If 2017 can be remembered for one thing, it is the growing dominance of role-playing games within the video game market. It was a banner year for the genre; over 120 titles, ranging from AAA productions to indie-developed games, were released or re-released across every platform imaginable. Many of them have become perennial favorites for the year, others are incredibly small time or relatively obscure, but whatever their fate, RPGs of all stripes are beginning to be published heavily, and the embarrassment of riches available to fans is impressive, to say the least.
That is one of the great things about the genre, though: the diversity of games that qualify as such. Many bemoan the “RPG elements” being found in action-adventure titles such as Assassin's Creed: Origins or shooters such as Destiny 2, but the hybrid-nature of games such as that highlight the growing influence the role-playing genre has in video games. RPGs have always taken the initiative when it comes to character progression, open-worlds, and the myriad of battle mechanics and story presentation we often see in games. As of late, the genre has grown tremendously, improving upon that initiative by adopting other genres into the fold and even revitalizing older techniques with modern elements attached.
One of the things often debated by fans of the genre is the state of what makes a game a RPG. This question is analogous to asking the meaning of life, for ultimately there is no real answer. We do see some games—some of them among the best of the year—be given the mantle of RPG despite fitting perfectly into that “hybrid” moniker. Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, are often both classified as RPGs, while having one foot in the action-adventure genre, but it's not hard to see why they deserve to be mentioned here. The inventory and skill progression, open-world environments filled with multiple questlines, a singular protagonist on an epic adventure in a fantastic, detailed world—both games follow in the footsteps of RPGs such as The Witcher 3 or an Elder Scrolls Title but have provided something new in terms of either gameplay, visuals, or even cohesion of mechanics to achieve the accolades they rightfully deserve for the year. This “hybridization” made Horizon and Zelda not only fun but accessible, which in turn gave the genre much more scrutiny than ever this year.
Both Horizon and Zelda set the bar incredibly high, but they were only the tip of the sword in this case. Early hits such as Persona 5, Nier: Automata, and Nioh also impressed players for the year, each providing a vastly different setting, scenario, and gameplay style that would entice any fan of the genre to pick up a controller. These titles were flanked by many enduring franchises—most notably the stalwart Tales, Ys, and Final Fantasy series—which saw new or re-releases this year. Tales of Berseria was a cult hit, while Ys VIII surprised many with its late September release.
A lot of the more successful titles have been developed overseas this year, leading some to say a revitalization of the “JRPG” subgenre is in full swing. While the term “JRPG” is one of those problematic shorthand that doesn’t really explain the subgenre in full detail (so much so I wrote about that once in my Playing Roles series) one cannot deny that Japanese developers led the charge this year when it comes to role-playing games. It was not just major titles either; the handheld market has been dominated by tons of companies for years now. The 3DS, Vita, and even Android and iPhone games have been graced with a ton of options to pick up and play. The most notable titles would be Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth and the ever-present Pokémon franchise with Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Both offer different experiences beyond their “JRPG” label, being a classic dungeon-crawler and turn-based strategy game, respectively.
Western developers had a smaller presence this year but often did well overall with their subsequent releases. Ironically enough, many of the games that really hit the sweet spot for role-playing fans were often Kickstarter fulfillment projects; Torment: Tides of Numenera, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, Cosmic Star Heroine, and Divinity: Original Sin II were perhaps the biggest names to come from that list—all of them smaller-budgeted titles that provided “classic” role-playing gameplay. It is the continued renaissance of isometric-styled RPGs, and a reclamation of dominance in a long-thought dead market by the likes of Larian Studios and Obsidian.
One game, while not on Kickstarter, is even more old school in comparison. The infamous Cleveland Blakemore’s Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Crusader finally saw the light of day after twenty years of development and provides the most archaic of gameplay styles by focusing on a pre-Baldur’s Gate, Wizardry-styled dungeon crawler. Grimoire itself could be the subject of a whole documentary, but the fact that the game even exists is a testament to the strength and diversity of the genre as a whole. For dungeon crawl fans who hate the modern flairs of Etrain Odyssey, you have a viable alternative that mimics early 1990s role-playing for you.
A more controversial entry would be the likes of The Long Dark, by developer Hinterland. The survival genre has many influences attached to it, from action and horror tropes to full-blown combat arena battles seen in PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds.; however, The Long Dark, despite being a quieter, slower experience comparatively, borrows more from role-playing mechanics than most. The use of character progression, hardcore inventory and resource management, crafting materials, and even choices of resources make it a difficult game to categorize, but the growing presence of the more methodical survival titles has begun to bleed into the role-playing genre. It is only a matter of time before a survival-themed RPG takes center stage for the public.
Of course, not all the titles this year were massive hits. The glut of good role-playing games does lead to some major misfires, some of them coming from major franchises in the genre. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Valkyria: Revolution had less than stellar releases, each of them suffering from a myriad of technical, visual, and mechanical problems overall. Others just simply failed to impress; Middle-Earth: Shadow of War was practically overshadowed by the growing lootbox controversy, while other titles such as ELEX simply got little to no coverage from the press, despite being a good, if not great title.
The biggest controversy, however, goes to BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, which stirred up so much hate before the game was officially released it was almost impossible to avoid a video making fun of the facial animations. Andromeda became the “whipping boy” for the genre this year, somewhat unjustly at times to the point of over-the-top criticism. Yet, some of that criticism was not undeserving; visual and technical presentation were major weaknesses in Andromeda, and the disappointing, risk-averse storyline was a major hurdle for some fans of the series.
Andromeda was not the only risk-free game though in the genre. While most of the games themselves were pretty good, 2017 saw an influx of titles being re-released to new consoles this year. Popular RPGs such as Fire Emblem Echoes, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, and the ever present Skyrim got fresh coats of paint and remakes on new consoles, as well as added features such as VR capabilities by Bethesda. Remakes and re-releases are growing common in the gaming world, and while many of these titles really provide little that is new to the genre on a whole, the impact of their sales gives these older titles the chance to hit a larger audience.
Despite the disappointments, the genre itself is thriving, with the future looking bright for role-playing fans. It is hard to do a full-blown review of the whole genre, because even in this short article we barely scratched the surface as to what the genre has to offer us. From big-ticket games to smaller, quieter titles, from story-driven epics to hardcore dungeon crawls, RPG’s remain as diverse and prolific as they always do. If 2017 did anything, it put them at the forefront of everyone’s minds with award-winning titles supported by smaller, hardcore games that do incredibly well within their corner of the gaming market.
It also looks like 2018 will continue the successful push by RPGs this year. Big titles like Vampyr, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, Project Octopath Traveller, and Monster Hunter World are just some of the anticipated games coming in 2018. Already, next year is shaping up to be just as prolific as this year, which is only a good thing for role-playing fans.
What did you think of the state of RPGs in 2017? What are you looking forward to in 2018?