Going into Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I knew the experience might not be for me. I enjoyed the first game in the series—especially its scope, colourful setting, and story—but burned out of in forty hours in after getting stuck on a boss. So, I was excited when the second game was announced, but critical and fan reception was mixed, and for all the wrong reasons. Still, I was able to snag the game on sale, and, in the wake of Breath of the Wild, looking for something sprawling and epic, decided to take the chance.
The JRPGs of the mid-’90s have influenced me more than any other media outside of fantasy fiction. I grew up OBSESSED with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI; poured hundreds of hours into Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Xenogears, Grandia, and Suikoden; have replayed games from that era over-and-over again in the 20 years since. It’s no exaggeration to say that Octopath Traveller, a new JRPG from Square Enix and Nintendo for the Nintendo Switch that hearkens back to the halcyon days of Squaresoft, was made for me.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time with it now, and I’m pleased to say that not only does Octopath Traveller do justice to the classics of its genre, it manages to take the feeling of those games and create something that feels both nostalgic and modern at the same time.
The first thing you’ll notice about Octopath Traveler is its unique blend of 3D-environments and 16-bit style spritework/pixel art. I left a playthrough of Final Fantasy VI unfinished to pick up Octopath Traveler, and the similarities are obviously striking—but, the more I play, the more I’m reminded of the 32-bit RPGs that melded 2D sprites with 3D environments, like Grandia or Xenogears. However, rather than trying for a 1:1 emulation of the old style, as many throwback JRPGs do, Octopath Traveller combines the 16/32-bit aesthetic with modern sensibilities. As someone who grew up on 16/32-bit JRPGs, it’s a heady combination that manages to look the way I remember those games looking, which is a high compliment.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve made a dedicated a lot of my gaming time (such as it is these days…) to revisiting older RPGs. I grew up playing everything from Squaresoft’s finest on SNES to BioWare’s amazing output on the PC. It’s been a joy to revisit favourites, such as those listed below, and discover some classics that slipped past me at the time of release.
Since I’ve been thinking so much about these older games, and recognizing (or rediscovering) what makes them work so effectively, especially compared to a lot of modern games, which I’m finding myself less attracted to, I thought it would be fun to explore my Top 10 Favourite RPGs (and 10 Honourable Mentions.
(The list is unordered, except for the first game, which is undisputedly my favourite game of all time.)
I played Grandia to completion back when it was first released, and have always considered it one of the high-water marks of PSX-era JRPGs. However, in a lot of ways, it hasn’t aged well, particularly while playing it on original hardware (or PSP, where I first attempted to replay it) due to slowdown, so I’ve never made it more than a few hours into a replay. This time, I’m playing it via Retroarch, using GPU overclock for a consistent 30fps, and it’s like a new experience.
I’m currently two hours deep and exploring the game’s first dungeon: the Sult Ruins.
I *love* the sense of optimism and adventure. One of my favourite games of all time is Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, which shares these attributes, but Grandia takes it to another level. There’s no overarching horror encroaching on the world at the get-go. In fact, it’s a time of peace. Justin wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an adventurer—to explore the world, discover knew things, dig up knowledge. In this day and age where we have grizzled Geralt from The Witcher, Lara Croft dousing people with gasoline and lighting them on fire, and beautiful but excessively violent games like Ghosts of Tsushima, it’s so refreshing to return to a time when game settings were fun and joyous.
Like everyone online, I watched Gamergate crash through gaming culture with a look of horror and surprise on my face. In its wake is an industry and community that is still reeling from the vitriolic hatred that hid itself under the guise of an ethical crusade.
After listening to Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) (impressions here), and finding myself intrigued (and once again horrified) by her recounting of abuse during the Gamergate campaign, I wanted to find a more in-depth exploration of the events.
At the centre of Gamergate was a young independent video game developer named Zoë Quinn. Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate is both Quinn’s memoir, and also a handbook for how to understand the culture—both on the Internet and off of it—that led to Gamergate, and continues to shape much of the sociopolitical landscape around the globe.
Where Quinn goes above-and-beyond is the way she’s able to pick the movement apart, piece-by-piece and analyze the way it acted as a canary in a coalmine for the events leading up to and preceding the 2016 US election. I’ve looked back on Gamergate, and also the Sad/Rapid Puppies campaigns that took aim at the Hugo Awards for several years, and often thought to myself that they were a warning of what’s to come. Quinn, in the bullseye, had a clear view of the events, and her analysis is bought thoughtful and well-grounded.
Listen, I don’t play Pathfinder. Haven’t played a game. Sure, I’ve read the manuals, but I don’t have a playgroup with the consistency necessary to get a game up-and-running, let alone a campaign that would allow us to really get into what makes tabletop gaming great.
Yet, I’ve scoured the Inner Sea World Guide from cover-to-cover, and I’ve read a huge stack of the tie-in fiction line, Pathfinder Tales. These days, I feel as comfortable in its world, Golarion, as I do in the Four Lands from Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, or Middle-earth.
Why do I love it so much?
So. Much. Variety—From the dozens of cultures, countries, social groups, religions, races, ethnicities, etc. to the *humongous* world that would swallow most other secondary worlds without even noticing, to the emphasis on diversity and endless possibility, Pathfinder’s world of Golarion excites my imagination so much that it’s directly informed my own worldbuilding for the Patchwork Priest series.
Adventure around every corner—Golarion is wide as an ocean, and deep as the Marianas Trench. It’s created in a way that its every corner invites creativity and adventure. Court intrigue, temple pillaging, barbarian raids, fallen spacecraft (yep, you read that right), and murderous death cults. Sure it’s tropey, but that’s never bothered me before, and there’s just so much of it. No matter what you’re in the mood for, Golarion’s got you covered.
Inclusivity—Paizo, the creator of Pathfinder, is at the forefront of creators developing inclusive gaming spaces and worlds. Pathfinder goes out of its way to allow players to be whoever the want or need to be to get the best experience possible. A good example of this is the change in Pathfinder 2.0 that’s removing “race” and replacing it with “ancestry.” Small changes can have huge impacts.
So, am I excited for Pathfinder 2.0 despite never having played a game? Damned straight. The greatest roleplaying universe is about to get so much better.
Now, I can go back to praying that Paizo will revitalize the Pathfinder Tales line to coincide with the launch of Pathfinder 2.0 (and let me write one of the dozen stories I’ve outlined starring Toma and Illindrial.)