With Pillars of Eternity’s second expansion The White March Part II coming out in just over a week, and with Torment: Tides of Numenera and Divinity: Original Sin II expected later this year, we decided to take a look at the best isometric RPGs in history. By “isometric” we are not speaking of games with the literal isometric perspective, but rather those primarily western RPGs that use an overhead perspective and typically allow you to control multiple party members independently. Think Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, or Pillars of Eternity. For our purposes, none of the Dragon Age games qualify, even Origins, despite the ability to play it largely as an isometric game. Origins would certainly make this list otherwise.
5. Icewind Dale
If you prefer your RPGs to be combat-focused and involve more dungeon-delving than actual plot, then Icewind Dale just might be for you. A Black Isle RPG (you’ll see their name on this list more than once), Icewind Dale brought players back into the Dungeons & Dragons world of the Forgotten Realms to explore the frozen wastes of its bitter north. While the Second Edition ruleset is clunky, the game handles most of it, creating a fairly seamless experience. Unlike many other RPGs, you also get the opportunity to fully create your party of six heroes from the ground up, rather than finding additional companions. While this loses a lot of story and characterization, it really allows the player to dive into building a customized or optimized team. The game is faster-paced than most others in this category, and provides some of the most robust monster diversity seen in video gaming. With a fantastic score, beautiful locations and exciting combat, Icewind Dale remains one of the best isometric RPGs ever made. And there’s a 2014 Enhanced Edition to boot, which provides a number of gameplay and visual updates.
4. Pillars of Eternity
Pillars of Eternity is the only recent game to make this list, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a very successful reinvention of the isometric RPG for modern times. A true spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate series, Pillars of Eternity takes you to a wholly new land full of wonderful and interesting characters. Unlike Icewind Dale, this is a game serious about its characters, which are deeply and fully wrought. The environments are stunning and the music is great, but what really stands out about Pillars of Eternity is its narrative. While it has the usual fantasy tropes, Obsidian has crafted a tale that explores the meaning of the soul and the power of belief. And with numerous branching quests and dialogue options, many of which affect the outcome of the world, it’s one in which you can see the impact of your choices. While the new rules system is fairly complicated and hard to learn, the combat, spell selection, and itemization is, for the most part, top notch. It’s truly a great experience, and one that’s still ongoing as its second expansion, The White March Part II, comes out on February 16. Check out our review of Pillars of Eternity and The White March Part I.
3. Baldur’s Gate II
Baldur’s Gate II is the quintessential isometric fantasy RPG. While the first Baldur’s Gate set the stage for many isometric RPGs to follow, its numerous flaws and relatively small world prevent it from making this list. Baldur’s Gate II, on the other hand, offers one of the most complete Dungeons & Dragons experiences ever made for single-player computer gaming. Set in the cut-throat and mercantile country of Amn, Baldur’s Gate II offered a compelling epic story with a truly memorable antagonist in Jon Irenicus. With numerous subplots, lots of optional quests, and a great supporting cast, Baldur’s Gate II remains the standard by which other western RPGs are judged. Exploring the great city of Athkatla was the first time I can remember being truly stunned by the amount of content in a single location. The art and sound were also top-notch, and the combat consistently exciting. It also had a sense of humor, with lots of humorous easter-eggs and hilarious characters (go for the eyes, Boo!) Its detailed romance options also set a precedent that BioWare has tried to live up to ever since. Its expansion, Throne of Bhaal, extended the gameplay to epic, god-like levels, truly capping off the historic adventure Bioware created with Baldur’s Gate.
2. Fallout 2
Fallout 2 puts the “role-playing” in RPG. Few games even today can come close to the sheer range of play and character choices that Fallout 2 offered. How many games let you make a character so stupid he can barely speak? How many give NPCs special responses to that same idiocy that sometimes even works out in that characters’ favor? This is a game with no classes, but an incredibly deep skill and ability system (still partially used today in the modern Fallout games) that lets you play however you want to play. And the game actually responds to those choices. How many games of this type require almost no killing whatsoever throughout the entire game?
There’s so much more in this game than you can ever see in a single playthrough. The polish expected of modern games simply doesn’t allow the kind of flexibility exhibited in Fallout 2. Like Baldur’s Gate, the first Fallout demonstrated the potential of this kind of game, but Fallout 2 delivered an experience better in every way. A better story, far more exploration, more interesting NPCs and more combat customization. Fallout 2 is at once adult and childishly hilarious. The endless jokes and easter-eggs merge with interesting science fiction tales in what is certainly one of the best worlds ever created in video games. Fallout 2 is a true classic: one that, despite its bugs and incredibly dated graphics, will stand the test of time.
1. Planescape: Torment
The other games on this list are all exceptional in their own right, but one game rises above them to be the pinnacle of the isometric RPG. That game is Planescape: Torment. There has never been another game like it. Despite numerous bugs, fairly simple combat and limited character options, Torment manages to remain the most memorable of any of these games. The brilliance of its writing is alone responsible for its place in the pantheon of gaming greats.
While the world of Planescape in which it is set isn’t original, Black Isle took that wild setting and made it feel more real than any of the fantasy worlds that populate other games. It’s a game that explores the more interesting concepts of fantasy, and one that asks real questions about the nature of humanity. This is a game about an immortal trying to find his own mortality in order to finally die. But he might not even be the most interesting character. Your first companion is a floating, wise-cracking skull that speaks the local “chant,” a manner of speaking so infectious you might find yourself speaking it after playing the game. However, his amusing demeanour hides a tragic history involving the unique nature of life and death in the planes. Other characters include a succubus that runs a brothel devoted to intellectual stimulation, a pyromancer condemned to burn eternally, and a robot-like creature that has diverged from its hive-mind. There is no good and evil here; every genre standard is subverted. But more importantly, it’s a game that makes you think: about mortality, about power, about what it means to live a good life.
There’s also a lot of game there: lots of exploration, solid if simple combat, and tons of conversations. You can side with one of a number of different factions, each with their own outlook on how life should be lived and what it means to be alive in the planes. The itemization is also wonderful, with an endless stream of thought-provoking items that often hide secrets of their own. Even after multiple playthroughs, I feel like I’ve only seen part of what this game has to offer. I wish there were more like it.
Of course, inXile is trying to do just that, with its spiritual successor Torment: Tides of Numenera currently in beta. Though it takes place in a different universe, it’s one that’s equally as weird and wonderful as Planescape from everything I’ve seen so far. While it remains to be seen whether it can live up to its great predecessor, I’m optimistic.
Do you agree? Did we leave out your favourite game? Tell us in the comments below.