It is time for another RPG article! Role-Playing Games are endangered, and with this article and many of our others we do our best to preserve knowledge relating to them. In this article we have created a “tier list” if you will of wRPGs, sorted from least role-playing to most, making this a mostly objective list opposed to a typical “Best RPG” random subjective list.
Here is the catch; we are only listing story-driven RPGs with a solid amount of role-playing, an amount somewhat satisfactory to us or better. Every wRPG excluded on the list either does not provide enough role-playing to be worthy of inclusion, or we simply have not played it. Chances are it was the former.
The purpose of this article is to enlighten gamers as many of today’s gamers have only experienced dumbed down RPGs with a minimal amount of role-playing, such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, Fallout 4, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and, yes, even Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and especially Divinity: Original Sin series. Not to mention games that aren’t RPGs but call themselves RPGs, such as The Witcher franchise (something we have written about before). Both mainstream and indie role-playing games today are very limited with how much role-playing they actually provide; they are afraid to provide role-playing since higher levels of role-playing, such as those found on tier 4 and above RPGs on this article, is perhaps unfriendly to casual gamers, so instead today’s RPGs shy away from role-playing. The situation is akin to a racing game with speed limits.
Before we go on, we should first explain what role-playing, in the context of role-playing games, actually means, since most of today’s gamers don’t know.
Role-playing is the ability to create or assume, and tailor a role within a world or story. Defining who the protagonist is, by your actions in the game. In some way, shape, or form the player must be able to control and define his/her character’s innate physical and mental/personality attributes, as well as alignment. This does not necessitate creating a player character from scratch, nor does it mandate a clearly defined alignment system mechanic, but it does mandate the ability to change who the player character is. Through dialogue and actions, the player will further define these things about the player character while advancing through the world or story, gaining experience along the way. The goal is to allow the player to define who their player character is, and journey through a world that reacts to your unique player character and your actions in various ways.
For more details, go on to the next page to begin scrolling through our tier list. Tier 1 represents the most role-playing, while Tier 6 represents the least. The actual order within each individual tier is unsorted; every game listed within a tier has a comparable amount of role-playing.
It is important to note that the only thing we are taking into consideration for our tier list rankings is how much role-playing each game actually offers, not the quality of each individual game and we ignore things outside the scope of role-playing for the rankings. We will mention other aspects of the games, mostly writing quality, but it has no impact on the tier list ranking since our focus here is on role-playing. All is explained in the next pages, for each individual game. This article does not contain many spoilers, and the few present are behind spoiler tags.
We have played many, many RPGs here on GND-Tech, including pen and paper RPGs. Any RPG we’ve played that is not included in this tier list is to be considered a failure. They fail to provide enough role-playing to be ranked or considered. You will see popular RPGs missing from this list, and chances are we have played them and consider their role-playing aspect unsatisfactory and not worth mentioning.
Tier 6 (B- Tier)
Tier 6 RPGs are afraid to provide deeper levels of role-playing, but at least have a noteworthy amount to inexperienced RPG gamers. Seasoned RPG fans will be disappointed at the role-playing of all of these titles.
Morrowind is an incredible game and easily our choice for game of the year for 2002, but the amount of role-playing it has is pretty low. Compared to its successors, Oblivion and Skyrim, the differences in role-playing are that Morrowind has a reputation based dialogue system that loads one of three dialogue presets based on your reputation, and you can fail the main quest if you do evil deeds.
Compared to the other games on this list, The Elder Scrolls is unique. While they sacrifice none of the freedom that Fallout 2 boasted, almost none of that freedom is ever recognized or has any impact on the game. You can play as one of many races: Nord, Imperial, Redguard, Dunmer, Bosmer, Altmer, Argonian, or Khajiit. These games also have a fair amount of distinct playstyles, so they are formidable action RPGs just as far as gameplay mechanics go.
Morrowind has just a little bit of unique dialogue depending on your race, as well as a reputation system that can completely change conversations. Players with poor reputation will be insulted and can’t inquire about much or anything, and will be refused services like lodging and trading. Furthermore, Morrowind lets you alter and ruin the main campaign/story at will, the result of the player becoming a murderer and failing to properly fulfill his/her prophecy. Whereas the campaigns of Oblivion and Skyrim have zero flexibility and are always the same, thus they are the campaigns of mere adventure games and not RPGs.
But as we said, you can do anything you want. Apart from the distinct aspects listed above about Morrowind, these games have only worldly consequences, namely bounties on you and possible imprisonment. You can join one of various factions, but it doesn’t really change anything, nor does it prohibit you from joining others or change the way you are viewed/spoken to (to any significant degree at least). Even your race selection only brings about minimal dialogue change and some physical, statistical changes that are far less important in Skyrim than the rest.
But these games provide more than just the main campaign. That is what separates The Elder Scrolls. You can make a mage scholar character and pursue the lengthy quest lines of the Mages Guild in Morrowind and Oblivion, or the College of Winterhold in Skyrim. This character’s story can end after this. The Elder Scrolls has enough content to serve many custom characters with their own stories, such as this. An assassin can join the Dark Brotherhood and what do you know, the Dark Brotherhood also has enough quests to make for an entire campaign. So does the Thieves Guild, so does the war between Nords and Imperials in Skyrim (although this one is poorly done).
But the world hardly reacts to any of this, hence why Morrowind is here and its successors don’t even make the cut for tier 6. To see a similar kind of RPG (though with very different gameplay mechanics) with significant role-playing depth, play Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.
More freedom, less impact defines The Elder Scrolls. Thus it is somewhat hard to gauge, and is sort of the exact opposite of the Mass Effect trilogy as RPGs. Mass Effect trilogy offers strong role-playing between two options only: Paragon and Renegade (and even then they have no specific gameplay changes). Very little freedom, but significant impact. Thus, admittedly tier 6 is weird. It can be summed up as having games with just a little bit of role-playing.
Fallout 3 is a beloved game, as it resurrected a classic franchise in a way that most people now prefer. But at what cost? Fallout 3 is not a terrible RPG, but it doesn’t have nearly as much role-playing as the first two or New Vegas, and the writing is highly dumbed down. On the other hand, it does have more role-playing than Fallout 4.
You once again take on the role of a Vault dweller, but with a bit more of a predefined past than in Fallout. This time, it is set in stone that your parents were scientists. Still, it doesn’t mean you have to follow in their footsteps; in fact, during the introduction it is possible to take an exam that determines your future career path based on your answers. So there is still plenty of room for self-character development here.
Much of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat system is unchanged from the originals as well, although there are still differences. There are less perks, especially quest related ones. Traits have been removed. There are far less dialogue choices in Fallout 3, no longer is dialogue as responsive to your character build as the first two. In addition to regular dialogue choices, there is usually a choice based on your Speech score, which is different depending on whether or not you pass or fail the option. Often there is a choice based on Perception and/or high Intelligence as well.
Fallout 3 does attempt to dynamically respond to your playstyle and gameplay choices like the first two, but it does so in a black and white way, namely the karma system. Karma was present in the first two Fallout games as well, but in Fallout 3 it only really leads to one of two outcomes; low karma characters are hunted by do-gooder soldiers, while high karma characters are hunted by Talon company mercenaries for doing good. This doesn’t really add anything to the game, and it seems like a cheap, last-minute addon for role-players.
However, due to the completely open world sandbox nature of Fallout 3, in which you can do whatever you please including not pursue the main quest, there is a lot of room for sandbox role-playing, especially due to the “clean slate” protagonist. It is easy to invent a reason not to pursue the main quest. While Fallout 3 isn’t filled with different factions to join (only one really), there is a variety of quests and activities to do. Want to role-play as a lone survivalist? Or maybe a raider turned gang leader? Or some wasteland vigilante? All possible, although some characters may require using the console which means such characters can only be played on PC. Also, because the game doesn’t respond to your status, deeds/exploits, and choices like the first two do, a lot of this role-playing isn’t officially supported and it’s why it ranks tier 6.
A favorite among many, these three games just barely make the cut for tier 6. This isn’t a shortcoming though, it’s the way Mass Effect was designed. The player character is somewhat predefined; Shepard, an Alliance soldier, but the player can choose gender, background, appearance, first name, and your selected background (there are three choices) is brought up a few times in dialogues and each has their own side quest. More importantly the player can guide Shepard down one of two paths, Paragon or Renegade. This is further supported by the choice of psychological profile during character creation; three choices once again, each one adds to Paragon or Renegade points appropriately, and each one has a small amount of unique dialogue in the first game.
Mass Effect was not designed to have all the role-playing in the world like, say, Neverwinter Nights 2 was. It’s an action RPG franchise with shooter elements. It was designed to let the player be a benevolent hero (Paragon) or a badass and controversial hero (Renegade). Either way, Shepard’s goal is always to save the galaxy from the Reapers, although whether or not Shepard succeeds is of course dependent on the player’s actions.
The Paragon/Renegade system is used wonderfully, in some ways better than the game it inherited this from (which is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). All three Mass Effect games provide unique dialogue options for Paragon and Renegade very often, and they are only available if you have a high enough Paragon or Renegade score. It’s one, the other, or neither. Your Paragon/Renegade status is tracked, and hundreds of different events and dialogue choices affect it in each game. Your reputation becomes known to those around you over time.
Of course, your reputation and choices have to actually impact something in order for them to have any importance. Have no fear, for this is what Mass Effect is most known for; the significance of your actions and your Paragon/Renegade status. Character development is a well known strong point for the franchise, not just because of the depth and amount of dialogue but also because of how greatly your actions influence others. Each time you play through the franchise you can have different friends among your companions. They comment on your actions and they don’t forget it, like real, living people.
Characters aren’t the only thing that respond to the player’s actions though. The quests revolve around them; different things will occur before, during, and after the quest based on the player’s actions, and the consequences of the player’s actions are not always immediate. This brings up yet another aspect the franchise is well known for; the player’s actions greatly influencing the sequels. What you do in Mass Effect will have significant impact on Mass Effect 2 and also Mass Effect 3. What do they impact, you ask? Without spoiling it, they impact dialogue on a small and large scale, they impact the fate of important characters, and also they influence significant and insignificant events. Certain events, both important and unimportant to the main plot, may or may not happen at all depending on what you do.
As far as gameplay goes, the Mass Effect games are all somewhat tactical third-person shooters with pause-and-play functionality and six different classes (thus six different playstyles). Depending on the class you pick, its gameplay can be more than just a third-person shooter. Adept, Vanguard, and Sentinel in particular focus on powers instead of just shooting, and are far more diverse and to us a lot more fun. We suggest these classes above all others. With that being said, it is a problem when some classes can be found boring, but this will vary from person to person.
Mass Effect of course has no skill system or attribute system, as the gameplay is meant to be a hybrid shooter/RPG opposed to a full-fledged RPG, gearing more toward shooter while the recent Fallout games for example are geared more toward RPG gameplay. You cannot equip weapons in some places thus you can’t attack just anyone like a more full-fledged RPG.
Everyone will have different expectations going into a game, and the Mass Effect trilogy is no different. It reacts to player choice more strongly than most people expect, hence the love for it, but those used to RPGs in the upper tiers won’t be as impressed by all of it. But hey, I’m used to all of the games on this list and Mass Effect still impresses me. A lot of money went into these games and it’s evident. It’s far costlier to make a good, fully voiced and animated RPG than it is to make an outstanding unvoiced isometric 2.5D RPG.
BioWare claims a second entry on tier 6. We reviewed Dragon Age: Inquisition here. The role-playing is a mixed bag; certain aspects impress, others disappoint. You are locked into a very specific role, that of the Inquisitor. You are appointed to an important council meeting due to your important status, always. Something crucial happens there, and always you are marked for it, becoming someone special. You always become the Herald of Andraste, the leader of the legendary Inquisition group. This gives you certain responsibilities and limits how you can act.
The impressive role-playing aspect is the impact of player choice once again. The main quests branch quite a bit. This game is fully voiced and animated, and this is all surprising given it lets you choose one of four races. Yet your choices from the previous games has significant impact on this one, and this is done through Dragon Age Keep opposed to save game importing.
But many aspects of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s role-playing may disappoint a seasoned fan of RPGs. The player character’s personality is more bound and restricted than many classic RPGs, more like Mass Effect in this regard without the strictly defined Paragon and Renegade system. The protagonist, whose race and gender is of course dependent on the player, can be diplomatic, sarcastic, or ruthless, like Dragon Age II. Welcome to the dialogue wheel era of only having 3 options!
This game does have more race-specific and class-specific dialogue than most, but other than this it has no dialogue that is unique to your character build. This is because it has no skill system and because attributes aren’t very important at all, so unimportant that they are leveled up automatically! That’s terrible. So the rest of the dialogue choices, as many as there are (more than any other RPG with a voiced protagonist to our knowledge), are always there and not specific to your character build. Of course there is also quest-specific dialogue; dialogue options that only show up if you did a certain quest or did a certain quest a certain way, but that’s a given in a game with such a branching plot.
We mentioned the lack of a skill system which will disappoint many. Inquisition also has a disappointing amount of spells and abilities compared to many classic RPGs and even today’s shallow clones like Pillars of Eternity, and every character is limited to using only eight abilities at a time (these eight cannot be switched during combat), due to the game providing only eight quickbar slots. Why only eight quickbar slots, you ask? Because the game was designed for controllers, which is another mistake and limitation.
There is a handful of playstyles, a similar amount to Mass Effect, but the balance here is off. Two handed warriors just have too many disadvantages compared to sword and shield, and bows are overpowered, for starters. The amount of playstyles is rather limited too; three classes with multiple “specializations” each which are like subclasses. The amount of total playstyles ranks low overall.
But that’s about all we have to say about Dragon Age: Inquisition as an RPG. A whole lot less than the great classics you’ll see listed on the better tiers. The gameplay is dumbed down substantially from the classics, it doesn’t let you attack just anyone like the classic RPGs. The plot branches out about as much as any other game with a branching plot, which is great, and while it has perhaps more player dialogue choices than any other fully voiced game, it would have been better if the protagonist was unvoiced and if it had more dialogue choices instead. And of course the lack of a skill system will always work against the game.
Tier 5 (B Tier)
Tier 5 is the smallest leap of all the tiers on this article, but the added role-playing of these games is enough to warrant a separate category. These RPGs have more unique dialogue choices according to your character build, but still hardly more than 2 or 3 at any given time. The role-playing potential of tier 5 games remains unsatisfactory.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000)
Time to step things up a notch. In all the tier 6 games save for Fallout 3, the player character can only be a benevolent hero or a ruthless hero, as far as personality goes. With our third consecutive BioWare RPG, Baldur’s Gate II, we have more role-playing than that.
Baldur’s Gate invented the famous save-game importing that Mass Effect is known for, although the changes brought by it aren’t quite as significant as the Mass Effect games.
Those who have only played more recent BioWare games, namely Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, won’t be aware that older BioWare games such as this one didn’t limit the player character to being a hero. You can play as a hero, or as an extremely selfish and greedy person (to a much better extent than Mass Effect and Dragon Age), or as someone more sinister. Modern day gamers will be surprised when playing this game and seeing that it often lets you choose not to get involved in a conflict, albeit relatively minor ones.
Of course, Baldur’s Gate II has more races and classes/playstyles than the vast majority of modern day RPGs. Many more. This is the main reason some people say both Baldur’s Gate games are BioWare’s best RPGs, although the original Baldur’s Gate has less role-playing than perhaps every other BioWare RPG hence why it is excluded from this tier list entirely.
Baldur’s Gate II is also when BioWare first attempted character development, which is of course dynamic and somewhat responsive to the player’s actions like modern day BioWare games. But, this being the first time BioWare attempted this, it isn’t done to the same extent as subsequent BioWare games, particularly Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (also known as KOTOR) as well as all Mass Effect and Dragon Age games. The character development in Baldur’s Gate II is nowhere near those.
As far as dialogue choices go, Baldur’s Gate II does not have a staggering amount. More than its predecessor, less than Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Less than Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Inquisition too, and the plot doesn’t branch out quite as much. But it does have more unique dialogue options, as in specific to character builds, than Dragon Age: Inquisition which has very few.
So, as an RPG Baldur’s Gate II is actually quite overrated, but it isn’t weak by any means.
We are now up to our fourth consecutive BioWare RPG. Dragon Age: Origins actually does things no other single player RPG does, particularly how it offers six different playable 90-180 minute introductions depending on your character build. Amazing stuff.
It also offers three playable races and roughly the same amount of playstyles as Dragon Age: Inquisition, which means substantially less less than classic D&D games like Baldur’s Gate but far more than The Witcher games which only have one.
Unlike its sequels, Origins does have a skill system, but many of the skills aren’t very useful and they aren’t used in the same way as, say, the Fallout games which let you use many different skills all the time. But one of these skills is “Coercion” which can open up two extra dialogue options; Persuade and Intimidate. This game also has a decent amount of Truth/Lie dialogue options, in addition to many regular ones and occasionally Willpower options (and perhaps a few other choices stemming from an attribute). These extra dialogue choices are the result of Dragon Age: Origins having an unvoiced protagonist. It was the last BioWare game to be this way.
The player character can once again be a storybook hero type, but it’s nice to see that it’s easy to attempt this but fail due to poor decision making. Greed can be a motivating factor for the player, and the player can be a bit closer to evil in this game than its sequels as well as the Mass Effect games. But “evil” is pushing it since either way you end up saving the world. “Twisted” is a better adjective to use. But, like its sequels, you can’t equip weapons in many places and thus you can’t attack just anyone.
So compared to Dragon Age: Inquisition there are more unique dialogue choices overall, although Inquisition has more dialogue prompts based on player race and class. Both have a plot that branches out substantially as well as dynamic character development. Like its sequels and the Mass Effect games there is a strong emphasis on companion approval/disapproval. But the different introductions or origins as well as the amount of dialogue choices, the increased amount of role-playing flexibility, and the more complex and more stat-based gameplay with more spells and abilities give Dragon Age: Origins a push to tier 5. For what it’s worth, this game and Baldur’s Gate II are the only good games we have on tier 5.
Pillars of Eternity was one of the most talked about cRPGs in recent years, due to it being designed to replicate the beloved classics to some degree. It replicates them down to the dated 2.5D visual style. No, it isn’t Infinity Engine, like many gamers mistakenly believe, but it is meant to look like them for some reason. The classic RPG I see it compared to most often is Baldur’s Gate, an honestly overrated game (acknowledging its pioneer status) with only the most basic kind of role-playing and not a whole lot of it.
Needless to say, Pillars of Eternity is a much better RPG than Baldur’s Gate. The former provides a number of races and classes, although the skill system is disappointing to say the least. Only five skills, but better than none. It has about as a decent amount of playstyles, but some of them feel like a chore. It also has micromanaging gameplay inspired by Neverwinter Nights 2.
Surprisingly Pillars of Eternity does do one thing better than most other RPGs, and that’s providing gameplay checks based on physical attributes. It has far more of this than most other games.
Why is Pillars of Eternity only on tier 5, you ask? Despite the dialogue choices, the player character’s personality is rather limited compared to the RPGs occupying the better tiers. It’s a missed opportunity, the game needs better character development and better written player dialogue. Often times player dialogue options are limited in ways that force the player to get into conflicts, you can rarely say anything along the lines of, “No, I don’t want any part in this.”
It has a few unique dialogue options based on your character’s religion and race, but most of the dialogue options will remain the same no matter who you play as. This is unlike higher tier RPGs.
Furthermore, it has substantially less skills than the higher ranked RPGs, much less than Fallout 3 even which is on tier 6.
Pillars of Eternity perhaps pioneered the trend of modern day “cRPGs” pulling a bait and switch on the player, appearing to have more role-playing than they actually do. As with most modern RPGs, the game tends to force your hand and the player character’s personality isn’t as flexible as it should be. It is also quite overrated not only as an RPG but as a game as a whole, because the people who overrate it are generally very jaded people who think anything on Infinity Engine (again, they mistakenly think this game is on Infinity Engine when it is in fact Unity) is somehow a superior RPG. Both the writing and role-playing are overrated. Obsidian has no less than three RPGs greatly superior in both respects, which you will see soon on this tier list.
To get a sense of how limited the role-playing of Pillars of Eternity, check out this playlist showing an attempted evil playthrough. The game just doesn’t allow it.
Tyranny is the latest RPG from Obsidian Entertainment. This game outright fails as a game as it is utterly incompetent in every other area, as my review demonstrates with many concrete examples. The Conquest system isn’t totally unlike Dragon Age: Keep, except it’s in-game. You decide, on a map screen without any gameplay, the history of your character. Your choices here are brought up constantly in the game’s dialogue and it affects your reputation.
The reputation system is quite important. The game banks on siding with one of three factions or yourself, although at the end of the day the same turning points happen and the same final outcome. A few skills have checks in dialogue, as do certain histories. Gameplay calls upon Athletics skill very often like Pillars of Eternity. Its stat/rule system and how illogical it is is very, very similar to Pillars of Eternity. The impact of the Conquest system and Reputation, and the added freedom in defining your character put it just above Pillars in role-playing technically but not enough to put it on a whole new tier. You can effectively play as a loyal, merciless Tyrant, or someone trying to change the world for good, with some variation for each. However, the last few hours of the game always force you down essentially the same path.
Our review for Torment: Tides of Numenera can be found here. While it has a flexible dialogue system, once again the writing is an obstacle to role-playing. Once again, this modern “cRPG” pulls a bait and switch and appears to have more role-playing than it actually does. You are often railroaded into making a stance once again, as with Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, Divinity: Original Sin. An unfortunate trend and limitation for modern RPGs as they actually fear to deliver role-playing, making some of them (or arguably all of these) fail at their task thus fail as games.
You can at least play as an evil character, but neutrality is limited, as is almost always the case with today’s RPGs. The game’s dialogue has an ample amount of skill and attribute checks, but it isn’t written in such a way to allow you to define your character’s personality with the clarity of better RPGs. The always talked about “choice and consequence” is surprisingly limited in this game, and all of it predictable (as is the dialogue itself). I failed to stop an abhorrent evil in my playthrough, and all I got from that was a brief mention of those results in an ending slide.
Tier 4 (B+ Tier)
Tier 4 RPGs are where the role-playing starts to get somewhat impressive at times, and notice that as role-playing quantity increases (in other words as you navigate to these superior tiers), the games generally get better.
These RPGs represent a substantial improvement in role-playing over all previous games, whereas the differences between tier 6 and tier 5 are less significant. These games will blow away inexperienced RPG players, and RPG veterans will even be impressed by them at times.
Wasteland 2 was developed by inXile, the remnants of Interplay/Black Isle Studios. It is a sort of spiritual successor to the Fallout games, which was made by many of the same people, as was the original Wasteland 1988. It is most similar to Fallout: Tactics, being a create-your-own party RPG. The sound and presentation are very much like the classic Fallout games, so they succeed there. The stat system is clearly inspired by Fallout’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L.
I personally backed this game, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Divinity: Original Sin, and Divinity: Original Sin 2 on Kickstarter. Of all these, Wasteland 2 came closest to meeting my expectations, but they all still failed to and as a result I will never back any RPG from these studios ever again. The first 30 hours are solid, not only in role-playing but in every way except for the fact that it uses Unity 4 engine. Everything beyond that is a complete waste of time, unbelievably repetitive and monotone with oversimplified meaningless quests.
Wasteland 2 has many skills, most of them being used often throughout the game, and attributes are just as significant as in Fallout. It doesn’t have perks though, but there are many different character builds which is ideal for an RPG. Wasteland 2 is the most complex RPG in recent years, and we mean that in a good way. Complex, not complicated, is ideal.
Wasteland 2 has three primary dialogue skills, and combined with the fact that you can use any one of your party members in conversations at any times makes for some very good dialogue role-playing. But beyond these three dialogue skills there aren’t many other special dialogue prompts at all.
One of the things that separates the best RPGs from lesser role-playing video games is open endedness, something Divinity: Original Sin did well too. Branching plots like BioWare games are still explicitly defined; they’re lovely, but games with even more role-playing are so open that it’s not one plot that branches out among different pathways, it’s an organic living world that lets you advance as you desire. Divinity: Original Sin sort of tried this, but wasn’t nearly as open ended as the classic Fallout games. Wasteland 2 does a better job at this than Divinity: Original Sin, allowing you and your group of rangers to get kicked out of the rangers even. But it doesn’t quite live up to Fallout’s example.
Great RPGs also abandon video game tradition, doing things that other games are scared to do. Wasteland 2 does this to a small extent. Below is an example that is a minor spoiler.
Things like this are almost “illegal” in game design, but Wasteland 2 doesn’t care. Pen and paper RPGs, which have the most role-playing, aren’t bound by video game design tradition, and to some extent video game RPGs shouldn’t be either.
Wasteland 2, like Divinity: Original Sin, doesn’t fully hold the player’s hand. There are no explicit quest markers, mission objectives don’t tell you exactly how to complete them. A truly great RPG lets the player approach objectives in whatever way they see fit. Still, these games do hold your hand somewhat; they do give you hints for most quests and thus an unrealistic amount of information.
In conclusion, what separates Wasteland 2 from the RPGs on lower tier lists is more freedom of choice within the story. The player’s actions are less restricted; getting kicked out of the rangers would be like getting kicked out of the Grey Wardens in Dragon Age: Origins, but the latter is impossible while the former is possible. Another distinguishing factor is the skill system; well over 20 skills used often throughout the game, making characters feel uniquely skilled like a real person is, and making gameplay less repetitive. Stats are more important in Wasteland 2 than most other modern day RPGs, adding to the complexity and significance of character creation. Last but not least, Wasteland 2 isn’t afraid to break away from certain video game design traditions and rules.
Another modern game on our list, which is a pretty rare sight. We had high hopes for Underrail as it was billed as the next Fallout, some claiming it even surpasses Fallout 2, but of course such comments are misleading. The reality is, Underrail is a formidable game (held back by its use of 1990s technology in 2015 to the point where it’s less stable than patched 1990s cRPGs), but heavily sacrifices role-playing and writing quality in favor of gameplay. But the cRPG community is uniquely incapable of making qualitative distinctions like this.
While it looks like Fallout (amusingly since Fallout visuals aged badly one year after the first game released, with the inception of Infinity Engine), it is nowhere near that level of role-playing, and the same goes for writing quality. Underrail has the bare minimum in world building, being a very shallow game with minimal exposition, however thankfully it doesn’t have the bare minimum of role-playing even though it is considerably weaker here compared to the first two Fallouts and New Vegas.
In terms of providing unique dialogue options for different character builds, the game is mostly limited to only providing unique dialogue options for persuasion, intimidate, and some gender dependent dialogue. Minimal intelligence related dialogue here, so those infamous Fallout low-intelligence playthroughs aren’t possible in Underrail. Side note: the hilarity of a low-intelligence Fallout playthrough often overshadows the overall brilliance of Fallout and Fallout 2 role-playing, but I digress.
Quest design is fairly open ended, allowing for multiple ways to approach and complete quests, but not to the same extent as the first two Fallouts. Certainly more than most modern RPGs though. The skill system is feature-rich and you can use many common RPG skills in the world often. It is not Fallout tier, but it isn’t weak in its role-playing overall.
Role-playing within the Star Wars universe sounds too good to be true, but BioWare was committed to making dreams a reality. In this game, you can be driven by the light side or the dark side of the force. The Jedi want you, but the lure of the dark side can be hard to ignore. Your path is dependent on you.
Even as a light side character, you aren’t restricted to agreeing with the Jedi. Then there’s the fact that you can be more neutral, not taking much preference between light and dark. Your alignment impacts gameplay, as certain force powers are categorized as light side or dark side powers. There are no restrictions to which powers you can take, but a light side character will spend far more force points using dark side powers and vice versa.
Unfortunately, alignment itself doesn’t impact dialogue like it does in the Mass Effect trilogy. Characters do respond to your alignment, making notes of it, but it isn’t quite as impactful as it should be since aside from occasionally mentioning your alignment and briefly voicing their approval or disapproval, companions won’t do anything about it.
Companion-specific side quests with multiple outcomes is something BioWare is famous for with Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but Knights of the Old Republic was the first to really emphasize this. Some companions can be driven to the light side or dark side, some will turn on you depending on your decisions, all to increase the significance of role-playing. Mass Effect and Dragon Age do have more responsive companions though, with more dialogue and more outcomes.
Knights of the Old Republic provides the most dialogue options of any BioWare game. The unique dialogue choices are Persuade which is based on the Persuasion skill, Force Persuade which is based on a Force power, and sometimes Wisdom if your Wisdom score is high enough. Companions will often comment when you use Force Persuade. The game has many other skills, all of which can be used very often throughout the game, and it also has a decent amount of feats and Force powers (similar in quantity to the equivalents in Dragon Age: Origins).
This game effortlessly lets you define your player character. Whether you role-play as a light side pro-Jedi character or a light side character not fully in agreement with the Jedi, a good natured rogue type character, a Sith not bound for greatness or a Sith bound to conquer the galaxy, Knights of the Old Republic makes the personality you choose clear as day, which elevates it above all of the previous RPGs.
The amount of classes/playstyles offered in this game will positively surprise some. You don’t start the game as a Jedi, you start as either a Soldier (fighter/warrior), Scout, or Scoundrel (rogue). With each class you can focus on whatever kind of weapon you want; one handed melee, dual weapon melee, two handed melee, single handed ranged, dual weapon ranged, rifles or machine guns. Three non-Jedi classes but with lots of variation in each. It also has three Jedi classes; Guardians which are lightsaber focused, Consulars which focus on mastering the Force, and Sentinels which are a balanced combination of the two. Consulars get the most Force points (think mana for the Force powers) and most points to spend on Force powers (thus the most Force powers). Guardians get the least Force points and powers, but are most effective in melee combat. Sentinels are in between. We find Guardians to be the weakest so it’s not perfectly balanced, since there are plenty of Force powers that buff your stats to make you potent in melee combat even as a Consular.
Knights of the Old Republic does break some traditional video game design traditions and rules, which is most surprising for a BioWare game. Two examples are within the spoiler tags below. They are major spoilers, so only read them if you’ve played the game as a dark side character.
Another thing Mass Effect inherits from this game is putting the player in command of a ship, which serves as the game’s hub, and letting the player choose which planets to visit in which order. Non-linear design like this should be mandatory for RPGs.
Tier 3 (A- Tier)
This is where video game RPGs start to become mind blowing, no matter your past video game RPG experience. These are somewhat overwhelming games to newcomers. Nevertheless, a truly massive improvement brought by this tier. Tier 1-3 RPGs are almost firmly a thing of the past, nearly extinct from video gaming unfortunately.
We said a lot about Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the sequel famously raises the bar. Every role-playing concept we highlighted for KOTOR applies here as well. Knights of the Old Republic II isn’t quite as liberal in its use of Force Persuasion, instead offering more Wisdom and Intelligence prompts (the first game has either zero or close to zero Intelligence dialogue prompts).
Furthermore, this game gives the player even greater influence over the companions to the extent where it surpasses most other games in this regard. There is so much companion dialogue, and most companions can be lured to the dark side or light side of the force, depending on you. Some can even be taught in the ways of the force.
Moreover, your alignment (light side or dark side) is brought up far more in dialogue, although not to the same extent as reputation in Fallout 2. So there is a bit more role-playing in Knights of the Old Republic II, but not a whole world more. I must point out that the writing quality of this game is infinitely superior to every game featured in this article so far.
Pathfinder: Kingmaker (2018)
A modern RPG ranks this highly? Yes, surprisingly. Pathfinder: Kingmaker has a lot of role-playing though its mostly mediocre writing quality makes it much less interesting than every other tier 3 game besides the one just below which is a terrible game. But the role-playing is there, always providing dialogue choices for alignment.
The usual Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidate dialogue options are common throughout (based on Persuasion skill) as are Knowledge checks (Arcana/World) and Lore checks (Nature/Religion). Though of all the games on this tier, this one and most Neverwinter Nights campaigns have the most restrictions on how freely you can act, such as how you can’t attack everyone or resurrect everyone. We wrote a review of this game here.
The Outer Worlds (2019)
If only the writing quality of this game ranked as highly as its role-playing potential. The role-playing potential is not at all shy in The Outer Worlds, but the writing, quest design, and gameplay in every area besides the basic rule system (combat balance, weapon and armor design, progression) are all abysmal and not much effort was put into any of that. You’re given quite a lot of freedom of choice in what to say, how to act, where to go, and how to tackle most quests in The Outer Worlds, but the quality of all of those things just makes it all useless. Read our review here.
Disco Elysium (2019)
This is the last modern game (let’s define modern as DX11 era) game on our list, and an unsurprising one. Disco Elysium is, to our estimation, the first RPG since Fallout: New Vegas to be on a comparable level to the great classic RPGs of past overall which of course includes role-playing potential. Two things jump out at you when first deep diving into Disco Elysium, which might be the most content dense RPG of all time, dethroning Planescape: Torment, and those two things are its role-playing potential and its world building. It has a very structured, artistic, natural way of presenting its rich universe to you, just like all the greats.
It is an isometric game so while it’s technically modern it doesn’t really look or feel the part, however it certainly looks and feels like the throwback game that it is. It makes a controversial decision to keep combat out of the game, a decision some people wish Planescape: Torment made; I disagree with this notion for Planescape: Torment however, that game should just have vastly improved combat instead, but I digress.
Disco Elysium does set itself apart however with its writing style. It is a comedic satire through and through, not completely different than The Outer Worlds in this regard, but unlike The Outer Worlds Disco Elysium is well written. This makes Disco Elysium a breath of fresh air even next to its great “cRPG” colleagues as none share its comedic style. I really love seeing the video game RPG genre reach new literary genres, and I hope to see more of this expansion in the future.
War never changes, but role-playing video games do. Compared to modern day RPGs, Fallout is confusing and barely tells you what to do. It is too open ended for modern day gamers, again it doesn’t just have a branching plot but rather a big sandbox plot that lets you act however you want, but unlike sandbox RPGs such as Fallout 3, Fallout 4, and The Elder Scrolls, Fallout doesn’t skim on dialogue role-playing or character interaction, or consequences for your actions. You can complete main quests far earlier than most games would allow; they do not require you to, for example, discover all elements relating to the quest, hence why it is possible to finish Fallout in just a few hours. And the player can act with an amount of freedom that no game bests, which includes the ability to kill every character at a whim if you’re capable, but with massive consequences unlike The Elder Scrolls.
You start the game in a vault, just like in Fallout 3. But the vault is in trouble; it needs a new water chip in order for the inhabitants to keep living in it. That’s all. Off you go into the Wasteland with practically no leads. The same applies to every other quest; you know what to do, but aren’t instructed how to do it. It’s up to the player to solve the “how to” part. Just like real life, which is what role-playing is all about anyway; replicating an actual life and world.
Fallout utilizes a stat/rule system called S.P.E.C.I.A.L. that is famous by now. It is complex but logical and works very well. It has plenty of dialogue choices unique to your character build like a proper RPG, and the game can play out in so many different ways. Character interaction flows more naturally than most other games since Fallout, like its immediate sequel, was designed after pen and paper RPGs instead of video games. Fallout has many consequences that other games avoid; tell too many people where you’re from and then your Vault might get in trouble, ask too many questions and you might get in trouble, and a lot more. Fallout, along with its sequel and Fallout: New Vegas, may have less mandatory combat than any other game with such things.
A highly underrated game and RPG, Fallout: New Vegas is, along with the last game listed on this tier, the best example of an action RPG. It has shooter mechanics, but other than that it has about as much role-playing as the very best RPGs, hence it being on tier 3. For what it’s worth, it is also the most welcoming game to newcomers of all tier 3 and higher RPGs. It has quest markers and overly detailed instructions on how to complete them, but on the other hand is completely open world and free roam which has the tendency to overwhelm novice gamers.
New Vegas isn’t quite as bold and daring as the first two Fallout games; it does abide to modern game design traditions and rules a bit more, but don’t let this dissuade you from playing it if you haven’t already. New Vegas is the highest ranked “modern” RPG on our list for many reasons.
The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system is almost the same as the classic Fallout games, making it, along with Wasteland 2, perhaps the most complex modern RPGs. But it has more role-playing than every other recent single player wRPG, considerably more. The image below explains one reason:
In short, New Vegas has an amazing amount of dialogue choices exclusive to your own unique character build, coming from attributes, skills, and perks. The writing quality is some of the best there is in gaming, which also allows you to really define your own personality through dialogue. On top of that it is an open world game providing so many different kinds of activities and quests, allowing for true sandbox role-playing like The Elder Scrolls. It has a branching plot sort of like BioWare games, with many different pathways and different factions to join. On top of all this, it has many different playstyles thanks to its very well designed skill system and the unparalleled amount of weapons and armors when all the DLC is installed.
Along with the first two Fallout games, New Vegas may have less mandatory combat and hostile engagements than any other game that has such things. Also, you can kill almost every character in the game at a whim, and while it has far more consequences for this than The Elder Scrolls, it has less than Fallout and Fallout 2 (but still more role-playing overall than Fallout).
We return to BioWare RPGs once again. The Neverwinter Nights franchise is the king of RPG gameplay diversity, a distinct advantage they all hold. Neverwinter Nights has 11 classes, 12 prestige classes, literally hundreds of spells belonging to different spell schools, hundreds of feats, and more weapon categories than perhaps any other game. The result is some of the most unique character builds in gaming (along with its sequel of course and also Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, The Temple of Elemental Evil) and the second most playstyles of any RPG (behind only its sequel).
The Neverwinter Nights games tried to do it all. No other RPG went this far to date. Their multiplayer implementation leads to one of the only true RPG experiences possible in video gaming, since one player can play as a Dungeon Master and control the storytelling and encounters. Or you can forego this and just do a cooperative campaign or PvP. As far as single player role-playing goes, some campaigns have more than others. The original campaign has significantly less role-playing than its expansions, but the expansions have so much and one can make their own campaigns with the excellent toolset that have more role-playing than any other video game.
The expansions demonstrate unique attention to detail in its role-playing, like how much NPCs will converse with your companions, and how much class-based dialogue and gameplay changes there are (and by gameplay changes, we don’t mean the obvious things related to your character build and its abilities, but rather unique items and dialogue based on your class). The only BioWare games that don’t shy away from role-playing at all really are Neverwinter Nights and to a lesser extent KOTOR. KOTOR is more black and white though, good and evil, but Neverwinter Nights especially does not want to limit how you define your character and how you act. KOTOR was the very last BioWare RPG that really allowed you to be truly evil and not save the world, but Neverwinter Nights is firmly ahead of KOTOR as the role-playing is far more diverse and not so black and white.
Officially dubbed “The unopposed ruler of Dungeons & Dragons computer games,” Neverwinter Nights 2 lives up to its word by integrating more D&D content than any other video game, including almost all races/subraces and classes and skills and feats and weapon categories and more from every other D&D video game there is. No RPG can match Neverwinter Nights 2: Complete in sheer amount of content, and the amazing thing is it doesn’t skimp on quality to the point where hardly any RPG can compare in that regard as well.
This is another game we wrote specifically about, so refer to that article for more information. In short, Neverwinter Nights 2 is the king of gameplay diversity and RPG gameplay mechanics, having an unparalleled amount of playstyles for a single player game, taking after and expanding upon its predecessor. 15 classes, 24 prestige classes, hundreds upon hundreds of spells and feats, and 27 skills with the entirety of skills being more evenly used and more important than Neverwinter Nights which has a few near-useless skills.
It might seem overwhelming at first, but Neverwinter Nights 2 essentially has a built-in handbook fully explaining every aspect of itself. Spend a proper amount of time reading, and pause in combat, and it should not be overwhelming. The UI is also excellent and very user friendly; hovering over things always brings up descriptions. Amazingly designed and detailed game. It actually has too many quest markers and overly detailed quest instructions to my liking, much like Fallout: New Vegas above. This makes it more user friendly, but less realistic at the same time.
All campaigns of Neverwinter Nights 2 have so many dialogue choices unique to your character build, with dialogue prompts stemming from various attributes, skills, and sometimes race and religion. Furthermore, it uses alignment slightly better than Neverwinter Nights, meaning it’s still somewhat of a missed opportunity and it is only really important to class restrictions. There is some dialogue related to your alignment, but not a whole lot unfortunately. This is the other game in this tier, along with Pathfinder: Kingmaker, that strongly restricts how freely you can act; you can’t go around attacking everyone or resurrecting everyone by default in the official campaigns (but if you’re making your own campaign, this is something you can enable).
The plot of Neverwinter Nights 2 and Mysteries of Westgate branches out more than most other games, but Mask of the Betrayer is several levels ahead in this regard. Storm of Zehir not as much as it’s more of a sandbox type of RPG, and might have the best use of skill checks in gameplay. Mask of the Betrayer is one of the very best examples of a branching, reactive story in all of gaming. Storm of Zehir is the best example of a create-your-own-party RPG, even better than Wasteland 2, having more dialogue choices and variety along with more playstyles and an even better use of skills (especially on the Overhand map). Storm of Zehir ties its micromanaging into its role-playing, as you manage a trading company in order to shape the world and economy around you.
Mask of the Betrayer on the other hand shows what can happen if you combine this much role-playing with an excellent story. It gives you a unique power, and how you use it will greatly affect the game and everyone around you in a multitude of ways. The result is purely magical, much like its spiritual predecessor which is the game listed next.
Planescape: Torment (1999)
Another one of our most commonly discussed games, some may be surprised to see Planescape: Torment on tier 3. It is arguably the best video game RPG ever made, but this is because such a statement encompasses all aspects of video game design. It does not have the most role-playing of any and all video games, although it does come close. It is the most well-written RPG of all time however, and it represents an unexpected evolution in the RPG industry and video game industry as a whole, with its one of a kind combination and integration of high quality writing with extreme amounts of role-playing.
This isn’t to say other RPGs aren’t well written: as we explained earlier, tier 1-3 RPGs have some of the best world building in video game history, and furthermore Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, and Fallout: New Vegas are all some of the best written video games ever… but only after Planescape: Torment. That is how elite Planescape is from a writing standpoint relative to its medium.
This is also a poor beginner’s RPG. It is too hardcore and has absolutely no hand holding, with realistically vague objectives providing no overly detailed instructions on how to complete them. No quest markers at all like Fallout, and this isn’t just to make the game hard nor is it just for realism (realism was one of the reasons though, synthetic difficulty is not as it is logical rather than synthetic difficulty). The main reason Planescape: Torment, Fallout, Fallout 2, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura have little to no quest markers is because they have so many ways to approach and complete quests (many require somewhat specific character builds, e.g. high tech skills and thus no magic skills in Arcanum) that they do not want to encourage one way. This is unlike Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin 2 which also have little to no quest markers, but only for the sake of having no quest markers as most quests especially in the first game (and per playthrough in the second game) only have one way to approach and complete them, and both of these games are all about synthetic difficulty.
What Planescape: Torment does better than Neverwinter Nights 2 as far as role-playing goes is alignment; it has the same alignments as both Neverwinter Nights games, and it dynamically shifts based on your actions in all three games, but in Planescape it shifts far more, being more realistic and improving role-playing in this regard. A fellow gamer I know started Neverwinter Nights 2 as either a Neutral Good or Lawful Good Druid (I forget which precisely), but acted largely in a Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Evil way. At the end of the game his alignment hadn’t changed, because Neverwinter Nights 2 mostly ignores alignment. It’s not as bad as it sounds since it still takes note of how you act throughout the game, it just doesn’t use alignment for this.
But alignment in Planescape: Torment is very dynamic and it is important. It affects dialogue and can land you with different companions. It has many different dialogue choices, probably the must Truth and Lie dialogue prompts of any game, as well as choices based on Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma attributes. It has enough dialogue choices and of good enough quality to make it feel like you’re really defining your character with what you say. But actions speak louder than words, and Planescape: Torment thankfully puts very little restriction on how you can act (you can kill almost everyone in the game at a whim, for example, that is if you have the skills to do so), and your actions certainly can have very real consequences.
Even though your character is always a set race and gender, he truly is a clean slate. He suffers from amnesia and thus the main goal is to discover who you are and what happened to you, with very little instruction as it was made by the same people who made Fallout and Fallout 2. It does have more instruction than those classic Fallout games though, it is much easier to play due to that.
Storytelling and character development are the main focuses of Planescape: Torment, although it doesn’t leave anything unattended as it is excellent in every facet. You can greatly influence most of your companions, with each of them having multiple possible fates. Morte is the only required companion in the game, but of course you’d be missing out on a lot without most of the others. The protagonist of Planescape: Torment is perhaps the best written protagonist in the history of video games.
As with Fallout, Planescape: Torment was not designed around modern day video game design rules and traditions. Poor decision making will lead to a much harder game. You might find yourself “stuck” and have to load an earlier save in order to advance, again as the result of terrible decision making. Bad things can happen to the player character with no consolation, which is another video game design rule that Planescape: Torment discards.
Also, like other Black Isle Studio classics, Planescape: Torment has so much hidden content. Being a detective type really pays off in this game and the classic Fallout games, more than in any other RPG.
Only the most hardcore RPG fans can ask for more role-playing than what Planescape: Torment provides. It is a near flawless game though, and now everyone can play it with ease due to the release of Planescape: Torment – Enhanced Edition which is now available on GOG and Steam!
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004)
A largely forgotten masterpiece, Vampire: The Masquerade is a tabletop RPG and Bloodlines is a 2004 video game adaptation by Troika games. Many of its creators joined Obsidian after Troika went defunct, and this is evident in the design of the game; the quality of the role-playing, story and dialogue, but also in the bugs. Bloodlines is a rushed game and it shows, it needs an unofficial patch to be brought to glory, but even then glitches exist and some elements are obviously rushed and not fully complete. Yet it still trounces most games because the developers are that talented. Bloodlines is filled with Gothic style that shrouds the punk vampire genre, and it executes it so well and so faithfully.
Seven clans (races) are available to the player. Each has completely different vampire abilities and starting stats. Moreover, this game might have the most race-specific dialogue options of any game, most notable with Nosferatu and Malkavian above all, as the entire game is rewritten for each of these. Playing as either of these races results in an experience that no other game captures. Nosferatus are hideous creatures; playing as one affects every single conversation in the game, many of them greatly. Although the role-playing here isn’t quite as brutal as the very next game featured in this article, as the developers/writers found clever, logical ways to keep most quests open for Nosferatu player characters. Of course, seduction is a major part of the game and out of the question for Nosferatu PCs.
Furthermore, because of the monstrous appearance of Nosferatus, they cannot even approach random NPCs without severe consequences. Being seen by a random NPC will violate the Masquerade, putting all supernatural creatures in danger of being discovered. Lose all five Masquerade points and your game is over. Lose only some of them and human vampire hunters will track and attack you, and other vampires will despise you or worse. And the consequences here are significant.
As for Malkavians, inherent insanity is what sets them apart. It affects so many encounters, changing how NPCs view you and also giving you unique dialogue. There’s nothing like it.
The stat system of Bloodlines is straightforward, logical, yet complex enough for a vast amount of possible character builds.
Less Humanity points (Humanity is lost by killing innocents) results in higher chance of frenzies. During a frenzy, you lose control of your character and observe as he/she goes on a killing spree. If this happens in a non-combat zone (which is most of the game, as it’s a hub-based title like Deus Ex) prepare for abhorrent Masquerade violations and a greatly impacted experience. You can gain Masquerade redemption through acts that protect it, so everything here is well balanced.
As for gameplay/combat styles, you can focus on stealth if you want. Both melee weapons and guns are available, players are advised to level up only one. Unlike virtually every other video game RPG, experience points are not earned in combat. Only by advancing quests do you gain experience, and those experience points do not contribute to levels—they go directly into the stats you want to level up. You can level up Humanity by the way. It’s spectacularly thought out, as expected from a game with tabletop RPG origins. On that note I have to say, Fallout and its S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system is probably the only original video game RPG stat system I’ve seen that’s well designed. It’s good enough fundamentally to be a tabletop RPG system.
Bloodlines reacts quite realistically to everything you say and do. The more and the better a game does this, the better an RPG it is. Hence why it’s on tier 3 with only elite company. The plot and all dialogues are wonderfully responsive to player actions to the point where it’s kind of scary. Even though numerous key plot events always occur regardless of player choice, the writers found a way to properly explain this. This is one of the main reasons why Bloodlines stands out as excellent in general, and after Troika’s demise it’s a trait that was inherited by Obsidian Entertainment. Had Troika been given enough time to properly finish Bloodlines, it’d probably be in tier 2.
Tier 2 (A Tier)
Only one game occupies this tier, simply because the amount of role-playing it offers is distinctly more free form than the tier 3 RPGs, but also distinctly less than tier 1. It is fair to call the role-playing quantity between tier 1-3 RPGs close, but we strive to be most precise here on GND-Tech. Note that tier 2 is closer to tier 1, than it is to tier 3.
Arcanum is usually (but not often enough) mentioned in the same breath as Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment. Indeed, these are the three greatest isometric 2.5D RPGs ever made, by far. These three also have the most role-playing of any isometric 2.5D RPG.
This is perhaps the worst RPG for a newcomer to start off with. Not only does it have no quest markers, realistically vague objectives (such as, “Locate the village of the Dark Elves” on a massive continent that is at least hundreds of square kilometers in size), but it is a unique world not belonging to an established franchise, thus bringing its own ruleset. This warrants reading its 190 page superbly written manual, as the in game UI is good but not terribly user friendly (it is straightforward in a basic sense, but has no description for its more advanced features).
The world of Arcanum is one of a kind; a parallel 1800s United Kingdom set during an industrial revolution that wasn’t unlike that of reality; a world fascinated with gears and steam engines. But the key difference being the presence of more traditional fantasy elements as well; magick primarily, as well as other races such as dwarves, elves, gnomes, halflings, orcs, and ogres. Essentially, if you were to take Dungeons and Dragons and fast forward hundreds of years, you’d have something like Arcanum.
Like Fallout and Fallout 2, it is open world and has no hand holding. No quest markers or overly detailed instructions on how to complete quests. The world is well written, far surpassing that of most RPGs outside of this tier. And as you can surmise, the conflict between technology and magick presents wonderful story opportunities. The game does make good use of some opportunity in this regard, although there is potential for even more.
The world is so detailed that it makes modern RPGs look rushed, as if they didn’t have a time to add all of the additional layers of detail that Arcanum has, and boy does it have many. Every settlement is 100% distinct visually, as expected from a 2D game, but they are also filled with unique stories and characters. So many real characters you can converse with, with so many unique dialogue options according to your character build and progression. Road signs are actually legible and practical as are the addresses for every single building (all can be entered, most are not a separate cell), trash bins are usable, NPCs actually walk around and go to sleep at night (it has a dynamic day/night cycle). Found a locked, maybe quest related door with no apparent means to open it? Try dynamite, just like Fallout and Fallout 2. High quality RPGs like Arcanum are logical, and such RPGs no longer exist.
Arcanum submerges you in role-playing. Players can play as a human, dwarf, elf, half-elf, half-orc, or half-ogre. Race has massive impact upon stats and abilities, like the Neverwinter Nights games. It has considerable impact on dialogue, but not the most, as the entire game isn’t rewritten for any one race. Lots of unique attribute related dialogue exists however; in general the game’s dialogue changes in a major way depending on your Intelligence level (including ‘dumb character’ dialogue like Fallout 2) and Charisma/Persuasion level. Lots of progression based unique dialogue too, and so many based on reputation and reaction (reaction also being affected by your Beauty attribute). Again, the amount of dialogue options according to your character build and your playthrough, possessed by the tier 1-3 RPGs, greatly surpasses those of all games belonging to lower tiers.
Arcanum lets you do act however you please. You can even kill every character in the game at a whim, and the consequences are massive unlike The Elder Scrolls.
There is no defined class system, instead you can spend points (earned when leveling up) on anything—attributes, skills (combat related, dialogue related, and others such as thief skills, increasing chance of success at all of these), one of the 8 technological disciplines in the form of unlocking new schematics (so it’s similar to choosing perks in a game like Fallout 4 or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), or one of the 16 spell colleges in the form of directly choosing new spells.
The only games that provide more possible character builds than Arcanum are Neverwinter Nights 2 and maybe Neverwinter Nights, but the contrast in Arcanum’s possible character builds is unmatched. For example, you can play as a low intelligence club wielding half-ogre and witness every conversation (and even your log book) be rewritten much like Fallout 2 (and yes, you can lower your intelligence to such levels as other races as well). Or you can play as a technological master, wielding a repeater rifle and fine revolver and other impressive gadgetry, or you can play as a a devout believer of magick and technological opponent, skilled in the arcane arts.
One of the game’s stats is a meter that gauges technological vs magick prowess, used almost like the light side vs dark side system of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games. If you possess strong technological aptitude, magick shopkeepers and such will not do business with you, and the opposite is also true. Some companions may not follow you depending on this facet, and also depending on your level.
Furthermore, Arcanum gives you the option of playing with real-time combat or turn-based. I have never seen another game go to such lengths. Of course, real-time with no pausing and at a fast pace like this isn’t really feasible in an isometric 2.5D game, as the camera can’t keep up due to its inability to rotate, plus the camera is too distant.
While Arcanum’s graphics are outdated and considerably inferior to those of Infinity Engine, its UI is very good, somewhat resembling games like Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny. With enough tweaking (see the first post and page 17 of this thread) it works with perhaps any 16:9 and 16:10 resolution and also Windows 10.
Tier 1 (A+ Tier)
And now we get to the top tier of role-playing video games and… what a surprise! There is only one game on this most prestigious tier.
Fallout 2 (1998)
Black Isle Studios had to be the most talented game development studio of all time, as those brilliant minds created Fallout, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment, all back to back with not a year of rest between them. Planescape: Torment, the most well written and most flawless game of all time, and Fallout 2 with the most role-playing of any video game. All three of these games let the player act however he/she desires, which includes completing quests far earlier than you may expect (I finished Fallout in about 3 hours for example), and killing virtually everyone in the game whenever you wish with massive consequences.
Take everything we said about Fallout on tier 4, but remove most barriers and open your mind even more, and then you’re left with Fallout 2. This game really is a simulated RPG, like a pen and paper RPG translated into video game format. The sandbox plot can play out in more ways than any other; no explicitly defined pathways like the branching plots of Fallout: New Vegas and BioWare games, Fallout 2 is much closer to real life with very few limitations imposed on the player.
Like Fallout, it doesn’t hold your hand at all. Your “quest log” lists a vague description of what to do for that quest, like “Find the G.E.C.K.” and nothing more. Why don’t they give you any clues, you ask? Two reasons: If you want clues, ask around, but asking too many questions in the first two Fallout games can actually have consequences unlike virtually every other game. Find clues yourself. The other reason is, there are so many ways to complete quests that they have to be vague or else they begin to point you in one out of many directions.
Fallout 2 has the most dialogue variety in the history of video games. So much of the dialogue you can say and receive is unique to your character build, based not only on attributes, skills, and perks like New Vegas but also traits and reputation (which is almost like alignment). If you have a reputation for helping people, everyone knows this and will often point it out when they see you. A high Charisma character can become a porn star in New Reno, and most of the ambient dialogue will reflect this; gangsters will call you “lover boy” and degrade you, a lot of women (especially prostitutes) want to be with you, etc. You can become a boxing champion in New Reno and then people will call you “Champ.”
This dialogue variety is one of several reasons as to why Fallout 2, along with Fallout and Fallout: New Vegas, might have less mandatory combat than any other game that has combat.
Very low Intelligence characters in Fallout 2 is something well known to the gaming industry; all of your dialogue will make either very little sense or no sense at all, you won’t be able to formulate sentences or even words most of the time. NPCs will treat you appropriately, calling you dumb one and talking slowly and simply. Many quests won’t be available to you because you don’t have the mental capacity to do them. Fallout: New Vegas has a lot of dialogue for such low Intelligence characters, although not nearly as many, and even then they find ways to make most quests available to you anyway.
Some traders won’t deal with you depending on your reputation, many quests won’t be available to you depending on many factors (reputation and various parts of your character build). Whereas almost every other game listed here ignores these things in favor of simply offering the player the entire game. Fallout 2 really forces multiple playthroughs, in a realistic way.
Skills can be used all throughout the game, and you can solve problems and advance quests in very unorthodox ways, like killing someone by injecting them with super stimpacks and letting the after effects kill them. As with other great RPGs but to a greater extent, many of the quests don’t involve or require killing something.
Fallout 2 is so dynamic compared to any RPG. If you’re caught sneaking around in the open, NPCs will ask about it. If you go into someone’s private office, that person may turn hostile. Many NPCs have different dialogue when talking to them multiple times. Some make it clear that they don’t want you to bother them, but if you persist things might get ugly. The list goes on with Fallout 2’s role-playing. There is almost no limit.
See the videos below for some examples of Fallout 2’s role-playing, and how reactive its conversations are. Some of these videos showcase the same scenes as different characters. All credit to the uploaders of the videos below.
Yes, the entirety of Fallout 2 is this responsive, offering this much role-playing.
As an RPG, Fallout 2 only leaves one thing to be desired; you will desire that all other RPGs be more like it. But there will never be a video game RPG that can compete with Fallout 2. It was a once in a lifetime game. You’ll have to turn to pen and paper RPGs if you want such an in-depth role-playing experience and more.
A fun list! We loved coming up with this one, even though there were a few somewhat difficult choices. RPG newcomers will find even the Tier 6 RPGs to be very impressive in how much role-playing they offer. I certainly did, since I was still an RPG newcomer when I first played the Mass Effect trilogy.
But nowadays as a seasoned video game RPG player, tier 5-6 are a very hard sell for me. The only RPGs at that level or below (unlisted) that I’m willing to replay are Morrowind and Arx Fatalis which didn’t even make tier 6, due to their successes in other areas. Plus these don’t provide the illusion of more role-playing than what they offer, they’re very tightly crafted and the world building so solid that I’m willing to follow along.
Even tier 4 is a pretty hard sell for me… I’d only be interested in a tier 4 RPG if the writing quality is superb like in KOTOR 2.
Yes, Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale and other popular titles are not on any tier. They have next to no role-playing. Icewind Dale II would probably be on tier 7 if we made one. Unfortunately I’ve had too much trouble playing Troika’s awfully buggy The Temple of Elemental Evil so I cannot judge it. But Icewind Dale offers nothing other than character creation and diverse character builds, which the other RPGs have as well. It has almost zero story or dialogue role-playing; very few unique dialogue choices, far less than the others. You can count on your hands how many there are, but that’s because it’s a gameplay driven RPG, almost a dungeon crawler, not about story or dialogue. We focus on story-driven RPGs since if we were to create a list of games with many well defined, well balanced character builds, it would be endless and pointless.
Baldur’s Gate doesn’t provide much more role-playing than Icewind Dale in any regard. It is also gameplay focused. Outside of character builds, Baldur’s Gate has few dialogue choices and most of them are always there regardless of your character build. The game always plays out mostly the same way.
We already mentioned The Witcher franchise earlier. The Witcher 2 and The Witcher 3, by far the most popular games of that franchise, also have the least role-playing in the franchise. In all three games you always play as a set character with a predefined personality, and with only playstyle—an almost entirely predefined character build. All the player has control over is some stats when leveling up, not much all. They are NOT role-playing games. They are action adventure games based on novels.
Like most modern RPGs, The Witcher games (especially the second and third, at least in marketing) emphasize “dynamic narrative” and choice and consequence, something that was a given in older, better RPGs with far more choices and far more consequences. There is only one type of special dialogue prompt; it comes from a “sign” or a spell, it most closely resembles Force Persuasion from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic albeit less powerful and less common. The rest of the dialogue choices are always there and they have little variety since there’s no character creation after all, except for very few dialogue options in The Witcher 2 that are based on your actions in the previous game (it allows for save game importing). But there are only two or three instances of this, all trivial and irrelevant by any standards unlike Mass Effect which is famous for its strong use of save game importing.
Since today’s emphasis is on open world gaming, it should be noted that Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura are the most elite open world RPGs. Fallout 2 has the most role-playing of all traditional video game RPGs. The writing quality and quest design of these is also top notch by video game standards. Their world building and overall gameplay design embarrasses modern RPGs, but not as much as their role-playing humiliates them.
It is too difficult to objectively make a numbered list of games with the most role-playing, besides Fallout 2 and Arcanum being #1 and #2 respectively. After these, perhaps Fallout would be #3, Bloodlines #4, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer #5 when looking at specific campaigns, Fallout: New Vegas #6, and perhaps Knights of the Old Republic II #7, but after this it becomes almost impossible to sort due to some RPGs excelling more in one area than another. A tier list is more useful for this.
Great RPGs are rare and the ones listed on tiers 1-3 offer substantially more role-playing than most other RPGs. They are the ones that should be considered elite and benchmarks. All RPGs should be compared to them, and also compared to pen and paper RPGs since people have forgotten what RPG means. Of course we may have missed a few, so let us know in the comments if you believe we have!