20. NEO Scavenger (2014)
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 try again, 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 t-shirts 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.
19. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004)
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 some 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 capital K “Ker-azy”, it’s the game’s dark exploration of sex, control and dependency which prove most memorable. It’s this, rather than the outright horror elements, which makes Bloodlines’ Santa Monica 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. 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’. Importantly, a sequel is coming out.
Where can I buy it: Steam and the second-hand market.
Read more: The video team revisit Bloodlines. Cara Ellison revisits Bloodlines paying particular attention to its sexy side, Alice B writes about how it accidentally gave her a power fantasy, and Jim Rossignol (RPS in peace) 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.
18. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
The Prague of today is overrun with drunk tourists, don’t go there. Go to future Prague, where the crackdown on absynthe-fuelled British hooligans has extended the baton to people with metal swords for arms. As a sometimes-stealthy, sometimes-shooty immerso-sim Mankind Divided does not do much radically different from its predecessor, Human Revolution. It’s still a sci-fi RPG about crawling through the vents of a cybernetically segregated city and intimidating small business owners. And it’s still a characterless wall of conspiracy theories featuring a dull, gruff man who never asked for this.
But the city of Prague is the real star, not gruff-voiced Adam Jensen. Almost every building has multiple points of entry. The streets are full of doors you can actually open, or failing that, walls you can break right through. Alleys and balconies and windows, oh my. If sneaking into all the flats in your home apartment block goes against your ethical code, then your ethical code is probably 0451. Use it. Your first foray into Palisade Property Bank will show you the light. This is a sci-fi action game on the cover but really it’s all about being an expensive metal burglar. Get thieving.
Notes: In 2017, the CEO of Square Enix said a sequel would have to wait its turn.
Read more: Our Deus Ex: Mankind Divided review said: “Choose to explore and you’ll be rewarded… with the great sense of satisfaction that comes from fully revealing a space and bending it to your needs.”
What else should I be playing if I like this: Dishonored 2 will offer you more first-person sneaksing in a big city.
17. Pillars of Eternity (2015)
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Both a love letter to the cRPGs of the past and a sort of “what-if?” A 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, there’s first expansion pack The White March. Its much-needed improvements to combat will be patched into vanilla copies of Pillars too.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The piratey sequel, Pillars Of Eternity 2. The Baldur’s Gate series – especially II and its expansion, Planescape: Torment, Tyranny, the isometric list goes on…
16. Nier: Automata (2017)
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Is this even an RPG? Only the amorphous and inscrutable machines of the future could tell you. But the tags on Steam say it is, so let’s go with that, even if it also leaps between bullet hell shmup and spectacle fighter with all the acrobatic glee of its nimble robot characters. The truth is, Nier: Automata is hard to boil down to a single paragraph. On first glance, this is an action-heavy sci-fi story about reclaiming earth from destructive robots. On second glance, it is something else entirely. On third glance, you will find a tin man with the name of a 17th century mathematician, and you will start to wonder how many more glances it will take to truly know what this game is doing.
Notes: If somebody spoils this game for you, it is now your own fault.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If it’s slashy-bashy action you’re after, Devil May Cry 5 has you covered.
15. Dwarf Fortress (2006)
Developer: Bay 12 Games
Publisher: Bay 12 Games
A great game. So much is written about Dwarf Fortress as a development curiosity, or Dwarf Fortress the strange two-person passion project, or Dwarf Fortress the anecdote generator.. Very little is written about Dwarf Fortress the great game. It’s a fantasy simulator which doesn’t just 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 probably has decades left to go, but Bay 12 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.
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: Nate’s Dwarf Fortress diary is a grand story. 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 procedural poetry.
14. Stardew Valley (2016)
If you do not pet your cows every day in this beautiful country life sim, you are playing it wrong. For many of those who disappear to Stardew Valley, the fishing and farming will become a ritualistic second life. Even the opening of the game sells that as the dream. You were an office worker, but you’ve been left an overgrown farm to tame. Irrefutable proof that the ultimate cubicle-escaping fantasy for an entire generation is not to become a superhero in a long coat and mirrorshades, but to be a carrot baron. Stardew could have left it there, a straightforward life-swap about buying organic seeds and feeding the cat. But it also turned the whole surrounding town into a neighbourhood of gentle hobos, friendly fishermen, thick-skinned drunks, and more. If you have never dropped the weekly numbercrunch for the crunch of a good parsnip, you owe yourself a trip to the valley.
Read more: Our Stardew Valley review said it “might very well steal the floral crown Harvest Moon has been wearing for so long”. And Paul Dean wrote about the work that goes into building a life, both in the valley and beyond.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: My Time In Portia is a similar trip to another life of farming and chores. Graveyard Keeper is a darker twist on setting up a new life.
13. Divinity: Original Sin (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-crawl, hack and slash, roguelike, etc) but in Divinity: Original Sin, Larian defied expectations. It’s a two-player cooperative game that captures some of the social aspects of pen ‘n’ 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 allowed and encouraged Larian to push further with their old-meets-new take on RPG design. As we will see…
Notes: The enhanced edition built on the first release.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Larian’s earlier Divinity titles are a mixed bag but the sequel improves on everything. Ultima VII was also a major inspiration.
12. Dark Souls III (2016)
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Lothric is a horrible place. It doesn’t have the twisting geography of Dark Souls’ Lordran or the fuzzy nightmare streets of Bloodborne’s Yarnham, but it is still a nasty land to fight through. And in this regard, Dark Souls 3 smoothes out much of the roughness from the previous death jaunts in this difficult series. The fighting feels more fluid, the gear more fabulous, and the multiplayer murderers more numerous. There are whole ad hoc arenas where players gather to host fight clubs and take each other on in loincloth punch-ups. But even if you’re not into meeting your fellow hollows, Lothric is a land worth tramping through. There are flooded woods with crab mothers, awful city sewers with hideous flesh-coloured drowners (why do they have so many limbs?), and an ancient sprawling kiln where whole castles go to die. If getting lost in a dark world is what carried you through Lordran, then its sister kingdom is well worth a stopover.
Notes: A modder for Dark Souls 3 once filled the entire world with crabs.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: We made a whole list of the 10 best games like Dark Souls just for this moment. You’re welcome.
11. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)
It’s still the best one. It will always be the best one. It’s the Elder Scrolls game that doesn’t compromise for anyone, a beautiful relic of a bygone era when Bethesda weren’t trying to or didn’t believe they could chase the mass-market. It’s weird. It’s surprising. It’s experimental. It’s difficult to decipher, at first. It’s clunky, too, but that fades away once you realise quite how much you have at your disposal. Very few edges are filed off in the name of explicability or trope. It is the best ‘stranger in a strange land’ experience I believe I’ve ever had in a game. Bethesda will never make anything quite like it again, and I think I’m happy about that. Better that Morrowind remains singular, that one place I can go to and have my disorientating freedom.
Notes: Morrowind without mods is barely Morrowind at all. So much has been done, but there is so much choice and so much competition. As an easy starting point you probably want to look at Morrowind Overhaul, or you could chance your arm on the work-in-progress mod Tamriel Rebuilt, which aims to remake Morrowind within Skyrim.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Skyrim if you want a flashier Elder Scrolls with far better combat, but it’s not at all Morrowind’s equal in either ambition or strangeness. You might be better of with The Witcher 3, which has less predictability, and surprising more humanity compared to Skyrim.
10. Planescape: Torment (1999)
Developer: Black Isle Studios
Still a touchstone and a still a high watermark of writing in games, the introspective Torment is entirely determined to go its own way – a stark and rare difference from the vast majority of RPGs, which are primarily concerned with indulging their player’s yearning for adventure. Everything here serves the story, and while you make momentous decisions within it, it’s only going in one direction – because that’s its intention, not its limitation. Torment is the tale of a man and his regrets, and whether he can ever be a better man. Yet despite this, and despite containing a large novel’s worth of reading, its visual strangeness, its dark secrets and its determination to invent new places and fascinatingly twisted people rather than recycle tropes saves it from navel-gazing bleakness. Too singular to change the nature of RPGs’ direction, but more of an inspiration to latter-day games’ morality themes than it’s often given credit for.
Notes: Another victim of 90s resolution myopia, Torment doesn’t look great on modern screens – but fortunately a widescreen mod pumps it into HD, and it becomes very beautiful as a result. Expect a few UI issues, however.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Pillars Of Eternity picks up a few of Planescape’s batons, but the real successor is Torment: Tides Of Numenera.
9. System Shock 2 (1999)
Developer: Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
System Shock 2 is one of the best games ever made, whatever the chosen category might be. It’s one of the finest sci-fi games, crafting an almost unparalleled sense of place through careful use of its relatively crude engine and sublime audio design. Few games, whether set in the depths of dungeons or the depths of space, have captured the claustrophobia that comes from being surrounded by death. You’re never allowed to forget that a skin of metal separates you from extinction and that the interior spaces that the universe is pressing against from the outside are filled with corrupted and corrupting organisms.
That sense of dread and doom makes Irrational’s masterpiece one of the greatest horror games and, as a sci-fi horror RPG, it is unique. Character creation is in the form of a prologue and tutorial, guiding you through initiation into your chosen branch of service in the Unified National Nominate, and then, during the maiden voyage of the Von Braun, something goes horribly wrong. Shock 2 is a first-person survival horror game – a rare enough thing in and of itself – but it’s the use of RPG mechanics such as inventory management and character development that allow it to retain its power on repeated visits. There is no other RPG so tightly designed, so terrifying and yet so open to experimental play.
Notes: SHODAN > GLaDOS.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Bioshock games borrow half of the name but drop most of the roleplaying conventions, most notably inventory management. Looking Glass’ Terra Nova is a different sort of game made with a similar level of care and class.
8. Undertale (2015)
Developer: Toby Fox
Publisher: Toby Fox
This homebrew RPG is laced with more jokes than a giant novelty Christmas cracker. Even its form and structure qualifies as one big laugh at the JRPGs too many of us think of as profound and timeless, while also somehow being a love letter to the same genre. You walk around and get in random battles, complete with a menu featuring the options to fight, use items, or flee. But sprinkled into that menu are verbs not used in Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger: “Flirt”, “Compliment”, “Talk”, “Pet”. This is a tale about vanquishing terrors with comical kindness, not violence. It’s true, you could attack. At any moment in this surreal land of frog monsters and treacherous flowers you could lose patience, snap and click on the “fight” option. It’s always there, the ability to kill these silly baddies. Baddies like the TV creature who seems terrible, but really only wants to become fabulous and famous. Or the annoying skeleton friend who won’t back down, the lovable idiot. But in hitting these wonderful foes you’d only be giving in to all those JRPG clichés that came before. And Undertale would rather you cast “encourage” than “lightning”.
Notes: Alternatively, you can do what Undertale fans call a “genocide run”. Which would make you a monster.
7. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt RED
What astounds me about The Witcher 3 is how human it can be. Not all the time – there’s a lot of busywork and a lot of uninspiring writing and acting, not to mention the series’ trademark exploitation of soapy skin – but there is a great deal of humanity scattered across its vast and beautiful dark fantasy land. People’s stories, their sadness, their requests that are not brazenly shouted from the rooftops, their moving gratitude for your help, and the small dilemmas and consequences you’ll face as you go. In terms of being a roleplaying game, The Witcher 3 absolutely masters the wandering adventurer fantasy. The creators of the mechanical populations in Elder Scrolls and Fallout must surely regard it with some anxiety.
Notes: Turn off NVIDIA hairworks and immediately gain about 10 FPS.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Skyrim if you want a less booby experience with a more open skill tree and character customisation. Dragon Age Inquistion if you want more in-your-face-plot and endless herb collection.
6. Deus Ex (2000)
Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
JC Denton is a lovely man to be. He’s enough of a blank slate that it seems reasonable to approach each of his missions and escapades in a manner of your own choosing, and his body is a cyber-canvas that allows you to plug-and-play with all kinds of devices. He’s an outlet in which to plant peripherals and, as all the best RPGs do, Deus Ex understands that the player is the most important peripheral of all.
Ion Storm never tell you how to play or admonish you for taking the path less-trodden. There are constraints and boundaries built into the world, of course, but each area is constructed with an eye toward those constraints. Deus Ex wants you to discover the edges of its possibilities and to push up against them, because its designers are interested in your solutions and recognise that the most interesting ones are the ones that they didn’t necessarily predict.
Next to its brooding classmate Thief, Deus Ex is a remarkably bright and airy, a literally well-ventilated game. Where Garrett is defined by his own limitations, Denton is defined by the limitations of his world. Each area is a box of problems and the player has a Swiss Army Knife of a character with which to probe at those problems, and to craft solutions. It’s the essence of roleplaying – inhabiting a character and setting, and making them your own.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Deus Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t allow for as much experimentation but its follow-up improves on that a lot.