When it comes to gaming, RPGs consistently offer the best opportunity to immerse yourself in wonderful worlds and rich stories. Captivating characters, gripping sagas and mind-blowing plot twists are all part and parcel of the genre.
Modern technology may have enhanced immersion with improved voice acting and graphics, but many older games tell timeless stories that hold up even decades later.
Featuring a little bit of everything, here are 20 terrific RPGs with the best plots.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon
Yakuza: Like A Dragon has a lot going for it, not least of all its wonderful characters and compelling narrative. The outstanding setting of Yokohama has such a supply of activities that the story can actually be neglected for hours at a time, but it’s a testament to the plot that it always finds a way to pull you right back in.
Like A Dragon may be the seventh main Yakuza entry, but its brand-new cast and plot make it a perfect starting point – especially for JRPG fans craving a good-old turn-based battle system. This is unashamedly inspired by Dragon Quest, complete with a job system that’ll both amuse and entertain.
Yakuza’s main trademark is its ability to juxtapose serious, complex themes with bizarre humour, sometimes within minutes of each other. Protagonist Ichiban Kasuga may be left for dead, hitting rock bottom as a homeless man in a strange city, but soon finds himself coerced into drinking baby milk by grown adults in nappies.
The final act contains some utterly brilliant performances, in a series of heart-wrenching, dramatic scenes. I opted for the Japanese dub (it’s a Yakuza game!), but this doesn’t detract from the emotional impact one iota. Yakuza: Like A Dragon is simply one of the best RPGs of the generation.
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Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy was obviously well in its stride by the time Final Fantasy X was released in 2001, but this was the moment that elevated the series – and perhaps gaming in general – to a new standard of graphics and cinematography.
Tidus’s story starts as an easily relatable one – he’s tossed headfirst into a strange, unfamiliar land where his ignorance is taken for insanity. It turns out he’s a thousand years in the future, and finds himself becoming a guardian to a summoner fated to save the world from the colossus known as Sin.
Twists and surprises are par for the course within Final Fantasy, but the most notable aspect of Final Fantasy X’s plot is its love story. Many romances are shoehorned in based on little more than a male and female lead occupying the same tale, but Tidus and Yuna’s relationship grows naturally from acquaintances to friends, to more. The famous ‘Suteki Da Na’ lake scene is surely enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the most stone-hearted player.
I won’t spoil anything further on the off-chance you’re yet to play it, but the ending is one of the most emotional in any game. If you haven’t got round to Final Fantasy X by now, then it’s time to pick up the remastered version and immerse yourself in the world of Spira. This is your story.
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
Being one of the most popular RPG series of all, Dragon Quest has a few contenders for best story. However, it’s Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride that holds a special place in my heart, with a plot that spans three generations and packs some major emotional punches along the way.
It’s not often that a gaming plot spends significant time in such distinct phases of the main character’s life. He goes from childhood adventure to adult independence and familial responsibility, with each act conveying a different atmosphere altogether.
The protagonist faces many trials and tribulations on his journey, ranging from personal loss to a period as a slave. There’s something rather inspiring about the way he goes about his business, marching determinedly around the world towards the next objective – especially on the overworld, whose theme somehow captures this perfectly.
Arguably, his biggest test of all is choosing between three prospective brides. This choice, made by the player, influences the remainder of the story significantly. There isn’t anything overly complicated within Dragon Quest V’s plot, but that’s the charm – in the end, it’s all about family.
Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions
Despite not being a mothership Final Fantasy entry, Tactics is a cult classic which retains a passionate army of fans to this day. Being outside the main series perhaps allowed licence for something different altogether. The isometric, strategic combat was a departure from the classic turn-based formula, as was its plot.
Don’t let the friendly sprites fool you, Final Fantasy Tactics is a complex, political and often brutal tale. Betrayals and deaths are commonplace as factions vie for regency of the throne of Ivalice. The story takes place in the aftermath of war, and follows a mercenary called Ramza whose role in the subsequent conflicts are being investigated by a historian after the fact.
The War of the Lions is a 2007 remaster with some additions to its excellent job system, as well as some extra characters and references to the other Final Fantasy games. Among these is Balthier from Final Fantasy XII (which is also set in Ivalice) and Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud, who was actually in the original as a playable character.
If Game of Thrones (excluding season 8) was a tactical, grid-based RPG then it probably wouldn’t be far away from Final Fantasy Tactics.
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Tales of the Abyss
The long-running Tales series has produced a multitude of interesting plots and characters over the years. Tales of the Abyss may not quite make my personal top tier in terms of gameplay, but its story is definitely one of the most moving and thought-provoking.
Main character Luke Fon Fabre starts off as a spoiled, unlikeable brat whose flaws and failures constantly alienate all around him. Luke’s development is undoubtedly one of the high points of Tales of the Abyss, where we witness a growth that slowly but surely earns the respect of his companions one by one. Right at the forefront is an excellent relationship arc with female lead Tear.
Furthermore, the game’s main plot twist develops into an intriguing question about the nature of life. Despite a bit too much backtracking, Tales of the Abyss eventually leads into a final act that genuinely keeps you guessing as to the way things will play out.
It’s basically a mandatory requirement for Tales games to feature a dramatic one-on-one battle towards the end of the game, and the showdown within Tales of the Abyss is one of the very best – set against a terrific battle theme. The 3DS remaster is the best way to enjoy the game.
The World Ends With You
There is a lot to love about The World Ends With You, with a catchy soundtrack, irresistible style and revolutionary battle system. However, it’s the wonderful, unusual plot that sticks most firmly in the memory from a 2008 DS release now remastered on Nintendo Switch.
Tokyo’s Shibuya district is one of Japan’s fashion capitals, and also plays host to The Game, a mysterious competition that has embroiled protagonist Neku as the story commences. Tokyo’s residents can somehow no longer perceive him, but there is little time to contemplate things. A relentless series of instructions keeps Neku on his toes as he seeks to unravel the truth about The Game, whilst desperately trying not to lose it.
Apt for the setting, Neku’s fashion sense has a role in gameplay as he equips pins to bestow powers that can literally be touched and controlled during battle. For this reason, the handheld mode on Ninendo Switch is the superior choice – docked mode loses the effect of this innovation, which made it so acclaimed upon its original release.
The Switch version also features a brand new epilogue section, with some additional story and gameplay content. For this reason, you’re best snagging the remaster and utilising the touch screen. The World Ends With You is full of surprises, and fascinating character development.
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Divinity Original Sin 2
Divinity Original Sin 2 is a hugely impressive title, successfully funded on Kickstarter with an eventual backing of over two million dollars.
The modest resources of developers Larian Studios are put into context by the fact that first Divinity Original Sin would have left them completely bankrupt if it hadn’t succeeded. Thankfully, it became their fastest-selling game and helped spawn a superb sequel set some 1,200 years later than its predecessor, meaning there is no requirement to play the first.
Divinity Original Sin 2’s setting of Rivellon contains deep lore that can only come in the high fantasy genre, colouring the world with rich detail and fascinating characters. The main character is known as the Godwoken, who is destined to save the land from the evils of the Void.
The path of the Godwoken is rife with perilous quests, and many shocks and revelations that put Rivellon’s history into context before a crucial player choice that dictates the final conclusion. As an excellent all-round game, Divinity Original Sin 2 is a great option for those looking to dip their toe into the world of WRPGs – especially as it’s on virtually every main platform.
This Bandai Namco RPG may have some anime tropes within its characters but the captivating cyberpunk setting more than makes up for this, with a surprising and interesting plot to boot.
A choice between two protagonists spices things up, as the distinct character paths differ dramatically, making it recommended to play through both. Yuito is the male choice, a fairly typical do-gooder JRPG hero. Meanwhile, female option Kasane is a colder, deeper choice who ultimately proves the more interesting.
The main draw of Scarlet Nexus, which had me placing my pre-order after about two minutes of footage, is its world. Dubbed “Brain punk” by its creators, the premise is a civilisation with the ability to plant special powers within human brains such as telekinesis, elemental control and teleportation. On the other hand, these technological advances have led to an Orwellian level of surveillance which – of course – holds some dark secrets beneath the surface.
Characters can share powers, leading to an awesome battle system where players must switch around their abilities in the heat of battle to best tackle the distinct weaknesses of each enemy. It’s a wonderful feeling to implement each necessary power one by one and efficiently take down a group of differing foes.
Before long, the plot turns pretty dark, with plenty of gripping mysteries propelling it forward. Cut-scenes swap between manga-style panels to real-time action, which is a novel idea that works well. If you enjoy it, there was also an animé released simultaneously to the game.
Shadow Hearts Covenant
The original Shadow Hearts told a moving tale in itself, but the sequel proved better in just about every respect. Shadow Hearts Covenant was one of the most underrated RPGs on the PS2, and it’s a shame the subsequent titles have never quite lived up to its example.
Shadow Hearts Covenant takes the interesting step of adding supernatural elements into real-life history, resulting in an alternate timeline that involves such figures as Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas II. A spooky 1915 setting sees the party travel to many actual locations during World War I.
The battle system is also an interesting take, employing the timing-based Judgement Ring that tests your rhythm as well as your penchant for danger. Either settle for an easy standard attack or aim for a riskier critical hit that could fail altogether if you mistime your press.
A great cast of multi-dimensional characters bounce off each other superbly, with hilarious dialogue to accompany the emotional stakes that underpin their motivations. It’s hard to pull off an effective balance of silly and serious, but Shadow Hearts Covenant impressively succeeds, eventually delivering a wonderful conclusion that is satisfying, surprising and touching in equal measure.
As far as beloved PS1 classics go, Suikoden 2 holds up far better than most. This is in no small part due to a tremendous story, centred around superb character relationships, political intrigue and the brutal consequences of war.
One of the main reasons Suikoden 2 is so beloved is surely the very fact that it doesn’t pull any punches. A topsy-turvy plot constantly winds through loss, sacrifice and betrayal, taking you by surprise on many occasions.
They say a story is only as good as its villain, and Suikoden 2’s main antagonist Luca Blight is a compelling case in point. Heinous acts are underpinned by motivations that may not exactly be sympathetic, but promote him well above an adversary who is simply evil for the sake of it. Without spoiling anything, other antagonists are given the dignity of understandable and even tragic character arcs.
Suikoden 2’s turn-based battle system is still palatable, with a satisfying recruitment mechanic that has you hunting the world for recruits. The latter ultimately decides which ending you acquire, and it’s most certainly recommended that you collect enough characters to score the best conclusion.
NieR Automata/NieR Replicant
I’ve grouped these two bizarrely brilliant titles together, due to their connection in the same timeline. However, the story is not a direct continuation – NieR Replicant, recently remade into NieR Replicent ver 1.22474487139 is chronologically first, set thousands of years prior to NieR Automata.
There’s a reason both games have garnered a passionate fanbase, and why their creator Yoko Taro is considered a cult legend. Above all, it’s the story, weaving powerful and thought-provoking themes through some wonderful characters. Granted, both NieR Replicant ver 1.22474487139 and NieR Automata feature fluid, enjoyable action combat, but these titles are a place to challenge your beliefs about good and evil, along with the meaning of life itself.
Both soundtracks are an incredible joy to behold, largely sung in beautiful, made-up lyrics known as the “Chaos language”. Somehow, these tracks never fail to encapsulate the beauty or peril of the landscape, along with the emotional impact of the scenes playing out. There’s no doubt the music supplements the narrative considerably, with NieR Automata’s OST winning Best Score/Soundtrack at the VGAs.
I’ve intentionally remained tight-lipped on the story, as Nier is an experience best enjoyed with minimal prior knowledge. Avoid spoilers, but make sure you unlock every main ending (we have a spoiler-free endings guide for Nier Replicant here). It’s perfectly permissible to play NieR Automata first, but my personal recommendation is to play in chronological order. Dive in, and prepare for a blown mind.
Undoubtedly one of the most absorbing, intriguing and demanding stories out there, Xenogears dabbles with religious and philosophical undertones. Its modest opening in the tranquil town of Lahan soon catapults protagonist Fei Fon Wong on a journey through the dystopian world, embroiling him in a war between nations and endless giant robot battles.
Just when you think you’ve wrapped your head around the latest development, Xenogears will throw another one your way, shattering your contentment and veering the plot in yet another unexpected direction. The twists and turns are not always the easiest to follow – somewhat hampered by a mediocre translation – but are mind-blowing nonetheless.
That’s without neglecting the romance, which is an excellent aspect of the plot, handled maturely and easily making the grade as one of the best RPG love stories. Fei and Elly are another couple who don’t conveniently fall into each other’s arms. Fate may indeed give a helping hand, but their relationship is earned through the experiences and traumas faced together.
The main downside is that Xenogears succumbed to some time restraints during its development, resulting in a second disk that largely resorts to lengthy, text-based exposition dumps. Apparently, the alternative was to end the game at the conclusion of disk one, so we’ll take it! However, the cut corners is one of the reasons Xenogears is regularly mentioned in prospective remake conversations. I’d personally love it to get the full, next-gen, 3D treatment.
Persona 4 Golden
The Persona series has gone from strength to strength over the last few years, with Persona 5, its definitive Royal edition and the multitude of spin-off titles earning enormous success. By now, the mixture of social time management and dangerous dungeon crawling has been tweaked into a polished, stylish blend.
However, when it comes to the best plot within the series, I’ve opted for Persona 4. this is largely down to one main factor that elevates it above other modern titles – the characters. The camaraderie between the cast is infectious, as they take centre stage one at a time. Each dungeon generally finds a new character facing the darkest side of their personality, embodying the game’s main theme of pursuing one’s true self.
Elsewhere, the overarching plot is a murder-mystery with some compelling arcs, and revelations that are guaranteed to take you aback. The versatile soundtrack is one of my favourite of all time, and the sleepy vibe of Inaba, the game’s main setting, is a great advertisement for the simple joys of rural Japan (well, except for the murders).
The dungeons are set in the foggy TV world, which is not quite as cool as Persona 3’s ‘Dark Hour’ but probably has the edge over Persona 5’s Metaverse, where Morgana’s constant new rules felt rather convoluted. Now freed from the shackles of the PS Vita and onto Steam, there’s never been a better time to enjoy Persona 4 Golden, which is a definitive edition with a huge amount of worthwhile additional content.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
If you haven’t experienced the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt by now, then there can surely be no excuse. CD Projekt Red set a new standard for the increasingly popular open world action-adventure-RPG genre now emulated by just about every triple-A game.
Again, the characters on display are fantastic, pulled from excellent source material in the form of Andrzej Sapkowski’s collection of short stories and novels. As a fan of the books myself, it’s impressive to see how well the iconic locations have been brought to life with incredible detail.
What really sets the Witcher 3 apart is in the way each and every quest, whether connected to the main plot or not, has a level of depth that puts entire other games to shame. The protagonist is a mutated monster hunter, leading to epic battles and gripping investigations. Not that the main story is anything to sniff at, offering many difficult and compelling choices that affect the outcome of each story segment.
The Witcher 3 is also one of the best examples of DLC done right – the extra episodes Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine are terrific additions every bit as intriguing as the main game. These are included within the definitive edition, and since The Witcher 3 is available on every main console it’s the perfect time to test your mettle as Geralt of Rivia.
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Fallout: New Vegas
Speaking of side quests, one of the very few games to hold a candle to The Witcher 3’s is Fallout: New Vegas. Bethesda often has a rocky time with bugs and glitches, and Fallout: New Vegas was no exception upon release, but once they were ironed out New Vegas was roundly accepted as one of their best titles.
The post-apocalyptic setting is the lynchpin of the Fallout series, and the area surrounding Las Vegas fits perfectly. Transforming a city so often teeming with life into a barren, derelict wasteland brilliantly emphasises the struggles left to the human race after nuclear catastrophe.
Fallout: New Vegas has a plot that starts with a simple premise, but later expands into an engaging conflict full of choices that impact the story’s direction. The protagonist is delivering a mysterious item called the Platinum Chip but is shot, robbed and left for dead by an assailant. Not a great start.
Your quest for vengeance leads directly into a clash between factions wishing to seize control of the Hoover Dam, which has effectively become the seat of power. Character decisions are crucial right up to the end, where your loyalties are challenged and questioned. Though repeat playthroughs are possible, the beauty of Fallout New Vegas is that there really is no clear right or wrong – and no established canon ending – it’s simply down to whichever cause resonates best with each player.
Ys VIII Lacrimosa of Dana
The Ys series has been around for a long time, but its most recent titles have undoubtedly hit a new high. The trademark frenetic action combat of the series has always been exhilarating, but Falcom have added considerable improvements with enjoyable exploration, relationship events and multiple playable characters who can be swapped around during battle.
Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana may have a strange name, but is a superb place to jump into the series. The protagonist Adol Cristin, self-proclaimed adventurer, ends up shipwrecked on a strange island named Seiren and must escape home. This is the modest, simplistic beginning to a story that ends up packed full of mysteries.
There is far more to Seiren than meets the eye, and by the mid-way point there is a plethora of tantalising questions posed, particularly Adol’s strange telepathic connection to the titular maiden Dana. All such mysteries are invariably addressed in a satisfying way, and I was genuinely on the edge of my seat during Ys VIII’s final hours.
The sequel, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox takes the successful formula and improves on it in a few ways, making it a great place to turn next. However, when it comes to the best story, I maintain that Ys VIII has the edge.
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Final Fantasy VII
Still arguably the greatest RPG of all time, Final Fantasy VII gets just about everything right. Superb characters, breathtaking music, a revolutionary battle system and an intriguing world all set it apart as a truly legendary game.
Since the jury is still out on the entire episodic Final Fantasy VII Remake series, I don’t hesitate in offering the original up as one of the genre’s greatest stories. Granted, some of the plot points could be explained a bit better, but since it’s been around for decades there are endless plot explanations and summaries to fill in any blanks. Even with dated graphics, the emotional moments hit home, and I’ll maintain that Final Fantasy VII contains one of the best gaming plot twists ever (no, not the end of disk one. I’m talking about the revelation in the lifestream on disk two).
Leading man Cloud Strife takes a lot of limelight within the Final Fantasy series, with his iconic sword and haircut making its way into mainstream cognition. Sometimes his style and status actually detract from how well developed he is as a protagonist. Cloud may initially play the part of cool, composed mercenary, but there is far more to his personal journey, spanning three magnificent disks.
Final Fantasy VII is perfectly paced, and knows when to ramp up the action as well as take a breather, such as dating one of the female characters (or Barret) at the Gold Saucer amusement park. If you’ve lived under a rock and missed out, or decided to wait until the full Remake is released, then this is a grave error. I implore you to play through the original at least once in your lifetime.
There’s pure joy to be found in Chrono Trigger’s romp through time. A chance meeting, a malfunctioning time machine, and a grandfather paradox set the wheels in motion, before a realisation that the very world is in peril unless the party can defeat the monstrous creature Lavos.
Chrono Trigger’s characters are undoubtedly one of the best RPG casts. Silent protagonist Crono is strong and stoic with a penchant for landing himself in trouble – such as a hilarious trial scene that gently pokes fun of how us much us RPG players obsessively explore and examine everything. His party includes the likes of childhood-friend and tech-whizz Lucca, warm but rebellious princess Marle and admirable, formidable knight Frog… who is indeed a frog.
For all the fun and charm of Chrono Trigger, it contains its fair share of high emotional stakes and surprising plot twists. Many different time eras are visited, each bringing something fresh and unique. There are some other neat mechanics at play which were ahead of its time – such as multiple endings depending on many gameplay decisions, and even the opportunity to fight the final boss early doors if you dare.
A stunning soundtrack, likeable characters and a well-aged ATB battle system all contribute to Chrono Trigger’s deserving place in the all-time RPG hall of fame.
As a low-budget indie release mostly developed by a single person, it may surprise you to note that Undertale has one of the most unique stories out there, starting with a young child falling into a realm of monsters known as The Underground.
The graphics – particularly in battle – are incredibly old school, and Undertale decidedly satirises the tropes of the genre with clever dialogue and references. Here, the true genius of the game is revealed – the enemies. Unlike generic RPG monsters slaughtered by the hundred, each Undertale enemy leads to a distinct battle style, and ultimately a choice of whether you even defeat them.
At first glance, the premise of a child seeking to return home seems simple, but there are some huge surprises in store. Undertale is another game that is best played with as little prior knowledge as possible. The good news is that it’s a short one to get through. However, you may well reach the end and feel compelled to give it another playthrough. I’ll say no more.
The Trails series
I’m cheating here and I know it. Trails is now a mammoth collection of different series, starting with Trails in the Sky all the way back in 2004 and still going strong. It has spawned the connected Trails of Cold Steel series and another duology set in the city of Crossbell. The common threads are excellent turn-based combat, an ‘Orbment’ system that rivals Final Fantasy VII’s materia, and piles of engaging, humorous dialogue.
Picking just one game, or perhaps even one series, is almost impossible as they interconnect and should not be played in isolation. The Trails in the Sky trilogy is probably the best overarching plot, but Trails of Cold Steel has the biggest and best collection of characters – as well as a better gameplay experience. The Crossbell duology has earned rave reviews from those who have played it, but it won’t be localised in the West until 2022. The reason these games take so damn long to localise is simple – the translation involves literally thousands of pages worth of dialogue, descriptions and lore.
There’s an enormous cast that features memorable characters on both sides of the conflict. The most common antagonists, a mysterious group called Ouroboros, feature many morally-grey villains who are just as interesting as the heroes. The later titles coalesce the stories together, with Trials of Cold Steel 4 amounting to a crossover event that rivals any Avengers film.
As such, the best thing any turn-based RPG fan can do is simply start playing them. Trails is showing no signs of slowing up. There are new titles and ports on the horizon, sure to expand the lore and character roster even further.
There are enough incredible RPG stories here to fill thousands of hours. Are there any others deserving of a mention? Comment below.