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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

21 Best RPGs of the Decade (2010-2019)

Same rules as the last three lists: Only one game per franchise, and it still has to be fun today.

HM. Indivisible (Lab Zero, 2019)

This one pains me, because while it is a solidly-built game with some genuinely funny dialog, fun characters, inventive gameplay, fantastic visuals and very memorable music, it's also the victim of behind-the-scenes drama that prevented it from living up to its full potential.  Friction on the team led to a protracted development cycle, a lot of planned content being trimmed or cut entirely to hit a deadline, and owing to further nonsense by its lead dev (including sexual harassment allegations and various other unsavory happenings), the studio was very abruptly shuttered, with all the planned DLC and guest characters abruptly canceled.  So while Indivisible is still a solid, fun game, it's frustrating to see that it likely won't ever get a chance to live up to its full potential.  Still, a game worth playing for fans of creative action-RPGs.

21. SaGa: Scarlet Grace Ambitions (Square Enix, 2019)

I certainly wasn't expecting SaGa to have much of a foothold in the west again after Unlimited Saga got such a poor reception and Romancing SaGa's remake bombed in terms of sales, but Square's really gone all-in with localizing it in recent years.  It's gotten a slew of ports and remasters spanning various platforms and they even brought over Scarlet Grace, the series' most recent entry and arguably its best one yet.  Retaining the series' open-ended and exploration-based design, it has a pretty slick combat system where manipulating turn order plays into strategy - not just getting in moves before your opponent, but if you knock them down the timeline and two of your allies' icons touch, you can do a combo attack and really rack up the damage, as well as reducing the cost of actions on later turns.  Another oddball game in an oddball series, but for those with a love of quirky and inventive mechanics in their RPGs, Scarlet Grace Ambitions is a fun time.

20. Kenshi (Lo-Fi Games, 2018)

A game that was in development for a whopping twelve years before its release, but the effort paid off as it ended up being a fun and relatively unique experience.  While somewhat reminiscent of games like Elder Scrolls with its open-ended exploration and granular character building, its interface is more akin to a real-time strategy game - you recruit characters, assign them into squads, and give them various tasks to whatever end you wish - building up your base, mining resources, growing food, or engaging in battle with hordes of bandits and monsters.  There is an interesting backdrop and plenty of bizarre lore to uncover, but no set storyline - you're just dropped off and left to your own devices, able to become a paladin for the Holy Nation, a sword-for-hire, a warlord looking to overthrow the kingdoms, or whatever else you wish.  Characters can (and frequently will) lose limbs, you can be captured by slavers and have to make a daring escape, and all sorts of freakish monsters and factions are out to get you, and facing them is the only way to get stronger; training in camp will only get you so far.  It may be a bit too slow-paced and grindy for some, but Kenshi is a compelling and unique game with depth and complexity that only the PC platform could provide.

19. Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (Falcom, 2016)

The Ys games saw a pretty big revival in the 2010s, with nearly every game in the series getting a port or remake across numerous platforms (though 5 still frustratingly remains a Japan exclusive as of this writing).  The series became party based as of Ys Seven, but VIII was where it really began to stand out.  The series' hallmark of intense action and awesome music remains, but it's all built around the framework of the party being stranded on a desert island, slowly finding other survivors (which unlocks new features at home base and grants access to new areas) and gradually uncovering the secrets of a lost civilization known as the Eternians.  There's even a pretty fun actiony minigame where you have to defend your home base's barriers from increasingly dangerous waves of monsters, getting buffs from all the NPCs you've recruited so far throughout.  It may not be the most widely-revered RPG series there is, but there's a good reason the Ys series has been ongoing since the '80s and shows no signs of stopping - it's great!

18. Final Fantasy XV: Royal Edition (Square Enix, 2016/2018)

Final Fantasy XV is a game with a famously long and troubled production, beginning nearly a decade before as a Final Fantasy XIII tie-in before eventually becoming its own thing, and even the trailers showed quite a lot of scenes that were ultimately trimmed down or cut from the final version.  It's still a somewhat rough experience in its final form too, with uneven design quality, some chapters being extremely linear and others having more of an open-world feel, letting you explore, complete quests and partake of minigames at your leisure.  However, I think it shines on the merits of its strong writing - the characters in XV are honestly some of the best-written the series has ever had, with some very memorable interactions and a sense of chemistry that was largely absent in prior entries.  The journey they're all on is a very personal one, and the way they overcome the trials before them and grow close to become unshakable friends and allies is honestly really inspiring, making it one of my favorites in the series from a writing perspective.  That, plus some astonishing visuals and incredible music, make it an unforgettable journey in spite of its gameplay not being the greatest (though it is substantially improved in the Royal Edition, so play that version if you can).

17. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (Level-5, 2018)

The original Ni no Kuni was an acclaimed title for good reason, taking the character designs and interpersonal reactions of a good Ghibli film and putting them into an open-world RPG with monster-collecting elements.  Strangely Ni no Kuni II is its opposite in almost every way, though - whereas the original had great storytelling but just-alright gameplay, Ni no Kuni II has a rather generic story and characters but its game design is much more varied and inspired.  Based heavily around crafting, recruiting characters, building up your castle and partaking of battles both party-based and larger in scale (somewhat like a light real-time strategy), it's basically Dark Cloud by way of Suikoden, which is definitely no bad thing in my book.

16. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (WayForward, 2016)

Shantae is another series that got a new lease on life in recent years, with a string of highly-acclaimed sequels starting in 2008 with Risky's Revenge.  Half-Genie Hero is the one that really drew me to it, though, taking the charming characters and colorful world of Sequin Land and really bringing them to life with some brilliant 2D animation; some of the best I've ever seen, in fact.  The gameplay was somewhat reworked from earlier games, though - rather than being an open world Zelda-styled adventure, it opted for a stage-based format a la Mega Man X, with the player having to return and replay stages to unlock secrets later on once they got new forms and powerups to try out.  However, the tight design, fantastic presentation and some unique twists on the gameplay (including getting to play as Shantae's friends for the first time through DLC) made it a standout game, and still my favorite to date in the series.

15. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (Artplay, 2019)

Konami used the 2010s to torpedo just about all of their popular IPs, so Koji Igarashi seized an opportunity to capitalize on fan demand and announced a spiritual successor to the Castlevania format with Bloodstained.  It had a somewhat troubled road to release, with some announced ports (Vita and Linux) being canned and the release of a buggy demo to backers getting people very skeptical, but I'm glad to say that the end result was a very satisfying one.  With another large castle to explore, being able to customize your character with shards (similar to the Soul system from Aria of Sorrow) and a pretty well-realized crafting system, Bloodstained provides the depth and polished feel of a high quality Metroidvania.  Iga brought back the format he helped to popularize in fine fashion.

14. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (Square Enix, 2010)

Serious RPG fans know that Yasumi Matsuno is someone with a passion for deep mechanics, dark storytelling and dense world-building - after all, he brought us games like Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, which were all highly acclaimed for those very things.  Tactics Ogre on PSP is a remake of the SNES and PS1 classic, and it brings it to a new generation in fine form.  The class system is reworked so that most are now equal-opportunity for characters of both genders, and a couple new ones (like rogues) are added into the mix.  One can now explore all the different paths the story can take without having to create a new save every time, and one can even rewind battles up to 50 turns so that you don't have to redo 40+ minutes of work whenever a fight goes south (though you can't use it to savescum, either - the game knows well enough to give you the same result if you try doing the same action repeatedly).  Even the rewritten script is well-done, feeling like a well-written medieval fantasy script and not going artsy to the point of being farcical (COUGHwarofthelions). 

13. Yakuza 0 (Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, 2017)

Yakuza's been around since 2005, but it never really got much attention in the west until pretty recently; Sega adamantly refusing to promote it and the resulting mediocre sales made it a pretty low priority for them, even if it did gather a very dedicated fanbase.  However, the launch of a prequel game after five sequels (!) gave them the opportunity to finally get new fans on board, and Yakuza 0 also happening to be one of the best games in the series certainly helped.  Not only does it immerse you in the series' gritty crime drama and over-the-top action, but it showed off the series' appeal in fine style, giving you tons to do in the form of sidequests and minigames that play up the series' more playful and irreverent side.  Proof that sometimes a good prequel is all you need to breathe new life into a series.  Oh, and the fact that they've since rereleased every mainline game in the series on modern platforms so people don't have to shell out to scalpers on eBay probably helped too.

12. Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age Definitive Edition (Square Enix, 2019)
Dragon Quest XI was a game that had a lot of hope pinned on it, as Square Enix was unimpressed with sales for DQ games in the west and any future localization efforts would hinge on how well XI sold.  However, it ended up doing quite well, as while its core gameplay remains relatively unchanged from all the others across the series' 30-year history, the sheer amount of polish in its design, the charming writing and the A+ presentation won it a lot of fans regardless.  This only got better with the Definitive Edition, which added in tons of postgame content, an orchestral score that sounds utterly fantastic and even some added challenges for those that felt the base game was too easy, giving even the most die-hard gamers plenty to enjoy.  Dragon Quest is a franchise that remains unapologetically old-school at its core, but also stands as proof that you can add in quality-of-life improvements, high-quality graphics and gorgeous music atop that and still keep the appeal intact.

11. Divinity: Original Sin II (Larian Studios, 2017)

Larian's been making RPGs for a while, but none of them really appealed much to me; they mostly just looked like inferior copies of other games (and judging from the mediocre reviews most of them have gotten, that's a pretty accurate assessment).  Divinity Original Sin was supposed to be their big breakout game, but it didn't do much for me either; the inane dialog, cheesy voiceover and tedious, repetitious combat took me out of it pretty quickly.  However, they finally got things right with the sequel.  Combat is used much more sparingly as is much tighter designed, encouraging the player to experiment with all the tools they're given and combine them in some pretty inventive ways - throwing around oil or poison to set aflame, dousing fires to create steam clouds that enemies can't see through (and which you can channel lightning through), summoning monsters, teleporting enemies into hazards you set up, and so forth all make combat extremely fun and rewarding.  Even the writing is much better, with a simple but effective story and some clever bits of writing (and your choices throughout actually affecting the story in pretty significant ways).  Just a brilliant, deep, incredibly fun and rewarding story-driven experience that I've rarely gotten out of western RPGs since probably the early 2000's; well done, guys, well done.

10. Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Intelligent Systems/Koei Tecmo, 2019)

Like the previous two entries on this list, Fire Emblem was on the ropes for a time, with Nintendo threatening to cancel the series entirely owing to declining sales.  However, Awakening for the 3DS ended up becoming a surprise hit (selling nearly four times as many copies as its predecessor), which gave Intelligent Systems a golden opportunity to make it a staple for a new generation of RPG fans.  Three Houses was another bold step forward for the series, taking in some elements of the Persona franchise by letting the player build bonds with their party members between all the training and battles - not only a great way to keep their morale up and let them grow as characters, but to unlock their full potential and really let them shine in future battles, which is something I always love in games like this.  A title that's worth checking out even if you've never played a Fire Emblem game before, as it puts a brilliant new wrapper on the same core gameplay that made the series popular in the first place.

9. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017)

A long-delayed, heavily-hyped Zelda game (gasp!) that finally saw a release in 2017, and it was very much unlike anything Nintendo had done before.  A sprawling open world with some surprisingly sophisticated mechanics and polished design, Breath of the Wild pretty much just gives you some tools and sets you out on your own, encouraging you to use them in clever ways - creating ice pillars to use as platforms or defensive barriers, lighting fires to create an updraft, then riding it up with your glider to rain arrows on enemies from above, or even using logs as rocket-sleds to cross huge tracts of the map all at once are all things you can do, and that's just scratching the surface.  There's plenty of intended fun too, with some surprisingly smart enemy AI, tons of hidden secrets and puzzles to solve to earn powerups, but the focus on emergent gameplay and letting you make your own fun sets it apart from virtually every Nintendo game that's come before it.  Maybe not the best for those who enjoy the more tightly-designed, dungeon-focused Zeldas, but a pretty brilliant open world adventure.

8. XCOM 2 (Firaxis Games, 2016)

XCOM is a classic franchise, melding elements of business sims, turn-based strategy and character building together in fine fashion.  The 2012 remake was pretty good, though it felt a bit shallow in comparison to the original classic for DOS.  2016's XCOM 2, however, is a brilliant new turn for the series and probably my favorite overall.  Set in a grim future where XCOM was defeated relatively early in the war and the aliens have successfully integrated themselves into human life, you (as XCOM's old commander) are freed from captivity and set out on a guerilla campaign to expose their evildoings and reclaim the earth before it's too late.  It really does feel like an uphill battle too, as you're constantly having to deal with limited resources, facing dangerous threats with underequipped units (particularly early on) and having to constantly weigh your options, deciding which of several choices (all of which you really want) will benefit you more in the long run.  Just getting your foot in and managing to turn things around is a challenge in itself, let alone stopping the aliens in the long run, but it's that glimmer of hope against all odds that keeps you playing.  The PC version is even more brilliant, with a plethora of mods that add new classes, mission types and other fun stuff to the game.

7. Torchlight II (Runic Games, 2012)

The original Torchlight was a pretty fun take on the Diablo format (from several of the devs who worked on that franchise, no less), but its long-term enjoyment factor was hampered by a lack of online co-op.  Torchlight II addresses that and so much more, becoming one of the best action-RPGs of all time in the process.  There are four new classes to play with now and numerous way to customize them to your liking, each character gets separate loot drops (negating the need to argue over who gets what after felling bosses),  and some other great conveniences are added too - you can send your pet back to town to sell off junk items and even bring back potions for you to keep the action flowing, and you can even recover gems from item slots (by destroying the item) or do just the opposite, destroying the item to get your gems back.  A ton of great mods exist as well, adding new classes, areas and rebalanced gameplay to the mix, and you can even play online with friends using them (though you have to be sure to sync up all the mods you have installed first).  Just an amazingly fun experience all the way through.

6. Shadowrun: Dragonfall/Hong Kong (Harebrained Schemes, 2014/2015)

Shadowrun on SNES was a cult classic, taking an open-ended CRPG style of design and releasing it on a console with surprisingly good results.  Harebrained Studios created a followup to that style of design years later with Shadowrun Returns, though the series really came into its own with two sequels - Dragonfall and Hong Kong.  Both games really play up the grim setting, setting up some wonderfully crafted mysteries and blending in the franchise's dark fantasy and cyberpunk elements in fine fashion, giving you numerous ways to complete objectives.  Even its playable characters are delightfully complex, fitting in some levity with their own grim tales and twisted humor, which makes taking the journey with them all the more fun.  

5. Dust: An Elysian Tail (Humble Hearts, 2012)

I always love a good indie success story, and for my money, Dust: An Elysian Tail is one of the best.  Self-funded and developed, animated and designed by a single developer over a period of three-and-a-half years, the end result is a gorgeously-animated metroidvania with combat that feels like a lighter version of Devil May Cry, letting you launch and juggle enemies with combinations of sword strikes and spells to rack up damage and get bonus experience points.  Don't be fooled by the cute Disney-esque aesthetic, though, as it's a surprisingly grim and dark story, facing themes of genocide, loss and coming to terms with one's own sins, all told with surprisingly good writing and voiceover.  Proof that talented indies are, and always were, where the true heart of gaming is to be found.

4. NieR: Automata (PlatinumGames/Square Enix, 2017)

Yoko Taro was always known for writing some emotionally heavy and downright bizarre games, but they were almost always accompanied by gameplay that was mediocre at best, relegating them to cult classic status.  Automata got PlatinumGames on board, though, and the gameplay saw a massive improvement, providing the same fast-paced, intense action that quickly became their hallmark.  So now you get a game that's great on both fronts - a grim, strange and oddly compelling storytelling experience (compounded by some brilliant acting throughout) and some surprisingly strong gameplay to back it up.  A fantastic soundtrack too.  Basically, just a total package for a must-play experience.

3. Persona 4 Golden (Atlus, 2011)

Persona 3 was a pretty innovative game for the time, reinventing the Persona franchise as a creative blend of life/school sim and dungeon crawling RPG and letting you improve your characters' abilities as you helped them grow as people - a pretty great concept.  Persona 4 took the idea even further, letting your characters' improvements carry over into battle (allowing them to block attacks, learn new moves and even powering up their personas at max level).  Golden only took the concept further, adding in many new scenes, more social links and some creative new battle mechanics, creating the definitive version of the concept and, for my money at least, the best Persona game to date.

2. Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015)

A game heavily inspired by the SNES cult classic Earthbound (in fact, early versions of it were actually mods for that game), but it soon took on a life of its own and became one of the most inventive, fun and emotionally moving RPGs of all time.  The cast of characters is fantastic, with a lot of great, funny dialog and emotional scenes, and the way you interact with them is entirely up to you - if you're a nice guy you can befriend everyone and win without ever killing a single monster, or you can be a total jerk and eliminate everybody on your way back home; entirely up to you.  The combat mechanics tie into this perfectly too, having you evade enemy attacks through a minigame where you avoid projectiles, do some runner-style obstacle evasion or block incoming projectiles with an adjustable shield, which get pretty intense as the game goes on.  Some gorgeous stylized graphics and fantastic tracks round out the package and make Undertale a modern classic that deserves all the praise it's gotten.

1. Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian, 2010)

Fallout's revival was met with a lot of skepticism from long-time fans, myself included, and while I think Fallout 3 was still a pretty good game, it just lacked the punch and sense of freedom that made the Interplay/Black Isle games so memorable.  New Vegas saw much of the original development team return, and sure enough, they did right by the franchise they pioneered, bringing back the vast amount of depth, choice and sharp humor that made Fallout so great.  Centered in the Mojave during a complex battle between the NCR, Caesar's Legion and one Mr. House all looking to cement control over the region, the player is dropped into the middle of the war and given the freedom to shape its outcome however they wish, aligning with any of the three factions (or none at all) and working their way to becoming a legend of the wasteland.  It is admittedly hampered a bit by the creaky, aging Gamebryo engine (and even after numerous patches, it's still pretty buggy), but I was having too much fun exploring the dense Fallout universe to care.  A brilliant experience that only gets more fun every time I play it, and easily one of my favorite games of all time.