Introduction by Mike Salbato
We had this great idea: Let's discuss games that were milestones for the industry. Things that, in ways, changed what we thought of RPGs, or crazy crossovers. Games that caused a shift in the market to a drastic degree, like how Final Fantasy VII changed everything.
Of course, we have intentionally set our 20th Anniversary features to include games within the last 20 years, and FFVII is 21 years old. Damn. So, without the most obvious choice, and to mix things up a bit, I asked our staff to write about one of two things: Either games that were industry milestones, or in some way, a personal milestone or revelation within the genre. The results are a mix of factual tales and personal journeys, and everyone made some interesting choices in their selections, so I'm happy to present you with these sixteen games in our 20 Years of Milestone RPGs feature (and yes, there's some not-exactly-RPGs in here too, for games that fall within our coverage).
For years, I just didn't get the hype around Dark Souls. I'd missed out on Demon's Souls initially; by the time I got a PS3, Dark Souls was only a couple of months away, so I thought I'd wait for the new hotness. I gave up pretty soon after going the wrong way and flailing helplessly at immortal skeletons, convinced that the latest FromSoft offering, like King's Field, Shadow Tower, and Armored Core before it, just wasn't for me.
Bloodborne changed all of that. Despite my fears that I'd bounce off it like I had Dark Souls, the pull of its ghastly, gothic horror setting proved too much for me to resist. Admittedly, my first several weeks with it felt insurmountable. Around every corner hid a new horrible threat to contend with, but little by little, I'd make tense, fleeting progress. Once I reached Father Gascoigne, I'd have to set aside a play session in which to challenge him, only to be knocked down time and time again. Hands dripping with sweat, and no PlayStation+ membership with which to engage in jolly cooperation, I could only stand four or five tangoes per day before I'd have to shut down my PlayStation 4 and exercise some self-care.
And then one day, it happened. Gascoigne and I both had each other down to a sliver of health. It was anybody's match — always his — and I was sure that my hopes would be dashed against the crumbling tombstones beneath Oedon Chapel. But somehow, I managed to flail at just the right moment, in just the right direction. The Padre collapsed, and I was still standing. I think I must've dropped the controller and screamed. Normally, after beating against a troublesome boss for so many hours, I'd just be relieved it was all over. This time, though, something was different. What horrific rapture! I'd stood in the face of an impossible challenge and persevered. I could handle anything Bloodborne would throw at me, and I welcomed it. I needed it.
It took me two months to solo Bloodborne from start to finish, and once I did, all I wanted was more. I opened up my copy of Dark Souls for the first time since 2011. This time, I was ready.
For a good few years, it really seemed like Danganronpa just wasn't going to be localized. As someone who became hooked on Japanese-style adventure games (warts and all) with Snatcher, I was very interested in a modern interpretation of this largely bygone format. I jumped right on Danganronpa as soon as NIS America released it in early 2014, and I ended up far more thrilled than I could've anticipated. It wasn't the stylish art, the macabre plotline, the larger-than-life-characters, or even the adorably diabolical bear. Okay, it was those things, but what really struck a chord with me was the game's sharp rebuttal against the utsuge ("depressing games") genre. Existing primarily within visual novels, utsuge use despair and tragedy as a vehicle for moe. On paper, Danganronpa sounds guilty of the same act: it dumps sixteen unsuspecting teenagers into a locked school, and asks you to befriend them before they start offing each other. What makes Danganronpa different — what makes it work — is the presence of Monokuma, the aforementioned adorable two-toned bear. Each new chapter brings a new murder, a new mystery to solve, and the execution of a new murderer. All the while, Monokuma pops up to excitedly stoke the flames, speculating who's going to die next. He can't wait for that next delicious plot twist, and neither can you. Effectively the player surrogate, Monokuma holds a harsh mirror up to the player, as well as Danganronpa's own genre. It's blisteringly brilliant.
by Dom Kim
Perhaps the most telling sign of just how much Dark Souls has shaped the industry since its release in 2011 would be how often the phrase, "The Dark Souls of X," gets thrown about when a challenging new release rolls around. Dark Souls might as well be synonymous with "difficult" at this point, but that's really doing the game a complete disservice, as beneath all the marketing slogans and catchy headlines lies one of the best RPGs out there. Lordran is nothing short of one of the best realized fantasy worlds to date with its deeply rooted lore and immaculate presentation of a kingdom that has fallen to ruin. The gameplay, while challenging, is mostly fair (cough Bed of Chaos cough), and the difficulty is more of a byproduct of Miyazaki making the game as immersive as possible, rather than being the main focus. See, one of the things that really makes Dark Souls such a memorable game even seven years after its release is its ability to drive the skill necessary to proceed into you as you make your way through the world. Easy victories do not exist here, and every obstacle you overcome is born from countless "YOU DIED" screens and the light of the bonfire encouraging you to try again. You iron out the weaknesses of your character and become someone capable of slaying gods, not through overpowered weapons or mindless button smashing but through your own blood, sweat, and tears. Dark Souls might start you off with a hero prophecy, but it ends with a destiny forged by your hands alone, and no other RPG since has managed to quite capture the magic of that journey.
Dragon Quest is the original. The first Japanese RPG — about a hero rescuing a princess, summoning a rainbow bridge, and defeating the villainous Dragonlord (or DracoLord) — spawned a mega-franchise with lifetime sales exceeding 70 million games sold worldwide. And no Dragon Quest game is as important as the 2004 PS2 installment, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. While always beloved in Japan, Dragon Quest didn't have much international success prior to DQVIII. Perhaps ditching the "Dragon Warrior" name helped, but Square Enix (and in this case, developer LEVEL-5) releasing a Dragon Quest title in Europe for the first time is what did the trick. Dragon Quest VIII's stunning use of 3D and cel shading (a series first), excellent orchestrated music and voice acting (another series first, and only in the North American and European versions!), and delightful fairy tale of a story was a success on all continents. Dragon Quest VIII is a milestone game for bringing a Japanese cultural touchstone of an RPG to an international audience. Without the massive success of the series' first 3D entry, the upcoming Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age would be a different game. And it may have never left Japan.
By all rights, Final Fantasy XIV should have crashed and burned, joining flops like E.T. and the N64's Superman in the annals of video game history. And to a certain extent, it did. 1.0, the original version of FFXIV, shut down its servers a little over two years after the game's release due to near unanimous criticism of the gameplay, interface, and numerous technical issues. But Square Enix didn't simply leave it at that and move on; they rebuilt FFXIV from the ground up, gave it a new title (one quite appropriate for a game that was revived from the ashes of its own demise), and asked players to return to a new Eorzea. It was a huge risk, but one that payed off immensely. Final Fantasy XIV is now a successful and well loved MMO, boasting over 10 million players and two critically acclaimed expansions...and the game shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
The phoenix act Square Enix performed with the reboot of Final Fantasy XIV is a milestone in its own right. But the game is also a milestone for me personally. FFXIV is my first MMO. Before I arrived in Eorzea as a bright-eyed catgirl, the genre kind of intimidated me: playing with other people, getting swamped by content, monthly subscription fees, stories that can't possibly be on par with single-player games, etc. But I took the plunge after hearing a friend rave about it and found myself sucked into the world and gameplay. I've been subscribed for almost four and a half years now, and in that time, I've made lots of friends, conquered many primals and raids, and taken part in a story that has surpassed all expectations. Where Final Fantasy XIV goes from here is anyone's guess, but it will always be remembered by fans, and especially by me, as one of the best games in the series that almost faded into obscurity before its time.
by Gino DiGioia
Fire Emblem is a franchise that didn't shine as brightly as others when it started. It was a fun little strategy RPG series that Nintendo made back in the 90s and decided to give it a go in the US during the Game Boy Advance era. They even used Smash Bros. to increase its popularity. But as the years went on, only a handful could get behind Fire Emblem's permadeath system or luck based combat, which led to it having a small yet devoted following like many JRPG franchises. When Fire Emblem Awakening was released, Nintendo was planning on pulling the plug on the series. Thank Naga that Awakening sold well because thanks to it, Fire Emblem is here to stay.
FE Awakening fixed most of the series' problems up to this point. It featured an option to turn permadeath off. It gave players a customizable avatar that wasn't just a blank slate. It fleshed out minor characters and developed them through a ramped-up support system. You had the option to marry your characters and gain access to their overpowered children. This game did so well that Nintendo not only let Fire Emblem live, they made it one of their flagship franchises. The series got three games in 2017, including a Warriors spin-off and a successful mobile game. As someone who has been playing Fire Emblem games since Sacred Stones, I could be considered one of those people who don't like what Awakening did to the franchise. But I'm not. Because without Awakening, Fire Emblem wouldn't be here today.
Horizon is one of those rare cases where all the hype leading up to release is totally justified, and the end product is as good or even better than you expected. In this day and age of AAA games that routinely disappoint, Horizon living up to its promise is most certainly commendable, but that's not necessarily what makes it a milestone RPG. Rather, it's how Horizon accomplished this that is so monumental. It was a new IP from a developer that had previously only made shooters, and yet they brought a beautiful and believable post-apocalyptic world to life, full of jaw-droppingly gorgeous locales to visit and intricately designed mechanical monsters to fight. Gameplay was solid and fun (addictive, even), with just the right amount of content to feel satisfying without becoming overwhelming. The well-paced story created an interesting twist on the typical end-of-the-world scenario that has become increasingly popular over the past twenty years, and the atmospheric soundtrack hit all the right notes (pun intended) to enhance the emotional impact of every scene.
But for me, what marks Horizon as a milestone is how on top of all of this (graphics, gameplay, story, music), Guerrilla Games gave us one of the strongest female protagonists I've ever seen in a video game. Yes, I'm going there. Aloy is a smart, capable, unsexualized main character whose story revolves around a personal quest for answers and acceptance that perfectly dovetails with the lore of the world and the threat looming in the shadows. She's not brutalized, fridged, protected, or claimed by any man (in fact, she runs rings around pretty much every man who tries), and while it is unfortunate that such a well-done female protagonist is the exception rather than the rule in 2018, that doesn't diminish the achievement. It may be a new IP that is only a year old, but Horizon Zero Dawn stands as both a shining example of what RPGs can be and a challenge for developers to meet or raise the bar even further.
by Gino DiGioia
Back in the year 2000, if I told you we'd see a video game crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy, you'd probably think I was high. Now, we are (veeeeery) patiently waiting for the third main installment in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. With its exciting gameplay, engaging music, enchanting visuals, and colorful themes, Kingdom Hearts used the nostalgia of Disney's greats to appeal to a wide audience. Of course, action RPGs and crossovers existed before this game, but thanks to the genius use of Disney characters as the base, Kingdom Hearts became one of the most accessible games at launch. Like all games, it has its problems. Some of the characters seemed underdeveloped, the Disney worlds' stories were dumbed down, and then there is the overarching narrative, which got more complicated as the games went on. Despite that, I can't help but love Kingdom Hearts. Its combat and music inspired me to pursue RPGs more, and its impact has increased the popularity of action RPGs in the West. I even love the mysteriousness of its story, even if it does get convoluted in the long run. Honestly, I don't know what my life would be like without Kingdom Hearts, and I know plenty of people who would say the same.