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A Co-op Look at Co-op RPGs

Co-op Look at Co-op RPGs artwork of Princess Zelda with a Shiekah Slate with Chocobo and two Moogle buddies

RPGs are often a solitary activity. While some subcategories flourish with friends, your standard story-driven fare mostly caters to solo play. But it’s exciting to find an experience you can share with a friend, doubly so when you can do it in the same room. Some RPGs broadcast their multiplayer modes, but there are plenty of hidden gems that you might not have even considered as multiplayer games. That’s why we’ve got a collection of expected and unexpected co-op experiences to introduce you to today!

“Wait,” you’re surely asking, “what do you mean we? There is but a single author listed on this feature!” But nay! You shan’t be reading one perspective, but the opinions of both myself, Player One, and those of my favorite Player Two! In addition to breaking down the basics of each game, we’ll be observing the unique experiences of each player. Sometimes the second player is an equal partner, sometimes…not so much. We’ve taken a sampling of each game, ensuring we experienced most of what each game has to offer in a multiplayer experience. When possible, we’ve finished each game. Either way, we’re comfortable offering up our recommendations (and lack thereof), but first, a little perspective on who we are, in our own words.

Player one: I’m Player One! I’ve written for RPGFan for a while, which probably tells you a bit about me already. I play a lot of games. I’ve played a lot of old games. Most of ‘em are RPGs—the more niche, the better. My golden era is the PS2, when wild RPG concepts were getting AAA budgets from studios that really couldn’t afford AAA budgets, but I’ve been kicking around since Dragon Warrior taught me to read on the NES. I keep up on gaming news, I get excited when my favorite niche series get new releases, and I have Very Strong Opinions on the best Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. In short? I’m pretty similar to the average RPGFan reader. I’ll bring the deep RPG knowledge while I try to convince Player Two that crying during the opera scene in Final Fantasy VI is very normal, actually.

Player two: Hey, Player Two here. I am what you would call a capital “C” casual. I like to play games as long as I am having fun and happily drop them when the fun stops. I’m down with games on console, PC, or mobile with no discrimination between them. Messy, sure, but always down to try something new. Co-op games are great for me because I never have to worry about inventory management, menuing, allocating skill points, or min/maxing. I get to check in for the combat, puzzles and cutscenes and leave the rest to P1. Admit it, you all have a friend like me. Well, I’m here to tell your perpetual P2 what they are in for playing co-op RPGs with you: to help you sell them on a game you know they’d like if they just gave it a chance. 

So? Do you trust us to guide you? Too bad. We’re diving in!

Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition

Screenshot of the entire Tales of Vesperia cast on an airship.
2019 – Played on PlayStation 4

Tales of Vesperia is an action RPG from a series that’s been around since the SNES. Until recently, entries primarily took place on a 2D or semi 2D plane, lending a bit of fighting game flair to traditional RPG structure. Co-op in Vesperia allows up to three friends to control your party members in combat. The feature isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s easy to set up. Simply set additional characters to semi-auto or manual, and give your friend a controller.

Player one says: The Tales series has always been a multiplayer series to me. Ever since Tales of Eternia pulled me in on the original Playstation, I’ve played through every game possible with a friend or three. The idea of plugging in another controller and taking a friend through one of these vast, world-spanning adventures was incredibly novel at the time and, to a degree, still is. Few games want you to experience long, epic stories with friends, and Tales brings the JRPG melodrama in spades. 

Player one carries a lot of weight in Tales of Vesperia, as with all Tales games. After all, I was the one “playing the game.” Running around towns? Buying new equipment? Setting up skills and assigning new artes? That’s all player one, baby! As a long-time fan of spending my life in menus watching numbers go up, it’s pretty great. However, I noticed my co-pilot zoning out here and there, especially when I got to a new town and had all kinds of housekeeping before the next big story scene. The additional voiced scenes in the Definitive Edition helped keep player two engaged when the story kicked up, but most Tales of Vesperia multiplayer feels like playing an RPG in front of a friend while they watch. 

The benefits, though? Oh my goodness, how wonderful it is to never deal with questionable party AI (P2 – Just questionable Human Intelligence). Player Two knows when I need heals and never needs to be told to lay off buffs in thirty-second dungeon fights. Player Two can manage their own dang TP resources, and when they ask me for an orange gel, I’m a lot more forgiving than when the computer does. But maybe the most fun is seeing other play styles. Little bits of the game changed based on what player two wanted, especially in party choice.

Tales of Vesperia is a blast as player one. You get all the benefits of a meaty JRPG, but the lulls are paved over by having a friend by your side. You’ve got the best party member ready to bail you out of tough spots. And, if your nerdery is compatible, you can gush over which characters are the cutest or stroke your chins and decide “vigilante justice is very good, actually.”

Player two says: Tales of Vesperia is the first co-op game I ever finished with Player One. After years of listening to them gush over Tales of games, I decided to give it a chance and found my favorite RPG of all time. The story was amazing, the characters were fantastic, the style was fun, and I did not have to work too hard! The first few hours were a bit dull holding a timed-out controller in my hands while P1 explored every nook and cranny, talked to every townsperson, and ran tutorials that I was too zoned out to pay attention to. A common thread in co-op RPGs is that only player one participates in tutorials. I was frequently left in the dust on how things worked and needed a rundown of how new mechanics worked once I was free to join back in. 

Then a second character showed up. I was so excited to play! I got my controller back on, switched to semi-auto (a dream feature that let me autorun to the enemies instead of having to navigate the field), and checked out my skills. My skill. I could heal. By the time I found out how to target Player One, the fight was over and I was a little let down. That was until the beauty of the game started to kick in. The cast of different playable characters that I got to try out one after another gave constant new life to the game. Player One set my skills up how I liked and navigated all of the menus for me so I didn’t have to do anything but enjoy the game. Even when I wasn’t engaged in combat, the skits and cutscenes kept me in my seat. And when I did need to get up, I could hand the controller over to my six-year-old and they could hold their own in combat (P1 – That fact is debatable).

I never did get into the nuance of the combat system because I spaced out the tutorials, but I always felt like I was contributing and not bringing the game down due to a lack of skill. This was a great game to pick up or put down on a dime, and it didn’t punish me for not being a gamer. The ability to choose your difficulty by using or ignoring certain combat features was great and let me play to my ability level. All the cred I needed, I earned back rocking the box puzzles anyway, so an all-around win. 

Bottom line: So long as player two is fine taking breaks from gameplay, Tales of Vesperia is a blast with a friend.

Final Fantasy VI 

(P2 – You mean 3, right?)

(P1 – Sigh. Yes, P2, laugh and the world laughs with you.)

Final Fantasy VI Screenshot of God Kefka Battle
1994 – Played on SNES Classic

Final Fantasy VI hardly needs an introduction. An all-time classic from the Super Nintendo era, it’s easy to miss that the game even has a multiplayer mode. Drop into the options menu and you find an option to assign party slots to a second controller. In battle, the second player controls the selected party members. 

Player one says: Final Fantasy VI is top tier Final Fantasy as far as I’m concerned. The ultimate culmination of the SNES heyday, FFVI combines a huge cast of charming characters with a world-spanning story that takes turns few RPGs are willing to, even decades later. We picked this option because I had in my youth played Lord of the Rings: The Third Age with a friend, and its similar co-op mode had hit us just right. The ability to utilize that same concept and use it to introduce one of my favorite games of all time to my favorite person of all time was a no-brainer.

It’s a real shame the co-op mode shows its age more than the game itself does.

See, we had a great time working through the story and learning how each character worked, so much so that we’ll be finishing this game after writing this feature instead of stopping where we did. But to be honest, the second player is just a reason to keep P2’s eyes on the screen. Co-op actively makes the game feel harder as you need to depend on someone else noticing your health when it gets low. The disparity between P2 learning the game and my own muscle memory was a constant drain. Since the co-op really just gives the other player control of a couple characters, there is nothing unique that having a second player brings. You can’t both control the UI at the same time, meaning that the race of the ATB gets more frustrating as you wait for someone else to finish their turn while your character is burning time waiting with a full ATB bar. 

Worse, the game seems determined to make your experience sub-par. After-battle text bounces between first and second player control, making post-battle cleanup a pain. Worse is when your party changes. And if you’ve played Final Fantasy VI before, you know exactly how often that happens. You see, players each control a position in the party. In our case, I had the first and third members in the party, and Player Two had the second and fourth. The problem is, you have no choice in where characters go when the game changes them around, so you get thrust into battles controlling unfamiliar characters. This is a real bummer when someone unfamiliar with Blitz commands ends up with Sabin without expecting it. But worse is that once a character is in your party, control sticks with that character, not the slot. Let’s say our good friend Sabin ends up in the second slot, controlled by Player Two. So we go into the party order, swap Sabin with Cyan, Player Two’s favorite character in that section, but now Player Two owns the top slot (with Sabin) while I’m still piloting Cyan in the second slot. So we traverse back to the config menu to change each character manually. The fact that the game works by different rules seemingly at random is the true frustration here, and it’s the reason it’s hard to suggest Final Fantasy VI as a co-op game.

Player two says: As the youngest of four growing up when every game cartridge only had three save slots, I didn’t get to play a lot of video games as a kid. The multiplayer mode in FF3 (P1– Listen, we use roman numerals and the proper numbers in this household!) would have been a game-changer for me if I had known about it. Instead of sitting on the couch watching my older siblings playing for hours on end, I could have had a controller in hand, playing as my favorite characters, making combat decisions, and being involved in picking the pace of dialog. Player two is engaged from the first fight and I would have been over the moon to be a part of the whole game as a child!

As an adult playing with another adult, I don’t see the point. I had to keep a constant eye on the ATB to know when one of my characters was coming up instead of reacting instantly to combat menus. Clicking through post-battle text or in-battle cutscenes (which were super cool) alternated between players, so I had to keep the controller on hand and track who went last. It eventually got easier to mash through text boxes regardless of turn to save time figuring out who was controlling it. A bit of a pain when all other text and menuing were in Player One’s hands. It didn’t feel like I was contributing to the gameplay as much as slowing down the process. I didn’t want to have my cake and eat it too. I was happy to watch Player One eat that cake and get a bit of icing when the time was right. 

Juggling who controlled which character got a bit tricky at times because the game could never decide if the controller was assigned to a character or a slot. It added a lot of unnecessary menu time and a lot of surprises after party shakeups as to who was controlling which character. That said, I genuinely enjoyed this game and probably never would have picked it up to play on my own. I might not beat it with Player One, but I will absolutely beat it someday just to see the story. FF3 (P1 – I give up. You win. FF3 it is) isn’t the type of co-op to share with a friend, but if there is a kid at home who really wants to play a game with you, hand them a controller and assign them someone non-vital and let them enjoy one of the classics at your side. 

Bottom line: The game’s an all-time classic, and there are worse ways to share that with your less RPG-inclined friends. But the game never feels like it has carefully crafted multiplayer play, so only venture in if you can deal with some frustrations early on.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

Hyrule Warriors Age of Calamity Screenshot of two inventors looking at a tablet
2020 – Played on Switch

The Warriors series is no stranger to spinoffs based on existing franchises, but few saw the success of Hyrule Warriors. With Age of Calamity, the formula expands into a more robustly told semi-canonical story in the universe of a single Zelda game, Breath of the Wild. As with most games in the series, player two can drop in in the menu with a quick press of the + button, allowing friends to divide and conquer the series’ huge battlefields.

Player one says: My adoration for the Warriors series is already well documented on the site, but Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity might have the most RPG bonafides of the whole series. With deep equip systems, interesting progression, and a wealth of party members, Age of Calamity let my inner menu lover run wild. But better yet, those menus were quick and snappy, leaving more time for my favorite part of the game: digging into large-scale battles with Player Two.

If you’ve never played a Warriors game multiplayer before, let me tell you, it’s transcendent. Having these wide-open battlefields and having the ability to divide and conquer distant objectives is a truly satisfying co-op experience that keeps you talking the whole time. If you’ve played recent Warriors games, you’ve probably seen this available in single-player modes, simply opening a menu to direct other characters and swapping as needed. But multiplayer keeps you out of that pace-breaking menu, and it ensures the person you send off does their job once they get there.

And the single-player mechanics don’t get thrown by the wayside! You regularly have more than two characters available in a stage, so it’s as simple as sending that one character to a third location, then once you finish your objectives, it’s a race to see who gets to take over as the new character (and thus, not have to hoof it across the map). It’s a little bit of playful competition (P2 – There is nothing playful about the kill count competition)  that keeps you invested, as the main gameplay rarely gets too difficult, especially with a buddy by your side.

I had fun with many entries on this list, but this one (more than any others) was actively difficult to put down.

Player two says: If there is any game on this list that I was just gonna play anyway, this is it. Zelda games have always been system sellers for me; I can’t keep away from Dynasty Warriors: Gundam releases no matter how little the story changes from game to game. Mashing the two things together is a winner from all angles. It is essentially a prequel to Breath of the Wild and I loved it. Little baby Sidon? I mean, come on!

My biggest complaint is more a pet peeve than anything. Player two doesn’t get to participate in the tutorial level. While player one gets to play a level all on their own and have the controls spoon-fed to them, I was left in the dust. This is a problem with several two-player games, but it was extra annoying in this one because of how much action the shoulder buttons get. I am not used to those guys being part of my rotation. The learning curve was steep, but so worth it. There are so many unique ways to smash through hordes of enemies with each character. Everyone has their own mix of melee, magic, items, and more to choose from. New characters come in hard and fast when you stick to the story, so there is always someone new to try out. 

While swapping through characters scattered on the map to get to objectives done quickly, there was never a point where I was upset at playing a given character. There was always something genuinely useful for me to be doing in combat, and there was a minimum of fussing with menus between fights so we could move on fast, or Player One could explore stats and side content while I was out of the room without me missing the story. We both got to have our fun, and both of us working together enhanced the experience. The co-op was a game-changer and it was all towards good. 

Bottom line: Warriors games are always a blast with friends, but Age of Calamity might sit near the top of the bunch for sharing the action with a friend. Coordinating through large maps keeps communication open, and the diverse characters are exciting regardless of which player you are. We have plenty of excellent games on this list, but none kept our attention quite like Age of Calamity.

Divinity Original Sin…kinda

Divinity Original Sin screenshot of battle on an icy path
2014 – Played on PlayStation 4

Divinity Original Sin is a classically styled CRPG, complete with deep roleplaying options, ample inventory management, and character progression that’s best served with a couple spreadsheets. The game is built from the ground up for co-op play, with each new game starting by creating two main characters whether you’re in single- or multiplayer. Starting up with a friend is as easy as selecting two player at the start screen.

Player one says: Listen, I have a lot of love for these types of games, even if JRPGs are my wheelhouse. I’ll play more of this game and/or its sequel on my own. But we didn’t get very far in this one… I’ll let P2 explain it.

Player two screams: Short story, I rage quit in under twenty minutes. It takes two to three menus to do literally anything except for walking. None of my actions happened in real time, but the world still worked in real time. In the time it took me to select a poison trap, decide I wanted to interact with it, and find my trap disarming kit, I was nearly dead. Behind the screen blocking menus, I had apparently walked into the poison without seeing, but I still had to back out of the menus to step out of the poison. The controls are clunky, the characters are ugly, the menus are dense, and not at all intuitive, and I hated it. Stupid game. 

Player one adds: So yeah, we’re not reviewing this one.

Wes Iliff

Wes Iliff

Wes learned to read playing Dragon Warrior on the NES and they haven't stopped playing RPGs since. Through a superhero-esque origin story, they started writing like crazy and eventually ended up writing features at a site they'd been reading since high school, which was... some time ago. They love sharing the joy in whatever flawed masterpiece has caught their attention this week, usually to the captive audience of their spouse, children, and small menagerie of pets.