The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Many RPGs focus on tales of lone, wandering adventurers, but few if any pull it off it with such artistry as The Witcher 3. That artistry is most apparent in the setting itself, which is so packed with breathtaking sunsets and wind-tossed groves of trees that, months later, I still find myself opting to go to destinations on foot rather than taking the fast travel points.
But the true strength of The Witcher 3 is that it populates these memorable landscapes with NPCs doling out humble but memorable quests (by the dozen) that help create one of the most human RPG experiences on the market. In decaying wayside towns, the witcher Geralt might find impoverished elves struggling in the face of local racism; elsewhere, he might help a self-styled baron reunite with his long-estranged daughter. These quests deftly navigate moral issues without being heavy-handed or offering obvious solutions
Through it all, much as in The Witcher 2, Geralt usually plays the role of just another character on this troubled world's stage. In the process, this tale of monster slaying and inter-dimensional raiders becomes strangely and poignantly relatable.
Release date: 1998 | Developer: Black Isle Studios | GOG
The original Fallout was a huge success for Interplay, but it’s not as big of a world as you’d expect. The sequel expands that world considerably, and adds more moral ambiguity to a game where right and wrong are already hard to tell apart. Playing as a tribal villager instead of a native Vault dweller gives you a different world perspective—you’re not as naive to the world and its dangers, which makes it all the darker when you start twisting people’s expectations and motivations.
The search for the Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK) fits the warped 1950s feel of the wasteland more than the macguffin of a water chip in the first game. And it’s nice to not have such a time limit hanging over your head: you can take your time and get to know the people of the wastes, instead of rushing to an abandoned vault. If you’ve never played the classic series, we recommend you start here, and then the original.
Baldur’s Gate 2
Release date: 2000 | Developer: BioWare | GOG (Enhanced Edition)
One problem with AD&D is that low-level characters are pretty boring. Baldur’s Gate 2 solves that problem by letting you carry over your party from the first game, or start fresh with level 7 characters. It makes a huge difference: instead of wimpy fighters and frail wizards, you get powerful, useful spells and warriors that can take a punch.
It also helps that the scope of Amn is enormous, with more quests and content than most other comparable RPGs. BioWare’s Infinity Engine handles the quests and the combat perfectly, highlighting the game’s focus on strategy and tactics in combat. It’s hard to imagine controlling a six-person party without pausing and giving orders, and any newer game that relies on real-time decisions makes us long for the Infinity Engine.
Yes, this is where RPG romances come from, but the courtships never feel contrived here, and BG2 still has some of the most memorable companions of any game. If for some reason you’ve never played a table-top RPG, Baldur’s Gate 2 captures the sword-and-sorcery experience almost perfectly. If you have the original version, you can easily mod it to run at modern resolutions, or you can try the Extended Edition that also includes new content.
Release date: 1999 | Developer: Black Isle Studios | GOG
There is no other story in gaming like the Nameless One’s. His is a tale of redemption in the face of countless sins, a tale of not knowing who you are until you become the person you’re trying to be. The tattoos the Nameless One wears are marks to remind him of who he is, who he was, and who he wants to be.
That open-endedness is central to what makes Planescape: Torment so captivating. At a literal level, you spend the game trying to discover who the Nameless One is, but your actions also help to define him. It’s one of many RPG tropes that Black Isle sought to subvert—others include the fact that rats are actually worthy foes, humans are often worse than undead, and you don’t have to fight in most cases. Most importantly, that your goal is not to save the world, as in countless other RPGs. You simply need to figure out who you are.
The Nameless One’s companions are some of the best written, most enjoyable NPCs ever coded. Most have been affected by your past incarnations: pyromaniac mage Ignus was once your apprentice, though it’s more impressive that he’s constantly on fire. Or Dak'kon, who swore an oath of loyalty to you, even though you’re not sure why. Others are just interesting, well-rounded characters: Fall-From-Grace is a succubus cleric who prays to no god and, though a creature of evil, wants to do no harm. The best is Morte, a floating skull whose sarcastic wit is sharper than his bite attacks (skulls can’t equip swords, of course).
These characters would be odd in any normal high fantasy world, but Torment uses the Planescape AD&D campaign setting, the strangest world TSR ever designed. And so it’s fitting that Torment is light on conflict and heavy on story—though when combat does erupt, BioWare’s Infinity Engine handles as well as in the Baldur’s Gate series. This is the one role-playing game we’d recommend to anyone interested in the genre, a game that best represents what we love about RPGs.