It’s almost cruel to talk about the best RPGs ever made. Not only is it the kind of topic that inspires especially heated debates, but even a shortlist of the greatest RPGs ever may leave you desperately trying to find the time to somehow play them all.
Then again, the thing that separates the best RPGs from the rest is that they never really make you feel like you’re in a rush to “beat” them or move on to the next thing. They grab you by the hand and take you on a journey defined by character building, storytelling, world design, and, most importantly, the very convincing idea that you are no longer simply yourself but rather have the chance to truly become the kind of legendary figure you used to only be able to daydream about.
Whether they’re JRPGs, CRPGs, Tactical RPGs, or ARPGs, the best RPGs ever made are united by their ability to ease the escape from your burdens, your worries, and your world by taking you on an adventure the likes of which you simply won’t find in any other game.
25. Disco Elysium
It may be the newest game on this list, but in less than two years, Disco Elysium has changed the way some of the industry’s best creators approach the art of video game writing and RPG design.
Though it lacks a proper combat system, this hard-boiled detective adventure is never lacking in intensity. With its fascinating moral dilemmas and incredible writing, Disco Elysium raised the bar in terms of challenging us to define who we are in its intoxicating world. If that isn’t role-playing, what is?
24. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
Tactical RPGs don’t always get the love some of their genre cohorts enjoy, but it’s nearly impossible to not respect everything that Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance does so well.
Fire Emblem’s “rock, paper, scissors” style combat shines brighter than ever in this 2005 GameCube classic, but it’s the way this RPG’s incredible plot highlights the thrills of Fire Emblem’s high-risk permadeath system that puts it over the top. This is a simply brilliant blend of tactics and raw emotion that few games in this genre have come close to besting.
23. Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar
There’s a healthy debate to be had about the best Ultima game ever, but Ultima 4 gets the nod here by virtue of this sequel’s sheer audacity.
Free of nearly every overused role-playing trope, Ultima 4 tasks you with finding yourself in an age of enlightenment rather than battling some great evil during a dark time. Ultima 4 deserves more credit than it typically receives for its plot that focuses on internal struggles in a time of peace, but it’s this game’s Virtues system, unusual character-building mechanics, and truly open nature that make it special to this day.
22. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Look, Vampire: The Masquerade was a tragically broken game upon its release and is only really playable today thanks to fan updates. However, so many of Masquerade’s problems can be attributed to its incredible ambition.
Some of the best tabletop-style RPG mechanics ever perfectly complement a truly unique RPG world where vampire clans battle for control of an extensive underground society. At its best, Vampire: The Masquerade is even better than that premise makes it sound.
21. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey Of The Cursed King
Ranking the Dragon Quest games is a tall enough task in and of itself, but there’s something to be said for how Dragon Quest 8 so perfectly captures most of the things that make this series great while adding a few necessary improvements.
Here’s a Dragon Quest game that offers a 100 hour+ journey packed with the incredible settings and memorable characters this series is known for that still manages to make the whole thing just accessible enough to encourage even the timid to participate in a truly epic adventure.
20. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
What is there left to say about KOTOR? After all, you probably know about its all-time great Star Wars story, its memorable morality system, and certainly its incredible twist.
Instead, let’s focus on how BioWare managed to break down the wall that divided PC and console RPGs by releasing one of the most well-crafted, best-written, and surprisingly deep PC-style RPGs ever exclusively for a console. It’s as if millions of gamers cried out in joy at the collective realization that it suddenly felt like anything was possible no matter what platform you owned.
19. Secret of Mana
It’s really a testament to the quality of the SNES’ JRPG library that Secret of Mana isn’t even the first SquareSoft RPG that people usually think of when they think of that console.
Still, Secret of Mana is something close to a video game design miracle. Few other games have come this close to packing this much depth and heart into such a substantial RPG experience that never feels like a slog and even allows you to play with a friend. This is one of the most entertaining RPGs ever made.
For years, Earthbound fans had to beg and plead for gamers to go out of their way to give this initially overlooked RPG the chance it deserved. I even spent quite a few years preaching that same gospel.
Now, though, many gamers know that Earthbound is one of the weirdest, most creative, and most surprisingly emotional JRPGs ever made. From its bizarre story to its soundtrack that refuses to stick to a genre for more than a song, Earthbound is a truly unique creative vision the likes of which many weren’t prepared for at that time and likely won’t see again.
17. Vagrant Story
Vagrant Story is another one of those games that were initially overlooked by many of the people who may have enjoyed it most. Even positive reviews said that Vagrant Story was too complicated, too dry, and maybe too much of an investment.
Years later, some of those criticisms remain, but they’re often quickly drowned out by praise for Vagrant Story’s unique take on the dungeon crawler genre and the ways that it juggled a pleasantly deep combat system with a dark, subtle, and mature narrative. There’s a world in which Vagrant Story achieved Dark Souls levels of fame, but it’s still rightfully remembered as one of the best dungeon crawlers ever.
16. Persona 5
There are very few misses in the Persona franchise, but Persona 5’s story and style arguably elevate it over the other Persona titles that could have easily appeared on this list.
Alright, if I’m being very honest, Persona 5 gets the nod here for its style alone. This title’s design team took no piece of on-screen real estate for granted and managed to turn even the most mundane piece of UI into art. The worst part about this game is spending almost 100 hours with your jaw on the floor.
15. Final Fantasy 9
You’ll soon discover that Final Fantasy 9 essentially “beat” Final Fantasy 7 for a spot on this list. They’re obviously both great games, but there are just so many little things that separate Final Fantasy 9 from the series’ revolutionary 7th (numbered) installment.
Final Fantasy 9’s characters, story, world, and music are simply among the best in franchise history. While it certainly doesn’t hurt that Final Fantasy 9 returned to a wonderful medieval setting, this incredible swan song for the original PlayStation ultimately gets the nod for the ways that it so perfectly utilizes and improves on so many of the things the FF franchise does so well.
14. Deus Ex
Deus Ex may owe a lot to the System Shock series, but when it comes to executing the ambitious concept of a narrative-driven first-person RPG series that emphasizes environmental storytelling and character building, the original Deus Ex arguably stands alone.
While Deus Ex’ bionic implant system and the way it offered multiple solutions to almost every situation are just brilliant bits of roleplay excellence, the game is arguably best remembered for its conspiracy theory narrative and how it sent you across the globe in search of something close to the truth.
13. Suikoden 2
While many RPGs (including an especially famous one we’ll be talking about in a bit) are built around assembling a party, few do it better than Suikoden 2 and its cast of 108 “collectible” characters with unique personalities, abilities, and stories.
That large cast of character is understandably the game’s highlight feature, but what’s easy to forget about Suikoden 2 is how its incredible political storyline, castle building minigame, and surprisingly enjoyable combat system so easily ensnare you even if you aren’t especially interested in finding every available party member.
12. Planescape: Torment
For years, I’ve heard Planescape Torment fans argue that it features the best story in RPG history. Well, you know what? They…might actually be right.
Planescape: Torment’s story of the “Nameless One” quickly evolved into a philosophical meditation on the nature of existence that never feels as pretentious as that description may make it sound. This masterpiece expertly forces you to confront the implications and impact of every decision you make in a way that feels pleasantly organic. This is a nearly unrivaled example of choice-driven storytelling.
11. Baldur’s Gate 2
There’s a strong case to be made that Baldur’s Gate 2 is the best “pure” D&D style RPG ever, but what’s really so impressive about this title is how it translated D&D’s most complicated concepts to a digital medium so easily that you’ll likely find yourself wondering why other games haven’t been able to pull that feat off with such apparent ease.
Of course, there’s nothing easy about Baldur’s Gate 2‘s design. Its choice and consequence-based storytelling and stunningly deep character-building systems have often been replicated, but it’s hard to top one of the best RPG developers ever working at the top of their game.
10. Dark Souls
It’s always a little controversial to label Dark Souls as an RPG, but the two things that this game does better than most in terms of classic RPG genre conventions are class distinction and character building.
To survive in the world of Dark Souls, you have to understand your character and your own abilities in a way that goes beyond knowing which button to hit. The bond you form with your character by the time that you finish Dark Souls is something that the best RPGs strive for but rarely achieve. You truly feel like you have become your in-game persona and belong in this game’s wonderful yet horrifying world.
9. Pokémon Red and Blue
In case you’re wondering, this spot nearly went to Pokémon Gold and Silver based on quality alone. Ultimately, though, the cultural impact of Red and Blue was too great to ignore.
There’s a very good chance Pokémon was the first RPG that many people lost themselves in, which is all the more impressive when you consider that it’s a shockingly deep RPG in its own right rather than a simple “introduction” to the genre. Adventures are supposed to feel magical rather than cumbersome, and few RPG adventures are as consistently magical as this one.
8. The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
Look, I know Skyrim is the blockbuster best-seller, and I’ve even argued that Oblivion is the best Elder Scrolls game ever, but much like Pokemon Red and Blue, it’s hard to argue against the impact of Morrowind and how it forever changed our expectations for the scope of an RPG.
Morrowind‘s status as one of the first modern open-world RPGs (at least based on how we use usually that term today) is impressive enough, but what’s so shocking about this game is that few RPGs that followed in its footsteps have come close to topping Morrowind‘s visual creativity and lore. It’s so easy to forgive so many of the ways that Morrowind hasn’t aged especially well once you’ve fallen down the shockingly deep rabbit hole of its character-building possibilities and world-building.
7. Fallout: New Vegas
The debate over the best Fallout game will go on, but for the moment, let’s put down our swords and talk about all of the things that make Fallout: New Vegas so unbelievably brilliant.
Rarely have we ever seen an “open-world” RPG that puts this much attention into its side quests, out-of-the-way locales, and minor characters. Most open-world games try to sell you on the idea that you can go anywhere and do anything, but Fallout: New Vegas is one of the few that will encourage even the most focused gamers to see it all. More importantly, it manages to offer a variety of potential paths forward that only reveal themselves based on how you navigate its complex web of choices. It’s the kind of game that makes you want to stand up and take a bow.
6. Mass Effect 2
There are some who will say that Mass Effect’s core promise of a galaxy that’s fate will be impacted by most of your choices was always too ambitious. There are others who will argue, “It wasn’t. Just look at Mass Effect 2.”
Mass Effect 2 is arguably the closest BioWare came to realizing their most ambitious design ideas. Despite working with (often against) a scope that would make most studios weep in the corner, BioWare packed this sequel with a legion of memorable characters with their own complicated arcs that slowly reveal themselves as you brazenly explore a galaxy that feels ready to open up or crumble at your feet at any time. Mass Effect 2 does all of that and still manages to be a blast to play throughout.
5. The Witcher 3
The first two Witcher games are incredible, but if you find that most people don’t seem to be able to put The Witcher 3’s impact into words, that’s probably because even the first two games couldn’t quite prepare them for this masterpiece.
The Witcher 3 has side stories that would be worthy of campaigns in lesser games. I honestly still can’t quite explain how this game remains so fresh and exciting even after dozens of hours of play. Many of us grew up dreaming of being thrown in an elaborate medieval fantasy world where we truly felt like the hero that could shape the fortunes of all, and The Witcher 3 might just be the ultimate piece of sword and sorcery fantasy wish fulfillment.
4. Final Fantasy 6
Look, I could sit here all day and talk about the virtues of Final Fantasy 6 or even how its best moments are still capable of reducing gamers to tears. I could tell you about the heroes, the villains, the plot beats, and all the other things that make this game the classic that few will debate that it is.
Instead, I want to talk about how Final Fantasy 6 changed how so many of us look at gaming. This title’s prestigious nature was so prominent that it almost feels like developer Squaresoft traveled into the future and brought something back with them. This was the kind of game you begged people to play and it was the kind of game that made you pledge your allegiance to the very concept of gaming.
3. Diablo 2
In an earlier article, I talked about how Diablo turned RPGs into an addiction. Somehow, that brilliant game managed to retain all the deep qualities of the greatest D&D adventures and wrap them around a simplified combat system that had many of us playing until the wee hours of the morning completely unaware of what was happening in our own world.
Well, Diablo 2 did all of that and made the whole thing so much better that you rarely even hear people talk about the original Diablo anymore. If the highlight of an RPG is that moment when you so completely lose yourself in its world that the troubles of your own existence leave your mind, Diablo 2 arguably reaches that point faster than almost any other RPG ever made.
2. World of Warcraft
I often wonder how I would explain to a child of the ‘80s or early ‘90s that a game like WoW exists. I suppose I’d just say “See, there’s this persistent world filled with wonders that you and your friends can spend thousands of hours exploring as you work together to defeat overwhelming threats and write your own adventures.” They’d probably understand the appeal of that idea but may not be able to comprehend how such a thing could be possible.
WoW may require one hell of a commitment to get the most out of it, and the game has had some ups and downs over the years, but the fact of the matter is that there is really no other RPG that can offer what the best moments in WoW history have to offer. It’s a truly magical experience that you’ll willingly sacrifice your free time to for the simple fact that it offers experiences you could only previously dream of.
1. Chrono Trigger
Maybe this is an oddly appropriate statement for a game about time travel, but I’m fairly certain that Chrono Trigger will forever remain a timeless masterpiece.
Chrono Trigger is an almost flawless game that not only combines so many of the things that we love about RPGs but arguably perfects them. Assembled by a dream team of some of the best JRPG creators ever, Chrono Trigger makes even the most seemingly mundane elements of its adventure feel absolutely joyful. When this game wants to go big, though, it does it in a way that few other games could ever dream of topping. Here’s a game with over 10 endings and a multi-layered time travel plot that moves with the effortless pace of a game of Tetris.
Chrono Trigger is simply one of the best examples of curated RPG design that has ever or will ever be crafted.