I had a difficult 2023 for several personal reasons, but finding excellent new RPGs to play was never a challenge. I’d love to talk about a few of them; first a few honorable mentions, then my six favorite 2023 RPGs.
Missed Connections: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Baldur’s Gate III, Diablo IV, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, Lies of P, Eternights, Star Ocean: The Second Story R, Persona 5 Tactica, Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince.
Of the games listed above, I either played it for fewer than 10 hours (Tears of the Kingdom) or didn’t log a single minute (all of the others) despite keen interest. It’s a little sad that my list of games I didn’t try is more impressive than the list of games I played, but them’s the breaks. Better luck in 2024 (I have my eye on YOU, Star Ocean 2R).
2023 Honorable Mentions
Retro Encounter of the Year – Bloodborne
I podcasted less than I wanted to in 2023, but I’m glad I returned from my hiatus in time to record two episodes on Bloodborne a few months ago. Bloodborne is a masterpiece. I don’t know of any other action RPG that combines atmosphere, action, style, level design, boss fights, weapon and skill selection, and findable secrets executed at this high a level simultaneously. I was by far the least experienced Souls player on the podcast panel, but I won’t be a neophyte for much longer. Bloodborne has me (blood)thirsty for more from FromSoftware.
Surprise RPG of the Year – Like a Dragon: Ishin!
Over the last few years, the more I read about Like a Dragon‘s history as a franchise, the more certain I was that the two PS3-era samurai games would never come out in English. They contain some objectionable content, scads of Japanese historical context, and enough actors’ licenses to create issues for a worldwide release. But in 2023, we got one! The Like a Dragon: Ishin! remaster was beyond my expectations, not only because it’s a great open-world samurai action RPG, but because we actually got it. Damn. I enjoyed playing Ishin, even if I spent most of my time with the game betting on chicken races and collecting materials for forging katanas.
Borderline RPG of the Year – Street Fighter 6
RPGFan does not cover Street Fighter 6 for very sensible reasons, most of them being that it’s an arcade-style fighting game. HOWEVER, SF6‘s World Tour mode is an RPG-adjacent smorgasbord of gaining levels, exploring multiple open areas, and building relationships with Street Fighter 6‘s iconic cast. If it qualified, Street Fighter 6 would be my RPG of the year because not only does it play like a dream, but you can teach Ryu how to use a smartphone!
Top 6 RPGs of 2023
6. For Excellence in Helping the Homeless: Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name
Like a Dragon Gaiden began life as a DLC episode for Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth (that game’s answer to The Kaito Files), and it shows. This is a detached story that has a few great moments of action and drama (including a heartbreaker of a final cutscene), but feels empty compared to a consummate Like a Dragon title. The best part of Gaiden is assisting the delightful Akame, an underground altruist in Osaka who maintains an information network of the homeless and unfortunate. That’s cool and all, but I expect better from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio.
5. For Excellence in Feeling Nostalgia When There Is None: Sea of Stars
Sea of Stars is gorgeous, with beautiful 16-bit-inspired animations and environments. The dungeon design is stellar, both in layouts and navigability. The character designs are also quite appealing, with my favorite being a golem (of sorts) that joins near the game’s end. Also, Sea of Stars is heavily inspired by Chrono Trigger, my favorite SNES RPG. So why does Sea of Stars finish in the bottom half of my list? I never connected strongly to the writing in Sea of Stars, with certain character moments and plot twists feeling weightless. Also, each hero only learns three or four skills plus a few limited combos, making the otherwise solid combat lack variety after the first few hours. I like Sea of Stars, but it’s not the modern-retro classic I hoped it might be.
4. For Excellence in Dramatic Transformation Sequences: Fire Emblem Engage
This might be the weakest Fire Emblem story since the NES era, with cartoonishly grim-dark villains and hero designs so over-the-top they might fit better into a hypothetical Tokyo Mirage Sessions sequel. And the summoned emblem characters (one each from all the prior non-remake Fire Emblem games) are fun, but might seem like they’re fandom-pandering.
I don’t care. Engage is the most fun I’ve had with Fire Emblem in a decade. The powerful units and skills, interesting and sometimes challenging maps, and even the between-battles tasks like cooking meals and feeding your pets; every theater of gameplay is satisfying. Engage forgoes the deep relationship-building of Fire Emblem: Three Houses to deliver excellent maps, strategic battles, and the opportunity to transform into Kamen Rider Marth. Of course I loved it.
3. For Excellence in Video Game Fishing: Dave the Diver
Rogue-likes and rogue-lites thrive on creating a compelling gameplay loop that is different every time, but entertaining enough to repeat over and over despite the game (usually) lacking the trappings of more traditional RPGs. Dave the Diver‘s loop would be a fishing minigame in just about any other RPG: you catch fish during the day, and sell sushi at night.
…except that it’s so much more. In search of more exotic and expensive fish, our hero Dave makes first contact with an ancient civilization of mer-people, thwarts an eco-terrorist organization, rescues dolphins, whales, and manatees, and subdues enraged prehistoric sea life. Bancho, Dave’s sushi chef business partner, faces his critics and personal demons head-on in cooking and serving minigames in a side story redemption arc. I had so much fun with Dave the Diver, all other video game fishing pales in comparison.
2. For Excellence in Pure RPG Spectacle: Final Fantasy XVI
I struggle to think of my favorite part of Final Fantasy XVI. The stylish, action-packed combat with dozens of moves? The excellent dialog and acting performances? The boss fights, each more awe-inspiring than the last? The characters, who are more endearing the more time you spend with them? The sensational musical score, which rises and falls with the choreographed action setpieces in those great boss fights?
FFXVI has faults – the side quests are boring in the game’s first half (but are far improved later), and the dark tone and constant suffering of certain groups of characters aren’t always appealing. But at the risk of hyperbole, this is the best original, non-MMO Final Fantasy game in at least 20 years. Final Fantasy XVI might be an uneven game, but the highs far outweigh the lows. I got chills during multiple boss fights. I gasped at specific cutscenes. I’m excited to play the DLC.
1. For Excellence in Being Greater Than the Sum of its Parts: Octopath Traveler II
The first Octopath Traveler features eight disparate short stories starring individuals. For each traveler’s tale, the other seven protagonists are silent props only present in random encounters and boss fights. There are optional tavern scenes and a unifying final challenge, but they’re afterthoughts. I enjoyed Octopath Traveler, but much more for the rock-solid turn-based combat, enjoyable job system tinkering, and gorgeous Yasunori Nishiki soundtrack.
But then Octopath Traveler II happened, and I was blown away. OTII preserves all of the strengths of its predecessor but makes improvements in every facet. Its map is laden with more secrets, the combat has more abilities and nuances, and the soundtrack is outstanding. But most importantly, OTII has a far superior narrative and characters, with more story connections and a hugely dramatic, entertaining final arc.
This is a cast for the ages. All eight main characters are strong enough to carry their own RPG and feel more unique than ever, with character-specific super moves and passive abilities that aren’t tied to the job system. I loved Temenos’ church murder mystery so much that I’d happily play a 60-hour version. Castti’s tale was so riveting that I might stop rolling my eyes at amnesiac characters in RPGs for good. Partitio is the greatest video game capitalist since Scrooge McDuck. For fulfilling the promise of the Octopath core concept and for giving the world these eight lovable leading lads and ladies, Octopath Traveler II is my RPG of the Year.