The Best Strategy & Tactical RPGs07 Mar 2019 4
We don’t cover many RPGs here on Strategy Gamer, mainly because the level of ‘strategy’ involved in them can vary wildly, although ultimately, it’s rarely the core purpose of the game. Still, the tactical component of many RPGs offer up some the finest examples of small-unit skirmishes.
If you're less bothered by RPG mechanics, we've got some great turn-based strategy games you should check out.
Whether you’re saving the entire planet or guiding a band of misfits around in a struggle for survival, there are plenty of great options available coming in 2019 and we’ve pulled together another classic Strategy Gamer list on the best tactical RPGs worth playing.
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Buy From: GOG
Normally we don't go for 'legacies' when we put together one of these lists - there are some games that will always top whatever list they belong to, often to the exclusion of newer, equally deserving successor titles. In this case those we've decided to make an exception, if only for the circumstances surrounding its' unexpected return from the dead. The original Diablo is a seminal work in the RPG sphere, and one of the best games of its generation.
Being real-time, it's easy to assume it doesn't possess as much 'strategy' as other entries on this list - but you'd be wrong. Unlike the sequels, the original Diablo was not about rushing in and killing everything you found. It was quite easy to get overwhelmed if you weren't careful - you had to creep in, conduct what recon the game mechanics would allow you too and carefully put together a battle plan that would allow you to win the day. Kiting often helped. Thanks to GOG, the original Diablo is now available to buy via digital distribution for the first time. There's two versions on offer - a 'upscaled' version that's optimised for Windows 10 but doesn't feature Battle.net support (although you can DirectIP), and then the 'OG' version, warts and all and with full BN support.
Divinity Original Sin 2 (Our Thoughts)
Simply put, Divinity Original Sin 2 is an extensive RPG through and through, but it contains a combat system that allows for a vast amount of variance and replayability. Initially you may only be considering how best to get your characters out of harms way while simultaneously taking out your enemy. After a few scenarios, you’ll notice that environmental effects and elemental combos can play a large role in optimizing combat to your advantage. Soon enough you’ll be pre-determining how best to use skills, weapon types, spells, environmental objects, terrain height advantages, and positioning to outwit your foes (and maybe even friends) in fantastic flashy fashion.
Not to mention the ability to fool around with the Game Master Mode, creating test scenarios to see how certain ideas you are considering would play out with no impact on your save data. Better yet, you could design campaigns for your friends to enjoy and tool about in at your leisure. This is the tactical Dungeon Master’s dream come to realization, with Matthew Mercer himself giving an excellent demonstration of this tool’s creative outlets.
Pillars of Eternity 2
Full disclosure, I am a proud backer of Pillars of Eternity 2, but this game is simply a must include for any TRPG fan worth their salt. What Divinity manages to convey through turn-based combat, Pillars ticks up the challenge by utilizing a real-time combat system. Much like the action economy of turn-based games, time becomes your most important resource here, and it’s an absolute joy to pause every so often and plan out a new stratagem on the fly. Casting high-level spells takes ample time, and they can be interrupted. Weapons that require ammunition must be reloaded, yielding time for counter-attacks. Movement impairing effects combined with area of effect attacks can be an extremely potent combination. Not to mention your ability to potentially sneak up on enemies in advance, lay traps, and already having won the battle before even starting combat.
There are so many multiclass options available that it would be impossible to describe even half of them in the space we have available here, but their impact on your tactical variance in combat is palpable, and it makes me want to try out new combinations in each of my playthroughs. Not to mention ship combat, which is an entirely separate tactics mini-game that can then transform into traditional combat if so desired. Combine all of that with the ability to create new playthroughs that include special challenge restrictions, bonuses for completing achievements, DLCs dedicated to various challenging aspects of game-play, and a wide range of difficulty options and you have an RPG that could easily give you hundreds of hours of playability if you so desired. I genuinely implore you to consider picking up this game if you haven’t yet done so.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 (Review)
Buy From: Steam
As I previously wrote in our review piece last September, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a solid return to form for a series that has been sorely missed in the west. Seamlessly blending turn-based tactical gameplay with real-time unit control, this unique mechanical integration makes for a game that strategy fans and RPG enthusiasts can both enjoy. RPG fans will enjoy the character growth and story, alongside levelling up their favorite classes, and equipping soldiers with unique equipment. There are charming side novellas of units getting to know one another, that then jump straight into a battle scenario with some odd twist thrown in. The introduction of the Grenadier class makes terrain elevation and positioning critical, while traditional classes like the Sniper and Shocktrooper still shore up a simple, but versatile, roster. Add in an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) and your trusty ol’ tank and you’re set up for a fun time learning to how to be a master commander.
For those familiar with the series, Valkyria Chronicles 4 doesn’t really shake things up so much as polish and refine what has already existed. The upside to the stories each being stand-alone offerings is that newcomers can jump right in to an excellent game that knows where its strategy strengths lie.
Banner Saga 3 (Review)
Publisher: Versus Evil
Buy From: Steam
The Banner Saga 3 brings the triumphant success of Stoic’s turn-based strategy series to a strong Ragnarök-induced close. While it continues to unfold unique story beats and introductions of characters new and old, it also succeeds as an RPG due to its clever combat design, risk-vs-reward mechanics, and ability to equip and promote heroes. Players are for managing a small caravan containing the vaulted varl hero Ivar, duo mages Juno and Eyvind, and the Raven mercenaries. Meanwhile, they also have to ensure Aberrang, the last human city which contains the primary character Rook (or Alette), doesn’t succumb to a siege.
While convoy management of resources takes a somewhat smaller role in Banner Saga 3 in comparison to its predecessors, it’s still a part of the game. Relics that can be equipped offer unique bonuses or abilities to characters, and promotions will encourage you to think carefully about how best to reinforce your units to withstand the apocalypse. Especially given units will die, so many people will die. The decision tree between attacking opponents Armor or Strength will continue to attack your cognition as you wonder if you are making the correct decision, but it never feels overwhelming. The Banner Saga 3 continues to ride the line of stressing you out right to the brink of exhaustion, but never quite tipping past that line.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Buy From: Steam
Shadowrun is interesting in this list, as while there is a clear focus on combat and tactical decision making therein, it often isn’t as complex or multi-faceted as other more traditional CRPGs. Street Samurai’s hit things in melee, Mages cast spells, and Decker’s hack into enemy systems and security outlets. You can mix and match a bit here and there, but generally what you see is what you get. It’s a perfectly fine action-point turn-based system, nothing revolutionary. The reason it makes the list is because of how well it incorporates these straight-forward character aspects into the greater narrative, and more importantly your agency as a player.
This game is built with the idea that multiple pre-set answers should exist for any problem presented to the player. Neither is inherently better than the other, but it’s a fundamental difference in design philosophy. Depending on how you’ve built your character, and active roster, you are then free to engage with those options as you see fit. Almost every mission is mapped in such a way that your team can advance their mission state via a mechanic that you’ve specifically chosen to be an ace at. If have a decker, you can hack into advanced security systems and disable them before things get heated. If you’re a cocksure Street Samurai, maybe you just go in guns blazing. Shamans often have means of utilizing environmental effects to summon allies or turn battles to their favor. Other times you may circumvent combat entirely, but what matters is that it is always up to you, as a player, of how you want to approach the situation at hand.
Disgaea V Complete
Publisher: NIS America Inc.
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software Inc.
Buy From: Steam
Imagine for a moment an RPG where the entire plot is actually just the pre-game setup to an even larger post-game, an RPG where individual items contain entire randomly generated universes, and cheating is actively encouraged by the game mechanics! Disgaea V is the perfect blend of over-the-top ridiculous anime tropes and genuinely smart engaging gameplay. Missions start out with a tile-grid containing various enemies placed throughout the battle-map. During your turn, you can choose which units to take out of your “base” panel, where you want them to go, and what abilities you want them to use. The sheer amount of unit and skill options available to players makes for unique strategies on how to handle certain scenarios, along with constant debate online of what setups truly reign supreme.
The story is entirely self-contained, so you don’t need to play previous entries in the series to enjoy what Disgaea V has to offer. However, it also contains a very extensive list of DLC characters from previous Nippon Ichi Software games, class options, and more, all of which are free when you purchase Disgaea V Complete, although it's worth noting that the PC version currently lacks Online Network play features. While that is a genuine bummer, the lost functionality is but a small chip off an otherwise incredible title. Besides, you could always just grab the Switch version instead for gaming on the go!
Star Traders: Frontiers (Mobile Review)
Publisher: Trese Brothers
Developer: Trese Brothers
Buy From: Steam, Mobile
This one is more RPG than strategy, but for a more science-fiction themed adventure you should definitely give this game your full consideration. In Frontiers, you take your ship and your crew amongst the stars making a living wherever you can and however you see fit. As per the name, trading is a central – and easy to do – mechanic, but you can also branch out in exploring, pirating, mercenary work… there’s plenty of possibilities, and plenty of inter-faction politics and questing to get yourself embroiled. There’s also several ‘big’ plot lines that are available at different points of your in-game universe. A key theme of Frontiers is that the world around you can and will progress at its own pace, regardless of what you’re doing. If you don’t get to a central quest in time, that’s it, you’ve lost your chance in that game. This is a real living, persistent world, and there’s a lot of flexibility and customization in how you set up your captain, crew and ship.
Developed by two-man team the Trese Brothers, this is an excellent example of not only how to design an open-world adventure in a living world, but also how one can handle post-release support. Since launching out of its 8- month Early Access stint, it’s had no fewer than 39 content-rich updates, some minor, some major. The brothers have a clear and dedicated development road-map they’re sticking too, and they’re constantly keeping the game fresh and giving you more reasons to jump back in.
Mount & Blade: Warband
Developer: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Publisher: TaleWorlds Entertainment
Buy From: Steam
There’s never been a game so synonymous with ‘open world’ as the Mount & Blade series. A poster child for indie development, the original game was published by Paradox Interactive and developed by TaleWorlds Entertainment, which at the time was a two-person husband and wife team. Since those early days, TaleWorlds has grown and developed, eventually going independent. Now, really, this entry should be talking about Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, which looks amazing… but since the studio have decided to take their sweet time, you’ll have to make do with their earlier releases.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Warband. It’s essentially a re-make/re-release of the original game with more features, but it’s an excellent medieval-fantasy adventure. Starting with nothing, you must travel the land to earn your fame and fortune. Recruit other troops, fight bandits… until eventually you can become a powerful lord yourself within one of the game’s many factions. The ‘strategy’ element comes from the game’s wonderfully designed battle engine, which has you as the commander of your AI troops. You can either stand form afar and just give orders or get stuck In yourself and lead the charge.
Also worth noting is the various spin-offs this game has as DLC:
- Viking Conquest Reforged takes you to Saxon England during the Viking invasions.
- Napoleonic Wars is a multiplayer focused DLC that transports you to the Napoleonic Wars. It doesn’t have a campaign map.
Both of these started off as mods, and there’s plenty of other excellent mod projects you can try that use Warband as their base.
Recent Releases & Other Recommendations
We don’t get a chance to play every game, and some games we’ve played and not liked as much as others have. Here's a quick list of additional games you might want to consider as well:
What are your favourite TRPGs? Let us know in the comments!