Neverwinter Nights 2
Release date: 2003 |Developer: Obsidian Entertainment | GOG
We loved BioWare's original Neverwinter Nights from 2002 (and especially its expansions), but as a single-player experience, Neverwinter Nights 2 was in a class all of its own. Whereas the original had a fairly weak main campaign that mainly seemed aimed at showing what the DM kit was capable of, Obsidian Entertainment managed to equal and arguably outdo BioWare's storytelling prowess in the sequel when it took over the helm.
The whole affair brimmed with humor, and companions such as the raucous dwarf Khelgar Ironfist still have few rivals in personality nine years later. And the quality just kept coming. Shades of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past reveal themselves in the masterful Shadow of the Betrayer expansion's focus on two halves of the same world, but Obsidian skillfully uses that familiar framework to deliver an unforgettable commentary on religion.
Few games are as staunchly open-world—and unforgiving—as Gothic 2. The first time we played it, we left town in the wrong direction and immediately met monsters many levels higher than us, and died horribly. Lesson learned.
It sounds like Gothic 2 is too punishing, but we love the way it forces us to learn our way through its world. Enemies don’t scale with your level, as they do in the Elder Scrolls series, and you’ll have to pay close attention to quest text and NPCs to find your path. Once you do—and overcome the awkward controls—there’s a huge, sprawling RPG at your fingertips, and while you may have felt weak and powerless at the beginning, you’ll be a true badass by the end.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Pick a direction and run. You’re almost guaranteed to discover some small adventure, some small chunk of world that will engage you. It’s that content density that makes Skyrim constantly rewarding. A visit to the Mage’s Guild will turn into an area-spanning search for knowledge. A random chat with an NPC will lead you to a far-off dungeon, searching for a legendary relic. You could be picking berries on the side of a mountain and discover a dragon. Oops, accidental dragon fight.
And if you somehow exhaust all of Bethesda’s content, rest assured that modders have more waiting for you in Steam Workshop—that lively community has kept Skyrim in the Steam top 100 since its release, and given us endless ways to adventure through a great world. Some on the PC Gamer team keep a modded-up Skyrim install handy, just in case they feel like adventure. That’s some high praise.
Pillars of Eternity
There's very little about Pillars of Eternity that's actually innovative; in fact, its whole Kickstarter-funded existence is based on appealing to the nostalgia for aging Infinity Engine CRPGs like Baldur's Gate II. That usually matters little, though, since Pillars of Eternity pulls it off so damned well.
The graphics lean a little too heavily on the 1990s, but the writing itself is masterful. Obsidian Entertainment uses it to weave a wonderful (if bleak and usually humorless) narrative that brilliantly touches on everything from religious conflicts to social struggles. It doesn't hurt that Obsidian infused almost every step of the world with its own story and smidge of lore, and a new patch introduced hours of additional voice work that make the experience even more enjoyable.
It's also brutally difficult in parts, and even its easier modes demand a dance of pausing and barking out orders to multiple party members that many contemporary RPGs shy from. That's not such a bad thing, though, as Pillars of Eternity is a stark testament that such unforgiving designs still have widespread appeal in this age of accessibility.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Release date: 1992 | Developer: Blue Sky Productions (aka Looking Glass Studios) | GOG
Designer Paul Neurath originally conceived of a dungeon simulator that would turn traditional role-playing conventions on their head. Called Underworld, he and his team, the future Looking Glass Studios, built a game that rewarded real-world thinking to solve puzzles and please NPCs. Ultima developer Origin Systems was so impressed by the three-dimensional engine (you could look up and down!) and first-person combat that it bought the rights to the game, and suddenly the Avatar was trapped in the Stygian Abyss instead of some faceless schmuck.
Characters that are normally enemies are friends in Underworld, and we love that you may not be able to tell. Attacking a goblin might be a bad move, because he’s just as likely to be your friend. The first time we popped popcorn with a campfire and an ear of corn, we knew we weren’t in any old dungeon crawler. Underworld was a technological marvel in 1992, but while the graphics are dated, the feeling of exploring the Stygian Abyss is just as exciting today.
Divinity: Original Sin
Divinity was a Kickstarter success story that still somehow took us by surprise. Unlike most RPGs, it’s designed with co-op in mind—you even control two protagonists in the single-player version, roleplaying different motivations through conversations. Larian designed encounters thinking that someone could always disagree, or ruin things for you, or even kill the NPC you need to talk to—meaning that quests have to be solvable in unorthodox ways.
The writing in Divinity is consistently top-notch. Sure, sometimes you’ll have to destroy a goblin riding a giant mechanical robot, or talk to a dog to solve a quest. But that dog may have a heartbreaking story for you, and maybe you’ll cry just a little bit like we did. Larian commits to Divinity’s world, and that commitment pays off. This is the kind of freeform, epic, party-based RPG we haven’t had since the days of Ultima, and it’s exactly what we love from an RPG.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2
While BioWare’s first KOTOR is a Star Wars classic, KOTOR 2 takes the franchise in a bolder direction. Instead of focusing on the Light or Dark sides of the Force, the Jedi Exile of Obsidian’s sequel deals in shades of gray. Alliances are made, then broken, then remade in the aftermath. Choices you think are good just turn out to betray other characters. The end result is possibly the most nuanced take on The Force in the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe, and definitely its most complex villains.
Like many Obsidian early games, KOTOR 2’s truncated development meant that whole areas had to be cut out. A fan-made mod restores much of that content, including a droid planet, and fixes lots of outstanding bugs, showing yet again that PC gamers will work hard to maintain their favorite games.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
It’s all about atmosphere—from the goth clubs where you meet contacts, to the back alleys where you scavenge for rat blood, to the haunted Ocean House Hotel (one of the best quests in the game). Bloodlines’ ambitious use of White Wolf’s Vampire universe means it looks and feels different from the other sword and sorcery games on this list.
Unfortunately, that signature Troika ambition also means lots of bugs and some mechanics that just don’t mesh well. The endgame includes some particularly sloggy dungeons, but no other game truly drops you into a Vampire world. This is truly a cult classic of an RPG, and the fanbase has been patching and improving the game ever since release.
Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls
Release date: 2014 | Developer: Blizzard | Battle.net
Let’s face it: the real-money auction house was a bad idea, one of a few in the original Diablo 3 release. Blizzard nixed the cash auctions right before Reaper of Souls’ release, but it’s the addition of Adventure Mode that turned the game around from disappointing sequel to crowning achievement for the series. Instead of rehashing the game’s acts, Adventure Mode’s task-based milestones and randomized areas make the game feel fresh for much longer. It’s a standout mode, and it’d be hard to imagine playing Diablo 3 any other way.
But RoS added another feature that changes the way we love our action RPGs: guild support. Having friends to talk to as you grind through a dungeon, even if they’re not with you, makes the game far less lonesome, and it’s that kind of small touch that justifies Blizzard’s always-online philosophy. Adding all this to the already-tremendous feeling of wiping out hordes of baddies with a well-timed ability change, RoS is the defining action RPG for us. It’s a game we’ll be playing for a long, long time.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Release date: 2001 |Developer: Troika Games | GOG
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura was astoundingly buggy when it came out, and many of its battles were as laughably imbalanced as its title. Patches and mods have alleviated some of that pain over the years, but even then they weren't powerful enough to hide what a great mix of fantasy and steampunkery thrived under its surface. As we said in our enthusiastic review in 2001, "If you can’t find something to love about this game, dump your computer in the garbage right now."
That assessment holds up. Arcanum was dark 'n' gritty before some such tendencies became all the rage, and its character creator allowed players to create everything from gnome gamblers who brandish self-explanatory Tesla-guns to outcast orcs lugging along rusty maces. Toss in non-linear progression and multiple solutions for quests, and you've got a winner that holds up 14 years later.