A Place to Return To, Part 2: RPGamer’s Favorite Cities
Welcome back to RPGamer’s celebration of our favorite settlements! Last time, we introduced you to our favorite smaller towns and villages, but today is all about the larger cities. Sometimes, when those miniature municipalities start feeling a little too humdrum, only the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life will do. These grand urban centers seem to play host to anything and everything under the sun; not only are they replete with convenient facilities, but they can also offer a glimpse into some of the best and worst aspects of society. No matter what you seek, you’re likely to find it here.
For the latter half of this two-part feature, we’ve decided to go big or go home as we invite you to explore some of our favorite RPG cities. Please keep in mind that some passages will contain story spoilers! If you’d prefer a slice of the quieter life, we invite you to check out part one.
Massive, sprawling, and central — all words that help define the Citadel and what it stands for. The Citadel is a hub that encompasses all of the races in the Mass Effect series, where its governing body, the Citadel Council, makes decisions that affect everyone. When I think of true metropolises that are fundamental to their universes, the first to stand out is the Citadel because most plotlines have threads that connect here.
Players first encounter the Citadel when Commander Shepard is brought to the Council to report that one of their elite Spectres has gone rogue. Plenty of twists and turns occur through the three games, necessitating not only frequent visits to the Council but also with various shady characters and entrepreneurs looking to strike it rich in the galaxy’s most important settlement. All roads lead to the Citadel and every visit adds a fresh face, unique alien race, or fun interaction. The Citadel has enough personality and hosts so many plot points that it qualifies as a member of the cast, which in and of itself makes it special in my mind. — Ryan Costa
If you’ve ever experienced any of Nihon Falcom’s modern The Legend of Heroes titles, you know that worldbuilding and expansive stories are highlights of the series. The ongoing interconnected story began in the Trails in the Sky trilogy, continued through the Crossbell duology, and proceeded into the Cold Steel games and beyond. The continent of Zemuria is where the action takes place, with the Erebonian Empire and Calvard Republic being the two major powers. Snuggled in tight along the border between those nations is the relatively small state of Crossbell, with its eponymous city serving as a famous trade hub with great economic influence. While the location of Crossbell makes it ripe for conquest, the large amount of money flowing in and out also leaves it susceptible to organized crime, bank fraud, and political corruption at the highest levels. These various elements make for excellent storytelling, and Falcom utilizes them all.
Crossbell is an awesome city to visit, with plenty of great NPCs that evolve throughout the games. From the local baker giving samples of new bread recipes to fresh-outta-Police-Academy Lloyd Bannings and the rest of the SSS, to the cheery Wendy at the orbal store, across multiple games in the series, you visit the same places in Crossbell a lot. You get dozens of lines of dialogue with each NPC as the continued series spends hundreds of hours in and around Crossbell. Not every RPG provides that much depth, when often the goal is to reach a city, do all the tasks, and then move on to the next city. Crossbell is home to many of the characters in the series, and a great deal of time is spent getting intimately familiar with every inch of every shop, alley, harbor, and theme park.
Introduced during its own duology, Crossbell is brought up again and again throughout the Cold Steel games. It becomes a character in its own right, not just some background made of pixellated dirt and stone. The city undergoes a great deal of change in each game, and has what may as well be considered a full character arc, with high points and low points, times where it’s built up, times when it’s torn down, invaded, and all but broken. While the Trails games have many great character arcs between Estelle, Joshua, Lloyd, Rean and others, Crossbell’s arc is equally as moving impressive as any of theirs, and that puts it on the map of great RPG cities. — Matt Masem
Warriors of Light around the world got our first glimpse at a work-in-progress Crystarium during a development panel featuring background artist Yoshiki Takanashi at the 2019 Fan Festival in Tokyo. Staying up late to watch the livestream, I felt right away like this was going to be a special city. Aesthetically, the Crystarium closely resembles what was shown in Square Enix’s E3 2005 tech demo, “Project Rapture.” In the years following the demo’s debut, fans wished countless times for it to materialize in an official Square Enix game, only for the fourteenth installment in the Final Fantasy series to finally answer the call in its third expansion. Though the wait was long, the results were more than worth it.
If you’ve never been, the Crystarium is a fine blend of light ashlar masonry, dark wrought iron, and lofty blue crystal domes that nestle like so many jellyfish at the base of the jagged Crystal Tower. Craftsmanship harmonizes with nature as lush green grass and trees with striking purple foliage grow throughout. Facilities to support various walks of life, from bars, libraries, farms, and arboretums, to crafters’ workshops, markets, and guard stations are all in their proper places. The Crystarium is outfitted to such an extent because it stands as humanity’s last bastion of salvation in a doomed world.
Whereas some denizens of this world on the brink have given in to despair or decadence, those who would fight back rally at the Crystarium under the banner of the mysterious Crystal Exarch. The city stands as a symbol of cooperation and hope where Warriors of Light (or Darkness) can rest between heroic adventures. Because the Shadowbringers expansion launched a few months before the global pandemic, the Crystarium also served as a source of security and emotional support for players while the outside world went topsy-turvy. I spent many hours there, crafting or just chatting with friends, feeling like for the moment I was sheltered in a small bubble of tranquility. For these reasons and more, I know the Crystarium will remain one of my most beloved RPG cities throughout the years. — Casey Pritt
The MMORPG is where people go to escape their boring, mundane lives and experience magical fantasy worlds. If designed right, these worlds will feel like a home away from home. This is especially true in the cities, where most players congregate to sell their wares or train their skills. Vanilla World of Warcraft had capital cities for each race, then The Burning Crusade expanded with two additional capitals plus a hub city in the new expansion area. While these cities were impressive, none of them ever felt like home. Then, The Wrath of the Lich King expansion hit, and brought with it a little floating city called Dalaran, which soon became the greatest city in Warcraft history.
One thing the art team excels at is giving each place in World of Warcraft a theme. Dalaran’s theme is magic, being a city founded by mages. It feels like a magical place the moment you arrive, as the flutes kick in and the music swells. Everywhere you look, you are reminded of Dalaran’s magical origins, from the arcane crystals to the mage statues. Even the “mailboxes” are actually just tiny portals resting above a flag with an envelope. The city is also filled to the brim with Easter eggs, too many to mention in one article. Among player favorites are the inn’s orange cat Jones and a flower girl in the streets named Aerith Primrose.
After a long day of adventuring during The Wrath of the Lich King era, it was always fabulous to return to Dalaran. Many cities in World of Warcraft feel sparse, putting important places like the bank and the trainers in the most inconvenient places. Dalaran still feels like a sprawling city, but it is organized so that finding what you need is never an issue. One specific example is the crafting trainers. Whereas previously they were all over each city, and some cities didn’t even have all of the professions represented, Dalaran nestled each trainer into one convenient district off to the northeast. Each trainer’s shop had charming little touches, like the fizzing potion bottle at the entrance of the alchemy shop, or the motorcycle parked outside the engineering shop. The convenience and aesthetic made Dalaran one of the most popular player hubs of Warcraft. Blizzard recognized Dalaran’s popularity, and even brought it back for the Legion expansion. While many other cities have come and gone, Dalaran was always the most special place to set a hearthstone to. — Kelley Ryan
There is nothing quite like a Studio Ghibli setting. From bustling towns to high-fantasy worlds, the mystique and wonder of Ghibli locales are a highlight every time. That’s the standard set in Ghibli films, and it’s apparent even in its collaborative effort on Level 5’s Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. The developers hit the mark over and over again to fully realize this Ghibli world come to life. That includes towns and cities like Motorville and Ding Dong Dell.
As befits most of the game’s settings, Ding Dong Dell is a beautiful high-fantasy city, with a big palace firmly placed in the background. It’s full of cobbled roads, colorful brick houses that have vines hanging over them, and bridges. In a beautiful animated cutscene that plays upon arrival, the quaint people of the city gather around to check out the anachronistic otherworlder, Ollie.
What really makes Ding Dong Dell stand out is the area’s sense of exploration and curiosity. The space seems small at first, but it’s rewarding to find so many hidden areas; there is something interesting to see at every turn. There are also children running around. With plenty of rivers, ponds, and more, the city will have you running as well, across bridges and up stairs to the tops of large buildings. And of course, you’ll be entering the gorgeous palace to visit His Meowjesty. It’s a wonderful setting that’s brilliantly brought together through true Ghibli magic. — Jon Jansen
One of the few cities that didn’t have its name changed in the relocalization between 1992’s Dragon Warrior IV NES release and 2008’s Dragon Quest IV Nintendo DS release, the castle city of Endor is the central hub of the game. DQIV is organized by chapter, with each main party member, or group of members, getting their own standalone segment. For most of these, reaching Endor is either the end goal or a main objective. Endor is where Tsarevna Alena is headed in chapter two to compete in a tournament. Endor is where Torneko Taloon heads in chapter three and where he eventually realizes his dream of owning his own store with his wife. Endor is where, upon failing to exact revenge for their father’s death, sisters Meena and Maya escape to at the end of chapter four. At the start of chapter five, the hero of the game suffers a great tragedy and journeys to Endor, where he starts to gather the chosen heroes to defeat Psaro the Manslayer.
Beyond its plot importance, stylistically, Endor is quite awesome as well. It’s a castle town, which means it’s a city as large as pretty much any other in early Dragon Quest history, and it boasts a large castle, complete with its own tournament grounds. In chapter three, the Dragon Quest series’ first instances of party members for hire can be found here, with poet Laurel and bodyguard Hardie available for Torneko Taloon to employ. In another iconic series first, an underground casino with a monster battle arena, slot machines, and a poker table can be found beneath Endor’s inn. In addition to the omnipresent item, weapon, and armor shops found in most Dragon Quest cities, Endor even hides away a secret shop. Available only after a certain point, the secret shop sells some of the best armor gold can buy in DQIV. And while Torneko journeys with the Hero in the final chapter, his wife turns their former shop into a gold vault. No matter what point in the game you’re at, there’s always a reason to revisit Endor often. — Matt Masem
Terra Branford has a tough go of it in the opening hours of Final Fantasy VI. Held against her will by the evil empire as a mindless puppet and enslaved to do their bidding, she’s a force-of-nature killing machine whether she wants to be or not. Even escaping their control sees her situation go from bad to worse as she suddenly finds herself alone, pursued by soldiers intent on recapturing their emperor’s special prize. Luckily, she is found by Locke, a thief who can’t turn down a damsel in distress, and together they make their way to Figaro Castle, hoping against hope that the fortress’s stout walls will keep them safe.
While a castle isn’t exactly uncommon in the Final Fantasy series, there’s something special about this one. Terra’s arrival at Figaro Castle doesn’t go unnoticed, and soon an imperial reconnaissance team, headed up by none other than Kefka (though we don’t yet know how truly mad and evil he is), shows up asking uncomfortable questions about her whereabouts. Believing King Edgar to be a secret resistance sympathizer, the group even goes so far as to set the castle ablaze in order to smoke out the fugitives. But the castle begins to transform before our eyes, its towers and parapets shifted and pulled together by powerful hidden mechanisms. Then, the entire castle, including those safely ensconced inside, quickly submerges beneath the desert sands and makes a subterranean escape. It’s an unexpected development that breaks the mold and fits so very perfectly with the king’s penchant for machines and inventions. It’s hard to think of a more whimsical and memorable way for the heroes to escape certain capture. — Pascal Tekaia
The Suikoden series is memorable for a variety of locations, each with its own personality traits. While Two Rivers would have been the more logical choice for this feature, as it focuses on three races co-existing in one large location, some of Suikoden’s biggest and most important moments have historically taken place in the city of Gregminster. Not only is this city the catalyst for the beginning and ending of Suikoden I, but it also sees many important decisions made within its confines.
In Suikoden I, Tir McDohl takes on his first role as a member of the Scarlet Moon Empire after being tasked by Commander Kraze to visit Magician’s Island. While there, he inherits the Soul Eater Rune, and upon his return, he is forced to flee Gregminster in order to protect his best friend, Ted. As players make their way through the game, they see Tir forced back to Gregminster to slay Lord Barbarossa and restore the empire.
Gregminster is a vibrant and wealthy city, the epitome of privilege. Given that Tir is the son of General Teo McDohl, he has experienced that wealth his entire life. What makes Gregminster important is how it clashes with other places in Suikoden’s world, poor towns that are often struggling to survive. Gregminster is glamorous, it’s ritzy, and it’s also a place that players will lay siege to during the endgame. The confrontation with Barbarossa is such an iconic moment in the game, and upon defeating him, Gregminster transforms, with all of its wealth and power removed. While the city’s surroundings don’t change, it’s important to note that, when the player visits again in Suikoden II, it’s become more of a trading hub, with Lepant, who was a member of the Liberation Army in I, at the helm. In Suikoden II, visiting Gregminster is such a treat, as the place is more bustling. And in a nice addition, players can potentially interact with McDohl if they import a Suikoden I save file. It’s a wonderful full circle moment. While Gregminster undergoes one of the best transformations in the series, it’s worth mentioning that it also has one of the most iconic theme songs, which gets an even more amazing upgrade in Suikoden II. — Sam Wachter
In a lot of ways, Kamurocho is as much a main character of the Yakuza series as Kazuma Kiryu. From the very beginning, the fictional Tokyo district (based on the real-life Kabukicho district) has helped shape what made many fall in love with Yakuza, with a lot of intriguing sights and activities. Whether going to the batting cages, participating in a session of karaoke, playing Sega classics like Virtual-On and Outrun at the arcades, or going to the hostess clubs, players have many options for how they can spend their time when they aren’t progressing the main plot, partaking in the multitude of sub-stories, or beating up anyone that dares to start something unprovoked. Kiryu and other playable characters in the series can even spend time eating at restaurants and hitting up bars for leisurely drinks.
Another aspect that makes Kamurocho stand out is how it evolves across several games, subtly changing over time while still instilling a sense of familiarity as players become acquainted with it. Not to mention the constant presence of the chain store Don Quijote, based on the real-life Japanese chain of the same name, which adds further verisimilitude to the fictional city. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about these games without taking into account the events that go down over the course of the decades that span the series’ timeline. Especially as it seems like almost every game’s climax revolves around the Millenium Tower, the city’s centerpiece building, in some fashion. That’s just scratching the surface of what places Kamurocho among the most memorable locations in RPGs. — Ryan McCarthy
The Lascarde Skywalk is a massive structure floating over the ocean in the world of Arc Rise Fantasia. It is a difficult place to classify, as it resembles some sort of spaceship and seems to be big enough to contain a city, since it does house at least one large city’s worth of people in suspended animation. Only a few people can be awake at a time, the rest waiting for the day when Hozone, a substance deadly to the Divine Race that inhabits the Skywalk, is no longer a threat.
The game actually considers the Skywalk a dungeon, but there are living quarters for the people who are awake, a vending machine shop run by a hologram, and a “first aid device” that heals the party in place of an inn. The metallic walls, glowing surfaces, and holographic screens all make this city/dungeon/ship quite futuristic, but also sterile. The tall ceiling and sparsely populated quarters also add to this eerily empty but intriguing atmosphere of the city within the Skywalk.
Although L’Arc and friends’ time in Lascarde Skywalk is brief, many pivotal moments occur here. The assassin, Ignacy, and the evil leader of the church, Hosea, meet their comeuppance; L’Arc’s one-time friend, Adele, meets a sad end; and the cowardly party member Niko saves the world at a great cost to himself. After these events, most of the denizens of the Skywalk are hostile to the party because they killed Hosea, but they’re not stopping you from visiting whenever you want. What will likely stay in a player’s mind long after leaving the Skywalk is the music. It is a beautiful, melancholic piece aptly named “Lascarde Skywalk,” composed by none other than Yasunori Mitsuda. This music piece suits the somber Skywalk very well. — Cassandra Ramos
It is inevitable to picture Midgar when one thinks about Final Fantasy VII. This enormous city contrasts with most of the tiny villages and towns that players come across in the rest of the game. Divided by sectors that represent the wealth of its citizens, this place has breathtaking sights that embody poverty, rebellious groups, and selfish rulers. While the original game from 1997 allowed players to shallowly explore the slums and sewers, as well as destroy the reactors, Final Fantasy VII Remake made these places bigger, more detailed, and a lot more impressive.
The whole city is memorable, but there are some places that tend to linger more in players’ minds. Sector 5, for instance, is a place with diverse businesses where players can find gyms to train in and merchants who can help them dress up Cloud as a pretty girl. The Shinra Building is also astonishing and fun to traverse. Whether players are exploring, helping those in need, infiltrating the Shinra Building, or battling robots and haunted houses alike, Midgar is delightful.
Dirty slums, abandoned trains, imposing buildings, and the peculiar neon green given off by the reactors all create an invitingly eerie atmosphere within a city that supposedly thrives. Final Fantasy VII would not be the same without the extraordinary city of Midgar, so it comes as no surprise that this place was large enough to comprise the entire first entry of Final Fantasy VII Remake. — Luis Mauricio
New Los Angeles, which acts as the hub for Xenoblade Chronicles X, has a lot going for it, not least of which are its exciting establishing moments. The city begins life as one of a number of spaceships sent out by humanity to find a new home after Earth becomes caught in an interstellar war. Eventually, the ship comes across the planet of Mira, where NLA becomes the centre of humanity’s effort to establish a home, as well as trade relations with other species.
Part of what makes New Los Angeles a highlight is how it develops over the course of the game. Once players are initially awoken, only the vital parts of the city are active. As they complete missions to help establish humanity’s presence on Mira, more sections and amenities pop up. It’s greatly engaging to see how New Los Angeles alters with sidequest completion, as new inhabitants, human and otherwise — including one species that ensures the pizza place becomes one of the city’s biggest successes — appear and move around. Many characters get their own mini-series of quests, some connecting multiple threads.
Seeing New Los Angeles become a more bustling, living city is one of Xenoblade Chronicles X’s many highlights. It helps that its sidequests are frequently engaging, provided by people from all walks of life, often adding lighthearted flavour. As expected of a title bearing the Xenoblade name, the visual designs really help bring the urban landscape to life, with Hiroyuki Sawano’s genre-blending and hook-filled score only adding to the flavour. — Alex Fuller
The world of The Witcher is remarkably well-written, vast, and full of memorable characters and places. When it comes to the series’ video games, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the most conspicuous and acclaimed entry, features many kingdoms with distinctive sights and villages. Among the outstanding locales found in the game, Novigrad outshines all, with players spending a great deal of their time here. This place is not only gigantic in size, but also features a vast array of substories, allowing players to meet tons of denizens and to experience a wide set of sidequests. Among the many features of the surrounding region are small villages and monsters dens, but Novigrad city in the northwest, with Hierarch Square at the center, is probably one of the best spots in the history of RPGs. Players can spend many joyful hours by just exploring every corner of this city and finding secrets hidden on every street, with the overall feeling that there is always something else to be found.
Novigrad is full of life — and death at times, particularly in Hierarch Square — with peculiar sights to see and areas to explore among its many stratified districts that show the difference in its inhabitants’ income. Besides merchants, wealthy people, and places where Gwent tournaments are held, this place is full of sordid facilities, including taverns and brothels where thieves and deceivers try to make a living. As a consequence, players may find themselves ambushed by robbers when they are returning from having some drinks, or they can find a pretty face that is trying to trick them and steal their gold.
The level of detail and immersion that Novigrad offers is something that only a few games have managed to accomplish. Visually, this polarized reality is depicted by enormous places full of luxury and places that are about to fall, as well as via picturesque characters. This memorable city makes The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a game that cannot be overlooked. — Luis Mauricio
Besides Runescape and a baker’s dozen of text RPGs, Final Fantasy XI was my first real MMORPG, and Windurst (affectionately called Windy) was the first city-state I called my home. I knew the whole town like the back of my hand and loved my mog house. Since then, I’ve played lots of other RPGs and MMORPGs, but Windurst remains the only place I’d truly want to live in. It feels like a place people actually live, and in harmony with nature to boot. There are shops, fishing spots, docks, and boats to visit. Let’s not forget the many areas enclosed in the heart of Windurst Walls, especially Heavens Tower — a giant tree where the mystic Star Cybil lives. It is my least favorite of the zones in Windurst, mostly because it’s not as woodsy, but is instead swampy, with maze-like bridges throughout. That’s a large part of why I just kept to Windurst Woods, where most of the Mithra live. Being a magic user myself, another thing that resonates with me is how this city prides itself on utilizing magic. For example, magic is employed to enhance crops and is greatly favored in the culture overall. Metallic objects are not as popular here, and most shops are made of wood.
When Final Fantasy XIV came out, I was hoping there would be a Windurst-like city-state to belong to. The game seemed to have modeled each city-state after the ones from XI, but with different names, in order to woo players coming from XI. Thus was born Gridania, a city that’s more futuristic, but which still pays much homage to Windurst. To this day, I feel that I would much rather live in Gridania than any of XIV’s other city-states. It is nestled within a dense forest with coursing rivers, ruling over the outskirts of a woodland the outsiders call the Black Shroud — or, as the citizens call it, the Twelveswood. However, the place is much more bustling than Windurst; it’s more adventurer-friendly, and it functions more like a bigger city while preserving the small, woodsy town feel. Gridania keeps with the same tradition of living off the land, co-existing in harmony with nature and its elemental magicks.
The city-states of Windurst and Gridania feel so real and warm to me; I tend to get sucked into both games while letting the real world disappear. It’s much better to live there, at least for a little while. — Sarah McGarr
Thank you for joining us on this grand tour of some of our favorite cities in RPGs! We’ve covered a lot of ground, but there are plenty more great cities that were left unmentioned. Did we leave out one of your favorites? We invite you to show some love for your favorite RPG cities in the comments!