As another era in gaming winds down, I thought it might be fun to take a look at 10 amazing role-playing games (and five honorable mentions) that graced the PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, and Xbox 360.
None of these are in any particular order. This is also by no means a definitive list, so if you have a favorite that you don’t see mentioned here, be sure to let everyone know in the comments!
On the backs of giants
Above: Xenoblade Chronicles’ world is filled with fantastic vistas painted against a mythic backdrop of giants and science fiction.
Xenoblade Chronicles is a Wii exclusive that sparked a community-led effort in the form of Operation Rainfall, which aimed to convince Nintendo to localize it and other titles for the West. (It worked, arriving in North America in 2012.) Monolith Soft’s magnum opus from 2010 boasts a strong story, gameplay mechanics that incorporate an extensive crafting and gear-enhancement system, brutal boss fights, character development options, swappable party members, and a versatile combat system. It’s also one of those rare games where sci-fi and role-playing come together.
The sheer size of Xenoblade’s world easily evokes comparisons to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s or Final Fantasy XII’s. A number of special events and side quests are hidden off the beaten path of the main campaign, out among the grassy plains and forgotten ruins that make the game an explorer’s paradise. And when you think you’ve seen everything, it throws in a colony that players can build up, all of which leads to an incredible ending worth watching and making this game one of the best for any platform.
“You were a Spectre. You swore to protect the galaxy. Then you broke that vow to save yourself.”
Above: Two more party members can follow along and try their hardest not to turn into cannon fodder by following orders, complementing the skills of my Vanguard-classed Shepherd.
Science fiction is a genre that hasn’t seen as much representation in RPGs as fantasy has, but developer BioWare was no stranger to it, having worked on 2003′s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Mass Effect in 2007 was all BioWare’s — its characters, stories, galaxy — making it a huge gamble for any studio.
The company built a game steeped in sci-fi miracles (it had an in-game encyclopedia explaining background concepts), solid upgrade mechanics, and the illusion of exploring a vast galaxy filled with potential and choices. Ultimately, that proved to be an incredibly successful roll of the die, kicking off comics, books, sequels, and PC ports and taking a growing audience of fans all through the Xbox 360′s and eventually the PS3′s own story — right up into the next generation.
Dragon Age: Origins
“We now have a dog, and Alistair is still the dumbest one in the party.”
Above: Tackling a dragon was a tactical challenge relying on how well you ran your party of four. Tail attacks, wing buffets, fiery breath, and your party becoming chew toys were all part of the fun.
BioWare wasn’t finished with fantasy. A project that had been in development for several years would finally arrive in 2009 as a multiplatform release and an homage to the classics.
Dragon Age: Origins was weighted with a lot of story. It lived up to its namesake with different “origins” depending on race and class choices made by the player, a theme that ran straight on through to multiple endings that encouraged players to carefully consider their starting decisions or replay the game with different choices. Combined with BioWare’s penchant for memorable characters and settings, Origins dusted off so much old-school charm in celebrating its roots that the PC version wasn’t merely an afterthought.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
“Geralt, you killed them all?”
“Well, they didn’t slaughter themselves.”
Above: Sword skill, alchemical know-how, and magic get plenty of use in a one-man party. But Geralt is not invincible, and in this world, there is always something just around the corner eager to prove that.
CD Projekt’s first adaptation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher novels was a refreshing splash of pragmatic endings and gritty repartee that pulled no punches with its choices and consequences. That chapter didn’t make it to consoles, but the sequel did, keeping intact the brutality of its themes that ranged from slavery and racial discrimination to political intrigue, with conspiratorial daggers pointed at everyone’s back. Far from being “ye olde fantasy,” the dark world of alchemy and swordplay put protagonist Geralt of Rivia squarely in the middle of situations with far-ranging consequences depending on the choices made — ones that 2011′s Witcher 2 raised the stakes with. Sometimes, the decisions he made were the most dangerous threats players had to face.
The real-time combat system also provided plenty of challenge (even the “tutorial stage” prior to the first patch on PCs killed me quite a few times before I figured out a way through). A customizable skill upgrade system, side quests, and branching storylines encouraged replayability, especially in seeking out the ingredients needed to craft special weapons and armor. A sequel, Wild Hunt, is due next year.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Above: After more than a decade, dragons finally make a reappearance in an Elder Scrolls game. Players can also travel to everything seen here in this screenshot.
Something I’ve loved doing with open worlds — whether it had been something like Interplay’s Wasteland or the first Elder Scrolls game — was to take the first opportunity to escape the main story and start seeing what was really out there.
Skyrim’s vast, frosty sandbox in 2011 was crammed with the kind of tropes virtual adventurers like me loved to satisfy their wanderlust with — hidden places out in the wilderness begging players to seek out, secret rituals unlocking arcane mysteries, ancient crypts, mighty guilds, and storehouses of loot that can be crammed onto shelves and into every chest in a player’s personal house. It was a snowy wonderland of malicious dragons, powerful sorcery, and shield-bashing, where getting lost within an ancient ruin beneath the spine of the world was half the fun.