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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

21 Best RPGs of the Decade (2000-2009)

Usual rules: Only one game per franchise, game still has to be fun today.

21. The World Ends With You (Square Enix/Jupiter, 2008)

A unique and interesting action-RPG that set out to take advantage of the Nintendo DS console's unique capabilities in every way it could.  It certainly succeeded in most fronts; the killer soundtrack aided by the DS's surprisingly good sound fidelity, gameplay that took advantage of touch-screen, microphone and even the DS's sleep feature to great effect.  Combat was the prime example, with the player controlling two characters concurrently - one on the top screen with buttons, the other on the bottom screen using touch-screen gestures to evade attacks and activate 'pins' to attack in various ways - drawing lines, slashing through enemies, pressing down to set them ablaze, and so forth. Each time a character successfully landed a combo, they would pass a 'light puck' to the character on the other screen, enabling them to do more damage and rack up some enormous combos for extra combat rewards.  A really fun take on RPG design and a modern rejuvenation for the genre. 




20. Shadow Hearts: Covenant (Nautilus, 2004)

A newcomer to the RPG scene, Sacnoth (later known as Nautilus) definitely came out strong with Shadow Hearts.  A game with mechanics focused around a timing-based minigame (the Judgment Ring) and an unsettling horror atmosphere, as well as a relatively unique setting, taking place in Europe in the early 1900s with a lot of fantastical elements mixed in. Covenant downplayed the horror and went for a much more jokey tone, but also drastically tuned up its gameplay, giving each character a unique skill set a la Final Fantasy VI and a game-spanning sidequest tied to it.  The end result is a great PS2 RPG, as well as a painful reminder of the talent that its Creators had to the table but which their publisher had stunningly little regard for, dissolving them only a few years later in favor of producing pachinko machines (not unlike the path Konami would infamously go down a decade after). 

19. Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, 2008)

Like many, I was quite disappointed when it came to Japanese RPGs in the beginnings of the HD era; I was hoping to see high-definition takes on my favorite PS2 franchises like Suikoden and Shadow Hearts and Persona and instead we got a generation of worthless dreck like Hyperdimension Neptunia and Final Fantasy XIII (and Last Story... retch).  Valkyria Chronicles proved to be a highlight during this dreary time, though, proving to be a fresh new IP from Sega that masterfully blended real-time action, turn-based tactics and some light capture-and-upgrade gameplay a la XCOM.  Basically, each turn you pick a unit, then the game shifts to a semi-real-time third person view as you evade enemy fire, pausing again when you line up an attack. The story was quite a good one too, with a cast of memorable characters and a story with a lot of parallels to real-life conflicts (particularly World War II) and even tackling some heavy themes like racism and loss. It wasn't the best-balanced game for sure, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it immensely. 

18. Yakuza 2 (Sega, 2008)

Yakuza was a sleeper hit on the PS2, combining open-world design with hard-hitting, surprisingly brutal melee combat and a good crime drama story following two brothers and their struggles in the world of organized crime (while also partaking in plenty of optional minigames and silly sidequests to add levity). Yakuza 2 upped the stakes even further, putting series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu in the thick of a feud with the Korean mafia that quickly balloons into something much bigger and more dangerous for all of Tokyo.  Fitting this, combat was also refined to be more crisp and responsive (and more brutal than ever) and some of the more irritating elements of the original were reworked to provide smoother gameplay.  A great game, even if the Yakuza series wouldn't get its due recognition until two generations later with Yakuza 0 and a slew of remakes and ports. 

17. Suikoden III (Konami, 2002)

The third Suikoden game and the last to be helmed by series creator Yoshitaka Muriyama before his departure from Konami.  He went out with a bang, though, as Suikoden III is another excellent war epic.  Things were changed up a fair bit from its predecessors - characters now acted as pairs in combat and war battles were basically larger-scale fights, and the narrative was no longer a linear one; instead, you followed multiple groups protagonists, their paths subtly affecting one another and all of them eventually joining together once the story hits its height.  The presentation is fantastic to match, with expressive characters and a phenomenal soundtrack (Exceeding Love in particular being a fantastic opening song).  Konami tried for a while to carry on without Muriyama, releasing a few more spinoff games and two sequels of varying quality (5 is pretty good, 4 is... very much not), but 2 and 3 will likely always stand as the franchise's best. 

16. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 2008)

Fallout 3 was of course the first game to be released after Bethesda's purchase of the IP from Interplay, and they made the controversial decision to scrap all the work Black Isle had already done and set out on their own.  Fallout 3 was a unique beast, yet still a good attempt at capturing the series' appeal, copying the heavy mood and bleak atmosphere of Fallout 1 and setting it in a nuke-decimated Washington DC.  It had slightly more of a survivor/scavenger bent than the first two games too - radiation is a constant threat and weapons decay with use, with the especially powerful ones doing so very quickly, necessitating that you frequently track down replacement parts.  You could even craft a few of your own weapons out of spare parts and blueprints, which was kind of clever and resulted in some pretty amazing combinations (the Rock-It launcher being a favorite, even if it's not especially practical as a weapon).  It was easily the biggest and most intricate Fallout world yet, with plenty of ruined buildings and vaults and even familiar DC landmarks to visit, and even roaming through the vast networks of subway tunnels was a pretty cool thing to experience.  Most of the DLCs were pretty mediocre and some plot beats feel a bit out of place, but all in all, a good Fallout. 

15. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (Atlus, 2008)

Shin Megami Tensei followed a particular format for much of its life - dungeon crawling with the gimmick of negotiating with monsters to add them to your party, and fusing them to create more powerful teams (as they couldn't level up on their own). Persona 3 served as an inventive and fun reinvention of the format, with randomly-generated dungeon crawling mixed together with elements of a school sim.  It was all worked together in a pretty ingenious way, too - interacting with characters and raising your "social links" with them would give any demons you fused of that Arcana a power boost, and once a link was maxed out you would be able to unlock new, extremely powerful ones.  The presentation was a definite plus too, with poppy colors, anime--style cut-ins and animations during battles and a soundtrack that combined hip-hop and rap in with the series' trademark epic tracks.   An innovative and influential game; so much so that other franchises like Yakuza and Fire Emblem have started to copy notes from it in recent years. 

14. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (BioWare, 2000)

The first Baldurs Gate proved to be a hit for BioWare, with its strong story, surprising faithfulness to D&D rules and an engine that felt like a real-time strategy game (though with active pausing) lending itself to some large-scale and epic fights.  Baldur's Gate II was bigger and better in every way, refining the engine to be more robust, toning down some of the more broken spells (Charm in particular) and adding tons of new playable classes and kits; you didn't just have Fighters anymore, you could also be a Berserker, Kensai or Wizard Slayer.  Battles definitely had higher stakes too, with more dangerous foes like vampires, illithids and beholder becoming prominent enemies.  Characters could acquire strongholds to earn a new source of income and sidequests, and even the secondary characters got more to do, with interpersonal dialogs and even romance options opening up. A game with tons of content and replay value, so even though it was still punishingly hard at times, you didn't mind one bit because you wanted to see what it would send your way next. 

13. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Bethesda Softworks, 2003)

Bethesda's flagship franchise saw its debut in the '90s to considerable success even in spite of its buggy design and hefty system requirements.  Elder Scrolls III ultimately wouldn't arrive on the scene until seven years after Daggerfall, but it proved to be worth the wait; while not as grand in scale as its predecessors, the design was far denser, with every locale being uniquely crafted and quests actually having more depth and variety than "go to Location X, get item Y and return in Z days".  The bizarre setting was a sight to explore, with towering mushrooms, twisted creatures, tons of lore and backstory to sift through, and a grand scale to some of its locales (particularly Vivec).  The main story was a creative and interesting one too, putting a clever twist on many fantasy tropes, especially the player's role as a (possible?) chosen one.  It did have some weaknesses in its underwhelming combat, annoying stamina system and the fact that NPCs are really bad at giving instructions to key locations, but that didn't stop Morrowind from becoming a fan favorite whose popularity remains strong even today. 

12. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Intelligent Systems, 2004)

Super Mario RPG proved to be a big hit on the SNES, though Nintendo and Square have shown no interest in making a direct followup to it despite considerable fan demand.  Nintendo made a few attempts to replicate its success through their second-party developers, with Thousand-Year Door probably being their most successful one.  Taking the minigame-driven gameplay of Mario RPG up to eleven, virtually every move you can do has its own mechanic, whether timed button presses, holding and releasing the stick, tapping buttons or even shooting down falling targets. Even the combat screen itself factors in, with a studio audience watching battles and occasionally interacting with you and your enemies (tossing attacks their way), and having a fuller house with successesful inputs will generate star power for your special moves at a greater rate. All fun stuff, but the generally irreverent atmosphere and having plenty of challenge despite its pop-up book aesthetic was what really drove home its popularity.  One of the GameCube's finest for sure. 

11. Mother 3 (Brownie Brown/HAL Laboratory, 2006)

The followup to SNES cult favorite Earthbound, though it ultimately took over a decade, numerous rewrites and no less than two changes of platform to become a reality. The end result was certainly a surprising one, too - while it retains the series' comic strip art style, bizarre atmosphere and jokey tone, it also pulled no punches with its dark themes and tragic moments, resulting in a game with a much heavier mood and higher stakes than its predecessors.  The gameplay was more challenging than ever, with some surprisingly tough boss battles throughout and a unique mechanic involving timimg button presses with the music to inflict extra damage.  All in all, though, a fantastic RPG, and the fact that it became so popular even among people who had never played the first two really speaks to its quality. 

10. Diablo II (Blizzard, 2000)

Released over three years after the original, Diablo II proved to be well worth the wait, taking the original game and cranking its action element up to eleven. There were now five classes to pick from (seven in the expansion), and each had a vastly different set of abilities to use - from the elemental magic using Sorceress to the party buffing Paladin to the Necromancer who could resurrect dead enemies as his own personal army, the game had a ton of variety in builds and a vast amount of replay value.  Online play was vastly retooled too, with far less in the way of cheap player-killing tactics and much more on co-op for up to eight players, as well as ladder rankings and a Hardcore mode where one death means the end of your character.  Fantastic stuff, and still one of the best multiplayer action RPGs ever made. 

9. Final Fantasy XII International: Zodiac Job System (Square Enix, 2007)

Final Fantasy XII was a definite change-up for the series, returning to the world of Ivalice (first seen in Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story) and even working in some elements of the GBA's Tactics Advance.  Its story was a considerably more grounded one too, with two nations and war and plenty of lore, intricately detailed environments and history to get lost in, highlighting Matsuno's keen eye for detail in his game worlds.  It also felt quite a bit like Baldur's Gate in some regards, with no separate screen for combat and action taking place largely in real-time with the ability to pause and give individual characters on the fly, as well as program their AI with the "gambit" system so that they would automatically recast buffers, heal when HP fell below a set threshold, and so forth, which greatly alleviated the clunky AI problem of games like Secret of Mana.  Zodiac Job System (later ported to the west as Zodiac Age) also addressed a few shortcomings of the original release, giving you twelve different license boards to shape character growth with and fixing a few of the more irritating elements of the original (in particular, how several of the rare items are collected). A great world to get immersed in and a creative reinvention of series norms; just a shame they didn't keep the same quality standards when XIII was being made. 

8. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (Level-5, 2005)

Dragon Quest wasn't an especially popular series in the west for a long while; it survived as a niche series in the NES era, but then missed two entire console generations (well, other than a late and little-advertised port of VII on PS1, but that game... wasn't very good), so when VIII was announced on the Playstation 2, nobody quite knew what to think.  However, under Level-5's banner the series stepped into a new generation in style, with colorful cel-shaded graphics, expressive character animations in cutscenes and combat alike, and even full voiceover; a very stark contrast to earlier games, which featured the bare minimum for animations and sound design.  The gameplay itself remains faithful to series tradition - turn-based battles and random encounters are still the order of the day - but having a customizable skill set for each of your characters, as well as a new mechanic in "Tension" (basically, storing up strength for one or more turns and then using it to buff up one of your moves) added a new layer of strategy. 

7. Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete (Game Arts/Studio Alex/Japan Art Media, 2000)

The second Lunar title on the PS1, which in turn was a remake of the Sega CD classic Lunar 2: Eternal Blue.  Like its predecessor, it was updated in fine fashion, with completely redone, beautifully animated cutscenes and graphics, gorgeously Remastered music, gameplay retooled to be more crisp, responsive and balanced (and thankfully, Working Designs did not add their own 'tweaks' this time around), and even some surprisingly well-acted voiceover to really bring the story to life.  And as per usual for a Working Designs release, it came in a nice custom box with some cool bonuses like a hardcover manual and packed in trinkets. A fine remake of a stellar Sega CD RPG, Eternal Blue Complete is a true treasure. 

6. Grandia III (Game Arts, 2006)

Grandia was another franchise by Game Arts that was brimming with charm and had some pretty innovative mechanics, letting you build your characters' stats by training up their magic and delay/cancel enemy turns with well timed attacks to give yourself an edge.  Grandia III definitely isn't the series' strongest in terms of story (in fact the story all but disappears around the midpoint), but the gameplay remains as amazing as ever.  Combat is refined to the nth degree here, letting the player launch and juggle enemies into highly damaging attack combos that look awesome to boot.  Being adept at blocking, evading and canceling enemy attacks is more important than ever, as enemies are also surprisingly tough this time around, using swarming tactics and targeting your weaker characters whenever they can to gain an edge. I really was excited to see a Grandia IV that would have kept this one's combat system while having an immersive story on par with Game Arts' other works, but sadly it hasn't yet happened.  Come on Game Arts, I'm waiting! 

5. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (Atlus, 2004)

Shin Megami Tensei was one of those franchises that looked like it would remain Japan-exclusive; its dark atmosphere and heavy religious symbolism (the second boss of the game is literally Jehovah Himself) made it something Nintendo and even Sega were seemingly afraid to touch.  Sony clearly had no such inhibitions though, and as a result, Atlus brought over several games in the series on their platforms.  Nocturne was their first major outing on the PS2, and what a game it was,; the heavy, dreamlike atmosphere, driving rock./metal soundtrack and striking visual style made it distinct and memorable right away, but the gameplay is where it really held its own.  It puts the player in the shoes of of a teenager-turned-demon and having him recruit followers, join a path and ultimately bring about change to the world by force.  It was also the first game to utilize the Press Turn system, giving you (and your enemies) extra turns for striking elemental weaknesses, ensuring that party composition was a crucial element of survival (especially on hard mode, where one turn can and will easily turn the tide and can easily push you to a game over). Grim, heavy, extremely tough and yet very compelling, Nocturne is still one of the franchise's best. 

4. Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000)

A PC classic and still probably the finest accomplishment of one Warren Spector (which is saying quite a lot as he's helmed a ton of amazing, groundbreaking titles), Deus Ex was a downright incredible experience in 2000.  Set in a dystopian future where terrorism is rampant and a deadly plague is killing millions, you play as the nano-augmented soldier JC Denton and tackle objectives in just about any way you wish - sneaking and using cloaking augs, going in guns blazing, and hacking security networks to bring them under your control are all tools at your disposal. The story was a great one too, blending science fiction, religious themes and conspiracy theories together into a surprisingly credible whole.  Between that and some amazing mods (Revision in particular is fantastic), there is a good reason this game remains part of a well-established gamer meme - "every time someone mentions Deus Ex, someone reinstalls Deus Ex." 

3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask  / Twilight Princess (Nintendo, 2000/2006)

We're doing a two-fer for this one, because while both games stand as high-quality entries in the Zelda franchise, they're both noteworthy for very different reasons.  Majora's Mask is arguably the strangest Zelda game ever made, upending several design tropes that had been firmly established by that point and expanding Link's array of moves massively with three new forms (Zora, Goron and Deku scrub), as well as a plethora of other masks that did everything from boost running speed to making scent trails visible.  The core gameplay was much different too, running on a looping three-day timer that required you to budget your time, and the overall atmosphere was alien and haunting despite the numerous recycled assets from Ocarina.  Twilight Princess, on the other had, was a textbook traditional Zelda, returning to the darker style of earlier 3D Zeldas after a foray into cel-shaded cartooniness with Wind Waker, and it took relatively few risks; however, it was so brilliantly designed and fun to play that you didn't mind that fact in the slightest.  Even so, it still snuck in some clever references to Ocarina, even improving on some of its faults (OOT's infamous water-themed dungeon goes from being one of the worst to being well-designed and fun here).

2. Xenosaga (Trilogy) (Monolith Soft, 2003/2005/2006)

Xenogears was a cult classic on the Playstation for its complex storytelling and anime-like presentation, but even its fans can't deny that it was a very incomplete experience - evidence of cut content is in abundance both in the in-game files and in the Perfect Works compilation, showing that the game was planned as a six-part saga that was chopped down to barely 50% of one.  Just a bit too ambitious for its time, but that didn't stop Tetsuya Takahashi from forming his own company and trying again on the Playstation 2 with Xenosaga.  Again, it tried for an episodic anime-like format and succeeds for the most part, which results in some very cool visuals, distinct characters, memorable writing, over-the-top battles... and cutscenes that can go on for upwards of thirty minutes at a time (though the sequels are at least slightly better about that).  Unfortunately,  company meddling also led to some baffling gameplay changes in 2 and the series being cut from a planned six episodes down to three, resulting in a very abrupt ending to most of its plot threads and having the trilogy end on a cliffhanger that probably will never be resolved.  But even with that, the great storytelling on display, as well as the top-notch presentation and polished design, make it a very worthwhile experience.

1. System Shock 2 (Looking Glass Studios/Irrational Games, 2000)

System Shock 2 is the final game Looking Glass ever contributed to before their closure, but man, what a game to go out on.  While mostly following in the first game's mold, System Shock 2 also expertly worked RPG elements into the mix, letting you customize your character with weapon skills, technical skills like hacking, repairing and researching enemy parts to deal extra damage to them, and even psionic powers that have all sorts of fun applications.  The game is a master class of suspenseful design, perfectly immersing you in the hopelessness of being on a derelict ship full of twisted creatures, armed with failure-prone weapons that have scarce ammo and barely any healing supplies, staying alive only by the grace of your wits and resourcefulness.  Its atmosphere is equally brilliant, with LG's trademark fantastic voiceover and sound design only compounding the eeriness and isolation; there's nothing quite as unsettling as being able to hear a dangerous enemy approaching, but not being exactly sure where they are.  A fantastic sequel to a groundbreaking game, System Shock 2 is not just the best RPG of the 2000s, but one of the greatest horror-action-RPGs of all time.