What is a CRPG? The debate rages on to this day as fans of the computer role-playing game bicker over the minutiae of what does and does not make a CRPG. For my purposes, I want to be as inclusive as possible but still feel the need to limit it to three key factors that should be present in any game in the genre.
The first element is character development and progression. Allowing players to mold a player character into something they want to play that evolves over time. This often results in experience points and leveling systems. Many non-RPGs now have RPG systems but they limit who or how you can play. The Far Cry games may now have lots of RPG elements but you’re always going to play the guy shooting guns. Meanwhile, in most CRPGs you can decide what kind of weapons you want to use in combat and for a select few games you can even make non-combat characters that rely on stealth and talking to avoid confrontation.
That’s where the second element comes in. The second element is choices and consequences. There should be decisions to be made throughout the game that affect the story and have consequences to them, some narrative, others mechanical. Want to go around killing everyone? You will probably get a bleak ending. Or do you prefer to play as the diplomat that kills as few people as possible and always does the right thing? You might just save everyone. Ideally, the outcome of each playthrough of an RPG should be at least slightly different, whether it’s finding new ways to play or discovering completely new narrative arcs or side-plots missed in the first playthrough.
The third element is an emphasis on numbers to drive gameplay. This is a reliance on scaling numbers or chance and probability to manipulate the difficulty of a game. This often means a lot of “rolls” behind the scenes like you would have in a physical pen and paper RPG. However, some RPGs have hard-coded stats for each item and it’s not so much about probability as it is about crafting different character builds instead of manipulating probabilities. Most of the best CRPGs do a bit of both. A good CRPG usually has some numbers both up front or behind the scenes driving the player’s successes and failures.
Getting that out of the way, let me say that this is my list defined by my rules and I apply them at my discreason. You may disagree, which is fine. The Internet is a big place and you’re free to go make your own list and link it in my comments.
27. The Legend of Grimrock
My first blobber. You move your party as a group and swing at enemies in real-time with cooldowns. Most of the enjoyment of this game comes from world-traversal and puzzle-solving. Combat is often too punishing and involves cheesing checkpoint and sleep systems. The entire game is one long dungeon crawl, which means the dark aesthetic becomes repetitive, but it’s a solid game that kept me entertained and engaged throughout. It is also about the perfect length for this style of game.
Piranha Bytes’ debut launched the legendary series and there’s something magical about their tough-as-nails world design. The combat in this game is pure eurojank, harder purely out of the mechanical stiffness than the actual challenge of enemies. The way the world is open to you but gated by difficult enemies means you’re constantly being pushed and prodded along the right path to progress until you finally become strong enough to feel like you’ve earned your way to the top of the food chain. Few feelings in all of the CRPG landscape are as satisfying as swinging through a Gothic map and clearing every last enemy off the map after hours of running away in fear.
25. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn
This story heavy game results in a much more linear and focused RPG experience that doesn’t quite have the fun overworld exploration of Baldur’s Gate, but the returning characters and grand adventure still lends itself to a lot of great moments. Some consider Jon Irenicus to be the quintessential CRPG villain. I think he’s a writer’s first good attempt at writing a tragic villain but not much more than that. Still, there’s a reason why the Infinity Engine games are held in such high regard among CRPG fans and I’d certainly recommend this game to anyone who liked the first Baldur’s Gate.
24. Icewind Dale II
Notable for moving the Infinity Engine to D&D 3rd edition, Icewind Dale II also brought about a more reactive world as the game would interact more with who your party was and how they aligned themselves. My Drow was generally hated by everyone while my paladin refused payment for many quests because she was lawful good. It sounds like a small thing, but recognizing the player’s character in a role-playing game goes a long way to making the world come alive.
23. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
It’s absurd that Knights of the Old Republic is this low on the list. It got me into RPGs! It’s a game that lets you role-play as a Jedi and determine the fate of the galaxy! However, it’s fallen down my list for two key reasons. The first is that I went back and played Baldur’s Gate which has essentially the same story beats. The second is that it’s extremely binary morality system represents what went wrong with morality systems in games for about a decade and reinforces how dumb the Jedi mythology is. Still a game I hold fondly in my heart, but more of a nostalgia pick for me.
22. Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
What a game world! One long dungeon crawl rendered in 3D space with ramps and roofs resulted in one of the most technologically innovative CRPGs. By today’s standards it’s more of a survival management game with heavy emphasis on inventory management and the strong sense that any combat encounter could kill you. However, it’s still a CRPG through and through and there’s something magical about this world, especially considering the games made around the same time.
21. Divinity: Original Sin II
A strong ensemble of premade characters woven into the story makes for a masterfully written game. Original Sin II also continues Larian Studios’ trend of making some of the most reactive and interactive gaming worlds. You can steal anything not nailed to the floor and people react and interact with you as expected. But the combat is a chore due to the addition of the armor system which limits party composition experimentation and forces the player down one of two build types instead of trying out whatever best expresses the player’s desired playstyle.
20. Demon’s Souls
What?!?! This is a console game on a CRPG list! What about the “C” in CRPG? Look, this is my list and I make the rules and all I care about is that Demon’s Souls takes a lot more cues from Western RPGs than Japanese RPGs. Flexible character builds and a world that changes based on the player’s actions results in a game that feels much closer to something made in the West. Plus it’s clear that the game is made through a Japanese understanding of Western medieval culture.
19. Neo Scavenger
Neo Scavenger could be considered a roguelike RPG but I’m including it here because the map is fixed, randomizing the drop rates and spawns of items instead of the entire game world. Neo Scavenger emphasizes survival elements and is a post-apocalypse game that is much more down to earth. Surviving a few days into the game is a feat. It also features a menu-driven combat system which is one of the most unique and robust combat systems I’ve encountered in any game.
18. The Age of Decadence
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where technology declines back into the days of the Roman Empire (an aesthetic the game heavily borrows from), The Age of Decadence is as brutal as the Roman Empire. The combat here will destroy you several times over. You may have to restart. Some builds are about avoiding combat altogether and the questing is open-ended. Made by people who clearly know their RPGs, it’s one of the most reactive and unique RPG experiences ever made.
17. Baldur’s Gate
I prefer the original Baldur’s Gate to the more well-loved sequel for a number of reasons. First, the overworld gives it more of a grand adventure feel with a sense of exploration. Second, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. Third, Baldur’s Gate is a much more elegant balance between gameplay and story, neither overwhelming the other. It’s a better overall package and also gives the player more choice to roam and explore at their own pace instead of being forced down a driven path.
16. Divine Divinity
Diablo style combat but with much more interesting quests and world design. Divine Divinity is hampered in large part due to its combat-heavy opening dungeon, but once the player gets out into the world, the game is open-ended and allows for player freedom. I’m usually not a fan of this style of real-time isometric combat but it works okay here and everything beyond the combat is top notch.
15. Fallout 2
Yet another CRPG that suffers from a weak opening. It’s also tragically incomplete in parts, although some fan patches help restore a good chunk of the content. Fallout 2 is too ambitious for its own good with areas like Vault City and New Reno feeling as deep and complex as all of the original Fallout. However, better for a game to be ambitious and fall short than be safe and deliver more of the same.
14. Divinity: Original Sin
Larian Studios finally gets to make a Divinity game on their own terms and the result is magnificent. The combat system with its robust elemental system and physics makes for dynamic encounters that are puzzle-like. And the world reactivity and manipulation is astounding with characters behaving and reacting to your actions as you’d expect. The story is a bit lackluster, and the game drags on a bit, but the combat remains refreshing enough to make it worth seeing through to the end.
13. Gothic II
More Gothic can only be a good thing. Take every strong element from the first game and improve on it and you’ve got an absolute classic on your hands. The great world design, the satisfying sense of character progression, the ability to pop in where you shouldn’t be at any time and the satisfying faction systems all make Gothic II the superior game.
12. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
It took me a while to come around to loving this one. The combat is terrible, some areas feel less developed than others, and this game loves to objectify women. However, the unique nature of each clan in the game and how each one is a unique experience made going back for a replay feel like picking up an entirely different game. It’s worth playing this game a couple of times to see how different it can be. And at 20 hours, it’s one of the leaner CRPGs on this list, making it easy to justify a replay.
11. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
One of the most unique looking video game worlds with free-form character progression that allows the player to shape the experience to their desires. Morrowind is more broken and unbalanced than those that would come after it, but that’s so much of the charm and joy. Levitation lets you get into all kinds of areas you shouldn’t get to and invisibility can let you rob people blind making you extremely rich early on in the game. Some people consider those detriments, I consider those desirable features.
10. Disco Elysium
They did it. They made a CRPG without a combat system. For years dedicated CRPG fans insisted combat is a core tenant of the genre, but this one is so clearly a CRPG with its character progression, die rolls, branching dialogue trees, and choices and consequences that those who don’t consider it a CRPG are a bunch of pretentious old men. And it’s possibly the best narrative in a CRPG this side of Planescape: Torment, making it something fans of narrative driven games can pick up without worrying about the many number-heavy screens that scare away non-RPG gamers.
9. Fallout: New Vegas
A spiritual successor to Fallout 2 instead of a sequel to Bethesda’s Fallout 3, New Vegas focuses on a densely packed city, faction gameplay, and giving the player lots of choices and consequences. For fans of the first two Fallout games, it was a return to form. Yes, the combat systems feel a bit overbalanced and it’s hampered by the outdated Gamebryo engine but it’s still the best contemporary official Fallout experience.
Buggy, broken, unbalanced and unfinished, Arcanum has a lot going against it. However, it’s one of the most unique and lovingly crafted CRPGs ever made. The steampunk meets fantasy setting mixes class politics and magic vs. technology conflict into one of the most well-realized game spaces. As if this world wasn’t already enough, the way it reacts to the player’s race, appearance, and behavior makes it even more magical and deep. And as if that wasn’t enough there are small touches such as shopkeepers only buying items in the markets they are interested in selling to. Why every game with shopkeepers doesn’t do this simple thing is beyond me. No dumping vendor trash at the herb shop!
One of the rare historical CRPGs, Darklands is set in the Holy Roman Empire during the 15th century. Except there are demons, dragons, and magic as people perceived them at those times. But for the most part you’ll be doing tasks for mayors or fighting off bandits on the road. A lot of the role-playing is menu driven instead of graphics driven making for more options and abilities that can be used than in the standard graphics driven CRPG. It’s also one of the most open-ended CRPGs with no clear goal until the player creates a name for their party of adventurers.
When you make a game that is such a critical and commercial success as Dark Souls, it would be easy to iterate on the formula, which From Software did with their B-team while the A-team worked on this game. Combat here is about being aggressive while not overextending. The setting is straight up gothic horror which slowly melds into cosmic horror. The whole experience is as vibrant and unexpected as Dark Souls.
Some works of art are life-altering. Before I played KotOR II, I had a rather binary view of morality, similar to the first KotOR. However, this game helped challenge those ideas and make me understand that moral actions have consequences, albeit sometimes unintentional, and it’s worth considering that good behavior can result in horrible things. KotOR II gives you decisions to make and then shows you that sometimes what feels like the right thing to do only makes things worse. If that’s not some of the best implementation of choices and consequences, then I don’t know what is.
Generally considered the best written video game of all time. I could yammer on about how great the writing is, which I’ve already done, but I think it’s worth also mentioning some of the clever design details. The rat enemies take one of the most stereotypically weak enemies and shift them into one of the most dangerous packs of beasts you might encounter in the world. And then there’s the numerous mazes that add another dimension to the experience.
3. Deus Ex
It’s weird to write about this game amid COVID-19 as the game opens with the Ambrosia plague, a plague made by the shadow government to control the population. While I certainly don’t believe COVID-19 is a government conspiracy, it’s eerie how many political events this game predicted. As for the game itself, Deus Ex boasts one of the most well-realized sets of levels as well as a robust set of tools for navigating those spaces. A debate exists over whether or not it’s a CRPG but as one of my friends put it, it’s a CRPG in all the places that matter. Choices and consequences and a stat based character progression system drive the action heavy gameplay.
Oh Fallout, how I love thee
Let me count the ways
Classless character progression
Chilling post-apocalyptic atmosphere
Highly-replayable, short campaign
Turn-based combat perfection
1. Dark Souls
The video game that ruined video games for me. Deliberate, difficult design that asks the player to be more cautious and thoughtful with his/her actions, the result is a game where every input matters and dying is almost always your fault. As for its status as a CRPG, it’s got the character progression and enough branching narrative that I put it in the camp of CRPG. It’s a game where every time I can adopt an entire new playstyle and discover new strategies to take on the same foes. And you can even beat the game without leveling up, which I’ve done! Few games have inspired such bizarre obsession out of me and I’m not the only person who feels that way.
© James Blake Ewing 2020