Isometric RPGs are enjoying a Renaissance these past few years, with projects like Divinity, Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, The Banner Saga among others making a rather big splash, so to make sure the classics get some attention too, we made a list of some landmark titles in the genre.
As I was playing Fallout 4 last year, I got a bit bored and started thinking baked beans. And then about the insides of a capybara. Then I thought “bugger me, I haven’t been this bored since I last played Call of Duty!” And then I thought about more beans, transmission in a rally car, and then I remembered I was supposed to be playing an RPG. I then laughed to myself, after that there was a baked bean powered rally car, and I have completely forgotten where I was supposed to go with this. So here is a list of rather obscure old school RPGs that you should play, you discerning player of videogames, you.
Vampires the Masquerade: Bloodlines (Third Person) and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (Isometric)
VTMB and Arcanum, made by the long defunct Troika Games, are horrendously named. Troika couldn’t have picked more awkward names if they tried, and since this is 2/3rds of their entire oeuvre, I speculate they were doing this on purpose. Digressing, These two are absolutely marvellous RPGs. They are also very, very broken, but are one of those games that have fan patches more comprehensive than a team of German engineers working for the space programme. These fan patches are less about fixing issues and more about finishing the game. Also the combat kinda sucks, no two ways around it.
All those facts don’t take a single bit away from the fact that these two games are arguably the best CRPGs ever made. In Vampires, class choice determines the entire genre of game you’ll be playing, for instance Nosferatu cannot show themselves to humans, so you’re playing a tense stealth game, travelling by sewers, hiding from others, sneaking past, while Torador are honey tongued bastards who would talk their way out of any situation, and most of the time you can. But if you REALLY want to have some fun, you’ll play as a Malkavian. They’re politely referred to as “Batshit insane”. So if you ever wanted to debate a stop sign or generally wanted to experience Schizophrenia, play as a Malkavian. Besides, what other game lets you play as a flippin’ 90s vampire in all it’s sexy bell-bottoms-clad Eurobeat-grooving glory? It’s not just coolness, this game’s quests are more noire stories, with you as the detective, than actual fetch-dat-kill-dem-quests. Also for all you brain dead lovin’ fellas, there’s a zombie shooting quest where you have a buckshot.
Arcanum: Of Burgers and Pita is about a world full of magic and adventure! Also steam engines and guns. And unlike a lazy hash of a setting The Order:1886 made of it’s setting, Arcanum is all about how the at-odds forces of magic and technology coexist. Here’s a spoiler for ya, they coexist uncomfortably. I won’t spoil much of the game for you because of it’s heavily narrative based nature, but rest assured you’re in for a hell of a time,. Well, I’ll spoil it a little bit: It opens with you on a Zeppelin! And you’re attacked by ogres! In heel-flipping, monocle-dropping fighter planes! By jove, old chap!
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (Third Person)
Right, everyone remembers KOTOR as the best RPG BioWare ever made in 3D and have been trying to ape ever since, don’t they? What if i told you it had a sequel that wasn’t Star Wars: The Old Republic (affectionately known as TORtanic)? And what if I told you it’s loads better than KOTOR?
Unlike the splendid KOTOR, which while it had a marvellous story with a masterfully executed WAHT A TWEEST, forced you down a rather restrictive Only Good or Only Stupidly Idiotic (passed for “evil” in it), KOTOR 2 is all about Neutrality, about treading the fine line between Light and Dark sides of the Force. Along the way you’ll come across things like the repercussions of orbital bombardment, a dude who’s literally being held together by hatred, anger and jealousy, and generally what the bollocks the Jedi talk about Balance to the Force actually means.
Fallout and Fallout 2 (Isometric)
Remember when Fallout 3 came out and people said it’s the best fallout game ever? Well they were wrong. I won’t mince words, Fallout 3 is a week old moldy crust of bread compared to Fallout 2’s Coq au vin. In the first Fallout, from the second you leave the vault until you fight your way brutally through the last dungeon, every victory feels rewarding and almost every quest fulfilling. The wasteland in the isometric Fallouts is an unforgiving world where survival is hard and death is cheap and easy. Well, at least yours is. The entire game in Fallout is you collecting friends and the endgame is a tense battle of attrition between you and the enemies as you expend your friends and all your resources just to get to The Master, a megalomaniac human hater who is so well written he can actually talk you into killing all humans. Bloody marvellous.
And what’s more, Fallout 2 is even better! You go up not against a villain this time, but the elements themselves. Armed with a water canteen, a spear and a Pipboy 2000, you have to find a GECK, a suitcase powerful enough to change the very nature of the land to make sure that your people don’t die of thirst and hunger. Very few games are as well written and multifaceted as Fallout 2, and most of those games are on this list. Play it and mourn the day Bethesda bought the franchise from the corpse of Interplay.
Deus Ex (First Person)
Do you hear that sound? Of disc drives whirring? It’s the sound of someone reinstalling Deus Ex after reading the title.
Deus Ex is a seminal western RPG, wise and philosophising about society and civilisation while at the same time being a hardcore cyberpunk conspiracy theorist. Gameplay wise it was a mish-mash of mechanics borrowed from Thief and System Shock 2, and i am not going to lie, the gameplay is a pain at best and atrocious at worst. First time players almost always get frustrated after wasting skillpoints on useless things like Swimming, or after trying to play it like a shooter and running out of ammo before dying horribly. And the stealth, let’s just be kind and say it’s no Thief.
What all that doesn’t change is Deus Ex asks the sort of questions that make men with degrees in philosophy and humanities sweat. And it does it in a uniquely Deus Ex way. The game begins with a cutscene showing the illuminati talking about FEMA and oppressing the underclasses. Now if you wear a Che style beret made with tinfoil on your head to escape mind controlling microwaves beamed by capitalist aliens in the CIA, you’re probably changing underpants instead of reading this. Also, take your pills Bertie, communism is a failed experiment.
Play Deus Ex, and do it the hardcore way: points only in swimming, medicine and environmental training. And put all your weapons training in Melee, nevermind the fact that halfway in you get a sword so strong it one-shots 80% of the game. Do it pussy.
Ultima VII (Isometric)
Origin Systems’ Ultima series used to be the RPG series back in the day, rivalled only by the likes of King’s Quest (Which weren’t RPGs, but cut a guy some slack). This was back in the days when Electronic Arts were pioneers in an entirely new genre of entertainment, and hadn’t sold their soul to Ol’ Beelzebub for a bit of change. They published the biggest, the best and the most out there games like Wing Commander, Syndicate, SimCity, uh, FIFA, and, uh, Madden. Some things never change I guess.
Regardless, Ultima VII is generally regarded as the best Ultima game, and whatever you do, do not confuse it with Ultima VIII, which is the runt of the litter. Here’s a hint: Ultima VII was the last Ultima game published before EA took over Origin. Oh EA, if only we knew what a monster we had birthed…
Go into Ultima expecting a game and campaign very similar to a campaign of the tabletop D&D. Everything from the tile based playing field to the very pen and paper feeling mechanics, it’s very, uh, classic. Yes, that’s the word!
Planescape Torment (Isometric)
What can change the nature of a man? This is what Planescape Torment asks. Weirdly enough, the basic plot is the same as The Bourne Identity: You’re an amnesiac who awakens from death and embarks on an epic journey to find out who was, and (maybe) kills a lot of people on this voyage of self discovery. The difference is that PS:T will touch you in places you do not want to be touched. I… I mean your heart, you sicko. PS:T is an experience, and whenever some whiny little twerp comes up to you and say “all gaemz r violenz hurr muh arrt”, show them this game while softly laughing and whispering “Oh, you sweet summer child”. Unlike most other games on this list, Planescape: Torment has a set way of playing it, and deviating from that method is downright criminal, in my humble opinion. You play this as a high CHR, high INT character and talk your way out of all encounters. This is the one game where you can do this (besides Undertale) and it’ll be a damn shame to hack and chop your way through this.
System Shock & System Shock 2 (First Person)
Not much creeps me out, especially when it comes to games. I scoff at Slenderman, Amnesia puts me to sleep. SHODAN creeps me out. She has this way of getting under your very skin and transmitting chills down your spine from there. I don’t know what does it for her, maybe it’s the halting, pitch shifting, distorting way in which she talks. Maybe it’s the way she considers you so inferior that she thinks of you as little more than a minor annoyance. Maybe it’s how manipulative and skilled at skullduggery she is. Maybe it’s fucking Maybelline. She just gets to me.
Right, charismatic villain out the way, the game is solid too. System Shock is a Metroidvania in first person with labyrinthine levels laid out so well it feels like a real actual space station used for many things other than romping through fighting things, a level of character that has since been lost to things like Level Design and QA Testing borne “enhancements”. Also of note is the fact that System Shock came out the same year as Super Metroid. In fact, map your movement keys to WASD, mod in mouselook and there you have it, the best Bioshock game ever. What, where’d you think Bioshock get’s the “Shock” bit from?
System Shock is getting a remake AND a sequel, so keep your eye out for that, and remember, don’t trust the nutty AI lady, she’ll do … things… to you. *shudder*
Icewind Dale (Isometric), Baldur’s Gate (Isometric) and Neverwinter Nights (Isometric)
This triumvirate of series are considered the must play franchises for all isometric RPG fans. Ask any RPG fan about their top 10 series and these three series are sure as sun to crop up in that list, usually in the top 5.
DCS (Extremely First Person)
DCS World is a very specialised class-based RPG. You can choose from diverse builds including Tanks (Su-25T “Frogfoot” or A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog”) or choose to be agile, high damage dealing classes such as the Su-27 “Flanker” or the F-15E Strike Eagle. You can even dump all your points in DEX and get the Dassault Mirage 2000 or the F-5 E “Tiger”. The classes are very well balanced as every class has it’s own roles, strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the tank class is well and good for soaking up fire and doing a lot of damage to others in the entire duration of a quest, but it’s slow, and without support from a more nimble fighter class paarty members, is a sitting duck, easily killed by faster and nimbler foe, while said faster and nimbler foe are high damage dealing but can only attack a very limited amount of times. You can even play as the Deprived from Dark Souls if you pick the P-51 Mustang, Focke Wulf Fw190 (if you’re of the sausage sucking variety) and the like.
It also has multiple campaigns and what’s more, it has multiplayer too unlike all other games listed here. All in all, I’d say DCS World is the single best RPG ever made of all time, perhaps matched only by Insurgency.