30. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996)
Some 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.
Where can I buy it: It’s free.
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. Ultima VII: The Complete Edition (1993)
Developer: Origin Systems
Publisher: Origin Systems
Ultima VII is a game engineered to convince the player that they are part of a world that doesn’t revolve around their character. You are not the centre of the system, the sun around which all things orbit. More than twenty years later, it’s still one of the best examples of its type. It’s an RPG that starts with a murder investigation rather than a dungeon crawl, set in a place where NPCs work, eat and sleep. It is an RPG about life rather than death and the experience that death bestows.
Interacting with the world is as unusual and gratifying as observing it. There is no crafting skill in Ultima VII, you simply learn to make things. You can bake, you can make clothes, you can rearrange the books on a shelf, position your bedroll in a clearing under the stars, shift the furniture around in an NPC’s house when their back is turned. It’s still rare, that sense of visiting a living world, one that seems capable of continuing when the lights are switched off and where every tree that falls makes a sound whether you’re there to hear it or not.
Notes: Origin were sticking it to The Man (Electronic Arts in this instance) before Reddit and Neogaf existed.
Where can I buy it: GOG.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Enlightenment Trilogy represents the best of the rest of Ultima. It spans the games IV-VI and brought ethical questions and complicated the usual good vs evil conflicts that fantasy RPGs often rely on. Divinity: Original Sin, elsewhere in this list, isn’t quite a spiritual successor but its intricate world owes an acknowledged debt to Ultima VII.
28. Fallout (1997)
Developer: Interplay Entertainment
Publisher: Interplay Entertainment
The iconography of Fallout’s world has become so powerful that it can make a crowd at E3 holler in excitement and is suitable for merchandising and special edition branding opportunities. Vault Boy, the vault dweller’s uniform, the faux-fifties post-apocalypse – these are big budget concerns and where the series once parodied popular culture, it has now become a part of it.
With the sound and fury of the Wasteland louder than ever, it’s easy to forget where it all began. The first Fallout game, released in 1997, was as memorable for its societies of ghouls and weird religions as for its between-times flavour. It’s a wonderfully liberating game. Interplay throws so many ideas at the wall, it doesn’t matter when a few slither to the ground rather than sticking. There’s a richness and weirdness to the tonal shifts – from grave survivalism and harrowing oppression to B-movie trashiness and Dr Who references – that the shift to 3D has never entirely recaptured. Most importantly, beneath all of the surface feeling there is a solid RPG system that encourages playful experimentation rather than determined min-maxing. It’s a system entirely in keeping with the unexpected playfulness of the setting.
Notes: One random wasteland encounter has your character discover a giant footprint, which is apparently a relic from an earlier version of the game, which included dinosaurs. We need more dinosaur RPGs.
Read more: The Quests That Got Cancelled, with information about Van Buren, the Fallout 3 that never was.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Fallout 2 is more of the same and Wasteland 2 goes some way toward recapturing the radioactive magic.
27. Darkest Dungeon (2015)
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Darkest Dungeon would 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. The Dungeon has a high 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: An even darker dungeon is on the way, with Darkest Dungeon 2.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
Read more: Our Darkest Dungeon review said: “You’ll cry. And cry and cry and cry. But I think you’ll love it.”
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.
26. Legend Of Grimrock II (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 available for iPads. There’s a thriving mod community for this sequel, with lots of user-made levels and adventures to explore once you’re finished.
Read more: Our Legend Of Grimrock II 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.
25. Mount & Blade: Warband (2010)
Developer: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Publisher: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Good RPGs offer you freedom, but great RPGs put you in prison. Mount & Blade is set in a skewed medieval world where the Sultans of the east and Khans of the great Steppe march their armies from city to city seeking power and cows, while you might be stuck in a dungeon. That’s only one turn of events, though. You might be leading a small troop of sellswords alongside one of these great kings. Or raiding a village with a band of marauders from a neighbouring farm. Or you might just be in the pub of the nearest city, buying a round of drinks for everyone and becoming famous in the local tournament. Mount & Blade is a repetitive adventure in that you will see the same line of dialogue from different dukes dozens of times, but it’s what you do between those barks that makes your story. Whether that’s a viking who went from rags to Rollo, or a noblewoman who lost it all and ended up in the clink.
Notes: There are lots of Game Of Thrones mods for it. A long-awaited sequel, Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, is coming out in early access.
Read more: We never reviewed the game, for some reason, but we’ve been on some adventures, let me tell you.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Chivalry or Mordhau for swordy combat without the adventuring.
24. Fallout: New Vegas (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 land grab. 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 before the bombs fell. 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.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Fallout 3 or Fallout 4 are options, of course, but they don’t have the same 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. Sunless Skies (2019)
Developer: Failbetter Games
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Who among us has not looked at the stars and thought: “I would like to fly through those in a steam train”? A common dream, and one which is indulged by the Victorian astro-wanderers of Sunless Skies. Like its predecessor, this is often a game about turning your ship slowly around to fire steampunk cannons at unimaginable horrors. But it is also about adventuring across terrifying voids, about meeting ancient interdimensional beings in the cosmos, eating the cooked flesh of your first mate because he died yesterday and, let’s face it, we’re out of food. There is horror here, yes, but there is also wonder. And most of this wonder is delivered not with sprawling vistas or anime bombast, but in ticking prose that lets your own imagination fill in the gaps of your space train’s story, ill-fated or otherwise.
Notes: The creators also made a free pen ‘n’ paper RPG called Skyfarer, set in the same world, if you’ve suddenly decided you hate computers.
Read more: Our Sunless Skies review said: “Characters, both endearing and chilling, do far more with a few lines of acid text than all the mo-cap in the world could ever hope to achieve.” Alec wrote about the wonderfully horrible officers on your vessel.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Sun Dogs is a minimalist text-driven journey through the solar system, and worth a punt if you want a small transhumanist adventure.
22. Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic (2003)
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 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 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.
21. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
The two things Elder Scrolls games do well are landscape and what we’ll call choiceyness. 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 town 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 choiceyness 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 you could be playing it for the next decade.
Notes: Bethesda and Valve 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 games follow a similar structure, so if you like Skyrim, you will also like post-apocalyptic shooter Fallout 4 or the earlier, weirder Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.