40. The Witcher 2
If choice and consequence are your hallmarks of tasty RPG quest design, then look no further than The Witcher 2’s daring middle act(s). Who Geralt allies with at the end of part one sends him to either end of a battlefield for two distinct campaigns, packed with mad kings, blood rituals, dragons and, er, poker dice tournaments. CD Projekt Red fully commit to what could have easily been achieved with an army reskin or an expository shrug: there are bespoke missions, exclusive maps and consequences that echo through to The Witcher 3. It’s a fractured timeline most quest designers would balk at.
It’s chewy stuff, too, more interested in politicking than apocalypsing as Geralt hunts the titular kingslayers and ponders how many dead kings is too many dead kings. Meet the crown-wearing sods of The Witcher 2 and you’ll see there are no easy answers. Importantly, the brief campaign – a relatively swift 25 hours to encourage those multiple playthroughs – gives this a very different rhythm to Wild Hunt (found elsewhere on this list). It’s The Witcher in a pressure cooker: smaller hubs leading to a denser adventure, with sympathies from each campaign carried into the other to further muddy the waters. Geralt’s signature scowl is well earned in this responsive, twisted tale.
39. Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind
Six Ages will never conform to a genre. It is a game almost entirely unique, and stands out defiantly on any list, jutting its chin and daring you to categorise it. Yes, you manage your tribe. You strategise and jostle for success among your neighbours. But most of all, this bronze-ish age fantasy village sim is about defining the ethos and personality of your people.
Those people have their own culture, shared with some neighbouring clans, and conflicting with other local cultures due to your diverging histories and beliefs. You must lead them not as a faction to efficiently game the numbers until you’re unbeatable, but by earning respect, trust, and sometimes fear through your decisions. People come to you with their problems and challenges, and your advisors will inform and opine to the best of their ability (and personality), but the decisions are yours, as are any decisions about the rippling consequences of those decisions.
That culture draws on the extremely rich Glorantha setting, without asking familiarity with it. You’ll come to understand how its societies work, but still get to define your clan’s role within it, whether you’re the hardy explorers, the vicious bullies, the gang who are always feasting, or some combination of all three. But despite being the most impressive exploration of a fictional culture in any game, it never takes itself too seriously. It’s about whatever brilliant, weird, tragic story your people live through.
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.
37. Arcanum: Of Steamworks And Magick Obscura
A lot of isometric RPGs from the golden age of the late nineties and early noughties are fondly remembered – for good reason. But very few still hold up to repeated plays 20 years later, and Arcanum is undoubtedly one of those that do. There’s little to complain about in any of Arcanum – the writing is fabulous, the character creation deep even by today’s standards, and the art a feast for the eyes even now.
But it’s the setting that deserves some special attention. The world Troika created (a traditional fantasy setting undergoing its own version of a late-Victorian industrial revolution) feels totally original, despite elves and orcs running around threatening to make it a bit Tolkeinist. Look, this orc is wearing a fancy jacket and shirt with a high starched collar. Didn’t expect that, eh?
Magic and technology are not only ideologically opposed, but literally, and this comes out in fabulous bits of world building as you play. If your character is a mage you have to ride in a special compartment on trains, ‘lest the engine explode at your very presence! Oh, there’s some sort of epic quest, assassins are after you and someone is trying to end the world, but you can handwave that away and concentrate on crisscrossing the world map, visiting cities and towns positively stuffed full of different sidequests: murder mysteries involving demons, stolen paintings, ancestral weapons, all with branching solutions to choose from. It’s a real feast for the imaginative roleplayer looking for fantasy larks that are a bit different than the norm.
36. Titan Quest
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 A-RPGs, 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.
35. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes Of An Elusive Age
If you’ve ever looked at the evolution of JRPGs in dismay and declared, ‘Why can’t things just stay the same like the good old days?’, then Dragon Quest XI: Echoes Of An Elusive Age is the game for you. Despite being the 11th entry in the series (most of which have never been available on PC, sadly), Echoes Of An Elusive Age is as retro and traditional as they come.
Playing Dragon Quest XI now is like playing a JRPG from twenty years ago. Sure, the graphics are prettier, the orchestral music more stirring, and the world itself more open and more expansive than practically every other Dragon Quest game put together, but peel away that shiny 2018 veneer and its epic tale of a world-consuming evil and simple turn-based combat will have you cooing about ‘the good old days’ in no time. Indeed, the only big new improvements Square Enix added to Dragon Quest XI was a free-camera mode and some horse riding (those mad mavericks), which should give you an idea of just how slow-moving this franchise has been over the years. Still, there is something admirable about how closely Square Enix have stuck to their guns here. It’s warm, it’s cosy, it’s familiar, and by god is it soothing. If you’re after a classic JRPG with all the visual trappings you’d expect from a modern 2018 release, there really is nothing quite like it on PC right now.
34. Star Traders: Frontiers
This open world turn-based space captain RPG has influences from all over the place, both in structure and setting, and they’re assembled fantastically well. Choose a starting career, ship, and snazzy outfit for your ship’s boss, then head out into the void to do whatever you can find.
Where other RPGs will find you cubbyholed into being a trader or soldier, Frontiers’s busy, dynamic world and endless opportunities for profit, influence, and political intrigue will inevitably tempt you in another direction, and with the right ship and crew you can have a go at anything. Until they die, and suddenly you can no longer use that vital ship boarding attack you were counting on. Oops. But you can switch death off if you want a stress-free time of it.
Your crew’s skills contribute to the running of your ship, and gain special talents every few levels based on their job. Those talents range from mundane but vital re-rolls for background tests to powerful combat attacks or ship-saving escape manoeuvres. They can emphasise your captain’s playstyle, shore up weaknesses, or you can scout the galaxy recruiting and training up a crew of specialists that let you cover your weird hybrid pirate-diplomat-doctor playstyle. The same is true of ships, with their extensive upgrade systems. Want to refit your cargo barge to launch a wing of fighters? Go for it. A barely-armed spy ship that can flit up close and let you board attackers so your quartet of saboteurs can kill off their crew and blow up the engine? Doable. You should be a pirate, though. Pirates in this just want your cargo, not to murder everyone for nothing. Star Traders: Frontiers gets it.
33. Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut
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.
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.
31. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
Final Fantasy XII is the best Star Wars game you’ve never played. In this iteration, you’re cast as Vaan, a scrappy orphan thief who dreams of making it big in the world. After a chance encounter with a rebel princess and a pair of sky pirates (one a posh Han Solo, the other a tall rabbit lady with infinitely better quips than Chewie), he’s off on his grand adventure, eluding the evil empire as they work to get Ashe back on the throne. See where we’re going with this?
It’s a bit of a slow starter (although less so now thanks to The Zodiac Age’s new fast-forward feature for PC), but once you get to the meat of its semi real-time, semi turn-based combat, it really comes into its own. Known as the Gambit system, XII effectively lets you program your fellow party members to do whatever the hell you want. It’s a bit like Dragon Age: Origins’ tactics. The Gambit system also gives you a lot more freedom to create the types of characters you want, too. Unlike Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, there are no obvious paths for moulding your characters here, which, yes, can mean you can accidentally screw yourself over early on if you don’t know what you’re doing, but does let you create some interesting class combos later on if you pick your abilities carefully.
The Zodiac Age also brings some important quality of life improvements to this rather aged PS2 classic that smartens it up for a modern playthrough, including that aforementioned fast forward button that lets you battle and run around town in double quick time (seriously, all JRPGs should have this as standard), a 60fps frame rate, ultrawide support and higher resolutions. It’s not the first Final Fantasy we’d recommend to newcomers of the series, but it is one of the more playable and interesting entries on PC today.