Ryan McCarthy’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, Ryan McCarthy gives us his picks.
A Link Between Worlds is not my favorite Zelda game by any means and in a lot of ways is very much a retread of A Link to the Past, yet its back-to-basics approach felt refreshing after so many years of the series becoming increasingly bloated or relying on gimmicks. Being able to rent items allowed a degree of choice in what dungeons I could tackle in whatever order I felt like and the ability for Link to flatten into walls allowed for some fun exploration in both the overworld and dungeons. While I was admittedly a bit underwhelmed with it at first due to the immense fanboy hype train that followed it after it originally came out, I’ve definitely come around on the opinion that it’s a pretty good Zelda game.
I was pretty late getting around to playing Radiant Historia, not playing it until its enhanced 3DS rerelease, Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, launched. While I technically still haven’t finished it as I’ve only barely touched the story content that was added, I was enthralled by the base game, with a compellingly somber narrative that dealt with parallel timelines and a surprisingly potent allegory for climate change. The combat system, at its very best, was engaging with the ability to move enemies around a grid allowing for a good degree of strategy in how to best dispatch them. While it’s not without its flaws, namely the way it forces repeated travel through already visited areas and sometimes having to go back to previous time nodes to make progress, Radiant Historia is a gem that I’m very happy to have finally experienced.
Dream Drop Distance is probably not the Kingdom Hearts game that would make too many favorite lists even among die-hard fans, and it’s an incredibly messy game even by the standards of the series. By this point, Kingdom Hearts had already been criticized heavily for what many people saw as the series becoming overly self-indulgent on director/character designer Tetsuya Nomura’s part and relying more heavily on the original characters and story elements at the expense of the initial simple-yet-appealing crossover between Final Fantasy and Disney that drew a lot of fans in the first place. However, that hasn’t stopped Kingdom Hearts from maintaining a large and fervent fanbase and I shamelessly count myself among them, having been a fan since the first game came out all the way back in 2002.
In a lot of ways, that messiness is a feature of Kingdom Hearts, and Dream Drop Distance is among the most blatant examples of it. The game is very much overloaded with systems in ways that feel downright inelegant yet I can’t say there isn’t a joy in the way that the Flowmotion mechanic really makes moving around in the Disney worlds so enjoyable or how the Fantastia world replaces the standard Keyblade sound effects with ones that really fit the melodic tone of said Disney classic, or how the Drop mechanic that forces switching between Sora and Riku creates a feeling of physical dissociation from the body that adds a dream-like quality to the game. There was a period of time where I had fallen off the series for a good few years, and while I had replayed some of the earlier entries beforehand, it wasn’t until I finally got around to playing Dream Drop Distance in 2017 via the HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue that I firmly jumped back on the bandwagon.
I’ll be up front and say that Yakuza Kiwami has a few major issues that betray the PS2 roots of the original game it’s a remake of. The plotting can come across as haphazard compared to later games in the series and some of the boss fights are frankly a tedious chore. In addition, while more Majima is always welcome as far as I’m concerned, there’s no denying that the Majima Everywhere system can often stop the game’s pacing dead in its tracks. A lot of why I like Kiwami as much as I do is because of how well it works as both an extended epilogue and continuation of Yakuza 0. Nishiki’s motivations were expanded in ways that work well with what was established about his character in 0 and lend some additional emotional heft to the series’ first outing. And, like the other Yakuza games, it’s always fun to run around in Kamurocho, whether to play the various minigames, doing a bit of karaoke, or checking out the various side stories, even if there are a few duds.
I won’t belabor the point: Sword & Fairy 6 is a complete travesty on a technical level, with framerate drops during transitions of any kind and during combat that are both constant and maddening, crashing issues, and even a couple game-breaking bugs that force reloading the game from a previous save. Yet it makes my list because the narrative is simply fantastic, with a wonderfully complex and fleshed-out cast of characters that I truly felt emotionally invested in, and an engrossing exploration of the concepts of fate and will that really made me think a lot about how nothing is truly as inevitable as it may seem. That said, I’m holding out hope that if and when Sword & Fairy 7 is released, it will actually be in a reasonably playable state.
While I had played a good chunk of the original Final Fantasy XII back in the day, it was playing the remastered rerelease Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age that really made me fall in love with it after years of having lukewarm feelings on it. A lot of people criticized how much of a departure it felt from the rest of the series, yet that is a big part of what makes it so special. It deviated from the usual angst and melodrama that was considered a big part of Final Fantasy’s identity at that point in favor of a refreshingly politically-focused tale that was further enhanced by a fantastic localization courtesy of Alexander O. Smith. The MMO-inspired battle system was also a refreshing change of pace as it allowed for fluidly switching between fighting and exploration. I especially like the gambit system, which allows for setting up specific scripts which AI-controlled party members would follow that could be changed on the fly in order to best deal with whatever enemies the party happened to be fighting.
Also, Vaan is fine and a necessary part of the game’s narrative thematically. That is all.
Unlike Final Fantasy XII, I never played with original PS2 version of Odin Sphere, despite buying it on sale from PSN at one point. Instead, it was the Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir remaster that I ended up playing and loving. The game is an absolute gorgeous feast for the eyes, with detailed and beautifully-drawn character sprites and backgrounds that can be appreciated as works of art on their own merits. The storytelling is compellingly melodramatic and successfully captures a dark fairy tale vibe, which is enhanced by a stellar Shakespearean-flavored localization. While the game does have some serious repetition when it comes to fighting through the same locations, the five playable characters all play differently enough that it never really becomes a major issue, and combat is still generally enjoyable throughout. As a bonus, it’s really neat from a game preservation standpoint that it also came with the option to play the original PS2 release.
I distinctly remember when this game was first unveiled as Monado: The Beginning of the World during E3 2009, as well as when it seemed like it would never get released over here. Yet it did come out thanks to the Operation Rainfall campaign and I think the hype and acclaim were well-earned. Not only was the setting inherently fascinating, it also took after Final Fantasy XII in the way it integrated combat and exploration. And while the combat did its job well enough, what really made Xenoblade Chronicles so special was a memorable cast of characters, a story that took twists and turns that legitimately took me by surprise, beautiful art direction that mostly compensated for the relatively low technical power of the Wii, and a phenomenal soundtrack that did a great job of giving the world atmosphere and giving combat against enemies some excitement. Truly one of the most notable gems of this decade.
DON’T GIVE UP: A Cynical Tale is probably the hardest game on this list for me to talk about as it’s easily the most recent release and, despite being sold as a light-hearted RPG about mental illness, the game itself is clearly a very personal project for its creator, Tristan Barona, based on his struggles with depression, even going so far as to be semi-autobiographical in nature. Naturally, the game itself deals with incredibly heavy themes such as self-harm, alcoholism, and suicide, making it a game that is hard to recommend without serious content warnings.
The reason it’s on my list, let alone this high, is because it really resonated with me on a deep level. I’m not medically diagnosed, yet I couldn’t help but relate with Tris’ struggles, even as he dealt with incredibly unlikely situations involving strip clubs, strange happenings that involve a mysterious woman with ill intentions and a secret organization, not to mention a seemingly unrelated B-plot that deals with another character in a completely different world that is a lot more connected to Tris than is initially apparent. I could go on about the way the game streamlines its RPG elements to the bare minimum in order to best facilitate the story Tristan wanted to tell, the unique battle system that is straightforward and enjoyable in how it combines both turn-based and real-time, or the ’90s references hidden in scattered NPC dialogues that felt specifically made to appeal to my generation. I’m not sure I can necessarily say that the game is better than any of the games I’ve listed lower on this list, but I feel in my gut that its placement here is just right.
To place a game like Yakuza 0 as my number 1 pick might seem strange after what I said about my number 2 pick, but it’s just hard for me to deny the game’s greatness. While I had played a couple of the previous entries in the series, this is the game that really showed me what exactly makes Yakuza so special when it’s in top form. The blend of melodrama and over-the-top silliness in particular really hit a sweet spot for me, whether we’re talking about the compelling crime narrative that brilliantly switches between the perspectives of Kiryu and Majima or the sidestories that range from heartwarming to enjoyably goofy.
It also cemented Goro Majima as one of my favorite characters of all time, as the game gave the otherwise over-the-top character a level of depth and humanity that made it really easy for me to care for him. Of course, the combat is also fantastically done, with the fighting styles of Kiryu and Majima managing to be both variable enough to make them engaging throughout while still fitting well with both characters. I also loved the way the ’80s bubble economy of Japan was portrayed in both the narrative and gameplay, being cleverly integrated into the leveling system. Frankly, there’s probably a lot more I could say about this game if given the chance, especially as I put well over 80 hours into it. Not because it necessarily takes that long to finish but because I was just that enthralled by the overall experience.