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The state of RPGs in 2015

This year saw a solid mix of highly anticipated AAA titles and crowd funded returns to old school gaming.

We've reached the end of another year, and it's time to take stock of what's come to pass and what's on the horizon in the world of role playing games. Although several of the biggest names didn't get sequels, 2015 was still a stellar year overall for RPGs – so long as you knew where to look. The best entries frequently weren't the AAA titles.

Recapping a full year's worth of games is a difficult proposition, and its made more challenging when considering just where the boundaries of the genre really sit. Unlike some genres, like first person shooters, RPGs cover a much wider range of play styles and tend to tweak their formulas more often. Take the reboot of King's Quest, for instance -- it might be primarily an adventure game, but there's a compelling argument there that it also lands in RPG territory, especially considering the series' history.

Things get more complicated when you thrown in strategy games. Are Blackguards 2, Sorcerer King, and Age Of Wonders III out of the running entirely, or are they RPGs that happen to use turned-based or real-time strategy as their core mechanic? Let's not forget Bloodborne, which is more an action game than an RPG, but seems to lean into role-playing through its setting and character stats.

RPG, or turn-based strategy in a fantasy setting?

Where to draw the line is an interesting topic on it's own, but for our purposes we're going to stick primarily to titles that are solidly RPGs in the classic sense of the term, with only a few forays into gray territory.

The Biggest RPG Disappointments Of 2015

In a full year's worth of releases there will always be duds, but thankfully this year was filled mostly with worthy entries that are genuinely worth playing. In fact, one of the major letdowns was simply a release that didn't appear when it was originally projected to land. Persona 5 was sadly pushed back (we really should be playing that right now), but is slated to drop in the summer of 2016.

The biggest RPG disappointment of the year took a classic role playing formula and dumbed it down into a hack-and-slash click fest with only minor DM tools: Sword Coast Legends.

D&D has been missing from the single player or co-op arena for a long time, and it's return wasn't groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination. Garnering mixed reviews at steam and a metacritic score of 61, its clear this isn't Baldur's Gate. Hell, this isn't even Neverwinter Nights.

This is not the 5th edition game you are looking for

The Biggest RPG Releases Of 2015

Welcome home indeed! After years of delays and waiting in silence with no official info dropping until the 11th hour, the biggest RPG of the year (and probably most anticipated game of any genre) arrived in November. There were tweaks to the formula that make it possible to play the game more like a shooter, but Fallout 4 still remains pretty solidly in RPG territory.

Between the settlement building, weapon and armor crafting, side quests, and main story, you could easily sink hundreds of hours into the post apocalyptic wasteland. Granted, there are problems – graphical glitches and bugs abound this close to launch, as is expected from Bethesda at this point – but the Metacritic score of 84 speaks of a game that is remaining competitive even if there were disappointments.

Welcome Home Vault Dweller!

Continuing to bring in heaps of praise and with a whopping 92 metacritic score, The Witcher 3 is the surprise hit of the year. It's been a wild ride for this series, going from a niche PC RPG by a little-known European developer to a huge phenomena that reaches its crescendo in the third installment. The graphics are fabulous, the gameplay is solid, and a steady stream of DLC keeps massively expanding the game so you never have to stop playing.

There's also something to be said about the Witcher series giving us what Bioware's RPG romances have typically been too afraid to provide: actual sex scenes with *gasp* nipples and everything! What has got me most hot and bothered about The Witcher 3 though is what comes next – with this title finally released, CD Projekt Red can finish Cyberpunk 2077!

Classic Gameplay And Crowd Funding In 2015

It can't be overstated: crowd funding has changed the gaming landscape. We're getting a sequel to Planescape: Torment next year, and that's entirely due to crowd funding. Publishers and middle men are getting cut out entirely, and the consumers are putting their money into the projects they actually want to get made.

As it turns out, quite a bit of what RPG fans want involves returning to classic gameplay, as was clearly shown with Pillars of Eternity. While some were disappointed in the end product, it's the vast majority loved seeing the Infinity Engine games get a modern day overhaul, because this title sits at a solid 89 metacritic score. Honestly I couldn't have been more happy when I first booted up Pillars: it was somehow 1998 all over again and I was kid spending a silly amount of time exploring every last inch of Baldur's Gate once more.

Obsidian took us back to a classic era with this one

More importantly, the game brought me back to the oddity of Planescape: Torment's companions. The banter between Durance – a priest who hates his goddess – and Eder – whose god was killed by Durance - are imminently enjoyable. And that's just the beginning. The unexpected themes of atheism versus faith were a welcome change to the typical RPG storyline, and there were much more mature themes than what you'd typically see (due in no small part to cutting out D&D and Wizards of the Coast, who don't want anything even remotely close to passing a PG-13 rating).

There were some complex morality issues to be found in there as well, with unexpected consequences for your actions. I particularly enjoyed how siding against the evil tyrant could result in everyone in the area being slaughtered by undead, while helping to subjugate the peasants actually led to peace and harmony down the road.

On the heels of Pillars came another classic reinterpretation of an old school gem: Shadowrun Hong Kong was just dripping with atmosphere and upped the ante from the already stellar Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Starting out as an Asian cop movie with two siblings on opposite sides of the law, this third iteration in Harebrained Scheme's adaptions of the classic pen-and-paper RPG goes some crazy places. It all gets grounded back in reality at the end though, as your world-saving anti-heroes are reminded that if people can survive the resurgence of magic and dragon attacks, then they wouldn't mind one particular town getting taken over by an evil demon goddess.

Harebrained Schemes will be quite busy for the next couple of years after successfully kickstarting a Battletech game. But honestly, these guys need to do an Earthdawn RPG one day. That's the one FASA pen-and-paper title to never get its just due in the PC realm.

Where man meets magic and machine: and Asian cops and demon gods

While Pillars and Shadowrun were the most visible old school games, there were plenty more than went under the radar and are worth investigating -- like the early access UnderRail, which continues in the style of the original Fallout games. If you dig party-based, isometric RPGs, you will want to take a gander at Serpent In The Staglands. For those who like lots of dialog and turn-based gameplay, don't forget that The Age Of Decadence just dropped back in October.

Earlier Games Updated With New Formats In 2015

It wasn't just entirely new games that generated buzz this year, as plenty of games – both old and relatively recent – got facelifts and saw new editions land in 2015. Two of the biggest came to games created through the power of crowd funding. Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin (two very different takes on the RPG genre) were both overhauled and re-released in updated versions, with graphical improvements and plenty of gameplay tweaks that changed them to the point of nearly being new games.

Previous owners got the new version for free to boot!

The Final Fantasy series has always lagged behind in terms of PC releases, with consoles getting all the love and the PC master race only getting occasional scraps years after the fact. One of those scraps finally arrived in 2015 ,as the 3D version of Final Fantasy 4: The After Years landed on Steam, letting anyone without a Wii get to experience the direct follow-up to the classic Final Fantasy 4 story.

Beyond just PC or console, the Final Fantasy series likes to toy with North American fans and give Japanese players all the love first. The 2011 title Final Fantasy Type-0 just arrived on North American consoles back in May and on Steam later in the summer. The wait may have been too long though, as reviews are definitely mixed, with a metacritic score of 72 for this HD rendition of the aging game.

Better late than never?

Not to be left out, the much loved creature-raising series Monster Hunter saw a late North American release in 2015, as Monster Hunter 4 arrived in its “Ultimate Edition” for the 3DS early in the year (after being out in Japan since 2013). Handheld fans are clearly digging this one despite the length of time they were required to wait, as reviews are mostly positive and hover around 86%.

The Many RPG Sequels Of 2015

Outside the big name titles, returns to classic gameplay, and re-releases of old games, 2015 was a year heavy on sequels when it came to RPGs. One that's had everyone waiting with baited breath lands this week at the tail end of the year, with a new entry in the Xeno series arriving to prop up the struggling Wii U. There really aren't that many RPGs at all for that particular console, so the launch of Xenoblade Chronicles X stateside is a breath of fresh air for anyone in need of a role playing fix.

The dungeon crawling crowd got not only two sequels in one, but also a surprise crossover on the 3DS in April when Etrian Mystery Dungeon launched. Make sure to stock up on healing items if you plan on delving into ever-deeper levels of dungeoneering in this one, because the addition of rogue-like elements makes it a lot more unforgiving!

The anime-based Sword Art Online: Lost Song also launched this year, taking the series to a different game world and putting a heavier focus on both action combat and hardcore level grinding. Another grinder that show how very different two RPGs can be is Disagea 5, where Sony let gamers play as the bad guys and put them in control of a demon army that seems more focused on slapstick humor than damning any souls.

Who said demon princes can't be comedians?

Significantly beating out Disagea in the longevity department, the Tales franchise got a new entry as the year is closing out with Tales of Zestiria, which again mixes 3D action combat with classic RPG gameplay. As usual this entry is a mixed bag, featuring a lackluster story and humor that sometimes works and sometimes falls flat, but if you liked any of the previous Tales games, this one will keep you hooked on the combat.

The Forecast for 2016

While 2015 was a solid balance of old school charm and slick, next generation games, the coming year is currently slanting more towards the bigger releases with hyper polished effects. Final Fantasy XV will of course dominate, although it remains to be seen if SquareEnix is ready to actually recover from the fiasco that was the FF13 and its spin offs and deliver something worth playing in the single player department again.

Titles in the Mass Effect and Deus Ex franchises will keep sci-fi roleplayers covered, along with Technomancer, an upcoming game set on Mars that is looking very interesting indeed. 

Just because the big name developers and AAA titles are on the rise next year doesn't mean you should discount the indie titles or throwbacks to an earlier generation of RPGs though! There's not a PC RPG fan around who isn't waiting with baited breath to see if Torment: Tides Of Numenera can live up to the hype of its predecessor, while Project Setsuna sees Square Enix returning to its roots and focusing on its strengths with a SNES style offering.

In a move no one expected, there's also an actual Baldur's Gate title coming, as Beamdog studio gives us an expansion/sequel using the exact same engine and assets titled Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear.

Get ready for this one to get weird!

Want a full list of what's coming soon you should be saving your money for? Check out our complete look at the most anticipated RPGs of 2016 here, as well as our examination of the coming year's MMOs, which feature more than a few RPGs in their ranks.

What did you think of the RPG offerings throughout 2015, and what were your favorite games/biggest disappointments? Share with us in the comments! 

Published Dec. 4th 2015
  • TAPETRVE
    The briefly mentioned UnderRail, which will be released out of early access in a week proper, has been one of the best CRPGs I had the joy of playing in quite a few years, even in its unfinished alpha state. what it lacks in narrative scope and (attempts at) originality, it more than makes up for with a remarkably tightly designed set of mechanics. It's by no means perfect, mind you, but it easily stands up to and even surpasses many of its bigger-budgeted contemporaries, including its cousin Wasteland 2.
  • Ty Arthur
    Featured Contributor
    Although it had its good points, I was actually disappointed in Wasteland 2, so I've been eagerly watching Underrail and waiting for its full release. After Reset is another one that looks really interesting for fans of that gameplay style, but frankly it seems like it will never get finished.
  • TAPETRVE
    Have to agree; I never got around to finish WL2, because it became just too tedious for me eventually, and the mediocre writing didn't help either. Underrail is very laconic in pretty much every aspect; dialogue is concise and free of purple prose, combat is fast-paced and brutal, environments are densely built and populated. It's a game that pretty much refuses to waste your time, even if you decide to just go explore aimlessly. The only time where I felt like I was being played for a fool was when a quest sent me to and fro between two locations over and over, but such moments are gladly rare, and the game at least gave me the option to complain or even lie about the fulfilling of my task.
  • John Adamczyk
    Correspondent
    Crowdfunding is a tragically hilarious mixed bag, luckily it seems to really work out with RPGs. None of this oversimplification for new players nonsense, just quality, nitty-gritty mechanical gameplay that serves its niche extremely well.
  • Ty Arthur
    Featured Contributor
    There has been some crashing and burning in the crowd funding department, but overall I'd say it's definitely made gaming for the better, especially in the old school RPG department. Pillars, Wasteland, Shadowrun, Battetech, and more all returning thanks to Kickstarter. Honestly what I think is really getting abused these days is "early access" rather than crowd funding. I've seen some 59.99 early access Steam games that are clearly still years away from being done - if they will ever get finished at all.

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