My 7 Best RPGs of the Decade

It’s that time of year for round-ups of our favorite video games — and since we’re officially wrapping up 2019, we can look back at the entire decade of games! In reflecting on my list of most memorable games in the past 10 years, I can’t help but pay special tribute to role-playing games.

RPGs are what inspired my love of gaming in the first place — a love that really only sparked about 10 years ago, give or take. While my original favorite, Dragon Age: Origins, is officially more 10 years old, I can still take a look at the RPGs that came next in keeping my romance with gaming alive.

Honorable Mentions

These are the games that either didn’t quite make the list, or that I didn’t get to play enough to fully comment on. But I loved them just the same!

Assassin’s Creed Origins/Odyssey  I can’t choose between these two games! I love Origins for exploring ancient Egypt, as I was a total Egyptology nerd as a teenager. It also has a great love story. But I just started playing Odyssey and love the gorgeous ancient Greek setting, as well as the ability to choose between a male or female protagonist.

Until Dawn – A truly unique horror game, where you play as a group of teenagers you either love or love to hate. Watch them die as you make decisions that cause a butterfly effect later down the road…

Dishonored  Some may say this isn’t exactly an RPG, but there are upgrades and choices to make as you stealth your way through a dark city that’s part Victorian, part industrial, and totally fictional. I love this world so much, I just have to include it here!

Life is Strange – A beautiful game about a teenage girl with the power to rewind time. This episodic experience is heartfelt and unique.

Bloodborne  A world of night filled with horrific creatures you have to defeat. I didn’t play this one myself, but watching my now-husband play it obsessively made me fall in love with the haunting Victorian setting. Just beware: it’s a FromSoftware game that’s known for its Dark Souls-esque difficulty!

7. Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Some of my favorite characters ever right here

Released January 26, 2010, this one certainly kicks off the decade. Some may argue that Mass Effect 3 was the real winner of the decade, if we’re focusing on ME games, but I’ve always been partial to the second game in this stellar series. It hits that sweet spot — better graphics than ME 1 but storytelling that’s just as good, without forced multiplayer like ME 3 attempts.

What I love most about the second game is its focus on character, as you collect dossiers and run off on memorable companion missions to get to know your squad. Plus, it introduces way more romances than the first game, including my true love Garrus Vakarian.

6. Fire Emblem: Awakening (2012)

Fire Emblem AwakeningWhen Fire Emblem: Awakening came out, it felt like everyone around me was playing it. I had just started working at a creative services agency that specialized in video game content, so all of my coworkers were gamers. We all had our fancy new Nintendo 3DS consoles out whenever we could spare a minute from work, and I would also play on the bus, on the couch over a lazy weekend, and into the night. I was obsessed. The turn-based strategy was addictive, and I loved the dialogue between characters as they became friends on and off the battlefield. Being able to play matchmaker to characters was a bonus, too.

I’ll admit that I’m not very far into Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but I’ve heard some argue that it’s up there among the very best Fire Emblem games too. Based on my own experience, Awakening hooked me in a way that Three Houses hasn’t yet, so I’m sticking to the good old 3DS game as my greatest of the decade.

5. Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

sweetie red dead.jpg
My beautiful horse Sweetie

While I enjoyed the original Red Dead Redemption, its sequel hooked me even more with its incredible story. As Arthur Morgan, you’re part of a gang of thieves and crooks — most with good hearts, of course. And that means it’s up to you to decide just how friendly you’re going to be in the lawless land of the Wild West (where there are still cops and bounty hunters to chase after you if they catch you getting into trouble).

Red Dead 2 offers the sort of moral decision-making I love in video games, and here it takes on a subtly I haven’t seen in any other RPG. I loved whistling and waving at people passing Arthur on the road — even the ones who were a little hostile at first. I went fishing, bringing my catches back to the gang to keep bellies full and improve morale. I sang around the campfire at night, helped people on the side of the road if they were in trouble, and only once did I steal someone else’s horse. (That horse became my most steadfast companion on my adventures, and her name is Sweetie.) While I was wanted in some areas for sins Arthur had committed, most of the time he was a good guy with good intentions — just caught up in bad business.

If you want to dive into the world of the Wild West with realistic stakes for your actions — and some tough decisions to make along the way — Red Dead Redemption 2 delivers.

4. Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)

horizon screen 2
I couldn’t stop taking screenshots in this game

What makes Horizon Zero Dawn stand out in my memory is its originality. The world it unveils feels both historic and futuristic, depicting tribal people with very little technology living in a world of robotic predators from the past. It’s a strange world, but that’s why it’s so fascinating to explore.

Whisking us on our adventure is an amazing female protagonist, a redhead named Aloy who fights as much with her mind as with her physical strength. Using ancient technology to gain her edge, she’s smart, agile, and full of curiosity. It’s hard to think of a better host on any other video game adventure. Best of all, her interactions with the world and decision-making create a perfect balance between action and story.

3. God of War (2018)

god of war kratos with shieldGod of War feels like a truly grown-up video game. It’s a game that reinvents its series, moving away from the macho hack-n-slash of previous games to engage an aging population of gamers with something many of them can now relate to: an emotional narrative about parenthood. Kratos is a father now, and the game revolves around his relationship with his son. While the axe gameplay is fun — and very nuanced compared to the gameplay of previosu games — the stakes feel so much higher now that young Atreus is at Kratos’s side.

Beyond that, God of War is an absolutely gorgeous game. It’s hard for me to imagine a game with better graphics or a world more riveting than the land of Norse mythology, of magic and mystery and a talking severed head, that God of War explores. Even though the game is not a personal favorite of mine in the sense that I would play it again and again, it’s the one game I would recommend to just about everyone — especially if you want to appreciate the beauty and depth video games can achieve.

2. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)

And did I mention it includes romance options?

Before The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I had always thought RPGs fell into two sub-genres: open world and story-driven. The few open world narrative games I’d played until then tended to feel disjointed. Often, they were also bogged down by fetch quests that forced players to explore the open worlds they were plunked into, as if the game developers didn’t trust players to want to run around their huge landscapes by themselves.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt changed all that, creating a beautifully scripted story with just enough choice to make you feel like you’re in charge of your own fate. Add to that rich side quests filled with dialogue, decisions, and fascinating characters, and you’re in for a truly magical experience.

I loved playing as Geralt, riding my horse Roach through the wilderness in search of new adventures. Though I was always aware of the main storyline I was following, Wild Hunt presents a rich enough world that I wanted to explore every corner of it. That’s because its world isn’t just visually stunning — it’s also filled with life. As open world narrative games go, it’s the whole package.

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

My greatest adventure in gaming

This is not just the best RPG of the past 10 years, this is my personal game of the decade. Bethesda perfected their Elder Scrolls style with Skyrim, which to this day is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. Here are just a few of the things the game has going for it: gorgeous graphics, dozens of stories to dive into, a host of complex companion characters to recruit on your adventures, houses to buy (or build), horses to ride, cities to visit, cultures to study, caves to loot, ancient magic to discover, and dragons to slay…

No world has ever seduced me quite like Skyrim‘s. The reason is that you get to create a character from scratch — choosing from one of the many unique races in Elder Scrolls lore — and then decide which adventures you want to play through to create a unique journey for that character. You might join the Imperial army, marry a hunk you meet in the werewolf clan called the Companions, and then build a house in the freezing north. Or, you might join a gang of assassins. Or become a thief. Or enter academia to learn magic. Or save up to purchase the most expensive mansion in the land. Or marry an orc.

Open world games are all about freedom, but only in Skyrim have I appreciated that freedom and still felt connected to my created character’s unique journey.

What are your favorite RPGs of the past decade?

— Ashley

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