These are my choices for Top 5 Essential WRPGs
. Top 5 Essential JRPGs
are on the first page, and Honorable Mentions
are right below this.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
This is it. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is largely an exercise in destroying the simplified good/evil moral systems found in countless RPGs. It is only fitting that Ultima IV, the most essential WRPG, is also an exercise in developing a more complex moral system.
The difference between Nocturne and Ultima IV? Ultima IV came out in 1985. It is both the literal beginning of morality systems, and arguably the beginning of choice and consequence. Perhaps more importantly, it is still a standard for morality mechanics that, in many respects, has yet to be surpassed.
Other than an ambiguous satisfaction in knowing that you're playing arguably the most important PC game ever made, the experience of playing Ultima IV is one of realizing how underwhelming many story-driven WRPGs have become. In Ultima IV, there are no ultimate evils threatening the world; there are no binary conversation options, or Paragon/Renegade/etc. simplifications. Ultima IV is a game not mainly about combat, but rather about moral growth. The Avatar's quest is one to discover the Eight Virtues, not to discover a legendary sword or an ancient treasure.
It is the first, and still one of the best, games to challenge you to think about your own ethical and moral preconceptions. Like Nocturne and Earthbound, it is an abstraction and codification of an internal process, the one by which we form values, beliefs, and convictions. It takes those mechanisms and adapts them into a D&D-styled video-game, requiring you both to navigate imposing dungeons, and to cultivate your own sense of virtue and integrity.
Though obviously a product of its time, Ultima IV is the Battleship Potemkin of video-games: a manifesto of artistic value, the first foray into a realm beyond arcade games and D&D-inspired campaigns. For games that aspire to be more than pure entertainment, this is both the groundwork and the literal ground zero. The classic of all classics, and essential in this context is an understatement.
In Dungeons & Dragons, there are two kinds of Dungeon Masters.
The first is what we might call the "Larian" DM. His campaign is systems, systems, systems. Let the dice fly high. Combat is everywhere, and it is meticulously crafted. The only good Beholder is a dead Beholder. Beware the mimics. Divinity: Original Sin is probably the best representation of this style.
But the second kind of DM is the "Black Isle" DM. Gameplay systems, combat, etc., are a part of the campaign, sure. But the focus is on the role-playing itself. On building the characters and building the world. On grappling not with a goblin, but with complex moral decisions. Wrestling with philosophical concepts rather than living skeletons.
In that second style, no WRPG has matched - let alone approached - Planescape: Torment.
Planescape's Sigil is the most well-realized setting in the entire medium. Colorful fountains of words literally spring from almost every object, every NPC, every line of dialogue. It is all the world-building potency of a good book, except accompanied by a phenomenal soundtrack rather than the occasional sound of you turning the page.
At Planescape's core is a grippingly personal story of loss, recovery, and redemption (or not...), of an immortal man searching for the fragments of himself, and discovering a new self along the way. The quality of the writing, both in terms of the plot and in terms of the dialogue and descriptors, has no equal (unfortunately not even amongst the other Black Isle and Troika games, in my opinion).
To this day, Planescape remains the only WRPG that really captures the feeling of sitting at a table, and watching a master DM do his thing. With the lights low and the night going on, a few guys sit around him, and he carefully describes the city you've just entered. And if you close your eyes, you can see
it. The grimy streets, the broken windows, the horse-drawn carriages sheltering the traveling nobility from the sweltering refuse of the stone streets. Planescape is that experience in video-game format; with nothing but words and some late 90s WRPG graphics, it conveys a haunting, evocative image of the Planes that seems to sprawl in front of you, immersing you in one of the most unique and interesting RPG settings out there.
Sure, Planescape stumbles a bit on its clunky combat, and some sequences in the final third could've used some balancing, but its flaws melt away in light of how much it gets so right. The storytelling gold standard both for RPGs, and for video-games as a whole.
Divinity: Original Sin
Speaking of Divinity...
I've often felt that D&D's influence might've been a restricting influence on WRPGs, pigeon-holing them into certain settings or gameplay systems right off the bat. The over-reliance on these mechanics has made me ambivalent towards a lot of the more notable games in the genre, and I still find it a bit disappointing that WRPGs didn't take cues from Ultima, de-emphasizing D&D systems and instead prioritizing unique world-building and NPC interactions.
The problem, though, wasn't necessarily the D&D framework. Divinity: Original Sin is a game engineered to essentially be D&D in WRPG form, and it succeeds incredibly well. Why? Because Larian understands
Divinity is a game about two things: freedom and consequences. These two elements, while seemingly unrelated, are very important counterparts. Total freedom with no consequences leads to Skyrim, where the player can do everything non-exclusively, cheapening the entire experience as a result. Consequences with no freedom, while much rarer than the other option, leads to games like Arcanum, where build decisions and dialogue options can negatively affect too much of the experience, with no real way to mitigate or recover from the disadvantages imposed.
Divinity strikes the perfect balance of doling out consequences for your decisions, while simultaneously giving you the freedom to solve the problems those consequences create. I can't speak for other players, but Divinity's thoughtful design actually encouraged me to shift away from the min-maxing mentality, and back into the mentality of pure role-playing. Sure, this dialogue option will lock me out of that quest; but I can accomplish the same thing in a different, more roundabout way anyway. The game doesn't require strict adherence to its own internal logic; instead, it encourages strict adherence to the character that you've created, and the kind of story you want that character to be in. That
is the root of D&D, and a hugely commendable thing to accomplish in a WRPG.
It also bears mentioning that Divinity's combat is arguably the best turn-based combat in all of RPGs, and almost certainly in WRPGs. The decision to go turn-based rather than RTwP was an important one; I always viewed RTwP as a bizarre experiment that added too much chaos for a slight increase in speed and intensity, and Divinity's more free-form approach to environmental manipulation wouldn't have worked nearly as well in that context.
A banner WRPG from the last few years, a modern classic, and one that will almost certainly be replaced by its sequel that just came out. Nevertheless, at the moment, it is unquestionably one of the essential WRPGs.
Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
In my opinion, the modern WRPG began with the first Knights of the Old Republic. Using Star Wars as a backdrop, it was really an opportunity for Bioware to perfect their formula. That formula, emphasizing character dynamics, cinematic presentation, and toned-down gameplay for accessibility purposes, is still alive and kicking.
But we're not here to talk about the first KOTOR.
KOTOR II is what happens when people who are good at making classic WRPGs get a hold of the Star Wars license. Unlike Bioware's work on KOTOR, KOTOR II doesn't just use the Star Wars property as incidental commercial branding. Rather, Obsidian took Star Wars as a whole, and did the unthinkable: broke the time-honored Light/Dark moral dichotomy down into various shades of grey. I'm sure by now you've noticed a trend in my RPG tastes. Big fan of interesting moral systems, because an interactive narrative is the absolute best way to explore those themes organically and meaningfully.
Though unfortunately marred by production woes and cut content that was thankfully restored by the incredible fan community, KOTOR II is a fantastic combination of modern, cinematic WRPG style, and old-school choice and consequence. Obsidian's Black Isle heritage is on full display, as each of your main party members brings a little thematic nugget to the table, combining to form a fairly comprehensive exploration of the Force and the implications of absolutist moral positions in the context of social and political upheaval. Kreia, for my money, is the best-written character in any video-game.
Where KOTOR II really shines, though, is in its cast of villains. Each of the Sith Lords featured in the game play off of each other perfectly, offering some interesting insight into the way that the Dark Side both empowers and corrupts. The final Sith Lord's ultimate plan is the most interesting philosophical conundrum that has come out of the Star Wars franchise.
Even in its vanilla form, the strength of the themes and dialogue would earn KOTOR II a spot on any essentials list. But with the Restored Content Mod, it's simply a no-brainer. KOTOR II is the most interesting story to emerge from the Star Wars mega-franchise (and yes, I've read a ton of the EU books), and beyond its technical flaws and troubled development, it is a classic that stands toe to toe with the WRPGs of the late 90s.
Last, but certainly not least, is the entry that probably isn't even an RPG.
The immersive sim has always been a hard genre to pin down. Part of the issue is that its roots were in Ultima, which is unquestionably a WRPG. But by time we got to Thief, System Shock, and Deus Ex, that distinction became a bit more problematic.
I won't go into my guidelines for what I consider an RPG; I'll merely say that I consider Ultima Underworld an RPG, and by extension I consider Prey an RPG. And what an RPG it is - it brings the classic immersive sim, kicking and screaming, into the modern era, gaining accessibility and QoL improvements without sacrificing depth, and casting the player into a sprawling, meticulously-designed spaceship that would do System Shock proud.
Prey's greatest strength is, in fact, that spaceship. The game's setting is incredibly well-realized, and its layers of rooms and facilities open up in a natural, Metroid-esque way, rewarding exploration while also subtly guiding the player towards the next area of interest. The crew that once inhabited the ship are mostly long gone, but the notes, emails, and audio logs they left behind gradually paint an intriguing picture of office politics and everyday life aboard the ship, with a sinister undercurrent of corporate greed and dangerous secrets. The plot, tied to these piecemeal environmental details, unfolds organically, and culminates in an absolutely fantastic and thought-provoking twist.
While combat is merely serviceable, traversal and puzzle-solving options are truly inspired, and the almost obsessive attention to detail and quality level design propel the entire experience into the realm of the classic games of the genre.
Regardless of where you fall in the debate over whether immersive sims constitute RPGs, Prey remains a stunning achievement in world-building, level design, and gameplay options, and a fantastic story of an isolated community falling prey both to monsters within and monsters without. It is the culmination of an entire subgenre, a modern masterpiece, and an essential WRPG.
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<FULL POINT GAMES – 2 points>
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Divinity: Original Sin
Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
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