by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 25th May, 2018
A long time ago, during the turn of the century when an average budget for making a video game was dozens of times smaller than what big name publishers spend on making modern AAA titles, when PlayStation 2 just debuted and when smartphones were popular solely in Japan, PC gaming market saw some of the best RPG games ever to be released.
These RPGs almost exclusively featured isometric perspective, mainly because of technology limits. Back then, you couldn't create photorealistic 3D worlds and it was much easier to create 2D games that featured isometric view on the action. Also, since most RPG games of the late 20th and early 21st century featured turn-based combat, it was much better to offer players a broad, top-down view that is much better for turn-based games (the new XCOM games are perfect examples for this claim).
So, the market was crowded with quality isometric RPG games such as Baldur's Gate, Planescape Torment, the original Fallout games, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights. These titles were cherished and loved by many gamers but with the advance of computer graphics, the rise of games as a culture trend (meaning bigger earnings and more copies sold, leading video games to become mainstream form of entertainment), and the inevitable shift to developing multiplatform titles isometric RPGs become a relic of the past. Sure, we saw an indie title from time to time - it is also worth noting that the original Witcher had the option for isometric camera view - and just one AAA title in the form of the first Dragon Age (yup, if you remember it was a pure isometric RPG) but it seemed that this RPG game form is dead. Sure, there were action, hack and slash RPGs that are also isometric by nature but they have little in common with turn-based RPGs filled with dialogue and tough choices like those played back in the day.
Publishers announced that gamers aren't interested in playing these RPGs meaning that developer studios couldn't secure funding, thus preventing them from creating isometric RPGs. And then a wonderful thing happened. Yes, we talk about the rise of crowdfunding platforms, which brought many positive things, one of them being the return of isometric RPGs. The two best titles that were crowdfunded are Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity. Both games can be called gems of modern gaming scene that gave us dozens of hours of tactical combat, countless well-written dialogs, and immersive stories along with the expertly designed game world.
The sequel to Pillars of Eternity, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire just got out and the game not only lived up the hype train but it delivered more than we expected it will. A massive world to explore, even better graphics, a number of improvements over the original, and the fact that you can own your own ship make Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire one of the strongest game of the year contenders, at least on PC. For all of you who fell in love in the game and are already thinking what to play after you finish the epic quest that leads you across the Deadfire Archipelago we created a list that includes the best isometric RPGs that play like Pillars of Eternity II, a list filled both with classics of old and new hits that are responsible for isometric RPG renaissance. Check it out.
Let's start with the original, the game that started the series. Pillars of Eternity was one of the first members of the new wave of isometric RPG games that managed to secure funding on Kickstarter. The game got pushed back a couple of times before it finally released in the Spring of 2015. And the game became an instant hit.
It brought all the elements promised by Obsidian - deep and strategic combat, mesmerizing story, punishing difficulty, quest that not only relied on combat but also on solving puzzles and being capable of outsmarting other characters with your conversational skills. Right from the start of the game, as soon as you enter the character creation screen, you will be sucked into the magical world of Pillars of Eternity.
The game features extremely deep character creation system, a real-time combat that can be paused (and will be paused non-stop if you play on any of the higher difficulty settings) at any time, hardcore game mechanics like the need to set up a camp after every tough combat encounter, countless NPS character to meet, and a varied band of characters that can join your party. If you're looking a similar experience to Pillars of Eternity and you never played the original, there's really no other choice. Just get it and start exploring the world of Eora.
Another massively popular and crowdfunded video game series, Divinity: Original Sin and its sequel are two games that can be put into same group and Pillars of Eternity and its sequel, in the group of the best isometric RPGs of all time.
These two games are even more hardcore than PoE. Combat is even tougher (especially in the sequel), quests are intricate and almost all of them cannot be found so easily on the map. If Divinity: Original Sin games you have to be proactive, you have to explore the world despite the fact that you and your party can be killed by a powerful enemy that hides around the corner, and you have to be ready to spend lots of time on each combat encounter because in these games every victory, even the smallest one, has to be rightfully deserved.
These games feature even better story than PoE games, and we can say that Divinity: Original Sin II has some of the best moments we saw in any game that came out during the last decade. And some side quests can be even better than most main ones, filled with unusual situations and unforgettable characters, many of them being able to be completed just by conversing with potential enemies.
On top of all that, both Divinity games feature masterfully crafter co-op modes that will make you cherish the games even more. Playing the two games in co-op is one of the best RPG experiences you can get right now and that, along with a massive scope of the story and unforgiving but rewarding turn-based combat are enough to recommend these for anyone who liked Pillars of Eternity II.
Tyranny is another modern isometric RPG developed by Obsidian. The game is similar to PoE in gameplay mechanics but its story and background lore are quite unique. Tyranny puts you on the other side of the battle between good and evil. Instead of being the good guy you are under the command of the evil lord and she already managed to conquer much of the world, with just one area left to subdue, the Tiers.
And after a couple of years, even the Tiers get conquered but the region and its people are fighting back. You are set to extinguish a major rebellion and this is where the game begins. In Tyranny, you play as a bad guy but there is an option to fighting on the side of good. The thing is, it isn't really clear which side is good and which is bad, and this is one of the best things about Tyranny. The game presents things a bit different than other similar titles, showing you how there is justice and honor even among evil conquerors and how even good guys can have mal intentions when they are desperate enough to free their land from oppressors.
In Tyranny, you will have countless decisions to make and each of them will slowly shape the endgame. This is great because you will constantly have to settle disputes, to solve quarrels and to choose a lesser evil when facing two difficult choices. Because of this, the game has many different endings and a huge replay value. You can play Tyranny half a dozen times and each time get a different ending, making the game one of the rare titles that can be replayed more than a couple of times.
Combat is the same as in PoE, real-time but can be paused at any moment. It is worth noting that the game is noticeably easier than the first PoE, and most encounters can be settled pretty easily even on higher difficulties. If you're looking for a title that puts you on the dark side and can be replayed many times without losing its charm, Tyranny is the best choice available.
Yes, we put Dragon Age: Origins on this list. Why, you might ask? Well, because the game indeed is one of the best RPGs of the last decade, because it featured an excellent story (which, sadly, didn't continue the way we hoped in the two sequels) along with well-written characters, and because the game's turn-based combat was tactical, tough, and exciting.
Although the game forced the player to use third person camera Dragon Age: Origins shined only when you switched to an isometric perspective. Simply, the game was designed to be played from the top-down view and once you changed the camera the real fun started.
Dragon Age: Origins could be looked upon as last true RPG developed by BioWare. After Dragon Age: Origins the studio has massive success with Mass Effect 2 and 3 but those weren't RPG games unlike the first part of the series. And the second Dragon Age also cannot be considered as full RPG. On the other side, Dragon Age Inquisition is a stale and boring action RPG that isn't worth anyone's time or patience.
The first Dragon Age game has lots in common with PoE. It is filled with meaningful dialogue, it features a cast of interesting characters that can join your party, characters each with their own backstory that slowly uncovers during the course of the game, as you talk with them more and more. And the combat mechanics are also very similar to those seen in Pillars of Eternity I and II. Real-time combat encounters can be paused at any time, giving you time to issue orders and commands as well as to take control of different members of your party and guide their actions. And, as in PoE I and II, the combat can be massively challenging even on the normal difficulty setting.
Torment: Tides of Numenera is a modern isometric RPG that takes lots of elements from one of the best RPGs of all time, Planescape: Torment. While the game is mechanically quite similar to Planescape: Torment in the way that most encounters can be settled with a bit of conversation instead of sword fighting and in the bizarre elements of the game's story and its characters, Torment: Tides of Numenera doesn't share the lore of the Planescape: Torment.
This one takes place on Earth, many eons from now after many civilizations have risen, prospered and withered away, leaving strange artifacts behind them, artifacts that cannot be comprehended by men of the game's world, men who live in a society that forgot about advanced technology and now exist in small cities that dot the Earth.
The game, as its spiritual predecessor, relies more on talking with characters than on the combat but the story and the game's varied flock of characters are definitely reasons enough to try this one. Like in PoE II you will have to make many tough decisions and while combat isn't frequent as in PoE II or is it as tactical, exciting and rewarding, Torment: Tides of Numenera should attract those who like PoE II, except if they don't carry about the story and interesting quests and just want to have excellent combat. In that case, they should skip this one as well as Planescape: Torment.
We start the enhanced edition trio of games with Planescape: Torment. Note that you can also play regular editions, but they often have problems when you try to play them on modern operating systems and also have other issues that can ruin the experience. These enhanced editions have updated graphics (not completely overhauled, just updated enough to look decent in high def resolutions) and run without issues on Windows 8/8.1/10.
The first title is Planescape: Torment, described as many as the best RPG ever. The interesting thing is that other two games (Icewind Dale and Baldurs Game II) are also described as best RPGs ever, and we have to say that all three games are fantastic. Which is the best depends solely on subjective experience. So, this one takes place in the realm of Planescape, divided into many different planes of existence that exist on their own.
You play as the Nameless One, an immortal who lost his memory of past lives and who will try to reclaim his memory throughout the course of the game. Similar to Torment: Tides of Numenera, Planescape Torment is an isometric RPG focused on story and conversations with other characters with combat being less prominent, so the game might not be attractive to those who love Pillars of Eternity II. But, if you love other elements in Pillars of Eternity II like its story, quests that didn't include combat encounters and the game's excellent cast of different characters you will simply love Planescape: Torment.
The game's story is one of the best ever in the history of video games making the game more linear than some would like but this is a small price to pay in order to enjoy one of the best stories of all times. Combat isn't really hard and won't take much of the time, but the game shines in every other department. Another shining quality of the game is its background setting and its cast of bizarre characters the player will meet during his travels. You will converse with demons, freaks of nature, beings that simply shouldn't exist and other types of creatures that cannot be imagined by men. Play this one, it is definitely worth it, except you just love the combat of Pillars of Eternity II and don't care about story in video games.
Another classic gem that will amaze all of those who didn't play isometric RPG games before they tried Pillars of Eternity II. This one, as the one before it and the one after it, is considered as the best RPG of all times.
The game takes place in a northern realm of the world of Dungeons & Dragons and it, like Baldur's Gate I and II, operates under the rules of the famous pen and paper RPG. The player leads a party of bold adventurers that have to discover the source of the recent changes in weather, kidnapping of villagers, and other abnormal things that recently started happening.
The game, unlike the previous two titles described in this list, focuses mainly on combat and since it features the same real-time combat system as PoE II, you will love this one if you love PoE II combat. As in PoE II, the combat can be very hard and challenging so you will often find yourself pausing the game, thinking for minutes what the best course of action should be and how to survive against enemies that look like they cannot die.
Icewind Dale isn't as famous as other notable RPG titles that got released during the turn of the century but it can be considered as one of the best RPGs of all times. It has an interesting story with many unexpectable twists happening during its course, it is filled with excellent quests, both main and side ones, and while its combat is the main focus of the game the conversation system is quite rugged and well designed. Another classic gem for those who look for an experience similar to PoE II.
One of the most famous games of all time, and probably the best game developed by BioWare, Baldur's Gate II should be played by any gamer who loves RPGs not just by those who enjoyed PoE II. The game takes place in Forgotten Realms, a high fantasy medieval world similar to Earth, but at the same time completely different. A world ruled by magic and powerful beings, in which the player has to make alliances and to choose which path they will take during the course of the game.
Baldur's Gate II is a monumental game filled with side quests and if you love side activities you can have more than 300 hours inside the game. Also, players are able to roam through many different areas during the course of the main story, with some being completely irrelevant to the main quest. These can also be explored but only for the purpose of side quests.
The combat is challenging, extremely punishing at times and it also follows the good old real-time mechanics that can always be paused in order to think a bit and issue orders for your party. Aside from the combat the game features an advanced conversation system along with many choices that can lead to many different consequences. The player can be either good or bad and, while their choices won't affect the final part of the story, they can influence the world and its inhabitants. One of the best parts of the game is the presence of a co-op multiplayer mode that allows for the player to be joined by five other friends, allowing them to play the game together from the beginning to the end. The problem is that, while the whole game can be played together only one player controls the main characters meaning that there's no democracy when coming up with decisions and different conversation options. An easy recommendation for everyone who enjoyed PoE II. You will have an excellent time playing this one, and it will surely stay in your memory for a long, long time.