Our razed forests, oceans full of plastic, and ever-growing list of extinct species speak to how badly humans suck as stewards of the planet. Yet, most of us love animals. We appreciate them for the hard work they do, we enjoy their company, and we can always count on them to jazz up a dull day (not counting when raccoons massacre garbage bins).
Our innate love for animals carries over to RPGs, where many of us gravitate towards available animal companions—even when said companions aren't any more exotic than a dog or a hamster. There's something to be said for having a stalwart four-legged friend by your side while the drama inherent to a troubled fantasy world boils up around you. When your enemies taunt you, and when your friends lose heart and mock you, you can bet your animal pals will be there during the party's stormiest moments.
Bestial party members can also jazz up redundant fights. Human (and human-passing) party members usually wield swords, spears, and axes, but animal friends have to improvise because they lack our handy-dandy opposable thumbs. Oftentimes, animal companions can deliver bone-shattering bites to the bad guys but can't equip armor. In other words, they're glass cannons, albeit adorable glass cannons with wet noses.
There are a lot of animal companions that deserve to be honored in RPGs, but we managed to narrow down five of the genre's very best boys and girls:
Koromaru (Persona 3)
Persona 3's Koromaru embodies everything that's good and pure about dogs. Not only will this albino Shiba inu fight to the death as a loyal party member, but his past also echoes the loyalty of Hachiko. Both Koromaru and Hachiko wait unfailingly for dead owners who'll never return to them, but whereas Hachiko still waits faithfully as a famous statue in Shibuya, Koromaru eventually packs up his master's memory and carries it with him as he joins your party.
Like all great dogs, Koromaru is a fierce fighter and a loyal friend. You can take him on walks, which helps you form other vital social links with Persona 3's cast. Interestingly, despite his sweet nature, Koromaru's Persona is Cerberus—the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades in Greco-Roman mythology. Koromaru's alliance with Cerberus gives the pupper command over dark, powerful spells capable of instantly wiping out anyone who picks a fight with you. Aww, he knows how to stain his fur crimson with the blood of his enemies! Whoosa good boy?
Saber (Dragon Quest 5)
Dragon Quest 5 took the #8 spot on our ranking of the 25 best RPGs for several good reasons. One of the best reasons is the game's monster-taming system that lets you catch beasties and add them to your party as competent fighters.
One such monster is Saber, a Great Sabrecub who turns out to be your first monster recruit after you save the little tyke from some tormenters. Saber doesn't remain a cub for long, though. As Dragon Quest V's storyline crawls across three generations, Saber grows into his role as a beloved family pet. He's loving and gentle with you, your wife, and your children, but Rubiss help anyone who winds up on the business end of his fangs.
Out of all the monsters you can recruit in Dragon Quest V, few beat Saber for raw power. He can't use magic, but with his slashing teeth and claws, he hardly needs to. Whenever I play this classic 16-bit RPG, I invariably wind up keeping Saber by my side. Why break up such a nice family?
Interceptor (Final Fantasy 6)
Final Fantasy 6 pops in at #4 on our list of the Top 25 RPGs of All Time. As with Dragon Quest 5, Final Fantasy 6 earns its accolades for several reasons. In my heart, Interceptor is one of those reasons.
Interceptor is a ferocious Doberman mix who stays close to his master, the ninja Shadow. Though you don't control Interceptor's actions on the field, he's useful for his tendency to absorb a hit for Shadow, then counter-attack with a physical blow that just decimates foes. Sometimes he even runs through the air like a black-and-tan Pegasus to exact vengeance on the monster that dares lay a claw on Shadow. Lots of dogs know tricks, but "defy gravity, boy!" sure is something.
But there's more to Interceptor than his riving teeth. He tells part of Final Fantasy 6's story in his own strong, silent way. Shadow is haunted by nightmares of his past as a train robber named Clyde Arrowny, and the youngest party member in Final Fantasy 6, Realm, has at least one nightmare of her own (to see it, you need to let Shadow die on the Floating Continent like the monster you are, then rescue Relm in the Veldt Cave instead). While Relm and Shadow's dreams seem disconnected from one another, there are two vital dreams where we see Interceptor leave Relm, his former mistress, to chase after Clyde when he abandons his domestic life in Thamasa and becomes Shadow.
Ten billion unanswered questions about Shadow's past remain decades later. Why did Clyde/Shadow leave Relm and subsequently keep his identity from her? What made Interceptor abandon his old home in favor of hitting the road with Shadow? Did Clyde's train-robbing past catch up to him, forcing him to beat a hasty retreat? Did Interceptor decide "OK, I gotta take care of this dork?" The answers aren't clear, but what else do you expect from a story thread delivered by a dog?
Boo the Hamster (Baldur's Gate)
Much of this list is dedicated to celebrating animals of significant size and ferocity, but we shouldn't discriminate. Even animals that are technically small enough to squash with your careless butt have a lot of fight in them. A good example is Boo, the "miniature giant space hamster" belonging to the towering human Ranger, Minsc.
Now, Boo is probably a regular old hamster. He certainly owns the demure stature hamsters are known for. But when Minsc orders Boo to claw out his enemies' eyes, the little rodent's size and place of birth become irrelevant. There's a reason why the rat scene from 1984 is probably still burned into your mind, right? Point is, Minsc's bulk and Boo's lightning-quick movements make for an inseparable team. Minsc even credits his best ideas and strategies to Boo. It's kind of touching.
That said, maybe it's not fair to suggest Boo is of common hamster blood. He actually makes cameos in Mass Effect (where you can buy a "space hamster" at a pet shop) and Torment: Tides of Numenera (where the trader Madelia keeps a rodent named "Bu" in a sphere orbiting her head). I admit that's some kind of secret hamster power right there.
Dogmeat (Fallout series)
Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson once drew a single-panel comic of some Vikings returning to their ship loaded down with stolen loot and kidnapped women. A dog waits at the prow of the ship, its tail wagging furiously. When people asked Larson what the cartoon meant, he said that no matter how big of a jerk you are, your dog is always happy to see you.
I think of that cartoon and Larson's (very correct) explanation whenever I travel with Dogmeat in a Fallout game. Though Dogmeat looks and acts a bit differently in each wasteland he visits, his sense of purpose never wavers. He fights for you and he protects you. It doesn't matter how awful you are to other people. Dogmeat doesn't judge.
Dogmeat also scores big points for simply letting us experience the "wasteland wanderer and their dog" trope popularized by works of fiction like Mad Max 2 and A Boy and his Dog. Having a dog by your side when the rest of the world is out to get you (whether justifiably or not) isn't just good safety sense: It's also comforting on a primal level. When we were hunter-gatherers, dogs helped protect us from predators. Games like Fallout, especially Fallout 4, take us back to those early days when our loyal canines were our only defense against the cold and the dark.
In the end, maybe that's why so many animal companions in RPGs touch our hearts. We're all a little scared, and we're all in need of a friend who will eviscerate our enemies without judgement. Just don't forget to listen to our accompanying Axe of the Blood God episode about animal companions in RPGs. We list off a whole mess of dogs, cats, and miscellaneous who didn't make this list but are still worth a pat on the head.