RPGamer’s Personal Top 3s of 2023
With our backlogs full and the end of the year right around the corner, we look back fondly at what bounties 2023. Before we begin our Game of the Year preparations, the staff members at RPGamer decided to share their top 3 RPGs that they experienced this year. This allows us to not only share personal favourites, but also some overlooked gems that they would highly recommend. Let us know in the comments below some of your favourites that released in 2023!
Fuga: Melodies of Steel 2 –- The original Fuga: Melodies of Steel was one of my favorite games of 2021, so there is little surprise that its sequel has managed to crack my top games of this year. Fuga 2 manages to retain all of the things that I loved about the first game such as the interesting, strategic combat and characters that I came to care for, and fixes some of the problems the original had with pacing and traversal. Fuga 2 is a game where the developers have maximized what is obviously a small budget to create an experience with interesting turn-based gameplay that rewards thoughtful strategy, likable characters that the player can get behind, and a gripping story with a constant threat to the characters you care so much about.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure –- After the Trails from Cold Steel games went on for a bit too long and got a bit bloated for my taste, the release of the Crossbell games was a breath of fresh air. The focus on a pared-down cast of Lloyd and the other members of the Special Support Section and the smaller environs of Crossbell gave the game a cozier feel than Erebonia in the Cold Steel games. Personally, I find the combat from this entry to be more enjoyable than the later entries as the enemies seem to be less spongey and I enjoy the mixing and matching of elements to create spells rather than having to micromanage exact spells in later entries. While it’s an older entry, Azure encapsulates what I love in the Trails series: great characters, interesting world-building, and a narrative that continues to build and fit into an overarching story.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! –- As a Yakuza fan, I never really expected the long-lost historical spinoffs to get Western releases. However, the incredible recent success of the series means that even a game set in the Bakumatsu era gets a release. Being a nine-year-old game, the combat doesn’t have the same polish that more recent releases have, but it’s still fun to beat up 19th-century thugs. However, the story was really fun and I enjoyed having the game be an impetus for me to learn about an era of Japanese history that I wasn’t very familiar with.
8-Bit Adventures 2 — In a great year of new games, one common theme was that of nostalgia. Reclaiming the feel of the greats from the turn-based 16-bit era is no easy feat. The heart of the story in 8-Bit Adventures 2 did. The depth and nuance in every character from heroes to villains to NPCs were unparalleled this year. Add in a fun retro-inspired combat system where every character is actively useful and there’s an underrated gem here.
Darkest Dungeon II — Going from the greatest story to the greatest challenge, Darkest Dungeon II is not a simple game for the faint of heart. It is impressive how punishing the title is while being so different from the original. Combat is never simple; lower your guard, and suddenly the party has been wiped. Darkest Dungeon II helped coined the phrase tactical Soulslike, and like the genre that inspired it every challenge is addictive and every victory sweet.
Monster Hunter Rise — Monster Hunter Rise welcomed me as a newcomer, and slaying monsters is just fun. Every single one is made to feel like an unrivaled spectacle. Add in a presentational one-two punch of a breathtaking soundtrack with stunning visuals and it’s easy to see why the franchise is so addictive. Story and innovation will always have their place but a well-polished and fun game is not always easy to find.
Honourable Mentions: Final Fantasy XVI, Silent Hope, and Slay the Princess
Lunacid — Thrown in a well, you explore a dark world. Inspired by FromSoft’s Kings Field series, Lunacid sets out to capture a certain magic and succeeds with world-building that would make actual Dark Souls titles proud. The strength of the game lies in how it captures the vibe of crawling through dark dungeons with secrets, danger and mystery at every corner.
8-Bit Adventures 2 — Sometimes JRPGs shine by doing one thing exceptionally well and sometimes they shine as a complete package. 8-Bit Adventures 2 is a love letter to the joy of JRPGs by putting a lot of care into all of its elements. Especially impressive is that it develops well thought-out and deep character arcs for every party member.
Afterimage — What makes a Metroidvania? A question with many answers. Afterimage‘s answer is a tribute heavily influenced by the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The game brings RPG mechanics, levels, and gear to the genre in a way that many such games tend to avoid. Package in beautiful graphics with lots of content and it’s a game worth diving into.
Honourable Mention: Pseudoregalia and Limbus Company
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom — What’s your favorite video game of all time? For me, that’s been an easy question to answer my entire life. No game has profoundly impacted me more than The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Whether that impact is during childhood or now as an adult, that entry in the Zelda series has always been my favorite. That question now, however, got a bit more difficult to answer. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is not just a great game in the series, but a masterpiece of a game that earns a rightful spot with its Nintendo 64 counterpart. It has flawless game design, discoveries around every corner of the world, and a coming-of-age story for a new generation. I have loved almost every entry in the series, but none has ever evoked the same emotion I experienced with Ocarina of Time, until now.
Baldur’s Gate III — It’s not every year that new experiences occur. I stay in the JRPG lane and don’t venture out much. However, when a powerhouse of a game like Baldur’s Gate III arrives, my curiosity takes the wheel and a new genre of game has been discovered. I have never played isometric, D&D-heavy RPGs and honestly never even thought about it. It was difficult though not to hear all of the praise this game was getting throughout the year. So I decided to give it a try (with my new Steam Deck) and this has been more than a great surprise, it’s a legitimate heavyweight game-of-the-year contender. Rolling the dice becomes more unpredictable each turn and the sheer volume of twists and interactions is astounding. There are some bugs and frustrations that have gotten to me at times because of the learning curve for a new player, but that has not at all taken away my enjoyment of this game. Cheers to new experiences!
Chained Echoes — Timing is a royal pain in the rear. Chained Echoes was released very late in 2022 to the point where most would consider it a 2023 game, and by that time year-end lists were already formed, opinions shared, and Chained Echoes was entirely missing from the conversation. It’s a shame because this is the most interesting traditional turn-based RPG I have played recently. With the return of classic turn-based RPGs like Octopath Traveler II and Sea of Stars taking the spotlight, Chained Echoes not only deserves to share that spotlight but almost take it entirely. Its fresh and successful use of new ideas in turn-based combat should be celebrated. I still think about it a year later and hope that someday Chained Echoes gets the flowers it deserves.
Honourable Mention: Mageseeker: A League of Legends Story and Sea of Stars
Octopath Traveler II — While the original Octopath Traveler introduced the gaming world to the beauty of HD-2D graphics, it left some RPGamers wishing for a more connected storyline. Addressing this concern and improving upon an already amazing battle system, Octopath Traveler II is all that a sequel should be. The graphics are beautiful, the characters memorable, and the path actions all help flesh out a very interconnected world. A banger of a soundtrack is icing on the top of this amazing title.
Etrian Odyssey Origins — While nary a hint of anything Etrian Odyssey-related has been heard of since the end of the 3DS life cycle, surprisingly HD ports of the first three titles released this summer! Seeing the gold-standard series of first-person dungeon crawlers in HD is amazing. The excellent gameplay of the titles proved that the formerly two-screen games with their unique mapping techniques can most definitely work on a single screen. While upgraded versions of the first two Etrian Odyssey titles have previously been released on the 3DS, finally seeing a more modern port of the third DS title was the crown jewel of the HD Origins collection.
Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince — When a spinoff series goes dark for more than a dozen years in the West, chances are it’s not coming back. But in a world where there are reboots abound, this year Square Enix blessed us with Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince. Being able to collect all my old DQ monster friends and breed them into stronger party members would have been enough, but the story of The Dark Prince connecting to my favorite classic NES game, Dragon Quest IV, made it much better. Multiple quality-of-life improvements to the gameplay from the excellent 3DS era are welcome and make for a wonderful monster-collecting experience!
Honourable Mentions: Cassette Beasts and Rune Factory 3 Special
Star Ocean: The Second Story R — As someone whose most extensive experience with Star Ocean as a kid was playing the divisive PS2 entry with the infamous plot twist, playing the remake of what is considered to be the fan-favorite entry in the series felt like a revelation. Having only played a few hours of the original PS1 version of The Second Story through emulation in junior high, this remake did a great job showing me what I have been missing out on. A fun and charming cast of characters, a great battle system that never gets old, and various systems that allowed me to exploit them to my advantage add up to a game that I wouldn’t mind returning to for the post-game and maybe even a New Game+ playthrough.
Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line — I didn’t play the previous Theatrhythm games so Final Bar Line felt like a completely new experience to me. The enjoyable rhythm gameplay set to Final Fantasy music was something I was really in the mood for. I ended up playing it for 60+ hours, replaying many of the series tracks over and over again to either complete the optional “quests” or to see how far I could go in the game’s Endless Mode. It also reminded me that there are Final Fantasy games I still haven’t gotten around to and I should fix that.
LunarLux — LunarLux is a game lost in the shuffle amidst the other indie RPG releases this year, which is a shame because it was a pleasant surprise for me. While the battle system suffered from a couple of rough edges — especially the Undertale-influenced aspect of it that caused battles to be a drag sometimes — the sci-fi anime-inspired story proved quite enjoyable thanks to an entertaining cast of characters, with writing that was cheeky while still allowing for some heartfelt moments. Flying around with a jetpack and completing some light puzzle-solving break up the pace nicely and results in a hidden gem that has been unfairly ignored.
Honourable Mention: Octopath Traveler II
Fuga: Melodies of Steel 2 — Fuga 2 exemplifies what a video game sequel should be. They took a great gameplay loop, built on it, improved it, and still kept what made it wonderful. The game’s story shows off a rollercoaster of emotions that will keep everyone guessing until the final credits roll. The only bad thing that could be said is that waiting for the final game in the trilogy is going to be maddening.
Final Fantasy XVI — Despite their flaws in recent years, Square Enix still knows how to show love to their flagship series. Final Fantasy XVI had some of the most memorable characters anyone will meet in an RPG this year. The game is also a feast for the eyes, as the Eikon battles show off just what the PS5 is capable of graphics-wise. There is also Torgal, the best boy of all the video game dogs, who deserves nothing but the best treats and pets.
Sea of Stars — While many indie RPGs offer tribute to the classics of the ’90s, Sea of Stars nailed that aesthetic perfectly. The game could have easily been a lost Super Nintendo game that resurfaced, and players would be none the wiser. Furthermore, instead of relying on the same tropes from classic 16-bit RPGs, Sea of Stars turned many of them on their heads, keeping players guessing until the very end. This game is a must-play for RPGamers, ’90s kids, and anyone who just wants a fresh take on the genre.
Honourable Mentions: Octopath Traveler II, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Baldur’s Gate III, and Silent Hope
Disgaea 7 — After the relatively disappointing Disgaea 6, I was pleasantly surprised at how much 7 was a return to form. The grind is fun again, there are a lot more generic units, the item world is easy to get lost in, and the characters are fun. The only downside is that the AI Battles, known as Demonic Intelligence, is not quite as good as in 6, but it’s still functional.
Super Mario RPG — This is everything I wanted from a remake. It still oozes charm, the extra visual queues for when to press buttons for timed attacks and defense are a great addition, and rare monsters that drop frog coins can help stock up on good items. The only thing I’m disappointed by is that Bowser says you join his minions instead of being conscripted into the Koopa Troopas.
Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince — I’ve been waiting all year for this and it has hit every right note for me. Around the time I was thinking battles were too slow, you unlock the speed-up and auto-battle functions. There are a ton of monsters, sometimes with different abilities, and the synthesis system is very straightforward. The weather changes bring new monsters and new places to explore and it changes enough to never lock you out of something for too long, so backtracking can be well worth your time. I just scratched the surface and I’m already in love.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom — Nintendo spent six years crafting and polishing a magnificent and enormous follow-up to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Innovative gameplay mechanics and ingenious puzzles fill an expanded open-world Hyrule to the brim with secrets and quests for players to discover with unparalleled freedom. Tears of the Kingdom is a landmark achievement for both the franchise and video games in general.
Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line — The third installment of Square Enix’s rhythm / RPG hybrid series, Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line is a delightful Final Fantasy tribute. With hundreds of songs, dozens of characters, and a multitude of gameplay options, rhythm aficionados will find a game packed with excellent content. Anyone who’s ever had a Final Fantasy tune stuck in their head should give Final Bar Line a try.
Super Mario RPG — A superb remake, Super Mario RPG takes a Super Nintendo classic and gives it a fresh coat of paint for 2023. Super Mario RPG maintains the same zany charm, hilarious dialogue, and briskly paced story that made the original so beloved, while the vibrantly remastered visuals and excellent new soundtrack elevate the game for modern audiences. A must-play for any Mario fan, new or old.
Honourable Mention: Dave the Diver
Lies of P — It’s not a reliable metric by any stretch, but sometimes from the very first moment you lay eyes on the gameplay of an upcoming title you just know it’s going to be something special. Which is exactly what my experience with Lies of P was like. Little did I know it was going to be even better than I at first hoped it would be. A dark and stunning world to explore, based on one of the most unique inspirations I’ve seen, Pinocchio. Gorgeous graphics and soundtrack. A fluid and fast-paced combat system that combines classic Soulslike mechanics with the parrying system of a Sekiro. Satisfying ways the areas twist back on themselves in often surprising manner. But the cherry on top was the depth embedded into the combat system by being able to disassemble and recombine weapons in a multitude of different permutations, offering so much flexibility to assist with the game’s truly hardcore difficulty. I’ve waited a long time to find a game that would supplant Bloodborne as my top action RPG, and this year I found it!
Chained Echoes — I’m cheating just a bit here, but one of my favorite games of the year was released in very late 2022. But man did it offer up the goods, and its meaty story ensured that many of us didn’t finish it until well into the new year. On the surface, Chained Echoes is a gorgeous pixel-art RPG with many retro influences from the 16-bit era, which is already ticking so many boxes in my book. But what takes it over the top are the inventive tricks its combat system has up its sleeve. While a mere turn-based system that we’ve seen a million times would have been a natural fit managing the game’s combat overdrive gauge during battle is such a delicate and nuanced dance that every encounter turns into an engaging puzzle that masterfully staves off repetition.
Miasma Chronicles — Strategy RPGs are few and far between for me, so color me all the more surprised by how much Miasma Chronicles gelled with me. This post-apocalyptic story of humanity struggling to survive against overwhelming odds is delivered in a sometimes clever, sometimes bitter, always extremely interesting way, and being able to stealthily sneak around a battle area before engaging combat to set up ambushes and deliver some well-placed assassinations to thin enemy ranks was always a treat. The imaginative cast and intriguing world-building help solidify Elvis and Diggs’ story as one of my favorites of the year.
Honourable Mentions: The Last Faith, Persona 4 Golden (came out on PS4 this year, does that count?)
Octopath Traveler II — While I was off with a broken arm during the summer months, I had the chance to explore many titles within my backlog. I had grabbed Octopath Traveler II on a deal, and I found myself glued to my chair as I worked through each of the characters’ stories. This game is emotionally heavy, with every character having a compelling narrative to explore. With enemies that are larger-than-life, a combat system with tons of complexity, and a cast of memorable characters, Octopath Traveler II is a game I put eighty hours into and have zero regrets about.
World of Horror — Of all the RPGs I tackled this year, the biggest surprise for me was World of Horror. This compulsive 1-bit roguelite asks players to not only manage their resources skillfully but be wary of the various creatures that lurk around the town of Shiokawa. Working through mysteries has that “just one more” quality that many games struggle to capture. With multiple endings and tons of random weirdos to meet, World of Horror is that game I can’t stop going back to, and I keep finding something new in every playthrough.
Star Ocean: The Second Story R — I screamed at my TV set when this remake was announced through Nintendo Direct. This game was absolutely worth the wait and I blitzed my way through it. Between the beautiful improved graphics, the newly arranged soundtrack, and impressive quality-of-life updates, Star Ocean: The Second Story R is easily the best version of the game to date. I just wish Claude and Rena had kissed in my playthrough…
Honourable Mentions: In Stars and Time, Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, and The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom — I’ve never been a proper Zelda fan; while I’ve dabbled with the games every now and then, new games have never immediately been something I’ve made time to play and I completely missed out on Breath of the Wild. Nevertheless, Tears of the Kingdom‘s approach had enough to draw me in for that initial taste and from then on I was immediately hooked. The game’s approach to puzzles and giving players freedom to find different solutions that may or not be intended is a breath of fresh air to the space. One of gaming’s most relatable adverts (even if it has a depressing take on modern life) perfectly encapsulates the joy found from this adventure.
Baldur’s Gate III — Despite multiple attempts, BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate titles have almost immediately lost me. The real-time-with-pause combat, as well as the AD&D 2nd Edition rules, just seemed to be complete anathema to my mindset each time I tried. It’s a shame as I was very much looking forward to exploring its setting and quests. However, Larian Studios being brought on board and quickly committing to the sort of turn-based gameplay I enjoyed in Divinity: Original Sin II made me eager to see what lay ahead in Baldur’s Gate III, and that eagerness has been thoroughly sated by the final result. It may have taken a bit longer than players hoped, but Larian Studios’s devotion to the game has shone through and made it clear that taking the extra time has worked wonders for the final product.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3: Future Redeemed — The final piece of the Xenoblade Chronicles trilogy arrived this year, and it ended up as a near-perfect capstone for fans. Although playable as a standalone title, it really is a final emotional treat that acts as a highly satisfying coda to everything that has come before. As with the other parts, Monolith Soft’s execution of its ambition is superb, with yet more incredible audiovisual presentation and more excellent gameplay. Future Redeemed is a true love-letter to the series, offering one final delight within a series that already offers so much.
Honourable Mentions: Final Fantasy XVI, The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure, and Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
Let us know in the comments below what your Top 3 RPGs of 2023 are. We’d love to see if you also agree with any of our selections above!