Zack Webster’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, Zack Webster gives us his picks.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I have never been a huge fan of The Legend of Zelda. It’s not for lack of trying; I’ve attempted to make my way through every console entry barring Skyward Sword and each and every time I have cut my playthrough short due to disinterest. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda game I completed and the game only gets better over time in my eyes. It’s far from a perfect game — there are numerous issues I can bring up regarding many of the game’s choices — but what that game managed to accomplish is astounding.
The game is a truly exploratory experience, offering fresh sights and new adventures over every mountain and around every corner. The simple act of moving in the game is a joy, creating fun gameplay out of really simple concepts like climbing a mountain or crossing a river. Combat is hit or miss, but the number of opportunities for creative and emergent play is staggering. There are very few games I’m more excited to see a sequel to, as the potential for the follow-up to shave off the rough edges while offering more and greater rewards sounds exactly like what the doctor ordered.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
It was a gradual build-up to the The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The first game in the series is an oddball, bucking all sorts of trends and not really succeeding in the process. The Witcher 2 was far more traditional and much more successful, setting the stage and tone for the future of the series. But I don’t think even CD Projekt RED could have anticipated just how successful of a game The Witcher 3 would be. And it’s entirely earned.
From vibrant cities to vast countryside, the world of The Witcher 3 is a sight to behold. Combining a story that handles personal drama and grand, sweeping narratives with equal aplomb and one of the most fully-realized casts in gaming history, it’s a game that’s a shining beacon of excellent writing. The gameplay can be rough around the edges in some spots, but controlling Geralt never felt better, and there was an interesting story to be told around every corner. I’ve followed this series from its inception and to see it culminate in one of the best RPGs of all time was truly a wonder.
I hesitated to put this on my list. The game is very new and it will be difficult to ascertain if it will stand the test of time. But if I am to be honest, Disco Elysium is a game that has stuck with me since I finished it and, unlike some of the other games on my list, I’ve had a particular desire to revisit the dilapidated world of Revachol.
A simplified yet bold new take on classic isometric RPGs, Disco Elysium matches its superb writing with a straightforward conflict resolution system that oftentimes finds players failing forward rather than merely meeting a game over screen. As you become familiar with the city and its denizens, the story offers a poignant and meditative reflection on the systemic and philosophical issues of recent history. But perhaps the most telling strength of the game is how, in spite of the many dark turns it takes, it can leave the player with a meaningful sense of hope.
Dragon’s Dogma is nonsense. It’s a poor story even more poorly told, a litany of oddly localized clichés whose writing and performances can’t hold the weight of the scale of the story they try to tell. Then you “beat” the game and it gets weird. Then you “beat” it again and it gets weirder. Then you start to realize that the off-kilter nature of the story is baffling in an interesting way rather than a detrimental one. And then you remember that the game’s combat, dungeons, and class system are so good you forgive the roughness of the rest of the product.
Combining Devil May Cry, Monster Hunter, and every open-world RPG that released in the early ’10s, Dragon’s Dogma is a surprisingly effective take on Dungeons & Dragons. Overly vocal Pawns let you fill out a classic adventuring party and the game’s class system allows for a great amount of specialization. Combat with monsters both big and small is enhanced by a reactive and action-heavy focus that gives everyone something fun to do. Mages in particular get the coolest implementation of magic in maybe any game, as they summon giant tornadoes, earthquakes, and ice columns that alter the battlefield in real time. Dungeons, especially the endgame ones, are some of the best dives the genre has to offer. And in spite of the nonsense story, the game attempts some cool ideas at the end which don’t fully land but stand as a testament to how big of a swing Capcom took with it. Of all the games on this list, I’m most excited for this one’s potential sequel.
Monster Hunter: World
For over ten years I wasn’t a Monster Hunter fan. From the PSP to the Wii to the 3DS, I attempted to get into the series and always bounced off incredibly hard. Its grand ambitions always felt shackled by small screens, cramped control schemes, plenty of busywork, and more than enough loading for my tastes. It was a series where the sheer amount of stuff always put me off, regardless of how in love with the concept I was. Then Monster Hunter: World came and made the series into the game it was always meant to be.
The grandiose scale of the monsters truly shines in high definition, the quality-of-life improvements included work to minimize that amount of non-monster hunting time, and the maps are large and entertaining to explore rather than a chore. There’s still more work to be done in the quality-of-life department — the campaign multiplayer is dire — but Monster Hunter finally feels like it’s living up to its potential. At this point, it’s my most played game of the generation.
Out of all the games on this list, this is the one that I’m most surprised exists. It’s a seven-year belated sequel to a cult hit released in the wake of Final Fantasy XIII. NieR was a C-tier game carried by A+ performances, writing, and ideas, but never one destined to be a hit. The fact that we can call NieR a franchise is crazy, but the fact that NieR: Automata found the audience it did to become a bona fide hit is even weirder than the series itself.
PlatinumGames brought its expertise to the game’s systems, making an all-around stronger experience that’s much more fun to play and control. And while the game’s story borrowed some ideas from the first game and its characters aren’t nearly as interesting, Automata still remains a unique game with some amazing moments and incredible music.
NieR is unequivocally the weakest game on this list. It’s fairly basic in its presentation, humble in a way that none of the other games on this list are. The back of the box touts “Discover and master 30 unique, upgradeable weapons and 8 powerful magic spells” as if these were impressive numbers even by the standards of 2010. Its shoestring budget is apparent, both from the areas where corners were obviously cut and by the virtue of running through many of the same dungeons again in the latter half of the game. The combat is fairly anemic, consisting mostly of mashing the same button repeatedly while mixing in the occasional spell to clear a room of enemies. Square Enix, scared that western audiences would bounce off of the pretty-boy protagonist of the game, even added a different playable character, one who more closely resembles the kind of main character that was common at the time.
But for numerous reasons, NieR is a game that stuck with me throughout all of the decade. Oozing with ambition far beyond what budget or skill would allow, no game of the decade better defines “greater than the sum of its parts.” And not all of those parts are subpar. NieR’s localization, both writing and acting, are stellar. Bolstered by these performances, the game’s simple yet effective story becomes one of the most emotionally moving tales of the decade. The game may also hold the distinction of having the greatest gulf between quality of writing and character design in Kainé, a fully realized character dressed in a way that assures Square Enix wasn’t worried about this game getting big. Top it all off with the best soundtrack of the decade and you have a title that, for all its faults and shortcomings, remains an unforgettable experience.
Divinity: Original Sin II
Larian’s long-running RPG series has never been afraid to try on new hats. From traditional isometric RPGs to third-person action to weird RPG/RTS hybrids, Divinity has always worn its odd-duck status on its sleeves. But during the Kickstarter boom early on in the decade, Divinity: Original Sin ended up making waves with its surprisingly great evolution of tactical RPGs that featured an open-ended character creator and full co-op. But it wasn’t until the sequel, Divinity: Original Sin II, where the full scope of what the system could do became clear.
The sheer amount of options available to players at any given time is staggering and the level of reactivity in the world and combat rivals that of Breath of the Wild while being meatier and more tactically satisfying. This is the game that cemented Larian’s status as the current leader of western RPGs. If there are any two games to learn from on this list, it’s Disco Elysium and Divinity: Original Sin II, two wildly different but excellent takes on what RPGs can come to be.
One of my favorite games of the decade before this one was Demon’s Souls, the little RPG that could and came out of nowhere to revitalize what an action RPG could be. But the game that would go on to become the phenomenon that would define the decade for me was Dark Souls.
Refining and reiterating what Demon’s Souls started, Dark Souls creates a captivating story about a world in decline and the power-hungry actors struggling to hang on to whatever power they have left. Sold on its difficulty, which shouldn’t be understated, it’s a game that truly excels at being both immersive and rewarding for players, especially those eager to seek out everything it has to offer. It’s a game that made me look at game design in an entirely new fashion and is the most important game of the decade to me.
Bloodborne isn’t a perfect game, nor is it the most in-depth RPG to come by this decade, but it is perhaps the most “me” game ever. Seamlessly combining quick action, deep and methodical exploration, and a horrific tone most games, much less RPGs, can’t claim to have, no title in this decade offered a better blend of everything I like. Taking FromSoftware’s signature storytelling to its logical extreme, the tale of the cursed town of Yharnam unfolds in a captivating way, hinting at something more sinister before accelerating to places you never expect it to go. It’s a series of increasingly unforgettable moments tied together with gameplay that switches from exhilarating action to quiet moments of mystery, fear, and dread. How many RPGs can actually claim to be effective horror games as well?
Some aspects of the game certainly don’t work: Blood Vials are a poor substitution for Dark Souls‘ Estus Flasks, Frenzy is a mechanic that is not fun to play around, and the game’s touted Chalice Dungeons are repetitive and take far too long to clear even if they lead to cool boss fights at the end. But even as I acknowledge these flaws years later my opinion of the game has only grown with time. It’s my most replayed game of the decade and one I’m always eager to return to. I can’t claim that Bloodborne is the best game of the decade, but it’s for sure one of them.
Definitely a solid list.