If there’s one genre that you can rely on to deliver at least a handful of standout games year on year without fail, it’s role playing games. A stalwart of the industry, this is the one style of games that has not only grown and expanded since the infancy of the medium, but had a far greater influence on games as a whole than any other. 2021 didn’t quite have any games that might be classified as all-time greats, but even so, there was no shortage of excellent RPGs that one can sink dozens upon dozens of hours into, if not more. Here, we’re going to recognize those games, with our nominees for the best RPGs of the year, followed by the game we felt was the greatest of them all.
NOTE: The nominees and winner were decided by an internal vote held among the entire GamingBolt staff.
PATHFINDER: WRATH OF THE RIGHTEOUS
Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is good at almost everything a game of this kind should be good at, from its engaging storytelling and worldbuilding to its compelling choice and consequence mechanics to the mechanically deep combat (which, best of all, brings back on-the-fly switching between real-time and turn-based mechanics).
PERSONA 5 STRIKERS
Many franchises have received musou spinoffs over the years, but none of them have worn the skin of the games that spawned them quite as well as Persona 5 Strikers does. Gameplay mechanics and concepts that Atlus’ beloved franchise has always been known for are translated surprisingly well, with action-packed combat that feels like a perfect blend of musou action and Persona role-playing. Best of all is the story, with the game being a genuinely captivating follow-up to the original Persona 5 in all the best ways possible.
POKEMON BRILLIANT DIAMOND AND SHINING PEARL
For many Pokemon fans, Gen 4 was the peak of the series, so more than a few people were quite nervous about remakes of Diamond and Pearl, especially given the state the series has found itself in in recent years. However, where Pokemon has been justifiably lambasted for a lack of ambition with recent entries, it is that same lack of ambition that makes Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl were so good. They’re very faithful remakes, and as such, retain the best qualities of the excellent DS originals they set out to recreate.
New IPs are becoming a rare commodity in an industry that’s becoming increasingly risk-averse as time goes on, so Bandai Namco deserves props for trying something new and different with Scarlet Nexus. More importantly, they deserve props for actually doing it well. Though it’s certainly a little rough around the edges, on the whole, Scarlet Nexus is a solid RPG, with blistering and addictive combat and a really well-realized cyberpunk setting (or brainpunk, as Bandai Namco likes to call it). If this is the beginning of a new franchise, we can’t wait to see where it goes next.
NIER REPLICANT VER.1.22474487139
NieR finally got the acclaim and recognition it has always deserved with 2017’s NieR Automata, and Yoko Taro and co smartly decided to use that newfound success as a springboard to grow the franchise in all the best ways. NieR Replicant (let’s just call it that rather than using it’s full name, for our sanity’s sake) is a solid remake that does a wonderful job of allowing the original’s biggest strengths to truly blossom, while ironing out the issues that it did have (and it had plenty of those). Regardless of whether you’re a longtime series fan or someone who jumped onboard with Automata, this is a game that you need to play.
MASS EFFECT: LEGENDARY EDITION
Mass Effect stumbled quite hard with Andromeda in 2017, which was a game that, in spite of undeniable merits, just couldn’t make up for its bevy of issues, and fell severely short of the standards set by the original trilogy. We don’t know if BioWare will be able to recreate that magic with the next Mass Effect game, which is still quite a ways off, but they sure did a damn fine job modernizing and improving the original trilogy. In a market that’s becoming overloaded with disappointing remasters, Mass Effect: Legendary Edition feels like a breath of fresh air, in particular thanks to the excellent improvements it makes to the original game. Without a doubt, this is the best way to play this legendary trilogy.
Every so often we play a game that we cannot believe was made by a tiny little indie team with limited resources- The Ascent is one such game. Though it certainly divided critics upon launch, we fall in the camp that absolutely loved what it had to offer. Tense and adrenaline-fueled combat, a vibrant cyberpunk world brought to life with excellent worldbuilding, compelling progression and loot mechanics that you could pour dozens of hours into, and absolutely stellar visuals- for all of these reasons and more, The Ascent deserves unreserved praise.
DIABLO 2: RESURRECTED
Blizzard Entertainment proved that it couldn’t be trusted with remasters of beloved classics when it released Warcraft 3: Reforged last year, but thankfully, Diablo 2: Resurrected was cut from a very, very different cloth. The timeless qualities of the original have been brought over pretty much as is in this remaster, and as always, this remains a game that you can sink countless hours into without getting bored and feeling like the gameplay is even close to getting stale. On top of that, Resurrected looks absolutely gorgeous, modernizing the original’s dated visuals in the best way possible while still retaining its visual identity. It’s just a shame that the company that developed it is riddled with shocking workplace issues, which undeniably blights at least the outside-of-the-game experience, if nothing else.
DISCO ELYSIUM- THE FINAL CUT
Disco Elysium was one of the best games of 2019, and sure enough, with its expanded re-release, it’s one of the best games of 2021. Even if it had just brought over the original as is to consoles, it would have been a stellar release, thanks to excellent writing, a rich and unique setting, and captivating storytelling- but the fact that it makes smart little tweaks and improvements to the original experience makes it that much better. Of course, on top of all of that, you also have a new set of quests that, while not awfully meaty, do feel like meaningful additions to an already amazing game.
NEO: THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU
Square Enix had the unenviable task of delivering a worthy sequel to a cult classic well over a decade after its launch, and impossibly enough, they were more than up to it. NEO: The World Ends with You is basically everything that fans of the original have wanted from a sequel for so long. In combat, storytelling, mechanical depth, uniqueness, music, and incredible sense of style- in all of these areas and more, it delivers a stunning experience that not only stands toe-to-toe with its beloved predecessor, but even surpasses it.
YS 9: MONSTRUM NOX
Nihon Falcom’s long-running Ys franchise has always been one that fans of JRPGs have enjoyed, and even though Ys 9 isn’t the mainstream breakout hit that many series fans had hoped it would be, it’s still probably the best the series has been in a long, long time. There’s just so much to love here, from the addictive and mechanically dense combat to the engaging story and the wonderful cast of characters. As anyone who’s played it will tell you, it deserved far more attention than it got.
MONSTER HUNTER RISE
After Monster Hunter World, there was immense pressure on whatever game that would follow up on it to be at least as good as the 2018 masterpiece. To say that Monster Hunter Rise passes all of its tests with flying colours wouldn’t be an exaggeration in the slightest. This is a series that has been steadily improving for a long time now (with some notable exceptions, of course), and Rise represents yet another iterative step forward for it. It builds on the excellent foundations of Monster Hunter World to deliver yet another mechanically dense, endlessly replayable, excellently designed action RPG.
SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI 5
People waited a long, long time to finally get their hands on Shin Megami Tensei 5, and we have absolutely no doubt in our mind that it was well worth the wait, and then some. Atlus’ grim and dark RPG takes players into a brutally unforgiving apocalypse that is designed to challenge its players at every turn. This is a series that has always been known for its dense, deep combat systems, and that combat shines brighter than ever before. Crucially, however, SMT5 also excels at things that the series has never really been known for, with its slick traversal and engaging exploration in particular being highlights of the experience- and of course, the surprisingly high budget (or relatively high, at least) that this game is built on is a massive bonus as well.
FINAL FANTASY 7 REMAKE INTERGRADE
Final Fantasy 7 Remake was our 2020 Game of the Year- so yeah, we kinda like the game. The PS5 remaster would have made it into a list such as this one pretty much by default no matter what- but thankfully, Intergrade is more than just a simple upres. In addition to boasting gameplay improvements, it also includes an excellent chunk of new content in the form of Episode Intermission, which not only delivers more of the excellent combat that defined the remake itself, but also introduces two excellent characters to players, while also advancing the story in surprisingly meaningful ways.
TALES OF ARISE
Bandai Namco’s Tales series kind of lost its way for a little while over the last few years, delivering one disappointing entry on top of another. Tales of Arise, its most ambitious and biggest production to date, was the series’ attempt at not only righting past wrongs, but elevating itself to a completely new level- and it was an unabashed success. Tales of Arise is an RPG lover’s dream- it’s got excellent combat, a lovable cast of characters, a decent story that keeps you engaged from beginning to end, and of course, it looks really, really good. It’s easily one of the best Tales games in years, if not ever.
MONSTER HUNTER RISE
In 2018, the world finally understood why legions of fans swore by the Monster Hunter franchise as fiercely as they did, and building on the success of Monster Hunter World, this year’s Monster Hunter Rise turned out to be another instant classic. Spectacular monster design, long and thrilling fights, a dangerously addictive loop of loot grinding- these are all things that Monster Hunter Rise excels at, as its predecessors always have as well. Meanwhile, with meaningful improvements made in the form of things such as the Palamute, the Wirebugs, a greater emphasis on Turf Wars, and more, this is yet another victory for Monster Hunter, which has been on an absolute rampage – pun definitely intended – for the last few years.