The best RPGs on PC can deliver hundreds of hours of adventure. Since tabletop RPGs first started getting the digital treatment, the genre has grown into an intimidating, massive beast. Many of the best RPGs you can play on PC are of the action variety, hailing from the explosive years of 3D RPGs like Oblivion. More recently, classic style RPGs like Pillars of Eternity with closer ties to their tabletop roots have seen a resurgence in popularity. Our list of the best RPGs on PC have something to scratch your roleplay itch whether you prefer fast-paced swordplay or more methodical turn-based games.
BEST OF THE BEST
(Image credit: CD Projekt RED)
The RPG genre is tough to boil down: by the most literal definition, every game is a role-playing game. This list represents our best definition of the canonical RPG—games that likely emphasize story; that let you inhabit a customizable character through skill points, inventory, and dialogue decisions; that include complex, controllable relationships with companions or non-playable characters. Drawing these kinds of lines helps us provide a better service to you, we hope—though we’ve made some exceptions where we think it’s worth it.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Need your RPGs to look their best? Here are the best gaming PCs right now.
Many of the best RPGs focus on tales of lone, wandering adventurers, but few if any pull it off it with such artistry as The Witcher 3. That artistry is most apparent in the setting itself, which is so packed with breathtaking sunsets and wind-tossed groves of trees that, months later, I still find myself opting to go to destinations on foot rather than taking the fast travel points.
But the true strength of The Witcher 3 is that it populates these memorable landscapes with NPCs doling out humble but memorable quests (by the dozen) that help create one of the most human RPG experiences on the market. In decaying wayside towns, the witcher Geralt might find impoverished elves struggling in the face of local racism; elsewhere, he might help a self-styled baron reunite with his long-estranged daughter. These quests deftly navigate moral issues without being heavy-handed or offering obvious solutions
Through it all, much as in The Witcher 2, Geralt usually plays the role of just another character on this troubled world’s stage. In the process, this tale of monster slaying and inter-dimensional raiders becomes strangely and poignantly relatable.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Outside of tabletop games, there are few RPGs that boast the liberating openness of Larian’s humongous quest for godhood. If you think you should be able to do something, you probably can, even it it’s kidnapping a merchant by using a teleportation spell and then setting fire to him with his own blood. Almost every skill has some alternative and surprising use, sometimes more than one, whether you’re in our out of combat.
You can enjoy this game of madcap experimentation and tactical combat with up to three friends, to boot, and that’s where things start to get really interesting because you’re not forced to work together or even stay in the same part of the world. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to work against each other. The player is always in the driving seat, and with four players, collisions are inevitable. Just remember: if you freeze your friends and then start poisoning them, at least apologize after.
Pillars of Eternity
There’s very little about Pillars of Eternity that’s actually innovative; in fact, its whole Kickstarter-funded existence is based on appealing to the nostalgia for aging Infinity Engine CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate II. That usually matters little, though, since Pillars of Eternity pulls it off so damned well.
The graphics lean a little too heavily on the 1990s, but the writing itself is masterful. Obsidian Entertainment uses it to weave a wonderful (if bleak and usually humorless) narrative that brilliantly touches on everything from religious conflicts to social struggles. It doesn’t hurt that Obsidian infused almost every step of the world with its own story and smidge of lore, and a new patch introduced hours of additional voice work that make the experience even more enjoyable.
It’s also brutally difficult in parts, and even its easier modes demand a dance of pausing and barking out orders to multiple party members that many contemporary of the best RPGs shy from. That’s not such a bad thing, though, as Pillars of Eternity is a stark testament that such unforgiving designs still have widespread appeal in this age of accessibility.
Release date: 2019 | Developer: Nine Dots Studio| Steam
Outward immediately disposes of the self-centered savior complex that we’ve become cozy with in so many action RPGs. While other heroes dispense of bandit camps before lunch and save the world in time for dinner, Outward sits you down and reminds you that no, you can’t just go out and slay wolves with no training. The types of fights that RPGs typically treat as tutorial fodder are genuine accomplishments in Outward.
To make matters worse, or better, in our opinion, Outward constantly auto-saves your game. Your mistakes are permanent and death can’t be sidestepped by loading a recent save. In a cruel marriage between Dark Souls and Minecraft, you’re likely to be knocked down a peg every time you die, often left retracing your steps to find lost gear and left missing progress you’d so jealously hoarded.
Yet another treat is Outward’s magic system in which you’re forced to irreversibly trade some of your total health points for magical aptitude. Spells are hard-won and costly investments that make casting even a simple fireball a luxury.
Outward’s split-screen co-op, even online, is another unorthodox twist that brings new challenges and new laughs to the concept of becoming a hero.
There’s nowhere like the Unterzee. Sunless Sea’s foreboding underground ocean is an abyss full of horrors and threats to the sanity of the crews that sail upon it. In your vulnerable little steamboat, you have to navigate these waters, trading, fighting and going on bizarre adventures on islands filled with giant mushrooms or rodents engaged in a civil war.
It’s often strikingly pretty, but text drives Sunless Sea. Like Failbetter Games’ browser-based Fallen London, it’s drenched in beautifully written quests, dialogue and descriptions. And it’s not restricted to gothic horror, though there’s plenty of it. Your journey across the black waters is just as likely to be whimsical and silly. Always, though, there’s something sinister lurking nearby. Something not quite right.
South Park: The Stick of Truth
This really shouldn’t have worked. Most licensed games are bad on their own, but a role-playing game based on a crudely animated, foul-mouthed television show should be downright awful. Stick of Truth beats the odds, thanks to the way Obsidian applied the South Park license to some clever RPG tropes—party members are recruited through a Facebook-like interface, a quest sends you to retrieve “Mr. Slave’s Package,” status effects include being “grossed out,” etc. It’s not the deepest RPG on this list, but it’s one of the most immediately fun entries, and makes for a great introduction to the genre.
Former id Software designer Tom Hall had a vision for his first, and only, Ion Storm game. He wanted to make a turn-based RPG, like Final Fantasy, but with a distinctly Western voice. It’s that tone that makes Anachronox so brilliant: few other games of any genre have dialogue as funny as Sly Boots’ negotiation with a sock-chewing mutant warlord, and no other game we’ve played lets you add an entire planet to your party.
Ion Storm built the game on a heavily modified version of the Quake 2 engine, and it’s never looked like a normal game. But even today, the blocky character models still have personality, and the facial animations are surprisingly effective. Sly’s look of resignation as he’s thrown out of his own office window is brilliant, and he carries it with him throughout the adventure. The development cycle was plagued with issues and the final product rushed, but playing Anachronox now still feels like a revelation. It’s hard not to wonder what Hall’s planned sequels could have achieved.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance
MORE GRAPHICS, PLEASE
Need an upgrade to get Kingdom Come running at top clip? Here are the best graphics cards available today.
In this historical RPG set in the muddy fields of Bohemia, 1403, you play as a peasant called Henry who gets swept up in a war for his homeland. It’s a detailed RPG, with a deep sword fighting system, hunger and thirst systems, crafting and more than a dozen equipment slots to fill with meticulously modeled gear inspired by the raiments of the time. It’s also surprisingly open-ended. If you want to wander into the woods and pick mushrooms for meagre coin then off you go, just be careful of bandits as you explore the pretty rural locales.
It’s by no means perfect—there are plenty of bugs and wonky moments—but this is an RPG in the Elder Scrolls vein. A few bugs can be excused when the wider experience is this atmospheric.
If you’ve rinsed Diablo 2 for every magical trinket and are looking for a modern fix, here is your game. Grim Dawn is a gritty, well-made action RPG with strong classes and a pretty world full of monsters to slay in their droves. It’s the distant brooding son of Titan Quest, sharing some designers and mechanics with that fine 2006 Greek myth ARPG. Like its cousin, Grim Dawn lets you pick two classes and share your upgrade points between two skill trees. This hybrid progression system creates plenty of scope for theorycrafting, and the skills are exciting to use—an essential prerequisite for games that rely so heavily on combat encounters.
The story isn’t bad either, for an ARPG. Don’t expect twisting plots and decisions with consequences—this is very much a game about single-handedly destroying armies—but there is a neat faction reputation system that spawns harder mobs and villainous nemesis heroes as you become more hated by the criminals, cults and monsters that rule the wilderness. The local demons and warlords that terrorize each portion of the world are well sketched out in the scrolling text NPC dialogue and found journals. Ultimately, it’s about the monster-smashing and sweet loot, though, and Grim Dawn delivers on both effectively.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
Release date: 2018 | Developer: Square Enix | Steam
The smartest Final Fantasy game finally got a PC port in 2018. The game can’t render the sort of streaming open worlds we’re used to these days, but the art still looks great, and the gambit system is still one of the most fun party development systems in RPG history. Gambits let you program party members with a hierarchy of commands that they automatically follow in fights. You’re free to build any character in any direction you wish. You can turn the street urchin Vaan into a broadsword-wielding combat specialist or a elemental wizard. The port even includes a fast-forward mode that make the grinding painless.
Legend of Grimrock 2
We loved the original Legend of Grimrock and the way it embraced the old Dungeon Master model of making your party—mostly a collection of stats—explore the world one square at a time. The one drawback is that it was too literal of a dungeon crawler. The enemies might change, but for the most part you kept trudging down what seemed like the same series of corridors until the game’s end.
The sequel, though, focuses on both the dank dungeons and the bright, open world above, resulting in a nostalgic romp that’s immensely enjoyable and filled with even deadlier enemies and more challenging puzzles. As with the first outing, much of its power springs from the element of surprise. One moment you’ll be merrily hacking through enemies with ease, and the next you might find yourself face-to-face with an unkillable demon. And then you’ll run, and you discover that there are sometimes almost as many thrills in flight as in the fight.
Play only the first 20 minutes, and Undertale might seem like yet another JRPG tribute game, all inside jokes about Earthbound and Final Fantasy coated with bright sugary humor and endearingly ugly graphics. But take it as a whole (and find out that it isn’t all bright and sugary after all), and it’s an inventive, heartfelt game. It’s a little unsettling how slyly it watches us, remembering little things and using our preconceptions about RPGs to surprise and mortify and comfort. More than a tribute to RPGs, it’s a tribute to RPG fans and an exploration of our relationship with games.
Undertale certainly sticks out among all these cRPGs, but looking past its bullet hell-style combat and disregard for things like leveling and skill trees, it’s got what counts: great storytelling and respect for player decisions.
It isn’t quite the accomplishment of its cousin, Pillars of Eternity, but Tyranny’s premise sets it apart from other RPGs. Playing as an agent of evil could’ve been expressed with pure, bland sadism, but instead Tyranny focuses on the coldness of bureaucracy and ideological positioning.
As a ‘Fatebinder’ faithful to conqueror Kyros the Overlord—yep, sounds evil—you’re tasked with mediating talks between her bickering armies and engaging with rebels who fight despite obvious doom, choosing when to sympathize with them and when to eradicate them, most of the time striking a nasty compromise that balances cruelty and political positioning. The latter is achieved through a complex reputation system that, unlike many other morality meters, allows fear and loyalty to coexist with companions and factions.
As with Pillars, Tyranny’s pauseable realtime combat and isometric fantasy world are a throwback to classic cRPGs, but not as a vehicle for nostalgia—it feels more like the genre had simply been hibernating, waiting for the right time to reemerge with all the creativity it had before.
Path of Exile
Release date: 2013 | Developer: Grinding Gear Games | Official site
This excellent free-to-play action RPG is heaven for players that enjoy stewing over builds to construct the most effective killing machine possible. It’s not the most glamorous ARPG, but it has extraordinary depth of progression and an excellent free-to-play model that relies on cosmetics rather than game-altering upgrades. It may look muddy and indistinct, and the combat doesn’t feel as good as Diablo 3, but if you enjoy number crunching this is one of the brainiest RPGs around.
Path of Exile’s scary complexity becomes apparent the moment you arrive on your character’s level-up screen, which . As you plough through enemies and level up, you travel across this huge board, tailoring your character a little with each upgrade. Gear customization is equally detailed. Path of Exile borrows Final Fantasy VII’s concept of connected gem slots. Every piece of armor has an arrangement of slots that take magic gems. These gems confer stat bonuses and bonus adjacency effects when set in the right formations. Ideally you’ll want to build synergies between your gemmed-up gear and leveling choices to create the most powerful warrior you can. Doing so requires plenty of planning, but it’s an engrossing slow-burn challenge.
You might begin Darkest Dungeon as you would an XCOM campaign: assembling a team of warriors that you’ve thoughtfully named, decorated, and upgraded for battle. How naive! Inevitably, your favorite highwayman gets syphilis. Your healer turns masochistic, and actually begins damaging herself each turn. Your plague doctor gets greedy, and begins siphoning loot during each dungeon run. A few hours into the campaign, your precious heroes become deeply flawed tools that you either need to learn how to work with, or use until they break, and replace like disposable batteries.
With Lovecraft’s hell as your workplace, Darkest Dungeon is about learning how to become a brutal and effective middle manager. Your heroes will be slaughtered by fishmen, cultists, demons, and foul pigmen as you push through decaying halls, but more will return to camp with tortured minds or other maladies. Do you spend piles of gold to care for them, or put those resources toward your ultimate goal?
Darkest Dungeon is a brilliant cohesion of art, sound, writing, and design. The colorful, hand-drawn horrors pop from the screen, showing their influence but never feeling derivative. It’s a hard game, but once you understand that everyone is expendable—even the vestal with kleptomania you love so much—Darkest Dungeon’s brutality becomes a fantastic story-generator more than a frustration. “Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer,” as its narrator reminds.
Mount & Blade: Warband
UPGRADE YOUR DISPLAY
Get those horses looking nice and crisp with the best gaming monitors available today.
There are few games that get medieval combat right, and fewer still that add a strategic, army-building component. Fostering an army of farmers into warriors is great, but we love that Mount & Blade gives us the agency to be a hero figure on the battlefield and shape the outcome of a battle ourselves with our marksmanship or fast riding. The metagame of alliance-making, marriage, looting, and economics underpinning these battles makes Warband a satisfying game of gathering goods, enemies, and friendship. Even when the base game wears thin, Mount & Blade’s mods and multiplayer give you more to do, with some even moving the action to a galaxy far, far away.
Neverwinter Nights 2
Release date: 2003 |Developer: Obsidian Entertainment | GOG
We loved BioWare’s original Neverwinter Nights from 2002 (and especially its expansions), but as a single-player experience, Neverwinter Nights 2 was in a class all of its own. Whereas the original had a fairly weak main campaign that mainly seemed aimed at showing what the DM kit was capable of, Obsidian Entertainment managed to equal and arguably outdo BioWare’s storytelling prowess in the sequel when it took over the helm.
The whole affair brimmed with humor, and companions such as the raucous dwarf Khelgar Ironfist still have few rivals in personality nine years later. And the quality just kept coming. Shades of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past reveal themselves in the masterful Shadow of the Betrayer expansion’s focus on two halves of the same world, but Obsidian skillfully uses that familiar framework to deliver an unforgettable commentary on religion.
Few games are as staunchly open-world—and unforgiving—as Gothic 2. The first time we played it, we left town in the wrong direction and immediately met monsters many levels higher than us, and died horribly. Lesson learned.
It sounds like Gothic 2 is too punishing, but we love the way it forces us to learn our way through its world. Enemies don’t scale with your level, as they do in the Elder Scrolls series, and you’ll have to pay close attention to quest text and NPCs to find your path. Once you do—and overcome the awkward controls—there’s a huge, sprawling RPG at your fingertips, and while you may have felt weak and powerless at the beginning, you’ll be a true badass by the end.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Pick a direction and run. You’re almost guaranteed to discover some small adventure, some small chunk of world that will engage you. It’s that content density that makes Skyrim constantly rewarding. A visit to the Mage’s Guild will turn into an area-spanning search for knowledge. A random chat with an NPC will lead you to a far-off dungeon, searching for a legendary relic. You could be picking berries on the side of a mountain and discover a dragon. Oops, accidental dragon fight.
And if you somehow exhaust all of Bethesda’s content, rest assured that modders have more waiting for you in Steam Workshop—that lively community has kept Skyrim in the Steam top 100 since its release, and given us endless ways to adventure through a great world. Some on the PC Gamer team keep a modded-up Skyrim install handy, just in case they feel like adventure. That’s some high praise.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire
Release date: 2018 | Developer: Obsidian Entertainment | Steam
The sequel to the marvellous Pillars of Eternity ventures to the archipelago of Deadfire. You, and your party of adventurers, need to pursue a rampaging god, but to reach it you first you need to learn to sail the high seas aboard The Defiant. On the ocean you can explore and can plunder enemy vessels for loot, which you can then use to upgrade your ship. When you dock at a port the game switches back to classic top-down cRPG view and you’re treated to elaborate and beautifully rendered locations.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Release date: 1992 | Developer: Blue Sky Productions (aka Looking Glass Studios) | GOG
Designer Paul Neurath originally conceived of a dungeon simulator that would turn traditional role-playing conventions on their head. Called Underworld, he and his team, the future Looking Glass Studios, built a game that rewarded real-world thinking to solve puzzles and please NPCs. Ultima developer Origin Systems was so impressed by the three-dimensional engine (you could look up and down!) and first-person combat that it bought the rights to the game, and suddenly the Avatar was trapped in the Stygian Abyss instead of some faceless schmuck.
Characters that are normally enemies are friends in Underworld, and we love that you may not be able to tell. Attacking a goblin might be a bad move, because he’s just as likely to be your friend. The first time we popped popcorn with a campfire and an ear of corn, we knew we weren’t in any old dungeon crawler. Underworld was a technological marvel in 1992, but while the graphics are dated, the feeling of exploring the Stygian Abyss is just as exciting today.
Divinity: Original Sin
Divinity was a Kickstarter success story that still somehow took us by surprise. Unlike most RPGs, it’s designed with co-op in mind—you even control two protagonists in the single-player version, roleplaying different motivations through conversations. Larian designed encounters thinking that someone could always disagree, or ruin things for you, or even kill the NPC you need to talk to—meaning that quests have to be solvable in unorthodox ways.
The writing in Divinity is consistently top-notch. Sure, sometimes you’ll have to destroy a goblin riding a giant mechanical robot, or talk to a dog to solve a quest. But that dog may have a heartbreaking story for you, and maybe you’ll cry just a little bit like we did. Larian commits to Divinity’s world, and that commitment pays off. This is the kind of freeform, epic, party-based RPG we haven’t had since the days of Ultima, and it’s exactly what we love from an RPG.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2
While BioWare’s first KOTOR is a Star Wars classic, KOTOR 2 takes the franchise in a bolder direction. Instead of focusing on the Light or Dark sides of the Force, the Jedi Exile of Obsidian’s sequel deals in shades of gray. Alliances are made, then broken, then remade in the aftermath. Choices you think are good just turn out to betray other characters. The end result is possibly the most nuanced take on The Force in the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe, and definitely its most complex villains.
Like many Obsidian early games, KOTOR 2’s truncated development meant that whole areas had to be cut out. A fan-made mod restores much of that content, including a droid planet, and fixes lots of outstanding bugs, showing yet again that PC gamers will work hard to maintain their favorite games.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
It’s all about atmosphere—from the goth clubs where you meet contacts, to the back alleys where you scavenge for rat blood, to the haunted Ocean House Hotel (one of the best quests in the game). Bloodlines’ ambitious use of White Wolf’s Vampire universe means it looks and feels different from the other sword and sorcery games on this list.
Unfortunately, that signature Troika ambition also means lots of bugs and some mechanics that just don’t mesh well. The endgame includes some particularly sloggy dungeons, but no other game truly drops you into a Vampire world. This is truly a cult classic of an RPG, and the fanbase has been patching and improving the game ever since release.
Vampire: The Masquerade—Bloodlines 2 is currently in development. Read everything we know about it in preparation for what could be another addition to this list in 2020.
Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls
Release date: 2014 | Developer: Blizzard | Battle.net
Let’s face it: the real-money auction house was a bad idea, one of a few in the original Diablo 3 release. Blizzard nixed the cash auctions right before Reaper of Souls’ release, but it’s the addition of Adventure Mode that turned the game around from disappointing sequel to crowning achievement for the series. Instead of rehashing the game’s acts, Adventure Mode’s task-based milestones and randomized areas make the game feel fresh for much longer. It’s a standout mode, and it’d be hard to imagine playing Diablo 3 any other way.
But RoS added another feature that changes the way we love our action RPGs: guild support. Having friends to talk to as you grind through a dungeon, even if they’re not with you, makes the game far less lonesome, and it’s that kind of small touch that justifies Blizzard’s always-online philosophy. Adding all this to the already-tremendous feeling of wiping out hordes of baddies with a well-timed ability change, RoS is the defining action RPG for us. It’s a game we’ll be playing for a long, long time.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Release date: 2001 |Developer: Troika Games | GOG
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura was astoundingly buggy when it came out, and many of its battles were as laughably imbalanced as its title. Patches and mods have alleviated some of that pain over the years, but even then they weren’t powerful enough to hide what a great mix of fantasy and steampunkery thrived under its surface. As we said in our enthusiastic review in 2001, “If you can’t find something to love about this game, dump your computer in the garbage right now.”
That assessment holds up. Arcanum was dark ‘n’ gritty before some such tendencies became all the rage, and its character creator allowed players to create everything from gnome gamblers who brandish self-explanatory Tesla-guns to outcast orcs lugging along rusty maces. Toss in non-linear progression and multiple solutions for quests, and you’ve got a winner that holds up 14 years later.
Fallout: New Vegas
While Fallout 3 was successful, it was a different beast entirely from Interplay’s classics. Obsidian’s take on the franchise moves the action back to the West Coast, and reintroduces elements such as reputation and faction power struggles. Obsidian expands on nearly every aspect of Bethesda’s take, making the game less about good or evil, and more about who you should trust. It also adds much of the humor that we loved from the classic games: How can you not appreciate a game that gives you a nuclear grenade launcher?
New Vegas’ “Hardcore” mode makes survival in the wasteland more interesting, limiting the power of RadAway and Health Stims. It makes the game harder, but also more rewarding. If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of additional mods and tweaks available, including game director Josh Sawyer’s own balance-tweak mod. What we love the most about New Vegas is how it adds the Fallout feeling back into Bethesda’s first-person RPG framework.
Dark Souls 3
Name any similar-looking RPG made in the past five years, and chances are good Dark Souls will be named as an inspiration for its design. Still, Dark Souls 3 proves that no one does it quite so well as From Software. The spark of originality that was so compelling in Dark Souls 1 isn’t quite as apparent here, the second sequel in just five years, but what remains is an impeccably designed combat-heavy RPG. It’s far more responsive than its predecessors, demanding faster action and reaction without sacrificing the deliberate play Dark Souls popularized. Button mashing will get you nowhere but dead.
Dark Souls 3 is the most approachable in the series thanks to frequent warp points, simplified online co-op and beautiful (and hideous) art that beckons you to explore every nook and corner. No game series manages to reward you so profoundly for scrutinizing its lore and unfurling its secrets, and Dark Souls 3’s faster, tighter controls and animation make it the most fun Souls game to play.
The Witcher 2
The epic scale of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is remarkable, but it’s the power of choice in an unrelentingly ugly world that makes it unforgettable. Moral ambiguity has never been so powerfully presented: the decisions you make actually matter, and the outcomes are often unforeseeable and rarely as good as you’d hope.
One of the most impressive things about The Witcher 2 is the way it blends two very distinct experiences. Early in the game, Geralt must make a choice that will take him down one of two separate paths, each offering a completely different perspective on the game’s events. If you want to see it all, you’ll have to play it twice—and there’s more than enough to make it a worthwhile effort.Advertisement
You might expect all your toil and trouble to eventually lead to a just and happy ending for all, but it won’t. Geralt isn’t a hero; he’s really not much more than a bystander, trying to protect what little he has from the chaos that surrounds him. His quest is entirely personal, driven forward by a colorful, occasionally bizarre and surprisingly believable cast of characters that really brings the game alive. Geralt works alone, but he feels more like “one among many” than the savior-protagonists of other party-based RPGs.
It’s a fantastic and well-told tale, layered over very solid mechanical underpinnings: A flexible character development system, glorious eye candy, intense combat and more than enough secondary content to camouflage its very linear nature. It’s dark, it’s dirty, it’s sometimes flat-out depressing—and it’s brilliant.
Dragon Age: Origins
Capturing that old Baldur’s Gate feel was goal number one for Dragon Age, and it comes pretty close. Ferelden evokes much of the Forgotten Realms without feeling like a rehash, and your relationship with your team has that old BioWare magic. The darkspawn feel like the kind of world-consuming threat that demands our attention, even if most of them are faceless hunks of evil for us to cut down. We love how Dragon Age treats magic in its world, in particular the quests that force us to choose how to best handle abominations, the result of a renegade mage succombing to demonic possession.
But it’s the combat that feels most familiar, and most fun: the satisfying tactical depth of pausing your combat, issuing orders, and reacting to the results works like a modern Infinity Engine game should. It’s sad that BioWare will never make an RPG like this again—Dragon Age 2 was too streamlined, and Inquisition’s more open world—so in many ways, this is the last hurrah for the old BioWare, and a fitting end for its classic design.
System Shock 2
Release date: 1999 | Developer: Irrational Games | GOG
Lonely. That’s the defining emotion of Irrational’s debut game. You’ll hear audio logs from fascinating characters, many of whom are struggling to survive in a battle against the bio-terror creatures called the Many. But you won’t meet those people, because they didn’t make it.
That loneliness is key because Shock 2 is all about taking things away from you. Ammo? Check: you’ll probably waste those on an assault droid when you should have saved them for later. Hypos? Yep. Think twice before you walk into that radiated room. But the biggest thing Irrational takes away, right at the halfway mark of the game, is hope. It’s the reveal of insane AI Shodan that turns your expectations on their head, and it’s one of our favorite moments in gaming.Advertisement
Irrational made games where the environment is the central character, and here, that character is the Von Braun. It creaks and moans as you pad quietly down its corridors. Every door you open yelps. Its security systems attack you as if you hurt their feelings. Staying on the good side of this character is hard, but Shock 2’s leveling system of earning experience points through exploration balances the risks and rewards. Some play through with all guns blazing, but the psionics skills balance well with combat, and Tech skills open new areas later in the game. There’s a lot of balance to be found in what on the surface looks like a streamlined action RPG skill system.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
Release date: 1992 | Developer: Origin Systems | GOG
The Guardian was one of the most terrifying things our young minds had ever encountered. His massive stone face emerging from the screen, with his actual, real-life voice taunting us, both tempting us to play more and horrifying us.
It was a technological marvel at the time, but Ultima 7 stands the test of time because of the interactivity of Britannia. Most anything could be picked up or talked to, and as we painted a portraits of ourselves in the game, we wondered if we’d ever finish the game’s plot. But Ultima’s story sucks you in, starting first with a double homicide to solve and expanding into a religious battle for Britannia’s soul. Black Gate’s dialogue design still hold up today, and inspired Divinity: Original Sin a great deal—particularly the way it handles new converts to the world’s competing religion. This is without a doubt the best installment of one of the most legendary RPG franchises ever.
Release date: 2000 | Developer: Ion Storm Austin | GOG
Do you want to run in the firefight, guns blazing, or do you want to sneak around and flank? Do you want to snipe? Or maybe you want to hack some terminals and get droid reinforcement? Or, what if you talked to that NPC guard over there and convince his team to take a lunch break? Deus Ex’s world is so freeform that the choices seem endless.
While it looks like a shooter, Deus Ex is all about role-playing elements. Fire a gun you’re not skilled in and your aim won’t matter—you’ll most likely miss. The leveling system rewards experimentation, and some of the later upgrades make your Denton feel like a superhero. Even the weapons you use can be modified and “leveled up,” turning a standard issue pistol into an unstoppable killing tool. The attention to detail here is perfect, and no one element of the game ever truly feels forced.
Deus Ex’s world is built to reward exploring every dark alley and ventilation system, because you never know where you’ll find a new clue. And there are a lot of clues—every note you find or sign you see seems to hint at some new conspiracy, and we love how the alliances in the game feel constantly in flux. The NPCs you meet are just believable enough to make this conspiracy-laden world feel lived-in. Human Revolution looks better, but this is the smarter, more open-ended game.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The release of Fallout 4 demonstrated that some cracks are starting to appear in Bethesda’s usually reliable open world model, but that model seemed earthshaking back when Morrowind hit literal shelves way back in 2002. There was a magic in knowing you could tromp all over the island of Vvardenfell without even encountering a loading screen save upon entering buildings, and in seeing that the NPC population seemed to have lives beyond their interactions with you.
Plenty of other games have achieved similar effects in the years since, but the wonder of Morrowind is that it still holds up all these years later—even more so than its technically superior successor Oblivion. A lot of that appeal springs from the delicious surrealism of Vvardenfell itself, where racist elves hang out in twisty mushrooms like smurfs in an acid dream, and where the more traditional castles of occupying foreigners clash with the landscape like pueblos in Scandinavia. The AI might often seem primitive by today’s standards, but the stories the tell often rival those in prettier contemporary RPGs.
It thrives still, thanks in part to its own strengths and a dedicated modding community that creates countless new adventures and keeps it looking more modern than it actually is (even going so far as to port the entirety of Morrowind into newer game engines).
Mass Effect 2
BioWare’s first Mass Effect felt like a KOTOR clone, and not in a good way. The universe was a place we wanted to live, but there were too many systems and menus to dig through to get there. Still, it terrified us to hear that BioWare had streamed back so much and put more emphasis on the shooting mechanics. Turns out, it was for the better: Mass Effect 2 trims just enough fat to let you focus on what matters: the optional Loyalty missions for your team.
Instead of an exercise in galactic exploration, Mass Effect 2 plays out like a sci-fi Ocean’s Eleven or Dirty Dozen. Recruiting a team to take on the Collectors puts the focus on small, interesting stories. Each Loyalty mission gives you insight into your companions’ motivations, making every member of the Normandy’s crew an unusually deep character. Once you’ve grown to know and love them, the endgame suicide run is one of the tensest final missions ever. It’s rare for a game to spend more time on character arcs than its central driving narrative, but Mass Effect 2 pulls it off. This is some of the best writing in BioWare’s history.
Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition
Yes, Dark Souls breaks a cardinal rule of RPGs: you can beat it without leveling. But only if you’re really good, and only if you understand its systems perfectly—that its crafting system matters, that certain items can be obtained only by fulfilling obfuscated quests. In a genre where systems are king, Dark Souls reigns because it’s all about systems. Just learning how each stat affects your character’s build is a process deeper than most D&D-themed RPGs, but it’s ultimately just as rewarding.
So is discovering the rich lore of Lordran, which is told through cryptic conversations and subtle environmental clues. The depth of Dark Souls’ world carries over into exploration, too. Everything is connected brilliantly, and secrets and shortcuts—including massive hidden areas and features—await the most dedicated adventurers. Dark Souls’ summoning system is also unlike anything else in RPGs, but you can unplug and beat the whole game solo, or learn to love being invaded and fighting off another player. Don’t let the rumored difficulty keep you away from one of our favorite RPGs.
Release date: 1998 | Developer: Black Isle Studios | GOG
The original Fallout was a huge success for Interplay, but it’s not as big of a world as you’d expect. The sequel expands that world considerably, and adds more moral ambiguity to a game where right and wrong are already hard to tell apart. Playing as a tribal villager instead of a native Vault dweller gives you a different world perspective—you’re not as naive to the world and its dangers, which makes it all the darker when you start twisting people’s expectations and motivations.
The search for the Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK) fits the warped 1950s feel of the wasteland more than the macguffin of a water chip in the first game. And it’s nice to not have such a time limit hanging over your head: you can take your time and get to know the people of the wastes, instead of rushing to an abandoned vault. If you’ve never played the classic series, we recommend you start here, and then the original.
Baldur’s Gate 2
Release date: 2000 | Developer: BioWare | GOG (Enhanced Edition)
One problem with AD&D is that low-level characters are pretty boring. Baldur’s Gate 2 solves that problem by letting you carry over your party from the first game, or start fresh with level 7 characters. It makes a huge difference: instead of wimpy fighters and frail wizards, you get powerful, useful spells and warriors that can take a punch.
It also helps that the scope of Amn is enormous, with more quests and content than most other comparable RPGs. BioWare’s Infinity Engine handles the quests and the combat perfectly, highlighting the game’s focus on strategy and tactics in combat. It’s hard to imagine controlling a six-person party without pausing and giving orders, and any newer game that relies on real-time decisions makes us long for the Infinity Engine.Advertisement
Yes, this is where RPG romances come from, but the courtships never feel contrived here, and BG2 still has some of the most memorable companions of any game. If for some reason you’ve never played a table-top RPG, Baldur’s Gate 2 captures the sword-and-sorcery experience almost perfectly. If you have the original version, you can easily mod it to run at modern resolutions, or you can try the Extended Edition that also includes new content.
Check out everything we know about the upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3 being developed by Larian. Given that the studio is the creator of two other entries to this list, we have high hopes for the unexpected third entry to the series.
Release date: 1999 | Developer: Black Isle Studios | GOG
There is no other story in gaming like the Nameless One’s. His is a tale of redemption in the face of countless sins, a tale of not knowing who you are until you become the person you’re trying to be. The tattoos the Nameless One wears are marks to remind him of who he is, who he was, and who he wants to be.
That open-endedness is central to what makes Planescape: Torment so captivating. At a literal level, you spend the game trying to discover who the Nameless One is, but your actions also help to define him. It’s one of many RPG tropes that Black Isle sought to subvert—others include the fact that rats are actually worthy foes, humans are often worse than undead, and you don’t have to fight in most cases. Most importantly, that your goal is not to save the world, as in countless other RPGs. You simply need to figure out who you are.
The Nameless One’s companions are some of the best written, most enjoyable NPCs ever coded. Most have been affected by your past incarnations: pyromaniac mage Ignus was once your apprentice, though it’s more impressive that he’s constantly on fire. Or Dak’kon, who swore an oath of loyalty to you, even though you’re not sure why. Others are just interesting, well-rounded characters: Fall-From-Grace is a succubus cleric who prays to no god and, though a creature of evil, wants to do no harm. The best is Morte, a floating skull whose sarcastic wit is sharper than his bite attacks (skulls can’t equip swords, of course).
These characters would be odd in any normal high fantasy world, but Torment uses the Planescape AD&D campaign setting, the strangest world TSR ever designed. And so it’s fitting that Torment is light on conflict and heavy on story—though when combat does erupt, BioWare’s Infinity Engine handles as well as in the Baldur’s Gate series. This is the one role-playing game we’d recommend to anyone interested in the genre, a game that best represents what we love about RPGs.
Release date: 2002 | Developer: Arkane Studios | GOG
Arkane’s goal with its first game was to create a dungeon experience as detailed as Ultima Underworld, right down to the magic system, which required you to memorize runes and draw them in the air with your mouse. Stealth is critical, as is the crafting system that takes Underworld’s “everything is important” ethos and expands it. Arx is slow and deliberate, forcing you to consider encounters from different angles: should you use force on the snake women, or sneak past and avoid conflict?
Many of the design seeds that show up later in Arkane’s Dishonored are planted here, but there are a lot of old fashioned mechanics we’d love to see more of. The mouse gesture magic system seems awkward to use, but we love tracing a rune and watching our foes crumble in the aftermath. We’d love to see Arkane revisit the dungeons again, bringing what it’s learned from making Dishonored (and the sublime melee combat from Dark Messiah of Might & Magic) to an Arx Fatalis sequel.