10. System Shock 2
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.
9. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
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.
8. Disco Elysium
If you’re looking for a beautifully written RPG which offers something different in its setting, which grapples meaningfully with what it means to be human, you are no longer limited to Black Isle’s 21-year-old classic Planescape: Torment. Disco Elysium marries a novel set of mechanics with a funny, human, well-written script and an original setting to explore not tied to any existing media property. The mechanic is that your skills are internal voices of your protagonist that you can engage in conversation, and that you can internalise ideas you encounter in exploring the world in ways that can help or hurt your character. The setting is Revachol, a city on an island still marked by a failed communist revolution.
These two things work together to create a game all about what kind of person you are, who you want to be, and what it means to really change. Disco Elysium strays close to being a game about how cool it is to be a fucked-up, renegade cop, but does an admirable job of holding a mirror up to the real harm that person can cause, and giving you the tools to make amends. It’s also, finally, the rarest of all things: a meaty, narrative RPG that contains no combat whatsoever. If you wished your explorations of Rapture or Skellige weren’t constantly interrupted by the need to shoot a Splicer or stab a Drowner, then Disco Elysium’s for you.
7. Baldur’s Gate II
As far as certain types of fellow on certain types of forum feel, this was Bioware’s last great game. They’d stick with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulesets for a little longer after this, but the combination of sourcebook purity, the relative timelessness of the 2D art and a complete, well-escalated and impressively dark singleplayer storyline keeps it a solid favourite.
This was Bioware setting out their stall as roleplaying kings rather than fans, and even if they’ve long since said farewell to its heavily statistical and strategic combat, it’s absolutely the foundation of the memorable characters and moral agonising that makes Mass Effect and Dragon Age so popular now. And even games like Anthem have a lot to… no, no I can’t do it. Anthem was terrible.
6. Deus Ex
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.
5. Dragon Age: Origins
It once seemed like the epic RPG might have been finished. The Witcher had come out two years previously, but was divisive and didn’t manage the scale of a Baldur’s Gate. And while Dragon Age had been known about for years, and was in development for more (perhaps even more than a decade), expectations were dampened by a bad marketing campaign (what on earth did Marilyn Manson have to do with the Darkspawn?) and a ludicrous emphasis on its far poorer console port. So when one of the best RPGs of the 21st century was released, it was perhaps something of a surprise.
Despite following a very traditional structure (visit four different enormous regions, building up to a climactic battle), the overwhelming volume of history, lore, culture and conflict that was in place from the very start let Dragon Age define itself as a massive new world. Stepping away from D&D, it was all BioWare’s creation. With six different openings, each providing a significant insight into the varying races and cultures and their fraught co-existence, there was this incredible sense of place, and of a place in time. The story of which you were a part – the re-rise of an ancient army of specialist warriors, the Grey Wardens, in response to the return of Darkspawn to the lands of Thedas – began a thousand years ago, and stretches wide around you.
This was combined with a superb real-time combat system, where you could pause at any time and give orders to your party, or even pre-program their AI to behave in ways useful to you. BioWare’s incredible ability to write fleshed out, memorable companions was in full effect, among them the marvellous Alistair, troubling Morrigan, and really peculiar Leliana. Oh, and the officious Sten, and hilarious stone golem Shale. At over 100 hours long, each location is enormous, packed with quests, and bursting with character. Looking back on Origins is like remembering a year of your life, those weeks you spent under the Frostback Mountains, the political machinations of your time in Denerim, visiting the rebellious elves in the Dales. Or remembering the horror of the elven slavery at the hands of the Tevinter Imperium, or the disturbing treatment of magic users by the religious rules in the Chantry. Or simply camping under the stars with your friends, listening to a song from Leliana, and maybe having a flirt with Zevran.
Its enormity never feels like filler (well, maybe it does in The Fade), and its scale is justified by quite so much to do, change, or meddle with. Its characters feel like friends, its battles like something that genuinely mattered. Dragon Age: Origins is an extraordinary creation, unmatched since in terms of its meticulously detailed vastness. Although, bloody hell, Oghren was a dick.
4. Mass Effect 2
Were this a Guns ‘n’ Conversation list, the middle act of Bioware’s sci-fi trilogy would surely be atop it. Yes, much of what purists consider an RPG to be has been excised in favour of direct action and on-the-spot decision-making, but in terms of spirit, playing a roving space captain trying to restore peace to the galaxy one planet at a time and in her own sweet time has never been bettered.
Mass Effect 1 didn’t quite know what to be and Mass Effect 3 was a victim of the need to resolve dozens of dangling story threads, but 2 has focus, a meaningful sense of behavioural choice and, most of all, momentum. It all culminates in one of the most thrilling and potentially tragic third acts in recent memory. Mass Effect 2 also boasts what might just be roleplaying’s finest musical moment. I am the very model of a scientist salarian indeed.
3. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
What astounds most about The Witcher 3 is how human it can be. Where other RPG epics often lose their character’s humanity among the fantasy heroics, Geralt and his friends continually draw the focus back down to earth. In the quiet (non-sexy) moments when they’re alone between quests, and the playful banter as old friends reunite, you slowly realise how much you enjoy spending time with these people. That’s still too rare, even among other well-written RPGs.
Not all the time, but there is a great deal of humanity scattered across The Witcher’s vast and beautiful dark fantasy land, too. 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 should regard it with some anxiety.
A lot of parts of The Witcher 3 could be described as best-in-class, in fact. It’s also one of the most beautiful worlds of any game on this list. Ride your horse out towards some swamps at any time of day and just enjoy the wind, the sky, the sounds. Combat – which is better than previous iterations but still a bit clunky – is a frustration mainly because it gets in the way of your ability to just be. Thankfully there’s always another person to play Gwent with at your next destination
2. Dark Souls
Discussions and declarations about the difficulty of Dark Souls tend to undermine the discussions and declarations that we should be having about the quality of Dark Souls. Let’s get the difficulty out of the way. Dark Souls isn’t the most challenging game on this list. It’s not the game that will kill you the most (hello, roguelikes) and it isn’t truly unfair. It’s a game that understands the value and incline of a decent learning curve and its central rhythm of progress, death and repetition, teaches rather than tortures.
If it’s not the most punishing RPG ever made, then what is it? Among other things, the Souls games are an intimidatingly assured re-invention of dungeon crawling and, in fact, the entire concept of dungeons in RPGs. Everything from enemy placement to the twisted lay of the land contributes to the challenge of the game, as well as adding to the lore that is stitched into the fabric of the world. The combat is exemplary, combining inch-perfect animations, timings and agonising tension to make every encounter memorable. Stats are almost invisibly woven into the build of your character, whose abilities and proficiencies are recognisable at a glance, and whose behaviours you’ll adopt and modify as you go, creating and fussing at the role you’re playing without the need for dialogue or morality meters. There are details as well as broad strokes, for those who choose to pick at them and those details are devilishly satisfying. Pyromancy or miracles? A ring of sacrifice or the Lion ring? The correct answer lies in your twisted gut.
It’s a mark of the game’s quality not only that completing a single playthrough feels like a great achievement, but also that there are people who continue to play, time after time, and continue to learn. Dark Souls teaches you how to play as you travel through its horrors and mysteries, but it also teaches you how to read games, making you alert to the fact that every texture and scrap of flavour text can contain clues, especially when that flavour is scrawled on the floor by other players. Those clues might save your life, point you toward a diversion or shortcut, or they might help you to understand that there’s meaning and history in every part of the world. You just have to look closely. Pay attention and you’ll find the choices no character points out, and discover consequences whose warning signs you were keen to overlook, an optimist in a dying world.
1. Divinity: Original Sin II
Make a note now, before you forget: “KILL MAGISTER HOLIND”. You may wonder why. This non-descript NPC is a virtual nobody in one of the most sprawling and detailed RPGs of the last decade. He is a guard like many others, he has no items of worth, and takes no part in any of the game’s many quests or storylines. But if you scroll to the comment section of his wiki entry, you will note that he does one unforgivable thing that the other guards do not. He kills your cat.
It’s just one moment of many in which Divinity: Original Sin 2 will catch you off-guard. This is a detailed RPG full of overlapping quests and character arcs. It is lacy with stories. You can play co-op with a pal, go to opposite ends of the same island, and meet in the chambers of an angry bossmage with wildly different motives for dealing with him. But even as you play on (and argue over who among your party of reprobates deserves to become a fresh-faced God) it’s the small moments that build the biggest stories.
Original Sin 2 has been in this list since its release, but this is the first time it’s moved up to claim the top spot. There has been a Definitive Edition released to smooth out some wrinkles in that time, but the real reason for its growth in stature is that we’ve continued to play it these past two-and-a-bit years. Each re-visit, each new player it grips in its clutches, makes it more obvious just how deep, varied and consistently high quality it is.