That's another year of role-playing video games in the books - and what a year it was! The console generation might be rumbling on towards a heavily-signposted end, but we've been luckly enough to have some really incredible releases this year. We've had long-awaited big-budget sequels, indie darlings, strange spin-offs and out-of-left-field originals - and so it's time to discuss them all in our Best of 2019 awards.
Last year we adjusted the format for these rewards, and we liked that adjusted format so much that we've kept it the same for this year. That means that in this article you'll find several commendations, which reward games for nailing specific aspects of their style or systems. Then you'll find ten games we whittled down from a much longer list as our best of 2019. Five of these are runners-up, while the top five are actually our official Best of 2019 winners. Finally, at the very end, one of that top five is crowned our official RPG of the Year 2019.
We achieved this by taking a long-list from right across the RPG Site staff - any game the staff thought were eligible was on the list. Then we all debated that list down to a final ten, then a final five, and then a winner. It's a gruelling process, but here's the good news: you can listen in to our entire process on the RPG Site podcast, as we recorded the entire debate. Find that special Best of 2019 edition of the Tetracast, the RPG Site Podcast, embedded below or via our iTunes page.
Don't forget it's not too late for you to have your say! We're hosting a 2019 Reader's Choice Poll to decide your favorite RPG of 2019. This poll runs until the end of the year, and in January we will reveal the results in an all-new post and add the winner to this page for posterity - so be sure to vote!
Commendations: Special Shout-Out Awards
Sometimes a game is just good at a really specific things. That's what our commendations are for. After being nominated for specific awards and then discussed by the RPG Site staff, we landed on a handful of games we wanted to highlight separately from the main RPG Site Best of 2019 awards for certain aspects of their design. Here's our commendations for 2019:
- Commendation for Writing & Storytelling - Disco Elysium
No game this year made us laugh out loud, allowed us to reinvent ourselves, or let us act out the inner-conflict in all of us quite like Disco Elysium. Citing Planescape: Torment as an inspiration, the developers at Studio ZA/UM met that high bar, delivering a clever and witty experience that’s unlike any RPG that we’ve played in a long time. [Bryan Vitale]
- Commendation for Art - The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The Legend of Zelda is a series that is well known for changing art style in bold and unexpected ways, and the 2019 remake of Link’s Awakening is no different. It’s a smart, clever play on some of the handheld Zelda titles that have come before, and a unique style that actually matches up perfectly to the world of Koholint Island and the story that takes place there. It also gave us one of the cutest amiibo ever. [Alex Donaldson]
- Commendation for Music - Kingdom Hearts III
Out of all of the things that Kingdom Hearts III does well, one of its biggest accomplishments is its fantastic score. Beautiful new tracks are matched by incredible remixes of some of the best tracks in the franchise. That we're still waiting on a full and proper original soundtrack release is actually a bit of a crime. [George Foster]
- Commendation for Design & Immersion - Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Fire Emblem: Three Houses smartly twists the usual franchise staples, incorporating sensible changes big and small across the board in making the most ambitious game in the series. Not only do you have a branching route storyline structure and classroom lectures to train students in their skills, but having most of the cast of characters present from the very beginning of the game allows each to contribute and grow from the onset. [Adam Vitale]
- Commendation for Ongoing Support - Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
Despite only being five months old, the FFXIV team has brought a multitude of small changes and tweaks to Shadowbringers that players want from small sound changes to overhauling skill potencies. Each update patch comes with a live letter hosted by Naoki Yoshida that’s a personal look at who is behind the game and it genuinely feels as though the FFXIV team listens to players and provides support as quickly as possible in a way that is always clearly communicated and made public. [Dani Maddox]
- Commendation for a Non-RPG - Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
There’s a reason why Sekiro is widely being named as Game of the Year- it’s incredible. Once you get past the steep learning curve, you’ll find one of the most rich combat systems in a title this generation. The experience is all wrapped up with beautiful environments and music, making it easily one of the year’s most memorable titles. [George Foster]
Best of 2019: The Near Misses, aka the Runner-Up Five
Now we're getting down to the heavy stuff. The games listed here don't officially get one of our 'Best of 2019' awards, but they made it right to the end of the debate fighting off some tough competition - so here's to these five, what we consider our near-miss runners up - amazing games all - followed by our final five, the winners of our best of 2019 awards.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
Final Fantasy XIV began with a tumultuous and poorly reviewed start in 2010 which led to its official relaunch in 2013 with A Realm Reborn. Since then, the game has continued to grow in size from playerbase to character classes and narrative - despite this FFXIV never loses what makes it such a strong MMORPG. Coming six years after the official relaunch of FFXIV, Shadowbringers is a powerful expansion that continues to introduce content for new players and veterans alike. Shadowbringers comes with two distinctly new classes, a raid series that includes a Nier: Automata collaboration and a slew of quality of life changes - this expansion is not only the largest I’ve seen so far, it's also the most accessible.
Regardless of a story that has been almost a decade in the making and will continue to expand in the new year, Shadowbringers holds it all together in a way that is concise. It would be easy for FFXIV to become bogged down with loose narrative threads or additions that lack originality but Shadowbringers feels fresh and open. FFXIV: Shadowbringers is the start of a new generation of FFXIV players and will continue to draw RPG fans in the patches to come. [Dani Maddox]
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers also placed 5th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2019.
The Outer Worlds
Obsidian took the well-known first-person action RPG formula and made something completely their own. The Outer Worlds is a franchise-worthy title that oozes heart, wit and creativity.
The real highlight of The Outer Worlds is its characters. All of them are hilariously written, fantastically performed and feel like they have an important place in every aspect of the game. We felt a particular connection to our companions, which went above and beyond what is expected of them in other titles. Combine all of this with a boatload of character choice, surprisingly fun combat and a genuinely interesting world and you a fantastic RPG. [George Foster]
The Outer Worlds also placed 7th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2019.
After bringing one strand of Yakuza to a conclusion, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio had a daunting task on its hands - to figure out a path forward for the future that’d challenge the studio and result in something, you know, good. A new direction has been set with the upcoming wildly different, turn-based RPG Yakuza - but the detour stop-off in Judgment has still resulted in one of the best games this storied studio has ever produced.
While it’s still an action game where you can smash trash cans over the heads of delinquent criminals, at its heart Judgment is a story-driven crime procedural. It’s in this that like Yakuza it attracts the attention of us, RPG fans - as you stalk through the city streets in hunt for clues, you truly feel as though you embody the protagonist - now helped along by a frankly excellent English-language localization. The game then takes hold, and even as combat encounters risk outstaying their welcome, it’ll be a challenge to walk away - there is simply something infectious about the way this studio tells stories. [Alex Donaldson]
Kingdom Hearts III
Wrapping up something as long and complicated as the Xehanort Saga was never going to be an easy feat, but somehow Kingdom Hearts III managed the task. Fantastic presentation, fun new combat additions like Keyblade transformations, and a feel-good vibe only Kingdom Hearts can bring make this an easy placement on the list.
This is really one for the fans and a true celebration of everything that came before it, as well as a reminder that the specific magic Kingdom Hearts provides has been sorely missed this generation. If Kingdom Hearts III was just the start, we’re even more excited to see what Re:Mind can bring to the table early next year. [George Foster]
Kingdom Hearts III also placed 7th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2019.
Ring Fit Adventure
Whatever somebody might tell you, Ring Fit Adventure is a role-playing game. It might be one by the skin of its teeth, but it definitely belongs on this website. It’s a game with character growth and leveling up, with elemental-based enemy strengths and weaknesses and a traditional RPG battle presentation. Yeah, you input to perform moves with your body. It’s exercise in disguise. It’s also brilliant.
Nintendo has form in the fitness aid video game market, of course. The immense popularity of Wii Fit won’t soon be forgotten, but what sets Ring Fit Adventure apart is that it actually feels more like a video game and more like a solid-but-simple RPG than it does a fitness programme. It’s fun, engaging and amusing, if a little talky, but it’s crucially something this genre doesn’t often see. If other fitness gaming apps have left you cold, this might be the one that makes the difference. On sheer creativity and guts alone, Ring Fit Adventure deserves to be on our list of the year’s ten best. [Alex Donaldson]
Dragon Quest Builders 2 - Best of 2019 Winner
At a glance it’d be easy to call Dragon Quest Builders and its sequel ‘Minecraft clones’. That’s a reductive description, however. This series was always a lot more than this, but with its sequel this unique spin-off has found a fantastic identity and groove - and much of that involves mashing up its obvious world-building inspiration with the concepts and traditions of the deeply RPG series upon which it is based.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 doesn’t fix what isn’t broken. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It simply takes what is an already compelling argument and formula and confidently expands, tweaks and in some cases compresses it to make it better. Quality-of-life improvements mean less busy-work. More confidence means more ballsy new mechanics and a clearer-cut story that’s actually more traditionally and typically Dragon Quest. The end result may not be as brazen or as shouty as its peers on this list, but Dragon Quest Builders 2 is quietly, confidently and charmingly one of the year’s best RPGs. [Alex Donaldson]
Dragon Quest Builders 2 also placed 9th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2019.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne - Best of 2019 Winner
After how much Monster Hunter World captivated us last year, Iceborne didn’t have to do all that much to have our attention. Hot off the heels of the series’ newfound worldwide success, Capcom could have easily phoned this expansion in, coasting off of the successes of the base game. Instead, they went above and beyond to craft an expansion that not only rivals the size of Monster Hunter World’s original package, but even adds more content than any other expansion in the series’ long history.
Everything about Iceborne showcases the same sort of ambitions that made Monster Hunter World our game of the year last year, and although it’s not nearly as innovative as it was back then - it easily deserves praise for showing us an expansion that is still keen to drive such a long-running series forward in such exciting and surprising new ways. Truly, there’s not a better capstone for the absolutely fantastic 2019 that Capcom delivered. [James Galizio]
Fire Emblem: Three Houses - Best of 2019 Winner
When it comes to 2019 RPGs, Fire Emblem: Three Houses pretty much has it all. A delightfully charming cast of characters, a well-realized world & history, addictive strategic gameplay, and some light simulation elements. It takes the usual staples found in the series and puts smart twists on them, from learning combat skills through lectures to interacting with characters outside of combat on the monastery grounds. New elements like battalions add a nifty twist to the tactical side of things, while character recruitment takes on a new meaning as it affects who might be facing off against you down the line. It’s simply a tremendous game, and it has been quite a long time since a Fire Emblem game has captured its ambitions so firmly.
Bolstered by a good localization effort, Nintendo did not pull any punches for this Fire Emblem entry. With the critical and commercial success Fire Emblem is having now, it’s almost difficult to believe now that series’ future was ever in question. We hope there’s a lot more Fire Emblem to come. In the meantime, we can look forward to more DLC for Three Houses in the near future. [Adam Vitale]
Fire Emblem: Three Houses also placed 1st in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2019.
Disco Elysium - Best of 2019 Winner
Going into 2019, Disco Elysium was nowhere among our most anticipated titles for the year, let alone a strong contender for best RPG of 2019 -- period. This unique and moody CRPG slash procedural is easily the most inventive of all of the titles on this list, namely because it’s so singular in focus and design. Disco Elysium strips away genre staples like levels and any form of combat and proves that a cohesive and thematically coherent RPG based around dialogue and a deeply personal internal conflict alone can be engaging, thought-provoking, and most of all, genuinely funny.
Disco Elysium is not just well written, but also deliberately designed. Every aspect of Disco Elysium’s setting and premise places the player in the shadow of history, from the protagonist’s druken escapade, to his failed relationship, to the murder itself, to the disgraced city of Revachol still scarred from its history of war. Disco Elysium shows us that the healing process can be messy, confusing, and painful. But despite the sallow, grim outlook of events, Disco Elysium shows how empathy and friendship can serve as guiding beacons in the bleakest moments. That is, unless the player decides to forgo that sort of redemptive route altogether, take on a new identity, and become someone different entirely. [Bryan Vitale]
Disco Elyisum also placed 6th in the Reader's Poll for RPG of the Year 2019.
SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions - RPG of the Year 2019
I certainly didn’t expect I’d be writing something like this when I first sat down to play SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions earlier this month, but it seems appropriate that a game which relishes so much in the surprise would come out of left field to sweep our hearts away. 2019 was an especially tough year for Scarlet Grace to shine in - with such juggernauts as Fire Emblem, The Legend of Heroes, and more all vying for the top spot come the year’s conclusion. In the end, it’s Scarlet Grace’s emphasis on freedom of progression, arguably the best turn-based battle system to grace the genre in years (if not of all-time), and its unapologetically unorthodox world design that help it stand out from the crowd.
Make no mistake – the decision to axe “proper” dungeons and towns was a gamble large enough that, if the evolving world that was included in their place wasn’t executed well enough, could have spelled disaster. Instead, we’ve been treated to a world that well and truly feels alive in its own unique way – despite the game’s clearly meager budget.
SaGa Scarlet Grace is a daring, innovative take on the genre, that exudes confidence from start to finish. While its quirks are sure to drive some players away, those that are able to accept its unconventional mechanics are unlikely to find an RPG nearly as memorable, or captivating, among its contemporaries. Whether it’s the continually evolving map, the subtle yet detailed worldbuilding, or the tactical and engaging battle system – there’s truly nothing else quite like Scarlet Grace. [James Galizio]