While I lap up – and subsequently complain about – ‘Top 10′ and ‘Game of the Year’ lists like most everyone, one thing that has always bothered me is the tendency of the necessary genre/platform squishing to force choices on the list-maker that leave you as a reader unsatisfied. So while you have already seen my ‘Best Games of 2007′ list, I felt hamstrung when it came to RPG’s … which is a good thing since it means that I feel there were so many good RPG’s released last year that they deserve more attention.
One note – because I only play PC and handhelds (GBA, DS & PSP), this list is limited to games on those platforms – in other words, I am drawing this list from the games I actually played this past year … and while that is a pretty darn big list, it doesn’t include something like Mass Effect, for example. This list isn’t necessarily in any particular order aside from my notations of what I consider the best games on a platform or overall … these are all just games that are either truly great or deserve attention for putting forth an idea that stands out – even if the game itself isn’t that great.
Overall RPG of the Year (and PC RPG of the Year): The Witcher (PC) – somewhere between the amazing writing, the great setting, the cool combat, the excellent characters, the 80+ hours to make it through, and more – it hits you. Here is one of the truly great RPG’s of all time. As mentioned in the review “amongst the great things about CDProjekt’s The Witcher are the brilliant setting based on Sapkowski’s novels; the depth, variety and novelty of the plot and quests; the wonderful variety of characters you meet around the game world and the interactions you have with them; the excellent graphics and music that terrifically convey a sense of presence in the world and the cinematics that help set the plot in motion; the exciting action-based combat that takes a bit to learn but is rewarding and satisfying once mastered; the tremendous role-playing opportunities present due to the deep skill system and character development possibilities; and finally the really great character of Geralt”. It isn’t perfect despite my ‘perfect’ score – there are some minor annoyances and the need for a PC with some serious hardware (not in the Crysis stratosphere, but still some beefy specs), but ultimately this is one of those games that will still be on people’s lips ten years from now as one of the great examples of writing and narrative in a game.
Indie RPG of the Year: Eschalon Book 1 (Mac / PC) – from my review “This single-player game has a story that finds you waking up in the wake of a disaster around you, with some clues what has happened to help drive your motivations. This is not a party-based game, you control the lone character you create (from the standard fighter, mage, ranger, rogue, and cleric classes) and customize them with specialized skills as you gain experience. The game features day and night cycles and is fully turn-based – this includes movement as well as combat. You can rest to regain health, but you need a big enough – and secure enough – area to set up your camp. The game looks good for an independent effort and is fairly good size – you can expect to spend a couple of dozen hours working your way through the story. Then you will return to play again with another character – because the game is so stingy with skill points that you really need to specialize, making each character build quite unique. This is an excellent game – one of the better RPG’s of the year – and has many fans of classic RPG’s waiting anxiously for Book 2!”.
RPG Expansion of the Year: Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer – Neverwinter Nights 2 has spawned some heated discussion in the RPG community, and many have been unable to play it due to the way-too-high system requirements. As a result too little attention has been paid to this excellent expansion; as I say in my review “while there is constantly a battle to fight, the story of your travels and adventures in the planes and Rasheman are the focus. The game forces you to into a difficult moral position by giving your character a ‘spirit hunger’ – you will lose energy and eventually face diminished attributes and possibly death based on whether or not you consume souls or siphon off spirit energy or try to fend off this hunger. The choice impacts your alignment as well, and plays significantly into how you become part of this unfolding tale. It is an excellent mechanic that forces you to think about yourself and your choices – no longer can you just rest ever five minutes to replenish health and spells. It is this innovative thinking and creative writing that make Mask of the Betrayer such an excellent game. Even if you skipped on Neverwinter Nights 2, I recommend that any role-playing fans pick this up – with Planescape: Torment-quality writing and characters and epic D&D battles, this is a blast of a gaming experience! “.
Handheld RPG of the Year (and DS RPG of the Year): Etrian Odyssey (DS) – if there was an award for ‘cutest looking little game that will kick your butt to the curb six ways to Sunday’ … this would win. It is really hard and unforgiving, and mixes old and new in a way that is really innovative – it is satisfying to handheld gamers, old-time PC gamers, and everyone else. As I ask in my review “is it a strange thing to call a game that will mercilessly kill you ‘charming’? Perhaps it is, but that is a feeling I associate with this game. The nice graphics, draw-your-own dungeons and sweet music playing everywhere all just draw me in immediately whenever I start playing. I love the challenge, the feel of the game, and the ability to lead a party and have my choices matter. I enjoyed the characters in town, the way they change and grow. But everything comes down to the dungeons in a game like this, and that is where Etrian Odyssey shines brightest – the balance of you against your environment is perfect, and the execution of making a massive dungeon that is challenging at all levels is simply sweet perfection.”.
PSP RPG of the Year: Brave Story: New Traveler (PSP) – This is a game that seems like it should break under the weight of all of the cliches it contains, yet somehow it works – and works well! From my review “Flaws and all, Brave Story: New Traveler is the best RPG so far on the PSP. Feeling fresh and familiar and hitting all the right notes in terms of technical details and storytelling, this is a memorable experience that has dozens of hours of fun ready for any Traveler ready to take the challenge. And if you have a PSP, it would be a shame to miss this one – it has apparently not sold well in Japan and has had little publicity for the releases in the rest of the world, so it is up to PSP owners to grab this one up and spread the word! “.
End of an Era Award: Final Fantasy VI Advance (GBA) – from my review “The history is the GBA is littered with excellent games worthy of buying a system to play – from Advance Wars to Golden Sun and many more, there have been plenty of reasons to get a GBA in the past. Even earlier entries in the Final Fantasy Advance series, such as the first two games of the series packaged into a single cartridge with loads of extras, have been worthy or buying a system if you haven’t enjoyed the experience before. And now, at the end of the GBA’s life, Final Fantasy VI Advance is such a game”. While it is just a port of an old game, it is perfect on the GBA, and is one of the best games ever to grace that small, robust system. What a great way to go out.
RTS/RPG Hybrid of the Year: Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings – Yes, there were others in the hybrid category. From my review “Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings picks up where Final Fantasy XII left off, as Vaan and Penelo take to the skies in their own ships to pursue their dreams as sky pirates. They immediately discover the mysterious Glabados Treasure and are transported along with some other friends to the floating islands of Lemure. It is then that Vaan discovers the treasure acts as a summoning stone and meets a powerful enemy who is ready to plunge the world into chaos. Everything about the game is very well executed – the graphics, sound and use of dual screens is excellent, and the controls are highly interactive and nicely done. Playing a RTS on the DS is a bit cramped at times and occasionally feels a bit like herding kittens, but the execution is as well done as I can imagine for the system. There are enough selection methods to keep everything flowing – and the missions are fun and engaging enough that you will constantly find yourself staying up too late saying ‘just one more mission’. An easy recommendation for anyone with a DS in their house!”.
Casual Meets Hardcore and Loves It!: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (PSP, DS, Wii, PC, PS2 & XBOX360) – Every version except for the Wii is worth a full price buy – as I say in my review “take a Bejeweled style ‘match 3′ game, come up with a load of variants on that concept, wrap a classic fantasy RPG story around it and what do you have? Possibly the best game of the year! Most genre-melding efforts fail to produce anything that fans of either genre enjoy, but Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is both a great puzzle game and a great RPG. The puzzle aspect is a simple variant on the jewel matching game that millions have enjoyed since Popcap introduced Bejeweled in 2001, while the RPG is an interesting mix of Japanese and Western styles, with a high fantasy setting and characters presented in a distinct anime flavor. This game was brought to the PSP and DS handhelds in early 2007 and has recently been introduced to the rest of the world in versions for the PC, PS2, XBOX360 (on XBOX Live Arcade) and Wii. All are essentially the same game we played back then but with a slight twist for the controls of each platform. The way in which the RPG and puzzle genres are combined in Puzzle Quest is truly inspired, and it’s also the reason that the gameplay is so addictive”.
Best Way to Waste Your Lunch Hour: FastCrawl (PC) – this is another of those ‘simple to pick up, difficult to master’ games – but don’t let that stop you from trying, because it is also a game designed to play through in a short time. As my review says “FastCrawl isn’t going to be the type of game that you will play exclusively for weeks on end – rather it is the game that you’ll fit into small slots of time amongst your other gaming. It will not confuse you or mess up your memory of characters or stories in other games – and it really doesn’t matter how long you set it aside before finishing a dungeon. Just a few minutes remembering your party and their equipment and capabilities and you’re ready to explore some more. This is the perfect casual role-playing game for fans of any genre – you get a nicely designed dungeon crawl that will fit your schedule and that leaves you anticipating your next quick trip through the dungeon”.
Another Great Indie RPG: Avernum V (Mac / PC) – from my review ” Return to the world of Avernum … this time coming from the surface! Avernum 5 is the latest in a series (see GamerDad’s review of Avernum 4) known for huge subterranean worlds, epic stories, tons of quests and combat played out in turns. Each entry in the series features a huge story filled with mystery, intrigue and twists. This time the story begins with an attempted assassination of the Empress by a rebel named Dorikas, who flees into the underworld of Avernum. Along the way you meet wonderfully realized characters (most of whom instantly distrust or hate you because you are from the surface) and situations, get involved in local disputes, take care of trivial tasks for small rewards, and explore the world looking for a fight. The open feel and seemingly endless possibilities in a game that is in many ways fairly linear really makes the game shine. You are rarely forced to do a task at a certain time, but the pull of the main quest keeps you on track better than many other games. “.
Best Tactical Strategy-RPG: Jeanne d’Arc (PSP) – What a great year for turn-based RPG-ish strategy games on the PSP, with the PSP port of Final Fantasy Tactics being greatly overshadowed by Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness and this gem. As I say in my review “the game features excellent turn-based combat featuring magic, special skills and a ’skill stone’ enhancement system that adds quite a bit to the flow of the game. Each mission is accompanied by up to four levels of cutscenes that integrate perfectly with each other and the game as a whole. As you continue through the game you will become more and more engaged with the characters and story, and you will be surprised by the various twists and turns the plot takes along the way. It is wonderful and amazing in a game that is focused on a series of tactical combat missions that you get such a wonderful story to carry you through the many hours you will play. It isn’t perfect – there is a certain simplicity to the combat based on only attacking on the ordinal directions, and some of the dialogue doesn’t flow very well, but in general it is a solid and fun game that you won’t want to put down until the very end.”.
Rogue-like in disguise: Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja (DS) – A ‘cute’ game with brutal difficulty and a foul-mouthed protagonist. A strange combination that works; as I say in my review “Izuna is a classic roguelike wrapped up in anime trappings. You come to a town and Izuna makes a mess of things, and you spend dozens of hours trudging through dungeons trying to set them right. The game is punishingly difficult and unforgiving as the difficulty ramps with each new dungeon. There is a talisman system that allows you to use items as spells, temporary weapon enhancements or permanent enhancements, but it is more difficult to use than it is rewarding. That quibble aside, the game is surprisingly good, but is definitely not for everyone – you need to enjoy abusively hard (but rewarding) games. If you do, if you really desire an updated dungeon crawler that will leave you wanting more, Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja is a great choice”.
Setting the New Standard: Titan Quest Immortal Throne (PC) – they USED to be called ‘Diablo Clones’ … now you can just call them ‘Titan Quest Clones’! Over the past couple of year no game – including the ‘spiritual successor’ – has done more to scratch that particular itch than Titan Quest and now the wonderful expansion. As I say in my review “Immortal Throne adds a ton of useful content including all new relic sets, dozens of new items, a new mastery and two entirely new classes of items. There are also hordes of new monsters to defeat on your quest to become the most powerful being in existence – and the best of all is that this stuff appears throughout the entire game, not just in the expansion area. The expansion area will take you about a dozen hours to complete, but the added content and new mastery are worth starting a new character and going through the whole game so you can gather up artifacts and enjoy all of the new additions. There are a few glitches, and the non-secure multiplayer is still a haven for hackers and cheats, but overall this is a very solid expansion that will reward you for all of the time you put into getting to the end of the game”.
Some Other Notable RPG’s of 2007
Coolest Old Idea Made New Again: Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground (PSP) take the excellent ‘old school’ concept of Etrian Odyssey (DS) and meld it with games such as Dungeon Keeper and come up with a really great idea – you build the dungeon and design it to attract the most rewarding monsters so you can keep building and getting to destroy more powerful monsters. The execution was pretty ‘meh’ but the idea is great – I hope that more companies take chances with concepts like this!
Best non-WoW Online RPG: Guild Wars: Eye of the North (PC) – Guild Wars introduced a new business model a few years ago, and expansions have been going strong ever since. This is the last expansion before the upcoming sequel and seems to work towards bridging the gap to the new game – but the new content is a blast all by itself! From my review “getting at the new content requires you to have reached the level cap of 20, and even at that level you will constantly be challenged – there is some tough new stuff here that really requires grouping with other humans rather than depending on AI controlled party members. There are new skills, loads of new story – and also a bunch of things that are pretty obvious tie-ins with the upcoming sequel. The major problem is that the game does nothing to the level 20 cap, so completing the various quests and storylines have little inherent incentive. Also, there is little done to enhance player-vs-player, so this expansion is really only for those looking for some cool new player-vs-environment action. But if you enjoyed the original game, have had fun with the expansions, and are looking forward to the sequel, you will be extremely satisfied by what you find. And if not, this was never intended for you anyway.”.
The ‘Other’ Great sRPG of 2007: Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness (PSP) – This could also win for ‘best PS2 port’ or many other things – it is a great game that deserves any recognition it gets. From my review “the game is centered around a young demon buy named Laharl who comes out of a two-year nap to discover that he was nearly assassinated, and that his father – king of the Netherworld – has died. This sets up your quest – you need to recruit allies, put power-hungry overlords in their place, and do whatever it takes to assert your dominion over all aspects of the netherworld. There are plenty of fun – and funny – cutscenes throughout; they tell the story, recap events, and generally keep things moving along. Once you get into the heart of the game – combat – you will find this a deep and satisfying tactics experience. It is much friendlier and more accessible than Final Fantasy Tactics, but don’t mistake that with ease or simplicity. There is loads of replayability in addition to the 100+ hours you will spend conquering it the first time. This is the sort of game that is fun yet serious, deep yet accessible, and one that you will want to keep within easy reach of your PSP. It was great on the PS2, and it remains great on the PSP – with enough new stuff that even if you have already played it you will have plenty to keep your interest. Wait – you’re still here? Go, get on, and go buy it already!”.
Best Cell Phone to DS RPG Port: Orcs & Elves (DS) – this isn’t perfect, being too short and too limited … but it is loads of fun! As I say in my review “My best definition of Orcs & Elves is a turn-based fantasy hack-and-slash dungeon crawl. This is not an epic game with loads of options or possibilities – indeed replaying is all about repeating the fun rather than getting much of anything different out of the experience. But you are likely to want to replay – because while it is a limited game, it is very well done and loads of fun. The sequel has already been released on cell phones and expands upon the original game, allowing much more customization and freedom of choice while sticking to core gameplay that makes this one work so well. Orcs & Elves is a solid game that knows exactly what it is trying to do and accomplishes that very well, making it easy to recommend to anyone who owns a DS (especially since it has already seen a price drop to coincide with the cell phone release of Orcs & Elves II), but definitely not the sort of game that would warrant buying a DS to play”.
Coulda Been A Contender Award: Two Worlds (PC) – Any review in which I mention ‘Dungeon Lords’ twice is not likely to be very positive. As I state “Yet in spite of these, Two Worlds is a game that was a joy to play and that I have gone back to repeatedly – it is just plain fun. There are plenty more negative things I could list out – especially if you are playing this on the XBOX360, which suffers through poor framerates and laggy multiplayer. In fact, the less said about the multiplayer in general, the better. Ultimately this game has plenty of positive and negative elements, and whether or not you like it depends on how much you buy in to the positives – and how well you can ignore the negatives. It holds up poorly to critical scrutiny due to the many elements that compare badly with those from games that obviously influenced Two Worlds. Yet once you figure out how to ride a horse, how to control spells and how to manage combat this becomes a fun game that holds many hours of interesting encounters. As of the 1.5 patch – the release version for the XBOX360 and much of the English-speaking world – the game is stable and relatively bug-free. It is not an easy recommendation – unless you were able to enjoy Dungeon Lords despite the flaws I would recommend caution and waiting for a bargain price”. This is a shame since there was so much potential there – many of us liked it much more than Oblivion, yet it is a game that we would never recommend to the core audience of that game. Lets hope that the sequel releases in better shape!
Wow … what a great list of games. And to think it only represents the non-console world. There are a bunch of possibly great RPG’s and sequels and expansions due out this year – from Fallout 3 to Dragon Age to Eschalon Book 2 to Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and beyond. 2008 looks to be another great year for RPG’s coming from all directions – major PC and handheld releases and sequels and expansions as well as a load of indie efforts will keep role-players busy during the year ahead!