Lists are a necessary evil in our line of work. They're fun to write, they're fun to argue over, and they pay the bills. They're also mostly subjective, which is one reason I'm usually content to let them pass without comment. But I'm going to have to take issue with Game Informer choosing Skyrim as the best RPG in their recent Top 100 list: It's not.
I say this as someone with plenty of love in her heart for Skyrim, which retains a loyal following to this day. It's striking to look at; it's huge, and it's ambitious. Skyrim's dragon battles in particular are some of the most memorable gaming experiences I've ever had. But whether you judge an RPG on its story, its systems, or its raw roleplaying, Skyrim comes up short.
So let's break this down really quickly. Skyrim is famous for being a huge open-world RPG—one that attempts to translate triple-A setpieces into a massive sandbox. At its best, it can be awe-inspiring. At its worst, it looks something like the image above.
Those who are critical of Skyrim—and Skyrim has a legion of detractors—tend to focus on its story. In typical Bethesda fashion, it sets up a really interesting conflict between the racist Nords and the expansionist Empire, then completely loses the plot about halfway through, forcing you into a binary decision in which you have to choose one faction or another. In a series that's ostensibly about the freedom to forge your own path, that's unforgivable.
But that's Elder Scrolls for you: a series that cares more about the illusion of freedom than the actual substance of it. Sure, you can get married to a werewolf and join the Assassin's Guild; but when it comes time to make a real difference in the world, Skyrim flinches. Its determination to tell a particular story inevitably comes at the expense of the illusion of agency, railroading players into a choice that they don't want to make. This is Fallout 4's problem as well, by the way.
For those who are more systems oriented, Skyrim is equally disappointing. You're overpowered almost from the start, able to easily jump between multiple skill trees while wielding magic and powerful attack abilities. There's little strategy to Skyrim's combat, which typically entails crouching in the shadows and sniping enemies from afar, then spamming the Dragonborn's Shout powers when they get too close.
Where Skyrim excels is in being, well, big. It features a memorable world with a ton of quests to complete. It has some really memorable setpieces, and it lets you do things like become a vampire. The Assassin's Guild and Mage's College quests in particular are a delight. For that reason, I've typically been one of Skyrim's foremost defenders on the USgamer staff.
But best RPG of all time? Oh no. Oh definitely not.
There are just too many superior experiences out there to call an RPG largely propped up by its modding community the best of all time. If you want a superior story, there's Planescape Torment and Persona 4. If you want great systems, you can play Divinity: Original Sin. And if you want an RPG with a memorable open world, then for god's sake, play The Witcher 3.
Skyrim will certainly live on as one of the most popular games of all time; but as an RPG fan, I'm loathe to overstate its relative merits. It's relatively successful in its (extremely ambitious) goals, but despite its ongoing popularity, it's too flawed to seriously call the best RPG of all time. And that's all I've got to say about that.
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