JRPGs were in a bit of a funk at the beginning of this decade, but few games sent them surging back to relevance quite like Xenoblade Chronicles. There's just so much to love about it, whether it's the sprawling open world with its many surprises to discover, the likeable cast of characters, the thrilling action combat, or a day and night cycle that caused enemies to grow stronger after the sun went down. Toss in the stellar soundtrack, and that's a recipe for a game that should be popular for years to come. BioWare first made its name with fantasy RPGs, and Dragon Age: Origins marked a generally triumphant update to its tradition of pause-based combat mechanics and party micromanagement.
But its chief strength was its grim setting in a dark fantasy world that married the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings with the low fantasy of A Song of Ice and Fire, where elves are treated like trash and magic brought with it terrible prices. It's also a character-driven game in true BioWare fashion, with the standout performance coming from Claudia Black as the role of the witch Morrigan.
One of the most appealing aspects of Persona 3 is the way it jumps between what passes through the real world and fantasy, and it pulls it off while being effortlessly cool. The narrative follows a high school student whose extracurricular activities partly involve fighting creatures that gnaw on human minds during the "Dark Hour," and he's surrounding by memorable characters who aid him in this task.
Its greatest legacy, though, is the first appearance of the Social Links system, which lets the player level personas the manifestation of one's inner self while doing normal-world activities as well as by fighting monsters. Grandia II was one of the Sega Dreamcast's standout RPGs, delivering fantastic graphics for the system and the time and a good, twisty tale about a world still suffering from the effects of a battle between two gods from thousands of years ago. The battle system was the chief standout, though, as it took the familiar JRPG turn-based formula and rejuvenated it by allowing characters to run behind their opponents or fall back after attacking them.
And the rockin' battle anthem with its screaming electric guitars playing over this?
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That was the grandest part. As big as the Dark Souls games are today, it's still pretty easy to find players who've never even heard of their PS3-exclusive predecessor Demon's Souls.
But the skeleton of what would come to define Hidetaka Miyazaki's later creations were already in place there, whether it's the minimal story, the high likelihood of death at every turn, or the ability to see how other players died from their blood pools. You'll have to read a lot in Xenogears, but it's worth it. Throughout its many hours, the plot weaves through religious references and philosophical ideas by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, all while also prompting deep thoughts about the relationship between humankind and machines.
Naturally, it also lets you stomp around in a giant, spiky mech. It's an ambitious package of near constant wonder, crafted with stellar graphics for the period and complemented with a memorable soundtrack. The basic thrust of Tales of Symphonia's plot sometimes veered toward cliche, but the little chats between the colorful characters did much to make up for that. Often they had little to do with the plot at hand, and that detachment made them feel more human.
Its real-time combat delivers a similar sense of satisfaction, as it's based on a uncommon system that's both 2D and 3D at once. Success demands an entertaining juggle of blocking and dishing out special abilities and normal attacks. Even so, Tales of Symphonia never loses sight of the fact that characterization should always come first, and the two elements together make for a rewarding package.
You have to dig under a pile of glitches and bugs in an unpatched version of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, but if you persist, you'd quickly find one of the most rewarding RPGs ever made. Set in White Wolf's vampire universe and more specifically in Los Angeles, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines isn't only about sucking blood wherever you can safely find it, but also about shaping your tale according to your actions, beliefs, and your choices.
Few RPGs do this better.
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It's especially successful because few works in any media have ever captured a vampiric setting so well, and Bloodlines uses every drop of this atmosphere to add meaning to everything from fascinating rivalries between vampire clans to hungry hunts for rats in dirty alleys. Skies of Arcadia was one of the bright points in the tragic history of the SEGA Dreamcast, and at release it easily turned heads with its colorful art style and rewarding turn-based gameplay.
But it's the airships everyone rightly remembers — beautiful, billowing things that engaged in battles with other ships thousands of feet up in a 3D world with floating islands. Docking the ships allowed you to strut about towns or venture deep into menacing dungeons, where you'd partake in a unique combat system that made your party share one pool of spirit points for spells and thus added a fun dose of risk to each action.
Watch out for those pesky random encounters, though — they tend to get out of hand. The Final Fantasy series had gradually started to look less and less like actual knights-and-dragons fantasy in the years leading up to the turn of the century, but Final Fantasy IX returned the series to its roots. The world — at least in spirit if not in pixels — unfolded with much the same art style that had graced the NES in while still managing to feel fresh.
Intentionally more cartoony than predecessors, it's an endearingly optimistic game that nevertheless handles weighty themes such as guilt and identity with surprising dexterity. But that never really matters so much as the gameplay, which featured the then-unique approach of using tarot cards to influence troops in its automatic battles and taking advantage of the resulting victories to gobble up more territory on a strategic map.
Reputation points gained from interactions with NPC factions are important as well, to the point that your choices could lead you to one of 13 different endings. Post-apocalyptic imagery is somewhat in vogue these days, and thus it's hard to imagine how startlingly original Fallout seemed back during its initial release.
It's serious stuff, in a way, but the whole adventure thrives on a sense of humor and pop-culture references that grant it an uncommon vitality even today. When Fire Emblem first appeared on the Game Boy Advance in the United States, the series had already enjoyed more than a decade of success in its native Japan. Even so, players in the west took to it immediately. It was hard to mistake the similarities with Advance Wars, one of developer Intelligence System's other games, but Fire Emblem forged a superior personality of its own with the rich interactions between its lively characters.
Nor were its strengths limited to characterization — with dozens of classes to choose from, a rich leveling system, and permanent death for characters, it was just as fantastic in action. But it's the dungeon tools for level creation that make Neverwinter Nights so influential and memorable, as they almost flawlessly allowed players to create their own dungeons and campaigns according to the pen-and-paper rules of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
That was impressive in itself, but the inclusion of an excellent multiplayer system helped make Neverwinter Nights a smash hit. Baldur's Gate stunned players with an isometric version of the Forgotten Realms universe awash in vibrant colors and a landscape populated with memorable characters like hamster-loving Minsc, who'd beat you up if you put off helping him track down his partner for too long. A triumph of storytelling that presaged its superior successor, Baldur's Gate kicked off a renaissance of story-rich RPGs that we're arguably still living today.
Mario might not sound so tough in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door when you consider that he's literally a piece of paper jaunting around the screen, but that turns out to have some advantages. He can slip in through cracks by slipping through them sideways, roll himself up, or should the need arise, fly off into the blue yonder as a paper airline. It's the kind of design that complements the whimsical and novel-like plot, which still features poor Princess Peach getting kidnapped, but also a few fun rarities, like a scholarly goomba companion.
It's also fun in action, particularly in the twitchy battle system that requires good timing or by hearing cheers or jeers from the audiences that watch Mario in battle. Other games emphasize choice, but few showed the effects of those choices over the long game quite like Dragon Quest V did when it launched for the Super Famiconm. The tale here spans an entire three decades, with the hero changing in alignment with the paths taken.
It's also remarkable for having a playable pregnancy, a concept that would later influence games like Fable II and The Sims. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is the video game as morality play. For perhaps the first time in computer RPG history, here was a game that wasn't about defeating a bad guy or unshackling the world from the yoke of evil, but rather about learning to embody eight virtues that made you a better person and thus an inspiration to the surrounding world.
Kindheartedness, not battle prowess, is the true star here. This was revolutionary stuff at the time, and over three decades later, it remains so. Alas, it's a little rough to get into these days owing to its complexity and sluggish gameplay, but it remains a profound counterpoint to arguments that RPGs corrupt rather than correct.
Tales of the Gothic Warrior Series by Billy Wong
The Active Dimension Battle system ditched random battles and replaced them with an unprecedented level of strategy and tactical planning. The License Board allowed players to master any skill set with whichever character they desired.
Most importantly, Final Fantasy XII gave us an even better understanding of Matsuno's Ivalice, a world with a rich and believable history, and one that's beloved by RPG fans to this day. That all changed in Pokemon Sun and Moon, and for the better. It's a game that's focused on the outdoors, specifically a lovely region named "Alola" modeled on Hawaii, and the hours that follow deliver a satisfying balance of roleplaying and Pokemon battles.
There's little subtlety in the Monster Hunter universe — you largely end up doing exactly what the title says. But Monster Hunter 4 ensured all that monster hunting was monstrously fun.
Verticality stole the show here, with players being able to scramble up walls or vault up surfaces and then leap down to briefly ride the monsters themselves. More impressively, it managed to accomplish these advanced feats while emerging as the most approachable game in the series. These elements alone were enough to make it good, but an extended variety of weapon and a satisfying local and online multiplayer mode push it to greatness. Fallout 3 was entertaining enough, but Fallout: New Vegas is unforgettable.
This is the story of the Courier, who almost dies after the all-important package he was transporting gets stolen outside of post-apocalyptic Sin City.
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