Branching Path: Bryan Vitale's Top 10 Games of 2022
I don't know about you all, but I'm still going to be playing 2022 games for a long while into 2023. There were so many RPG releases in the last 12 months that I am not sure it would have been possible to get to them all. And while our personal lists on this site don't necessarily have to be RPGs at all, for this year my list practically mirrors all of the titles we've been covering in RPG Site's end-of-the-year features. In fact, I'm not sure I really played a game that wasn't covered on this site in 2022. I guess that's dedication to the hobby, if nothing else.
2022 included a lot of games that I had been looking forward to for years now, but did come with a few surprises that I'm glad that I will get to highlight here in a small way.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails From Zero
This is honestly the second time that I've put Trails From Zero in the Honorable Mentions of one of my Top Ten lists, I did the same last year with some honestly flimsy justification. I had played both Crossbell titles in 2021 shortly before NIS America announced a formal localization for the duology, and decided to list the one that I liked better with my list. Now that Trails From Zero has formally released, I feel obligated to put it on my 2022 list as well.
Trails From Zero was a reminder for me as to why I loved games like Trails in the Sky in the first place. I loved the smaller cast and the slowly-escalating story. I also got a fun perspective for playing many of the Trails of Cold Steel titles beforehand, so got to witness several of the story events in a bit of an unorthodox order -- though based on the English release cadence I suppose it will be the same experience for many western players.
Trails from Zero also reminded me of the excellence of Falcom's sound team, and I'm glad we had the chance to speak to the game's excellent soundtrack in our RPG of the Year deliberations. For those looking to either jump onto the Trails bandwagon or re-kindled their excitement for it, this game is a game I will continue to speak highly of.
Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition
Chrono Cross was a sort of blind spot in my personal RPG history for a long time. I had played Chrono Trigger back when it was released on the Nintendo DS, but never made an opportunity to get back to Chrono Cross. I did, however, have many of Chrono Cross's soundtracks on my various music playlists for years. It was really quite fascinating to learn how each track was incorporated into the game when I finally had a chance to play The Radical Dreamers Edition in mid-2022.
Unfortunately, the remaster itself was much-maligned for lacking in anything other than the most basic quality-of-life upgrades and for running quite poorly. However, it was nostalgic to be able to get to witness in retrospect how and why Chrono Cross was so divided back in the day as a successor to one of the most beloved RPGs of all time. There were lots of neat callbacks to Trigger that, even years later, were fun to witness. I was glad to have remained mostly free of any sort of spoilers over the last two decades because many of the individual story beats involving Kid in the context of the story took me completely by surprise.
10) Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons
I've been playing Guild Wars 2 for over a decade now, so I feel a bit like a boiled frog whenever I put it on these lists. In fact, my very first Top Ten list on RPG Site all the way back in 2017 included the previous expansion, Path of Fire. However, since then, the MMO has been admittedly spinning its wheels for most of the past half-decade. However, I feel as though the team over at ArenaNet finally got back on track with their latest expansion, End of Dragons, back in early 2022.
I always feel as though I am at risk of boring people when I spend time talking about a smaller MMO in the context of those that haven't played it. In short, End of Dragons served as the conclusion of most of the game's major story beats since its original launch in 2012. In addition, the re-introduction of lots of lost content throughout the rest of 2022 and the addition of a new Steam version shows a renewed focus on the game that we haven't seen for a long while. While the expansion was merely good and not great, it still was a corrective step in the right direction and the future looks a little bit brighter.
9) Monster Hunter Rise: Sunbreak
I'll be honest, I expected to like Monster Hunter Rise and its Sunbreak expansion a lot more than I ended up enjoying it. I adored Monster Hunter World and Iceborne, and spent nearly 1000 hours exhausting all of the content in those titles like a voracious locust. I think that's partially why I didn't latch onto this newest iteration quite as fervently. Monster Hunter Rise included a lot of fun new ideas like the Wirebugs and Palamutes, but the core gameplay wasn't different enough to feel like I hadn't done it all already before. All of the systems are still as addictive as ever, and if I hadn't burnt myself out on Iceborne, I'm sure I would have dumped a similar amount of time into this game instead.
One thing I did love more about Rise and Sunbreak were the inclusion of Follower Quests and the inclusion of a lot of non-Wyvern monster types that were absent from World. I still intend to go back to Sunbreak to follow up on the several Title Updates should I find the time, depending on how the rest of 2023 shakes out.
8) Star Ocean The Divine Force
The last time I played a Star Ocean game was Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope over a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, it was a bit of a harrowing experience, and I hadn't missed the series' relative absence since (I completely skipped Integrity and Faithlessness.) On a curious whim, I randomly decided to play the somewhat shocking newest entry, The Divine Force and found myself pleasantly surprised. It reminded me of what I enjoyed earlier games in the series from my younger days.
Ahead of release, I was really skeptical of The Divine Force. The animation work seemed pretty limited, the graphics were off-putting, and of course, the series had left me in a sour state that colored my expectations of the new game. However, once I gritted my teeth and pushed through my initial preconceptions, Divine Force was shockingly one of my highlights of the year. The D.U.M.A system and open-field exploration felt really quite modern and smooth, Item Creation remained a fun little diversion for buildcraft and micro-managing my party, and even the story was pretty engaging.
I was planning to just quickly jump into Divine Force and see how quickly I bounced off, but before long I was looking up impressions of how to build a super-party for the series stable ultra-bosses, Gabriel Celeste and the Ethereal Queen. It was like a JRPG comfort food of the year.
7) Expeditions: Rome
Expeditions: Rome is easily the most 'out-there' title on this list for me. Believe it or not, before 2022 kicked into an insanely high gear for the entire year, January was pretty quiet. I saw an opportunity to cover the game for RPG Site, so decided to play it on a whim. I was expecting an RPG-light strategy game, but instead found a game that felt more like a traditional isometric SRPG in many ways, with a colorful party of protagonists and a fun class-based system.
Outside of being a solid RPG in its own right with lots of divergent quests and battle mechanics, two things surprised me a lot about Expeditions: Rome. First, the fact that the game takes place over three major acts over the course of several years allowed the story to feel a lot more grand and sweeping than I initially expected. Secondly, I was surprised at how the setting of Rome, a premise that I initially found very underwhelming, became incredibly compelling. I was not expecting Vitellius Lurco to become the most memorable antagonist of the year for me. In fact, the strategy and resource management aspects of the game ended up feeling a bit undercooked compared to the RPG and combat aspects, which is not at all what I expected. Oftentimes I find myself trying a new game or series and regrettably wishing I had gone with something more "safe" but in this case, I am glad I decided to try something a bit different.
6) Triangle Strategy
Triangle Strategy was one of my most anticipated games of 2022. I love traditional Final Fantasy Tactics-style class-based and grid-based strategy RPGs. Triangle Strategy felt like a really safe and easy pick for a game almost tailor-made for me. The art and music were top-notch as I expected, and even the story was really engaging despite the Salt-Iron premise feeling a little bit threadbare.
The one part about Triangle Strategy that I felt didn't jive for me quite as much, and the reason it's not in the top half of my list, is that I felt that the Scales of Conviction mechanic was a bit silly and a little bit transparent. I love the idea of a branching narrative based on the player's choices, but to incorporate it into a story element in the game universe felt a little too on the nose. However, the escalation of events in the game's narrative, the large roster of characters and the many ways to field a team that fit my playstyle was really engaging to me.
Once Triangle Strategy released on PC, I was able to compare my team with a few other people who were playing the later release and saw how divergent different strategies can be, which of course is a pretty good benchmark for a game with the word Strategy in its title. While it didn't reach quite as high as I anticipated it might, Triangle Strategy was still easily one of my favorites from 2022.
5) Live A Live
Live A Live is a game that I had almost no expectations for going into it. I know that it had a mystique of being a landmark title that was never officially released in English, and strong word-of-mouth and vicarious excitement for finally getting a remaster with a worldwide release was hard to ignore. I had no idea how much a new coat of paint would hide potentially more antiquated gameplay mechanics or more limited storytelling. However, while some of that mid-90s age was still apparently, Live A Live held up far better than I expected it to.
Live A Live's small character-focused vignettes meant that no one setting or environment ever stuck around long enough to get old or feel stale. Each chapter took a slightly different focus in not only how the game presented itself, but how the gameplay itself shifted to fit the narrative. From the trap-setting of the wild west to the mysterious horror of The Distant Future, no two chapters felt redundant. Of course the way that Live A Live ties these all up at the end, while perhaps a bit overly signposted, was something that I bet would have been quite profound for 1994.
Harvestella is another unexpected entry on this list. Largely marketed as something akin to "Rune Factory, but from Square Enix", I decided to play this game largely for the novelty of it. However, I was originally expecting a cutesy little farming game with some potentially fun characters to supplement a major narrative focus. Instead, I got a sprawling epic that feels like something out of a NieR title in which the farming element is mostly done on the side to serve as income for upgrading equipment.
Harvestella is chock-full of dialogue, lots of little story moments, and several character stories that are often poignant and bittersweet. Cres's story about following in her father's footsteps as a doctor, or Heine re-kindling his motivation for exploration after a troubled history are presented in ways that were far more engaging than I expected. Harvestella also constantly rewarded my sense of progression, doling out new upgrades or locations on a regular basis. Even some of the combat elements felt far less basic than I expected, with a series of buff/debuffs and even MMO-styled threat markers and AoE circles with a cooldown-based ability system. From the first boss fight on, literally every major story encounter kept me thinking "they're doing this in Harvestella?" There were even a bunch of fun secrets including a couple of classes that kept me revisiting locations to see what I could find and dig up -- sometimes literally.
I can see how the different focus and especially some of the later story sections could actually end up being a bit of a turn-off to those that did want something a bit more casual and a bit less JRPG standard fare. For me though, it was a pleasant surprise that aligned the game more to my tastes, while still potentially being a bit of a gateway title for me to try similarly styled games in the future.
Pentiment did not speak to me at all when it was originally unveiled. The artstyle did not grab me, the setting seemed frankly quite boring, and the fact that it was limited in scope to a narrative adventure alone made it feel like the game would be a fun little diversion at most. However, I had been unexpectedly surprised by similar-ish games like Disco Elysium in the past, so I thought that there was an opportunity here for me to latch onto the game in a similar way, and luckily it turns out I was very right.
Pentiment is a uniquely charming, oftentimes hilarious, and incredibly gripping game from start to finish. The small scale of the location and the limited cast of characters really unveils the story in a very natural way. There's a ton of attention to detail in how characters interact, how their dialogue is presented, and the sorts of narrative choices the player ends up making. As trite as it sounds, Pentiment is the newest example of the sort of story-telling that can only be accomplished in the interactive format of a video game. Pentiment is ostensibly framed as a murder-mystery or a more basic "who done it", but this really is just a vehicle for telling a story that gives the player a lot of agency while remaining the most thematically striking games I've played all year.
2) Xenoblade Chronicles 3
This is probably the title that I expected to be at or most near the top of the list ever since it was announced in February. I adored Xenoblade Chronicles and liked the second game quite a bit as well. Everything about Xenoblade Chronicles 3 seemed to convey the same strengths as the other Xenoblade titles: huge varied landscapes, an epic high-stakes narrative, and a fun cast of characters. Unlike many of the other titles on this list, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 did not really surprise me in any major ways, but simply executed all of its ideas at a high level and kept me completely engaged from beginning to end.
If there was any surprise with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, it's that I wasn't expecting the full-party-plus-hero system to work as well as it did. By utilizing Heroes both to fill out the party and in a narrative sense, Xenoblade 3 was able to give each major faction in the game an identifying figurehead to endear them to the player. Whether it was the battle-hardened troop of Ethel's Colony 4 or the almost Scout-like troop of Fiona's Colony Mu, every Hero felt like they got adequate screentime and each told a story that contributed to the overall world-building in some way, even if it had to do with potatoes.
I know some people didn't care for the ending of Chronicles 3, but I enjoyed it quite a lot -- it perfectly matched what my expectations of a meaningful and poignant conclusion to a game and a trilogy could and should be. I loved Noah as more of an introspective and less-boisterous protagonist compared to Shulk and Rex, and the love stories in Xenoblade 3 seemed to be handled with a lot more care and nuance compared to some other games in the genre which often rely on cheaper melodrama or amusing situations instead of something more metered and gradual. The entire cast of Xenoblade 3 gets a full look-in with no character getting left in the corner or not able to be fully realized. Xenoblade 3 is likely my favorite game of the trilogy, one that I hold in very high regard.
1) Elden Ring
Despite being pretty completionist and a big fan of pretty much all From Software "Souls" games ever since Demon's Souls back in 2009, for some reason Elden Ring never really grasped me in its early marketing. I had no connection or affinity to GRR Martin, the initial CG trailer looked like 'more of the same' and the idea of "not-Souls, but open world this time" just felt like a trend-chasing move that From Software didn't need. I was interested, but not really all too enthusiastic.
What really drove home my adoration for Elden Ring once I finally sat down to play it was how it left so much to the player in terms of its progression, narrative, and pacing. Many games these days seem too scared to inconvenience players to any extent, often resulting in an overabundance of waypoints, checkpoints, handholding, or even a protagonist solving a puzzle for the player by muttering too many clues out loud. Many of us have seen the memes of Elden Ring with a 'modern UI', but I think this cheeky jab resonated with so many of us for a clear reason. I know personally, I wanted a game that I wanted to figure it out for myself and make my own path.
I went into Elden Ring expecting to play a tanky character but ended up playing a mageknight with a magic katana that wore a statue on his head. Some characters I would meet several times by happenstance like Millicent, following dialogue and context clues, while others like Rogier I met once and never again. I got lost in the Leyndell sewers for hours, but managed to climb up to the top of the Altus plateau without fixing the lift. Elden Ring is the sort of game where I know for a fact that I missed a lot of sidequests, and potentially even some whole areas but never felt like I was short-changing my experience with the game because of it. Even the understated narrative felt really quite poetic in places. Elden Ring rewarded my curiosity and wanderlust constantly, and pumping my fist after a challenging boss fight (damn you, Maliketh) never stopped feeling rewarding.
I hope From Software gives me a reason to re-explore Elden Ring in 2023 through the release of an expansion or the like, though I will likely play through the game again even to just set off in a different direction, or try to follow up on character stories that eluded me my first time through. While other open-world titles often feel incredibly by-the-numbers and frankly quite boring, Elden Ring took that same framework, tied it to a tried-and-true formula, and made something that was easily my favorite gaming experience this year.