Alex Fuller’s RPGs of the Decade
In addition to showing the results our staff-wide voting, our massive RPGs of the Decade feature allows individual staff members to highlight their personal favourites from the last ten years. While our main list is limited to entirely new entries from the decade, our writers have been given a bit more leeway for their personal lists, being able to combine titles into a single entry in their list of ten, include various remasters and ports, and use whatever ordering, or not, they wish. Here, Alex Fuller gives us his picks.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception / Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth
I’ll start out with my likely least universal choice of the lot. Visual novels, or hybrids of, make up a good chunk of my favourite titles, including titles such as Steins;Gate, Danganronpa, and Zero Escape. Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth are two such hybrids, combining a visual novel story with a tactical combat system from master Sting.
What makes them less than universal choices is the unfortunate pacing of Mask of Deception. Multiple event scenes regarding the making of sweets are just one illustration of that. However, that initial slow burn absolutely pays off at the very end of the game and right the way through Mask of Truth as the plot gets going into an incredibly engaging tale. When the combat system gets the chance to show its impressive strengths, it stands right up there with the best of them.
I’ll also use this opportunity to throw in a mention of Aquaplus’ previous title, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord, in here as well. It has very much all of the same things that Utawarerumono has, only in a setting based loosely upon the time of Hannibal Barca and with a bit less padding, and also is well worth checking out for any fans of tactical RPGs.
I missed out on NieR: Automata initially, though I made sure to pick up its fantastic soundtrack, being a little bit wary of all the craziness I’d heard about it. However, its Game of the YoRHa Edition finally persuaded me to give it a fair shake and I’m delighted I did. Despite its sometimes-awkward structure, NieR: Automata has a fascinating narrative that makes highly effective use of its themes, introducing elements and motifs throughout its length as secrets are revealed that put wholly new spins on the behaviour of both the androids and the machines as the game goes on. The contrasts, connections, and sometimes strangeness all build on each other to create a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful tale.
The fast-paced combat takes advantage of PlatinumGames’ expertise with some incredible depth, though I was far from skilled enough to actually make use of a lot of that depth. Thankfully, the game is very accessible on that front, meaning those like myself who are less skilled are able to get through it without any trouble. Yoko Taro’s reputation may encourage some to approach NieR: Automata with caution but they need not do so. Any annoyances and weirdness that the game brings in are more than made up for by the excellent presentation of a fascinating story with intriguing and strongly-utilised themes.
Bravely Default / Bravely Second
It’s quite amusing how polarising Bravely Default is, especially when you’re one of the group that adored it, though I can understand some of it. For me, the game carries through much of what made classic RPGs so appealling, but is great at removing a lot of what drags about them. I love the tactical considerations and combos that the Brave and Default options provide, while I personally also enjoyed the second-half cycle once I picked up on what was happening, in part due to my mind being able to let go of trying to achieve everything possible. Bravely Second didn’t do too much more on its own, but built smartly upon the offerings of its predecessor, with both games sharing some enjoyable and memorable cast members.
One of the recurring themes of my list is music, and there’s no way the Bravely series could be here without that being mentioned. Revo (who some may know from Sound Horizon) and Ryo (likewise from Supercell) both provide excellent offerings, though I am more of a fan of Revo’s pure bombasticness. The two games are great fits on the handheld, and a lot of useful features, such as the adjustable random encounter rate, help make both titles highly enjoyable throughout.
Divinity: Original Sin II
Despite multiple attempts, I had never managed to get into any of the isometric-style western RPGs, more often than not directly inpired by tabletop games: think Baldur’s Gate and the like. However, with Larian Studios’ Divinity: Original Sin II, I was able to. Part of it is that the game actually embraces the slower, tactical turn-based system of the tabletop games rather than the awkward real-time-with-pause systems that just wash completely over me in their attempts to better convey the action.
The other part of it is just how fantastically crafted everything is, not just in the narrative and world building, but in all the gameplay systems as well. Taking advantage of the environment and all of the abilities on offer is such a major part of the game, even if it does often simply result in everything being on fire. With Larian Studios getting the chance at working on Baldur’s Gate III and applying everything it learned here, I look forward to finally being able to enjoy a game with the Baldur’s Gate name on it. In finally getting me to see what the appeal of that entire subgenre of games is, Divinity: Original Sin II embeds itself clearly in my list of the top RPGs from the past decade.
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 may have eschewed the explorative elements of the first game that I personally very much enjoyed, but it has to be said that its different direction paid off massively. The focus on the combat and tighter, more cinematic sections results in a game packed full of action. There’s a galaxy filled with interesting species and fascinating conflicts, as players are put into the position of working for a common good with those they would otherwise be on the opposing side of, but really Mass Effect 2 is where BioWare truly found its footing with the combat, generating incredibly exciting cover-based action.
Mass Effect 2 definitely took advantage of the traditional BioWare romance options, doing a great service to both the male and female versions of Shepard, letting them get together with a much wider and on the whole more interesting and appealing set of options than the first game, including fan favourites Garrus and Tali. Mass Effect 2 is understandably considered the best entry in the series, and while I will defend the unjustly maligned Mass Effect: Andromeda and had no issues with how Mass Effect 3 ended up, the second entry is really where the series launched into orbit.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher series has come on in leaps and bounds with every entry. The first game developed a cult following, but it wasn’t until The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings that CD Projekt RED seemed to get fully into its stride. With The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the developer is at the top of its game. Their incredible craft went all of the way through, from the macro right down to microscopic touches.
Geralt makes for a fantastic protagonist, and his supporting cast is incredibly strong as well, from Triss and Yennefer to Siri. Gameplay, one of the more challenging things to enjoy in the second game, has been much more accessible, and lets more players experience the detailed world. There’s a reason Cyberpunk 2077 is one of this year’s most anticipated titles, and The Witcher 3 is that reason.
Final Fantasy XIV
I’ve never been a big player of MMOs, and after failing to get into Final Fantasy XI, I didn’t really have any interest in Final Fantasy XIV in its initial failed version, but Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn completely sucked me in. The new version of the game expertly borrowed parts from what made both MMORPGs and single-player RPGs great and it’s only gotten stronger since then. Its storylines, especially that of the recent Shadowbringers expansion, are the sort of thing one would expect out of any top-drawer Final Fantasy title, filled with great supporting characters and villains. Meanwhile, the gameplay team has used the advantage of being able to keep updating things to keep the combat getting ever better, with truly fantastic fights to be found all over the place.
It’s easy to see just how much effort and love the lore and localisation teams have been putting into the game. It has also brought us the incredible music of SOKEN and his team, as well as some magnificent locales from the design team. There have been many days where I’ve been happy to just sit back and enjoy the combination of the views and background music.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky / Trails of Cold Steel series
This decade has seen a huge rise for the reputation of Nihon Falcom, at least in the west. Both of its two long-running series, Ys and The Legend of Heroes, have found a following, but its the latter that has done the most to earn my adoration. It’s certainly taken time for the games to reach us; Trails in the Sky Second Chapter took a whole eight years, while the most recent Trails of Cold Steel games are veritable speedsters at just two. However, the wait has been absolutely worth it.
Forming two subseries within a massive larger tale, getting into the series is not something done lightly, but the continent of Erebonia sucks in all those who visit it. Trails in the Sky First Chapter started things off with the journey of Estelle and Joshua, introducing the delights of the pairs’ interactions with each other and the wider world, but also the series’ immense world-building as every NPC has their own little story going on. Never has talking to everyone been so rewarding.
Trails of Cold Steel marked a significant upgrade for the series in terms of both graphics and combat, moving away from the isometric grid-based battles into a third-person turn-based system that has gotten deeper with every entry. It introduced a whole new cast and even nation to fall in love with, starting with Thors Academy’s Class VII and their adventures in Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II, before bringing in a new class — while keeping almost everyone else active — in Trails of Cold Steel III. The subseries is finally getting its conclusion this year, which will pay off threads started all the way back in Trails in the Sky, and there’s loads more still to come. The series is a big time investment, but one that pays off massively.
Persona 3 Portable / Persona 4 Golden / Persona 5
For those, like myself, who didn’t own a PlayStation device until the last decade, the last ten years have been perfect for getting into the Persona series. First, Persona 3 Portable arrived on PSP, bringing with it the brand new experience of the female main protagonist, something which is a disappointment in that it hasn’t been brought forward again.
Persona 4 I actually played on a borrowed PS2 the year before Persona 4 Golden was announced, but the game is just the perfect fit on the woefully underappreciated PlayStation Vita. The game’s murder mystery plot is an incredibly compelling one and the more rural setting of Inaba takes on a great life of its own. Meanwhile, Persona 5 came out a bit later than initially hoped, but it was well worth the wait, adding a whole new level of style and production values on top of fantastic writing and combat.
What really makes the series shine is its writing which comes through in the fantastic casts of each title. Combining that with simple-to-learn and quick turn-based combat, which is also incredibly deep and rewarding, as well as glorious music from Shoji Meguro, the series is rightfully one of the crown jewels of RPGs. Persona 4 Golden remains my favourite in the series, but it’s a ridiculously close run, especially after the recent launch of Persona 5 Royal, with all three games providing incredible experiences.
Xenoblade Chronicles / Xenoblade Chronicles X / Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Those following me won’t be remotely surprised to see all three titles in this series right at the top of my decade list. Being in the UK, I was able to enjoy Xenoblade Chronicles earlier than everyone else of staff and before word had spread about just how incredible it was. My adoration for the entire series is boundless, but the first game’s reveal of just how great RPGs can be keeps it my personal favourite. Shulk and Co.’s adventure on the Bionis and Mechonis is such a magnificent tale combined with truly astounding world design.
Xenoblade Chronicles X took an interesting departure from the first game, being much more focused on exploration and its gameplay systems, though it still had a very interesting story to tell. It never quite reached the same pinnacle, but it still stands out as an incredibly strong title. It was one of the few games to made good use of the Wii U gamepad, letting players access a ton of different options, though that is now one of the difficulties to ovecome should the game ever come to Switch like its predecessor. It suffers a little bit from overhype, as Nintendo went out of its way to detail every part of the game, losing some of the joy of discovery, but there were always more than enough magnificent views to go out and find to make up for it.
MonolithSoft went more towards the style of the first game for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, though it still provided its own spins on things as the developer polished its systems further while bringing in new elements and tactical considerations through Blades. That combat system was enhanced even further for prequel/expansion Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna ~ The Golden Country into one of the best real-time JRPG systems going. It made fantastic use of the Switch’s upgraded power on top of the once more stellar world design to produce one of the finest-looking handheld RPGs ever made, with yet another brilliant story (pair of stories if counting Torna as well) to go with it. I haven’t even had the opportunity to talk about the music here, but, of course, all three games come with amazing scores.