This week our community question focuses on the humble RPG. To be clear, it can be any kind of RPG, from an oldschool 80's example to a sprawling, modern-day MMORPG. All we want to know is - which one is your all-time favorite?
While you ponder the vast range of games to choose from, here are the titles you'll find at the very top of Team USG's favorite RPGs list.
Good grief, this question. Why not ask me who my relative is while you're at it?
After giving this a few hours deliberation, I have decided… to give up. Instead of picking a single favorite RPG ever, which I frankly cannot do, I've decided to go with the one that had the most impact on me personally: Secret of Mana.
When I say "most impact," I mean in terms of shaping my taste in games. If you want emotional impact, I'd have to point to Dragon Quest V, which gets me totally verklempt at several points in the story. If you want to talk about time invested, that's probably going to be Final Fantasy Tactics, Skyrim, or Dragon Quest IX. But for raw revelatory influence, that's Secret of Mana.
I know I've mentioned in one of these community pieces or on Retronauts or somewhere that Secret of Mana was the game that pulled me back in right when I decided I'd outgrown video games. But more germane to this particular discussion, it was the game that made me realize that, oh yes, RPGs are actually pretty fantastic. I'd played a fair few RPGs by the time Secret of Mana arrived, starting dutifully with Dragon Warrior and working my way through both American Final Fantasy releases to date (we do not talk about Mystic Quest). I'd dabbled in dungeon crawlers like Swords & Serpents and Arcana, oddball hybrids like Tombs & Treasures and The Magic of Scheherazade, and quite a few action RPGs — some good, like SoulBlazer and Crystalis, some not so good, like Lagoon and the Super NES version of Wanderers from Ys.
Secret of Mana, however, really brought it all together. It combined the action combat of The Legend of Zelda with some remarkably deep role-playing mechanics, with spells, weapons, and characters alike to be leveled up. It managed to translate the concept of a multi-character party into an action format with variable AI — you could adjust each computer-controlled character's behavior with a simple grid, swap instantly between active party members, and even let a second (and third!) player take control of the supporting cast.
A big part of Secret of Mana's appeal came from its presentation. Not only did it have great visuals and memorable music, it alternated between moods fluidly — mournful here, silly there, unafraid to put ancient superweapon superfortresses, a journey through the ruins of the modern world, the death of the player's mother, and a mission to save Santa Claus all in the same story. At the time, I associated RPG mechanics with ugly little tile-based games and slow, menu-driven combat; the idea that a game could contain the substance of an RPG while still looking great and playing seamlessly (thanks in part to the brilliant ring menu system) was nothing less than a revelation. More engrossing than Crystalis, less limited than Capcom's Willow, deeper and more grandiose than SoulBlazer, Secret of Mana nailed the action RPG concept brilliantly and made me a fan of watching numbers rise steadily, whatever the format. What a great game.
I've never been that much of a role-playing fan. Certainly not in the early days of the genre. I'm more of an arcade/action person. Not that RPGs don't have any action - it's just for the most part I just like my gameplay to be straightforward, immediate, and visceral.
So for many years I just ignored RPGs, and indeed JRPGs. I tried playing them occasionally, but just didn't find them particularly rewarding. But then in 1999, a friend of mine told me about a game called Asheron's Call in which you could travel around a massive, contiguous world, fighting monsters and picking up loot - "in 3D". I remember him telling me, "you can see mountains in the distance, and if you keep walking towards them, you end up there."
It sounded incredible, so I started playing, and it was indeed a revelation. This didn't feel like one of those old-fashioned RPGs where you felt disconnected from combat, or were wandering around the same-looking dungeons step-by-step for the sake of it. There were missions, quests, specific monsters to take down. It was dynamic and action-packed, and the whole time your character was growing and evolving - thanks both to the experience he or she was earning, and the gear that you were picking up along the way. I absolutely loved it, and became hooked on the game for some five years before World of Warcraft came along and seduced me away to its brighter, shinier, bigger and more sophisticated next-generation MMO world.
I've been playing Blizzard's MMO for 10 years now, and by rights it should be my favorite RPG of all time. I've put thousands upon thousands of hours into the game, and still play it nightly. But there's something about Asheron's Call that I still love. I went back to it about a year ago and ran around for a while - amazingly, it's still up and running some 16 years after its first appearance. However, I found I couldn't actually play it anymore. It's so complex, clunky and oldschool: buffing takes ages (requiring you to buff individual spells and particular defenses on every piece of your armor), combat is slow and tedious, the penalty for death is absolutely horrid, and I could barely remember how to to do anything. It was a disappointment, but then what did I expect? I can't recapture the magic and excitement of playing my first MMO, barely believing just how damn cool it was. All its complexities and penalties were not an issue back then. That was the standard, and you just got on with it.
But playing it again did remind me just how much fun I had with it back in the day: it brought back so many memories. Camping one of the Asheron's Call houses for days so I could buy my first online property, tracking down rare ingredients so I could craft specific weapons, and completing certain top-end quests like Aerlinthe were all huge milestones in my gaming life. And that's why I'm choosing Asheron's Call as my all-time favorite RPG. Even though it might look old and clunky these days, and I might never be able to recapture its magic ever again, it was my first true RPG love, and because of that, it still has a very special place in my heart.
Let the internal screaming commence! There's so many great choices for this. Off the top of my head, I can go with Persona 4, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, Secret of Mana, Mass Effect 2, or Breath of Fire IV. But if I had to clone and really lay into myself to find the right answer, everything would come back to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Star Wars was a large part of my formative years and an essential bedrock of my childhood. The Expanded Universe formed the backbone of my teenage years, to the point that I have every Star Wars novel up until the 'Fate of the Jedi' arc. I love Star Wars, but up until Knights of the Old Republic, I had never played a Star Wars game that captured what I loved about the universe. (Super Star Wars/Empire/Return were just platformers with Star Wars bolted on.)
Knights of the Old Republic was an eye-opener. Bioware took the Star Wars universe to an unexplored period of time, when force-users were in their prime. I remember booting it up in my original child-sized Xbox and being completely enthralled. I loved the crew aboard the Ebon Hawk: Bastila, the vanilla Carth, HK-47, and the cantankerous Jolee Bindo. Wandering Dantooine, Tatooine, and Kashyyyk, becoming a Jedi or Sith, smiting fools who dared talk back; I finished the game and re-loaded again to try out different paths.
That was the first Star Wars game I fully bought into. It was my first Bioware ever, kicking off my affinity for the studio's work. I had also not been a large PC RPG player back in the day, so KOTOR had me going back to play those classic titles like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. Knights of the Old Republic was a major turning point in my gaming history and for that I'll always be grateful.
Man, I really loved Persona 4. Dragon Quest V, Dark Souls, Pokemon, Super Robot Wars, and Final Fantasy VIII all have special places in my heart. But I'm going to have to go with my old favorite: Valkyrie Profile.
Valkyrie Profile came to me at an impressionable age. Having finished and adored Final Fantasy VI through VIII, as well as a handful of other Square games, I was hungry for something new. Along came Valkyrie Profile, which hit all my RPG sweet spots: memorable music, terrific art, combo-based combat, and a really good story. I bought it on launch day and loved every second of it.
It's not an easy game to sum up in a few sentences, so if you want a more in-depth take on it, go here. Basically, you play a Valkyrie dispatched to gather up the souls of dead warriors ahead of Ragnarok. Every action takes up a bit of time; so ready or not, you'll have to eventually face the end of the world.
Looking back, Valkyrie Profile has a few problems with slow pacing; and its battle system can get a little repetitive, based as it is on building up a combo meter and unleashing a super attack. But those niggling problems are forgivable in the way that it truly puts you in the boots of Lenneth Valkyrie, forcing you to unravel the mystery of your own origins even while risking the wrath of Odin. In a world where so many gamers now expect to have their hand held as they are guided from Point A to Point B, Valkyrie Profile is subversive and exciting. It's a game where doing exactly as you're told will cause you to fail.
I highly recommend checking it out if you haven't already. Sadly, unlike classic RPGs, it's pretty tough to find these days. The sadly inferior PSP version can be found cheap on Amazon on the like, but the original PlayStation game will run you as much as $300. Now that Suikoden II is finally out on PSN, here's hoping that Sony also rescues Valkyrie Profile from obscurity. Until then, take my word for it: Valkyrie Profile is an all-time classic.
As with Jeremy, figuring out my favorite RPG is a tough thing to do. I've loved the genre since Dragon Warrior found its way into a friend's home thanks to a Nintendo Power subscription, so it's safe to say I have more than a few memories to sift through. (And so many could be lying to me!) But, since I have to narrow it down to a single one, I'm going to go with the RPG I've finished the most: Final Fantasy IV.
These days, playing through an RPG more than once is simply unconscionable—except Dark Souls, of course. But there's just something about Final Fantasy IV that pulls me in with every re-release. For a game approaching its 25th birthday, it feels remarkably modern: Square's fourth Final Fantasy moves along at an incredibly snappy pace, and since Square had only started tinkering with making their RPGs cinematic, the non-interactive scenes play out with an incredibly amount of efficiency. If you sink just an hour into it, you're bound to hit the next plot point, and though you don't have much say in how your characters develop, the game uses this to its advantage: boss battles are secretly puzzles that make you use the most of your current party and their abilities.
I can also credit Final Fantasy IV for fully cementing my love of RPGs. The game first caught my attention when I got home from school to see my step-dad playing through the very beginning on his rented copy; and though its squat sprites and cartoony melodrama may seem quaint today, I'd simply never seen a game try to tell such an involved story before. Every day he got home from work, he'd play a little more, with me absolutely transfixed by his side. And when he finished the game, I'd finally absorbed enough Final Fantasy IV to understand just what RPGs were—and they've pretty much been my genre of choice since then.
Plenty of other RPGs have a place in my heart, but even some of my most beloved classics can't measure up to Final Fantasy IV. And while other games might outdo Final Fantasy IV in several categories, it's just so easy to pick up and play; in fact, after finishing the DS release, I vowed to never play it again, because of the whole "mortality" thing. Surely, another 25 hours spent on Final Fantasy IV could be invested in a brand-new experience? I shouldn't have to tell this this vow has been broken multiple times since its misguided inception.