboat.
39. Brogue (2009)
Developer: Brian Walker
Publisher: Brian Walker
Brogue is your stepping stone between the modern roguelike (Spelunky and Dungeons of Dredmor, et al) and the ASCII-drawn progenitors of the genre like Nethack, Zangband and, you know, Rogue. It’s the mouse controls that do it. Instead of stumbling around for which keyboard buttons will quaff a potion, you click to move, click to attack, click to wear that cursed ring, and hover over any character to read a description of what it is.
Beyond its accessibility, it’s a tightly designed game in its own right. You’re descending through dungeons as normal, but the flora and fauna you encounter interact in more interesting ways than steadily increasing damage output. Find a monkey, for example, and he might steal from your pockets and run off. Find a monkey being held prisoner by some kobolds however, and you can set it free and gain yourself a monkey ally. When combined with a system of potions and scrolls that encourages a casual disregard for your own safety, Brogue feels like a polished iteration of the systems that make the roguelike genre so compelling.
Where can I buy it: You can’t, because it’s free.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The entire genre of roguelikes. Maybe try descending further into the past and trying Nethack, which is also free and has many fine tilesets. Or try Streets Of Rogue for something more modern.
Read more: Graham’s tale of drinking himself to death with Brogue’s potions.
38. Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask Of The Betrayer (2007)
It’s odd that NWN 2 tends to get forgotten when listing Obsidian’s RPGs. 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 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 an 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, 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 (RPS in peace) gave a game for PC Gamer since Force Commander.
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 hardcore D&D, have a look at Black Isle’s Icewind Dale.
37. Titan Quest (2007)
Developer: Iron Lore
At a glance, the action RPG seems like it should be easy 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 roleplaying games, then this is the one. Incredibly accessible and enormously fun, 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 Grim Dawn.
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.
36. Ancient Domains Of Mystery (1994)
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, a Steam release and crowdfunded costs to support development.
The game itself has all 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 had been talking about a sequel, named JADE, since the earliest days of the internet. Sadly the JADE project is now officially dead, but an ADOM II lives on as Ultimate ADOM.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Head to the depths of traditional roguelikes: Nethack, Angband, ToME, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.
35. Din’s Curse (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 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 the town of Tristram could fall in real-time?” And then it provides the answer.
Notes: Adam (RPS in peace) believed the failure of mass audiences to embrace Soldak’s games is a sign of the decline of civilisation.
Read more: Our Din’s Curse 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.
34. UnReal World (1992)
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 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 game that existed before the flood of early access craft ‘em ups, 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.
Where can I buy it: It’s free.
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.
33. Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut (2014)
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 Gibsonesque vein, Dragonfall hits the spot despite throwing a whole lot of fantasy into the mix. Between its West-meets-East fusion-world, replete with cybernetic implants and Blade Runneresque neon noodlebars, are 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 took this 21st century revisit to the 80s pen ‘n’ paper RPG three rolls to get it right, but 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 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: Mankind Divided will give you a more action-led cyberpunk experience, while the steath-focused Invisible Inc is the better experience if you want turn-based, hacking-augmented combat.
32. Anachronox (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 the 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 rights-holder Square did offer the IP up to devs who could make a decent pitch.
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. Beyond Good & Evil is a more heart-led approach to crazy sci-fi, while Sam & Max Hit The Road offers more nonchalant absurdity.
31. The Banner Saga (2014)
Publisher: Versus Evil
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, it’s 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 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 completed its trilogy, name intact.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: The two sequels, of course. Or perhaps Invisible Inc for more grid-based combat.