From the early days of Ultima to Mass Effect: Andromeda and The Witcher 3, there have always been games where you escaped to far-off galaxies or worlds of sword and sorcery, battling aliens or monsters with futuristic weapons or a mighty blade. These are games where exploration or conversation play as big a role as combat, and where the reaching the end isn’t always as important as how you build your character or team along the way. At their simplest, RPGs can be about nothing more than building the worlds biggest monster-slaying badass, yet some take us on a deeper journey full of complexity and choice, where we become champions, sorcerers or antiheroes and become immersed in strange new worlds.
This list details the best you can play right now, covering traditional RPGs, more action-oriented games, Japanese RPGs and online games. These are tales and worlds to get lost in - great escapes from the daily grind.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Going open-world was a big move for CD Projekt Red, but it turned out to be the least of The Witcher 3's ambitions. As if it wasn’t enough to build six sprawling regions where you could ride, sail and hunt down monsters, the studio filled them with compelling side-quests and storylines, bringing in much-loved characters, creepy villains and a brilliant supporting cast of oddballs. The result is an RPG where there’s always somewhere to go and something worth doing, where you could be playing detective one minute, trapping monsters or tackling local politics the next. With superb swordplay and streamlined magic, there’s something for everyone to enjoy, while its storytelling is right up there with the best. A stone cold fantasy classic enhanced by two incredible expansions.
Play it on: Xbox One, PS4 and PC, preferably in the Game of the Year edition with its Blood and Wine and Hearts of Stone expansions
Final Fantasy XV
You have to go a long way back to find a Final Fantasy that makes everybody happy, but Final Fantasy XV is the biggest crowd pleaser the series has thrown up since Final Fantasy X. Building on the open world experiments of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, it loses some of the narrative urgency of previous games to give you an entertaining road trip across a retro sci-fi meets fantasy America, cruising around as a headstrong prince with his four best buds. You can spend months driving around in your open-top car, stopping here and there to battle monsters, explore dungeons and cook up a range of mouthwatering meals. But then you’ll be ignoring your mission to find your noble sweetheart and stop an evil empire in its tracks. With engaging combat and fantastic graphics, Final Fantasy XV puts the series back where it belongs: in the pantheon of great Japanese RPGs.
Play it on: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
It’s a bit shaky in places, over-complicated in others and downright buggy, but you won’t find another post-apocalyptic RPG with this much ambition, excitement or scale. Fallout 4’s combat finds the perfect halfway house between the frenzied blasting of a great shooter and the richer strategy of an RPG, giving you time to target the weakest points or blast the parts other RPGs don’t reach. There are plentiful missions and endless side-quests, but each one gives you a better understanding of the world you’re surviving in and more choice about the role you’re playing in it. This is a game that finds time for building settlements and making friends amongst the factions, but also understands the more direct appeal of blowing off mutant limbs off from the comfort of a mechanised battlesuit. Fallout 4 gives you a twisted, crazy world where death could always be around the next corner. Strange thing is, you won’t want to leave.
Play it on: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
Usually the games that define one console generation seem limited and dated in another, but age hasn’t withered The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim – though its Special Edition facelift certainly helps. Skyrim remains one of the great game worlds, both for the coherence and artistic detail in every object, weapon, building and city, and for the sheer beauty of its huge wilderness areas; this is a land you just can’t wait to explore. Yet Skyrim also packs in a brilliant story pitting your Dragonborn against an ancient immortal Dragon. Along the way you can build up your character, find companions and settle in a home, join guilds, investigate murders and defeat conspiracies, twisting your own tale around the game’s story. You don’t need to replay Skyrim if you’ve finished it already, but can you resist the temptation for another trip?
Play it on: Xbox One, PS4 and PC in the Skyrim Special Edition
Exploring demon-haunted dungeons at night, studying and housework in the day; that’s just how life goes on for Persona 5’s teenage stars. In a weird twist on Inception, a group of Tokyo high-school students gain the ability to enter others’ minds, exploring their weird obsessions and stealing their psyche’s twisted heart. There you’ll find tough, turn-based combat and some surprisingly tricky puzzles, but once you’re back to conventional reality, you can keep yourself busy brewing coffee, doing the laundry or taking a job. This combination of the fantastic and the mundane is surprisingly powerful, and Persona 5 makes the most of it with superb anime art, exceptional voice acting and a brilliant score. And if the Persona brand is new to you, the fifth game is the perfect place to start.
Play it on: PS4
Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls
On the face of it, a game where you click or tap the same button endlessly to slaughter hordes of monsters and demons, pausing only to choose new skills or upgrade your gear might seem pretty dull. It’s not. Diablo 3 is a hideously addictive action RPG, where the promise of a new level, new abilities, a new magic blade or a stronger breastplate is enough to keep you coming back for hour after hour after sleep-deprived, RSI-inducing hour. In fact, much of the pleasure lies in taking the game’s different heroes – from the bold Crusader to the crossbow-slinging Demon Hunter to the hard-hitting Monk – and building them up into the ultimate monster-slayer. Even once you’ve polished off the game’s legendary arch-demons, you can keep going back for more in the ever-changing Adventure Mode. Brilliant solo, even better with up to three friends, Diablo 3 is less a game than an obsession.
Play it on: PC, Xbox One and PS4
South Park: The Stick of Truth
No RPG spin-off from everyone’s favourite foul-mouthed, irreverent animated series should be this good, but then the Stick of Truth is made by people who get both South Park and the fantasy RPG, with significant contributions from Trey Parker and Matt Stone themselves. Where a lesser game might lazily parrot catchphrases and nod at classic episodes, this one lampoons epic fantasy and RPG conventions, as Wizard King Cartman and his warriors battle Kyle and his elves for the titular small branch. It plays like a traditional RPG, complete with quests and turn-based combat, but one where farts work as magical attacks, anal probes feature heavily and Nazi zombies eagerly attack small towns. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy-style summons bring Mr Hanky and a trigger-happy Jesus into battle, while a key chapter takes place inside a masochist’s backside. Crude, rude and spectacularly offensive, it’s everything you’d want from a South Park game.
Play it on: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Xbox 360 and PS3
Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls is a phenomenon, synonymous with dark, gothic realms, creepy monsters, terrifying bosses and rigorous combat where every strike counts. Provided you can take an action RPG this demanding, you really ought to play all three. Dark Souls 3 might be the easiest way in. It’s a bit more forgiving than its predecessors, though it still won’t hold your hand or let a reckless move go unpunished. From Software’s gloomy vision has never looked sharper than on the Xbox One and PS4, which makes it all the 7more immersive; the kind of game where you probe tentatively through each area, sizing up your enemies, looking for ways to gain the advantage and steadily building up your character and your armoury to take on tougher foes. This is the darkest kind of sword and sorcery, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Play it on: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate
It’s not every RPG where you slay huge beasts in order to take their bones and hide and craft them into armour, but then Monster Hunter is very much its own thing. Monster Hunter 4 crams a whole lot of fantasy hunting into the 3DS, transforming what sounds mundane and repetitive – heading out to the wilderness to hunt down monsters while collecting materials to craft new arms and armour – into something weirdly absorbing. Each weapon has its own style, demanding a different approach to combat, and this and the sheer range of jawed, clawed and acid-spitting varmints keeps the action fresh as the hours pass by. That Ultimate in the title’s not just for show, either: a host of tweaks, new moves and new weapons make it – right now – the best Monster Hunter ever, complete with a slick multiplayer mode. Track it down.
Play it on: Nintendo 3DS
Pillars of Eternity
So what if Pillars of Eternity is a huge nostalgia trip, with Obsidian taking us straight back to the glory days of Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale? With its huge, intricately-detailed gameworld and epic, text-heavy storytelling, Pillars reminds us exactly what made those games so utterly awesome. It’s a proper old-school, party-based RPG, but with the isometric visuals pimped with lavish new effects, mixing dialogue with combat and giving you countless strategies to try. It’s superbly written, challenging and flexible enough for you to play your own way, shaping your character and how others respond to you and transforming the style and ethos of your team. Call it a blast from the past, but it’s one with a gale-force power.
Play it on: PS4, Xbox One and PC
Platinum Games’ arthouse RPG is all about bold, offbeat choices, mixing existentialist musings with gobsmacking swordplay, switching genres, perspectives and even narratives with a confidence more conventional RPGs can’t match. Somehow, it turns a tale of Android warriors into a parable of fate and being, yet its exhilarating melee combat and satisfying progression systems make it as compelling an action RPG as The Witcher III or Dark Souls. It’s also beautiful to look at and, with its haunting orchestral soundtrack, listen to as well. Nier Automata won’t be the first RPG to keep you up well past your bedtime, but it’s the one you won’t stop thinking about even long after you’ve turned out the light.
Play it on: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Dragon Age: Inquisition
So, Bioware hasn’t found its feet this generation and Mass Effect: Andromeda isn’t a patch on Mass Effect 2. That doesn’t make Dragon Age: Inquisition any less enthralling. It’s an open-world fantasy RPG as dense as it is massive, with great combat, a brilliant storyline and some fascinating characters; a game that presents you with difficult choices fed by politics and intrigue. And by giving you the choice of close-up, real-time combat or a slower, zoomed-out tactical view, Inquisition seems to bridge the gap between Bioware’s Dungeons and Dragons legacy and its more action-oriented games of the last decade. Is it perfect? No, but it is one of this era’s great RPGs.
Play it on: PS4, Xbox One, PC