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.
Pillars of Eternity
Pillars of Eternity is an exceptional RPG; a game that evokes the best parts of the classic Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment (both found elsewhere on this list) while striking out on its own path with a compelling fantasy yarn and a richly detailed original world.
It’s Obsidian Entertainment at the top of their game, with the beautiful writing that the studio is known for wrapped up in a polished adventure, something they’ve struggled with in the past. Despite being a massive RPG with a daunting amount of options, everything has been crafted with so much care.
Religion, philosophy, class warfare, the world of Eora is one overflowing with conflict and crises -- every region on the map is fat with problems waiting for nosey adventurers, and even the most seemingly mundane quests can offer some insight into the world or the chance to create a reputation, good or bad.
Instead of just cashing in on the popularity of its spiritual predecessors, it builds on those strong foundations to create an experience that doesn’t rely on the past or on nostalgia. It’s progress, and the overall experience is one that’s even more reminiscent of tabletop RPGs than even those rooted in D&D.
Buyer’s Guide: It’s newly released, and you can grab it now on places like GOG and Steam. And you should. It’s rad.
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.
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.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn
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.
But it's in Baldur's Gate II where the series really hits its stride.
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 game and expansion are available on GOG.com and have plenty of mods. And like the first game, Baldur's Gate II also got a fresh coat of paint and some new quests and party members via the Enhanced Edition. It also contains fixes, tweaks, an improved UI and a new combat campaign.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fallout New Vegas
Bethesda might have resurrected the Fallout series, but it was Obsidian that made it really feel like Fallout again. Fallout New Vegas takes the wit and flavour of the original Fallout and its excellent successor and applies it to Fallout 3’s engine with wondrous results.
For a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Fallout’s reimagining of Nevada is lousy with life. Two armies face off against each other - the New California Republic and the loony, Roman-themed Legion - settlements are dotted all over the place, and the map is simply drowning in things to do and places to go. It’s the most savage holiday you’ve ever been on.
Become a casino big-shot in the New Vegas strip; a veteran bounty hunter, scourge of escaped criminals, and conqueror of a convict-run prison; a dungeon-delving salvager, searching for Old World technology; a smooth-talking seducer and con artist, squeezing money out of the easily manipulated or chatting your way out of fights - the point is to play New Vegas whatever way you want, ignoring whatever you want.
Despite the vanilla game being content rich, with its hundreds of dungeons, multi-tiered quests, fleshed out NPC companions and huge array of gear, modders have made it infinitely bigger. Graphical overhauls, new quests, entirely new areas - the diligent community has already created a dizzying variety of content, and continues to do so. Get New Vegas and say cheerio to hundreds of hours of your life.
Buyer’s Guide: Can be bought all over the place, and is often on sale bundled with all of the DLC on Steam and Green Man Gaming. That said, the only piece of DLC that’s actually good is Old World Blues.
One of the party members in Anachronox is a populated planet. Why have you not played this yet? Oh, that’s right, it sold terribly. Plagued with a long, bumpy development and poorly marketed, Anachronox was rushed out the door by Eidos before developer Ion Storm was really finished with it, and despite critical success, it didn’t resonate as well with consumers.
The weird blend of console-style JPRG combat with western cyberpunk and film noir themes is a bizarre combination, and yet Anachronox makes it work against all the odds. It’s still completely ridiculous though. You’ve got a down on his luck private investigator nicknamed “Sly Boots” living on a city-planet that’s constantly shifting where, if you look up, you’ll see people walking upside down on gravity-defying streets, and somehow this drunk, sarcastic fellow is meant to stop the galaxy from being annihilated.
Anachronox even makes the simple mouse cursor interesting. Instead of an arrow or icon that only you, the player, can see, the cursor is actually a tiny floating vessel containing Sly’s deceased chum in hologram form. I can’t say I’ve come across any other game where the protagonist has hilarious banter with the cursor.
While the eccentric cast and excellent pace, giving you plenty of time to chat, explore and discover just how strange the galaxy is between scraps will keep you grinning for hours, this recommendation is tinged with melancholy. Anachronox was developed with a sequel in mind, and thus the story is left incomplete, and is unlikely to be picked back up again.
Buyer’s Guide: GOG.com is your best bet for picking up this classic, and only costs a few quid.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura
The second Troika game on this list might seem a little more conventional than Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, with its fantasy races and magic spells, but throw in a healthy amount of steampunk technology and an incredibly flexible character creator, and you’ve got a recipe for something special.
Arcanum is a tricky beast, with a myriad of unbalanced turn-based encounters, and it’s only too happy to let you design a completely broken character, but it’s blessed with a riveting plot with the protagonist being told that they are the reincarnation of a holy figure moments after surviving a zeppelin attack before gallivanting around the world, slowly learning about this eccentric land where magic and technology collide in a non-linear, do whatever the hell you want fashion.
The first time I jumped into the world of Arcanum, I was hated by almost everyone. I had the IQ of an infant, so I could barely hold a conversation, I was an Orc, and was constantly the victim of bigotry, and I’d made a pact with a demon, so everyone thought I was evil. My Dwarven mechanic with his spider constructs, guns and quick tongue had a much more successful experience. Choices made at character creation have a significant effect on the entire game, with a character’s race and background having a tangible impact on their dealings with NPCs.
More than any other game on this list, Arcanum makes you feel like you’re playing a tabletop RPG. Dungeon Masters aren’t always fair, and you can be woefully underpowered but still enjoy the game for the character development and the way the world reacts to your circus performing Half-Elf demon worshipper.
Mass Effect 2
Marrying the sub-genres of speculative fiction and space opera, Mass Effect is BioWare’s greatest achievement in terms of world or, rather, galaxy building. The exploration and pseudo-science of Star Trek, the cinematic action of Battlestar Galactica and the fantastical elements of Star Wars or pulpy science fiction of the early 20th Century are all on show and artfully combined.
Humans are the new kids on the block, recently joining the galactic community, and must shake things up to get all the older races to acknowledge a growing threat to their existence. How do they do that? With an ass-kicking soldier, of course. Commander Shepard is a great character because he’s my character. It’s impossible to define him, because for many he’s actually a she, and rather than being the glory-hunting hero who became a grizzled, downtrodden veteran as he was in my game, he or she might have been a cruel, racist bastard or a paragon of virtue who refuses to let anyone die.
There’s a whole galaxy to investigate, with fully-realised alien races steeped in lore, colonies to save, smugglers to kill or work with and stand-offs to end. But in Mass Effect 2, the real focus is on preparing for a suicide mission against possible odds. A rag tag group of aliens and humans have to be recruited, and their loyalty must be won if there's any hope of destroying a threat that most of the galaxy seems content to ignore.
Dramatic set pieces and workmanlike, if not particularly interesting, squad-based combat are punctuated by BioWare’s trademark, excellent dialogue and simply wandering around alien locales, sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong because that’s what humans do in space, apparently. Suspend your disbelief for the last ten minutes, and you’ll find yourself on one hell of an sci-fi ride.
Buyer’s Guide: Mass Effect 2 has a ridiculous amount of DLC. Some of it really is a must, though. You'll want the Zaed and Kasumi DLC, for two excellent characters and their respective loyalty quests. But if you can only get one, for some reason, get Lair of the Shadowbroker. It's the best piece of DLC in the whole series, especially if you think Liara is rad.
Shadowrun’s a welcome throwback to the ‘90s. Based on the classic tabletop roleplaying game, it’s a neo-noir cyberpunk mystery with plenty of magic, fantasy elements and combat that’s reminiscent of XCOM. That makes it a lot of things, and all of them are just great. Set on a future Earth where science and the realm of the arcane struggle to co-exist and beings like elves and trolls walk the streets along with humans, players find themselves in the shoes of a shadowrunner, a shady mercenary proficient in espionage.
Shadowrun Returns’ campaign is a hardboiled detective yarn that begins with investigating the death of a friend with the promise of a big pay day and explodes into tale of conspiracy, police corruption, serial killers and a loopy cult. With no voice acting, the writing really carries the story, with a wry sense of humour.
A freeform character creator lets players make all sorts of unusual classes, from spirit summoners who can also enter a digital realm and fight computer programs to samurais who run around with a bunch of remote controlled robots. Dumping some points into charisma also unlocks affinities for different types of people, be they corporate security, other shadowrunners or street gangs, opening up new dialogue options and avenues in your investigation.
Though the campaign is short and mostly linear, Dragonfall nips that issue in the bud. It's a meaty expansion with a hub that isn't just a dive bar, lots of optional missions and a party of proper characters with their own motivations and narrative arcs. And the game comes packaged with a complex editor that contains the promise of countless user-generated campaigns. Someone’s already gone and recreated the old SNES Shadowrun game, which is also worthy of your attention.
Buyer’s Guide: You’ll need to get this on Steam. It’s got Steam Workshop integration, and lots of user-created campaigns to play around with.
Mount & Blade: Warband
The best of the Mount & Blade series, Warband is an open world fantasy RPG crossed with a Medieval simulator, which basically means you never have to pay attention to the real world again. Warband dumps players into a giant sandbox, where six factions duke it out for supremacy, there’s no real story and it’s left to the player to decide what they want to do.
Perhaps the showman in you will inspire you to become a master jouster and champion of many tourneys, or maybe your eye for a good deal will lead you down the path of the wealthy trader, using your mountain of gold to fund a mercenary army to protect you and bring you glory or maybe you’re just a good for nothing crook, and if so, then it’s the bandit’s life for you.
Travelling around the map, you’ll no doubt find yourself waylaid by enemies, or maybe you’ll be the one doing the waylaying, but either way, you’ll no doubt get into scraps. Combat is skill-based, requiring fancy footwork, excellent timing and employment of the right weapon and right attack for different situations. It’s tough to get the hang of, but ultimately very rewarding. You’ll likely have an army at your side, too, leading to some particularly massive conflicts. And that army can be trained, gain experience and be equipped with new gear - though you will have to pay their wages.
With the multiplayer mode added in Warband and a wide variety of mods, including some impressive overhauls, it’s a game that will easily swallow up your life if you let it.
Buyer’s Guide: Sold all over the place. Check out Gamersgate where it’s been on sale many times.
Ah, Deus Ex. More of a stealth FPS/RPG hybrid, it’s still more than deserving of a place on this list, as even 13 years on it’s a joy to play and one of the best games ever devised. It’s probably a bit passe to sing its praises, as it’s a constant feature in just about every list of the best PC games since its 2001 release.
I could expend a great deal of energy reminiscing about the dramatic narrative that weaves themes of conspiracy, terrorism and transhumanism together with intriguing characters a believable dystopic future. Equally, I could go on and on about the breadth of character customisation, letting players hone shades and trenchcoat wearing J.C. Denton into a cybernetically enhanced soldier, expert hacker or a ghost, lurking in the shadows. But what I really want to discuss is the incredible level design.
Every map represents a complex sandbox ripe for experimentation. Every combat encounter has the potential to play out in remarkably different ways, should you actually participate in said encounter rather than slinking past it. Secret paths, hidden caches, informants waiting to be bribed and confidential information opening up new routes and options litter levels, ensuring that when players discuss their experiences, it’s like they are talking about different games.
And it’s all so organic. There’s a strong temptation for developers to clearly signpost choices that can be made, to the point where mission objectives explain exactly where you can go and what you need to do, but in Deus Ex it was all a surprise. You don’t know that hacking a computer and reading private emails will give you a code that lets you defeat a tough enemy without a fight, and you don’t know that there’s an item hidden within a level that will unlock a previous invisible, unimagined route to the mission objective - you need to just go out and explore.
Thanks to my ailing memory and all the places I never went, fights I skipped and people I never met, going back and playing it again a couple of years ago was like experiencing it for the first time. I can’t wait to do it again in another couple of years. But you should do it now.
Buyer’s Guide: GOTY edition can be found easily, and remember to download the improved textures mod and some patches.
I was tempted not to add Dark Souls, because it’s an embarrassingly shoddy port, but patches and a controller manage to - with a bit of tinkering - make it the superior version of the game, if you can stomach the evil of Games for Windows Live, that is.
Dark Souls is the masochist’s RPG. A cruel, relentless battle through a bleak, dead land where the “You Died” screen starts to become an old friend, albeit a mocking one - it’s a punishing bastard of a game but infinitely rewarding. Every battle is a puzzle, demanding skill, good timing and an eye for enemy tells. It’s exhausting, because death is only ever a missed attack or a misreading of an opponent away. But that makes every victory a hard-fought prize, bringing with it the potential for increased power, and progression to the next, even more challenging area.
The freeform character development and top notch enemy design, both in terms of their grotesque appearance and tricky mechanics, are worthy of high praise, but it’s the sense of accomplishment - coming from surviving despite the odds - that makes Dark Souls worth hammering away at, despite constant failure.
An unapologetically old-fashioned philosophy to game design permeates throughout the whole stressful adventure, but it’s one blessed with modern complexity and scale. Different weapons and armour completely change the flow of battle and the feel of a character, with the heft of a sword and the weight of plated armour having a massive, tangible impact on strikes and movement. And secreted away through the vast, semi-open world is a cornucopia of trinkets and magical items, rewarding inquisitive players for their risky exploration of long forgotten tombs and subterranean cities.
Just think of GFWL as the first challenge you must overcome, and as tiresome as that challenge is, Dark Souls is an excellent prize.
Buyer’s Guide: Sold basically everywhere, and is on sale for £4.99 on Steam at the moment. Do not play without a controller or the resolution fix.
Divinity: Original Sin
Larian’s latest Divinity game isn’t just a throwback to classic CRPGs, it’s a continuation of them. It’s a modern game, but based on the design philosophies of the classics like Ultima and Baldur’s Gate.
From our review: “When I play Divinity: Original Sin, I’m back in my parents’ study, gleefully skipping homework as I explore the vast city of Athkatla. I’m overstaying my welcome at a friend’s house, chatting to Lord British. And it’s not because the game is buying me with nostalgia, but because it’s able to evoke the same feelings: that delight from doing something crazy and watching it work, the surprise when an inanimate object starts talking to me and sends me on a portal-hopping quest across the world. There’s whimsy and excitement, and those things have become rare commodities. Yet Divinity: Original Sin is full of them.”
It is an RPG that focuses what the genre can be, and not what it has become. Where conflict isn’t just about fighting, where magic can be used to solve puzzles and manipulate the environment and not just kill enemies, and where simple side-quests can transform into rewarding, huge undertakings involving setting cats up on dates.
And it comes with a robust editor so you can create your own adventure, and fleshed out co-op system so that you don’t have to take on the world alone. Halting evil in its tracks is a job for friends, after all.
Buyer’s Guide: You can grab the game on Steam, GOG or elsewhere, and there’s some DLC, but it’s not integral and doesn’t add much.
South Park: The Stick of Truth
“It shouldn't be this good,” I kept repeating. South Park has never translated well when it comes to games, and the show itself has been in a bit of a rut for the last couple of seasons. Yet The Stick of Truth manages to be not just a great South Park game, but one of the best RPGs you could have the good fortune to play.
This is South Park at its best. From the perfect recreation of the town itself, to the biting, insightful, and often grotesque, satire of gaming and pop culture. Fantasy tropes, the Kardashians, Nazi zombies, the mystical powers of Morgan Freeman - they are all there, all lampooned.
And all this is wrapped up in an RPG that draws on many sources, from JRPG-style combat, to western open-world affairs. There’s even a healthy dose of Metroidvania exploration. The progression never halts - there’s always something new around the corner, whether it’s a new battle mechanic or a giant weaponised dildo.
A game where you can dress up a kid as an avenging valkyrie and fight Jack Daniels-gulping hobos and anus-obsessed aliens is something to be treasured. And it’s the only game I’ve ever given a 10/10.
Buyer’s Guide: There is some DLC, cheap as well, but it just adds some perks and a few new costumes - of which there is a lot of in the regular game.
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls
When first making this list, I didn't even give any thought to Diablo III. Blizzard had lost its way, creating a ridiculous economy and removing the need to actually go looking for the best pieces of loot. Playing Diablo III just wasn't very satisfying.
Then everything changed.
The build up to Reaper of Souls was massive, with systems being overhauled completely. And then the expansion threw in so many novel features that it became hard to remember why Diablo III was best avoided, helped by the fact that the troublesome Auction House was shut down. It gained a new lease on life, and now you’d be loopy to not pick it up if you love your ARPG clickfests.
And the new additions keep on arriving. The latest update adds a whole new way to progress through the game, scoring unique rewards while competing against other players. And new areas and adventures have been thrown into the mix to boot, all for free.
If you fancy playing with some good people, you should join our clan as well.
Buyer’s Guide: You should definitely get Reaper of Souls on top of the base game, even though the latter has been dramatically improved. You can grab both direct from Blizzard.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Dragon Age: Origins saw BioWare go back to its fantasy RPG roots, and unlike Baldur’s Gate, the developer had the freedom to do whatever it wanted, set, as the game was, a universe of BioWare’s creation. And it paid off. But it’s follow-up, Dragon Age II, despite a compelling story and some great characters, missed the mark with its awful dungeons and poor combat.
Now we have Dragon Age: Inquisition, and it’s the biggest, most ambitious of all BioWare’s modern RPGs. Up to 150 hours of adventuring; gargantuan regions filled with quests, dragons and diversions; a world that changes and evolves as you move through it: this is BioWare firing on all cylinders.
And it’s a power trip. Sure, we’re used to being the big hero, with the fate of the world on our shoulders, but Inquisition ups the ante by making us the leader of a huge organisation, part army, part religious institution. As the Inquisitor, players can exert their influence throughout Thedas, travelling to Orlais and throughout Ferelden, making alliances with the Qunari, deciding the fate of the Chantry, the Templars and mages all over the world.
The tactical combat system makes a welcome return, too. It’s a flexible tool, and really feels like the most optimal way to tackle the most difficult battles. Lamentably it doesn’t zoom out far enough, making things a bit more fiddly than its Origins counterpart, but it’s a huge improvement over the boring, thoughtless combat from Dragon Age II.
Oh, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Massive in scale and heavy in atmosphere, Inquisition makes good use out the cumbersome but powerful Frostbite engine. Thedas is more alive and detailed than ever before, and begs to be explored by tourists.
Buyer’s Guide: You can grab it on Origin, but you probably shouldn't. EA's selling it for an absurd price, around £50 just for the base version, almost £60 for the Digital Deluxe Edition. There are places where it's been on sale for around £30, but you'll need to shop around.
Legend of Grimrock 2
Legend of Grimrock 2 might have been released only a couple of months ago, but it really comes from a time when playing an RPG meant that you needed a steady stream of graph paper and the patience to draw lots of maps.
It builds on the wonderful foundation laid down by its impressive predecessor, taking four adventurers out of the confines of a single, massive dungeon, giving them a whole island to explore - one that's incredibly diverse. There are towers, crypts, dungeons, forests, marshes, beaches and all manner of fantasy locales waiting to be explored. It's massive. So big that I confess I needed the automap a lot more than I did in the previous game. I only have so much graph paper.
The party of heroes all occupy one tile, and are essentially just their powers and fighting ability - it’s not about them. The journey through a dark and dank dungeons, the tense real-time fights against hideous, often hulking, monstrosities, the horrible fear you feel when you’re utterly lost in a maze, the puzzles that sometimes require actual note taking - that’s what it’s about.
The class and race selection has been greatly improved too, allowing parties to contain gun-toting ratmen, or farmers who gain experience by eating different food. Bonkers.
Buyer’s Guide: Get it on Steam and make use of its Steam Workshop support.
Update 26/03/2015: Pillars of Eternity is one of the best RPGs ever conjured up, so we had to add it to the list.
Update 01/12/2014: We bid farewell to the excellent Dragon Age: Origins and Legend of Grimrock, and welcome their younger siblings, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Legend of Grimrock 2.