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Baker’s dozen: the 13 greatest role-playing games of all time

Sharpen your swords, polish your armour – we’re here to battle over what deserves the title of the greatest RPG of all time.

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Greatest RPGs

Sharpen your swords, polish your armour – we’re here to battle over what deserves the title of the greatest RPG of all time.

The following chart has been compiled with contributions from Robin Valentine, James Sweeting, Monish Khemani, Eoin Bradley, Daniel New and Tom Baines. The list has been curated by Tom Baines and he has taken responsibility for the ranking, primarily to avoid fisticuffs among the team, but also because it serves his ego to be the arbiter of all things. If you don’t agree with the list then feel free to let us know on the comments, but please don’t get all bent out of shape about it – this is a very subjective thing, when all’s said and done!

13 – Chrono Trigger/Xenogears

Chrono Trigger box artEverybody knows that Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) make the Final Fantasy series. Even most of their other titles that aren’t part of the main series – Final Fantasy Tactics, Crystal Chronicles, Chocobo’s, Seiken Densetsu, even smash-hit Kingdom Hearts – all find some sort of basis in the Final Fantasy universe. While they have grown into distinct series of their own, to some they’re little more than spin-offs, another tendril of the amorphous blob that is Final Fantasy. You might be surprised to hear then, that Squaresoft has some other amazing titles under its belt, and we have the best of the bunch – Chrono Trigger and Xenogears – tied as the first entries in our chart.

The former is a fiendishly clever and well-structured role-playing game with time travel elements, and manage to successfully work in pretty much all of the major time travel tropes – paradoxes, timeline alteration – you name it, it’s in there, and it feels fresh and unique for a role-playing game even today. At first glance Xenogears is more your traditional resistance-against-an-evil-overlord tale, but portions of the story are heavily founded in the existential philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Jung. Plus, it’s got whopping great mechs called gears, that you build and upgrade and ride into battle!

So why am I only hearing about them now, you might be asking? Unfortunately, the popularity of the main Final Fantasy series managed to eclipse even these unrelated titles – with Chrono Cross being released for the SNES within one year of Final Fantasy VI, and Xenogears for the Sony PlayStation in between Final Fantasy VII and VIII – but they are amazing titles in their own right, and don’t deserve to be forgotten in the mists of time.

12 – The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Daggerfall box artYou think Skyrim is a big game, don’t you? By some rudimentary mathematics, we can calculate its map is around 37 square kilometres. Fallout 3 and New Vegas are both around 41 square kilometres. Shall we go bigger still? GTA V is around 78 square kilometres. OK, let’s stop messing around. Just Cause 2 is just over 1,000 square kilometres. That’s cute, but The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall’s map is approximately 100,000 square kilometres. To put that in a little context, that’s roughly the size of South Korea or Iceland. You could fit Belgium into Daggerfall three times over, and still have room to spare for a handful of Luxembourgs.

Simply put, Daggerfall is the biggest finite size game there has ever been, and probably that there ever will be. Sure, it was released late, and it had a few game-breaking bugs (dungeons you couldn’t escape from and the like) but it was epic on a completely unprecedented scale. It took the idea of the Roguelike and mashed it together with a first-person Action RPG and made the biggest game ever, and it’s this kind of Daggerfall ambition from Bethesda Softworks that leads to us having the likes of Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas now. We can’t wait to see what comes next.

11 – The Souls (series)

Dark Souls box artMonish had the following to say, on why his soul has been captured by the Demon’s/Dark Souls franchise:

I was a sceptic, like some of you reading this, I should imagine. It took me quite a while to even consider playing Demon’s Souls. I got the game in early 2012, played for a while, died a lot, and back inside the box the game went. I resumed playing – determined to finish it – a year and a half later, and it did something to me then. It possessed me such, that I would soon visit my nearest store to buy Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition and would eventually pre-order Dark Soul 2 and Bloodborne – my only preorders. Ever.

In creating the Souls games, From Software have inadvertently modified the way their own titles are approached by the consumer. In this age of aggregates, reviews and review scores don’t matter much to the Souls games, because while hardened fans of the series would play these games regardless, some gamers are not even willing to try them – in spite of the sterling reviews – all because of the infamous difficulty.

These games break many conventions, not just with the difficulty of play but with the manner in which they refuse to spoonfeed the player. They have lore that stays hidden behind item descriptions and secret conversations disclosed only to the most dedicated, have NPCs with mysterious intents that react only to certain actions, they have items that stay mysterious months after the game is out.

All of this lies in wait to be discovered by those still veiled in scepticism. All these wonders of Boletaria and Lordran, of Drangleic and Yharnam beyond a chasm of difficulty which in reality is just a test in perseverance, skill and patience. Once you cross this seemingly impenetrable – yet quite artificial – barrier, we shall wait for you on the other side, and together we shall Praise the Sun (or the Moon, if you favour Bloodborne).

10 – The Witcher (series)

The Witcher box artBasing their work on the stories of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, CD Projekt have created the mature, medieval-fantasy world of The Witcher – Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf – an albino mutant monster-hunter who provokes fear and mistrust in everyone he meets. Questing around the Northern Kingdoms, rubbing shoulders with everyone from kings and sorceresses to brickmakers and whores, Geralt meets corruption, duplicity and political manoeuvring at almost every turn. And monsters at all the others.

A defining feature of the series, The Witcher games have always excelled at presenting players with tough choices throughout. But never your typical video game choices of black or white; of good over evil. Decisions are rarely clear cut, presenting pros and cons on both sides, leaving players to determine their preferable shade of grey. Unforeseen, far-reaching consequences are usually the result, either way.

We find here a richly detailed world, filled with a diverse mix of intriguing and entertaining characters; a satisfying combat system, augmented by solidly implemented magic, alchemy and crafting for added depth; fantasy tropes with a slavic-slant… all these elements combine to form a truly unique game that treats its players with an uncharacteristic amount of respect for the genre. The Witcher is one of the best RPG series around today – one that is only going to get better with age.

9 – The Legend of Zelda (series)

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess box artThere is only one role to play in a Legend of Zelda game. That of Link, the Hero of Time. Whether you are traversing dimensions, vast oceans or time itself, your role is the same, to restore the balance to the world and more often that not, defeat the evil Ganon.

Each Legend of Zelda title is a retelling of the same story. The video game equivalent of a fable or campfire tale. It’s the ultimate hero’s journey, the legend of small boy who left home and saved the world. 15 times.

Against this repeating story Nintendo’s imagination and creative chops run riot, creating intricate dungeons, glorious vistas, and sprawling puzzles for Link to negotiate. Rather than magic and numbers, the series trades on mechanics and reaction. The best Zelda games test brawn and brains in equal measure, and often at the same time. In those moments, when your ingenuity and skills collide to successfully overcome a challenge, no series is better at making you feel like a hero.

Can The Legend of Zelda be considered a true role-playing series? Save Hyrule just once and ask yourself who else you would rather be?

8 – Final Fantasy IX

Final Fantasy IX box artFinal Fantasy IX is the best title in the main Final Fantasy series. The gameplay mechanics are a finely honed instrument representing the absolute peak of the craft (before everything Final Fantasy began to change for the worse, to favour the Western audience); the story is beautifully worked and charmingly written; and the visuals… titles that have followed may have had higher resolutions and pushed more polygons, but Yoshitaka Amano created the most beautifully realised role-playing world that we have ever seen. Bar none.

In fact, Final Fantasy IX is hands down the best role-playing game that Squaresoft/Square-Enix have ever made. It might seem counter-intuitive then that it is only number eight in our list and has two other main-series Final Fantasy titles above it, but context is crucial in the importance of a title, particularly in a long-running franchise.

When Manchester United (strange metaphor, stick with it) won their first Premier League title with what amounted to little more than a youth team, it was seen as a freak occurrence. When they won it a second time, it justified the first title and proved it wasn’t a fluke. Every subsequent title after that just wasn’t as remarkable, it was more a case of “here we go again,” and that’s unfortunately how the truly amazing Final Fantasy IX fits into the series as a whole. It’s “just another success”.

Also, that’s all I know about football. Oh, except “the trouble with Arsenal is, they always try and walk it in.” There, now I’m done.

7 – Mass Effect (series)

Mass Effect box artAll three titles in the Mass Effect series are excellent games in their own right, and the combined story that spans the three games (and accompanying novels) is one of the most memorable of any video game series.

The series places a huge emphasis on the relationship with your crew, especially in Mass Effect 2 where the ending depends on them – there is an endpoint that you are constantly working towards – yet it makes sense why you are able to deviate and take part in extraneous tasks, as ultimately they might aid you when you feel ready to face the final challenge. It is these relationships and the fact that they carry over across games that make the series so much more personal than any other. Garrus might be most people’s bro, but what about Legion? His role with Tali in Mass Effect 3 was potentially one of the hardest decisions that you will ever come across in any game.

For our James, a real bonus is the role of galactic politics in the series, a complex and well-executed extension of the faction mechanic that is prevalent in most role-playing games:

After around 20 hours into Mass Effect 2 (with minimal breaks) I was starting to take the politics of the Council and the disputes between the different alliances a little too seriously. When you are studying on a Politics degree at the same time can be a bit problematic as the two were starting to blur into one.

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.