Matt Masem’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, Matt Masem gives us his picks.
I’ve been a Dragon Quest fan since the very first game, delivered free of charge with my paid Nintendo Power subscription. I’ve played all the games that have come out in English, and many of the games that haven’t, so it’s hard to impress me with a new title after dozens of games over three decades, but Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive most definitely did. In the back of my head during my first 100-hour playthrough on the PS4, I kept wondering if it was the best Dragon Quest I’d ever played or was my thinking skewed by the fact I was still holding the controller and guiding my hero through postgame exploits.
By the time the Definitive Edition came around a year later on the Nintendo Switch, I was convinced. The slight changes to the typical DQ battle system were nice. The cast of characters was easily the best in series’ history. The size of the world and the vast amount of content available in it was top notch. Throw in a 2D mode that gives me the feeling of being a teenager playing a new Dragon Quest for the first time and it’s no longer in the back of my mind; Dragon Quest XI is easily the best of an already amazing series and easily my top game of the decade.
I’ve never earned a platinum trophy nor 100-percented any game on any system — that’s just not my play style. I see credits and my journey ends. Except for Fantasy Life. I saw credits and then I bought the DLC. I saw credits again and then saw I hadn’t maxed out any of my jobs. The next thing I knew, a hundred and forty hours of my life had flown by in the span of a couple months in 2014. The combat was simple enough for this die-hard turn-based fan to almost master. The ingredient collection and ridiculously repetitive item creation system was somehow enthralling. The twelve different life classes to choose from and master were just so amazing.
I felt myself continually pulled to do everything twelve times just to see how the different classes would handle it, and kept going back even though there was little to no difference! Level-5 outdid themselves with the content in this title and I greedily gobbled it all up. Well, except for those two classes I was never quite able to finish off completely because I wasn’t quite good enough. In some ways that makes the game better, knowing that I can still pick it up again one day and have something left to do!
While I began the current decade with the Special Switch port of this title, I can’t help but think back to the 120 or so hours I spent with this on my 3DS. Rune Factory 4 was part of my own personal “Summer of Four” when it, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and Etrian Odyssey IV were all supposed to come out. Rune Factory 4 ended up delayed, so it was the third “Four” I played, and it ended up being my favorite, and my favorite Rune Factory title.
There was so much to do in this game, I literally never bored of playing. I could spend a week just doing farming tasks and raising my crop levels and farming stats. Or I could spend days on end going through dungeons, getting supplies to use in various crafting and forging binges. Or I could focus on the various town events and raise my affection level with so many different townsfolk. All those things were perfectly viable alternatives to advancing the main story and they were all so well done. If Rune Factory had to end with this as its last title, it was one heck of a high to go out on. Now with the series Marvelously revived, I can’t wait to see if Rune Factory 5 can top it in the next decade.
Late to the party by only purchasing my Vita in 2017, I immediately purchased what I’d heard was the best Vita RPG around: Persona 4 Golden. Spending my summer with characters I’d previously encountered in Persona Q, but getting to know them as more than mere caricatures, was amazing. The level of depth that each and every character received was impressive. The combat system was peak Shin Megami Tensei, as was the fusing of demons and pretty much everything else in the game from the music to how it looked on my first-generation Vita.
My favorite memories are of taking on the Rainy Day Special Meat Bowl Challenge and how much the social links actually played into how I chose my team to take into battle and how it affected my strategy. It was my first SMT true love, as Shin Megami Tensei IV didn’t quite do it for me and I’d never given the rest of the series much of a go. Inaba was a place I devoted nearly a hundred hours to, and I was sad to set it aside when I finished.
Maybe it’s the nostalgia of rocking my newborn son to sleep for hours and hours and playing both Bravely Default and Bravely Second back to back in the spring of 2016, but I really enjoyed the battle system in those games. I’m a sucker for games with well-defined characters that are able to change their classes and that’s what both Bravely titles and Octopath Traveler provide. Add to this the fact that all three also have mechanics to alter the number of actions characters can get per turn and we’re nearing “Best Battle Systems Ever” in my mind. The art direction of all three titles is superb and was the first thing that attracted me to each title in general.
Of course having the ability to try a demo of all of these games before I purchased each was another bonus, as within the first hour I knew these were ones I needed to sink significant time into. Each one beautifully blends the old-school charm of turn-based combat with modern conveniences and new, fascinating systems. Specific praise must be doled out to the Bravely games for their ability to change encounter rates; that brilliant design decision alone might have been enough to make me fall in love with them! Some complain of the repetitive nature of these titles, but I found that I enjoyed that as well, along with the various methods each offers to avoid the grind.
Maybe I should have just combined these into the Legend of Heroes series in general, but since I only played the first title of each subseries last decade before devoting 2020 to catching all the way up on the whole thing, giving a specific shout out to these two seemed more appropriate. Both the entries above are excellent introductions to their sub-series as well as the entire Legend of Heroes as a whole.
The battle systems remind me a great deal of Grandia, easily approaching my favorite turn-based battle system of all time. The Arts, the Crafts, the combo attacks, the manipulation of the turn order, it’s all so much fun to play with that I find myself grinding for no reason other than just wanting to battle more! There is a ton of story and quests and optional things to explore in Trails in the Sky‘s Liberl and Trails of Cold Steel‘s Erebonia that it’s hard to know when to pull myself off of being lost on some exploration and move the plot forward, and that’s a good thing. Some of the best world-building, music, and voice acting make this a series that’s number six on my list this decade, but I envision being in the top 3 the next.
This list may not exactly reflect it, but I truly am more of a turn-based RPG fan. However, I do love the Dragon Quest series, and both Dragon Quest Heroes and Dragon Quest Heroes II did what nothing else in the series has really done before: show the Dragon Quest monsters in all their glory, walking around and interacting in a full 3D world with tons of adventures to be had. As much fun as it is to see the sabercats and slimes playing with each other in the fields, it’s equally as appealing to build a band of my favorite Dragon Quest heroes from previous titles and just go crazy taking down hundreds or thousands of them in each mission. When you just need to unwind at the end of a long day, semi-mindless hacking at an army of golems sometimes is just what the doctor ordered.
Musou gameplay aside, these titles are excellent RPGs in their own right, with new characters introduced that occasionally pique my interest even more than some of the returning characters from previous Dragon Quest titles. Sure, these are no doubt hack-and-slash games, but there are a lot of interesting mechanics going on between missions. My sons and I put over 100 hours into each of these titles and enjoyed every minute of it.
The only thing better than a good Dragon Quest monster name pun is an absolutely too on-the-nose, hilarious yo-kai name pun. The Yo-Kai Watch series drew my attention at first because it was a monster collecting game created by one of my favorite studios, Level-5, but it’s the humor and the puns and the battle systems that kept bringing me back to this series entry after entry. Tack on a sidequest system that offers at least as much content as the main storyline, and I’m chuckling and rotating yo-kai in and out of battles for a lot longer than any sane person should be doing.
A lot of the charm of the series is that it’s continually building upon itself. The same characters and towns and locations carry through from game to game, even when it’s absolutely silly and bizarre for the game to do so! It all just… works! The music is catchy and also at times downright hilarious in its own right, while the individual yo-kai monsters have personalities intended to evoke some sort of emotional response in you by design.
Dragon Quest Monsters: Terry’s Wonderland and Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 3 are two titles that never officially got an English translation on the Nintendo 3DS, but are beefy titles that any monster collecting or Dragon Quest fan should track down. Both titles have a huge collection of exactly what pulls at my nostalgic heart strings: Dragon Quest monsters.
From the cute and cuddly Blue Slimes to the royal visages of King Metal Slimes and all the dragons and golems and plant family monsters in between, these two titles focus on all that is good about Dragon Quest’s battle system and monsters. Sure, there’s a bit of story to keep you interested along the way, but make no mistake about where the enjoyment comes from. Few people play the Pokémon titles for their deep and engaging stories, and with the DQM titles, it’s the same thing. While I enjoy both series, it’s the multitude of various mainline titles and side entries that keep games with Akira Toriyama’s monster creations always nearby, and each of these titles provide a good 50+ hours of content and good times.
For the past decade, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the Etrian Odyssey games have had to offer. The dual-screen nature of the DS and 3DS was never more useful than when I was happily drawing maps as I navigated the labyrinths of these dungeon-crawler RPGs. Having played each title in release order, I’ve not really found fault in any of them, although each title added new features that I absolutely loved.
Etrian Odyssey Untold and Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold were the pinnacle of the series for me. They were remakes of the original two Etrian Odyssey games, but they added features such as grimoire stones that allowed the usage of skills and abilities not normally available to certain classes and subclasses. I enjoyed the hours of hunting for certain stones and abilities and building what I felt was a team of ultimate fighters and mages that didn’t necessarily have to compliment each other as much as dominate together! Etrian Odyssey continues to be a deeply customizable game experience in all of its iterations, but these two are near the best of the best in terms of pure options.