Top 30 Best CRPGs Ever
I don't take much pride in being a lifelong CRPG (Computer Role-Playing Game) 'enthusiast'. It's more of a vice than an addiction that, once you're hooked, a game will consume at least 30 hours of your life.
Speaking of which, here are a few of my personal favorites from the past decades. I started out in the late '80s, so I'll sort them chronologically instead of by overall greatness (but don't worry, they are all superb).
To further narrow the list down, all of them are single-player games and for the PC, though most of them have appeared on other consoles.
1. Bard's Tale (1985)
If you remember the original Bard's Tale, then you may also fondly remember the days when monitors had a fully-adequate 320x200 pixel resolution and you didn't need glasses to see the contours.
In any event, this game was originally released for the Apple II, but was ported to all—and I do mean all—other platforms eventually. With its revolutionary grid-based 3D dungeoneering, the game looked quite amazing at the time. By the way: the 2004 Bard's Tale is neither a sequel or remake of the original series, although it's a somewhat amusing parody of classic RPGs.
2. Pool of Radiance (1988)
Pool of Radiance was the first CRPG to make use of actual Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) rules. It also introduced computer gamers to the popular Forgotten Realms setting—a fantasy world created by Ed Greenwood in the '60s, which has since been polished to perfection in fantasy novels by authors such as R.A Salvatore.
The game was, of course, a rather simplistic experience by today's standards, but compared to what was available at the time it took PC gaming to a new level. Pool of Radiance was followed by the equally great Curse of the Azure Bonds, among others.
There's also a rather uninspiring sequel of sorts, from a much later date (2001) called Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor.
3. Eye of the Beholder (1990)
A "beholder" is a classic Dungeons & Dragons monster composed of a disgusting heap of flesh and floating tentacle eyes. It is also the antagonist of Eye of the Beholder—a classic that made its debut on the PC, which was still a low-profile gaming platform in 1990.
It's a classic grid-based dungeon crawl, based on 2nd Edition D&D rules, in which the lords of Waterdeep (a city in the Forgotten Realms) hire you to investigate some strange ongoings beneath the city. Once you enter the sewers to take a look, the walls collapse behind you and the only way forward is down.
Trivia: Westwood, the developer of Eye of the Beholder I & II, later left SSI, D&D and the Forgotten Realms to create the abominable Lands of Lore series.
4. Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992)
The Ultima series' creator, Richard Garriott—aka Lord British—is perhaps a more interesting character than any of those he created. And although the series concluded with the bug-ridden mess known as Ultima IX: Ascension, earlier games were superb—and perhaps mostly so Ultima VII. It was divided into two parts: The Black Gate and The Serpent Isle, each of them with their own expansion packs. It's an amazingly well-balanced RPG for its time, with an equal emphasis on storytelling and exploration.
5. Betrayal at Krondor (1993)
Unlike most RPGs from the same period, Betrayal at Krondor doesn't rely on leveling up or reaching the next dungeon to spur players on. It's divided into chapters much like a book, and as a matter of fact, it is based on Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar novels. The 1998 sequel Return to Krondor was also well received and is probably worth a look.
6. Fallout (1997)
Fallout isn't just one of the best RPGs, it's one of the best games ever made in any category. Sure, the graphics in the original are very simplistic compared to Bethesda's later instalments, but the heaps of gore and melting bodies are easy enough to distinguish.
And like any true masterpiece, this one stands the test of time. The game is presented in the tried-and-tested isometric perspective, and the combat is fully turn-based (those were the days). Just like all the later games, the first Fallout centers around a Vault Dweller who has to leave the safety of Vault 101 and head out into the untamed post-nuclear wasteland of the early (alternate-history) 22nd century.
7. Might & Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (1998)
The Might & Magic series was an RPG staple for a long time, with the first game appearing in the late '80s for 8-bit platforms, including the NES. Except for some of the later outcroppings—such as the rather mediocre Dark Messiah and the horrible Crusaders of Might & Magic—all of the games have been turn-based and all of them presented in 3D.
Might and Magic 6: The Mandate of Heaven broke away from the grid-based confinement of the previous games to offer a completely free-roaming world. Like most M&M games, it doesn't have much in the way of a plot, but it is also (perhaps for the same reason) about as non-linear as a game gets. You can take your four characters and wander off to the final dungeon right away. Obviously you'll never make it, but that's part of the concept.
8. Baldur's Gate (1998)
Baldur's Gate was and is a benchmark for story-driven role-playing games. In my opinion, BG 1 and 2 really only compete with the Fallout 1 and 2 for the top spot in isometric RPG history.
The characters in Baldur's Gate live and breathe as much as a couple of dozen pixels can. Moreover, the game draws from the intricate lore of the Forgotten Realms setting to add even more depth.
What makes it even better is that you get to keep and evolve the same characters throughout the subsequent games in the series, via the first expansion Tales of the Sword Coast, to Baldur's Gate II and the concluding Throne of Bhaal.
It's even possible to export your BG character to Neverwinter Nights and continue on from there, but that transition is hardly seamless, unfortunately.
Trivia: Don't mix up the original Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 with the later, console-based Dark Alliance spinoffs, which are just unoriginal hack-n-slash action RPGs.
9. Final Fantasy VII (1998)
Although it was originally a PlayStation game and the PC conversion is a rather mediocre one, Final Fantasy VII is still one of the best RPGs ever created and clearly worth including on this list. It's quite playable on PC, but a gamepad is recommended.
At the time, this was one of few Japanese RPGs to even reach the PC. It could have been even better had Square Enix made an effort to improve upon the original and take advantage of the (by then) much more capable PC hardware.
10. Planescape: Torment (1999)
For Planescape: Torment, Black Isle tweaked the Infinity Engine from Baldur's gate and adapted it to the Planescape D&D setting. The game tells a story about the Nameless One—an immortal who wakes up in a morgue somewhere in the city of Sigil.
Interestingly, the protagonist is immortal and can't be killed permanently. In fact, having the character die is even necessary at times. Like Baldur's Gate, it's strongly story-driven, but there's still a liberal amount of fighting using AD&D 2nd-edition rules.
11. System Shock 2 (1999)
Lots of games try desperately to be original, but System Shock 2 is undeniably unique. The game borrows its 3D engine from the successful 'sneak 'em up' Thief (the first one), meaning that it has very effective and spooky light management considering its age.
The game is a sci-fi RPG/FPS hybrid that takes place on the abandoned starship Von Braun, which has been attacked by some sort of aliens. Also, there are zombies!
Compared to the later, 'spiritual successor' Bioshock, there are more RPG elements in terms of character building/development in SS2, although the games have a lot in common—including hacking skills and psionic abilities.
System Shock 2 was one of the first games with a dedicated modding community, and amazingly (unlike many later games), this one is still active.
12. Icewind Dale (2000)
Following in the footsteps of Baldur's Gate and using the same Infinity Engine, Icewind Dale puts you in the northernmost regions of the Forgotten Realms.
Unlike Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale lets you create an entire party before setting out to kill goblins and orcs. The game is more combat-focused and offers less of a story than said games, but it's still great and particularly enjoyable if you've read R.A. Salvatore's trilogy with the same name and setting.
13. Deus Ex (2000)
Deus Ex has a lot in common with System Shock 2; it's a futuristic RPG/FPS hybrid that lets you take the game in different directions by augmenting your character's abilities. Although it can be played more or less like a regular first-person shooter, skills like hacking and stealth allow for very different ways of completing the game's challenges.
In Deus Ex, you play the more conventional hero, JC Denton, who works for some form of anti-terrorist organization in a relatively near and dystopian future. As the game progresses, Denton gets mixed up in a rather interesting plot.
14. Diablo II (2000)
The first Diablo became an instant classic for its addictive hack 'n' slash gameplay, and Diablo II improved on the winning concept.
Although there is little to customize and the game mechanics are extremely simple, it's hard to put your mouse away until you've leveled up again or reached the next dungeon.
15. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000)
I guess I have a weak spot for these old BioWare. It's obvious by now.
In any event, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn picks up right after the Tales of the Sword Coast Expansion, with your character imprisoned by a mad (elf) scientist in Athkatla, south of Baldur's Gate. As it happens, so are some of your old friends from the first games.
The plot continues to explore your character's divine heritage and takes you across a huge and beautifully hand-drawn world until you get to face off with your nemesis.
The Baldur's Gate saga eventually concludes in the Throne of Bhaal expansion, where you make the final decisions about what to do with your godly/demonic heritage.
16. Wizardry 8 (2001)
So, I've come this far without mentioning the Wizardry series at all, and omitting it would be a shame. The first Wizardry game—Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord—came out as early as 1981, and the early parts of the series have inspired many of the classic RPG series like Might & Magic and Eye of the Beholder.
Wizardry 8 was the last part of a trilogy that includes 6 and 7, but it was released much later after a long and tumultuous development process. Combat in Wizardry 8 is turn-based and there are lots of stats and character classes to play around with.
17. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001)
Arcanum is a wonderfully unique game set in a less-than-traditional fantasy/steampunk world, complete with both magic and gunpowder.
In spite of being extraordinarily buggy at launch (I was unable to finish it on the first try), the game was praised by nearly all critics for its immersive atmosphere and Fallout-style turn-based gameplay.
Many patches later (some unofficial fan patches since the developer went bankrupt), the game is fully playable nowadays and should be tried by anyone who enjoys a great RPG.
18. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)
Arena, the first game in Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls series, was innovative but not overly successful. Daggerfall offered a taste of what was to come with a huge game world and free-roaming gameplay, but it also had a fair share of game-breaking bugs.
With The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Bethesda had all but perfected the concept. They also put the most powerful graphics cards of the time through torture with amazing visuals such as pixel-shaded water.
Basically, Morrowind realized the grand ideas behind the previous games, but with fewer bugs. With the expansion packs Tribunal and Bloodmoon, Morrowind is a huge game—only the in-game text is said to comprise six average novels.
19. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
In my humble opinion, KotOR is still the best Star Wars game ever (not that the competition is overly stiff, but still). On the other hand, one expects nothing less from a BioWare logo on the box. The game's role-playing elements are similar to the 3rd Edition D&D rules, meaning that the combat is divided into rounds and may be auto-paused at the end of each round (optional) to assign new actions.
As the title implies, the game takes place before the Empire—some 4,000 years before to be slightly more precise. Depending on your choices in the game, you will gradually lean either toward the light or the dark side of the Force.
20. Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines (2004)
The Vampire: The Masquerade PC games are often overlooked for some reason, but these games suck in a good way. Bloodlines is set in the rather mature Vampire: The Masquerade world from the original pen and paper RPG. It's s a sequel to the lesser-known Vampire The Masquerade: Redemption from 2000, but uses the more modern Source engine from Valve's Half-Life 2.
When starting the game, you pick your Vampire clan, and this is only the first of many choices. The game's storyline is highly dynamic, and there are several different endings depending on the paths you choose.
21. Gothic 3 (2006)
Gothic 3 was quite bug-ridden upon release, but was subsequently patched to near perfection. Another issue that somewhat hampered the game initially was that barely any hardware was sufficiently powerful to run the game.
The third part of Gothic picks up where Gothic II left off, with our Nameless Hero having arrived on a new continent to be greeted by ugly orcs closing in for the kill. The rest of the story is basically yours to create. You can side with different factions or none at all, instead roaming the countryside killing and looting whatever comes your way until you get bored. In terms of free exploration, Gothic 3 is similar to Oblivion, albeit on a smaller scale.
22. Neverwinter Nights 2 (2006)
Neverwinter Nights 2 is a great RPG that comes with a bonus feature in the form of a complex toolset that lets you create your own adventures. There are lots of excellent community modules that will potentially add hundreds of hours to the game.
The Neverwinter Nights games are spiritual successors to the Baldur's Gate series, but take place on the northern end of the Sword Coast. Like its predecessors, it offers an interesting story, which is divided into separate acts. NWN 2 uses D&D 3.5 Edition rules, and all the classes, spells and abilities that come with it.
23. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006)
Oblivion is an amazing game in many ways, but the most impressive part is perhaps its sheer size (about 16 virtual square miles/41 square kilometers, apparently), coupled with the fact that you can just ignore the main quest and go out and explore a seemingly infinite number of dungeons.
Similar to Morrowind, you don't level up in a conventional way by gaining experience points through completed quests or kills, but by using the skills that you want to improve.
24. The Witcher (2007)
The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski about genetically enhanced monster slayer Geralt of Rivia. It's an action RPG that uses a heavily modified version of BioWare's Aurora engine from Neverwinter Nights 2, although this is hardly noticeable. (The Witcher looks a lot better.)
What separates this game from the rest of the genre is that it doesn't shy away from excessively rude language and gratuitous nudity. This aspect alone makes it well worth checking out. There's also an Enhanced Edition available with improved textures and some new adventures.
25. Mass Effect (2008)
Here is yet another BioWare game that will be remembered as a classic; Mass Effect takes place in a future where humanity has finally—through the discovery of technology left over by ancient aliens—been able to move out into the galaxy, make contact with alien races, establish colonies and all the usual space stuff.
Your role is that of Commander Shepherd, who can be male or female and is highly customizable in other ways, too. The game is somewhat similar to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but is built around a proprietary combat system, and of course, takes place in an entirely different setting created entirely by BioWare.
26. Fallout 3 (2008)
It was pretty farfetched at the time that Bethesda would be making Fallout 3. Fortunately, it wasn't quite the "Oblivion with guns" that many initially feared, but a rather good modern adaptation of the previously isometric post-apocalypse.
This time it's set on the east coast of the US, now known as the Capital Wasteland, and there are a lot of new places to visit and folks to mutilate.
Update: Bonus Games
Long overdue update (2018): Almost a decade after this page was first published (in early 2009), this article has been visited more than a million times, and still more RPG enthusiasts are stumbling over it every day. This is all very humbling, considering that it's only a personal 'best ever' type of list.
If you have any other suggestions, please add them to the comments below. And if you are still here after reading all of this stuff: a sincere thanks!
27. Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
With Dragon Age: Origins, the Awakening expansion and lots of considerably-better-than-average DLC, Bioware has yet again created a world-class PC role-playing experience.
While it's a bit sad that they have moved away from the Forgotten Realms setting in recent years, Dragon Age offers an immersive atmosphere in Bioware's homemade mythology, which is more than OK. As any true RPG, this game takes you through a complex world where there are many choices to make, with different outcomes to all of them.
28. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011)
Sequels sometimes fail to live up to expectations (Dragon Age 2 comes to mind), so it's refreshing to see that some developers continue to raise the bar instead of the other way around. At the time of release, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was likely the best-looking game ever made.
Other than the visual bliss, it manages to balance an engrossing storyline with somewhat (not entirely) free-roaming, traditional western RPG gameplay, which is where many other contemporary games fail.
Once you get past the game's unnecessarily steep learning curve you will no doubt enjoy it. It's worth mentioning that the story picks up right after the first game, so it helps to have played that one.
29. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Skyrim is an exceptional game and perhaps Bethesda's best yet. In spite of its console interface and the fact that PC users get more or less the same graphics as those playing it on their five-year-old consoles, it is still up there among best PC games ever made, not just counting RPGs. In other words, this game is an absolute must-have—not only for the RPG enthusiast but for everyone and his uncle. On my wishlist for next year is an illegitimate love child between Skyrim and The Witcher 2.
30. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
I may have said this before, once or possibly twice, and it's conceivable that I will say it again sometime, but in my humble opinion:
The Witcher 3 is the best game ever created—and not just the best RPG but the best game in the history of the universe.
This magnum opus by Poland's CD Projekt (who are also responsible for gog.com) has to be experienced by anyone who enjoys an extremely polish(ed) game. In the third instalment, you'll really get to know and like Geralt and the Witcher world, which I since found out is based on a series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski.
The Metacritic user score of 9.3—the highest ever for a PC game at this writing—is on the low side. What keeps it from reaching the pinnacle of perfection is that it, unfortunately, ends eventually, after well over 100 hours of rock-solid content.
As of 2019, CD Projekt Red is busy with Cyberpunk 2077, but has at least hinted that additional games set in the Witcher universe may eventually appear. But it won't be a Witcher 4, since this was apparently supposed to be a trilogy.