It was the stalwart computer RPG, popping into existence in the ‘70s and relentlessly rising in popularity and complexity, where my interest in gaming became almost an obsession. Whole worlds filled with history, characters with uncertain motivations and the potential for a plethora of adventures demanded my undivided attention.
Where once they were digital counterparts to Dungeons & Dragons or adventures in Middle-Earth, they now span countless universes, and stepping into one is like being bundled up into a warm, comforting blanket that you never want to leave. If it’s one of the exceptional RPGs in this list, representing the very best roleplaying romps on the PC, at least.
1. Planescape: Torment
While this list is in no particular order, Planescape: Torment still deserves to be at the top. Black Isle Studios, the titans of Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, turned convention on its head when they crafted this Planar adventure. There are no more typical fantasy races, morality is not defined, or is at least mutable, and every character attribute is tied to conversations and out of combat actions. It’s a game of philosophy and discovery rather than a monster slaying adventure.
“What can change the nature of a man?” is the question at the heart of Planescape: Torment. The Nameless One is an immortal amnesiac, living many lives, doing deeds terrible and great, changing the lives of those around him, often for the worst. Waking up on a mortuary slab, the mystery of his past propels the Nameless One through the Multiverse, one of the most bizarre settings of any RPG, where he deals with Gods, zealotic factions - like the Dustmen, a faction that believes life is a fleeting precursor to the ultimate existence: death - and mazes both mechanical and magical.
The ambition of Planescape: Torment would have been for naught were it not for the superb writing that accompanied it. Chris Avellone and Co penned a tale saturated with nuance and memorable characters that, even 14 years on, stands the test of time and has yet to be outdone.
It’s the only RPG where I can recall searching through the protagonist’s organs to find an important item, or where I allowed an NPC to kill me so that she could experience what it would be like to murder somebody. And all the while I wrestled with philosophical conundrums and questions of identity. If that all sounds a bit grisly and esoteric to you, then fret not, as the Nameless One is also accompanied by a floating, talking skull who is an unrepentant flirt, so it’s not all serious.
2. The Witcher II
One of the best RPGs of the last few years, The Witcher II transports players to the fantasy realm conceived by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. It’s a grim world, where European folk tales collide with Medieval intrigue, and carving a path through it all - with a confident swagger - is Geralt of Rivia, a pasty Witcher with a spotty memory.
Though the genetically altered Witchers are monster hunters by trade, and Geralt certainly fights plenty of them, researching them to find the best way to dispatch them, he also finds himself embroiled in politics and warfare, after his stint as a royal bodyguard goes a bit awry and he must hunt down a rogue Witcher turned assassin. It’s an action packed adventure with plenty of violence and destructive magic, but it’s also surprisingly thoughtful, not shying away from sensitive topics like racism or the clash of ideologies.
Developers CD Projekt Red are fans of making player actions resonate throughout their games. Thus, The Witcher II is riddled with with options and decisions, both big and small. Sometimes it might just be how Geralt fights - will he employ magic or brute force, will he set traps and ambush his quarry or will he charge in - while another choice completely changes the second act, seeing Geralt on either side of a war.
Moral ambiguity and rewarding combat are the cornerstones of The Witcher II, but it’s the impressive engine that initially makes the most powerful impression. Both in terms of aesthetics and graphical fidelity, Geralt’s journey is filled with impressive scenery. Monsters are gruesome and horrifying, settlements are hives of activity surrounded by detailed, time-worn buildings and the opening scene amid a gargantuan siege is still jaw-dropping. When it arrived two years ago, The Witcher II was a game worth upgrading your PC for, and it still looks gorgeous today.
3. Baldur’s Gate series
While my love of RPGs stems from Ultima - which is absent from this list because playing it now is a huge chore - it was Black Isle and BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate that cemented that love. Starting with the original Baldur’s Gate in ‘98 and concluding with the expansion Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal in ‘01, the series charts the trials and tribulations of an adventuring party from the rugged Sword Coast to the wealthy city of Athkatla, where magic is mostly illegal, and beyond to the tumultuous realm of Tethyr.
A truly epic adventure, the Baldur’s Gate saga begins with the death of a mentor and spirals into several fate-of-the-realm quests centred around the offspring of a deceased deity: Bhaal, the God of Murder. The main quests of each installment are vast, sprawling things with delightfully evil antagonists and plots filled with nasty twists and turns, but really it is exploration and unexpected adventures that are at the core of Baldur’s Gate.
The Dungeons & Dragons land of the Forgotten Realms is meticulously recreated, filled to the brim with gorgeous environments just waiting to be explored. And within them, quests! So many bloody quests. Hundreds of hours of saving villages, delving into mines, fighting mad wizards, slaughtering Gnolls and even a trip to the Planes - explored in more detail in Planescape: Torment - and a deadly adventure into the Underdark.
Elevating these many quests is exceptional writing and dialogue. Baldur’s Gate juggles wit and satire with solemnity and gravitas, drawing players into even ostensibly simple quests. It’s the party of adventurers that join the hero that get the best lines of course, and none more so than Minsc, the infamous Ranger who talks to his cosmic space hamster, Boo. Baldur’s Gate II also has the distinction of having one of the best antagonists in any game: Jon Irenicus, expertly voiced by top-notch player of villains David Warner. Arrogant, powerful, deformed and with a hint of tragedy around him, Irenicus has all the hallmarks of a classic villain, and even while he’s not present throughout most of the game, his influence seeps into everything.
Buyer’s Guide: Both core games and expansions are available on GOG.com and have plenty of mods. The first game also recently got re-released and enhanced, and the sequel is getting the same treatment. It contains fixes, tweaks, an improved UI, a new combat campaign and a bunch of new party members. If you only play one of these classics, it should definitely be Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn.
4. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Where Arena and Daggerfall have aged badly, and Oblivion is a bit of a bore (besides the Shivering Isles expansion), the third Elder Scrolls instalment remains the gem in the crown of the franchise, and even Skyrim doesn’t quite manage to surpass it.
The first time I played Morrowind, I died within the first few minutes. Leaving the prison vessel that transported me to this bleak and alien land, I spent little time in the small port town, immediately venturing out into the wilderness. It was there I encountered a wizard. I say encountered, but he actually almost landed on me, falling from the sky. I looted his corpse, of course, and discovered a scroll that the wizard believed gave him the power of flight. Ignoring the results of what was clearly his first experiment with the spell, I cast it. I was launched high up into the sky, I could see the whole land from my amazing vantage point… and then the ground started getting closer. And closer. And splat. I was dead.
That early encounter - which isn’t a quest, it’s just something that happens - encapsulates what makes Morrowind so magnificent. There’s a gigantic alien landscape begging to be travelled across, filled with strange people and the promise of countless quests and random misadventures. It’s a game where you can murder an important NPC, failing the main quest, and yet can keep playing.
Diversity is the name of the game in Morrowind. Where Oblivion had its European forests and Medieval towns and Skyrim had its Scandinavian themes, Morrowind is utterly unique, rarely looking like a real-world counterpart. Giant mushroom forests, homes made out of bone and carapace, large floating beasts - the lovable silt striders - for transportation, it’s a weird place.
This variety extends to all aspects of the title. Skills, magic and equipment are all much more abundant in Morrowind compared to its successors, and offer more in depth customisation and substantially more character builds. At first it’s confusing, bursting with choice but little direction, but when you start to chart your own path, it becomes a game unlike any other.
Buyer’s Guide: Worth picking up along with its two excellent expansions, Morrowind is also included in the recently released Elder Scrolls Anthology which contains every single game in the series including Skyrim and all its DLC, which is definitely worth checking out if you’d like a modern Elder Scrolls experience.
5. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II
I was hesitant about putting a game so riddled with bugs that was released in a completely unfinished state in this list, but beneath Knights of the Old Republic II’s cracks and flaws is the most cerebral Star Wars game ever made and an amazing RPG.
Where its predecessor, made by BioWare and not Obsidian, was a fantastic addition to the Star Wars universe complete with a “Luke, I am your father” style twist, KotOR II takes the venerable IP and takes it in a completely new direction. No longer is the focus on the constant battle between the Dark Side and the Light Side, Republic versus Empire. Instead, we’re treated to a narrative that explores the nature of the force and what it means to be cut off and lost. It’s a story of misfits and traitors and, in retrospect, sometimes feels very much like Star Wars by way of Planescape: Torment.
Shades of grey permeate through the entire adventure, as the Exile, KotOR II’s protagonist, is forced to think about every action and how good deeds can beget evil ones, being pushed ever further towards pragmatism. An oft depressingly bleak game, it’s as much about personal exploration as it is about gallivanting across the galaxy, getting into lightsaber battles and using the force, though there’s certainly plenty of that too.
Perhaps the best thing about KotOR II is Kreia, the Exile’s secretive mentor. The impetus for so much of the game, she pushes the Exile, berates him and attempts to teach him all the while presenting the force in much more interesting ways than either of the film trilogies managed. It makes the pupil mentor relationship between Luke and Yoda or Ben exceptionally dull in comparison.
Buyer’s Guide: Easy to find, and often on sale on Steam. You should definitely play with the restored content mod which fixes a lot of issues and includes extra storylines that never made the final cut. It’s what the game would have been had LucasArts not pushed it out so early.
6. Torchlight II
If you’re looking for a game that nails the Pavlovian click-fest formula of the action RPG, then Torchlight II is for you. There’s no time for an intriguing plot or interesting characters, they would only get in the way of the mountains - and I do really mean mountains - of loot and hordes of unrelenting monsters.
Torchlight II is blessed with a breakneck pace, which sees players running all over its massive maps, slaughtering an ocean of enemies, and never stopping for a breather (unless you’re fishing). Gold and items explode out of fallen foes in absurd amounts, showering the ground in treasure and trinkets. There’s always a new toy to play with, some new, colourful armour to show off, or powerful items to buy, giving the game a constant sense of progression and a hook that will trap you within its world for many hours.
Though there are only four classes to choose from, each has three separate skill trees tied to different fighting styles which completely change the class. One Engineer might be a heavily armoured tank, wading into battle with a comically large hammer, while another could harass enemies from far away with an equally comically large cannon. There are oodles of vastly different skills within each class, inspiring experimentation and multiple playthroughs.
It also looks bloody lovely. It might be a game of looting and killing, but there’s no rule that says that the environments can’t be vibrant and colourful. Monster design is exemplary, with a broad range of freakish nasties to slay, and titanic bosses that impress both mechanically and visually.
Torchlight II also lets you travel around with a handy pet. Having the best taste, I’m never without my faithful bulldog, unless I’ve sent him to the shops to sell my loot. Yes, these animals are mercantile masters. If that’s not worth the price of entry, I don’t know what is.
Buyer’s Guide: Thanks to the editor tool and Steam Workshop integration it can be modified quite a bit. It’s also dirt cheap for such a meaty action romp. Grab it for £14.99 or wait for one of the many Steam sales.
7. Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
The first of two Troika games in this list was lamentably riddled with bugs at launch, to the point of being nearly unplayable, but with some patience (and the myriad of community patches) you might find yourself becoming besotted with this bloodsucker.
You’ve just become a vampire. Surprise! It’s not all seducing teenage girls and sparkling, though, because the world of Vampire: The Masquerade - based on the excellent White Wolf tabletop game - is decidedly more mature. Set in modern Los Angeles, it’s rife with undead politics and secret wars amid the glamour of Hollywood and corporate America.
The inventive quests, like a visit to the site of a vampire-run snuff movie set, an investigation in a haunted hotel that features no combat and plenty of scares that make even a vampire whimper, or a sneaky infiltration mission in a huge museum are large affairs, and laden with multiple routes and plenty of opportunities to exploit vampiric abilities like mind control or shapeshifting. The setting of modern America is one unfamiliar in RPGs, and Troika takes full advantage of it with little touches like vampires making deals with blood banks or infiltrating the Hollywood glitterati.
Several vampire clans are available at character creation, and while all have their own unique twists and traits, it’s the Nosferatu and Malkavians that are most notable. The former is a hideous creature, deformed and batlike, and so must use the sewers and stealth to move through the world of mortals. Where the Nosferatu are not physically fit for this world, the Malkavians have the same problem, but in regards to their mental state. Every Malkavian is absolutely barmy. This leads to some hilarious dialogue, but also gives Malkavian players insight into things that other vampires would overlook.
A cracking story of faction politics and prophecy and writing that is wry and sardonic made it possible to grin and bear the bugs at launch, and in it’s now slightly more stable state, it’s a unique title that you really ought to pick up.
Buyer’s Guide: Available on a bunch of digital distribution platforms for a pretty good price. It’s worth downloading community patches and mods, though, as the vanilla game still has a lot of issues.