5) Etrian Odyssey III (DS) – This is probably the most surprising entry coming from me. The first Etrian Odyssey is what got me into classic dungeon crawlers – particularly DS ones – even if I never was able to finish it. Still, I appreciated it for what it was, and in spite of its immense, grind heavy, evil mapping tedium, I still felt a strong sense of accomplishment; something which many other modern games lack. What I enjoyed the most was the streamlined yet deep party customization, emphasizing cool abilities over stat crunching. As for Etrian Odyssey III, it includes the best aspects of the previous games and kicks them up a notch. The most radical change is that all the classes have been overhauled while retaining a lot of interesting abilities and mechanics. In addition, there is also a subclass system, enabling you to use virtually all abilities from another class, thus giving you a very strong degree of customization for your team. It's also currently the only installment that I managed to stick with, starting my own team from the ground-up, and overcoming all the odds thrown at me to beat the final boss. I had my share of frustrations with EO3, but in the end, it ultimately felt worth it.
4) Mass Effect 2 (360 / PC) – I'll say it here and now: I'm not really a BioWare fan. Objectively, they make solid games, but they've never clicked with me. Time and time again, I have tried giving their games a shot, from Baldur's Gate II to Neverwinter Nights, and even Dragon Age. Even the first Mass Effect, while good, wasn't as great as others hyped it up to be. Still, I decided to give Mass Effect 2 a go when I saw it on sale, and to my surprise, I liked it a lot. Now, I didn't like it because of its gameplay (which I felt to be a bit boring and stripped down), nor the plot, but rather because of the characters. Excellent characters with a good amount of depth and development is what kept me going, and their character missions along with the epic final mission were definitely the best aspects of the game. These aspects demonstrate BioWare's strengths, and I now appreciate them so much more, even if I am still a JRPG fanatic. I'm actually anticipating Mass Effect 3 now, and am interested how this trilogy will end. I just hope there are more RPG-centric elements next time, but it should totally keep the streamlined inventory system.
3) Heavy Rain (PS3) – For a “game” that only has plot and quick time events in terms of content, Heavy Rain delivered on what it promised: a great, suspenseful mystery complemented by great characterization. The quick time events are also implemented well, making you feel like part of the action while making good use of the sixaxis motion controls (unlike so many other games). I do hate Heavy Rain for glitching and deleting my save near the end of the game, forcing me to go through the unskippable cutscenes again, but that factor notwithstanding, there's no denying how great it is.
2) Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (DS) – Atlus certainly knows how to make a dungeon crawler that manages to maintain an old school level of challenge and heavy amount of exploration while streamlining the whole experience, and Strange Journey is proof of that. Unofficially known as SMT IV, Strange Journey had me hooked with its compelling survival plot and involving gameplay. The main game alone will last you a long time, and on top of that, there are a lot of maps to explore, numerous quests to do, tons of demons to collect, and three endings to pursue. There is even an achievements section for the completionists. It won't appeal to everyone, and it does eventually drag on, but for dungeon crawler fans it's a must.
1) Ys: The Oath in Felghana (PSP) – It's originally a 2005 title, but it finally got a long overdue domestic release, and thus will give the series more exposure. Not only does the PSP version play almost as well as the PC version, but the inclusion of voice acting, three different music versions, an extra story bit, and more cement it as my favorite action RPG ever: #1 indeed.
Additional RPG Awards
Favorite RPG Soundtrack of 2010: Nier (360 / PS3) – What I dislike about most modern gaming music is how much emphasis is put on atmosphere. Yes, it works well in setting the tone for a game, but I just find it boring and inaccessible outside the game itself. Still, there are occasionally soundtracks that do impress me, and Nier is by far the best of them all this year. It has a good balance of ambiance to set the game's tone, but also a lot of style and sweeping melodies to make it memorable. For an album consisting mainly of vocals, it's just amazing how unique every song is, and there is just so much heart packed into it all. The game itself is quite underrated too, but the music is on a whole different level, and it almost got left unnoticed. That would be a crying shame.
Biggest RPG Surprise of 2010: Chaos Rings (iOS) – This iOS game is what ultimately made me realize how much I've underestimated the power of the platform. Before Chaos Rings, most iOS games – including RPGs – felt like glorified flash game. When I tried out Chaos Rings, however, I was quite blown away by its quality. In addition, the game is also quite fun, and the plot is surprisingly original, too. All this time, I considered the DS and PSP to be the only handheld platforms, but now the iOS has became a serious contender in that arena. You just have to look in the right places for the gems.
Best 2009 RPG I've played in 2010: Half Minute Hero (PSP) – I just happened to pick up this game on a whim in January of this year, and if I'd had played it beforehand, it easily would have made my top 5 of 2009. Simply put, Half Minute Hero is filled with fun. I loved the parody, the quick-paced and varied levels, and the different gameplay modes. As much as I enjoy games with a more serious tone, it's nice to play something lighthearted for a change of pace.
2010's RPG that deserves less hate: Final Fantasy XIII (PS3 / 360) – I understand all the flaws present in XIII, and that it won't appeal to everyone, but I still happen to enjoy the game, putting aside the visuals and music. For starters, I was fine with the linearity, and while there is virtually nothing else to do in XIII aside from combat, I liked how fast-paced that combat was and how it managed to provide a good challenge that made me use my available resources instead of grinding my way to victory. I also liked the character interactions because they actually conveyed a sense of bonding and companionship, something that was absent in XII, despite the more sophisticated and mature writing. I also didn't mind the typical anime archtypes and some of the ridiculous lines, simply going with the flow instead of getting ticked by ridiculous things. Maybe I'm just special for having a very high threshold for idiocy. The game does have its flaws, many of which are major turnoffs for some gamers, but I ultimately accepted it for what it was instead of what it could be and enjoyed the ride all the way through, though your mileage definitely varies.
Most disappointing RPG of 2010: Final Fantasy XIV (PC) – On the other hand, there is another FF installment within the same year that let even me down. I was a huge XI player, and was greatly anticipating this next iteration of MMO. I'm quite easy to please, and rarely feel truly let down about something, but goes to show it can happen. XIV's problem was that it simply felt rushed and incomplete; there was fairly little to do, and there were numerous technical issues. Even so, I don't hate the game, it just doesn't truly feel ready. I'll give it another shot in the coming months, and hopefully by then it will be able to blow me away. I want the MMO to succeed, but now is not the time.
Best non-RPG of 2010: Trauma Team (Wii) – While it was not a strong year for RPGs on the Wii, there were still a lot of other games I enjoyed on the platform, Atlus' Trauma Team being among them. As an avid fan of the Trauma Center series, Trauma Team excelled in bringing a lot of new things to the franchise and ultimately made the series feel fresh again. You still have the familiar surgery gameplay, but in addition there are five other, vastly different modes to keep things interesting. The story is surprisingly interesting too and is complemented by cool characters (though it requires a suspension of disbelief for some of the stranger moments.) It's currently my favorite installment in the franchise, and I hope to see a sequel that makes use of this successful new formula.
Bayonetta (360 / PS3) – I'm quite a fan of campy storytelling and ridiculous, over the top moments, and Bayonetta manages to deliver them brilliantly. It doesn't hurt that it's a solid, fun action game, as expected of the Devil May Cry creator.
Kirby's Epic Yarn(Wii) – Easily my biggest guilty pleasure of the year. It's immensely easy, and obviously appeals to a younger demographic, but I found the art style awesome, the level design was great, and I couldn't help but have a smile on my face at how charming the whole game was.