When I think about 2018’s role-playing games, I don’t see lots of bombast and flash. Blockbuster studios often stayed away. Square Enix’s main offerings this year weren’t triple-A releases. You didn’t see anything from BioWare, and Bethesda’s Fallout 76 sure doesn’t feel like an RPG to me.
Instead, we got smaller (in graphical flash, motion capture, and other blockbuster bullet list items), tighter games. I’d argue that these were more intimate tales. We got a new Dragon Quest, a new Pillars of Eternity, and a new Bard’s Tale. Pathfinder got its first proper turn-based PC RPG, and Monster Hunter: World gave us that triple-A flash. Pokémon made its Switch debut in a smaller, even cuter package.
And we saw a host of excellent indie releases and ports — far too many for one person to play.
Many of these were good, if not excellent games. My favorite release of 2018 is an RPG, and my children got more joy out of watching me play such games than I could believe. We might not have something with the production values of The Witcher III or Final Fantasy XV, but dang it, we got soul. I’ll take that over fancy-smancy graphics any time.
Let’s take a look at the game I felt worked and those that didn’t.
The critical hits
These are my favorite RPGs of 2018. They tell fantastic stories, pose interesting combat situations, and have engaging character development (either through story or through stats).
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Versus Evil, Obsidian Entertainment
This is my favorite game of 2018, and it might be my favorite game from Obsidian Entertainment. In my review, I noted how at its best, it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel as you are persuading your allies on how you want to deal with the machinations of the world’s gods … or mocking them.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4
The latest in this 32-year-old series is a legend in my household for the butt-slamming arena grapplers (at least as far as my children are concerned), Dragon Quest XI is the best Japanese role-playing game of 2018. It tells a moving story, and I can’t remember the last time an RPG had me caring about its characters so much. Sylvando is a pillar of cheerful strength, and even when he gets down, it’s not for long. The turn-based combat provides plenty of options as you mix-and-match abilities and party members. You can craft gear as well. And who can resist those cutesy slimes. If you enjoy old-school JRPGs, be sure to give it a go.
Developer: InXile Entertainment
Publisher: InXile Entertainment
In the 1980s, I was more into The Bard’s Tale and Might & Magic than I was Ultima or Wizardry. I’ve been waiting for decades for a return to Skara Brae, and InXile Entertainment delivered. It doesn’t have spinner traps or groups of 99 berserkers, but it does have a fantastic modern adaptation of the classic series. Combat is now on a grid, and your bard’s abilities are crucial to victory (and fun, too, like throwing drinks during battle). It also has the best, most difficult puzzles of any RPG that came out this year.
Developer: Thing Trunk
Publisher: Thing Trunk
This little gem came out earlier this month. It’s bite-sized Diablo with a papercraft look, and it’s a joy to play. You can choose the dungeon level’s size before you go in, and as your character moves about the halls, they kinda hop they are paper, after all). Like Diablo, many areas have a boss-like creature (though Book of Demons’ monsters are on the funny side), and the game carries a tongue-in-cheek attitude. It’s fun, and I’m looking forward to playing more of it in the coming weeks.
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Mechs and mercs — that’s the deal here in Battletech. A human empire is falling apart, and its noble houses are fighting over the scrapes. That’s where you come in. The tactics and strategy needed to clear each map is challenging, and the story intrigues me as we see these nobles fighting over the corpse of an empire. It doesn’t have the same level of RPG character development as Pillars of Eternity II offers, but it does provide several paths for boosting your pilots and improving your mechs. And I found this doesn’t matter, as stomping around and blasting foes with your giant metal monstrosities is just a hoot.
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokémon Company
Pokémon has never been my thing, and I detailed my problems with the franchise long ago. But this time around, I couldn’t deny Pikachu’s cuteness. I found myself enjoying most of my time in Kanto. I loved “throwing” the PokéBall to capture critters, and you can do this with the Joy-Cons as well. The random battles are gone, replaced by actual Pokémon on the map that you encounter to capture. You fight other trainers, too. It has that light tone you find in the cartoons and the other games, and it was a joy to play with my kids. I’m looking forward to the next Pokémon coming to the Switch now.
Making their saves
These are solid RPGs, but they don’t qualify as critical hits. They are worthy of playing.
Developer: Square Enix, Acquire
Publisher: Nintendo, Square Enix
Square Enix’s first original RPG for the Nintendo Switch, and it’s has its charm. I enjoy the turn-based battle system, the character’s roles and their subjobs, and the art. I found the stories behind each character and how they all link together to be a bit boring. But Octopath does an excellent job of capturing the feel of playing an 8-bit or 16-bit RPG on a modern console, and it delivers a 3DS-like portable experience.
Developer: Event Horizon
Publisher: Event Horizon
I need to spend more time with this indie RPG. It’s a dungeon-crawler, but it adds some twists, enabling you to slow or even stop time during combat. The world of Artara suffered a cataclysm centuries ago. As you explore the ruins beneath the tower, you learn more about how this world of magic and tech fell. Combat is difficult as well — you need to develop tactics ahead of time before you run into a fight, or you’re going to be in trouble. It’s Event Horizon’s first game, and it’s worth your attention.
Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition (Switch)
Developer: Square Enix, XPEC
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, iOS
Final Fantasy XV was one of my favorite RPGs back at the end of 2016, but I didn’t get far into it until early 2017, thus it didn’t make my game of the year list (I just hadn’t played enough of it). And after Divinity: Original Sin II came out last year, I never finished it (despite putting about 42 hours into it). When the Pocket Edition came out on Switch, I decided I should check it out. It’s a stripped-down, cartoony take on its PS4 sibling, and it’s a lot of fun. But after about 15 hours, I realized that if I was enjoying it so much, I should just go back to the console version. So I restarted that game — and have put another 38 hours into it.
Developer: Owlcat Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
I’m conflicted about this game. It’s geared right at me. It’s an almost 1-to-1 translation of the Pathfinder: Kingmaker adventure path for the tabletop RPG (which is an adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons’ 3.5 Edition), bringing with it all its options and subclasses for characters. It has turn-based combat, and you can find all sorts of points for adventure on its map. But it’s a tad sluggish at times, and as our Rowan Kaiser noted, it’s hurt by the lack of a Dungeon Master to guide the proceedings. It was also riddled with bugs and other issues — for some time after launch, my Inquisitor (a priest class) couldn’t regain their divine spells. Many of those problems have been fixed with patches. It’s a much better game now, but it still isn’t quite up to the critical hit standard.
Developer: Level 5
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4
I had a great time with the first Ni No Kuni, but Level 5 and Bandai-Namco made two changes in the sequel that left me disappointed. I enjoyed the Pokémon-esque monster collecting, but that’s gone here. Instead, you get sprite-like beings called “Higgledies” that boost your abilities in combat or make area-of-effect attacks. You can find new ones and level them up as well, but the monster-catching from the first game is better. The second change I don’t like is building a city-like caste. It muddled up the midgame, and in my opinion, doesn’t add anything interesting to the story or the gameplay. It’s just a chore. I did enjoy the story about the main character’s path as a leader in two worlds. And the artwork is top-notch (well, except in the overworld, which is a bit ugly).