2012: the year in RPGs

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

2012 the year in RPGs

What a fun, odd year it's been for role-playing games. The genre in theory is looking as good as it has for over a decade. In practice? The year was light on pure RPGs, even as aspects of role-playing spread to many of the year's best. Still, (almost) every month saw something interesting happen in the world of western RPGs, so let's look back, shall we?

January: Okay, every month except January, when I suppose we were all still playing Skyrim ... and stopping playing The Old Republic. TOR had a wave of critical and popular excitement when it was released in late December, but that quickly dried up, turning its servers into ghost towns. Its inevitable slide toward free-to-play, combined with the collapse of 38 Studios and failure of other subscription-based MMORPGs. was part of an increasing trend away from World Of Warcraft competitors. The MMORPG gold rush may be over.

February: Early February saw the release of Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning, a fairly well-received game in its own right, but more interesting to me in that it was the result of an ambitious company trying to build up a reputation and a setting via a single-player RPG. The genre's cool again! Or perhaps not, as Amalur's parent company collapsed soon after.

As it was developed in Japan, Binary Domain is slightly outside the scope of this column, or at least it would be if it weren't the closest thing to a Mass Effect clone around. Historically, BioWare's become so popular by marrying western mechanics with Japanese-style character interactions. To see a Japanese game proceed using the BioWare model was both amusing and, eventually, quite effective.

2012 the year in RPGs

March: Mass Effect 3 came out and dominated discussion of all games for the next two months. My dislike of the ending itself is well-documented, so I'll just make two quick points: first, it's only because everything else worked so well, through all three games, that a five-minute ending could be such a shock; and second, how crazy awesome is it that a video game's story inspired such argument?

April: Lots of old-fashioned RPGs got funded on Kickstarter this year. But The Legend Of Grimrock actually got released in April. It's an homage to the tile-based, real-time, puzzle-filled, party-created RPGS of the late '80s and early '90s-important games like Dungeon Master, Eye Of The Beholder, Lands Of Lore, or Stonekeep. The puzzles and I don't get along, so I've always struggled with this subgenre. But I'm delighted that it exists, delighted that it's successful, and especially delighted that its developers have added a construction kit.

May: "Error 37." I'm not sure I've ever seen a game as brilliantly constructed to play as Diablo 3fall apart so completely at every higher level, from those first few days of pain to a game-breaking auction house. It's one of the best games of the year at the same time as being one of its most disappointing. Blizzard made bank, of course, but it'll be fascinating to see if this will damage its once-stellar reputation.

Summer: Other than the aforementioned Mass Effect 3 extended ending, not much happened in June. Indeed, summer's usually the doldrums for video game releases generally. July and August, however, saw the release of two exciting new massively multi-player RPGs, The Secret World and Guild Wars 2. The Secret World used a traditional payment model, but it tweaked the form in many other ways, like its modern supernatural conspiracy-based setting, its open character construction system, and its adventure-game like puzzles. Yet it was also oddly amateurish in certain respects-the personality given to its world and its quests was totally lacking under the hood, particularly in the dull, septic presentation of skills and inventory.

Guild Wars 2, on the other hand, was as professional as any MMORPG before or since. From beautiful vistas to top-notch voice actors to a crisp interface, it got everything at the baseline level of competence right. Its lack of subscription and attempts to make the genre's conventions more accessible certainly appealed as well. Yet I rarely felt that the game was great beyond that baseline of extreme competence. It doesn't surprise me that the super slick Guild Wars 2 was reviewed and sold better than the quirky Secret World, although it does disappoint me a bit, having found the two games roughly equally entertaining, but finding myself more drawn to the ambitious flaws of The Secret World. Still, I can't help but think that I'd have fallen in love with The Secret World if it had a dash of Guild Wars 2's slickness, or Guild Wars 2 with a touch of The Secret World's personality.

2012 the year in RPGs

September: The World Of Warcraft juggernaut may have continued apace with the release of Mists Of Pandaria, but this was a month that was all about the indies for me. FTL (Faster Than Light) is a difficult game to describe, but I've seen it called an RPG where your spaceship is the main character, and that's good enough for me. You take a small ship from one corner of the galaxy to the next, using real-time strategy-style controls. From the hilariously horrible slow deaths to the tough decisions to the epic triumphs, it's everything a game should be – indeed, there's no gamer I wouldn't recommend it to.

My favorite pure RPG of the year also came in September: Torchlight 2. No 2012 game is better at dispensing traditional satisfactions of the genre like character development, loot hunting, and exploration. It doesn't try to reach beyond its grasp like its cousin Diablo 3, but what it does so, it does with style and skill.

October: Perhaps Dishonored and XCOM aren't pure RPGs, but it's hard to imagine them being as good as they are without the RPG influences. Dishonored's living world and character customization align it with Deus Ex, the classic first-person shooter/RPG. Meanwhile, XCOM offered the year's best opportunity to build a party, customize their skills and equipment, and send them into the world, all traditionally the realm of role-playing games. What makes XCOM really special is that those characters would occasionally die horribly, encouraging you to go through the process again and again without (usually) seeming too cruel. That's pretty special, and the reason why it's my favorite game of the year.

November: The shuttering of City Of Heroes was a sad day for its fans, but it also indicates a major problem in the industry at large: games that rely exclusively on their publishers for server space are always in danger of disappearing completely. We're losing our history in the form of the games themselves, and massively multiplayer role-playing games are the most precarious of any.

December: The release of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition on PC in November and iPad in December was a fitting conclusion to a year drenched in love for 1990s-style games. Project Eternity, Wasteland 2, Hero U: Rogue To Redemption and more promised sequels or spiritual sequels to some of that decade's most-loved RPGs. BG:EE promises something similar – if it sells well enough, its sequel may get re-released, and if that sells well enough, there's a good chance at a Baldur's Gate 3. But while looking back can be great-these are all classics-there's also something new going on. BG:EE's release on the iPad ported it to an entirely new interface. I am tremendously excited by the potential of portable, touchscreen-designed tablets for old-fashioned role-playing video games. This could be one of the best developments of the year.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.