Pascal Tekaia’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, Pascal Tekaia gives us his picks.
Horizon Zero Dawn presents players with an open world, complete with map markers and side quests all over the place, and I platinumed it. If that doesn’t say enough about how the love I have for this game, then nothing probably will. Sure, the game has its problems when it comes to finding enough worthwhile tasks to fill up that huge map with — too many activities become repetitive well before you’ve reached the end, or simply slow down the pace of the narrative. But these are easily swamped by the fantastic battle system (against ROBOT DINOSAURS!!) that marries deep strategy and customization with frantic action, not to mention an amazing story that kept me enthralled like no other game has done in a long, long time.
I could go on, but we’ve already done that: we recorded a full two-and-a-half-hour RPG Backtrack episode singing its praises, so I’ll let that do the talking for me. Long story short: no matter how many post-apocalyptic RPGs you’ve played, I guarantee you’ve not played one quite like Horizon Zero Dawn.
Isn’t it funny that Dragon Quest VIII was the last home console release of the franchise before Dragon Quest XI, and just as that game likely graced many top lists for the previous decade, Square Enix returned to the franchise with another winner. The game somehow managed to come across as a breath of fresh air, despite feeling like the same classic game it’s always been, with familiar combat mechanics, music, and art style. It ticks all the boxes: engaging world, vibrant graphics, great musical score, lovable characters. Pushing 80 hours just to complete the main quest, it offers great value for your money, and that’s before you’ve delved into the substantial post-game content. Not only that, but the two years since its release have seen the release of an improved version with even more bells and whistles, not to mention more content. That’s a lot of time, and every second spent is an absolute pleasure.
Even though we’ve now seen western releases of the next two franchise entries already come and gone, it’s my regret that the first Trails of Cold Steel is as yet the only game in the series I’ve played. But what an experience it was! To be sure, this game classifies into a certain niche that you have to be in the mood for, what with its deliberately slow pacing and school-life focus. But give it an opportunity and it’ll suck you right in with the first chapter in a continuing epic story (that ties in with past, present, and future entries in the sundry spin-off series) that is so well fleshed-out it really feels like a virtual life simulator in an alternate history. There’s a reason Nihon Falcom has a household name on its hands with this property, and it is easily deserving of a top spot in my list.
It’s surprising and sad what a decade can do to the reputation of a well-loved franchise and even a development studio, but before BioWare lost favor with Mass Effect: Andromeda and, much more severely, the more recent Anthem, it was at the top of its game with 2010’s Mass Effect 2. Regardless of where the original trilogy ended up, the middle installment gave us an exciting and tense chapter of the universe’s struggle against the fearsome Reapers, complete with arguably the best character roster the series has seen. The series has struggled to hit another high point as climactic as the suicide run at the end of this game, where each of your character could live or die based on your decisions and what tasks you asked them to perform. Having my entire squad come through unscathed, with no guide or retries needed, is one of my proudest gaming moments, and really helped cement this game in my mind above the rest.
Take the nail-biting intensity of Mass Effect 2′s suicide run and apply it to an entire game, and you get XCOM: Enemy Unknown, at least if it’s played on its default permadeath setting, which I would heartily recommend. It really helps each character become that much more ingrained in your memory when their deaths truly mean something. How else would I still remember Ghost, my sniper who’d been with me from the beginning, and that fateful mission in which he died in a fiery explosion caused by a rampaging Muton tackling the fuel pump he was taking cover near? When each team member’s death is permanent, it really means something when, during the game’s final mission, as team members fall one by one, it is your OG character, your main man who’s been your go-to since the very first mission — who is now also your only living Psionic soldier — who completes the mission, causing you to just barely scrape by and beat the game by a hair’s breadth. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of those “just one more mission, oh wow, it’s 4am!” games, and for that it deserves a spot in my top list.
For me, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Souls formula reached its zenith with the release of 2015’s Bloodborne. Entering the Gothic Lovecraftian setting of Yharnam was no less than a mesmerizing experience; while I’ve enjoyed the unique world designs dating back to Demon’s Souls, you knew you were in for something special the first time you followed a dark and twisting cobblestone alleyway, only to be deposited in a square full of chanting maniacs, the whole scene illuminated by the nightmarish display of a towering werewolf, crucified on top of a burning pyre. Add to that a combat system that encouraged even players used to hiding behind a shield to be more offense-minded, and you had the recipe for a game that will likely stand the test of time for another decade.
Ni no Kuni had hooked its claws in me long before I had a chance to be turned on or off by its combat system. Beautiful, feature-quality animation, a tear jerker of an opening, and a quaint, modern small-town setting that soon gave way to a gorgeous kingdom full of imagination won me over early on. From there, I was in for the long haul. Being able to peruse the in-game Wizard’s Compendium was a bonus that spoke to my completionist need for collectible lore. It’s a magical game that I still return to from time to time, and one of my top picks for the decade. It’s just a shame I never got that physical Wizard’s Compendium…
I don’t mind being the staff contrarian, and with this pick I feel like I just might be. Something about this chibi Final Fantasy-themed monster collecting game charmed me, in spite of the fact that I have never gotten into the monster collecting game craze (or, perhaps, because of it). But even in its original, pre-Maxima iteration, World of Final Fantasy was a meaty RPG with a great and unique aesthetic and an unusual (for me, at least) stacking combat mechanic. I suppose the rest can be attributed to the collector in me. It sure beat the official numbered entries in Square Enix’s franchise that came out this decade. ‘Nuff said.
I’m not a long-time Elder Scrolls player or anything; I dabbled in Oblivion for about twenty minutes, in Morrowind for five. But Skyrim grabbed hold of me when it came out earlier this decade, and it did not let go for quite some time. The funny thing is, today I barely remember the main narrative at all. What I do remember — what wormed its way into my head — is how captivating the game could be when you were willing to stray from the main path and discover what else was out there. The region of Skyrim is a vast one, filled with interesting sites, rotten caves, and long-abandoned Dwemer ruins begging to be explored, most of them with some sort of unexpected story to tell. You might stumble across a diary of a long-dead treasure hunter and follow in his footsteps, or read the increasingly tense and panicked notes left behind by an unfortunate soul that let you trace his final moments before death overcame him. It was an experience worthy of remembrance.
I suppose Kingdom Come: Deliverance has the somewhat dubious honor of being the only game to break my top ten of the decade that I absolutely hated at times. Specifically, the combat and lock picking systems had me ready to chuck the controller through the TV screen, and more than once. I understand why — the game’s dogged dedication to realism means that difficult feats like besting a trained knight at swordplay should be, well, difficult — but that didn’t make the game’s learning curve any more enjoyable.
Imagine my delight then at how great the rest of the game is. I’ve never played anything quite like it: a (as far as I can tell) historically accurate RPG set in fifteenth-century Bohemia of all places, casting you in the role of a common blacksmith’s son and making sure that you feel the discrepancy that comes with such a lowly station. Even feats like reading are all but impossible early on, as they would be for a peasant at the time, and must be painstakingly learned. The story, once you’ve gotten yourself squared away with the gameplay frustrations, is top-notch, presented in cinematic glory, with well-developed and interesting characters. It was one of a kind, in every sense of the word: by the end, I had loved my time with the game, though I don’t know that I could ever truly bring myself to play it (or another game akin to it) again.