A while back I posted my list of favourite games in the JRPG genre. Now it’s time to take a look at that other subgenre of role playing games: the Western RPG. In essence, JRPG’s and WRPG’s are opposite sides of the same coin, but ultimately part of the same overarching genre: the RPG. As such, one could argue that both might as well be counted as being of the same genre for the sake of creating a list of favourites.
But from a traditional point of view, western RPG’s have always been decidedly different from their Japanese counterparts. And I’m not just talking about visual style here – though JRPG’s overwhelming tendency towards anime style graphics and the west’s strong preference for gritty realism is surely noted and very much based in truth. No, the much more significant difference lies at the core of both subgenre’s gameplay experience. Whereas our favourites from Japan – Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, etc. – have always guided us through engaging stories backed up by a cast of archetypical characters and traditional solid gameplay, the RPG’s from the other side of the world have always focused much more on perhaps the most essential part of a roleplaying game: roleplaying. Whereas Final Fantasy has you take the role of a predetermined and designed hero through an often linear (though no less exciting) quest, a typical western RPG has you create your own hero, your own ‘avatar’ as it were, and much more often offers an open and non-linear world where choice and consequence is paramount. Despite being of the same genre, their approach to what it means to be a ‘roleplaying’ game is different as night and day. Of course, Japanese developers have in more recent years started to move more in the customization direction and the distinctive line, but many fans of either genre will probably find truth in the above analysis.
So JRPG’s and WRPG’s deserve to be distinguished from one another. They’re definitely different enough to warrant two separate top 5 lists. JRPG’s had there time in the spotlight, now it’s time to trade summon spirits, mecha’s, spikey hairdo’s and giant swords for medieval castles, dungeons, dragons and space operas. A quick overview of the requirements needed to be considered for a spot on this list before we delve in:
– Focus on roleplaying, that is, experiencing the development of a character in personality, allowing for a system of choice (and consequence)
– The game needs to implement a system of character development in the form of customizable and upgradeable abilities
– The games need to be made by Western developers
And that’s pretty much it. Story’s important, but there are some great RPG’s that don’t even feature impressive stories, and are no less amazing or less of an RPG because of it, so it can hardly be considered a strict requirement.
Without further ado, here we go.
5. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (Xbox 360/PC/PS3, 2012)
This original IP had players traverse the vast expanse that is the magical world of Amalur. Choosing between 4 different races, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, the player would find his or her avatar waking from what was supposed to be his or her death. No longer bound by destiny, the newborn hero takes on his role as vanquisher of the evil Tu’atha (a race of dark elves), merely guided by personal choice. The class-system in Kingdoms of Amalur is extremely flexible and at no point does it really place any restrictions on the player. You can freely spend ability and skill points in any of the 3 talent trees (Sorcery, Might and Finesse) as you choice, as well as having complete control over your character’s aptitude in various skills. There’s a level cap, and certain abilities require either a certain level or a number of points spent in said tree prior to being able to select this particular ability, but other than that a player is free to do what he or she wants. You feel at home being a rogue with a dash of magic power? Sure, go right ahead. What, you would rather be an unstoppable warrior you say? No problem, can be done. You can’t choose? Why not be a heavy armor wearing rogue that unleashes fiery destruction on hapless foes? Kingdoms of Amalur will let you do all of this, and if you’re unsatisfied after 8 hours of playing, just visit a Fateweaver, unravel your destiny and rebuild your character from scratch without losing any story progress. Traversing through the enormous world that is Amalur is equally devoid of restriction. There is obviously some limit as to what can be done in what order, as the game is ultimately backed by a linear story, but for the most part the game certainly doesn’t mind when you go about exploring every nook and cranny on your own.
Kingdoms of Amalur is really an MMORPG without the MMO part. There’s no form of multiplayer anywhere in the game, but the game is extremely open-ended and let’s you explore and gather quests at your own leisure. The world is beautifully designed and feels very much alive, and although the story may not be all that impressive, it is the enormous sense of freedom and adventure that has you return to Amalur time and again. It is also extremely well suited to be played in short sessions, as the game doesn’t base its entertainment factor on a heavy and engaging storyline. Just strolling through Amalur for an hour or 2 while solving a handful of quests can be considered time well spent, and you can easily do the same thing again some time later. It’s really a pick-up and play kind of game. It deserves the spot on the list because it caters to the adventurer in us, that wants to explore and experience. There is a story that’s entertaining to follow, but at the same time it’s just good, clean fun to go sightseeing in Amalur and simply whomp a few Ettin’s on the head with a big hammer.
4. Fallout 2 (PC, 1998)
Fallout 2 is a game that brilliantly showcases freedom of choice in a game. Your character is the chosen of a small, primitive tribe in a post-apolyptic US demolished by a nuclear war, sent to collect a GECK – a Garden of Eden Creation Kit – to save your drought-stricken village. Other than that, how you create and play your character is completely up to you. What you say, do or neglect and in what order is determined by player choice only. While the game has mandatory sections and quests, even these almost always have multiple solutions based on your preference and playing style. And in what order you go about performing each required task is mostly uninhibited by any sort of would-be restriction. In fact, in order to complete the game’s main quest, only few steps are mandatory, and there’s many a playthrough video to be found online that showcases how fast the game can actually be completed. Counting everything that is completely or mostly optional, the amount of content in Fallout 2 is enormous. There is so much to see and do in the barren wastelands of Fallout that it will keep you glued to your seat for hours on end. It is also really remarkable how Fallout succeeds in breathing life into a setting that is so inherently devoid of it. A post-apolyptic US where more than 90% of the landscape is just a barren wasteland seems dull and unsuited for creativity, but the truth is very much the opposite. In fact, Fallout 2’s setting and atmosphere is extremely engaging and intriguing, precisely because of what it embodies. It succeeds in giving true character to a world that has been stripped of almost anything resembling advancement and stripped to its bare, animalistic essence. Sure, there is some sort of ‘society’ left within the ruins of once great cities. But laws have dissipated, an organized government is a distant dream (there is actually a government, but one can easily debate whether its ‘organized’) and everyone distrust everyone.
It’s also a significant step away from traditional medieval fantasy, and that’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with traditional Tolkien-esque fantasy, far from it, but this dystopian future setting with its mix of futuristic sci-fi elements and hommage to a more historical wild-west setting with firm roots in what-if realism is a breath of fresh air. Fallout 2 portrays it amazingly, and ends up a game that deserves to be played and put on the list because of that – and it’s stellar implementation of freedom in gameplay.
3. Deus Ex Human Revolution (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2011)
Deus Ex was a great game that allowed players to experience a really engaging and honestly thought-provoking storyline while allowing great freedom in regards of your character’s ability customization and overcoming obstacles. It was a truly revolutionary game back when it was released in 2000 and well-received and loved by many who’ve played it. And no matter how good Deus Ex was, I still believe Deus Ex Human Revolution is even better. Ever since Deus Ex HR was announced, and ever since I discussed the game with the developers and saw early gameplay material during my 2010 Gamescom visit, I was intrigued by the interesting setting and the possibilites and potential the plot posed. When it was finally released in 2011 and we got to finally play it, I was blown away. 2011 was an excellent year in gaming altogether, but Deus Ex managed to stand up to the competition and come up on top as GOTY of 2011. Deus Ex HR’s success lies mainly in two areas: it’s absolutely excellent implementation of freedom of choice, and it’s extremely well-written and thought-provoking story.
As opposed to many of the other games on this list, Deux Ex has you take control of predesigned character Adam Jensen and does not allow you to customize his character, nor does it really allow you to decide on what his character’s going to be like. There’s conversation options, sure, but these mostly are more informational purposes, some odd quest-based choices notwithstanding. But as far as solving your problems goes, Deus Ex leaves it up to you. You may not have any real say in who Adam Jensen is, but you DO have a say in what he’s capable of and how he employs his skills. You can go in guns-ablazing, focusing on endurance, gunplay and built-in weaponry, slaughtering everyone in your path. Sneaking past everyone and carefully hacking your way through every security system is equally viable. But of course, you always opt to just talk to people and use exceptional analytical and social skills to sweet-talk your way past most trouble if you so desire. And any combination of these approaches is completely possible as well.
Deus Ex really does no hand-holding. There’s a problem, an objective – go solve it. How? Up to you. Do it. Of course, there are always limitations, but Deus Ex pretty much lets you do things your way and that experience is absolutely amazing. And as stated before, the story is really good as well. REALLY good. Up there as one of the best I’ve experienced in any game. It’s true that a lot of it comes in the form of (often optional) written reports, e-mails and background information, but the setting and story is definitely intriguing enough to have you find and read these. And honestly, that’s quite an impressive feat. Despite the ultimately short and somewhat bitter-sweet ending(s), the choice presented at the end is absolutely thought-provoking and brilliant in and by itself. Go play Deus Ex HR if you haven’t already.
2. Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2009)
It’s probably safe to say that western RPG’s started out being heavily influenced by the popular pen-and-paper RPG, Dungeons and Dragons. Bioware used that ruleset to create a D&D inspired computergame that achieved fame and acclaim amongst fervent RPG fans: Baldur’s Gate. From the moment this monumental piece was released, Bioware would distinguish itself as a top-producer of WRPG’s. Despite Baldur’s Gate’s high quality and the excellence of its sequel, another great Bioware game finds itself on the number 2 spot on my list, however. Dragon Age Origins managed to peak my interest in a time where I wasn’t really in to WRPG’s that much, and singlehandedly managed to change that. Never having been a fan of D&D rules in videogames (despite being a D&D player, go figure), Dragon Age’s original gameplay system came as a breath of fresh air, and with its tactical approach to combat as well as its relatively high difficulty and depth managed to win me over. But ultimately it was the game’s brilliantly designed universe and characters that managed to make it one of my favourite WRPG’s, perhaps even one of my favourite games overall. The story is pretty standard and not very impressive to be honest, but it the strength lies within the execution of said storyline. The richness of the gameworld with its expansive lore and background stories, the many well-written and memorable characters, the great humor and some extremely effective dramatic events suck you into the story completely.
All of this is enhanced by the fact that you completely create your own character, with only a few relatively unimportant details being predetermined. As you’ve chosen your character’s appearance and class, you get to choose one of six different Origin stories (the possibilities of which are based on a combination of your class and race choices) that start out your story: once this initial stage is done, you’re ready to embark upon your grand quest. This quest itself is ultimately linear, and while there is definitely some freedom of choice, the end result is mostly the same. It’s the choices your character makes along the way that makes it all so compelling. Dragon Age really allows you to roleplay your character to your hearts content. You can become best friends with everyone, and be a champion of peace and justice – you can also be a heartless villain. Or just a mischievous jerk. Or an indifferent opportunist. Anything inbetween. And the characters that you meet during your travels are all extremely well-designed and each is interesting in his or her own way.
It’s a shame Dragon Age 2 failed to follow up on the greatness that was the original DA, as it did improve upon a few areas in a big way (mainly combat, which was a lot better and smoother in DA2). Perhaps DA3 will manage to blow us all away again later this year, and I certainly hope it does. But until then, DA is my favourite fantasy-based WRPG – both for giving us a great universe and for showing me how engrossing WRPG can really be.
1. Mass Effect 3. Or 2. Or 1. (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2008-2012)
For the longest time I found myself unable to decide what my number one on this list would be. Don’t get me wrong, I always knew it would be Mass Effect. But I just couldn’t decide WHICH Mass Effect – they’re all good, and all in they’re own way. Mass Effect 1, while possibly the weakest of the three, did have a great and interesting storyline and introduced us to some great characters – the setup was simply well done. Mass Effect 2 streamlined the gameplay immensely and in a good way, and while the story was generally inferior to the original’s, the game did a lot to expand upon the ME Universe and introduced even more great characters and made the ones we were already familiar with even better. Really, Mass Effect 2 probably has the greatest cast of characters of any Sci-fi work I know, and possibly of any game I know. Then came Mass Effect 3. Mass Effect 3 really dropped the ball with their weak ending initially, but let’s not continue to drone on that fact. Because every single minute before that was nothing short of awesome. Even better gameplay, combining the RPG-esque elements of ME1’s gameplay system with the smooth and responsive action-shooter gameplay from ME2, and improving upon both formulas. All our favourite characters return, often even better than ever, and even some new, interesting one’s. But especially the scale of it all, what’s at stake as you play.
The sense of importance you get as you play, that sense of urgency, it simply unreal. Mass Effect 3 may therefore have been my choice. But I realized that everything that makes ME3 such a good game was set up by what we experienced in ME1 and 2. These three games simply go together. They shouldn’t be experienced separately. They should probably not be considered separate games. They are all part of one great story, of countless hours of engaging story and characterization, of pure entertainment, that is impossible to forget. And because of that, the entire Mass Effect trilogy needs to be at number 1. It can’t be any other way as far as I’m concerned. I’m glad they released a ‘Mass Effect Trilogy’ compilation. Playing only part of the saga is ridiculous. I highly recommend this series to anyone – not just RPG’s gamers – that likes epic, engaging storylines with absolutely amazing characters. And whatever you do, start with the first game, and go from there. You won’t do the experience any justice otherwise.
Well, that was that. Of course there are many other WRPG’s that could’ve been on the list, such as the original Fallout, Baldur’s Gate II, The Witcher 1 and 2 and the original Deus Ex, but the above five (or… 7, if you will) are ultimately my favourites. Feel free to disagree, and equally free to discuss – the world of WRPG’s fortunately holds many gems, and will hopefully continue to grace us with more great universes to explore and stories to experience.