So RPS announced their favorite RPG of the year and to little surprise it was Dragon Age Inquisition. Now I have only played a little of Inquisition but by all accounts this takes the action combat of Dragon Age 2 and mashes it together with Skyrim like “open world” or maybe even more appropriately an Ubisoft icon hunt. It may do this well, but I can’t really see this being great and certainly not the best RPG in a year packed with them.
That said, I did find most of the RPGs I played this year mildly disappointing. Wasteland 2 had lots of tedious combat, no polish and boring characters. Divinity Original Sin had great combat at the beginning, but you saw all of its tricks early on and it became very easy after that. The rest of the story and characters and role playing were pretty banal. Some have praised the Banner Saga, but it’s mostly a tactical combat game with really mundane abilities. It wants to be chess and in doing so sapped all the fun out of the genre. Legend of Grimrock 2 kept the ridiculous real time combat while having much weaker puzzles than the first and being far too long for its own good.
Ok so I sound really grumpy. The biggest surprise for me and my pick for CRPG of the year goes to Shadowrun Dragonfall. The writing here is top notch, best I have seen since the demise of Black Isle. They off a central character fairly early just like in the base game, but here it is much better done; you care and it motivates the rest of the game. The storyline is interesting and while Shadowrun may seem like a ridiculous setting, dragons and elves in a cyberpunk setting sounds like something a 12 year old envisions, this makes it far more unique and engaging than the staid archetypical fantasy and sci-fi settings of Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
What really elevates it is that they manage to get most of the boring details right. Skills actually impact your gameplay in meaningful ways. How you infiltrate buildings, for instance, depends highly on your personal abilities. Are you a decker? Then you hack in. Or maybe you share some kind of social affinity that you can fall back on to persuade an NPC. This kind of character build->gameplay interaction is essentially a lost art that I was hoping would make a comeback with all the RPGs this year. However, Wasteland 2 failed to get this right despite its myraid skills, Bioware doesn’t even have skills any more and Original Sin is almost entirely combat.
Speaking of combat, this is another area where Dragonfall outdoes its peers. The tactical combat here isn’t exceptional, but it’s competent and entertaining. The addition of magic and special abilities puts it ahead of the stand and shoot mechanics of Wasteland 2. It manages to slightly evolve and stay somewhat balanced far better than Original Sin and well, Dragon Age Inquisition is basically gussied up MMORPG combat and so automatically loses. My only complaint would be the decking/hacking combat where you are in the Matrix equivalent. This is dull stuff, but their new Kickstarter talks about completely revamping it so they seem to be aware of the problem.
My last criteria is inventory management. I don’t know what happened, but I feel like we have gone backward in this field and a lot of it seems to be tied to fussy and boring crafting. Warlords of Draenor is cluttering my bags with crafting items from my garrison. Inquisition has a terrible console-style UI, crafting reagents and a bit of a Diablo-like loot system going on that makes it extremely irritating to keep your inventory clean and yet it only has like 4 equipment slots! Wasteland 2 had so many things to pick up and yet weight allowances were relatively low that you spent far too much time inventory juggling. Finally Original Sin was undone by skill books and consumables and a metric ton of crafting items that were probably never useful but the hoarder in me kept around. The sorting options at the time I played were abysmal. Sometime I lost quest items in the morass that was my inventory.
Shadowrun Returns instead basically lets you outfit before a mission with a simple but functional UI. You don’t have that many slots and most things are obvious sequential upgrades, but that is usually always the case in other games, they just obfuscate it more. Do I wish equipment were more varied? Yes. But I will take this system over fiddling with my inventory for hours every single time. I will say that I wish cybernetic enhancements were a better and more interesting option. They kind of pale in comparison to magic which they directly compete with and so I rarely use them.
So that is my overview of the year’s RPGs. Most of them are undone by details, lessons learned long ago that everyone seems to have forgotten. Shadowrun Returns is the lone exception and at least to me seems to be the underdog with all the hype around Wasteland 2 and Original Sin. I hear the director’s cut of Dragonfall is even better and I am really looking forward to their new Kickstarter. This seems like a team that is going to keep getting better with experience.