We've never had much of a focus on JRPGs here at GameBanshee, but it would have been a real travesty had we overlooked Demon's Souls as just "more of the same". Gone are the storyline clichés, the stark, colorful graphics, and the teen-aged characters with big eyes and spiky hair. Demon's Souls is a real-time action RPG with new ideas, old school challenge, and enough Western inspiration to convince even the most anti-JRPG fan.
And while Boletaria might be a somewhat generic dark fantasy setting filled with monsters we've seen a million times before, the game excels where it matters most: gameplay. Rather than focusing on randomized loot-hording, Demon's Souls opts for some real depth. Hidden beneath the game's visuals is a hefty character progression system comprised of ten different character classes, several important attributes, and a nice variety of spells and unique equipment. There's also much to be said about the tactical nature of combat; given the game's brutal difficulty, your own skill in performing standard attacks, power attacks, parries, blocks, and backstabs, or keeping at range to fire a bow or spell, is as important as your character's level or the equipment they're using. Add to this the game's bizarre yet fascinating multiplayer component, and you have a recipe for success.
King's Bounty: Armored Princess (Runner-up)
Not so much sequel as version 1.5 of the original masterpiece King's Bounty: The Legend, in Armored Princess the game mechanics, interface, and character progression are tightened up to provide a richer, deeper turn-based strategy/RPG experience overall. The real-time nature of exploration, absolutely fantastic character, land, and creature animations in combination with Blizzard-like 2D graphic polish, and completely randomized world will keep seasoned gamers coming back again and again. Adding to that is the game's tremendous replayability factor, as is its length, averaging at about 40-50 hours per play-through.
Had we not been forced to play as Princess Amelie and with a little more diversity from 2008's effort, Armored Princess might have cinched our top spot.
RPG of the Year
Dragon Age: Origins (Winner)
First announced in 2004, the originally non-subtitled Dragon Age had a long time to build up expectations. BioWare's releasing of a few RPG-lite titles in the interim – Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Sonic Chronicles – only served for people to clasp to Dragon Age as a "last hope" of another great cRPG from the company. BioWare played into these expectations, calling this game the spiritual sequel to their seminal work, Baldur's Gate II.
With expectations built up that high, it was easy for Dragon Age: Origins to fall a little short. And in a few elements - most noticeably the lack of character advancement options, the occasional filler combat, and the arguably mediocre soundtrack - well, it did. But despite a handful of shortcomings, the game excelled on many fronts that are crucial to a party-based role-playing game - and it did so without sacrificing a whole lot to today's rampant "consolification" trend. It's our opinion that Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare's strongest title since Baldur's Gate II, and it could even be argued that it rivals their former masterpiece in a few areas.
Drakensang: The Dark Eye (Runner-up)
It's been a pretty solid year for cRPGs, so it was somewhat difficult to choose our runner-up - moreso, in fact, than it was to choose the winner. In the end, we opted to go not with a title that did something spectacularly right, but one that didn't really do much of anything wrong.
Drakensang was not the spiritual sequel to the classic Realms of Arkania series some people hoped it would be. Amusingly, the title is more clearly meant to copy the strengths of Baldur's Gate. It achieves this goal competently, with a solid if somewhat unexciting main story, combat system, and set of companions. But what really pulls the game into a higher tier of quality is its excellent setting and the stats-heavy pen-and-paper system that it's based on.
In all, The Dark Eye makes for a pleasant RPG experience. It's a promising first title from Radon Labs, and the primary reason why we're eyeing 2010's Drakensang: The River of Time so closely.