The Best Video Game RPGs

My liege lord E.D. calls Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim “quite possibly the greatest role-playing video game ever made,” and after reading his review and watching the trailer, I can see why.  Alas, the gods of video gaming have not held me in their favor–the last video game I purchased was Final Fantasy XII in 2006–and I regret to say that I won’t be visiting the world of Skyrim anytime soon.  Not for want of desire, mind you.  My plate is full with…other responsibilities.  Anyhow, I can neither confirm nor deny Erik’s assessment, but I have played a fair amount of RPGs over the years, and have some titles to suggest for the honor of being named the greatest role-playing video gave ever made.

First up is the best video game I’ve ever played, period: Yasumi Matsuno’s masterpiece Vagrant Story.  The Playstation dungeon-crawler featured some of the most compelling fictional characters I’ve met anywhere, an unconventional and tightly-knit fantasy narrative, an eerie setting, and a script of pure writing gold.  The game play was unique, versatile, and challenging.  Weapons were divisible into various kinds (swords, maces, staffs, etc.), by elemental aspects, by strength against particular kinds of monsters, and by the type of damage they inflicted (blunt, edge, piercing).  You could construct and customize individual weapons and use them against particular kinds of foes to improve their stats.  You could also find yourself with a typically kick-ass weapon that proved useless against a powerful or even relatively weak enemy with unusual or unexpected defenses.  Battles therefore involved strategy, trial-and-error, and luck.  The game’s dated today, of course, but for the technology of its day, it was as close to RPG perfection as I think possible.

My second suggestion is Square’s Final Fantasy Tactics, another game by Matsuno.  This strategy game suffered a little due to a less-than-stellar translation, but damn was it fun.  Individual battles could last half an hour, but they’d be tense start to finish.  Like Vagrant Story, its characters and story were morally ambiguous and fascinatingly so.  When I first started reading A Song of Ice and Fire last year, I immediately thought of Tactic’s world of Ivalice and its political, moral, and magical intrigue.

I’d also consider bestowing the top honor upon Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy VII, but, at the end of most days, I’d have to go with Vagrant Story.  But that might change some day when and if I get the chance to play Skyrim.  So what other outstanding RPGs have I missed?  What title would you call the greatest video game RPG ever made?

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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21 Responses

  1. James says:

    I take it you may then have missed out on dark cloud, dark chronicle, grandia, wild arms, star ocean, xenogears, demons souls and even morrowind. These games are all great, even rogue galaxy which I missed out there. However skyrim is possibly now my 2nd fave game of all time, only final fantasy vi gets thr nod over it for me

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I played Grandia, Star Ocean, and Xenogears, but not the others. Grandia was okay, Star Ocean was a blast but not very memorable, and Xenogears…it could have been a contender, but it suffered from a few too many glitches and flaws be be named among the best. I would love to see it remade with today’s tech and a more polished and coherent script/translation.

  2. solarle says:

    Thanks for a fun read.
    I remember when I first played Vagrant Story. Its opening scene is one of the best video game intros I’ve seen so far. I remember its unique gritty graphics and that dark, mysterious medieval tone opening up the famous first encounter with Sydney. Come to think of it Sydney had a fantastic debut as a villain.
    My personal favorite is Final Fantasy X. For me it was the first game to present profound video game realism. Now realism is kind of a given for games these days. FFX’s story is entertaining and deep, music is not as good as but almost on par with FFVII, and its overall look was mesmerizing at its time.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      FFX had a lot going for it. I especially liked the skills grid that allowed for some leeway in developing each character while necessitating some specialization. Auron was awesome. Some of the voice acting drove me nuts, though, and I never could get into the whole blitz game that was central to the story.

  3. Plinko says:

    Seems like you’ve missed the Bioware/Bethesda revolution entirely, I wonder if you’d even recognize all the new RPG games as the same genre as the Square/Enix-type games at all.

    • Bioware games are great. It’s a little boring that they’re all basically the exact same, but KOTOR remains one of the real giants of the last decade. Mass Effect minus the infuriating little car thing and horrific menu system is also a great game.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Clearly there are deficiencies in my video gaming experience.

  4. I’m a big dissenter on all the Elder Scrolls games. They are technological marvels (of a sort – the fact that Skyrim is so incredibly buggy does call some of that into question), but they are really, really boring. And combat is just an utter chore. So my review of those is… eh.

    As for best ever, a couple notable ones I think you may have missed:

    Tactics Ogre is, to my mind, better than Final Fantasy Tactics in every way. The story is far more compelling, the recruitable characters are more interesting, and the branching-storyline style was totally revolutionary in its day. The recent PSP remake is a must-play.

    The Suikoden series is wildly underrated next to its Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest cousins, but the average quality of its entries is substantially higher. The only dud in the lot is the fourth one, which is still okay at worst. The second is usually considered the best, but I think number three is probably my favorite. They’re all (again, minus number four) worth your time.

    Speaking of the heavy hitters, I’d take Final Fantasy IV any day. It’s easily my favorite game ever made, and I will challenge anyone who thinks VI is better. IV has the best cast of characters in the series, and it was the last entry that contained characters who weren’t all the exact same in battle. It’s a masterpiece.

    Last, and the other big hitter: Dragon Quest VIII is my favorite in that series. It’s charming, absolutely enormous (I think I put like 100 hours into it), and just a pitch perfect mix of all the things that every Dragon Quest game does.

    • Kim says:

      Siding with you on these. The elder scrolls games are universally pretty, but… also boring.

      Suikoden was a blast!

      Really surprised Wizardry hasn’t come up on anyone’s list yet…

      There’s plenty of awesome rpgs…

      (Like Diablo II! *ducks and runs before the editor catches me*)

    • Kim says:

      You’ve played System Shock? That and its sequel gotta be in the running for best rpg ever.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Loved the lovely and gorgeously-colored Dragon Quest VIII. That’s another candidate. FFIV was great as well. Never played Tactics Ogre, but I’ve heard of it. I may have to get a PSP at some point just to play it.

    • Plinko says:

      Same, I’ve yet to enjoy any of the Elder Scrolls or Bioware games since Neverwinter Nights.

  5. Jaybird says:

    I would suggest Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines.

    • Jaybird says:

      The number one thing that I look for in an RPG are quests that allow for different methods to resolve them.

      There is a kidnapper who has a key that you need.

      Do you:
      1) Kill the kidnapper, take the key, forget about whomever he may have kidnapped
      2) Talk to him, figure out what he wants, get it to him, make the trade to get the key?
      3) Investigate where the kidnappee may be hidden, save this person, then take out the kidnapper and take the key?

      Bioware excels at this.

      • Kyle Cupp says:

        Yeah, this doesn’t describe the Square-Enix tradition. Too bad.

        • Jaybird says:

          Sqeenix does a good job of coming up with a story with something akin to a Hero’s Journey story arc, dropping you into the role of the protagonist, and letting you be in charge of how much you want to level up between major cutscenes… but the story remains fundamentally static and it’s your role to go through the motions. It’s like an interactive movie, more than anything else.

          Bioware still has the whole cutscene thing… they’ll show your character walking up to the door. Your compatriot will say “the door is locked.” Your character will then say “I got the key from the kidnapper” and then you unlock the door.

          What’s cool about that is that the same line “I got the key from the kidnapper” means very different things if you just walk up to the guy and say “I don’t care about the victim” and shoot him and take the key or if you figure out what he wanted and saved the victim.

          But I begin to gush.

  6. Kyle Cupp says:

    For those interested, here’s a clip of the opening of Vagrant Story: