If you are like me and want a good story to be told in the games that you play, odds are that you are drawn to RPGs. Since they tend to feature hours of dialogue, lots of choices and branching stories which take 50-100 hours to clear, the RPG you choose might as well be a good one. Hell, why not one of the best RPG games there is?
Maybe you are here because you are RPG curious, maybe a friend talked you into trying it out just this once, or maybe you became lured by all the RPG hooks that permeate so many other genres in this industry. Whatever your reason, we are here to help you select the best RPG around.
Our list of the best RPGs, which is in no particular order and limited to one game per franchise, is a smattering of games across platforms and eras, but all of them will give you a great experience with hours of fun gameplay.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Wild Hunt is simply a phenomenal game. Its graphics are stunning and the craftsmanship that has gone into it is staggering. You can almost taste the fog as you ride to the ghoul’s nest in the early morning. All quests are entertaining and offer both challenges and great writing. Imagine a game as big and expansive as Skyrim, but with no bad quests, no empty fetch tasks and with an engaging combat system.
Its only real shortcoming is the progression system; it just feels a bit claustrophobic and a step down from the previous game. That said, there are so many other points that completely blows the competition out of the water. For instance, the Bloody Baron quest could be a whole game by itself with its twists and turns and horrific, yet sympathetic characters.
Play if: You like a good story arc and enjoy well realized characters.
Avoid if: You need your battles to be turn based or dislike the sometimes grimdark tone of this series.
2. South Park: The Stick of Truth
Being the only good South Park game is an achievement in and of itself, that it is a decent RPG also is almost astonishing. Full of references from almost all seasons of the long running series, Stick of Truth is bold, filthy and funny. Made in close cooperation with the series’ creators, it captures the look, feel and sounds of the show excellently. In your quest for The Stick of Truth you suffer abuse from Cartman and battle everything from school bullies to Nazi cows and scrotums; typical South Park stuff in other words.
Gameplay wise, it is something of junior’s first RPG: it does a great job with introducing a lot of mechanics and systems that are a staple in the genre but for veterans it can become a bit too easy after a while. So, an appreciation for the source material is essential to keep you going through the story.
Play if: You like a game that will ease you into RPG mechanics.
Avoid if: You can’t stand South Park.
The Souls games take one-part RPG, one-part Devil May Cry, and adds a pinch of rogue-like, stirs it vigorously and lets it bake on medium heat for 3 years. It is much more a game of pure skill with its level 0 runs, than say, The Witcher 3 is. That said, the sense of place and the building of an intriguing world with mysterious characters that these games have could rival any RPG. No other game made by FromSoftware has more atmosphere and a better realized world than Bloodborne.
Bloodborne takes place in the city of Yharnam during an event called ‘The Hunt’: a period when hunters roam the streets looking for werewolves and other creepy crawlies to fight. It starts out as a 18th century horror novel, a la Dracula or Frankenstein, but soon shifts gear to become Lovecraftian cosmic horror. And it does this really well; out of the many video games that have been inspired by H.P Lovecraft, I feel that Bloodborne is the one that captures his mix of ancient cults and things that you must be insane to believe, let alone see.
Bloodborne plays much in the same way as Dark Souls but with an added emphasis on going on the offensive instead of turtling. It also simplifies your inventory with a reduced number of weapons, but instead gives the weapons different forms, like the Kirkhammer which is both a giant maul and a swift sword. This game is beautifully designed, it has combat that is fair but very difficult and it just might drive you insane. And what’s not to love about that?
Play if: You like relying on your own skills more than stats and if you are interested in cosmic horror.
Avoid if: Men in top hats and the risk of losing hours of progression freaks you out.
4. Final Fantasy 6
Before we had the PlayStation and Final Fantasy was still dating Nintendo, the crowning achievement of the series was undoubtedly Final Fantasy 6 (released as 3 in the west, Japan was complicated back then).
It had a diverse and interesting cast and the game is full of iconic moments like the first, and to my knowledge only, playable opera scene and a plot where the maniacal villain get to win in a serious and dramatic way. You could also see hints of the tone the series would eventually take, with a moody intro in which mech suits are plodding through a dark, snowy landscape as its iconic music plays. Terra’s theme is arguably the best piece of music in the whole series and earns a place on this list alone.
There are simply a lot of things this game does for the first time or in a much better way than any other game at the time or perhaps since. You don’t really have a main character through Final Fantasy 6, the developers were instead confident enough to let you jump around between many of the strong characters and allow them to take equal amount of space.
Play if: You like JRPGs with interesting characters and a good story.
Avoid if: You are pixel averse or can’t accept a bit of dodgy translation.
5. Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition
Up next, we have something of the granddaddy of computer RPGs. It takes the formula from the first game — big open areas, unforgiving and sometimes outright unfair combat, iconic characters and interesting questlines — and improves upon every point. The game world in Baldur’s Gate 2 is vast and full of trolls, kobolds and dragons to battle or, sometimes, strike a deal with.
It is one of those early RPGs where your stats and character progression matters, something that is largely sandpapered away in today’s games. If your charm and speech is high enough you can literally beat the last boss without fighting him at all. Since the level cap is more than doubled, you gain access to some of D&D’s more interesting spells and skills and you clearly see what a weak pup you were in the first game. The Enhanced Edition gives you better graphics and smooths out some of the bugs that were present back in the day.
Recommended for anyone who likes a good, hard RPG that is like reading a reasonably good book. Not recommended for people with time restrictions or who is a completionist. Seriously, my first playthrough took almost 200 hours.
Play if: You like long sprawling RPGs with lots of text and countless of characters to meet.
Avoid if: You are short on time or can’t deal with the somewhat dated graphics.
6. Icewind Dale II
Baldur’s Gate’s slightly younger and a bit cooler cousin. The Icewind Dale series lacks some of BG’s depth in story and characters but makes up for it with a more expanded battle system and the ability to create your own party from scratch instead of premade options.
It offers a much more robust and serious challenge to your tactical skills and you will probably have to take to some sneaky tactics. Like, say there’s a room you haven’t been into: better bombard it with fireballs and poison clouds before peeking inside. The setting is also different, forgoing the lush European styled lowlands of Baldur’s Gate for snowy and harsh mountains filled with angry barbarians and rowing Yetis.
Play if: You like to create your own party from scratch and enjoy a challenge.
Avoid if: You like games that focus more on narrative and characters.
Ah, Tyranny, a game with a premise as unique as it is rare in the gaming world. What if the evil lord won and you play as one of his ambitious and power-hungry lieutenants? This is what Tyranny explores in its good, but somewhat hamstrung story. Made by Obsidian Entertainment, after they kickstarted the modern revival of isometric RPGs with Pillars of Eternity, it is clear though that most resources went into developing PoE 2: Deadfire, and Tyranny feels like it ends just as it is about to begin for real.
What is there, though, still offers hours of fun exploration and gameplay, with a narrative that hints at things rather than explain everything outright. You play as one of the lawyers of the overlord and are sent into a rebellious region to bring order and stability (peace is relative). I would have loved to see a real sequel to this game that explores some of the mysteries that it lays out, but since Obsidian seems to have split with publisher Paradox, it seems unlikely at this point.
Play if: You want to play for the bad guys for once.
Avoid if: You want your stories to state things clearly and tie up any loose ends.
8. Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition
The Infinity Engine (the engine powering Baldur’s Gate and many other RPGs of the time) train keeps a rollin’. Planescape Torment has arguably the most interesting premise of all these old isometric RPGs. You play as a nameless character who evidently is immortal. Each time you die, you wake up and lose part of your memory. It is a bit unusual in that you play through the game without much of a party for a long time. While Icewind Dale is the snazzy hip youngster of the family, focusing on combat and tactics, Torment is more of the older uncle that likes to read and watch black and white Italian movies.
There is a lot of reading and the story is the focus in this game. The main characters immortality plays into the gameplay and you can do some pretty nasty stuff in your playthrough. Sure, cut me open and dig around in my organs to see what is wrong with me, why don’t you. You also get to travel to some memorable planes of reality, like a hell world with flesh pillars or a dimension of mind flayers, making for good variety and nightmare fuel for 10-year-olds.
Play if: You like to take your RPG stories slowly and with a lot of thought.
Avoid if: You can’t stand protagonists that look like a dried-out piece of parchment with dreads.
9. Persona 5
The Persona games are probably the games that win the prize for style in any genre or medium, ever. The series is about teenage students that must balance school and social life with banishing demons and solving murders. Persona’s strength is in how it deals with serious and adult themes in a decent manner, while retaining a juvenile sense of fun and shenanigans.
As someone who has worked as a teacher for Japanese high-schoolers for several years, it is eerie how spot-on some of the things these games tackle are. Although I did not spot any comically long nosed limo drivers, nor any demons. Admittedly, I haven’t been everywhere in Tokyo at night either. In the Persona games, you get to see mysterious gods and demons while also cramming for the exam next week. It is as silly as it is fun.
The graphics are great, the sound and music are fantastic, and the battle system is snappy and engaging. It is a game that will keep on introducing new and interesting characters for pretty much its entire run. That it is almost fully voiced also helps keeping you focused on the story and gives it that nice air of anime drama.
Play if: You are into light philosophical conundrums and Japanese culture.
Avoid if: You are anime averse or don’t like dating your high-school friends.
10. Deus Ex
The first Deus Ex was a fantastic game, period. Now go and play it. Even before its full release, I spent hours upon hours running through the demo; The possibilities seemed truly endless in this game and I would constantly find new ways of reaching the goal. In truth, the possibilities weren’t quite so endless but still, a great deal bigger than their sequels managed to pull off.
You play as J.C Denton, a cybernetically enhanced government agent who over the course of the story uncovers Illuminati conspiracies, travels to Area 51 and steals money from unsuspecting ATMs. Deus Ex is a game that promotes player choice and there are always multiple ways of tackling a problem, if you have the stats or the gear for it: a thing that the modern installments of the series tries to evoke, but never quite reach. Today you can pick it up for a song and a tap dance and with mods, it can look decent.
Play if: You like government conspiracies, cyberpunk and games that give you multiple ways of advancing.
Avoid if: You hate the first Unreal Engine, freeze over too many choices or can’t stand cybernetically enhanced Germans with bad accents.
11. Chrono Trigger
For many, Chrono Trigger is the definitive JRPG, and it is easy to see why. Designed by Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame, Chrono Trigger features time traveling, ancient mysteries, changing allegiances and evil sentient meteors, all packaged in Toriyama’s iconic character design that really lends itself well to what the SNES can do.
Chrono Trigger is a shining example of how cooperation can bring this medium to greater heights. Made by the greatest minds of Enix and SquareSoft (before they merged), it is one of those games that will forever pop up on any list of the greatest games of all time that is worth its salt. Innovations such as the ability to avoid battles, and fights that didn’t have to warp to a separate battle screen, stood out at the time.
Today it is the music, the surprisingly dark story and the lovely anime graphics that makes this title worth returning to over and over.
Play if: You have any love for 16-bit graphics or the SNES sound chip.
Avoid if: You can’t stand Toriyama’s character designs or the sci-fi/ fantasy mix.
12. Mass Effect 2
Ah, the Mass Effect games. Seldom has a series gone from such high praise to being so shunned. There will be courses using Mass Effect as an example of how to successfully run a franchise into the ground and salt the earth for future generations. But before its downfall it was one of the greatest RPG series’ ever made.
Mass Effect 2 toned down the RPG elements in favor of more fluid action, making it significantly easier to play. This time around, you really felt like Shepard was the badass action hero he was supposed to be. It is a very polished game and the craftsmanship is nothing less than impressive, cleaning up a lot of the predecessor’s bugs and UI problems.
You return in the role as Shepard and together with a motley crew of aliens and humans, it is your job to find out where the Reapers, ancient synthetic lifeforms that seem all but immortal, are and what they ultimately want. This time around, you have left the Spectre organisation and work for the shadowy Illusive Man, the criminal mastermind that was alluded to in the first game, and you will have to decide where your allegiances ultimately lie.
Full of planets to explore and interesting characters to meet, Mass Effect 2 is a true gem from the last generation. Though, it is a pity that they decided to fix the Mako from the first game by just removing it.
Play if: You like a good space opera, and who doesn’t.
Avoid if: You want more tactical decisions in battle.
13. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
Speaking of Mass Effect, the genealogy of that franchise goes in a straight line back to BioWare’s debut sci-fi series. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords relies on a Dungeon and Dragons system and is actually completely turn-based, though it does a lot to hide this fact. This pushes the gameplay further towards hardcore RPGs, and things like leveling up your party in a decent manner becomes far more important than in Mass Effect.
The true king of the KOTOR games is its interesting story, it bends and breaks many rules and expectations of what Star Wars is. There are even some winks and nods in The Last Jedi to what happens in KOTOR 2 and how it sees the Force.
Made by Obsidian, it comes as little surprise that the writing in this game is especially good and this game is truly full of memorable characters, many who were sadly cut from the game upon release. Though, with the restoration mod that was released a few years back, the game is finally in a complete state for you to enjoy.
Play if: You are a Star Wars fan that is here for both story and lightsabers in equal measure.
Avoid if: You can’t deal with a turn-based battle system, however concealed it might be, or don’t like Star Wars.
14. Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire
Do you like gorgeous 2D painted backgrounds? Do you like a deep and varied progression system? Do you like engaging characters and an interesting story? Then the sunny islands of Deadfire have something to offer you, swabby. Deadfire is everything a Kickstarter success should be, it delivers exactly what it set out to do and then some. Hours upon hours of well-acted dialogue accompany you as you sail across the treacherous seas of this fantasy Caribbean archipelago on your fully customizable ship.
Is it epic? Well, if chasing after a god to hold him accountable for wrecking your home is not epic, I don’t know what is. You go from nail biting ship-to-ship combat to difficult tactical land battles with pirates, giants and everything in between. You get to commune with the gods and explore ancient pyramids full of traps and ghouls. There is almost something for anyone in this game.
Deadfire more than winks and nods back to Baldur’s Gate and its ilk, it treats you to tough combat and lots of spells to cast. Fair warning though, it will steal towards a hundred hours of your life if it gets its claws in you.
Play if: You like isometric RPGs with gorgeous graphics and a well fleshed out world.
Avoid if: You need next gen 3D graphics or spending time considering battle formations just isn’t your thing.
15. Divinity: Original Sin
The Divine Divinity series is an odd one to say the least. Starting out as a Diablo clone, the series has had both open world titles as well as strategy games throughout its timeline. Recently though, the Original Sin games have been their focus, bringing it back to more familiar RPG shores.
Original Sin has an excellent turn-based combat system that borrows a lot from games like XCOM, and these battles are an absolute joy to play. Elemental effects are of great importance and combining them is the key to success when fighting the many monsters you encounter throughout the game. For instance, it is always a good idea to soak enemies in oil before using fire spells on them or to douse them in water if you cast lightning.
Sure, the system is prone to being cheesed a bit (stacking barrels in the way of enemies is a classic) and the story is not that memorable, but the goofy world and the combat alone makes up for it. Plus, did I tell you: you get quests from cats, dogs and even a teleporting water well? So, what’s not to like?
Play if: You like tactical combat that makes use of its environment and promote creative use of in-game objects.
Avoid if: You want your fantasy games to take themselves seriously and not goof around.
16. Dragon Age: Origins
Before Kickstarter money made developers able to truly revive the isometric CRPG, BioWare tried on their own with Dragon Age: Origins. It was designed to harken back to the games that made BioWare famous, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 and Neverwinter Nights.
They largely succeeded in terms of gameplay: Origins took most of the elements of the old games and married them to a graphics engine that could deliver a more cinematic experience. You still had large AoE spells and positioning did matter in battles. But the parties were smaller and you didn’t have as many options as in Baldur’s Gate.
Unique for Origins was that you got to choose and play your origin story. Normally, a character’s background was relegated to just being a menu choice; Origins changed that. Now you could fully play your background and the choices you make will determine how certain events and relations play out down the line.
Unfortunately, it seems that the game was only a partial success because its sequel was seriously hamstrung, and it was not until inquisition that BioWare got a chance to build anything as substantial again.
Play if: You like fantasy settings with a bit of court intrigue thrown in and stories about personal sacrifice for the greater good.
Avoid if: You can’t stand high fantasy settings or characters that are covered in blood, like all the time.
17. Legend of Grimrock II
First-person dungeon crawlers have had a rough go of it in recent years. I remember the genre being quite big back in the day, with games like Wizardry on NES and Might and Magic on PC. With the Legend of Grimrock games, the genre is seeing something of a renaissance.
While the first game had you escape a dark and claustrophobic tower, the sequel lets you explore an entire island’s worth of puzzles, traps and powerful monsters. The change of setting is very refreshing since (and perhaps this is my old-man eyes talking) the darkness was a bit difficult to navigate in the first game. Here you see sunny beaches, green forests and, yes of course, dark dungeons. The different locations add some much needed variety to the game’s graphics, which I find to be really great.
Grimrock is a hard game, both in term of its combat and its puzzles. Facing is very important and you always want to fight enemies in narrow pathways, so you can’t be surrounded by enemies. The puzzles are the kind that require you to take notes and mark things on the map for future reference and can be quite challenging at times.
Play if: You like a serious challenge with plenty of opportunities of screwing yourself over.
Avoid if: The notion of having to make your own notes is something that makes your skin crawl.
18. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
While Morrowind has the more interesting world and plot, and Oblivion has Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean, it is Skyrim that has the best complete package in the Elder Scrolls series. Plus, Morrowind is a very difficult game to go back to today (though I wouldn’t mind some mechanics making a comeback).
Even though the combat in Skyrim is as interesting as watching a dishrag dry, it is hard not to be impressed by the expansive vistas, the mighty mountains and the sheer volume of stuff that Bethesda packs into these games. I remember spending hours in one of the many cave systems that led to some old dwarf ruins. As I slowly made my deeper into the mountains, I realized that the world underneath Skyrim is almost as big as the one above ground.
Skyrim, together with some excellent mod support, will keep you busy for days upon days just exploring the fantastic world and finding new spells and weapons to try out.
But seriously, they need to make a new engine and rip out those old Oblivion guts next time around.
Play if: You like wandering around well realized worlds and exploring ruins and caves are up your alley.
Avoid if: You want combat to be, in any way, engaging.
19. Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas is, hands down, the best of the modern Fallout games. It offers the best mix of the edgy storytelling of the Interplay games, married to the new graphics and the open world design of the Bethesda games.
Obsidian is always a developer you can trust when it comes to writing and storytelling, and they do not disappoint in New Vegas. While it skirts around some of the more controversial aspects of the old games (you could become a pornstar and get date raped, for one) it does offer a world and a story with some serious choices to be made.
New Vegas is still plagued by the same problems as all Bethesda games are, but this time it is paired with a more fleshed out RPG and companion system which just gives you more to engage with. In New Vegas, stats will greatly affect the way you around problems and even how you solve the late game story missions. The combat isn’t overly exciting, but guns work much better with the system than the swords and axes of Skyrim, so at least there is that.
Sadly, Bethesda didn’t take much from this game as they moved forward with Fallout 4 and that game suffered for it.
Play if: You have always dreamt of walking around in a Mad Max world set in a futuristic 50s America.
Avoid if: You can’t stand that Bethesda Jank™.
Xenogears is the game that started the whole Xeno- game series that has seen a real upswing with Xenoblade on Nintendo platforms in recent years.
Xenogears is a real odd little game that breaks with a lot of tropes and expectations of the genre. The battle system is heavily influenced by fighting games: you create combos and learn new moves as you level up. Furthermore, it has a whole separate combat system when you pilot mechs. It is a lot to take in, but it is ultimately a rewarding system to learn.
Like most of this series, it is full of existential conundrums, lightweight philosophy and thoughts on theology. This kicks off quickly with your village being destroyed and a shadowy figure in a mech proclaiming: ‘So, it is you, the one who will kill god’ and it just snowballs from there.
Having great music and gorgeous 80s/90s anime cutscenes, the presentation of Xenogears is fantastic. Sadly, it suffered from troubles in its development and the back half is decidedly rushed. Still, Xenogears is a great game that should be in any JRPG enthusiast’s collection.
Play if: You have a soft spot for JRPGs with interesting combat mechanics and a comparatively heavy story.
Avoid if: You dislike anime or can’t stand characters discussing philosophical problems, like the nature of god.