Joshua Carpenter’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, Joshua Carpenter gives us his picks.
The first sequel in the Valkyria Chronicles series, with its much smaller scope in handheld form, paled in comparison to its previous iteration on the PSP. When combined with a shift in setting to a high school (chasing those Persona dollars), it met with a tepid response in the west and the third game never left Japan.
However, thanks to some dedicated fans, an unofficial English translation of Valkyria Chronicles III was released and it turned into one of my favorite PSP games. Instead of a trite, overdone school setting, VC3 focuses on a penal brigade. But this group isn’t full of criminals, but characters that have merely managed to run afoul of their superior officers. Constantly being assigned suicide missions, you slowly get to know an interesting, varied cast as you try to save Gallia and redeem yourself in the eyes of society. Admittedly, the combat on the PSP will always suffer in comparison to its console brethren, but this was a substantial improvement over VC2 and it made for one of my favorite games on the system.
I still have mixed feelings about Xenoblade Chronicles. There were several times that I felt like it stretched on for too long and I’m still not a huge fan of the MMO-inspired battle system that feels a little too hands-off for my taste. Nonetheless, I just can’t get over the ambitious scope of this game and the moments that stuck with me years later. I still remember the first time I got to Kneecap Hill and I could see these two giant colossi locked in death off in the distance. It’s still one of the most memorable RPGs from the last decade.
I became a Fire Emblem fan as so many others did with Awakening, but the characters and story in Fates left me a bit cold. Remaking Fire Emblem Gaiden seemed like an odd choice but it turned out to be the tweak in the series that I didn’t know I was looking for. The original game predated series staples like the weapon triangle and had dungeon-crawling segments, and rather than eliminate those aspects to fit them into a modern Fire Emblem style, Intelligent Systems chose to retain and lean into them, breathing some fresh air into the series. The other big addition in Fire Emblem Echoes is Milla’s Turnwheel, allowing players to go back a few turns to fix mistakes without having to reset as in the rest of the franchise. I’ve been waiting for years for an SRPG to purloin this feature from Tactics Ogre and I hope that it stays in Fire Emblem games to come.
I think most people expected a crossover of the Shin Megami Tensei series with Fire Emblem to be some sort of by-the-book SRPG. While that could have made for a fine game, I’m glad the team at Atlus responsible for this bizarre, beautiful game didn’t go with the obvious route. While the focus on the idol industry and culture in Japan may not make for a setting that appeals to a broad swath of western fans, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is nevertheless just such a fun, breezy experience that I thoroughly enjoyed it. And goodness, I can’t forget that combat system. Mixing in weakness cues from the Fire Emblem games into the traditional SMT press-turn system took out the tediousness of pecking away at enemies with everything in your arsenal to find what worked. When combined with the joy of stringing together combos into long “sessions”, it made for my favorite battle system of the decade and a game that I’m glad is no longer doomed to obscurity on the Wii U.
I tend to be a person that prioritizes good stories and fun characters over gameplay so that’s probably why Zwei: The Arges Adventure clicked with me so much. Despite Falcom being known for having great combat in some amazing fast-paced action RPGs, Zwei’s combat doesn’t live up to the heights of the best Ys games. However, the story, characters, and localization make it one of the decade’s best. While I love Pokkle and his penchant for puns, Pipiro, who’s self-centered and has absolutely no filter for what comes out of her mouth, is easily my favorite character of the last decade. For players that love the sort of charm that the Trails in the Sky games ooze, I can’t recommend this forgotten classic highly enough.
I play every Zelda game, but only some of them really click with me. Despite never playing the game that it is a sequel to, A Link Between Worlds fell into the camp of Zelda games that I really loved. Taking a new tack by offering all the different items from the start and allowing players to do the temples in any order they pleased was a breath of fresh air. It also is a rare game that makes good use of the 3D effect that was so often ignored on the system, giving depth to a beautiful rendition of the SNES classic. It easily cemented itself as one of my favorite Zelda titles.
Observant readers will notice that my RPG tastes skew toward the JRPG persuasion. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some western games that catch my interest, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution was one that totally sucked me in. Set in the near future and oozing cyberpunk cool, the game grabs you right from the beginning as Adam Jensen’s ex-girlfriend and a huge part of the R&D team for the company he works for are kidnapped and he’s badly hurt.
Deus Ex does a great job of tying the story, setting, and themes together with its character leveling. It has one of the best customization systems, allowing players to tackle obstacles in the game in different ways. It was such a well-crafted RPG that it’s one of the few I’ve played multiple times.
There was no way to know it at the time, but looking back, Mass Effect 2 was peak BioWare. A massive sci-fi epic that’s a fantastic ride from beginning — where Shepard is killed and subsequently revived by Cerberus — right up till the end when you discover what the Collectors had been doing with all of the humans that had been kidnapped throughout the game. Mass Effect 2 was where BioWare really hit the balance between the overall narrative it was crafting while managing to weave in the individual character arcs of the crew.
And it’s the crew that makes it such a memorable game. Garrus really wormed his way into my heart over the course of this one. I loved learning Mordin’s backstory and his involvement with the Krogan genophage. Of course, who can forget Tali drinking brandy through the Emergency Induction Port (it’s a straw, Tali). Most importantly, there was that sense of dread because you knew that all of your crew might not survive that suicide mission at the end. Mass Effect 2 just gets most of the important things right and I’ve been waiting for BioWare to come even close to it since.
I spent a good bit of the last decade becoming a huge Yakuza fan and Yakuza 0 is the pinnacle of the series in my eyes. It has everything that I want in a Yakuza game: a gripping crime-filled central story, lots of fun side quests, plenty of mini-games to divert my attention, and lots of thugs that need pounding into the pavement. Kiryu and Majima’s dual, intertwined stories are some of the best in the series and the boom-era 1980s setting just made Kamurocho an even more interesting place to explore. For anyone who hasn’t had the experience of playing a Yakuza game, it doesn’t get any better than Yakuza 0.
It’s not within my capacity to be impartial about Trails in the Sky SC. I adore this game and I think it is my favorite game of all time. I wouldn’t try to tell RPGamers that it’s somehow unequivocally the best RPG of the last decade. The graphics were dated when it came out, and moreso in comparison to today. It lacks any significant amount of voice acting. Even though I’m a fan of the battle system, I admit that it’s really slow and plenty of people won’t care for it. Heck, this game probably retreads too much ground that was covered in the first game.
Nevertheless, Estelle Bright is one of the best RPG protagonists of all time and her journey of growth across this game as she searches for Joshua is incredibly engaging. I still get choked up in the scene where they are finally reunited. I still get goosebumps when I hear “The Whereabouts of Hope” and I’m instantly transported back to the end of the game. Maybe it doesn’t sound believable, but I can think of only a few books, movies, or other media that have had such an emotional impact on me. I truly believe it’s a masterpiece that everyone who loves RPGs should try to experience for themselves.