Phil Willis’ 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, Phil Willis gives us his picks.
Slay the Spire
I enjoy roguelikes, and I adore computer card games. Combine them and you get Slay the Spire. This excellent game took me by surprise with its simply-but-beautiful art style and extremely well-polished game play. The game takes a few runs to learn the basics, and many attempts after that to truly grasp the many deck building and battle strategies available. Yet each run teaches the player something new and eventually offers new unlockables, so time never feels wasted. On more than one occasion, I stayed up too late, hoping to push through another trek through the Spire.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown / XCOM 2
A reboot of the classic X-COM series, XCOM: Enemy Unknown allows players to assemble a team of soldiers to take on an alien threat to our home planet. Players must use careful planning both in and out of battle in order to succeed. The party members do not talk much or contribute directly into the story, yet many players end up feeling quite connected to them. It turns out when one names a character after their friend, and that person dies from an alien shooting her in the head, that it becomes quite the story all on its own!
I really enjoyed the game, and cannot wait to put more time into it and its sequel, XCOM 2. Excitingly enough, a new game has just been announced in XCOM: Chimera Squad. Over the last few years or so, we have seen a renaissance of turn-based tactical RPGs. I like to think this game had something to do with it.
Dragon Quest Builders / Dragon Quest Builders 2
I never knew how much I needed this game in my life, until I played it. I tried Minecraft in the past. Yet, ultimately, I would grow bored. Then I saw the reviews for Dragon Quest Builders and decided to grab it on sale. I was blown away. Square Enix and Omega Force took the Minecraft formula, wrapped it in a Dragon Quest skin, and weaved in a story-line and quest system throughout the experience. These elements come together to create something greater than the sum of their parts, like peanut butter and jelly. A few years later, they created a sequel, Dragon Quest Builders 2, that improved on the original in nearly every way. Every friend who I have talked into getting any of these games have fallen in love with them. They are the perfect antidote to cabin fever.
Persona 4 Golden
I arrived late to the Persona party, having pretty much skipped both Persona 3 and Persona 4 on the Playstation 2. When I finally bought a Vita, a friend told me that I just had to buy Persona 4 Golden. I am very glad I listened. From the very first moment, Persona 4 puts its best foot forward with an opening music video that brilliantly shows off the Vita’s OLED display. The story takes some time to get moving, but eventually draws the player in with lovable characters and brilliant writing. Every aspect of the game oozes style. Some feel this game sells the Vita as a system, and I would have to agree. I look forward to experiencing Persona 5 Royal and its spinoffs in 2020 to see if it can compare favorably with this masterpiece.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey / Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux
Those who know me know that I really enjoy dungeon-crawlers. I played a number of them over the decade, yet the one that really stuck with me is the one I never beat. Indeed, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey beat me. The final boss proved too much after repeated attempts. After doing some research, I realized I was not up to doing the farming necessary to properly equip my team for that final encounter, and I put the game away.
Yet, I enjoyed the 80+ hours I spent in game so much that the experience stuck with me. It features a great, original story, interesting characters and a tight combat system expected from this series. Yet, its dungeons take center stage, featuring thoughtful layouts with traps, twists and turns. This one aspect can absolutely kill the pacing in a dungeon-crawler if done wrong, but this game nails it on the head. When a new version, Strange Journey Redux, came out for the 3DS, I bought it at retail price. I generally recommend the newer version based on the improvements and balancing changes made.
Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir
The original version of Odin Sphere released in 2007 and I really enjoyed the visuals of the game, but found the gameplay somewhat lacking. However, Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir addressed that head-on by leveraging the processing power of the PlayStation 4, along with a number of balance changes, resulting in a much smoother and enjoyable action RPG experience. The higher resolution elevates the aesthetics of this game to an even higher level, single-handedly blowing away any argument that 2D games cannot compete with modern 3D graphics. The developers also improved the combat system and unique leveling mechanics, elevating the entire experience. Just when the game begins to feel repetitive, the chapter ends and the story introduces a new character with a whole different fighting style to master. I highly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys side scrolling action RPGs.
I specifically refers to the Vita version of Disgaea 4, Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited. This delightful, handheld tactical RPG experience weaves a touching story of love, character growth and humor. By this game, Nippon Ichi Software polished the Disgaea formula to nigh perfection with challenging fights, incredibly deep character progression systems, and a constant temptation to use the various mechanics in a way that threatens to completely break the game. And while I enjoyed all of that, I especially liked the roster of characters. In particular, Valvatorez, the main character, provides a nice change of pace from the typical, JRPG troupes used for nearly all JRPG protagonists. His cool demeanor, maturity, confidence and unwavering dedication to a promised made are all qualities I can respect and admire.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Generally speaking, I enjoy older games, and newer games inspired by them. When I first heard about Horizon Zero Dawn, I felt non-plussed. I recall hearing that it would feature an open-world adventure set in a post-apocalyptic world and immediately thought of the later Fallout games, which have never grabbed me. Boy, did I change my mind once I actually saw the game.
Horizon Zero Dawn caught my attention first with its incredible visuals. It held my attention with the story of Aloy, a young lady trying to find her way in this strange world filled with danger and mystery. Every opportunity I got, I wanted to jump back in and find out what would happen next to Aloy and her people. Combat also complements this excellent gaming experience with interesting enemies, smooth gameplay and thrilling encounters that rewards thoughtful planning. Horizon Zero Dawn is a true masterpiece that will appeal to both action and RPG fans alike. Sony often has the game and its expansion on sale, so everyone can experience Aloy’s memorable tale.
Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition / Fire Emblem Warriors
Ten years ago, I did not even know what the term Musou meant. I might have heard about Dynasty Warriors, but I never played any of the games. The idea of running around beating dozens of nigh-defenseless soldiers using simple button combinations sounded boring. And then I played Hyrule Warriors on the Wii U, and my eyes were opened to a brand new world. I quickly learned that these games are much more than simple button mashers, testing one’s situational awareness, ability to plan and even knowledge of deeper game mechanics during more difficult scenarios.
Since then, I have enjoyed a ton of these games including the mainline titles and numerous spin-offs. And while I delight in nearly every one of the dozen plus Musou games in my collection, I maintain that my original experience is the best available today. Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition, found on the Switch, features nearly three dozen characters, with about four dozen distinct fighting styles available. It has a decent story and an obscenely long and deep post-game adventure mode. Fans of the Zelda series will certainly find plenty to like here, and I believe Musou fans will find this to be one of the best experiences currently available.
I include Fire Emblem Warriors in this slot as well. While it lacks the variety of fighting styles found in Hyrule Warriors, it trades that in for more strategic gameplay as players must utilize a full team of heroes to tactically conquer these maps in real time. Fire Emblem Warriors improves on some of aspects of Hyrule Warriors, yet never truly excels past it. For me, these two games, while similar, complement each other rather well. I play both regularly to this day.
Monster Hunter: World / Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate / Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate
When I first tried Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, I felt lost, frustrated and I put the game on the shelf. It turns out that hunting monsters not only requires skill, but planning. The game certainly does not do a good job of teaching new hunters the ropes. Yet, when Capcom announced development of Monster Hunter: World, I decided to give the older game another shot. This time, I spent more time watching videos and talking with friends to learn the basics of the game. And once I did that, it clicked and I got hooked.
By the time Monster Hunter: World came out, I not only knew how to hunt fearsome beasts, I learned numerous weapons in the process. As soon as I got the game, I installed it and made a character. Seeing my hunter, my palico, the monsters, and the environments in high res detail with orchestrated music really blew my mind. Capcom clearly took its time in creating a meticulously detailed and immersive experience. At the same time, they managed to keep in the main thing that made the series famous to begin with – compelling, tight gameplay.
For nearly 15 years, Capcom has worked on the Monster Hunter series, improving with each iteration — Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate coming between 4 and World. With this latest generation of titles, gamers enjoy an experience that can only be described as ‘refined’. I have tried numerous games that attempt to replicate the formula, and they often feel like pale imitations by comparison. And while each of these three games does a couple of things better than the other two, RPGamers who enjoy the thrill of the hunt and sense of progression offered by a deep action RPG experience will find so much to enjoy with any of these titles. Or, better yet, grab all three and enjoy what each one brings to the table!