20. NEO Scavenger
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.
19. Final Fantasy X / X-2 HD Remaster
Final Fantasy X is one of the most beloved Final Fantasy games of all time. Its direct sequel, Final Fantasy X-2, is err… slightly less well beloved, but you might as well bop along to its pop-infused story of doppelganger ghosts and girl-band power ballads when it comes part and parcel of Square Enix’s recent HD remaster. Despite being nowhere near as deep or emotionally gut-wrenching as its lauded predecessor, X-2’s class-swapping battle system remains one of the most interesting combat puzzles of recent Final Fantasy games, evolving the groundwork laid down all the way back in Final Fantasy V and paving the way for what came later in Final Fantasy XIII.
Really, though, it’s Final Fantasy X we’re stomping our feet for here, as this epic tale of boy meets girl / girl meets scary lizard priest / girl almost gets eaten by scary world-ending whale metaphor is a true classic for our times. Sure, its plot sounds bonkers when you try and explain it (let’s be honest, what Final Fantasy game doesn’t sound like a mad fever dream?), but trust us on this. It’s really very good. Once again, part of its brilliance lies in its excellent battle system. While each character has a class they’re naturally kitted out for, Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid gives you the freedom to mould your party how you like, letting you turn mages into fighters and warriors into support characters. Plus, it has some of the best music of all the Final Fantasy games, with To Zanarkand never failing to get the heartstrings going.
Sure, you could argue that Final Fantasy VII is the true bestest best (even though that title should clearly belong to VIII), or that IX captures the series’ retro roots while still delivering a bang-up story, but let’s face it, a lot of the Final Fantasy games are pretty fugly on PC. X and X-2’s PC port, on the other hand, don’t come with nearly as many compromises, or require nearly as many caveats, making them our top FF of choice in 2020.
18. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
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.
17. Pillars of Eternity
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.
16. Path Of Exile
At launch, Path Of Exile seemed like a decent and traditional action-RPG with a stronger focus on character builds than some of its immediate peers. Since then however, its developers have regularly added new content to the game, including nine expansions. It has consequently bloomed into the most engrossing hack-and-slasher around.
It’s still the builds that do it. Path Of Exile let’s you create delightful machines of destruction, and then walk them about hundreds of dungeons as you turn every enemy into mush. It does this via vast and flexible skill trees, and the regular addition of new leagues, new enemies, new items have only made the options available more rewarding to experiment with.
15. Planescape: Torment
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.
14. Stardew Valley
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.
13. Yakuza 0
You can’t help but adore the wrestledads of Yakuza 0. In too many RPGs, quests are transactional: if you do this for me, you’ll receive that. In Yakuza 0, helping people is its own reward. So many dejected children, deadbeat dads, insecure rockers, and Michael Jackson lookalikes all across Tokyo and Osaka are in trouble, the sort of trouble that can only be solved by a mobster with fists of steel and hearts of gold. Their token rewards mean nothing compared to the XP we can earn from our businesses but their smiles mean everything. We’re strong and they’re not, so of course we’ll help.
Yakuza 0’s tone is: all-in. We are both the kindest father figure and the most serious mobster. When not helping children win toy car races or dance-battling, our two protagonists are snared in deadly conspiracy and will dramatically whip their shirts off to rumble when honour demands it. Each balances the other, two sides of a melodrama coin. Its nightlife districts are among our favourite open-world spaces, little neighbourhoods we know like my own. And we’ll never grow bored of twatting punks with bicycles or busting heads with breakdancing moves.
12. Nier: Automata
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.
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”.