About 10 years ago, cultural differences between role playing games produced in the Eastern hemisphere and those produced in the Western hemisphere became pronounced enough that people started referring to them as their own sub-genres. JRPGs are typically set in fantasy worlds and feature linear plots. Combat is largely turn based. Western RPGs are known for being set in more realistic worlds. More often than not, combat takes place in real time and open world exploration is encouraged. Western RPGs have become extremely popular and while the genre is still budding, a few companies have already produced masterpieces. Let’s take a look back at the five best Western RPGs!
5. Star Wars : Knights of the Old Republic 2 : The Sith Lords
The Sith Lords was released in the U.S in late 2004, and its placement on top Western RPG lists is usually not without controversy. The original KOTOR was developed by industry leader Bioware, but due to time constraints they passed KOTOR 2 over to newly founded Obsidian Entertainment.
Although it wasn’t as buggy as the original, The Sith Lords still suffered from framerate issues and random shutdowns. Let’s not forget that an entire chapter of the game was missing from the release. Given everything KOTOR 2 had going against it, it’s hard to imagine that it would be considered one of the great Western RPGs of all time.
Everything good about the original was made better in the sequel. Combat was still a bit clunky and unbalanced, but additional animations and more customization made it a very fulfilling part of the game. The revolutionary morality system was fine tuned as your in game companions could shift their allegiance based upon your decisions and influence. The story was deeper, the characters were more developed and interesting, and the worlds were better realized. Kreia, the Obi-Wan like mentor to the main character, struck a balance not often seen in the Star Wars universe. She was a shade of gray, seeing both the perspective of the Jedi and the Sith, and ultimately being revealed to have been a Sith Lord.
For all its flaws, and enough content packs have been released to partially make up for them, The Sith Lords is a worthy addition to the expanded universe and a great game in its own right.
4. Dragon Age : Origins
After achieving massive success with KOTOR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect, Bioware went back to its roots and produced a more traditional fantasy based role playing game. The result was Dragon Age: Origins. Released in late 2009, Dragon Age was set in Ferelden; a unique, medieval world where the threat of a Blight is sending the nation into a frenzy. You take on the role of a newly appointed Grey Warden, a defender of the peace who has an intimate connection to the darkspawn. Your mission is to gather forces from all over the nation in order to halt the Blight before it gets out of control.
Dragon Age is the most traditional role playing game on this list. The combat can be done in real time, but most of the battles are best fought by pausing the game and queuing commands. The rich leveling system allows for a great deal of character customization. Also, Dragon Age allows players to pick their race, sex and class. In most games this is inconsequential to the plot, but in Dragon Age the entire experience is changed based on your initial choices. Like KOTOR 2, players can build up influence and win over supporting characters. At the same time, treat a character poorly or go against their beliefs and they will despite you.
The combat system is great, but some of the battles are so hard that casual players may get frustrated. The graphics are mildly dated and some of the dungeons are just too long and repetitive. Still, Dragon Age is a fantastic game for those who are seeking a role playing game experience of old.
3. Jade Empire
In 2004, Bioware announced that it would not be working on KOTOR 2 but instead would be creating a new intellectual property. This did not sit particularly well with rabid KOTOR fans that wanted Bioware to continue on with the franchise. Bioware would not disappoint its fans, releasing Jade Empire for the XBox in 2005. Not only was Jade Empire one of the best RPGs ever made, it was an early example of a Western RPG that crossed genres, a trend that would define the great games of the current generation.
Jade Empire is set in a fictional world that resembles a feudal era Chinese Kingdom. Its morality system is similar to KOTOR’s, but instead of following the light or the darkness, players follow one of two philosophies. The philosophies are not definitively good or bad but more of a lifestyle choice, deviating from the black and white morality of KOTOR.
Combat takes place in real time and is built upon various types of martial arts. The combat relies on quick reflexes and a full range of movement, making Jade Empire more of an action RPG. Future Western RPGs would use combat systems that derived from other genres, and today’s role playing games are almost always crossed with a sub-genre.
The graphics were vibrant and polished, the soundtrack nothing short of breathtaking and unlike previous Bioware games, Jade Empire was virtually bug free. The story is an epic drama, combining romance, betrayal and lore into one complete package. The twist near the game’s end rivals some of the best in history. Unfortunately, Jade Empire flew under the radar, but it remains one of the more unique and better Western RPGs and it paved the way for hybrid role playing games, most notably the next game on the list.
2. Mass Effect 2
Bioware is known for introducing new ways to play games and refining them until they are near perfect. Mass Effect 2, released in 2010, is the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of trial and effort. The result is a carefully constructive space opera that acts as a dark and thrilling middle chapter to the saga, combined with an intense and captivating combat system.
Mass Effect 2 doesn’t hold anything back. The main protagonist, Jack Shepard, dies in the opening sequence of the game only to be revived. The game also allows players to import their character from the previous game, making Mass Effect 2 feel more like a continuous saga. There are countless characters, and hardly any of them are insignificant to the plot. Some of the high drama confrontations are among the best in modern games.
Everything that Bioware could improve on from the first Mass Effect, it did improve on. Gone were the clunky vehicle sequences and the long, elevator rides. The confusing leveling system from the first game was more streamlined and accessible. The main complaint that hardcore RPG fans had was that Mass Effect 2 was more of a first person shooter than a role playing game. While combat was somewhat untraditional it was still effective. Also, the player is granted more dialog choices and customization than almost any other RPG on the market. Mass Effect 2 is the pinnacle of the Bioware RPG and fans are hungrily awaiting the conclusion of the saga next year.
Bethesda Softworks is famous for the widely popular Elder Scrolls series. An influential and groundbreaking series in its own right, Elder Scrolls paved the way for the truly revolutionary Fallout 3. Revisiting a popular series that had been dormant for almost a decade, Fallout 3 was released in late 2008. It is a near perfect embodiment of the Western RPG.
Fallout 3 takes place in 2277, 200 years after the world is devastated by a nuclear holocaust. A futuristic Washington D.C was built for the game, and yes it was actually built to scale. The player’s character grows up in Vault 101, and the early sequences of the game show scenes from his childhood. After 19 years he finally leaves the vault on a mission to find his father James. This is no ordinary retrieval mission, as James is a scientific pioneer and has almost figured out how to purify water. The world cannot be rebuilt until there is drinkable water to be had. The setting, premise and story are all executed with precision and a sense of realism that was not present in games before it.
Fallout 3 is also a hybrid RPG that crosses elements of a first person shooter with its role playing conventions. The result of this is the revolutionary V.A.T.S system that allowed players to pause the game and target specific areas on the enemy’s body. It also allowed players to see the percentage chance they would have to hit the target. When an area was hit the enemy reacted accordingly. Shoot a foot and they would stumble or slow down. A head shot might blow their brains onto the floor. If the player wanted faster paced action, the V.A.T.S system could be bypassed and the game could be played like a first person shooter.
Fallout 3 combined a heartfelt story, a world that just felt real and a robust combat system. It also had an almost immeasurable amount of dialog, a reputation system based on decisions that were made, and a fun leveling system that allowed the player to pick from a pool of special abilities. Let’s not forget that the game had about 75 hours worth of optional content, and most of it was as deep as the main storyline. All in all, Fallout 3 had just a little bit more personality and refinement compared to Mass Effect 2.
- All images and references from Knights of the Old Republic II : The Sith Lords, Dragon Age: Origins, Jade Empire, Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3.