The 2019 RPG of the Year
In the dark cyberpunk future of 2019, everything is an RPG. Leveling systems and inventory management are a part of every game from NeoCab to Call of Duty. Devs attempt to weave powerful narratives into almost every single player experience. No game genre is harder to define than the RPG, so this list was particularly tough to compile.
The games below were chosen because their combination of story, setting, mechanics, and meaningful choice created memorable experience and pushed the genre forward as a whole. Some are spiritual successors while others are entirely new, borrowing mechanics from other genres - a reversal of the slow bleed of RPG leveling mechanics into everything. All of them are exciting additions to the most immersive genre in gaming.
If 2019 was the year that Bioware fell on its face with Anthem, French RPG dev Spiders caught the RPG torch with Greedfall. Monster Hunter World: Iceborne also deserves a mention given that its massive trove of content rivals the original game, which was itself an honorable mention in 2018.
Zanki Zero combined survival RPGs with JRPGs and first person dungeon crawls to build something very different from its predecessor Danganronpa. Kingdom Hearts 3 needs to be mentioned, but its incoherent story kept it off of the Runner Up list.
It isn’t every day that you see an RPG mashed up with genre conventions from fighting games, platformers, and metroidvanias. But that’s exactly what Indivisible does.
Exploration is handled like a 2D metroidvania while combat is handled with a combination of JRPG and fighting game mechanics. But you don’t necessarily have to engage with all of its mechanics: you can take potshots at enemies in 2D, and if you take them out, you still reap all the benefits.
But if you want to get into combo-oriented fights with an Active Time Battle system, you can do that too. And all of it is wrapped in a beautiful fantasy setting based on Southeast Asian mythology with a story that grapples with issues of colonialism. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. If I was naming the indie games of the year, this one might be the winner.
Runner-Up: The Outer Worlds
Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds felt like a warm hug from an old friend. TOW combines stellar (literally and figuratively) worldbuilding, great characters, and a solid narrative with familiar mechanics and shooter action.
Fans of Bethesda’s early Fallout installments will find a lot to enjoy here, which isn’t surprising considering that Obsidian was the studio behind the best-in-series Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian ditched that game’s bugs but kept its dark, smirking sense of humor.
It also shaved off a ton of its predecessor’s epic length. TOW is a digestible ~30 hours. As a busy adult in my late 30s, I agree with Polygon’s Cass Marshall - hundreds of hours of content “isn’t exciting. It’s a threat.”
Obsidian couldn’t copy Fallout’s VATS system (which was itself already looking aged in 2015’s Fallout 4) but they came up with the next best thing - Tactical Time Dilation (TTD). Your PC can slow time, making lining up headshots / limb shots easy. I wasn’t a fan at first, but this system grew on me, particularly when I realized that shotguns, for some reason, could send enemies soaring when fired during TTD. Weird / fun bugs aside, this was a cool feature as well as a great way to make the game more accessible to non-shooter fans.
Its leveling system encouraged you to spread your points early in the game, and heavily specialize later, which meant that everyone has access to most of the game’s content. Lockpicking, stealth, and conversational challenges were all available options in late game, even if you didn’t decide to specialize in them.
TOW’s writers must have seen the writing on the wall a few years ago. This game grapples with the consequences of out-of-control capitalism and wealth stratification, gives incrementalism a look and mutters “Nah.” TOW demands revolutionary politics and it doesn’t care who you need to shoot to make it happen.
There were a few things to criticize. The inventory system was a bit hard to manage. I wish there were more interesting intra-party dynamics and discussions. The late game was way too easy if you spec-ed around combat even a little. My player character was a charisma boy, but I was an absolute steamroller with a gun in my hand during the last third of the game. If you’re looking for a game with revolutionary design, TOW might not do it for you. It’s more spiritual successor than true innovator. All that being said, it’s still a great game, and a firm foundation upon which to build a long-lasting franchise.
Runner-Up: Fire Emblem: The Three Houses
If you do want to get threatened by a truly epic RPG, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the one. Gamecrate’s reviewer put 200 hours into FE:TH, which isn’t surprising considering that each playthrough only reveals a fraction of the content.
You have the ally yourself with a single house at the beginning of each playthrough, which determines your pathway through the game, thus hiding some of the game’s content from you. We don’t see this often in games. Even games centered around choice are loathe to hide parts of the game from you if you go through door A instead of door B. Fire Emblem’s devs have no such qualms. Given the way that RPGs have slimmed down this year, this is a move that stays loyal to the Fire Emblem brand while defying contemporary game design convention. And Nintendo is adding another narrative pathway via DLC in 2020.
I would throw FE:TH an honorable mention nod just for giving players a real reason for multiple playthroughs, but it also adds a deep relationship and dating game on top of its excellent battle simulator. And if one part of that equation interests you more, you can let the game’s AI handle the aspect you’re less interested in and personally micromanage the other. The class system is expanded and more customizable. You can play with or without permadeath. The version of FE:TH that you play will be a reflection of your desires and priorities.
While it did suffer from some presentation issues in terms of animation, the voice acting and lush art style make up for it. If you’re a Switch owner, this is a must-play.
Winner: Disco Elysium
This GOTY winner isn’t for everyone. Disco Elysium’s world is just similar enough to our real world to be disorienting. Its isometric POV might appeal to fans of old school RPG fans, but it has no combat system. Fights happen, but they’re always dealt with through dialogue trees. Speaking of dialogue trees, I hope you like reading. Disco Elysium, like its spiritual predecessor Planescape: Torment, is wordy as hell. Your skills (which include bizarre stuff like Electrochemistry, Shivers, Authority, and Inland Empire) talk to you. They’re voices in your head, party members you can never ditch. Your tie talks to you, urging you on to drug- and alcohol-laden excess.
If this all sounds intensely weird, it’s because it is. Yet familiar elements can be found throughout. Head writer Robert Kurvitz is a tabletop RPG fan and Disco Elysium reflects that. You resolve skill checks with two six-sided dice (or 2D6 if you were really cool in high school like me) and the game actually shows you the die faces. Dialogue trees work just like you’d expect them to, even if most of the characters in any given conversation are in your head. The game is sarcastic, irreverent, and funny as hell, in the same way that a table full of RPG gamers can be. This achievement is even more impressive when you consider that ZA/UM’s team is Estonian. Humor doesn’t often survive linguistic and cultural translation, but thrives in this game.
Your amnesiac, alcoholic cop character in Disco Elysium is a glorious disaster of a human being, destroyed by his broken heart and too many years on the job. The game world itself is a mirror of your character - a post-communist state whose revolution was crushed, now administered by a coalition of foreign nations. There’s not a lot of disco in Disco Elysium, but there are a hell of a lot of hangovers.
Planescape: Torment was my favorite game for almost twenty years, but Disco Elysium punts it off of its throne for doing everything PS:T did but better. ZA/UM doesn’t seem like they’re done by a longshot - Kurvitz promises an expansion, a sequel, a tabletop RPG setting, and an artistic manifesto. Hang onto your booze, amphetamines, and talking tie, it’s gonna be a wild ride!
Congratulations to Disco Elysium, winner of GameCrate's 2019 RPG of the Year Award!