While we await Obsidian's sequel "The Fractured-But-Whole," spoofing the superhero cinema craze, we can always return to "The Stick of Truth," which spoofs the medieval fantasy craze. The hit TV show's main characters, alongside a cavalcade of lesser-known characters and strange cameos, are all set pieces for a story built around a tabula-rasa character (you) who seems to have a knack for making friends on Facebook. This seemingly innocuous skill turns out to be pivotal to a plot line that lampoons our culture's paradoxical love of medieval fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and more) and love of talking about these pastimes on social media using modern technology. Add to that a giant pool of collectible items, equipment, "friends" (Facebook), and a gracefully simple turn-based combat system, and you have yourself one hell of a strange, and surprisingly good, franchise-based RPG.
With so many Kingdom Hearts spin-offs and side games, it's hard to push your way through the series, but if I were to recommend playing just one, Birth By Sleep would win hands down. Acting as a prequel, it gives some gravitas to the story of the main games while also introducing some memorable characters and helping you to make sense of some of the plot points in the overarching narrative. Most importantly, Birth By Sleep provides the staple combat system for later entries: the command deck, which allows you to plan your attacks and customise Terra, Aqua and Ven to your liking. Fighting your way through the Unversed is extremely fun and never gets tiresome. Most of the Disney worlds are new and exclusive too, so they'll recapture different parts of your childhood and flesh out the history of the 7 Princesses even more. Birth By Sleep starts something new for the series that works wonders, and it'll satisfy your cravings until Kingdom Hearts III comes out.
If 999 had been a standalone game, it would have remained a cult classic with a large handful of loose ends. Thankfully, it seems that writer/creator Kotaro Uchikoshi managed to get his publisher (Spike/Chunsoft) to go forward with a trilogy. However, just as Uchikoshi would find ways to tie up some loose ends, he went on to create many more by developing a plot that went well beyond the narrative of Junpei and June. In Virtue's Last Reward, the player finds that it's hard to see exactly how this game is a "direct sequel" to 999... at first. By the end — the true end — that picture becomes clear, even as new pictures come into the field of vision and leave the player all the more dizzied by the experience. Besides having one of the most enticing plots in visual novel history, VLR is infinitely more convenient than its predecessor thanks to its "branched timeline" navigation system, which allows the player to enter the game at certain pivotal scenes or at the beginning of room escape sequences rather than starting the game from the beginning tutorial sequence every time and waiting through fast-forwarded text to make a new decision (this problem is common with other visual novels and was one that plagued 999). The greatest thing about VLR, however, is that it truly is the second game in a trilogy. There is more than one "cliffhanger" awaiting resolution in the third Zero Escape game, "Zero Time Dilemma," coming in late June of this year. If you haven't played 999 and VLR by then, you're going to want to catch up. It's worth it.
Pillars of Eternity is hard to criticize. Truly, it houses just about every quality a hardcore RPG'er seeks. Gameplay quantity, astounding depth down to item descriptions and nations' histories, an almost stifling degree of stat calculation with every single attack and ability, vast customization, varied and imaginative quests, unpredictable central plot, and we're only hitting half of the accolades. Some have chastised it as a Baldur's Gate clone, but with so few out there to begin with — and to this level of quality and detail — is that such a bad thing once every several years? For those who wish to get lost in an actual world and leave feeling as if they've read a book, Pillars of Eternity has no recent counterpart.
Anybody who trekked through Lordran and lived to tell the tale can attest to what an incredible game Dark Souls is. Punishing but fair, Dark Souls sees would-be adventurers travel through a hostile, yet beautiful interconnected world in search of... well, something: Dark Souls eschews linear narrative in favor of environmental storytelling — that's not to say there's not a rich plot, just that it has to be sought out and put together with a little detective work. Along the way, they're sure to have tense, hair-pulling encounters with all manner of hideous beings, in which patience and careful observation is rewarded over button-mashing. Few titles have had such a profound effect on this decade's gaming zeitgeist as Dark Souls, and although it won't appeal to everyone, the praise and hype surrounding it is absolutely deserved.
What was life like before Undertale? It's hard to imagine the internet without its existence now, but pushing the jokes and memes aside, Undertale is a fantastic game which is hilarious, heart-wrenching, and rewarding. It's one of the few games to capture an EarthBound feel through its irreverent charm and humour, but it's very much its own game as reflected in its amazing cast of character and fantastic battle sequences. The ability to go the route of a pacifist or full-out murderer throughout the game and the weight of that choice on the narrative is brilliant and really brings home the consequences of your decisions, all while tearing down the fourth wall and laughing in the face of the structure of RPGs in general. It feels like a love letter to the RPGs of the 8 and 16-bit era, but retains a modern feel through its mechanics and story. All in all, Undertale is an excellent example of what indie developers are capable of, and a reminder we don't need big cinematic budgets to lure us towards a good story.
Back in the 16-bit era, Ys III: Wanderers From Ys was a divisive game. Not unlike Zelda 2, Ys III shifted away from its predecessors' top-down style in favor of side-scrolling platforming action. Although visually eye-catching with an excellent soundtrack, the gameplay itself was sloppy and lacklustre at best. Ys III appeared destined to fade away as a footnote, until Falcom revamped this little-game-that-couldn't from the ground up. The resulting game, retitled The Oath in Felghana, featured fast and furious combat, an expanded plot, sidequests, voice acting and some of the fiercest and most cleverly-designed boss encounters ever seen in an action RPG. Oath is now widely considered to be the best Ys game to date, and it's undoubtedly one that fans of this charming series can't miss.
When Diablo III was released, many fans of its predecessor were disappointed at the changes that had been made to its formula. And although plenty of people are having fun in that world now, Torchlight II will always be the game of choice for those who prefer a different formula. Lots of stats, lots of loot, all the mods you can eat, and a faithful pet who fights along side you and goes back to town to sell vendor trash and pick up potions and scrolls? What's not to love?
Although the Layton series has deservedly exploded into two trilogies and spin-offs, Unwound Future captures a side of Layton's stiff upper lip that immediately results in close proximity of onion slicing. Initially expected to be a single trilogy, it's no wonder that the "final" installation surpasses all other iterations — adorable but devious mini-games, perplexing sliding puzzles, captivating melodies, and unabashedly heartwarming and heartrending character development alongside a fantastical premise (to be solved with gentlemanly logic). If you only have time for one Layton game, this has to be it.
Telltale Games have made some unique content for many existing franchises in the past decade. Perhaps the most popular among them are the two seasons of "Walking Dead" games. Utilizing the graphic novel more than the AMC Television series, but still weaving a unique plot that uses the main characters as supporting characters or even mere cameos, Telltale gives us the story of would-be prisoner Lee in the first season, followed by Lee's "daughter" (post-apocalyptically adopted) Clementine in the second season. In each of the five episodes of both seasons, key decisions determine who lived and who died, which areas are explored and which areas are abandoned; by the culmination of each season, the choices add up to how the surviving members of your struggling crew perceive you, and perhaps, how you (the player) perceive yourself as the character and as the player behind the character. Yes, this game is functionally little more than an adventure game with many quick-time events and branching dialogues, but in the end, that simple structure is more than enough to pile on the finesse of the beautiful art style, the memorable scenarios, the characters we love to love and those we love to loathe... and so much more. Bravo, Telltale.