One of the unfortunate truths of role playing game (RPG) video games is that they tend to be rather formulaic. With few exceptions, most RPGs have roughly the same story and game play as found in the early examples of the genre: Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, Ultima, and Wizardry. In fact, when a RPG successfully deviates from the norm, it usually proves to be one of the best games of its time. The following are the ten most unique RPG video games ever published.
10. Dark Cloud (Level-5) – At first Dark Cloud seems like a rather average action RPG. The unique design elements appear in two major places. First, unlike most RPGs, your characters do not grow with experience. Instead, they improve by using certain items and when their weapons improve. Second, and truly original, is the inclusion of a sub-system where you build a village as the game progresses. This isn’t the only RPG where you build a village, but it is basically the only one where you actually build things like trees and houses, rather than just recruit people to live in it. This feature makes the game stand out among its peers.
9. Paladin’s Quest (Enix) – This little known SNES game completely removes one RPG staple from the game. The game does not use magic points. Instead, all magic costs hit points to cast. As a consequence, there is no healing magic in the game. This twist is almost entirely unique to the genre, though little else is truly unique about this game. Unfortunately, this twist also just makes the game a lot harder and significantly increases the necessary grinding.
8. Pokemon (Nintendo) – Many RPG fans often forget that this is an RPG, because unlike most RPGs, it is marketed towards kids and only published on handheld systems. Despite this, it is a brilliant game with massive yearly sales. Part of what makes it brilliant is that you don’t actually fight with your main character. Your main character collects various monsters and they fight for you. Other games like Shin Megami Tensei use a similar mechanic, but Pokemon is basically the originator of this mechanic, at least in role playing games.
7. Xenogears (Square) – Xenogears is original in a few ways. First, the setting of the world is basically straight out of an anime and it uses anime cut scenes. This is one of the earlier games to incorporate these features. More importantly, combat in Xenogears involves combining various attack types and reserving energy for later attacks. This combination system is somewhat similar to that found in fighting games and basically never before used in an RPG. Finally, game play switches between character battles and fighting with giant mechanized robots. These elements all add up to a very impressive game that would probably be a lot more popular if production hadn’t been rushed during development of the last third of the game.
6. Chrono Cross (Square) – Chrono Cross is one of the exceptions to the rule that unique game play makes for a better RPG. The game play of Chrono Cross is one of the major weaknesses of the game. Scrapping classic game play, in Chrono Cross you slowly build up to strong attacks by using weak attacks. Furthermore, every attack has a color associated with it and producing specific color combinations through attacks can lead to benefits. This overly complicated system simply proved too alien for many who played the game and doesn’t result in something that is particularly enjoyable to play. Still, few other games have something even vaguely similar. If the storyline of parallel worlds didn’t feel a little bit unoriginal, this would place even higher on the list.
5. Fallout (Black Isle Studios) – Fallout is easily one of the “new classic” RPGs. It threw out all of the old standards and set new ones that many RPGs are still trying to live up to. The game featured almost limitless sandbox play, fully customizable characters, and dozens of different paths to progress the story. The post-apocalyptic setting was unique to basically every previous RPG except for Wasteland and grid-based combat system took advantage of the merits of tactical RPGs while still feeling like a traditional RPG. The game just about rewrote the book on what a RPG was.
4. Jade Cocoon 2 (UbiSoft) – Jade Cocoon 2 is like Pokemon on steroids. Instead of controlling one monster like you do in Pokemon, you control up to 8 monsters at a time in Jade Cocoon 2. Simply controlling monsters doesn’t make the game unique. What makes the game unique is that the monsters are set in a grid in the 8 cardinal directions around your character. At any time, only three of the monsters can act and they always take exact same action, depending on the monster. Furthermore, each of your four sides performs a different style of actions. One side attacks, one side defends, one side heals, and one side creates status ailments for the enemy. You fight by constantly rearranging which side is facing the enemy and thus what monsters are acting. This is an intensely tactical game that basically is dissimilar to any other game on the market.
3. Bard’s Tale (Vivendi Universal Games) – Everything about Bard’s Tale seems like a rather ordinary action RPG, at least at first glance. In fact, the plot seems so distressingly generic at first that you might wonder why you are playing. About one minute into your first quest, you will realize that what makes Bard’s Tale unique is that the game actually makes fun of just about every RPG stereotype that exists. First and foremost, the game completely violates the fourth wall. The main character speaks directly to the player and the background story exists purely to provide comical reasons for why your character performs specific actions that nearly every RPG character does, including rampant stealing and the breaking of every barrel in the game. From a mutated giant rat to recurring goblins singing a ridiculously catchy tune, the game tramples over every classic RPG stereotype and does it with the perfect level of humor. Truly excellent humor is rare in an RPG and even the classic Quest for Glory series never parodied the genre half as well as this game does.
2. .Hack (Bandai Games) – The simple feature that makes this game unique is that, despite the fact that it is a single player game, it feels like you are playing a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). In fact, the premise of the game is that you are playing an MMORPG. The impressive thing is that the designers did such a good job making it feel like an MMORPG when there is absolutely no online component. The feel is created partly through game play mechanics, partly through the interface, and a good deal through the NPCs. Other characters will do things like talk to you in l33t speak, suddenly need to leave to do laundry, or send you e-mails. Other games like Front Mission use e-mail and false internet, but not half as successfully as .Hack.
1. Shadow Hearts (Midway) – When it comes to unique RPGs, no game compares to Shadow Hearts. First, unlike just about every other RPG ever, it is actually set in the real world, or at least an alternate version of the real world. And while a few other games are set in the real world, like Fallout, basically every one is set in the future. Shadow Hearts is set nearly 100 years in the past and roughly acknowledges history as it actually happened. In addition to a unique plot, the game also has one of the most unique game play systems ever. Traditional RPG turn based mechanics are combined with an action-style timing system that converts your rhythm skill into better attacks, as well as better deals when shopping. The game simply feels different than just about every other RPG on the market, which is what has made it the such a cult classic.