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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

21 Best RPGs of the Decade (2000-2009)

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

HM. Kingdom Hearts (Square Enix, 2002)

A bizarre crossover for sure, Kingdom Hearts took the worlds of Disney's numerous animated features and crossed them over with elements of Final Fantasy in an action-RPG gameplay style.  So you team up with Goofy and Donald and venture around in a modular ship made of blocks, battling your way through numerous worlds against the forces of the Heartless, and gradually unlock new spells and keyblades to power up as you go.  You even face off with a lot of the familiar Disney villains as major bosses, gain access to various Disney heroes as allies and summons, and enjoy a surprisingly captivating story with a fun sense of humor throughout it all.  The sequels added new gameplay twists and a running storyline that only got more convoluted and silly as it went on (with the Disney element ironically being downplayed more and more in favor of original characters and Final Fantasy themes), but the original is a nostalgic favorite and still one I come back to today.  I'd say play one of the HD versions on PS3 or PS4 nowadays, though, as the HD upgrade really does compliment its charm and they add in some new content to more closely tie it in to the later games.

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. Suikoden V (Konami, 2006)

Suikoden III was lauded for its storytelling but criticized for its drastically changed (and somewhat clunky) gameplay, while Suikoden IV attempted to go back to basics but had a mediocre plotline overall.  V was, to many, a return to form, telling the story of a country embroiled in a civil war, with its prince-in-exile trying to restore his family's rightful rule.  It's easily my favorite of the PS2 Suikodens with its brilliant characters, strong narrative and gameplay that feels like the original PS1 titles, yet expertly blends in elements of the newer games without becoming overwhelming.  It's not without its faults - some just-passable visuals and music and an annoying encounter rate being the biggest ones - but it's a fine entry to the franchise.  Shame it was also the last proper Suikoden game...

19. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (Capcom, 2003)

Another underdog in the RPG genre, which is just a bit shocking as it's built on a franchise that saw several highly acclaimed entries on the PS1 and Super Nintendo.  Dragon Quarter is an unconventional game in many ways, combining elements of strategy games, JRPGs and even a touch of survival horror with its limited resources and emphasis on replaying the game to unlock new content.  In fact, replaying the game a few times is required in order to see the end, as you likely just won't have enough experience or time to make it through the many difficult bosses on your first visit; thankfully, the game is built for just this, letting you restart at any time while retaining your equipment, items and unspent experience points.  Surprisingly fun and challenging once you know how it operates, Dragon Quarter is an inventive, entertaining game that got a bum rap it didn't deserve.

18. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Bethesda Softworks, 2002)

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 randomly rolled "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) that was rarely seen before.  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 directions to key locations, but that didn't stop Morrowind from becoming a fan favorite whose popularity remains strong even today. 

17. 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. 

16. 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! 

15. Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, 2008) 

Valkyria Chronicles was a slow-burn success for Sega; it didn't get much attention at first, but after the launch of a tie-in anime and a serious lack of good exclusive RPGs on the PS3 in its early days, people came back to it in droves.  It only saw further success upon being ported to the PC, becoming the top-selling game on Steam the week it launched (beating out big names like Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty). A well-told tale of a continent-spanning war in a relatively modern, low-fantasy setting, it drew fans in with its wonderfully realized characters, a relatively unique setting, themes of prejudice and humanity and some surprisingly inventive gameplay that melded real-time and turn-based elements together.

14. Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (Infinite Interactive, 2007)

The textbook definition of a surprise hit, Puzzle Quest basically came out of nowhere and quickly became a phenomenon. Ingeniously blending a match-three puzzle game with turn based RPG mechanics, you pick a class, match colored icons to build up Mana and either match three skulls to deal damage or use your skills to bolster your character or hinder your opponent.  As the game progresses you earn new equipment, and after reaching a point in the story you even unlock a fortress to research new powers and can even lay siege to cities to bolster your revenue.  There's a pretty decent story to it too, so they clearly put a lot of work into the game in every detail.  The Xbox 360 version adds in some new classes and content as DLC while the Switch release adds even more, making that the definitive version to play nowadays.

13. 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 biggest 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, brilliant voiceover, 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.

12. 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 brought 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). 

11. 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. 

10. 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. 

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

Super Mario RPG proved to be a big hit on the SNES, though Square has 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 successful 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. 

8. 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. 

7. 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 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. 

6. 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 final boss of the second 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.  

5. Final Fantasy IX (Squaresoft, 2000)

While Final Fantasies VII and VIII brought in many new fans to the franchise and helped put the Playstation 1 on the map, they left a lot of long-time fans of the franchise disillusioned for abandoning nearly every familiar element of their design.  The ninth entry was Square's attempt to address that, combining the cinematic and graphical capabilities of the PS1 with gameplay, aesthetics and design much more reminiscent of the 8 and 16-bit entries.  The end result was in a way the best and worst of both worlds, with a lot of the familiar job classes, abilities and overall balance returning, but still a lot of overlong spell animations, tedious minigames and a lot of lengthy, unskippable cutscenes and FMVs.  Regardless, though, Final Fantasy IX did its job, charming fans of both Final Fantasy worlds and providing an RPG experience that easily ranks among the system's best.

4. Dark Cloud 2 (Level-5, 2003)

One of the first RPG released on the Playstation 2 was Dark Cloud, a game touted as a "Zelda Killer" by Sony despite the fact that the two really played nothing alike (and Dark Cloud lacked much of the polish of the game it set out to "kill").  Dark Cloud 2, however, was a significant overhaul to the gameplay, streamlining it in some respects (from six playable characters to 2, though each now wielded two weapons as well as a special ability), giving it more polish, and just a sheer amount of content with things like challenge medals, minigames, high quality voiceover and a much more colorful, cel-shaded palette on the whole.  A long, but satisfying adventure with a constant sense of fun and wonder throughout.

3. 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, which looked and felt a bit dated by 2001 standards), 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.

2. 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." 

1. 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).