The 8 Ball 03.11.14: Top 8 Fantasy Games
Posted by Marc Morrison on 03.11.2014
From The Legend of Zelda and World of Warcraft to Fable 3, Suikoden, and more, 411's Marc Morrison ranks his Top 8 Fantasy Games!
Welcome all to another edition of the 8 Ball, the topic this week being the best Fantasy video games. The big BIG caveat being that this is my (and Liana's) personal lists. This isn't an all-encompassing list in the slightest, the subject is too big. It would be like saying "List the all-time fantasy books", that is a nigh impossible task. For my own list, I tried to actively try to put actual fantasy games on it. If a game has steampunk, or science fiction elements, it's out. There can be some elements of technology, but not many. I tried to go for the more "classic" definition of fantasy, at least in my view. Let's begin:
8. Final Fantasy 9
Frankly, if I didn't have a Final Fantasy game on this list, some of the uber-nerds on the internet would set the site ablaze. I haven't played FF9 at all, I burned out on FF8 and skipped it. However, reading/looking at the game, it seems to have something most Final Fantasy games lack these days, an actual "Fantasy" element. Everything from FF6 on has either been Steampunk (FF6) or been a weird mishmash of current/future technology. Considering what is going on in Final Fantasy 13, the game should have been named "Final Science Fiction RPG" instead, since it has almost no actual fantasy elements in it at all. FF9 might not be completely in a fantasy realm but it has stuff like princesses, black mages, dancing rats, evil mist, etc. These are all kind of typical fantasy tropes I actually would want in a Final "Fantasy" game, not a bunch of airships, gunblades, or time travel.
7. Fable 3
The Fable game that everyone seems to hate but me, Fable 3 was and still is highly divisive among people (even Molyneux himself). I found the game actually kind of refreshing though as it didn't require a lot of investment from the player. They stripped out a lot of the required (yet clunky as all hell) social elements, the abrupt time jumping from Fable 1 and 2, and told a story that was very stereotypical in the fantasy realm – "Evil force is invading, and you have to fight them off." Combat flowed nicely, able to chain together hits from your sword, your magic spells and your gun quite easily. A lot of the specific game systems are suspect, but the world of Albion was less cartoonish in this game and sensible. Plus the whole D&D parody mission was a high mark for the series.
6. Dark Souls
Dark Souls is a game that I just couldn't get into. I really appreciated the heft/weight of your character, the epic boss fights (Hellkite Dragon), and the surface level mechanics of the game. However the underlying nature of the systems, the insane stats screen, and the game not telling you anything is a hinderance to most sane people out there. However, for those insane people out there (which seems to be a lot of you) this game was a masterstroke of figuring everything out yourself, or spending time on parts of the underbelly of the internet to get strategies in order to break the game. I really dug the world that From Software created, and have some hope for Dark Souls 2, even if I didn't get into Dark Souls 1 that much.
The first game of two on my lists broadly adapted from a book, Suikoden is the quintessential JRPG in a fantasy sense (along with Vagrant Story, Lunar, and others). I'm pretty much counting all of the Suikoden games in this pick. There's not a lot of technology in the world of Suikoden, outside of a few old robots left over from an ancient civilization. However, magic, knights, dragons and more all exist in the world of Suikoden, all without being odd. The "27 True Runes" concept is a bit hokey in spots, but it does present an overlying narrative to the game's world and speculation about them goes on to this day. It also allowed for interplay with certain characters, and gave the world a unifying chronology. More than that, the game just had a great battle system, magic spells, team attacks, and everything flowed nicely. The obvious highlight is Suikoden 2, but Suikoden 3 and 5 are also quite good, Suikoden 1 is a bit old but certainly playable, and Suikoden 4 is a bit of a mess.
4. World of Warcraft
Ok, honestly, WoW has continually drifted more and more towards the "Steampunk" moniker. The Deeprun Tram is one thing, but riding around a motorcycle or a "dimensional ship" (Exodar) is something else. WoW has always flirted with going in a silly route but it is still fairly fantasy focused. The usual fantasy tropes are here, magic, kingdoms/royality, Orcs, goblins, trolls, elves, gnomes you'd like to punt around a field just for being so small, it's all there. I'd argue that WoW's fantasy life peaked with the Lich King expansion and the efforts to try to stop the LK/Arthas from doing more evil business. That brought the events of Warcraft 3 to a nice close, but the game must always go on.
3. Legend of Zelda
Like with Suikoden, I'm just listing Legend of Zelda as a franchise, instead of picking any specific game, although if I had to, it'd be Link to the Past. Zelda remains a largely fantasy based game just due to the overall nature of the game and the archetypes it presents. There's the unassuming, valiant, (and silent) hero, the princess who needs saving, the antithesis evil character bent on world domination, etc. Most of Zelda (except for a scant few games) follow the basic monomyth plot structure, beat for beat. While it would be great if Link just pulled out an Uzi and wasted Ganondorf with it, that wouldn't make it a Zelda game. Things like the hookshot, the boomerang, the reliance on magic and a horse all give the Legend of Zelda a very fantastical feel.
2. The Witcher 2
I honestly think The Witcher 2 might be the best fantasy game in the past decade – a view Liana won't share in the slightest. This is the other game that is on my list that is based on a book, The Witcher 2 comes incredibly close in bringing about a "total package" when it comes to its fantasy world. Having to prepare before battes, richly designed creatures for you to fight, a main character who is charismatic in his own way, villains and allies that have different shades to them, and a moral choice system that can have drastic effects to the plot and what you experience during the game. Playing the game twice is practically mandatory given how the narrative splits 1/3rd through the game's arc. I am incredibly anxious about playing The Witcher 3 when it comes out, and it may be my most highly anticipated game of this year.
1. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
I spent more time in the world of Vvardenfell as I explored than in any other RPG, I think. I easily logged about 250 or 300 hours playing the game, exploring it's secrets, and powering up my character as much as I could. I did this all on the Xbox version also, which made it doubly weird. Oblivion and Skyrim seem to have more fans but both games were very rote to me. Morrowind had a spark of imagination and weirdness going on. From 60 foot tall Silt Striders that you could use as a taxi service, a meditating god in one of the towns (Vivec), talking mudcrabs with a ton of money, and more. I was able to create an uber-death spell (fire/frost/lightning) by capturing a Golden Saint's spirit in a soul gem and paying a huge amount of cash. Morrowind does fit into a lot of the fantasy game tropes, swordplay, magic, lockpicking and so on, but here is a huge amount of creativity in the world that exists, that the later Elder Scrolls games seem to lack.
The Better Half with Liana K
Top 8 Original Fantasy Universes
Hello Adventurers! Buckle your swashes! I had to refine the topic this week, because I play a lot of fantasy games, and a completely open field offered too many choices. I made my list based on franchises that, as far as I know, did not pre-exist in another media like tabletop role-playing games or novels. Adapted IPs is a list for another time. I left in crossover characters, and spiritual sequels, however. Furthermore, this isn't an examination of these games as games. It's an examination of the worlds that were created for said games. Got it? Got it. Here goes...
8: Quest For Glory
Long before the Khajiit of the Elder Scrolls, we had the Kattas of the Quest for Glory series. While one could argue that both feline races have problematic Orientalist elements, I can't help but love them, because they bring the furries out of the woodwork. The first time I discovered that there were dudes out there lusting over Shema's belly dancing scene in Quest for Glory II, it was like the world got a little brighter. As long as things that weird exist, magic is still alive.
7: Heavenly Sword
Heavenly Sword will stand forever as a game that critics were way too harsh on when it first came out. It's a stunningly beautiful game set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world that is bleak and lush in equal measures. Nariko managed to become something of a video game icon despite only appearing in one game, and the world of Heavenly Sword was just so engagingly different. Perhaps it was the fact that it drew from Asian cultures other than Japan, or perhaps it was because it was an early adopter of motion capture, but that world just felt so alive, even though it was defined by death.
It's a real shame that Folklore was overly reliant on gimmicky sixaxis controls, because the game world and the creature designs were fabulous. Folklore can basically be described as "Meet Japanese versions of creatures from Celtic myth, defeat them, trap their souls, and use them to beat up their friends.". The "Japanese version of Celtic myth" part is pretty cool on its own, but the telegraphed twist ending also makes you feel smart for actually paying attention to the story.
5: Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat usually isn't seen as a fantasy game, because it's a fighting game. But if MK isn't a fantasy series, how do all the women stay in their plunging necklines and low-cut pants? Seriously though, the MK franchise packs a huge amount of lore into the games, and give each character a story. With thunder gods, evil wizards, reptile people and multi-armed monsters, as well as cyborgs, clones and mutants, various non-Earth realms, and a heavy focus on souls, Mortal Kombat is one of the most underrated fantasy settings in video games.
4: The Legend of Zelda
I almost completely forgot about Hyrule! Ack! But that brain fart doesn't diminish the creativity behind the settings of Link's adventures! The only reason Zelda didn't rank higher for me is that I struggle with the continuity sometimes, but that's a nitpick. Zelda's character designs are some of the best in the business, and even though the more recent games sometimes struggle with gameplay depth, players know the view is always going to be glorious. Also? Midna rules.
3: The Elder Scrolls
I really struggled with where to put the Elder Scrolls on this list. It absolutely deserves to be included because it's one of the most vast digital fantasy worlds out there. Thing is, a lot of it – vampires, werewolves, dragons, giants, etc -- isn't exactly original in concept or design. The Aedra and the Daedric Princes, however, are admittedly pretty sweet, as are factions like the Greybeards, and the powerful Elder Scrolls themselves. I wish that the Aedric pantheon in Elder Scrolls games was a stronger influence on events, because the Princes we do get to directly encounter are some of the highlights of their respective games. However, since the Elder Scrolls has had great financial success by focusing on breadth versus depth, who am I to argue with what they're doing?
2: Super Mario
Yes, the Mushroom kingdom is a fantasy setting, complete with Princesses in Castles. And it's a great one, with images and characters that have become embedded in pop culture. The unchecked id element of Mario is one of the great treasures of video games. If you expect it to make any sort of cohesive sense, you're doing it wrong.
1: Dragon Age
This number one pick should be no surprise, since its one of my favorite game franchises of all time. The point I'm going to make here is why it's so special.
What sets Dragon Age above the other entries on this list is that its world is huge, well-thought-out, and, for the most part, feels alive. It doesn't load its games with nothing but Tits McGee women (sorry Mortal Kombat), but it doesn't avoid them completely either. (Isabella rules!) Women also exist in meaningful ways after the age of 35. Huzzah for Flemeth and Wynne! They even appear to be letting Morrigan age!
Villains are relateable. Heroes don't all think the same way. Gay people are included as beloved characters. Even mentally challenged folks like Sandal, and mentally ill people -- like everyone in Dragon Age II but especially Merrill -- are allowed to be awesome. There's even a character one could claim is genderqueer: Shale.
As an aside, would it kill Nintendo to introduce a non-white Mario character... or to give Princess Peach a second dress!? But I digress.
New races like the Qunari and the Darkspawn are terrifying but also sublimely compelling. The Qunari are a respected enemy instead of monsters, and sentient Darkspawn like The Architect and Corypheus add a layer of depth to the monsters as well. Magic is treated with an understandable wariness, and there are no perfect solutions to problems.
But Dragon Age isn't a bland politically correct screed. It's fun, goofy, and is full of pop culture references as well as dramatic action scenes. Swooping is bad, pigeons are for squishing, and "enchantment" is possibly the greatest word in the common tongue.
Furthermore, Dragon Age soars above Elder Scrolls and Zelda games when it comes to voice acting. The franchise weakness has been, traditionally, graphics, but first looks at Dragon Age Inquisition indicate that issue is being addressed.
Dragon Age consistently feels like a leap forward in terms of what fantasy settings can be. And if you're pissed off by the length of this final entry, blame the assholes last week who claimed I'm lazy and don't put real work or thought into this column; apparently I just exist to attention whore because of a photo I neither selected nor posted myself. Screw you, male privilege: you don't own the video games industry.
I have a right to be here. People of every race deserve to be here. People of every gender identity and sexual orientation deserve to be here. People of different political and religious affiliations deserve to be here. While other fantasy settings are quite happy to be exclusively white, cis- and heteronormative, and to talk about "sons" going into battle while neglecting the daughters of a land, Dragon Age is proudly supporting the rights of those of us who aren't "typical gamers" to be represented as diverse, complete people.
Honestly, there is a metric ton of games that I didn't put on my list for one reason or another. I'm sure a lot of people would rather see Dragon Age on my list, rather than Fable 3, but it is my call to make. Still, here is a small list of the other games that didn't quite make it: Final Fantasy 4, Bard's Tale, Ni no Kuni, Vagrant Story, Valkyrie Chronicles, Odin Sphere, Okami, Legend of Dragoon, Tales series, Lunar, God of War, Castlevania, Ultima series, D&D games (Baldur's Gate, Planescape, etc.), Shadow of the Colossus, King's Quest series, Diablo, and the Dragon Warrior series
The General Roundup
I'll talk about some of the comments from last week. I was the one who always included Liana's picture in the column, and I removed it now due to her request. I included it because as a media personality, she has more stature than most of the other people on here and should be commended for it. It's not for guys to "drool" over, but to demonstrate her prominence over most of the rest of us. Also, no system info for my picks. My predecessor didn't do it, so I won't either. Most games (like I said last week) are multi-platform, so that would be that. Also: Google it. My main criterion for the history list was more about historical accuracy than anything else. While LA Noire and Red Dead do have some elements of historical accuracy, they are kind of exaggerated forms of this. To the professor who talked about AC3, like with some other people, I'd recommend checking out AC2 and Brotherhood. The Borgia stuff is well done and the game isn't nearly as dull as AC1. Someone else mentioned a lot of other historical games, IL-2 Sturmovik and Battlestations games, I haven't played those but I know they are pretty heavily regarded for their accuracy.