Best RPG of 2023 that I Finished: Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
I’ve already said enough about how impressed I was with Cyberpunk 2077‘s first and only expansion, so I’ll give a quick summary here. Phantom Liberty condenses the base game’s greatest storytelling strengths into a refreshingly tight package. It could stand entirely on its own if not for the thoughtful ways it builds on the game’s themes and the characters of V and
Keanu Reeves Johnny Silverhand. Oh, and the combat and build options are so, so much more fun to play around with now. Phantom Liberty gave me a more narratively memorable, technically spectacular AAA RPG experience in 20 hours than most of its bloated contemporaries manage in 50+ hours. I wish it didn’t have to take the context of expansion content for such a game to be so considerate of our time.
Best RPG of 2023 that I Didn’t Finish: Baldur’s Gate III
Everything I just said above about bloated AAA RPGs finds a most prominent exception here. How long must you spend on a game before you can intuitively call it one of the best RPGs of all time? For Baldur’s Gate III, it took me around ten hours. Ten hours of some of the most varied combat and social/role-playing interactions. Ten hours of tightly packed and thoughtfully considered content supported by mind-boggling layers of interlocking game systems. Ten hours of struggling with gamepad controls for a game clearly not designed with them in mind—but who cares, because everything else is so damn good. I’m going to finish the hell out of this game in 2024. I may promise myself such things a lot and fail, but this one is a guarantee.
Best RPG of 2023 that Takes Place in 2023: Thirsty Suitors
Not that games need to take place in the year they come out, of course, but this industry is so caught up in the fantastical, the historical, and the futuristic that when a game manages to depict and say something meaningful about the time and place we’re currently living in it deserves a tip of the hat. Thirsty Suitors does just that. Its representation of South Asian family dynamics and LGBTQ+ relationships balances authenticity with style. The Scott Pilgrim narrative hook of ‘battling your exes’ is borrowed well here to support the memorable mix of turn-based fighting and dating-sim conversing the game is going for. Jala is an endearingly flawed protagonist to embody, and what we experience through her is a funny, honest, and heartfelt depiction of a young adult who needs to confront her mistakes as directly and awkwardly as those people she’s hurt demand.
Best Retro Throwback of 2023: Fading Afternoon
Oftentimes, especially in the indie sphere, new games are as much about iterating on the past as they are about innovating with fresh technical possibilities. Retro throwbacks of varying quality clog up digital storefronts, but the good ones do more than emulate a genre or style of yore. They modernize their inspirations to make them more playable and accessible while introducing fresh elements for a more distinguished and unique experience.
Fading Afternoon doesn’t just repackage the 90s beat ’em up. It creates an entirely fresh packaging that completely recontextualizes what a retro-style beat ’em up can be—much like the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series does on a 3D scale. But whereas Ryu Ga Gotoku’s beloved series revels in a stylistic mix of videogame-y maximalism and TV melodrama, Fading Afternoon prefers quiet, existential contemplation. The game’s world allows for open-ended role-playing that can result in designed non-linear structural divergences and entirely personal playthroughs alike. In my review, I cautioned that the game’s deliberately obtuse game design might not be for everyone. While true, any game that takes such artistic chances deserves a look.
Best Older RPG that I Finished (For the First Time) in 2023: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Talking about GOTYs is fun and all, but in this especially forward-looking industry, it’s always worth talking about the older games we’re continuing to discover and play. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is my favorite discovery of the year. The “First Time” marker here is important because I also replayed Final Fantasy VI, Disco Elysium, and Bloodborne for Retro Encounter this year, and those could be considered three of the best RPGs ever made. But, honestly, I think Dragon Quarter deserves mention alongside those canonized all-time classics, even if its appeal may be more niche and its praises less sung. The game’s design is so flawlessly executed and its elements so ahead of its time—which you could retroactively label as rogue-like, souls-like, tactics-like—that it feels like it could have come out in 2023 as a distinctly modern AA or indie release. Dragon Quarter transcends genre categorization in the most interesting ways you could ask for, whether twenty years ago on release or today.