Even though it's hard to find games in any genre you don't level up in these days, 2009 was "all about reclaiming home turf for role-players," we wrote last year. We were half-right, with the end-of-year hits being straight-laced fantasy epic Dragon Age: Origins and straightjacketed FPS hybrid Borderlands. BioWare's dominance wraps around into the New Year with the imminent Mass Effect 2, but it won't last long, with Final Fantasy XIII leading a varied schedule bursting with single-player and multiplayer monster-mashes in every flavour on every platform. Looks like a vintage year for the experience point.
RPGs shrugged off their association with dungeons and dragons some time ago, but it's still rare to see this structure applied to the contemporary real world. With its glamorous, globe-trotting espionage setting, Alpha Protocol is the game to do that, and hopefully the game to see Obsidian step out of the shadow of mentor BioWare and realise its potential now that the Aliens RPG has been blown out of the airlock. With Interplay legend Chris Avellone directing operations, we're looking forward to being sneaked up on.
Dragon Quest IX
On: DS / Developer: Level-5 / Publisher: Square Enix / Release: 2010
The biggest game of 2009 to not even cause a ripple in the Western hemisphere, Dragon Quest IX was a social gaming sensation of Monster Hunter proportions in Japan. The world's most tradition-bound RPG series stealthily rewrote itself on Nintendo's handheld, with a shorter narrative extended by expansive, open-ended and repeatable side-questing and local co-op multiplayer. Square Enix may have been quiet about Western plans so far, but we're sure they are big ones this time.
On: Xbox 360 / Developer: Lionhead / Publisher: Microsoft / Release: Autumn 2010
Fable - particularly the second game - is the series in which Peter Molyneux's twin ambitions to push gaming boundaries and make playable games for everyone finally met in the middle. He'll be threatening to breach that peace again with Fable III by throwing Natal support into the mix, not to mention attempting to blend his age-old god complex with role-playing monomania by giving the player-character a kingdom to rule. But it wouldn't be a Lionhead game if we were absolutely sure it was going to work, and anyway, where would the fun be in that?
Fallout: New Vegas
We don't know the first thing about this - other than it is a single-player RPG set in the same universe as Fallout 3 without being a straight sequel to it, and it's Obsidian's second game on this list. Going by the developer's profile we'd expect a less open-ended experience, but one still driven by narrative choice - and without being unkind, one that's quite likely to slip. Even if it doesn't make it, following the RPG sensation of 2008 (and, for that matter, most of 2009) ensures it will dominate the skyline like a mushroom cloud.
Final Fantasy XIII
"In the eyes of many, this is the only game that can save the JRPG from stagnant marginalisation," we wrote when including this on the strength of its Japanese release date last year. We now know that it won't be achieving that goal via innovative design or any deviation from strictly linear storytelling or character progression, although the battle system has some depth. So it will be FFXIII's overwhelming spectacle, star power and chest-bursting sentiment that make a splash. Over 20 years on, Final Fantasy still does epic like nothing else, and true to its title treats every moment like it's going to be its last.
Mass Effect 2
Tom writes: Choice and consequence have been key themes for BioWare since the studio was old enough to count the faces of a 21-sided die, but Mass Effect is their most ambitious application - a series of games that begin in one place and, three games later, could conceivably end in two dozen. The second instalment already looks much stronger than its predecessor in traditional terms, with refined classes, more dynamic action sequences and smarter support systems, but its greatest challenge will be to convince players of the significance of their actions in the original game while forging its own unique identity.
Monster Hunter Tri
On: Wii / Developer: Capcom / Publisher: Capcom / Out: 2010
Monster Hunter is a cult, even in Japan where it's nationally popular: an arcane, initially impenetrable grind that spreads virally between friends and becomes a brainwashing obsession. The main barrier to its success over here has been its insistence on local multiplayer, so Tri's embrace of the internet should change everything, not to mention provide the Wii with its most compelling online attraction to date. This writer at least is going to make it his first Monster Hunter. Join us.
Also in 2010
Dragon Age: Origins wakes up to first expansion Awakening; Resonance of Fate sports the quintessential JRPG title; bask in the warm nostalgic glow of Golden Sun DS; it's a great year for RPGs on the Nintendo handheld, which also gets Platinum's ice-cool starship odyssey Infinite Space; meanwhile, the PSP enjoys the considerable charms of Valkyria Chronicles II; Diablo III still isn't out, but never mind, because here comes Ron Gilbert to satirise it with the rumbustious DeathSpank; there's plenty of dragon-wrangling on DS courtesy of Monster Rancher DS and Phantasy Star Zero; central Europe keeps it trad with Two Worlds II, Drakensang: The River of Time and ArcaniA: A Gothic Tale; Star Ocean: The Last Hope hits the PS3; Fragile: Farewell Ruins of the Moon on Wii looks cute and spooky; and we're not sure if Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is really an RPG, or if it's coming out this year, but we wanted to mention it somewhere. Edit: Also, you lot have kindly reminded us that the Western version of White Knight Chronicles, Level-5's rather lovely PS3 exclusive, is out this year.
Join us tomorrow for even more of what's happening this year. Or what isn't happening this year, if we go by the success of last year's predictions. But join us!