There was, I would argue, no genre-defining role-playing game this year, but there were still a hell of a lot of good ones. So many, in fact, that I had a hard time keeping this list from ballooning even larger than it already is. I tried my best, and even knocked off some of my personal favorites. If you were wondering whether the chart-topping Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl made the cut, for example, the answer is it did not.
But many, many did. Sixteen to be exact. Over a quarter of those are remakes, remasters, or expanded editions, which is absolutely wild but, well, you came for a list of the best RPGs of 2021 and so of course it includes the best game of 2019, Disco Elysium. Such are the times we live in. Times that include tons of re-releases, but some really delightful ones, as well as stunningly original debuts. It was a good year to be an RPG fan, as they say.
They finally did it. They put Monster Hunter on Switch and made it the best one, mostly thanks to the Wirebug. Rise has them. Other Monster Hunters don’t. The action looter was already a pretty fantasy game with deep, meaty RPG systems to sink your teeth into. Now it also has grapple hooks and they rock. The only thing holding Rise back is the Switch’s rapidly aging specs.
It turns out you can keep remaking Final Fantasy I as often as you like as long as you add enough new twists to keep newcomers and old-heads alike invested. With Bravely Default II, Claytech Works brought the classic JRPG formula to its biggest platforms yet with the Nintendo Switch and PC and did so with ingenuity and aplomb. There’s plenty to nitpick, but Bravely Default II has some of the most creative character classes I’ve ever seen in a Final Fantasy-adjacent game, with good enough environments and music to keep you grinding along while half-listening to the latest hit show on Netflix.
ZA/UM’s carefully crafted journey through a politically charged retro dystopia was exceptional when it came out two years ago. It’s even better now thanks to a new location and morality quests and full voice acting. It’s also on consoles, including Switch. No other game in recent memory has so elegantly upended expectations around the “role-play” part of RPGs. It ditches the usual power fantasies and optimized decision making in favor of uncovering character motivations and anxieties. That’s on top of a fascinating world that gives you the mechanics necessary to extract meaning from it.
The long-awaited remaster trilogy almost feels like cheating. It includes not just one amazing sci-fi RPG, but two and a half. BioWare made a lot of changes, some less welcome than others, but even if the Legendary Edition is a flawed set of remasters, the source material remains as strong as ever. There’s still nothing quite like being a space detective in a galaxy on the brink of inter-species genocide, even if the nearly 100-hour epic ultimately ends in the gaming equivalent of, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Bandai Namco’s surprisingly good action-RPG creates an entirely new world rich with political intrigue and character drama. A futuristic society develops super powers just in time to combat an army of new fungus zombies from the heavens. What Scarlet Nexus lacks in dungeon-design or side-quest variety it makes up for with powerful abilities that make combat tense and fun. The story even has a few twists along the way that make it well worth sticking through its occasional tedium.
How do you make an already stunning game that dodged almost every pitfall on the road to success and make it even better? Add another five-hour expansion that stars new characters but is every bit as consequential and necessary as the base game. Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade’s music is wonderful, new scenes are every bit as theatrical as what came before, and Square Enix pulled another rabbit out of its hat by making the previously optional ninja ally Yuffie into a Final Fantasy A-lister. Every PS5 owner, RPG fan or not, should have Intergrade installed.
For a quasi-remake of an 11-year old game, Nier Replicant does not feel modern. It sticks to the brutally slow pacing that made the original a cult-classic. But it does look crisp and provide a nice tune-up before getting out of the way of itself. That way, can slog through its grim, sad tale of loss and destruction fully immersed in Yoko Taro’s signature weird magic and see what it is that helps elevate it into something truly special.
Here’s a game that may look familiar but which you definitely haven’t played before. Dreams Uncorporated and SYCK’s time magic indie RPG wraps inventive turn-based combat in a gorgeous, hand-drawn art-style that pops like Silver Age Disney. Cris Tales not only lets you explore towns and solve side-quests by examining the NPC ghosts of past, present, and future, it lets you leverage the same mechanics to outmaneuver bosses in battle. There’s depth, but not so much you’ll drown.
The Ascent’s alien cyberpunk planet is super dense and aggressively busy. What makes this action RPG special isn’t the guns you find, or the character sheets you tweak after every level up, but the meticulously detailed corridors you trudge down from one hyper-violent shootout to another. Every individual part of this game is a mixed-bag, but they accumulate into a satisfyingly oppressive experience that will make you feel in your bones the hopelessness of an entire planet unravelling into chaos and its inability to hit the eject button.
Owlcat Games’ newest is dense, but in a different way. Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is just a massive table-top inspired CRPG spectacle. Somehow both more focused than its predecessor, but also more jam-packed with possibilities, there’s no shortage of things to tinker with in Wrath of the Righteous, from party builds to entire armies. Fortunately, turn-based combat means you can mess around at your own pace. If you want an epic, 100-hour RPG to last the whole winter while never running out of new tricks, look no further.
Tales games inevitably come with caveats, and this one is no different, but Tales of Arise still manages to deliver a succinct and varied adventure propelled by a story about class warfare and liberation. It’s biggest swings don’t always connect, but fun real-time combat, strong characters, and a beautiful, colorful world full of diverse biomes. Few modern JRPGs have managed to make tradition feel fresh the way Arise has.
Wildermyth uses procedural generation to open up the Dungeons & Dragons-style table-top campaign and project it across an entire lifetime. Characters grow up. Some have kids. Eventually they die. Surprising, interesting, and occasionally moving things happen along the way. Every strategy RPG should be lucky to have decent tactical battles accompanied by the depth of the human experience reshuffled as many times and in as many ways as you like.
It’s fucking Diablo II. With Resurrected, Vicarious Visions managed the difficult task of modernizing the stuff of legend while changing as little as possible.
This one came out of nowhere. One day we were all going about our lives as usual. The next Square Enix released a stripped-down dungeon crawler that turned out to be one of the most thoughtfully balanced and intriguing turn-based RPGs in years. When people sigh with exhaustion “they don’t make em like this anymore,” Dungeon Encounters is what they’re talking about. It contains no more or less than it needs while the math behind its combat and exploration slowly builds from a lullaby to a marching band. What else would you expect from veteran designer and Final Fantasy IX director, Hiroyuki Ito.
Gloomhaven is another masterful table-top adaptation that requires no prior knowledge to love. You control a band of mercenaries as they fight off hordes of undead and plunder dungeons with card-based mechanics. It’s crunchy, like a great big bowl of Grape Nuts, and takes a similar getting used to, but once you understand the basics of everything happening with its cards, tokens, and tactical combat, each bite begins to taste sweeter than the last.
No, it’s not as good as Persona 5, but Shin Megami Tensei V is still a rewardingly hellish alternative to Pokémon where you trade witty barbs with demons and fight for the throne of God. The Switch JRPG nails the modern SMT formula while adding some interesting new wrinkles to demon raising. Spanning two Tokyos, one contemporary and one post-apocalyptic, SMTV takes flight after a tedious opening and transforms into a nuanced meditation on truth and justice.
A few years ago, Riot Games announced all sorts of League of Legends spin-offs. I didn’t expect any of them to be as good as Airship Syndicate’s Ruined King. What it lacks in organic world building it makes up for with beautiful art, quality voice acting, and a truly bonkers turn-based combat system that draws inspiration from the MOBA genre without succumbing to its worst excesses.
A long list, like I said, and yet still not long enough to include a number of other strong contenders. Honorable mentions go to Get In The Car, Loser!, Actraiser Renaissance, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings Of Ruin, Deltarune: Chapter 2, and Eastward. Even without any clear favorites that were head-and-shoulders above the rest, 2021 was an incredibly strong year for RPGs. Hopefully 2022 is even stronger.