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Despite throwing a vast majority of our money at Kickstarter pledging, we did manage to scratch together enough coin to pick up many of the RPG releases this year. Here are our picks for the best of the best:
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (Winner)
At the core of any good RPG is a good character system, and we felt hat was a strength with this year's title from 38 Studios, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Featuring a classless system that allowed you to either specialize in one role or combine them in interesting ways, it also granted special bonuses based on your skill selections by way of its "Destiny" mechanic.
Even more surprisingly was how it blended in its action-based character growth with non-combat options, all of which were useful. Alchemy, Blacksmithing, Lockpicking, Persuasion, and so on were all valid choices for every character class, and often opened new dialogue or quest options. For a game whose selling point was its combat, Amalur had a surprising amount of depth outside of it.
Dragon's Dogma (Runner-up)
Dragon's Dogma, Capcom's party-based attempt to penetrate the open-world action-RPG market, which ironically ended up being more successful in Japan than in the rest of the world, is certainly a rich game in terms of character progression options. With nine vocations (the game's term for classes), each with its own stats progression and a number of active and passive abilities to mix and match, the game offers many creative ways to kill the larger-than-life monsters inhabiting its world. Had there been more of a focus on non-combat progression and ways to interact with the world outside of violence, we might not be handing out a runner-up entry.
And while it's true that the advancement options in Dragon's Dogma wouldn't have made the cut during years prior, playing with the various options offered by the game, from the solo-focused Assassin to the frail but powerful Wizard, is undeniably fun. With an expanded re-release slated for this April, which promises to offer even more abilities and new critters to try them on, here's to hoping that they will flesh the game out far enough to be considered for 2013's Game of the Year list, too.
While this long-in-development "neoclassical" RPG didn't wow us in every respect, what is undeniably a strong point of it is its unique setting and story. Inquisitor is grounded in the literal Dark Ages, but blends it with a dose of devilish magic. Conspiracy and paranoia are at the heart of its plot, and investigation into the most established hierarchies of the land is driven by lengthy, lore-filled dialogues that we just don't see a lot of these days.
It takes a bold developer to build a game around real-world events and institutions, and it's surprising, after seeing how well they pulled it off, that it doesn't happen more often. Inquisitor is a throwback to days where discovering and learning about a world was at the forefront of the RPG experience.
Guild Wars 2 (Runner-up)
While we normally don't rank MMOs as among the genre's best games when it comes to storytelling, Guild Wars 2 defied the standard. While its world isn't the most unique out there, and its "kill the dragon" story won't turn heads for its originality, what makes it stand out is how it manages to weave the details of your character into a lengthy, personalized story that responds to your choices in character creation and during quests.
In a single-player game it'd be impressive, but in an MMO it's nearly unheard of. We found ourselves more engaged by Guild Wars 2's quests than many games which are far more story-driven. Combine that with sharp, well-acted dialogue and the result is an MMO experience that even staunch single-player RPG fans can enjoy.
Darksiders II (Winner)
Vigil Games made its mark a few years back with the original Darksiders, an action-RPG that took a page from the Legend of Zelda games. Darksiders II is an evolution of that format complete with more RPG elements, but what really made it stand out was its incredible visual direction. An epic, adventurous game depends upon similar graphics to achieve its full effect, and Vigil Games did not disappoint.
Though it may not be the most technically sophisticated game out there, the sheer hand-chiseled artistry and attention to detail in every facet of its world is impressive by any standard, and stunning set pieces (like climbing a gigantic floating fortress carried by two flying serpents) elevate it beyond the mundane. Many games are able to look good, but few are able to awe us.
Mass Effect 3 (Runner-up)
Mass Effect 3 has the benefit of being the third in its series and having a huge development budget, not to mention some of the best technology in the games industry behind it, but the results speak for themselves. The sci-fi world of Mass Effect has never been more vibrant and alive, with both stunning vistas and attention to small details.
Characters in Mass Effect 3 continue to be a strong suit of BioWare's, and combined with quality cinematography, the Canadian developers did a great job of selling their "galactic apocalypse" scenario in a way that didn't lose the human elements. Even if the story didn't do it for you this time around, it's hard to deny how stylishly it's presented.
Mass Effect 3 (Winner)
If BioWare often gets one thing right, it's sound and music. Featuring a fantastic soundtrack that blends electronic elements with more traditional orchestral ones, Mass Effect 3's score underpins the action of the story excellently, whether it's frantic action or emotion and subtlety that's on the agenda.
Of course, the voice performances in Mass Effect 3 also need no introduction. With top talent all around and the actors fully comfortable in their roles, few other RPGs convinced us of their characters as much as Mass Effect 3 did.
Darksiders II (Runner-up)
Creating the soundtrack to a wide variety of diverse worlds is a challenge, and Vigil Games pulled it off with Darksiders II. While its orchestral arrangements don't necessarily do anything out of the ordinary, its infectious melodies and themes run the gamut from beautiful to eerie and atmospheric.
Solid voice acting and effects work are just as crucial for invoking those same worlds, and Darksiders II managed to give its worlds-spanning adventure a sense of personality. Each distinct location in the game is communicated uniquely by varied and fitting sound effects, and the characters in each are plenty convincing.
Dungeons & Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark (Winner)
There have only been a handful of CRPGs that have afforded us the ability to experience Dungeons & Dragons' hard-to-achieve epic level content, and none of them have certainly ever pitted us against the goddess of chaos, Lolth. That changed in 2012, however, when Turbine brought us the ambitious Menace of the Underdark expansion pack for Dungeons & Dragons Online. Packed with a new epic destiny system, the new druid class, a variety of new environments, iconic monsters, god-like items (literally), and a bridge between Eberron and the Forgotten Realms, it was by far our favorite add-on of the year.
To sweeten the deal, MotD has opened the door for Turbine to continue moving further into Forgotten Realms and epic level territory. They've already released two significant updates since the expansion pack made its debut, and we're very much looking forward to what else is in store for us in 2013.
No Pick (Runner-up)
We realize that bite-sized, overpriced, downloadable content is not going away in this video game generation and likely many more to come. But after playing through an expansion pack like Menace of the Underdark and then turning our scrutiny toward the add-on competition, we just didn't feel like any of the various DLCs for Dark Souls, Mass Effect 3, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim were deserving of our runner-up award given their entertainment value and price point vs. content. So, for 2012 anyway, we'll be stashing our award away in an attic somewhere for safe keeping.
Was there any doubt that inXile's follow-up to one of the most influential RPGs of all time wouldn't take this spot? Wasteland 2 had one of the most popular Kickstarter campaigns in gaming, and frequent updates showing the game's progress and features have been leaking out since then.
There are some wild cards still out there, of course. Will a move to more modern technology and gameplay conventions change the classic RPG gameplay for the worse? Will inXile be able to deliver a sequel that retains the original game's distinct sense of humor and style? Will it even make its projected 2013 release date? While we may not yet know if it will truly manage to live up to its predecessor's legacy (or that of its spiritual successor, Fallout), we know there's no other RPG this year that we want to see or play more.
Legend of Grimrock (Winner)
Almost Human, a small studio full of Finnish game veterans, surprised us early this year with Legend of Grimrock, a title that's just about as old-school as it gets these days. Its grid-based dungeon-crawling, survival-oriented gameplay, and heavy emphasis on solving devious puzzles recalled the best of classics like Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder, but updated them with gorgeous modern-day visuals and extremely atmospheric sound design.
There was no other indie RPG this year that got us as excited as Legend of Grimrock did. What's more, it's proof that indie developers are clearly capable of producing very polished games that rival those of triple-A developers, and also that while genres may fall out of fashion, good gameplay will always keep people coming back.
Drox Operative (Runner-up)
Soldak Entertainment has been putting out Diablo-inspired titles for a while now, and playing with random factors has become their modus operandi. Drox Operative, their latest game, combines randomly-generated hack-and-slash gameplay with 4X strategy, placing you in the thick of an interstellar ecosystem. It's unlike anything else we've ever seen, to put it plainly.
While we'd like to have seen a bit more variety in the random elements, and more specific objectives and scenarios to interact with, those are ultimately fairly small complaints for what is a very entertaining and original title. With high replay value, addictive gameplay mechanics and some great music, Drox Operative is one of the more creative RPGs we've seen in quite some time, and we would expect no less from independent developers.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Winner)
Firaxis are no strangers to making strategy games, and many older gamers are doubtlessly familiar with X-COM, one of the genre's greats. For their reimagining of XCOM, Firaxis combined the classic tactical combat and strategic resource management and base-building with RPG-style leveling and ability upgrades for your squad.
There were few games this year that were as addictive as XCOM, and it featured that trademark "one more turn!" gameplay Firaxis is known for in full effect. What's more, it had deeper and more engaging combat than just about any other RPG this year, and this is despite it being a turn-based title, something the games press and publishers were bent on telling everyone was "out of date" for many years. If this is how the XCOM franchise is going to proceed from here on out, we certainly can't complain.
Arkane Studios have a lot of RPG pedigree thanks to their previous titles, Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. Dishonored sees them joining with Deus Ex designer Harvey Smith to make an RPG-shooter hybrid set in an industrial steampunk world. It's an ambitious game, but that ambition is expected when you call Deus Ex, Thief, and System Shock 2 your biggest influences.
While Dishonored is lighter on the distinct RPG mechanics than we'd often prefer, it captures the spirit of RPG gameplay - choice in solving solutions and open-ended systems-driven gameplay - with style and expertise. The consequences of your actions, whether in the end-game scenarios or in the smallest details in the environment, are also very well realized compared to other titles we played this year.
Legend of Grimrock (Winner)
It's perhaps telling that of all this year's titles, it was an indie developer who managed to put out an RPG that stayed with us the longest. Legend of Grimrock recalls that hardcore, minimalist gameplay that many older titles excelled at, and reminds us that modern computer RPGs still owe a lot to tabletop gaming.
What's more, with mod tools available and an active community, the game is bound to live on for years to come, offering a style of gameplay that we had thought died out long ago. We can't wait to see what Almost Human have planned next, particularly since the teaser screenshots we've seen look just as old-school as Grimrock is.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (Runner-up)
While not the most traditional RPG experience, Kingdoms of Amalur managed to blend a great character system, fast-paced action-oriented combat, and a massive world together into one entertaining title. Interesting quests with multiple resolutions, lore and story penned by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, tons of gigantic locations to explore, randomly-generated loot, a deep crafting system, well-designed character progression, and more all added up to make it a stand-out experience.
While 38 Studios and Big Huge Games have since closed their doors, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning showed more promise than just about any other project by a large studio and publisher this year. For that, and more, we think the game deserves recognition as one of 2012's best RPGs.