Top 15 Role-Playing Video Games of All Time

Do you ever find yourself with 100 hours of free time and an urge to save the world? If so, you’re probably in the mood for a role-playing game. RPGs have been around almost as long as video games themselves, and they have several features in common. They often follow a group of friends who get wrapped up in a complex story about battling some ultimate evil. They generally feature a large cast of characters, a deep battle system, and upgradeable skills.

They’re also time-intensive games that play out over the course of several (or many) dozens of hours. They’re not games you dip into from time to time. They’re games you dive into headfirst.

Below, we take a look at the 15 best role-playing games of all time. As for our methodology, we surveyed all of the RPGs listed on Metacritic, and created composite scores that account for both the critic and user ratings. For example, a game with a 95 critic score and 9.3 user score would receive a 94 composite score. This should give us the clearest picture of how the games were received by critics and gamers alike, between the time of release and now.

15. Chrono Cross

The heroes of the RPG Chrono Cross stand ready for a fight.

Source: Square Enix

Composite Metacritic Score: 90.5

Seeing as Chrono Trigger, the first game in the Chrono series, is a certified masterpiece, developer Square had a high bar to clear when approaching the sequel. What did they do? Created another masterpiece, of course. Rather than rehashing ideas from the original game, developer Square took a different route with Chrono Cross. The game centers on a whole new set of characters, led by Serge, a teenager who discovers the existence of a parallel world and sets off with a group of friends to investigate. The result is one of the PlayStation era’s best RPGs.

14. Vagrant Story

The heroes of the RPG Vagrant Story pose for a pic.

Source: Square Enix

Composite Metacritic Score: 91

Another incredible RPG release for the original PlayStation is Vagrant Story, a game that pushes against the expectations of what an RPG can be. It’s a solo outing, so for once you don’t control a team as you take on the bad guys. Mostly what you do is go from room to room, dispatching enemies and solving puzzles to move into the next room. Standout features include the path-blazing weapon creation system, and the engrossing narrative that keeps pulling you on. Vagrant Story is an RPG unlike any other.

13. Final Fantasy VI Advance

The Japanese cover art for the role-playing game Final Fantasy VI

Source: Square Enix

Composite Metacritic Score: 91

For many RPG fans, Final Fantasy VI is the genre’s high water mark. Originally released in the U.S. in 1994, the game would go on to be re-released many times. The Advance version is a port that came out in 2007 as one of the last releases for Game Boy Advance. It’s basically the same game as the original, but with a much better English translation and a handful of new spells and environments to explore. To cut to the chase, if you want to play one of the best video games ever made, with a truly epic story and an unforgettable cast of characters, this is it.

12. Baldur’s Gate

A screenshot from the classic computer role-playing game Baldur's Gate.

Source: Black Isle Studios

Composite Metacritic Score: 91

Baldur’s Gate can be a little tough for newcomers to get into. Essentially, it’s a digital version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which means it’s a fairly complicated game. It uses the same rules, die rolls, and character creation process as the tabletop game, so you can customize your party however you want. Once you get a few hours of gameplay under your belt, you’ll realize what a remarkable game BioWare has made here. It blew the lid off the RPG world when it was released in 1998, and it’s still fun today. If you’re looking to give it a shot, try Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, available on PC and iOS.

11. Paper Mario

The start screen for the colorful role-playing game starring Mario.

Source: Nintendo

Composite Metacritic Score: 91.5

This Nintendo 64 classic starts with the overused trope of Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach, but from there it plays out very differently than your average Mario game. Developed by Intelligent Systems, the makers of Advanced Wars and Fire Emblem, Paper Mario takes place in a world made out of, well, paper. With cartoonish graphics, a hilarious script, and endlessly inventive gameplay, Paper Mario ensured that everyone’s favorite fictional plumber would go on to star in many more RPGs.

10. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

Mario and Luigi run from enemies in the Mushroom Kingdom.

Source: Nintendo

Composite Metacritic Score: 91.5

The first Mario RPG to hit a handheld was Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, a Game Boy Advance title that came out in 2003. This game brought Mario’s green-clad brother into the fold, making the two plumbers work together to solve puzzles and beat up bad guys. It’s unusual in that it took place not in the Mushroom Kingdom, but the nearby Beanbean Kingdom, where the vile Cackletta has stolen Princess Peach’s voice.

9. Final Fantasy VII

Cloud Strife stands with his giant sword, ready for a fight.

Source: Square Enix

Composite Metacritic Score: 91.5

Riding high on a series of successes, in 1997, Square went all out and released a game that brought RPGs to the height of popularity in the U.S.: Final Fantasy VII. This massive epic featured an enormous world, an all-powerful evil corporation, a scraggly rebellion, and by far the best looking cinematic cutscenes ever to grace a video game up to that point. Best of all, it still holds up today.

8. Chrono Trigger

The Japanese cover art for this classic RPG.

Source: Square Enix

Composite Metacritic Score: 91.5

With a plot that leaps from the Stone Age to the distant future, and characters from each time period in between, Chrono Trigger is one of the most creative RPGs around. It’s also so full of charm and wit that it’s virtually impossible not to love it from the minute you boot it up. If you haven’t played this incredible classic yet, grab a copy of the version for Nintendo DS (which is playable on a 3DS, too). You won’t regret it.

7. Mass Effect 2

Commander Shepherd and his crew launch into battle.

Source: Electronic Arts

Composite Metacritic Score: 92.5

One of the newest games on this list and one of the few made by Western developers, Mass Effect 2 is a space opera done right. Made by BioWare, the same company behind Baldur’s Gate, this game is the culmination of everything the company has learned in its long history of making terrific RPGs. You play as Commander Shepherd, a space-faring leader who’s as kind and thoughtful or mean and nasty as you want him to be. With killer shooting mechanics, a smart upgrade system, and enough lore to keep you immersed for months, Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games of the Xbox 360/PS3 generation.

6. Planescape: Torment

A blue-faced man stands in front of a village on the cover art for Planescape: Torment.

Source: Black Isle Studios

Composite Metacritic Score: 92.5

Like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment takes place in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, albeit in a very different setting. You play as an immortal being who has lived (and forgotten) many lives. Your job now is to reclaim your memories using the city of Sigil as a hub, because it has doors to all parts of the universe. One thing that makes the game unique in that most of your missions can be solved using dialog instead of violence. If you’re looking for something different in the RPG space, Planescape: Torment delivers.

5. Persona 4 Golden

Two high school students stand in a hallway talking in this classic RPG.

Source: Atlus

Composite Metacritic Score: 92.5

The Persona series has only recently begun catching on in the U.S., but it’s been big in Japan for years. If you play this PS Vita port of the best game in the series, you’ll quickly see why. You play as a high school student from the big city who moves to a small town just as a series of murders starts to go down. You and your new friends decide to investigate, leading you to discover new worlds and incredible powers. When you’re not off fighting and collecting monsters, you can develop social links with other kids from school. Persona 4 Golden is the kind of game you can spend well over 100 hours in without seeing everything.

4. Golden Sun

The heroes of this Game Boy Advance role-playing game stand in a storm.

Source: Nintendo

Composite Metacritic Score: 92.5

This 2001 RPG for Game Boy Advance harks back to the golden era of the 1990s, but also includes a lot of smart additions and tweaks to the formula. You play as a boy on a quest to save the world — which doesn’t sound very inventive, but it’s the details and characters that win the day. The game is full of clever plot twists and lots of environmental puzzles, which gives this traditional RPG something of a Zelda vibe. It all combines to create one of the best RPGs on any platform.

3. Final Fantasy IX

The cast of this expansive RPG stand on a white surface.

Source: Square Enix

Composite Metacritic Score: 92.5

Many people thought Final Fantasy VIII was kind of a dud, but Square Enix redeemed itself with Final Fantasy IX, a game that managed to look both backward and forward in terms of theme and design. Gone were the futuristic trappings of the two previous installments, and in their place was a more traditional fantasy setting full of wizards and airships. Tying it together was a sassy thief for a hero, a princess who could take care of herself, and a black mage with an identity crisis.

2. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

A cloaked man with a lightsaber stands ready to fight.

Source: Bioware

Composite Metacritic Score: 93.5

Ask many Star Wars fans for their favorite extended universe story, and most will either say it’s the Thrawn trilogy or Knights of the Old Republic. KotOR (for short) is a BioWare-developed game that takes place thousands of years before the original trilogy. Even way back then the battle between Jedi and Sith raged, and that’s where you come in. Throughout the course of this game, you visit all kinds of never-before-seen areas like the Wookie homeworld and a Jedi Academy, all while making decisions to align yourself with the Light Side of the Force or the Dark Side. What’s not to love?

1. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn

A view of a medieval-style town from above.

Source: Black Isle Studios

Composite Metacritic Score: 94

If the original Baldur’s Gate was impressive, the sequel is one for the ages. Picking up where the previous installment left off, the game has you escape from prison and make your way to the truly massive city of Athkatla. It’s here that you’ll go on quests, build your characters, and get back at the people who imprisoned you. When Baldur’s Gate II came out, there had never been an RPG so massive, grand, and finely tuned. It doesn’t get better than this. If you never played the game and want to check it out, try Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition for PC or iOS.

Unsurprisingly, the developer with the most games on this list is Square Enix, a company with a long history of creating genre-defining RPGs. BioWare also makes a strong showing, with four games on the list, including the top two titles. But if you’re looking for a meaty RPG to sink your teeth into, you can shut your eyes and point anywhere on this list. Without a doubt, the one you’re pointing to is a winner.

Follow Chris on Twitter @_chrislreed

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