WRPG Canon

So like many in the IC-sphere, I grew up primarily as a console kiddie. As a result, non-Japanese RPGs are a bit of a historical blind spot for me - something I’ve always been curious about, but simultaneously struggled to really “get”.

Lately though, I’ve been having a surprisingly good time with _Kingdoms of Amalur_, a game I’ve seen described many places as “generic”. It’s a game where you beat up monsters in crunchy _God of War_ Lite combat, sack dungeons for semi-randomized loot to incrementally improve your little badass knight man, wander around an “open world” (more a series of interconnected levels) taking on errand quests and meet a ton of NPCs who tell you a combination of epic myths and quotidian details of how the fairytale elves and dwarves and wizards and five human kingdoms all live and get along with one another (or don’t). Different weapon setups feel different and you can reset your skill trees to try out different builds. There are like five voice actors for five hundred characters, dialogue is 90% exposition, the visuals are just stylized enough to be quaint (grass texture is these little wispy curling blades like out of a picture book), the same 30-second Grant Kirkhope ambient loops repeat in every area, every once in a while you’ll find a genuinely clever piece of flavor text like a fable or folksong or piece of pseudo-medieval erotica(!!) that gives the Celtic-inspired setting some real dimension beneath the flat, dorky surface. I like this silly game!

In the interests of expanding my repertoire, I’m increasingly interested in figuring out the _canon_ of WRPGs: the monumental, time-tested titles that do something truly substantive and distinct in the aesthetic, narrative or mechanical departments, the ones people of brain and good taste agree are the games you _have_ to try. I’m gonna make a tentative list based on my limited, hearsay knowledge of the genre, most of which are games I haven’t personally played. (Note that for the purposes of this list I’m excluding “RPG-adjacent” games/genres like MMOs, adventure games or the “immersive sim” - most of these follow the classic RPG recipe of combat, dialogue, exploration, inventory management and numbery stat/skill growth.)

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    Pool of Radiance (Strategic Simulations, 1988) - Turn-based tactical D&D!!

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    _**Ultima VI: The False Prophet**_ (Origin Systems, 1990) - The One _Ultima_ to try! I mainly know _Ultima_ as a name and a series of hilarious stories about early MMO hijinks, so this would be uncharted territory for me.

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    _**Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds**_ (Looking Glass Technologies, 1993) - Polished sequel to the precursor to the “immersive sim” genre, back before they’d fully broken off from RPGs proper.

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    _**Secret of Evermore**_ (SquareSoft, 1995) - The first WJRPG. Tragically left to rot in a dungeon by its estranged Japanese parents.

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    _**Fallout 2**_ (Black Isle Studios, 1998) - I see the original Black Isle games periodically called out as archaic, but this is the one people seem to agree is the best midway point between basic playability and smart narrative design.

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    _**Planescape: Torment**_ (Black Isle Studios, 1999) - Regularly see this cited as the pinnacle of WRPG writing, a philosophical parable with a clunky D&D system attached. Cool aesthetic.

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    _**Baldur’s Gate II**_ (BioWare, 2000) - On the other hand, I usually see this cited as the high water mark of the classic D&D high fantasy romp. All of the late 90s/early 00s Forgotten Realms games have recent console remasters btw, but I can’t figure out whether they’re actually playable on a gamepad vs. excruciatingly compromised from the intended M&K setup. Would love if I could play them painlessly on my Switch!)

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    _**The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind**_ (Bethesda Game Studios, 2002) - The high point of the Bethesda approach to sheer scale before _Oblivion_ and _Skyrim_ progressively dumbed it down and reduced it to box-checking busywork, or so I’m told.

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    _**Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic**_ (BioWare, 2003) - Perpetually in discussion as one of the best licensed games, better than [X] _Star Wars_ movie, etc. etc. I’m honestly not fully convinced that the _Star Wars_ world can uphold a 50-hour RPG but I’ve always been a little curious. Available on Switch but also getting a remake soon(?).

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    _**Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines**_ (Troika Games, 2004) - The internet loves this one too much to leave it off the list. I think you’re part of a goth sex club and you solve mysteries or something?

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    _**Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords**_ (Obsidian Entertainment, 2004) - Is this the _Xenogears_ of WRPGs?? I couldn’t tell ya!

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    _**Dragon Age: Origins**_ (BioWare, 2009) - A modernization of the D&D classics, now with greater horny. Sequel bad, threequel good(??)

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    _**Mass Effect 2**_ (BioWare, 2010) - Notwithstanding Tim & Brandon’s disdain for the trilogy, this is the one I’m told is the highlight of the three, dodging the first game’s mechanical clunkiness and the third one’s narrative issues. Basically a _Star Trek_ game! Finally married full RPG systems with passable action combat mechanics, supposedly.

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    _**Fallout: New Vegas**_ (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010) - I’ve actually played this one to completion! Neat game, would’ve been neater if it wasn’t saddled with Bethesda clunkiness and ugliness. I have a distinct recollection of every character in the game talking like they’re on Valium. Got a little box-checky in some parts.

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    _**The Witcher III: Wild Hunt**_ (CD Projekt Red, 2015) - The apotheosis of the open-world ARPG, I hear - more narratively energetic and mechanically polished than Bethesda, more open-ended than BioWare, more stylish than either of them. I never touched it because I didn’t play the first two. I refuse to miss 2/3 of the story, god damn it!!

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    _**Undertale**_ (Toby Fox, 2015) - The source of a million zillion memes, the most successful indie game of all time(??); a game so thick-cloaked in an intimidating mass of culturally boosted Megahype I will almost assuredly never play it.

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    _**Divinity: Original Sin II**_ (Larian Studios, 2017) - Again a more straightforward overhead D&D-style high fantasy RPG, but with a level of polish and mechanical flexibility I’m told is beyond anything else in the genre. I bought this for Switch ages ago but put off actually playing it because it’s said to have an absurd amount of missable content, which raises my blood pressure just thinking about.

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    _**Disco Elysium**_ (ZA/UM, 2019) - An RPG with hand-drawn backgrounds, complex dialogue trees, non-combat skill systems, and a politically nuanced setting? My main worry is that my expectations of this based on hype will be so high it can’t possibly live up to them.

  • So! Please tell me Major Games (or noteworthy obscurities!) that I missed, here.

    As far as history goes Wizardry deserves a big mention as one of the most influential series in the history of the medium. The genre would not exist as it does without it.

    You have KOTOR listed, and I agree, but I would heavily push KOTOR2 alongside it. The best Star Wars story ever told, a monument to both great writing and the reality of the horrors of game development. It’s truly incredible and the content restoration mod is available easily for I think any version you can get nowadays. KOTOR is good but 2 is special.

    The oldest title here is 1998? That missing the entire actual history leading up to the modern WCRPG. I'll need to think on this and come back. Many older games do have “age-related” issues that can make them difficult to play these days, but some of them are just worth it.

    yes add KOTOR 2 and please remove mass effect 2…

    Also add Wasteland and Vampire The Masquerade

    Not mentioned here but not forgotten: Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, KotOR 2, Fable, Dragon Age, etc.

    @"marurun"#p61760 Sad but true! I really know very little about the early PC RPGs other than, like, _Wizardry_ and _Ultima_ and _Zork_ as names. By all means introduce me to the good ones!!

    Need an Ultima as well for sure

    And if Tactics games count: Jagged Alliance 2

    Also Geneforge !

    1 Like

    @“sabertoothalex”#p61756 Yeah my understanding I guess is that KotOR 2, like Vampire TM Bloodlines, was released tragically incomplete and thus falls just shy of “essential”. I could very well be wrong!

    @"yeso"#p61769 Oh yeah, _Wasteland_ is a game! That I know virtually nothing about…

    A consistent message I’m picking up here (and over the years from IC/SB generally) is that BioWare was never really so hot as its reputation makes it out to be. I couldn’t say - my only reference points are having played a few hours of _ME1_ until I got bored, and a few minutes of the original _Baldur’s Gate_ on Switch until I became horrified at the prospect of navigating its UI with a button setup.

    For the earlier stuff: Rogue, Ultima, Wizardry, Might and Magic, Nethack, Bard's Tale, Gold Box/Buck Rogers, Darklands, Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Realms of Arkania, Ultima Underworld, Betrayal at Krondor, and Wasteland probably all deserve at least one include, maybe multiple for Ultima and Wizardry

    BioWare has made some pretty decent games but I think their big contribution to the genre, at least currently, is just making character focused games that get massively popular. They essentially have a stan culture the same way pop stars online do. Mass Effect and Dragon Age Inquisition are still talked about constantly. People’s identities have become wrapped up in BioWare games.

    I’m generally really not a fan though lol

    OK, this isn't comprehensive, but it does begin to scratch the surface. Some good early WRPGs to help people appreciate the genre are as follows:

    Ultima VI: the False Prophet (1990) - Ultima IV is often considered the most important traditional Ultima title, but Ultima VI is more attractive and more playable and equally quality. VI is probably the best way to get the classic Ultima experience. Ultima was a major influence on early JRPGs.

    Ultima Underworld: the Stygian Abyss (1992) - This title can feel mechanically clunky but was really one of the earliest first-person games to offer a 3D environment and it did it pretty well considering the tech. It was massively influential on Looking Glass's later works, Ion Storm, Bethesda, and others.

    SSI Gold Box Games
    Pool of Radiance (1988) - A revelation in early WRPGs. Combined first-person dungeons with grid-based tactical combat and the AD&D rule set. PoR is a little rough around the edges in places but is still pretty playable and a fantastic game. Characters can be imported to the next game, Curse of the Azure Bonds. But if PoR feels a little too rough around the edges...

    Champions of Krynn (1990) - This Dragonlance title is a much more polished introductory title than PoR. It benefits from a couple extra years or knowledge and is a great entry to the Gold Box engine and AD&D-based RPGs. Characters can be imported to the next title, Death Knight of Krynn.

    Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra (1991) - A great first-person WRPG in which you explore towns, dungeons, and the overworld at large from a first-person view. You can see enemies at a distance and engage in missile combat before engaging. The graphics are fantastic, especially for the time. There were even some good console ports. Definitely playable for modern players.

    Lords of Midnight? The Hobbit (1982)?

    i gave baldur‘s gate II a shot a long while ago. it’s insanely hard and the game never really gives you an idea of where to go or what to do. therefore i respect it.

    divinity II is really really fun. i ran a four-player co-op campaign with some family members but that has thankfully fizzled out because it was extremely slow. now just playing it split-screen with my partner and it's a joy. everything is so breezy and it's so easy to do stuff. mechanically very dense but it's remarkable how they neatly fit it all onto a controller. most fun moment recently was skipping an entire complicated maze puzzle controlled by a gargoyle. we were just exploring, climbing up some vines, and accidentally found a back way in that led directly to the center of the maze. the gargoyle got really mad and issued a dire warning about the fate of people who take the easy way out but let us in anyway lol

    I only know you through comments you‘ve left on this forum 2501 but from what I can tell I think you would probably want to play the rest of Mass Effect 1 before 2. There are a number of new characters in the second one which don’t require prior context to get, but many of the sidequests rely on you having a kind of situational awareness that may only come from at the very least doing some kind of research on ME1. I don‘t have any special fondness for those games, but I don’t think they lend themselves especially well to playing out of order (despite what EA would have had you think in 2012). My brother is among the world‘s biggest Mass Effect apologists fans and claims the Legendary Edition’s changes to ME1 were indeed effective in making it more playable (which is the version you'd want to get in any case for its inclusion of the really-not-optional DLC). Oh and ME3 is ||the best one.||

    (but also, listen to everyone else here and dig into weirder better pre-Xbox 360 stuff)

    And I'd say scratch Undertale from the list: genres are silly and meaningless but if we're pretending they have any kind of identifiable boundaries, Undertale is firmly outside of every circle in the seven-way Venn Diagram composing the WRPG/CRPG. By all means give it a shot, but not in the context of this project, I don't think.

    @“TracyDMcGrath”#p61773 Those are all very important titles, but many titles within those series aren‘t really accessible to many gamers. I think it’s very valuable to not just tease out important titles but important titles someone might have a chance at getting through without getting frustrated by archaic design conventions.

    @“captain”#p61784 Yeah, this is precisely why I tried to play ME1 first, got bored, and never picked up the other two. I only included ME2 because the consensus I’ve heard from ||virtually|| everyone is that it’s the best individual chapter of the three.

    Also for the purposes of this list I’m considering a “WRPG” to be any game by a Western developer that could reasonably be qualified as an RPG, so _Undertale_ qualifies even though it’s obviously more influenced by JRPGs.

    @“marurun”#p61790 on the one hand yes. On the other hand I think something like Wizardry 1, while borderline unplayable in 2022, is also unavoidable from a canon perspective since so many games still coming out in 2022 steal basically its whole deal down to like, menu choices and the like, from Undernauts extremely to even like Darkest Dungeon and Dungeon Encounters and SMT V (down to the “MA” prefix on a spell implying AoE) in a lot of ways.

    Maybe canon to watch a lets play of rather than try yourself, but I do think most of those games are hard to make a canon without even if they do lack a lot of modern game design conveniences

    I think a “Canon” includes foundational texts, many of which are somewhat challenging and foreign to a contemporary audience due to the drastically different conventions, context, etc from which they were created. So my 2 cents is difficult to play old games are absolutely good candidates for a canon

    Ah, I misunderstood the intent, then. I was thinking of a “playable canon” as a way of introducing people directly to the genre. A historical canon, however, is very different, so I retract my stodginess (insomuch as I can: I'm rather solidly made of stodginess through and through).

    Yeah I gotta say, even a buggy incomplete KOTOR II was a transcendent narrative experience. The game itself was so much about void & hollowness, that a lot of us not on the forum sites thought the jagged third act was intentional, instead of the result of cut content.

    Also, I don't think Dragon Age can be excluded from this list. It might be the definition of a fantasy RPG for a lot of people. It doesn't have a lot for the more niche video game enjoyer, but it really was just short of Mass Effect's level of mass appeal. I feel like the one to include is Inquisition? Which was probably the most popular & epic in story (& the horniest, which was like a defining trait for a very loud but active semi-minority of the fanscene).

    Pillars of Eternity might also belong here. I think it's 70% responsible for revitalizing the gaming public's interest in the WRPG/cRPG genre. However, it doesn't exactly hold up to the games that came after it like D:OS II -- but I think I could make the argument that PoE helped build hype for the WRPG games that would follow it. The appetizer of the WRPG revival, if you will.

    put age of decadence in there too