The 15 Best RPGs

Role-playing games have come a long way from their tabletop origins. What started with pens, pencils, and dungeon masters moved to 8-bit characters wandering forbidden forests and crawling through dungeons. RPGs will always have a place in the top tier of video game genres, and the current generation of consoles is no exception. With everything from deep-space exploration to futuristic societies to fabled mythology to, well, more dungeon crawling, there's an RPG out there for just about anyone.

We've made this list to help out anyone looking for their next favorite game. Does The Witcher 2 pop up on this list? What about Infinite Space or Dragon Quest IX? More importantly, which one should you play first? We've wracked our brains to answer these important questions for die-hard fans and rookies alike. Find out what tops the list by clicking through our exclusive feature of the 15 best RPGs of this generation.

15 | Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together | PSP

It always warms our collective hearts when we see a quality title get the attention, care, and exposure it so deserves, even if it's been a while since it original release. Take Tactics Ogre, for instance -- an influential strategy-RPG from famed game designer Yasumi Matsuno, and the precursor to Final Fantasy Tactics -- which saw a fantastic re-imagining from Square Enix earlier this year.

Joining Persona 3 Portable and Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions in continuing the fine trend of outstanding RPG ports on the PSP, Let Us Cling Together's engaging wartime narrative, timeless gameplay, and outstanding English localization make it an essential entry for on-the-go gamers.

14 | Torchlight | PC, Mac

Torchlight is an action-role-playing game/ dungeon crawler with an impressive pedigree. Runic Games boasts some impressive talent on their team, including two designers who worked on the iconic Diablo series.

Full of beautiful environments, tons of baddies, and an immense amount of loot, the game is an adventurer's wet dream. The level of customization on your character (and eventually, your pet) gives players the feel that they're having a unique adventure that was built for them. The random dungeon maps help ensure replayability, as does the ease with which you can transport to and from town. It's easy to want to get lost in Torchlight's depth, and despite an almost non-existent story, it's an exceptionally immersive title.

13 | Demon's Souls | PS3

One of the most innovative games to be released this generation; this dark, beautiful RPG is renowned for its creativity and its difficulty. You are a lone warrior trapped in the underworld, battling demons and trying to survive against overwhelming odds. Other players can be recruited to help fight with you, against your foes; but in the right circumstances, hostile players can also invade your games and kill you.

The unique online component is what helps Demon's Souls stand apart, along with its lonely, moody atmosphere and intense duals. You will die often; but attaining victory here is more satisfying than any game released this generation.

12 | Xenoblade Chronicles | Wii

Normally, we wouldn't review a game that most of the staff doesn't have the chance to play, much less promote it so high in our "best of" list. But the fervent passion of those few who have gotten their hands on it is enough to convince the rest. You can play the game in English, but there's currently no American version planned or announced. While that's great for importers who want to avoid having to play a lengthy, text-heavy game in also means you have to have a European Wii to play it.

But what makes this Japanese RPG stand out from the rest? For one, it gives you a massive world to adventure and explore in. No invisible walls or loading screens to hold you back -- if you can see it, you can walk there. It's not that it does many things differently, it just does everything incredibly well; it's the ultimate refinement of what many people complain is a genre that's gone stale and lifeless.

Whether you're a Final Fantasy fan, or you've never ventured past the Western RPGs of Oblivion and Fallout, it's almost impossible not to fall in love with Xenoblade Chronicles. We don't think it's hyperbole to quote our reviewer when he says, "It's not just the best RPG of this generation, but one of the best games I've ever played." The only reason it's not higher on the list is because not enough people have played it yet.

11 | Pokémon Black & Pokémon White | DS

Pokémon Black & White, meant to be a fresh start for the series, isn't a game where you can simply pack up your last game's team and steamroll the hapless world of trainers in the new Unova region. Instead, you have to start from the bottom, with over 150 new Pokémon waiting in the wings for battling, capturing, and trading. And the scenery isn't the only new thing, as this series revamp has better graphics, new features, and tons of after-game content that makes this RPG a major investment.

Surprisingly, Pokémon Black & White is more mature in several ways, most of all, the main story. While you're still playing the role of a bright-eyed adventurer out to become a Pokémon Master, the journey is complemented with the intriguing story of Team Plasma, a Pokémon rights group that insists humankind unfairly enslaves and subjugates the titular creatures. Once the main campaign is wrapped up, though, there's still whole other worlds to explore inside and outside this DS game. Now, Pokémon Black & White supports infrared communication, letting players trade and battle without an Internet connect. And with the Internet, players can expand their game in the Pokémon Dream World, developer Game Freak's online portal where players can meet and capture Pokémon with special abilities and other surprises.

10 | The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion | PC, PS3, Xbox 360

The fourth installment in Bethesda's fantastic series of open-world RPGs, Oblivion is all about freedom of choice. You can travel through the huge world on foot, on horseback, or through "fast travel" that sends you from one location to another, and adventure lurks behind practically every hill, in every forest, and in every city or village. You can forge down the main story or take as much time as you want pursuing smaller quests, and while Oblivion has numerous character classes, you can mix-and-match many abilities, like swords and sorcery. The game is all about choice, and with two expansions (Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles, and both can be found in the Game of the Year edition) and mods for the PC, you can spend hundreds of hours with this game.

9 | Valkyria Chronicles | PS3

Great Japanese RPGs are hard to find on platforms like the PlayStation 3, but Valkyria Chronicles is one of them. Sporting some of the most beautiful graphics on the PS3, the war for Gallia plays out like an anime series, complete with individual episodes and a large cast of characters.

But what helps Valkyria Chronicles really stand out is the strategy involved. Teams must be assembled from a variety of different soldier classes, which each play out like a strategic puzzle. The soldiers comprise a wide variety of colorful characters, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, it's that sort of character that helps Valkyria Chronicles stand out. And did we mention that it's gorgeous?

8 | Persona 3 Portable | PSP

Anyone that's made it through the gauntlet of adolescense that is high school is no doubt familiar with its many trials and tribulations: fitting in, finding a group of like-minded friends, dealing with awkward teen romances, fighting off apocalyptic forces of evil hell-bent on scorching the earth's surface and wiping out all life... Oh, to be young!

Persona 3 Portable takes Atlus' outstanding third entry in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona franchise and shrinks it down into a slick, streamlined package that many consider to be the game's definitive version. Not only does P3P make exploring Iwatodai a much less time-consuming affair, but it introduces a novel new twist in the form of a playable female protagonist, complete with her own unique social links and romance options. P3P remains a stellar entry in the PSP's library, and one of the best role-playing games available on Sony's handheld.

7 | The World Ends With You | DS

Taking place almost exclusively in a parallel pugatory-like dimension of Shibuya, Tokyo, The World Ends With You starts off as a particularly grim mystery. The main character Neku finds himself trapped in the "Reapers' Game," and only by shelving his apathetic teenage attitude can he restore himself back to life. Working with other "players" in the game, Neku has to learn not only how he died, but how he can help his fellow players Shiki, Beat, Rhyme, and Joshua escape the Game.

Aside from its decidedly dark subject matter, The World Ends With You futher separates itself from the RPG pack with a very unique art sytle and combat system. Designed by Kingdom Hearts creator Tetsuya Nomura, the game's fashions, buildings, and general art are modeled right from the streets of real-life Shibuya. But the real gimmick is the combat, which requires players to swipe, stratch, draw, trace, and flick their DS stylus across the system's touchscreen. Through a variety of difficulty tweaks, players can power down (or up), giving "The Noise" an advantage in battle, but bigger loot drops. With all that innovation and talent, The World Ends With You is still one of the most finely designed DS titles around.

6 | Dragon Age: Origins | PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Mac

Bioware invites you to jump into a world of elves, dwarves, and grey wardens. When an army of darkspawn ravages the land and slays the king, you're tasked with rallying the armies of elves, dwarves, and men in a quest to both overthrow the king's betrayer and stop the archdemon from conquering the world.

Bioware knows how to create a compelling universe. Even though high fantasy has been done to death, the magicians at Bioware have carved out an original story that feels fresh while still touching on familiar fantasy tropes like dwarves and magic.

In this action/strategy/role-playing game, you'll take control of a mystical grey warden and three other party members in an epic quest that takes you from elvish forests to dwarven mines.

The combat is full of strategy and has some brutally challenging segments, requiring you to micromanage your parties' tactics and really push the game's capable AI. The tactical choices aren't limited to the combat, either: not only can you customize your character's look, class, and weapon list, but the race and background you select has a major impact on the story. Even minor characters from the "origins" arc found at the game's beginning play a role in impacting later events. Moral choices about who lives and dies (not to mention what side-quests you take) have major repercussions for the end game.

The cast of characters in Dragon Age: Origins are also diverse and interesting, meaning that you must really put thought into how your decisions will affect their approval. For a game as long as Dragon Age, you need a strong mythos and a compelling set of characters: and Origins has them in spades.

5 | Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies | DS

The ninth game in the Dragon Quest series is also the best RPG to ever be released on the Nintendo DS. For the first time, it's possible to create a unique hero, and join together with other players in tackling the game's myriad challenges. Dragon Quest IX also pioneered "tag mode," making it possible to earn maps via the wi-fi connection just by walking down the street.

Even with all the innovation, the world of Dragon Quest IX will be comfortably familiar for veterans of the series. The turn-based combat is solid as ever, and a wide variety of classes makes the customization more interesting than ever. For both longtime fans and newcomers, Dragon Quest IX really is the best of all worlds.

4 | The Witcher 2: Assassin's of Kings | PC

The Witcher 2 is a third-person action-RPG that focuses on the story of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher (monster hunter) who becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to kill kings, a peasant rebellion, and a cabal bent on seizing power and ruling the region (along with rebuilding his shattered memory).

The game features a great deal of swordplay, but use caution: Your foes gang up on you, flanking you and using all of their abilities against you. Your magic comes in handy, though combat remains difficult. And CD Projekt Red, the game's developer, has a 2.0 version in the works with better tutorials and also offers free DLC and no DRM (if you buy the Steam version, you have Steam's DRM). And it's coming to the Xbox 360 soon!

3 | Deux Ex: Human Revolution | PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Mac

In the not-too-distant future, cybernetic enhancements are a reality. Human augmentations are a controversial topic, and groups will stop at nothing -- including murder -- to reach their goals.

You play as Adam Jenson, the head of security at Sarif Industries, one of the leading developers of human augmentations. When Sarif's best scientist (and your lover) are killed by mercenaries and you're left for dead, you are involuntarily augmented to be kept alive.

What follows is a cyberpunk thriller that allows you to play the game how you want--you can take out targets from a distance, or avoid them altogether with superior stealth or hacking abilities. Maybe you're a pacifist who can avoid bloodshed altogether or maybe you want to be a heavily armored terminator. Regardless of your choice, Deus Ex gives you a great playground to jump into, loads of choices (both tactical and narrative), and an overall aesthetic that is distinctive. Like many good modern RPGs, the game appeals to both casual and "core" audiences. You can obsess over the augmentations you choose, investigate every nook and cranny in the game so you pick up every clue and scrap... or just treat the game as a more nuanced FPS. The choice is yours.

2 | Fallout: New Vegas | PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Say what you will about the Fallout franchise, but its "post-apocalyptia-by-way-of-Leave-it-to-Beaver" charm and tongue-in-cheek tone make it one of the most enjoyable, explorable dystopias out there. With the RPG vets at Obsidian Entertainment on development duties, New Vegas not only builds on everything established by 2008's Fallout 3, it also manages to recapture and then expand on the sense of knowing fun that was so tangible in the series' first two installments.

There's an insane amount of content packed into New Vegas' expansive world, and in true Fallout fashion, the faces you'll come across are some of the most unique to crop up in this console generation. True, it may not be the huge advancement that Fallout 4 hopefuls are clamoring for, but it's still one of the franchise's best entries to date, and a must-own for HD-gen RPG fans.

1 | Mass Effect 2 | PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Mass Effect 2 is one of those rare video games that almost defies genre classification. Although the RPG elements of upgradeable weapons, skill trees, and role-playing as a customizable Command Shepard are all there, it's undeniably as much of a shooter as Gears of War or Call of Duty. But what makes Mass Effect 2 so memorable are the roles of your crew, and how they fit into the team.

Although Mass Effect 2 is more action-focused than its predecessor, it smartly carries over all the choices you made in the first Mass Effect. Every dialogue choice and plot-specific decision deliberately changes events in the game, so that playing as a Paragon or Renegade has actual implications for your team, your character, and upcoming narrative conclusions in Mass Effect 3. It's been one of BioWare's most effective video game stories to date, and the influences from other stellar RPGs like Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are evident.

For so many elements to combine in such a uniquely polished game is a real testament to Mass Effect 2's status as 2010's best action RPG. For players to identify so fiercely with the cast (thanks in no small part to stellar voice acting from the likes of Jennifer Hale, Mark Meer, and Seth Green), it's a crowning feat for the studio. With the interconnected trilogy presenting a character arc and story-driven drama that rivals any other role-playing game, Mass Effect 2 has more than shown that it's an incredibly solid second act.

Honorable Mentions: Games that didn't quite make the "Top 15," but still rank as some of the absolute all-time best RPG games for the current generation.

Avadon: The Black Fortress | PC

Publisher Spiderweb Software works out of founder Jeff Vogel's basement (it's a three-person operation), focusing on games that embrace old-school RPGs. Avadon: The Black Fortress doesn't have HD visuals, glorious cutscenes, or fancy combat animations. It's a turn-based game with an isometric top-down viewpoint like Baldur's Gate or Diablo, but it has something many RPGs don't: a fantastic story, with plenty of choices for your character to make that actually have an effect on the tale. It may not be fancy, but if you enjoy old-fashioned RPG combat and a great story, it's worth your time.

Etrian Odyssey | DS

Etrian Odyssey is so classic in its approach to the role-playing game genre that it's practically DIY by today's standards. Throughout the DS dungeon-crawler, not only can you create your own characters by customizing their class and abilities, you're also tasked with the old-school RPG technique of mapping out the dungeons yourself with the use of the DS stylus. Because Etrian Odyssey focuses so heavily on these classic RPG elements (dungeon crawling, mapping, and turn-based battles), the game has oft been pegged as a classic RPG game most suitable for veteran, hardcore fans of the genre.

Final Fantasy XIII | PS3 and Xbox 360

Sure, FFXIII isn't anybody's favorite entry in the long-running Final Fantasy series, but Square Enix didn't earn their dominate place in the RPG genre for nothing. This is a standard RPG in some respects; you still battle by choosing commands and spells that play out for you on-screen. But this time, all of your companions act of their own volition. Unlike other modern RPGs, the story is straightforward and fairly linear, but as anyone who's played a previous Final Fantasy game knows, the heartfelt narrative is always one of the series' highlights. And we haven't even mentioned that this is one of the best looking games you'll play on any system.

Infinite Space | DS

Infinite Space brings the genre of RPGs into the infinitude of space and the tropes often found in the final frontier. Players design and control a space ship and explore the expansive in-game world that lies across two galaxies. All battles happen in real-time using the touchscreen, and there's even the potential for multiplayer battles using the Nintendo's DS's local Wi-Fi feature.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked | 3DS

Are you a fan of Japanese culture and strategy-RPGs? Then there are few better choices to satiate that portable gaming urge than this chapter in the SMT series. Set in modern-day Japan, this revamped version of the 2009 DS release includes full voice acting throughout and a special eigth chapter that continues on where the original game ends. And anyone familiar with the popular Persona RPG series will be familiar with the demon-fusion mechanics and character-heavy non-linear narrative. Even if the 3DS weren't starved for other RPG choices, we'd still highly recommend checking Devil Survivor Overclocked.


Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter