The Best Tactical & Strategy RPGs31 May 2020 4
We don’t cover many RPGs here on Strategy Gamer, mainly because the level of ‘strategy’ involved in them can vary wildly and, 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.
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.
What are the best Tactical RPGS?
- Iron Danger
- Expeditions: Vikings
- Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus
- Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark
- Divinity Original Sin 2
- Valkyria Chronicles 4
- Banner Saga 3
- Shadowrun: Hong Kong
- Disgaea V Complete
One of the surprise indie hits to come out in early 2020, Iron Danger at first glances appears to be your run of the mill 'indie' RPG/Adventure game that features tactical combat. Spend even a short amount of time with it, however, and you'll find things aren't so simple. The key gimmick here is time manipulation during combat. Much like the 'timeline' present in John Wick Hex, the actions of your party and the enemies are plotted out for all to see. Should something go wrong, you can use your McGuffin power to reverse time and choose a different action.
It's simple, but powerful and actually makes some some very interesting tactical engagements. The 'RPG' elements are also quite light - you can find cool and powerful weapons, but upgrading your characters is a modest and 'paced' experience, so you're not having to deal with complicated skill trees. The 'party' as well essentially boils down to the main character and one or two companions. Combat 'missions' are separated from the narrative elements, and the whole game as a free form approach that's refreshing. In essence, it's an indie game, but a smart one, and very much worth checking out.
Logic Artists will always have my respect for the ambition they've displayed in their games to date. Expeditions: Conquistadors was an interesting blend of turn-based tactical mechanics with an exploration focused open-world that was very reminiscent of the Heroes of Might & Magic Games. It's choice of setting - the Spanish exploration of South America - was certainly controversial but it also fit the design and theme perfectly. Expeditions: Vikings was the developer's follow-up game, which doubled down on the turn-based tactical combat and the RPG elements.
While Martynas loved it (read our Expeditions: Vikings review to find out why) I personally thought the game lost something when it changed how the open-world worked, but it's again another game that's packed with interesting ideas, and it's very pretty to boot. These 'Best of' lists are not just about celebrating all-time greats - we also like to highlights just genuinely good games that deserve some spotlight. Vikings has an interesting story and some compelling mechanics that takes you from the frozen wastes of Scandinavia, to the uncharted fields of Saxon England. They may have not gotten everything right, but Logic Artists' passion of their chosen craft is clear, and TRPG fans would do well to check this game out.
Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus
While 'nu-age' Games Workshop are being a bit more creative with their license deals, they are naturally hesitant about allowing too much to exist in the realm of turn-based tactics. After all, that's what their flagship table-top products are about and it wouldn't do to have something digital become too much of a competition to the physical game. Still, that's not to say fans don't get treated every now and ten - while a bit rough and ready, Sanctus Reach is a fantastic turn-based strategy game, and now we have another one in the form of Bulwark's Mechanicus.
Focusing solely on the Adeptus Mechanicus, this game sees you lead a small band of merry Techpriests and nerds against the forces of the Necrons. It's got all the bells and whistles of your standard small-unit tactical RPG, and is very pretty to boot. The tactical battles are interesting- tech priests don't exactly have the same martial prowess as the Space Marines - but they can fight. Battles are more about making the best use of your abilities and tricks, since the usual concepts such as cover, overwatch etc... are absent. An excellent licensed game, and a pretty decent TRPG all round, which you can see from our Mechanicus review.
Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark
There's a pretty good chance that you're here reading this website because at some point you played Final Fantasy Tactics. That's fine and good, but the problem is that you've been chasing that proverbial dragon ever since. Well, Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark is here to fill that hole in your strategy heart. Don't let its so-so story and nods to modernity fool you - this is the Tactics game you've been pining for all these many years. It's beautiful, it's nuanced, it has secret classes to unlock - Arbiter's Mark is the real deal.
There's the classic battle system, characters who can take on different jobs, and even the terrain height considerations all present and correct in this modern version of the PlayStation classic. Arbiter's Mark hits all the right notes, and makes nearly zero mistakes in the process - a rare achievement when it comes to gaming homages. Read our Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark review for more.
This tactical/roguelike RPG combines the best of games like XCOM and FTL to create a compelling romp through the desert, Indiana Jones style. You get to pick two characters to explore the randomly generated road, stocking up on as many supplies as you can. Caravans and resting places are dotted along several paths, but can you reach there in time? The 'overworld' is ridden with simple choices that have far reaching consequences, mainly around which route you take and where you end up exploring.
The tactical layer is all about making the most your team's abilities and resources and trying to beat the horde of Nazis standing in your way. Better yet, treasures and loot you find along the way can either be used to help in the run you're currently playing, or sent back to give the next run (and there will always be a next run) a better starting point. A shining example of the genre, and one that's gotten even better after the 'Adventurer' update was added in October 2019. Read our Pathway review for more.
Divinity Original Sin 2
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.
Valkyria Chronicles 4
Buy From: Steam
As I previously wrote in our Valkyria Chronicles 4 review piece, this 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
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. Read our Banner Saga 3 review for more.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong
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
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, with the most recent update introducing Carriers and small craft. The brothers have a clear and dedicated development road-map, and they’re constantly keeping the game fresh and giving you more reasons to jump back in. Read our Star Traders: Frontiers review to find out more.
Other Strategy RPG 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:
- Six Ages: Ride like the Wind
- Pillars of Eternity 2
- Mutant Year Zero (Now with DLC)
- Mount & Blade: Warband
What are your favourite TRPGs? Let us know in the comments!