While the jury may still be out on our Game of the Year, we've already rolled the dice on the Best Role-Playing Games of 2009.
Why are we doing a best Role-Playing Game award and not a Best Shooter, Best Driving Game, etc.? Because this is an Editor's Choice category, ladies and gentlemen, and role-playing is my genre of choice. When my writing is done for the day and I'm in-between reviews, I spend my free time increasing stats, gaining experience points, and managing my skills in strange worlds where the fate of everything rests on my shoulders.
It wasn't easy, narrowing down the RPGs I've played in 2009 down to three runners-up and one winner, mainly because I can squeeze a great deal of enjoyment out of the worst the genre has to offer. It's like judging your own children. You know they have flaws but you overlook them, because flaws and all, they're a part of you. Once I forced myself to look at them with a more critical eye, however, the overall best floated to the top rapidly.
Demon's Souls (PS3)
Demon's Souls is a contender for Game of the Year, yet it doesn't make Role-Playing Game of the Year? How can this be? Demon's Souls is an amazing game, no doubt. It's challenging to the point of being punishing, and the tension generated by knowing death lurks around every corner is almost a tangible thing. It's a knot in your stomach that only fades with repeated play-throughs, and even then you'd be foolish to let your guard down too much.
And honestly, that's why it's only a runner-up. It's fantastic experience, but a bit too tense.
Ar Tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica (PS2)
With so many RPG developers moving on to 3D, Japanese developer GUST continues to do amazing things with 2D graphics on a system that's on its last legs. Ar Tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica isn't just about pretty sprites, however. It's an excellent example of the way GUST crafts its traditional, turn-based role-playing game systems. At the start, the game is a simple turn-based RPG affair, but then the developers begin to layer on new elements - Replakia, Girl Power, Dualstall, Synchronicity Chains - building up a complex system at a pace that makes it easy for the player to handle these new concepts.
The game also excels at creating compelling characters, allowing the player to "Dive" into the minds of his Reyvateil companions, exploring their subconscious and crafting new song magic in the process.
It's complex, entertaining, gorgeous, and just a bit racy. In short, it's exactly what I look for in a 2D Japanese RPG.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Nintendo DS)
The Shin Megami Tensei series made its explosive debut on the Nintendo DS in 2009, and it wasn't simply a rehash of other games in the series. Sure, the story had certain similarities, with demons invading Tokyo and a group of high school teens discovering a way to make pacts with the invaders, using their powers to survive in a city doomed to die. The story goes deep, and the characters are as entertaining as we've come to expect, but the gameplay is where Devil Survivor truly stands out. On one hand it's a tactical RPG, with characters being deployed on a field and positioned to attack. On the other hand, attacking with a character switches to a traditional turn-based RPG battle, with the character and up to two demon companions facing off against the enemy.
Between its unique battle system and the sheer amount of gameplay packed into the tiny cartridge, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a game no DS RPG fan should miss.
Winner: Dragon Age: Origins (PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
While my RPG tastes generally lean towards the more traditional Japanese turn-based affairs, BioWare has proven time and time again that a more action-oriented role-playing experience can captivate me just as readily as one in which I have to wait my turn to attack. From the moment you create your character, Dragon Age: Origins makes sure you realize that this is your story. Sure, the battle against the Blight and the political intrigue of Ferelden figure into the overall plot, but the story is all about how you handle these elements, rather than how you react to them.
The gameplay itself is excellent, with a multitude of options, skills, and equipment to bolster your party. Your companions are extraordinarily human, at least on the inside, with motivations and emotions that compel you to explore their stories further.
But in the end, it's all about you. You create your character. You make decisions that change the face of the game world. Dragon Age: Origins is all about the role you play, and that makes the game truly worthy of being called the Best Role-Playing Game of 2009.
Games that came close to making the cut include Borderlands, which was a bit too much of a shooter for my taste; Nostalgia for the Nintendo DS, which was technically lovely but somewhat bland; and Rune Factory: Frontier for the Wii, which upon closer inspection was one giant crafting simulation, but a very pretty one.
If your favorite game didn't make the cut, rest assured that I likely played and enjoyed it to some extent. Just not as large an extent as these other titles. Either way, I'm sure you'll let me know what I "missed" in the comments section. Do try to stay in character.