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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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.
“No interest, eh? Can tell you’re not going to last long here.”
“Tough but fair” became my mantra in this game while storming terrifying boss battles and diving deep into darkened dungeons. From Software’s challenging dungeon-crawler from 2009 seemed like a repudiation of the casual and audience-friendly moves made by other developers, making it both appealing and frustrating to a surprising large number of players who wanted more.
A grim, black shroud of subtle storytelling pushed the player toward an inevitable end and lack of safeguards, which left many NPCs vulnerable to a sword or spell that irrevocably removed them from Demon’s Souls’ cruel fantasy. Messages left by other players shared online could even appear in your game, warning or tricking you of danger that might lay ahead and could kill you in seconds. At the same time, the worst harbingers would always leave a sliver of hope that these threats could be defeated. And for many players, that was a challenge that kept them fighting on through to the end.
Or a temptation to invade other players’ games and take their souls instead.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
“Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.”
More than a decade after the first Deus Ex, quite a few fans were worried about whether 2011’s Human Revolution would be worthy enough to follow in the original’s customizable nanotech shoes, including me.
But Eidos Montreal had managed to do the impossible with a prequel that took players to locales around the world, ranging from the high-tech, ivory towers of Shanghai to Detroit. Despite a bit of awkwardness, such as the boss fights, Human Revolution left the possibilities open as its predecessor had, letting players upgrade, sneak, snipe, and choose how to play their way across a narrative woven with nanotech fibers and consequences that made it a surprise hits among fans and publisher Square Enix’s accountants. And like Dragon Age: Origins, time was actually spent on making the PC version stand on its own.
Fallout: New Vegas
“We shall see how brave you are when nailed to the walls of the Hoover Dam, your body facing west so you may watch your world die.”
Fallout: New Vegas was something of a homecoming for Obsidian Entertainment, whose membership included a number of seasoned veterans responsible for the original Fallout and Fallout 2 titles on PCs back in the late ’90s. While not a direct sequel to the events in Fallout 3, the atmosphere of post-apocalyptic dystopia, desperation, and tattered dreams overshadowed the bugs in 2010’s New Vegas. Coupled with a deep character development system, a vast mix of low and high-tech loot, and creatures both mundane and man-made, the Wasteland had become more dangerous than ever. If that wasn’t enough, PC players could craft their own gear using the included construction set.
The ravaged city of New Vegas and its surroundings, the factions fighting for control of what was left of the Old World beneath the shadow of a high-tech Howard Hughes, the secrets buried in the radioactive sand, and one monkey wrench in the form of a betrayed messenger stumbling through decisions that determined the future of it all — that fused together to craft one of the best entries in the Fallout series.
“I’m talking about Gallia’s future! How else are we supposed to survive, Welkin? Caught on either side by giants!”
Although a PS3 exclusive, Valkyria Chronicles was one of those titles whose quality made it one of the best on any system and only made me wish that it could have been a multiplatform release.
Sega’s tactical RPG, released in 2008, blended in class growth and upgrade options for doing well in combat. But it was the strategic engine that demonstrated that as charming as its watercolor visuals were, Valkyria Chronicles wasn’t above giving out a tough drubbing, with permadeath hanging over every mistake.
Its story drew an unprepared cadre of young fighters together within an alternate world set in the 1930s, prior to the outbreak of war. The charming appearance and lighthearted personalities of the characters were countered by serious themes such as discrimination and genocide while the technology of the day revolved around a miracle mineral called ragnite — and the legend of the Valkyrians.
A stable of minor characters to pick from and assign on combat missions, each with their own mini bio that added in just enough personality to make you care, boosted the challenge of trying not to let them die.
“Take up arms, Arisen … for my kind do not heed the toothless.”
Dragon’s Dogma — Capcom’s gritty sandbox RPG set in a dark, medieval world — was a big surprise from the company that leveraged bits and pieces of its expertise with Monster Hunter in with traditional RPG elements and a world grounded in Western trappings. It combined arcade action with an extensive character development system crammed with skills, equipment upgrades, and plenty of loot and set it within a huge, open world ripe for exploration by a lone hero. In this game, curiosity could and often did kill the careless early on.
Players were also accompanied by a “pawn” that they could also customize with gear and skills, change professions as easily as talking to an NPC, and who would literally die to defend as a constant companion. Pawns could even be shared out, enabling other players to use them and leave rewards that can be brought back.
Dragon’s Dogma also boasts a unique community boss battle as an endgame challenge that can be revisited as often as you want. Though players aren’t actually in the game together, whatever damage they inflict is shared online in an effort to bring the beast down for valuable loot, which plants a suitably epic cherry on top of an old-school dungeon crawl populated with the kind of action that Capcom is known for.
Below are games that I had also enjoyed but didn’t quite make the cut above for a number of reasons. That doesn’t mean that they’re “bad,” just that for me, they didn’t quite come together in the same way despite enjoying what they brought to the table. There might even be a few here that you think should replace one or two of the ones above. Let me know!
“You’ve been wearing the same shitty clothes since I met you.”
Developer Cavia’s stories have always been known for bizarre twists and turns and for bringing together characters strange and ordinary. Nier is no exception, starring who might be the world’s toughest father, a talking book professing to be the key to ultimate power, and a number of other fascinating faces met through the course of the game. It also has an ending (one of several) where, if the player decides to sacrifice Nier’s life to save his daughter’s, it wipes the memory of who they were from the world — along with the save file!
The world of Nier can also be as creative as the characters despite the plain visuals, especially when a special event in the game goes text-only. Finally, a moody and awe-inspiring set of music tracks set with stirring vocals complements the simple hack-n-slash action. It’s worth playing through if only because of the story and a soundtrack that often seems too big for the game it scores.
“If there’s any place a soul would go, it’s in your memories. People you remember are with you forever.”
Writer Hironobu Sakaguchi wanted to make a game that would make players cry, and while the Xbox 360 exclusive Lost Odyssey might not have left every critic misty-eyed, the attention paid to the text stories — found along the way as “memories” of the immortal protagonist Kaim — added an atmospheric layer to his characterization.
It took awhile for me to warm up to this one, but after the second disc, I finally hit my stride with the gameplay as the story also began gaining momentum, making it a solid and surprisingly intimate title from the designer who gave us Final Fantasy.
Tales of Vesperia
“Humans will not let something go once it is in their grasp.”
The long-running Tales series has had its ups and downs, but Vesperia in 2008 was definitely one of its shining moments for me.
An atypically “older” protagonist and a group of charming characters coupled with a fast combat system and an interesting skill system tied to equipment all added depth to customizing each character’s strengths in fun ways. Tales of Vesperia also boasted a typically lengthy quest, a great “villain” with his own story, and a wide, open world with its own secrets to dig up. While it was an Xbox 360 exclusive in the West, a PS3 version with enhanced content was released as a Japan-only title.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Studio Ghibli doesn’t usually loan its talents to games in as big a way as it did with Ni No Kuni, but the result was a title loaded with incredible visuals layered atop a story that could have passed as a film direct from its master animators.
As for the gameplay, Ni No Kuni’s was something of a mixed bag, merging a Pokémon-like collect-a-thon with incredibly dodgy A.I. and limited options with which to work. But for fans of Studio Ghibli’s work, that was something glossed over to get at the parts that worked well — a fairytale brought to life, with special tournaments, hunts, and a wide variety of characters pushing your party toward the incredible climax and memorable ending.
Resonance of Fate
“If you’re gonna point a gun at someone, make sure you know who you’re dealing with.”
Developer Tri-Ace and Sega’s gun-blazing title from 2010 featured a real-time combo system of gun-fu that made use of special ammo types, customizable weapons, and unique attacks that shot up the backdrop of a steampunk city vertically rising from a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Resonance of Fate’s charm lay in both its trio of characters and its lead-lined gameplay, which also came with something of a learning curve. Still, this role-playing bullet ballet easily stands out as a visually stylish and challenging system set within an intriguing setting that’s backed by solid tracks and commentary by the heroes after every fight.