This was originally a list of 10, and then I later updated it to 15. Later I expanded it to 20, after I finished playing 200 RPGs, and thought that would be it. Well, I’ve played over 300 RPGs now, and thinking about it, even though it might make this list excessively long, I feel like 20 slots still won’t cut it. So I guess I’m at a point where I’m just going to assume that I’ll be expanding this list every few years, to whatever extent feels right at the time. This thing’s never going to be more than 10% of the total number of RPGs I’ve played, and at the moment it’s not even that much, but I’m not gonna put a hard cap on its potential any more. 25 (or more, in the future) may seem at first glance to be a rather large list, and I’d say that in most cases, it is...but you gotta understand that at the moment I post this, I’ve played 324 RPGs through to completion. Even if it seems large, this list very much represents the cream of the RPG crop, the absolute best the genre has to offer, in my opinion.
So, logically, that means that if you don’t see your favorite game here, don’t yell at me. There’s an absolute TON of great RPGs that didn’t make the cut, I know. I absolutely hate that I couldn’t get Fallout 1, Tales of the Abyss, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and several other games onto the list, but it just wasn’t in the cards, no matter how close they came. Believe me, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone a spot on their Top 10 or whatever list for, say, Deus Ex 1, or Baten Kaitos 2--it’s just that with all the amazing RPGs I’ve played, even such laudable, excellent works as those can’t quite cut it.
One more note on this new, updated list: I’m going to include a second Honorable Mention. Now, if you’re familiar with my list rants, you know that for me, Honorable Mentions aren’t just a cheap way of adding an “eleventh” spot to a list, like they are for most people. That’s a pet peeve of mine; it’s like, if you want to make a list of the best 19 movies of all time, make a list of the best 19 movies of all time, don’t pussyfoot around it and make a list of the best 15 movies of all time and then just add 4 honorable mentions on because you can’t bear to cut them out.
Anyway...for me, Honorable Mentions are ways of showing off a worthwhile contender for a spot on the list in a different way than the rest of them. Like how Alice and Yuri made my Honorable Mention for my Greatest Romance List--Yuri’s love for Alice is excellently portrayed and deeply compelling in Shadow Hearts 2, but from a perspective entirely after the fact. Alice, you see, is dead by Shadow Hearts 2, and Yuri’s love is shown strictly in his mourning for her, his inability for the entirety of the game to find a purpose to live for without her, and his decision at the end of the game. Yuri’s love for Alice is shown entirely after the fact in SH2--in fact, their love story was only so-so in the first game--but it’s poignant and powerful, worthy of appreciation from the audience. So, I included it as an Honorable Mention in my Greatest Romances List--worthy of the praise of being in such a list, yet from a significantly different perspective than what’s typical for inclusion.
So anyway, the size of this list makes it deserving, I think, of more than 1 Honorable Mention if the situation calls for it, and as it so happens, there are 2 separate contenders that don’t exactly make sense to be included here in the actual 25, but have a comparable enough quality to the best of this list that they shouldn’t be left out, just appreciated with a different perspective as to what constitutes a Greatest RPG.
Okay, last note, I swear: I’ve also put in a link to Good Old Games or Steam wherever applicable for these, in case you want to experience any of these gems yourself without digging out your old Playstation or whatever. Also, I’ll list the system through which I experienced the game, since sometimes that makes a small difference regarding translations and such. I doubt, however, that any translation updates will make enough of a difference to change a game’s spot...not even that listless update they slapped Final Fantasy Tactics with.
At any rate, now that you’re all asleep before we’ve even begun...here’s the 25 best RPGs I’ve played. Enjoy!
UPDATE 12/01/18: Nier: Automata and Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod have been added; Mass Effect 2 has been bumped off.
25. Final Fantasy 10 (Playstation 2)
FF10 has its share of detractors, but it’s overall quite well-loved, and for damned good reason. This treasure of the genre boasts an emotionally powerful and intelligent story packed with themes and perspectives on religion, sacrifice, love, and purpose, several excellently dynamic characters, and some of the most moving scenes in an RPG. Both overtly and subtly, Final Fantasy 10 is enjoyable, touching, and deeply meaningful.
24. Shadow Hearts 2 (PS2)
Ah, Shadow Hearts 2. The uniquely moody, gloomy, yet over-the-top and amusing atmosphere created with Shadow Hearts 1, which perfectly mixes the reality of Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century with mysticism, really hits its stride in this sequel, just in time to accompany an interesting plot whose arcs are surprisingly well-connected, given how clearly each part is defined by its setting and villains. Toss in a truly excellent and unique hero, a solid and diverse cast, a love story that’ll have you bawling like a babe, and some moments that are just plain awesome (a battle between a hell demon and Rasputin aboard a flying battleship? Hell YES), and an all-encompassing sense of quirky humor that works surprisingly well with the dark, serious tone of the game, and you have a real winner.
23. Mother 3 (Game Boy Advance)
The sequel to RPG cult favorite Earthbound (Mother 2) was heavily yearned for and anticipated for many years before Nintendo finally bit the bullet and made it. I think everyone hoped that a sequel would do the original game proud, perhaps even be as good as it, but I doubt many people would have ever imagined Mother 3 could surpass its predecessor. Yet it has, and by a lot. Earthbound was a singularly bizarre adventure, defying description with its quirky humor and presentation--it was like playing a piece of abstract art. Mother 3 manages a complete return of this same unusual and appealing style, but manages to throw a huge curveball on it with a huge injection of emotion into a plot that is jaw-dropping in how poignant it is in spite of (perhaps even because of?) all the quirky humor sown into it. And when you look past the creative nature of the game, you find an equally creative plot, too. Mother 3 will make you laugh aloud, it’ll make you think, and it’ll make you sniffle and get teary-eyed. And it’ll do all of these things in the same 5 minutes.
22. Grandia 1 (Playstation 1)
I don’t know what to say, really. I love Grandia 1. The characters are good, the plot is solid, and this game, above every other RPG I’ve ever played, creates a sensation of exploration and adventure, through its great music, strong attention to cultural and natural diversity in its setting, and the enthusiasm of its protagonist. It has a lot of truly excellent moments, such as Sue’s goodbye, and reaching the top of the End of the World, and many of its small aspects are great, too, like the dinner conversations (which became a delightful signature of the series), and one of the few turn-based RPG battle systems that’s actually kind of fun to play. Grandia 1 has great appeal and will always have a special spot in my heart.
21. Torment: Tides of Numenera (Personal Computer)
There are 2 ways of looking at Torment: Tides of Numenera. Either you can be disappointed that it doesn’t come close to living up to its predecessor, Planescape: Torment...or you can be like me, and recognize that even just being in the same ballpark as Planescape still makes TToN absolutely amazing. The intellectual depth of this title is staggering, daunting, even, a story of purpose and immortality and analysis of the joys and suffering that is the human existence, set against a marvellously intriguing, creative world both wondrous and grotesque, brought to life through countless sidequests and NPCs with more depth than most games’ main characters. It both feels and acts like its predecessor, investigating many of the same ideas and themes, yet in new ways, going in new directions with them, finding new foundations for its concepts that allow for fresh perspectives and conclusions on the same questions and conundrums we thought were reasoned out to completion in Planescape: Torment. This is a truly spectacular work of thought and philosophy.
20. Suikoden 1 (PS1)
Suikoden 1 takes the player through a nation-wide conflict, a civil war of epic proportions that nonetheless never loses sight of the individuals and humanity of the conflict. Good plot, good characters, good ideas, good execution, good themes...this is just a solidly good game in its every aspect.
19. Fallout 4 (PC)
Most of the Fallout series is excellent, and to be honest, it’s kind of difficult to choose one game over the other, because their excellence is very uniform. Fallout 4 is an insightful, subtly deep examination into the essence of the United States: its beliefs, its politics, its history, its culture and pop culture, its ideals, and its people...just like Fallout 1, 2, 3, and New Vegas were. It’s the Fallout series’s thing, and each game does it really damn well. The ambient storytelling in Fallout 4 is especially masterful, even for the standards of the series, and with a strong cast, an interesting plot, and a thoughtfully subtle narrative, Fallout 4 is a remarkable RPG, another fine addition to what may be the greatest RPG series out there, and my personal favorite of the franchise.
18. Fallout: New Vegas (PC)
It’s a damn close call between which is greater, but even though I personally like Fallout 4 the best, I have to hand it to Fallout: New Vegas: it’s got a plot whose relevance and heft has more for you to take away from it, and connects every so slightly more strongly to the core principle of the series: exploring and understanding ourselves as a nation (for US citizens, at least; though I daresay there’s enough universality that those playing in other countries can still gain much from this series. Even more than Fallout 4, Fallout: New Vegas has all sorts of hidden themes of, references to, and comments on the USA to find and contemplate, and you know me--I love a game that makes me think. Even on the surface, though, Fallout: New Vegas is a very cool game with a compelling cast and cool story, both open-ended, and linear enough that its plot is straightforward and clear.
17. Fallout 3 (PC)
The best of its series, Fallout 3 does all the same things intellectually as its fellows, and generally just as well, but its setting provides it stronger thematic power (if you’re gonna base a game’s themes around the United States of America’s essence, then you’re naturally gonna get the best and most material if you have it take place in the Washington DC area), and the plot both feels more personal and relevant to the protagonist than all of its peers but Fallout 4, and is generally more epic in its scope, purpose, and ambitions. I also have to say that I find the conflicts and characters and villains of Fallout 3 generally more compelling than Fallout: New Vegas’s and Fallout 4’s were, providing great symbolism and meaning. In addition, I think that Fallout 3 more than any other game in the series makes excellent use of the post-apocalyptic setting. That’s not to say that Fallout: New Vegas, or 4, or 1, or 2, were in any way lacking...it’s simply to say that even in a series filled with such excellent titles, Fallout 3 stands out as a masterpiece.
16. Disgaea 1 (PS2)
If anyone ever tells you that a comedy cannot also be deep and meaningful, there are 2 things you should direct their attention to. The first is Futurama. And the second is Disgaea 1. Nippon Ichi's most famous offering is also, I think, its best (although I DID really like Makai Kingdom), and concrete proof that a humor RPG can still have depth and great emotion.* What starts out (and keeps on being) a very funny adventure of adorably maniacal demons and a ditzy, equally adorable angel evolves into a grand tale of friendship's enduring power, and love's irrepressible, redeeming nature. The inherently goofy air to this game is great for grabbing your attention and keeping it, and it amazingly doesn't interfere whatsoever with the story's poignancy, making this game not only the best Humor RPG I've played, but just plain one of the best RPGs I've played, period.
15. Mass Effect 1 (PC)
Lemme ask you something: did you ever watch a science-fiction show or movie, or read a science-fiction book, or something like that, and just feel completely entranced by its size, scope, and creativity? You watch/read/whatever it, and you just have this feeling that you've been taken to a place or time that has more or less infinite possibility for adventure, excitement, and general cool new experiences? Like the thing that you're watching/reading/whatevering is just the tip of the iceberg (or maybe Star Destroyer's a better term here), and there's just so much else that can be seen and explored in this sci-fi galaxy, universe, time, or whatever?
It's the feeling I got when I watched the Star Wars trilogy, played the games, and read the books during my youth--just that you could go anywhere in this entire imaginary galaxy, at practically any time in its history, and be caught up in something really cool and interesting. From watching the deathblow to an evil, galaxy-spanning Empire to just reading the random tales of a no-name bounty hunter in that same galaxy, Star Wars has always held my attention and impressed me.**
Well, when I played Mass Effect 1, that feeling swept over me for a second time. The makers of this game invested a tremendous amount of thought and care into this setting, going far beyond most sci-fi media's first offerings by not only inventing species, events, technologies, mysterious stuff, and so on, but going into huge detail on it all, as well. Just about every really cool, unique part of the Mass Effect universe is detailed for you in journal entries, should you care to know more of the imaginative science fiction all around you as you play. The game also captures the awe-inspiring feel and concept of space exploration, to me, better than anything else I've ever encountered. You know how when you were a kid, you went through a phase (or entered one and never got out of it) where you were really into real-world space exploration? Just feeling a sense of excitement and awe at the idea of exploring the infinite cosmos? Well, maybe you did and maybe you didn't, but I did, and when the map screen comes up in ME1 and begins playing that calming, yet somehow exciting music of exploration, I feel like a little kid again, looking at all these planets and stars with detailed descriptions like you'd find in an astronomy museum exhibit.
Of course, it's not just the atmosphere of the game that makes it so great. It's got about as cool a sci-fi plot as I've ever seen outside a book by Asimov, the characters are very good, the villains are decent (although Saren was a lot more interesting before I read the ME1 prequel book, honestly...but I guess that's neither here nor there), the presentation is good all around, and everything's pretty darned epic. I really love this game.
14. Final Fantasy 7 (PS1)
Okay, yeah, okay, yes, I know, okay. Yes. Fine. YES, Final Fantasy 7 is perhaps the most overrated, over-hyped RPG of the most overrated, over-hyped RPG series ever. The sheer number of mindless, utterly tasteless fanboys and fangirls of this game defies imagination--it's like Twilight, except that FF7 doesn't destroy brain cells like getting drunk while deeply inhaling gasoline fumes as you shove a blow torch up your nose. These incalculable idiots, who invariably idolize and adore Sephiroth with all their hearts yet don't have the dedication to learn how to spell his name, would have you believe that FF7 is the finest RPG ever made, heck, the finest game ever made period were it not for Call of Duty 78, and perhaps Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.
But just because it's not God's gift to Playstation 1 games doesn't mean it's not still a great game, if you can shut your eyes and ears to Vincent x Cloud yaoi fangirls long enough to appreciate the game for its own merits. It has an interesting, involved plot that incorporates a lot of ideas that, at the time, were pretty new and creative (some still are, really), and it also has a pretty good cast of characters to enact the plot, too--sure, the villains are all boring and empty, and Vincent and Yuffie barely have enough characterization between the two of them to qualify as NPCs, but the rest of the cast have at least a fair amount of good development, particularly Tifa and Cloud. Tifa's character has a lot of depth and realism, but in a subtle way that requires some consideration to recognize. Cloud, on the other hand, has his character development right in the spotlight--and it's pretty impressive. Before Cloud, there weren't all that many RPG heroes with real, solid personalities and depth of character, and he seemed to more or less pioneer the idea of an interesting, quality hero who draws a lot of his character from his shortcomings and spiritual inadequacies--we've had plenty of fairly mentally imbalanced heroes since, as well as ones who agonize over the limitations of what they can do and the mistakes they've made in the past, but Cloud was one of the first and best to do stuff like that. Hell, he's still probably the most mentally screwed-up RPG protagonist I've seen who wasn't either a villain himself and/or got proper characterization.
In addition, FF7 sold its atmosphere with its music and setting, creating a world to draw you in far better than most other games, which complemented the plot and brought everything together. Regardless of how many stupid people happen by unfortunate chance to share my opinion, and how hard SquareEnix works to retroactively cheapen this game with every lackluster time-waster sequel/prequel that they foist on us, FF7 will always be a true classic.
13. Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1)
Ah, FFT. As much or greater a leap in a new direction for the Final Fantasy series as FF7 was, this one looked at the ideas and aspects of medieval times (like most RPGs) and, instead of just throwing a bunch of fantasy cliches together, gave us a game that realized the nonfiction of medieval Europe--warring countries, vicious slaughter, political intrigue carried out by greedy, power-hungry nobles, and a religious super power that didn't come even close to living up to its supposedly holy, peaceful philosophies (although granted, the church of medieval Europe wasn't quite so bad as to be mistakenly worshiping the Anti-Christ, but still, the core similarity's there). This was a game where the dark, fantastical nature of part of its plot, involving magic stones and hellish demons, actually kinda takes backseat in the player's interest to what would normally be background subplots of political intrigue and backstabbing (metaphorical AND literal). FFT's plot is terrific, the setting emphasizes it very well, and the cast has several key characters who are very well-created. Its quiet power over the player holds up today as well as it did when it was first released.
12. Knights of the Old Republic 2 (PC)
Yeah, it may be buggy as hell, and yes, it may seem like it's only 90% complete (because it basically is)...but Knights of the Old Republic 2 still manages to be spectacular. The game's great characters and plot not only entertain and have deep messages of humanity to convey, but also tie in very strongly to the source material, using the old and giving new perspectives on it (without just retelling a story you've already seen/read; I hate it when outside-media RPGs do that). KotOR2 has oodles of exquisite intellectual and philosophical content to tickle your brain with, particularly through the mouth of its main villain, and stays entertaining to the end, while never losing its origins' themes, settings, and atmosphere. This game may be the greatest expression of the soul of Star Wars ever made...and what an involving, nuanced soul it turns out to be.
11. Nier: Automata (PC)
Nier: Automata is 1 of the most philosophical games ever created. It's a good story on its surface level, to be sure, creative, complex, and exciting, with memorable characters and singular aesthetics...but where it really shines is in its smart, thoughtful approach to the questions, concepts, and conflicts of existentialism. It builds upon the great thinkers of the past who have grappled with this subject, referencing, considering, and even at times arguing with the words of famed philosophers like Nietzsche, Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre, to name only a few...but as it does this, Nier: Automata also uses the mechanics and audience's preconceptions of the video game, a new medium of expression that no previous philosopher has had a chance to utilize, to illustrate its points on existentialism as they never have been before, and even to forge ahead and discover new ground on the matter. Yoko Taro may very well be the next name that we recognize and add to the list of great philosophers who have explored the meaning of human existence, and Nier: Automata is the flagship work that will put him there.
10. Undertale (PC)
Undertale is a magnificent combination of heartwarming joy, great humor, Earthbound-styled surreal fun, sharp deconstruction and critique of RPGs, poignant emotion, creeping terror, a study of consequences, and insight into the dangers of combining godhood and boredom. With terrific characters you'll love, heartwarming scenes that'll put a tear in your eyes, creativity up the wazoo, and a unique and terrifying villain, Undertale is definitely 1 of the greatest games I've ever played. Anyone who scoffs at the idea that crowdfunded Indie RPGs can have comparable quality to what the rest of the gaming industry can produce has clearly never experienced Undertale.
9. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (PS2)
This is the first of the Shin Megami Tensei chunk of this list. SMTP3 is a refreshingly different, incredibly complex and layered story taking place in modern day Japan, all the while using the ideas and details of the Tarot Cards to provide the themes, events, and insights of the game's plot and characters. The main story is great, and the sidequest stories, known as Social Links, are even better. What I love about this game the most, though, and what really elevates it to this list, is how deep it really is when you start to look at its every aspect from the Tarot angle--there's always another level of meaning to the game's events, characters, ideas, and even gameplay to be found that goes back to connecting with the themes and insights of the Tarot deck, letting them provide ideas and meaning to the game and having the game's interpretation and employment of the cards in turn analyze and thoughtfully dissect the nature of Tarot cards and readings with the same level of depth and intelligence that other SMT titles (which you'll see below) do with more "mainstream" forms of spiritual belief. All that, AND it's still a beautiful, excellent story with some fantastic characters even at its surface level.
8. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2 (PS2)
I honestly cannot split these two games apart to give them credit; to take either game for itself only and not count its virtues in comparison to its sequel or predecessor is to deny the game praise it deserves. SMTDDS1 + 2 share a single plot that uses concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism for its foundation, taking the religions' ideas, beliefs, and mythology and using them to tell a story that is not only a very good adventure in its own right, but is an extremely creative and brilliantly insightful look into the Buddhism and Hinduism’s tenets. These are games that you can contemplate and debate for hours at a time, over and over again for as long as you like. I think the way that SMTDDS1 + 2's creators crafted their plot and characters to work with, analyze, espouse and harmonize the fascinating concepts of Hindu and Buddhist religious thought can honestly only be called genius, easily comparable to the way the games below, Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2, do with Christianity. In fact, SMTDDS1 + 2's genius is so comparable to SMT1 + 2's, it may be that the only reason I can put one series over the other is that I simply know more about the subject of SMT1 + 2 than I do about Hinduism and Buddhism, so I can just pick up on and more fully appreciate the former's insights than the latter's.
7. Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2 (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)
As with the Digital Devil Saga parts of the SMT series, these games really have to be counted as 2 parts of a whole, although they aren't connected as chronologically immediately. But they tell the same overall story in 2 parts, they have the same premise, and they're both brilliant in the same ways.
Wow. Just wow. Alright, these games, more than even Earthbound, lends credence to my belief that an RPG's true worth is independent from graphics and gameplay, relying only upon its plot, characters, and any other writing-related aspects. SMT1 + 2 are annoying to play and ugly to look at, with crude 1st-Person dungeons almost no more advanced than those of Phantasy Star 1 on the Sega Master System, and with an annoying level of difficulty that inspires far more frustration than sense of challenge.
But man, the plot of these games? The general ideas? Magnificent. I stand firm in my believe that SMT1 and 2 are some of the most brilliant RPGs I've come across, closer to classic literature than they are to a Final Fantasy or other game of their genre. I did a rant on this before, so I'll be brief--SMT1 brings you to, through, and past apocalypse on Earth, to a world of warring deities and mythological creatures of every culture's legends, where you choose whether to ally yourself with God, Lucifer, or to deny both and stand for humanity alone. The game puts forth insightful ideas and philosophies on Christianity, humanity as a whole, belief, and logic vs. emotion, all while featuring a myriad group of mythological individuals that you can fight against or ally with, depending on whether you agree with the ideals of the game's take on God or Lucifer, or disagree with them entirely. Like many truly great works (heck, like most truly great works on the same subject of Christian mythology), this title is a chore to get through, but very worthwhile and intelligent.
SMT2 does pretty much everything SMT1 does, often better, while improving the character development (which was admittedly slight in the first game) and raising the stakes--while the first game's events decided whether the forces of God, Humanity, or Lucifer gained authority over the last nation of humanity, this game determines for good whether the future of the world will be based upon chaotic emotion, lawful divinity, or neutral self-determination, and you actually meet the two individuals calling each side's shots this time. There's really nothing more to say here; SMT2 is simply a logical step up in quality and scope from the already impressive SMT1, and together, both games represent incredible creativity, philosophical insight, and writing in general.
6. Final Fantasy 9 (PS1)
FF9, the best game of the RPG genre's poster series. A neat and imaginative plot combines with a great cast of deep and memorable characters to deliver an experience both new and old to any fan of the series--meant to be a nostalgic throw-back to the earlier games in the series, yet holding much of the play style and general plot progression of the (then) newer games, as well. Funny thing is, the game meant to serve as a reminder, a remix of sorts, turned out to be so well-constructed and well-written that it stands on its own better than the rest of the series does.
5. Wild Arms 3 (PS2)
Wild Arms 3. What is there to say, but that it is simply magnificent? You get a terrific protagonist by any counts who completely reworks RPG protagonist gender differences, a rival who is actually the most appealing character in the game instead of the least (and who actually has decent character depth, too!), a supporting cast that's solidly appealing and never just forgotten and pushed aside for the main people to get more development time, a long and really imaginative plot, an actual attempt by the Wild Arms series to deliver on their promise of a Wild West-themed setting (for the first and still last time!), several really interesting villains, and a never-ending sense of purpose, direction, and effort with the game's progression--no one ever just stops being developed. You get gripping characters, particularly in the case of the protagonist, to the end. I fucking LOVE Wild Arms 3, and can't recommend it enough.
4. Chrono Trigger (SNES)
For the better part of a decade, it was unthinkable to me that CT would ever be anything less than the best RPG ever made. While it was, eventually, ousted from the top spot beyond all expectations, this game remains, in my opinion, the ultimate classic RPG, a truly perfect expression of originality and fun. If you want a great set of characters that you'll remember forever having an exciting and creative adventure involving a fairly simple, adequately well-reasoned time-travel plot***, or just the best RPG the older generation of games has to offer, Chrono Trigger is it.
3. Suikoden 2 (PS1)
There are a few games from the PS1 whose copies can be sold for over $100, sometimes over $200--or, if you’re looking for an unopened copy, even 500 fucking dollars on Amazon. Suikoden 2, though, is the only one that I can say, with no personal doubt whatever, is 100% worth that price.**** This game's superb characters and epic plot pull at your emotions, give you cause to think and contemplate, and, really, probably leave you at the end a better, more understanding person than you were at its beginning. Suikoden 2 is the kind of game where if you’re not shedding tears multiple times over its course, you might just have to have someone box you up and send you in for repairs, because your Human Imitation Program is clearly malfunctioning.
2. Planescape: Torment (PC)
To play Planescape: Torment is to be amazed. There were times in this game where the masterful writing just left me stunned. And I mean that. Stunned as in sitting in my chair, staring at the screen, unmoving, utterly blown away by what I had just read, seen, contemplated, felt. This plot-heavy RPG wonder is insightful, creative, clever, entertaining, and moving, using the cool, expansive setting of the Dungeons and Dragons planes (and you KNOW you've got a cool game when a demonic war that spans across a twisted rope of connected realities for all time is just the BACKGROUND to the game's focus) to tell a story of a man that can't die, and his search for answers and identity through a complex world of truth and lies, magic and technology, reality and the formless, examining the essence of mortality, the power of torment, and asking the question infamous of this game: What can change the nature of a man? Well, Planescape: Torment is so amazing and engrossing, that you may very well find that your answer to that question is "This game."
1. Grandia 2 (PS2)
Grandia 2, to me, is to modern***** RPGs what Chrono Trigger was to the older generation. The game has an involving plot that goes from average to seriously interesting quickly but subtly, sneaking up on you with its quality and several really interesting, creative plot twists that you honestly will not see coming. It also has one of the greatest RPG casts ever assembled--not a single member of Grandia 2 is bland or badly-developed, each of them has a lot of characterization to go through, and most of them redefine their character archetype to be something new, original, and deep. Grandia 2 is not just an exceptionally fine game, it's also one that reminds you of the power of subtle creativity--so many aspects of this game's plot and characters are the kind of stuff you see in all kinds of other games, shows, animes, etc; yet Grandia 2 takes each one's cliched foundation and builds something new, different, and excellent with it that both interests you and refreshes your interest in the old cliches and what can still be done with them. Give this game a chance, and you'll love it to pieces. I don't know if I'll ever encounter a better game than this one, but if I don't, I can be well-satisfied with what I've got.
Honorable Mention 1: Mass Effect 3, with MEHEM Installed (PC)
If not for the ending, Mass Effect 3 would have been on the main list above, as it is the greatest entry in the amazing trilogy, even outclassing the original Mass Effect! Full of unparalleled emotion, a terrific cast, an engaging plot, poignant and epic moments, and a ton of really interesting ideas, Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece...except that it ends so unimaginably badly, as I have noted countless times before, that it actually physically sickens me to think about. You never know just how horrible an ending can be, just how much it can damage your happiness and the quality of an entire series, until you play Mass Effect 3.
However, with the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod installed, you can play Mass Effect 3 with the confidence of knowing that you're headed for a well-made, appropriate, strong ending to the series. I've done a rant on this mod's virtues, but suffice to say, it has restored ME3 to its rightful place of excellence and now I can actually put it on this list. Since it requires outside intervention to correct it and make it a real Mass Effect, I'll keep ME3 as an Honorable Mention, instead of giving it an actual place on the list, but it sure as hell is never losing its spot here. And if you're interested, I'd say Mass Effect 3 with MEHEM would qualify for 9th place here, right between Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and SMT Digital Devil Saga.
Honorable Mention 2: Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer Expansion (PC)
On its own, Neverwinter Nights 2 is no more than passable, an acceptable but largely unremarkable Dungeons and Dragons venture that ranks somewhere between the original, bland Neverwinter Nights 1, and the moderately okay Baldur’s Gate 1. I couldn’t figure out, playing through it, why everyone praised it so damn much.
Then I finished the main campaign and moved onto its sequel-expansion, Mask of the Betrayer.
You know how I have this perpetual hard-on for Chris Avellone’s works? Hell, 4 RPGs with which he’s had significant involvement occupy spots in this rant already. Except that it’s now 5, because the Mask of the Betrayer expansion for Neverwinter Nights 2 is goddamn fucking incredible. Deep, meaningful, insightful, intensely creative, Mask of the Betrayer is the reason to play Neverwinter Nights 2, make no mistake. This expansion is more fiercely thoughtful and intelligent than most of the RPGs I mention above, approaching grand ideas and concepts of humanity and our connection to one another with the same level of excellence and care that you see in Knights of the Old Republic 2, and even Planescape: Torment. It also has a great cast to help bring its weighty thoughts and themes to life.
Mask of the Betrayer isn’t a game in its own right (and it requires you to have played the lengthy, somewhat humdrum main campaign for you to appreciate it to its fullest), so it doesn’t exactly qualify for a space on the main list itself. Nonetheless, it is far too excellent not to be mentioned here in some capacity, so I’m giving it an Honorable Mention. And if you’re interested, I would say that, if I were to count this as its own game and put it on the list proper, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer would qualify for the 11th place here, between Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Undertale.
Honorable Mention 3: Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod (PC)
With these honorable mentions, we've given applause to an RPG that's amazing just so long as you mod out its 1 self-destructive moment, and an expansion that is by itself the entire reason to own its game and an adventure of nearly unparalleled intellectual virtue...let's do 1 final Greatest RPG Honorable Mention, then, for 1 final category that isn't quite right in the official list, but is too good not to pay homage to within this rant: fan-created campaign mods.
The Calfree Trilogy mods for the Shadowrun games as a whole are utterly amazing, and are arguably the best part of owning the PC Shadowrun games. Of the Calfree Trilogy, though, the final game in the series, Calfree in Chains, is the best. I did a whole rant on the trilogy that covers most of my points here, so let me just summarize: if you're a huge Shadowrun fan who wants to see more of the universe's history explored, enjoying the classic Shadowrun thrills of runs, heists, and socio-political commentary, then you NEED to play this mod. But if you're just a gamer who wants to play a story of great emotional depth, high quality of substance, with a great and memorable cast you can meaningfully engage with and shape, gut-wrenching and unexpected twists, beautiful romance, and masterful narrative style that adeptly uses themes and foreshadowing, then you NEED to play this mod. It's just a truly excellent product overall, and if it were on this list, it would occupy the 22nd spot, between Grandia 1 and Torment: Tides of Numenera.
...I swear one of these days I'm gonna have a small list rant that is faster to write than a long regular rant. It's gonna happen. Really.
* Yes, I know I mentioned, earlier on this list, that Mother 3 had a lot of great humor, and it’s true. But ultimately, it doesn't incorporate the silly and amusing so integrally into its story and characters that you could call it a comedy. Disgaea 1, on the other hand, does.
** Er, most of the time. The prequels were garbage, and the animated stuff that went with them was at best so-so. But most everything else is good!
*** Sure, there are some fair paradoxes, but, y'know, not much that doesn't come up with any other time-travel story. And frankly, RPG-wise, CT's about as good a time-travel plot as you're gonna get--most, I've noticed, are either silly and pointless (Dark Cloud 2, Final Fantasy 8, Robotrek), have the time travel stuff only be plot twists rather than serious parts of the story (Dark Cloud 1, Kingdom Hearts 2, Rogue Galaxy), or they strand the cast in the past for at least 3/4ths of the game so that the time travel aspect doesn't even seem to be present (Star Ocean 1, Tales of Phantasia). Chrono Trigger's one of a small few who do a good job with it in a major way.
**** Not that you shouldn't seek out a means to pay substantially less to play it, if possible. I'm just saying that if the only option were to pay that much for it, it'd be 1 of the few games actually worth it.
***** “Modern” clearly being a very subjective term.