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The 2016 RPG Of The Year Awards

by Joe Juba on Jan 07, 2017 at 06:00 AM

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The RPG genre is among the most time-intensive in all of gaming. If players are expected to spend 40-plus hours with these titles, it is especially important that RPGs draw players in with compelling worlds, stories, and mechanics. Last year had plenty of great games to get immersed in, with satisfying offerings across the entire RPG spectrum.

The genre continues to be hybridized, and RPG-style progressions has infiltrated practically every other type of game – but straightforward RPGs remain strong. In 2016, we finally saw the long-awaited release of Final Fantasy XV, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (our 2015 game of the year) got even bigger with the release of the Blood and Wine expansion. Looking past the big names, games like Darkest Dungeon and Tyranny provided grim experiences that delved into the darker side of role-playing. And, of course, Pokémon's familiar formula proved to be as successful as ever. Many collective hours were lost to these great games throughout 2016, and now we’re bestowing our awards for 2016’s biggest victories in the genre.

Best Narrative: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt won this category last year for the adventures of Geralt and Ciri, but the storytellers at CD Projekt RED keep the tale alive in Blood and Wine. Geralt finds himself in Toussaint, a region overflowing with court intrigue and wine. As you investigate murders and deal with nobility, you still make tough choices with uncertain consequences. However, the tone of this scenario is more light-hearted (and detached from the core arc). We won’t actually spoil the narrative high points here, but the story has the same breed of exceptional twists and flourishes that distinguished the base game.

Best Combat System: Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon has turn-based combat, but it’s a far cry from the standard “attack, heal, attack” formula present in many RPGs. You need to carefully construct your team with complementary abilities, balance your HP and stress levels, and exploit enemy weaknesses if you want to survive. Weighing all of these factors results in complex and challenging battles, but that makes each harrowing victory even more rewarding.

Best Cast: Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV has some great individual characters, but the way everyone comes together as an ensemble is the heart of this game. The friendship binding the four main characters, along with the implied ties connecting Noctis to Regis and Luna, are more interesting than the actual events of the main narrative. We can’t say much about the villain without spoiling some key moments, but the adversarial build-up also keeps you invested. The relationships in Final Fantasy XV develop slowly but surely, so you may have trouble putting the game down and leaving your friends behind.

Best Setting: Darkest Dungeon

A vast world propped up by lots of lore can make a great setting; we saw that this year in RPGs like Final Fantasy XV and Blood and Wine. However, sometimes an impeccable commitment to a theme can be even more effective. Darkest Dungeon’s setting and gameplay complement each other perfectly; the execution of the Lovecraftian premise sets a consistent and compelling tone the runs through the experience. From its dramatic narration to the grim art, Darkest Dungeons radiates style and despair in equal measure.

Best Side Quests: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood And Wine

Like the core game, this expansion doesn’t settle for menial chores as supplementary content. The side quests in Blood and Wine are just as inventive and detailed as they were in Wild Hunt, with plenty of variety. Whether you’re recruiting workers for your own personal vineyard, dealing with banking bureaucracy, or hunting for missing statue genitals, Blood and Wine’s side quests mix humor, story, and surprises that constantly tempt you away from the critical path.

Best Replayability: Tyranny

Tyranny lets you explore your dark side by casting you as the envoy of an evil conqueror. Your actions as an invading entity have consequences, but you don’t get to see all of the possibilities in a single playthrough. The choices you make, factions you align with, and the missions you undertake produce different outcomes, encouraging players to come back to see the various permutations of the story.

Best sidekick: Final Fantasy XV’s Ignis

Since the heroes of Final Fantasy XV work so well together, picking one sidekick as the best is tricky. Is it Gladiolus, who is always there to keep Noctis out of harm’s way? Is it Ignis, who drives Noctis around and makes him delicious food? Or is it Promto who…uh…hm…well, it isn’t Prompto. Ultimately, Ignis earns the title of Best Sidekick through the multifaceted ways he helps the group and the sacrifices he makes to ensure their journey is successful.

Up next are the awards for Weirdest RPG, Best MMO, and our 2016 RPG of the Year!

Best Series Homage: Monster Hunter Generations

Though it’s technically a new game, Monster Hunter Generations is more of a “greatest hits” compilation of the whole series. Generations is the most accessible game in this franchise (newcomers should jump in here), but it seems aimed more at the longtime fans. A host of familiar monster variants provide intense battles, and the tweaks to the combat and improved Palico system make the gameplay better than ever. World of Final Fantasy was another contender in this category, with its classic turn-based combat and parade of iconic creatures, but Monster Hunter edged out the win with its depth and refined mechanics.

Best Innovation: Darkest Dungeon’s Affliction System

Everyone knows that keeping your HP up is important in an RPG. Darkest Dungeon adds a new spin on health management with its affliction system, which has players struggling to stay both alive and sane. Various circumstances can increase your characters’ stress, and if they hit a breaking point, look out. A demoralizing array of negative effects affect party members who can’t keep their cool, keeping the pressure on and adding a thrilling (and scary) level of unpredictability to your expeditions.

Weirdest RPG: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

As if the name weren’t strange enough, this RPG is a crossover between two unlikely franchises: Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei and Nintendo’s Fire Emblem. Set in real-life Tokyo, your quest to achieve pop stardom is punctuated by dungeons that revolve around bizarre themes like fashion and Japanese television shows. Also, you need to stop evil spirits from stealing people’s creative energy. If you’re tired of the same old story, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is anything but ordinary.

Best MMO: World of Warcraft: Legion

World of Warcraft’s latest expansion is the best and most significant update to the venerable MMO since 2008’s Wrath of the Lich King. Legion addresses a wide spread of player concerns; it makes daily quests more compelling, gives players artifact weapons to enrich the end-game experience, and features class overhauls to keep the gameplay from getting stale. Whether you’re a casual player or a hardcore fanatic, Legion offers something to keep you coming back.

Best Tactical RPG: Fire Emblem Fates

Fire Emblem Fates is technically three games (Birthright, Conquest, and Revelations), but they still win this award whether they are considered individually or as a suite. Strategic gameplay mixes with robust storytelling to create a tactical/narrative hybrid with surprising freedom. Whether you’re trying to win a tough battle or cajole particular units into marriage, the fun of Fire Emblem Fates is split evenly between the victories you achieve and the story you create.

Best Handheld RPG: Pokémon Sun and Moon

Skeptics may insist that Pokémon is exactly the same from one installment to the next, but Sun and Moon demonstrate that change is happening. The classic formula of catching creatures and making them stronger through battle is still intact, but the tropical setting and elimination of the standard Gym-based progression make Sun and Moon feel like more of a departure than previous entries. Game Freak stays close enough to the tried-and-true core of Pokémon to keep fans happy, but it also isn’t afraid to make changes to keep the franchise moving forward.

RPG Of The Year: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood And Wine

Don’t dismiss Blood and Wine just because it’s an expansion. In terms of scope, it’s the size of a standalone game. In terms of ambition, it takes The Witcher 3’s successes in intriguing new directions. More great quests, more tough choices, and various innovations to draw players back into Geralt’s world. Yes, Blood and Wine started with Wild Hunt as its foundation – but that game was Game Informer’s Game of the Year in 2015, and everything we loved about it then is back now, along with improvements to make the adventure feel fresh.

Want more genre awards for the best games of 2016? Check out our lists for shooter, adventure, and action categories.