If you are like me, story is important in a game. Not every game needs a story but when it’s there and when it’s done well, it adds a lot to the experience. You’d be hard-pressed to find a genre more dedicated to the craft of storytelling than the good old-fashioned RPG.
While games have evolved drastically over the years, the aspects that make up a good story haven’t and thus, RPGs are arguably one of the most ageless genres in gaming. Sure there have been technical improvements, design changes…
…but good stories are good stories, regardless of when they’re played and with many games, good and bad, getting re-released on modern platforms like Playstation Network, Virtual Console or Steam, catching up on the genre has never been easier/harder! Thus, here’s my list of 10 RPGs every fan MUST play.
Please note, there are plenty of other FANTASTIC RPGs that should absolutely be played and frankly, this is probably a list that’ll get a Part 2 (and 3… and 4… and 200…) and these are not ranked in order. I can’t choose my favorite child- RPGs. RPGs… LET’S GO!
Starting off strong… and obvious. Yes, I know, you’ve heard it a million times before but there’s a reason this game is so beloved among fans! One of the earliest high-profile titles to remove random battles, seamless battle screens, a complex and interesting story filled with fun characters and side quests with real meaning and depth to them. Chrono Trigger set the bar for how RPGs should be made and many of the lessons that Chrono Trigger taught are still relevant today. Fetch quests aren’t fun, people! We learned this back in ’95!
Ways to Play: Nintendo DS *Recommended*, Android, iOS, Playstation, Super Nintendo, Playstation 3, PSP, Wii
And then: The loose sequel, Chrono Cross, is hotly debated these days and may not be good for those wanting Chrono Trigger 2 but on its own merits, it is a fantastic game that should be enjoyed!
I have no problem telling everyone who will listen how much I hate Konami for their actions in the last few years but the silent death of Suikoden is likely the most egregious of their crimes. If you haven’t heard of this franchise, you aren’t alone, but if you’ve been following us for a while here on Last Boss Gaming, you know that this is one of my personal favorite series of all time.
Suikoden (pronounced swee-ko-den) was one of those relatively rare 2D Playstation RPGs that was overlooked during the 3D craze. Its 32-bit sprite work may have seemed outdated then but now it looks gorgeous next to its early 3D contemporaries. Plus, the deeply political storylines often had more depth than the traditional save-the-world fare that Final Fantasy had been offering up during the Playstation-era. Nothing against the flagship RPG franchise but if you are looking for something a little meatier, Suikoden 2 should not be missed.
Ways to Play: Playstation 1, Playstation 3, PSP, PS Vita
And then: If you play Suikoden 1 first, you can import your save into Suikoden 2! This even works with the PSN versions of the game. While it isn’t necessary to enjoying 2, both games are amazing. Suikoden 3-5 aren’t quite at the same level but are also worth playing if the first 2 leave you wanting more.
Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2
Here’s the thing, Baldur’s Gate 2 is really the superior game in the franchise but 1 is still great and as a direct sequel, playing 1 is important towards understanding the full story. So, I’m just including both! I’m not going to lie to you and tell you these are accessible games, they really aren’t. If you aren’t a Dungeons and Dragons fan, the 2nd edition rules can seem bizarre and archaic. Plus, if you play the original versions today, quality of life mods are basically a requirement to even play the game.
That said, there are plenty of guides and tutorials for new players getting started and if you’re willing to learn, these games are worth the effort. The recent efforts towards reviving the isometric RPG with games like Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin… this was all out of love for these two games specifically. Interesting, three dimensional characters mixed with in-depth side quests with real choices and consequences make this a role playing game in the truest sense of the term.
Ways to Play: For an easier time getting started, get Beamdog’s Enhanced Editions which incorporate many of the common QoL mods that help make the games more playable today. These are available on Steam or GOG. Also, check out my D&D primer for some basics on D&D gameplay.
And then: The other Infinity Engine games are great if you want more. These are Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale 1 and Icewind Dale 2. If that isn’t enough for you, skip over the Dark Alliance games and instead come to the modern era with Pillars of Eternity, basically an unofficial, unlicensed Baldur’s Gate 3.
Dragon Age: Origins
If you want the depth of Baldur’s Gate but aren’t quite prepared to dive head-first into D&D, Dragon Age: Origins is a great place to get your feet wet. Dragon Age’s setting is a bit like if D&D and Game of Thrones got together. Many of the rules work similarly to D&D but with the political nature and intrigue of Game of Thrones. Plus, let’s be honest here, the Grey Wardens are basically the Nights Watch if they weren’t stuck on a wall.
Honestly, Dragon Age: Origins’ gameplay is a bit like Baldur’s Gate-lite, utilizing the tactical gameplay of the Infinity Engine games without all the unnecessary jargon derived from a tabletop game. The storyline isn’t as immediately engrossing as some of the other games on this list but it’s fine and the characters are some of BioWare’s best. The main draw is the setting which is rich with lore and possibilities. I can count on one hand the number of games that have drawn me in and revitalized my love of gaming like Dragon Age: Origins. I’ve played through it to completion at least 4 times that I can remember and would have no problem playing through it again. The only drawback to this game is that we may never see a sequel that truly lives up to the name.
Ways to Play: PC *Recommended*, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Mac OS X (regardless of choice, get the Game of the Year pack since it has all the DLC and is super cheap now anyway)
And then: If you love this game, Dragon Age: Inquisition is pretty good. Certainly better than the disastrous Dragon Age 2. You may be better off trying to go deeper though and jump into the Infinity Engine games or Pillars of Eternity.
Final Fantasy VI
There are other Final Fantasy titles that get more praise and recognition. People will never stop heaping love onto Final Fantasy VII while VIII and X have their die-hard fanbases too. That said, and this isn’t just me being hipster and going against the grain here, I will argue to my dying breath that Final Fantasy VI is the best Final Fantasy ever made.
It would take me too long to explain why in this short blurb, plus some of the reasons are spoilers for those who haven’t played it but suffice it to say, Final Fantasy VI’s story goes to places no other Final Fantasy story has been brave enough to venture. If you are going to play one Final Fantasy game in your life, let it be VI.
Ways to Play: Super Nintendo, Playstation, Gameboy Advance *Recommended*, iOS, Android, PC (The versions after the GBA remake used a weird graphical change that looks very strange. I’m sure the game is still fine and if that’s the only way you can play it, go for it, but if you can get your hands on one of the earlier copies, I’d recommend those.)
And then: Umm… It’s Final Fantasy? If you love VI, there are a million others in the franchise. In particular, the SNES trilogy of IV-VI are all pretty accessible and I’d also recommend IX on the Playstation.
Okay, this one may be contentious but I have to admit something to you all: I’ve never played the original Grandia. I have heard that it’s superior to 2 but I just haven’t played it so I can’t say that for sure! What I can say is that Grandia 2 was the unexpected jewel of my Dreamcast collection. While the story had its issues, it addressed tropes and flaws of JRPGs in a way that was so unexpected for the time. Many of these , I didn’t even recognize when I played it originally and they make it even more relevant today than it was when it originally released.
Combine its surprisingly poignant storyline with one of the best turn-based combat systems in all gaming and you have a fantastic RPG that simply should not be missed, despite its relative obscurity. While it used to be very difficult to find, the recent Grandia 2 Anniversary Edition re-release makes it incredibly easy to enjoy this gem from Steam or GOG!
Ways to Play: PC *Recommended*, Dreamcast, Playstation 2
And then: Grandia 1 is supposed to be fantastic as well but I haven’t tried it yet! I’ll have a review up in the next few months if all goes well. There are two other entries, Grandia Xtreme (which I have not played either) and Grandia 3 (not nearly as good as 2). If you aren’t willing to take the risk, maybe just jump over to Suikoden or one of the other JRPGs on this list.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Easily the most modern game on this list, Divinity: Original Sin 2 just came out less than three months ago as of this writing but I can already tell it will change the way we think about RPGs forever. One of the first things I absolutely love about this game is the way it has perfected multiplayer in choice-based RPGs. Many cRPGs like Baldur’s Gate have tried incorporating multiplayer but it always results in one player being the de facto party leader and everyone else relegated to a side role. Divinity OS 2, through brilliant design choices and character creation, fixes this problem right out of the gate. Any player can go anywhere they want in the game map without being tethered to anyone else. Want to join in on someone else’s conversation? Simply click on the NPC to listen in. Want to leave partway through? Go for it! Teammate got themselves stuck in a battle they can’t win? Run over and you’ll be able to join in mid-fight. These may seem like common-sense things but I’ve never played a multiplayer RPG as seamless and empowering as this one. I completed an entire playthrough with 4 of us, all ranging wildly in skill levels and RPG expertise, and we all loved every second of it.
I couldn’t even begin to do the game justice here but for a genre that has had a surprising lack of role-playing in the last couple decades, Divinity: Original Sin 2 brings this back in force and brings it in an accessible and fun way for genre fans and newbies. I didn’t even like Original Sin 1 (or the original Divinity games, for that matter) yet this will almost certainly be one of my top games of 2017.
Ways to Play: PC (It’s Windows-exclusive now but considering the last game was ported to consoles, it already has great controller UI built in and it was a MASSIVE commercial success, I’d be surprised if we don’t see console versions as early as 2018)
And then: Since it is so new, many of the elements that make this game so fantastic haven’t been accepted into common design practice yet. That said, Pillars of Eternity is another very good modern isometric-RPG.
Final Fantasy Tactics
I wasn’t planning on using more than one game in a franchise but to be honest, Tactics may as well be its own separate thing from the main series Final Fantasy. In fact, it shares a setting with a non-Final Fantasy game, Vagrant Story, also on the Playstation. Anyway, it’s amazing and it’s here. Get over it!
I’m not a huge fan of tactics RPGs myself. The battles take a long time to fight and something about them just turns me off in general but Final Fantasy Tactics is different. The deep and engrossing storyline, the insane level of customization for each character and the fascinating world all come together to make the quintessential tactics RPG that any fan of the genre should absolutely play. That said, the original had some SERIOUS localization issues so I would strongly recommend playing the War of the Lions remake which is used for any version other than the original Playstation. If the original is, for some reason, the only way you can play it, I still highly recommend it but with War of the Lion’s availability on phones/tablets, I’m not sure why finding an original Playstation copy would be easier…
Ways to Play: Playstation *NOT Recommended*, PSP, Android, iOS
And then: One of the other tactics RPGs I’ve loved is going backwards in time to the Shining Force games on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. FFT took a lot of inspiration from these games and while many would say FFT perfected the concept, Shining Force 1 and 2 still hold up remarkably well and are both available on Steam or through Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection on 360/PS3. Also, the Disgaea series is one I haven’t played but I’ve heard is great if you’re looking for a kookier take on the genre.
The Elder Scrolls
Oooooo, cop-out? Yeah, I know, but how do you pick just one Elder Scrolls game? Everyone has their preference on which game is the best in the franchise and opinions vary drastically from person to person. Conversations about which game is the best rarely consist of “well, I enjoyed Morrowind and Oblivion but Skyrim is just that much better.” No, they often go, “SKYRIM IS BEST AND YOU CAN ALL JUST SUCK IT! FJDKSJFDKSNFKSDMVS”
So, I’m just going to say give Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim each a try and decide for yourself. I think Arena and Daggerfall have both aged pretty poorly and probably aren’t worth it unless you’re looking for a nostalgia trip but each of the others holds up quite well and all of them provide an incredible experience unmatched by any other game. Also, unless absolutely necessary, always get the games for PC because the modding communities for each of these games is amazing. There’s essentially a never-ending stream of new content, including mods that may as well be official expansion packs for their quality and scope.
Ways to Play: PC *Recommended*, Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Switch
And then: Believe it or not, there are games other than Elder Scrolls to successfully use the open-world free-roaming RPG model although none are quite as accessible for newcomers. Try the Gothic or Risen series, both of which have a devoted fanbase. If you want even less hand-holding and want to go really all out with your role-playing, you may want to try Mount & Blade also.
Persona 4 Golden
Shin Megami Tensei is one of the longest running franchises in gaming history and it’s funny to think that one of its spin-offs has out-shone it in almost every way possible. On paper, it sounds bizarre. Let’s mix a dungeon-crawler RPG with a high-school sim. Not only that but let’s have the plot be about a bunch of kids who enter their TVs to stop a series of murders in their town. It’s insane and yet, it’s perfect.
If you are new to the franchise, don’t worry, every game is entirely stand-alone. I’d avoid the first two entries as they hadn’t quite found their identity yet but Persona 3, 4 and 5 are all amazing entry points. Many fans debate which is their favorite and while personally, the characters from 3 will always be my favorite, maybe a few more people connected with 4 so that’s the one I’m recommending. Be wary, these are long games, each easily taking ~100 hours to complete but they are worth the journey. When I finished 3, I felt like I was graduating high school again, leaving old friends for new adventures. It’s a bittersweet feeling I’ve never felt from any other game before or since.
Ways to Play: PS Vita (While P4G is only on Vita, other entries in the series are available on PS2, PS3, PS4 and PSP)
And that’s my list! I know I missed a ton of fantastic RPGs. Phantasy Star IV, Fallout 2, Lunar, Dragon Quest V… Let me know what games you would have included and I’ll likely be back with a part 2 in the future!