The Best RPG Games Of All Time: Breaking It Down
Ranking the best RPG games in order of greatness is a never-ending argument, largely determined by personal taste. Tastes vary and times change, and so does our perception of “best.” Nostalgia plays a part to be sure.
Older games conjure up memories of couch-bound summers, early morning finishes, and the fuzzy warmth of a misspent youth. Newer games fight back with all the spit and polish that modern technology can throw at an RPG. However, graphics don’t always make a game one of the best RPG games — and many of our favorites have withstood the test of time.
The Best RPG Games
Even some of the earliest games had some sense of the player as the protagonist. In Space Invaders, you defended the earth from an invading horde. In Donkey Kong, you were an Italian plumber tasked with saving a princess from an oversized gorilla. Only the best RPG games create a genuine attachment to the character you play.
Still, while some of the games on this list might seem primitive to the younger generation, each one is a masterpiece in its own right. The core element of a genuinely brilliant RPG has little to do with graphics. It is the story that drives the game.
Neverwinter Nights 2
Released in 2006 by Obsidian, this well-loved sequel was one of the first games to use an adaptation of the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition rule set. The story centered on a fairly typical protagonist. An orphan from a small village with a mysterious and unexplained past sent on the kind of McGuffin-riddled quest you might expect. It was the richness of the characters met along the way that helped this game rise above the pack.
The toolset bundled with the game for free did not hurt either. The ability to create new locations, dungeons, items, and stories was a genuine innovation for the time. That’s what makes it one of the best RPG games.
Very few Western players got to play this PSX game upon its release. It was not until the online PSN store began selling Suikoden II for a hard-to-resist $10 that most players got to experience the evil machinations of one of videogame’s most memorable villains — Luca Blight. Packed with addictive minigames, the combat was punchy, the storyline suitably dramatic, and the soundtrack sublime. The inclusion of no fewer than 108 hidden characters kept players engaged while the storyline’s focus on political intrigue, betrayal, and espionage is gripping to the very end.
Shining Force III
Like Suikoden II, Shining Force III might be a game that many western players missed out on perhaps in part because of its release on the ill-fated Sega Saturn system. The game featured a turn-based tactical combat system reminiscent of the more familiar Final Fantasy Tactics game, only much more fun to play. Set against a background of shattered peace, the story masterfully masks the existence of pro-war factions as they secretly manipulated you throughout the game.
It also helped introduce the concept of permanent death to the RPG milieu. Allowing a beloved character to die would remove them from the game for good. That’s the kind of innovation that makes this one of the best RPG games.
Although initially an Atari ST game, Dungeon Master eventually made its way to the Amiga, PC, and SNES. The action took place in real-time from a first-person perspective as your party descended through a dungeon learning spells, fighting monsters, and solving puzzles. The game oozed atmosphere and effortlessly created countless moments of white-knuckle terror. Battles that went badly saw you backtrack with furious speed, brewing and guzzling healing potions on the fly.
Magic was a particular delight. Players were forced to memorize combinations of symbols and input them in real time. A misstep resulted in a failed spell and lost mana; accidentally casting a fireball while facing a wall incinerated the entire party.
Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines
- Cutting-edge role-playing that integrates elements of shooter gaming with the adventure
- Select 1 of 7 different vampire clans, then use experience points to develop your vampire powers
- Explore the L.A. vampire underground - Visit seedy Hollywood hotels, thumping raver clubs, the underground caverns...
Upon release in 2004 Vampire: The Masquerade was a buggy, unplayable mess of a PC game. A dozen or so patches later and developer Troika Games were able to boast having created one of the best RPG games of all time. Based on White Wolf’s pen and paper RPG of the same name, Bloodlines followed the trials of a newly created vampire as they tried to adjust to their life among the undead.
Alas, vampire society turns out to be a dangerous affair. Thrust into the middle of court intrigues you barely understand and pulled in multiple directions, the pressure rarely lets up. At times it feels as if it is going to break you. Seduction, intimidation, lies, haggling, and deception form a core part of the game. The richness of the story stands out, and Troika’s slick character design remains one of the most memorable in RPG history.
Dark Souls: Remastered
- Extremely Deep, Dark & Difficult - Unforgiving in its punishment, yet rewarding for the determined
- Fully Seamless World - Explore a completely integrated world of dark fantasy where dungeons are seamlessly intertwined,...
- Mastery Earns Progression - Player success depends on their eventual mastery of how and when to use the magic spells
The spiritual successor to From Software’s PS3 Demon Souls game, Dark Souls, saw release on the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2011. The single, continuous location of Lordan demonstrated a commitment to level design bordering on the sublime. A labyrinthine world filled with hidden depths, stunning vistas, and weird denizens, no one who has ever traversed Lordan is likely to forget the experience.
NPCs offer only the most cryptic of advice. Indeed, the story is deliberately opaque. How you got to Lordan is of far less importance than the need to escape. The game is one of the most challenging; at times the difficulty will push you to the point of frustration. Combat mechanics are superbly implemented but also immensely unforgiving. Not only does death lurk at every corner, losing souls — the games analog for XP — creates a sense of real jeopardy. Tension mounts as the number of bankable souls in your inventory rises.
From Software released a remastered version in 2017 on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.
Secret of Mana
- Audio Updates including a newly arranged musical score and voiced characters
- 3D Graphics - revamped visuals for the entire game; a vivid, Mana-filled world rebuilt in 3D for the first time
- Upgraded Gameplay the original system has been reworked in an effort to realise a modern action-RPG with improved...
When the Secret of Mana came on the market in 1993, the concept of a co-op RPG did not exist. The ability to drop in and take control of one or the other characters in the party was a real selling point. The game also featured real-time combat, and a circular menu system well ahead of its time. The reviews came in. They were all good.
The high fantasy storyline pitted three young heroes against the power of an evil empire armed with the power of an ancient flying fortress. The villain of the piece — Thanatos — is filled with nuance. An ancient sorcerer in a failing body, his ruthless quest to find a replacement stems from a desire to forge a lasting peace.
Bleak visuals crafted from a deliberately muted pallet set the tone. The diverse cast of fine-tuned playable characters added replay value in ways few other games manage, and greed kept you playing long after the narrative wound down. Indeed, the game helped define the concept of the loot-em-up subset of RPG gaming.
Kill, loot, and upgrade; rinse, repeat, and obsess. Diablo 2 is certainly one of the best RPG games of all time.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Who doesn’t love the Elder Scrolls? The franchise began in 1994 with the release of Arena. Since then, the series has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. Everyone has their favorite, of course, but Morrowind — the third entry in the series — broke new ground and helped redefine what players could expect from an open-world game. For the first time, you could explore a truly vast landscape that felt alive.
The world cries out for you to explore every nook and cranny that is precisely what most players did. However, nothing was consequence-free. Exploring a vampire-filled cave often led to a sudden aversion to the sun. Break the law, and the local militia will pursue you with single-minded hostility. Fines, once issued, need paying on the spot. Failure to do so will land you in jail.
Mass Effect 2
The simple fact that Bioware features so heavily in this list speaks volumes as to the talents of the studio. The first Mass Effect looked like an attempt to cash in on the success of Knights of the Old Republic. Eschewing the Star Wars license in favor of creating an all-new sci-fi milieu of their own, the final product was well-received and much-beloved.
The sequel, however — when it arrived in 2010 — set a new standard for interactive storytelling. Forced to work with untrustworthy allies, a newly resurrected Commander Sheppard is tasked with leading a team on a suicide mission to save the galaxy. The Dirty Dozen-style recruitment drive that follows brings you into contact with a cast of memorable NPCs and is unmatched in RPG history.
The fast-paced tactical combat interspersed with moral choices, love interests, side quests, and betrayal was something most players had never seen before. The choices you made had real consequences. Characters sacrificed in the prequel did not feature in Mass Effect 2. At all times, you were aware that the decisions you made might come back to bite you in the rear later on, possibly even during the events of Mass Effect 3.
Divinity: Original Sin II
- Choose your race and origin. Choose from 6 unique origin characters with their own backgrounds and quests, or create...
- Unlimited freedom to explore and experiment. Go anywhere, talk to anyone, and interact with everything! Kill any NPC...
- The next generation of turn-based combat. Blast your opponents with elemental combinations. Use height to your...
Developed by Belgian developer Larian Studios, Divinity: Original Sin II had a lot to live up to. Its immediate predecessor received near-universal acclaim upon its release in 2014. Critics praised both the attention to detail and the turn-based combat mechanics reminiscent of the glory days of RPG gaming.
The sequel arrived in 2017 on PC and instantly cemented its place on best RPG games of all-time lists. Blessed with a complex and gripping narrative, the interactivity on display complemented the world building beautifully. Characters dripped with so much charisma and customization that replays are a virtual must.
Knights of the Old Republic
The idea of a Star Wars RPG has obvious appeal. The franchise — long noted for its epic storylines, larger-than-life heroes, and simple, good vs. evil dichotomy — is perfect roleplaying fodder.
Still, maneuvering around existing canon is no easy task. Bioware’s decision to set the game 4,000 years before the movies then, was a stroke of genius. It gave them a blank, yet strangely familiar, canvas.
Although the story itself was typical fare, the Edmonton-based studio infused the cast of characters with a complex set of wants, needs, and motivations. Winning the respect of your companions required that you invest some time in their mini-story ark. The game offered a distillation of everything that makes Star Wars special. Action, drama, loss, and redemption come together to create a gripping narrative and an unforgettable experience.
And then there was that twist at the end!
Final Fantasy VI
No list of the best RPG games ever made is complete without at least one Final Fantasy entry. Ask five gamers to name their favorite, though, and expect to get five different answers. For us, there can be no more elegant example than the sixth installment of the series. Released in North America as Final Fantasy III, the game surpassed all expectations. Emotionally charged from the outset, Square refused to shy away from controversial subjects. Forbidden love, suicide, war, death, genocide. Nothing was off-limits.
Although often somber, grandiose set pieces created a sense of scale unseen in video games up until this point. To cap it all off, the music score was written by videogame legend Nobuo Uematsu and remains among his most-loved compositions.
Baldur’s Gate 2
The success of the first Baldur’s gate surprised even Bioware upon its 1998 release. The sequel came two years later to rave reviews. The visuals were stunning for the time, but the sheer variety of side quests and character development options on display was what truly impressed. Party romances blended effortlessly with the main quest, which was epic in scale.
Players were able to explore Dungeons & Dragons as they never had before. The world was alive, consequence-laden, and visceral. Dark secrets and side quests lurked around every corner. Players crawled through sewers, fell into extradimensional pockets, rescued maidens, and still got back to their castle in time for supper. A complete playthrough took more than 100 hours.
This game is another classic SNES RPG, although, unusually, one based on the pen and paper RPG of the same name. The game opens with a cut scene of the protagonist as he is gunned down by unknown assailants. After responding to a prompt to start a new game, the action shifts to a morgue where your lifeless body is being put in cold storage. The ominous words appear across the screen:
“Brain burnt. They say some gang geeked him.”
The world of Shadowrun is merciless. Workers at the morgue freak out at your eventual resurrection. Elsewhere, NPCs flip between surprise at your recovery and near-gleeful attempts to finish the job. The danger is ever-present. This game is a murder mystery, with the catch being that you are investigating your own “death.” It’s brilliantly done. Plot twists abound, and combat is stupendously lethal. The isometric perspective grants a timeless quality to the graphics while the dialogue is jarringly beautiful.
- Character creation is just the beginning- throughout the game your character adapts to fit your own personal gaming...
- The Planescape universe is a setting you've NEVER experienced before, filled with shape-edged visuals, bizarre...
- Encounter inventory items with personalities. Manage an unpredictable party of the strangest allies to walk the face of...
Planescape is something of an odd man out. Set in the mysterious city of Sigil, the story centers on an individual known only as the nameless one. Cursed to eternal resurrection, players navigate the world in search of a lost diary that might give clues as to their own identity.
The immersive dialogue remains unmatched by pretty much any other RPG on this list. The dark humor blends effortlessly with pitch-perfect surrealism and moments of genuine shock. Unable to die, players are confronted by the inconvenience of resurrection instead.
- After 13 years, the role playing game of the ages returns with Chrono Trigger for the Nintendo DS
- Crono, meets an adventurous girl named Marle, and accidentally travels back in time 400 years
- Past, present, and future worlds collide as Crono tries to save the planet
At the face of it, Chrono Trigger appears to be just another JRPG. Nothing could be further from the truth. Released on the SNES in 1996, publisher Square Enix — at the height of their creative powers — fashioned a game that still holds up well today.
With multiple endings and a razor-sharp focus on character development, the then-cutting-edge graphics saw coders weave nuance, humor, and emotion into the narrative with consummate skill. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest RPG games ever made. Numerous ports to various systems such as the Nintendo DS have kept things fresh to this day.
Panzer Dragoon Saga
As with Shining Force III, the Saturn-only Panzer Dragoon Saga remains one of the least-played games on this list. The first two Panzer Dragoon Saga games were on-the-rails shooters, and Sega’s decision to make the third entry an RPG took a lot of people by surprise. Released in 1998 towards the end of the Saturn’s life, it went largely ignored by the gaming public.
The story saw a young mercenary, Edge, traverse the game world on the back of his pet dragon. On the face of it, the plot centers on a simple quest of vengeance upon a group of murderous mutineers. The journey, however, subverts expectations at every turn. Outgunned and demoralized, a beleaguered Edge eventually teams up with his most hated enemy to defeat an even greater threat.
Combat sequences mixed real-time and turn-based elements into pulse thumping confrontations of epic proportions. The ability to morph the dragon in real time remains a masterpiece of coding to this day. Despite the initial lukewarm reception, word of mouth eventually elevated this game to near legendary status. Seen today as one of the greatest video games ever made, it certainly earned its spot as one of the best RPG games.
Did We Miss Any of the Best RPG Games?
When you’re picking the best RPG games, it’s more subjective than anything else.
In part, defining an RPG requires almost as much thought as compiling a list of the best RPG games of all time. Is Half-Life an RPG? Taking on the role of a voiceless protagonist is as common an RPG trope as you could think of. Sure, there are no experience points to speak of, but the upgrading from a crowbar to a pistol to a machine-gun offers a leveling up of sorts.
What do you consider the best RPG games? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments!
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