2013 was an amazing year for the RPG genre and its future. While the handheld scene in 2012 was still struggling to find its footing, the past 12 months was a boon to its library. Thanks to new titles from established franchises, these titles worked together to help push back the notion that handheld gaming was going away, outperforming even their console brethren.
That isn't to say the consoles didn't have their few share of incredible titles as well: there was a game built on the back of an amazing partnership; a new mothership title in a famous JRPG series; the return of the console MMORPG experience; and much more. There was also the tremendous growth of the crowd-funding platform that was used as a basis to let small groups of individuals pursue their dream projects - some of them even launching during that same year, with plenty more to come in 2014 and beyond.
All of this coincided with the announcement of two new game consoles and their eventual release, which makes the prospect of this genre that much more exciting. With that, let us take a look at what the past year has given us, and announce what we believe to be the top RPGs of 2013 by category.
Best Tangential: A Link Between Worlds
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds provided a much-needed shake up to the Zelda formula, resulting in one of the most unshackled games in in the series. You pick a spot on your map and you can go there, nobody (or fairy, or sword spirit) is there to tell you what you're suppose to do or where you're suppose to go.
Exploring the ins and outs of Hyrule has never been as enjoyable - the 3D visuals help to bring a tremendous amount of depth to the dungeons that Link explores, and the wonderful soundtrack provides some remixes of old songs from the original game along with some beautiful new songs.
With A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo has shown that they are not afraid to try new things with their staple franchises, and has earned the award for Best Tangential RPG.
Runner Up: Rogue Legacy
Best Handheld: Fire Emblem: Awakening
I don't quite know why, but Fire Emblem always struggled to grab me. The series never quite got the traction that certain other strategy RPGs did with me - in my mind, for instance, it was no Disgaea. Certainly no Final Fantasy Tactics.
To an extent I think I can blame this on Nintendo's sketchy history of localizing the series for the West, but I think also there was something of the weight of the series that put me off. Even when I picked up localized Gamecube and Wii entries and knew key characters from Smash Bros, they couldn't hold my interest as firmly as my favourites of the genre.
Fire Emblem: Awakening changed that. Streamlined in all the right places and built in a way that makes it utterly perfect for bite-sized battles on the 3DS while on the go, it became an addictive, life-engulfing staple of my gaming time earlier this year. Fact is, it's just bloody good - as were Fire Emblem titles past - but now subtly, cleverly more accessible. ?
Runner Up: Ys: Memories of Celceta
Best Big Screen: Ni no Kuni
Ni no Kuni represents something that Ghibli fans have been looking forward to for years: a chance to experience an interactive world filled with that trademark design and whimsy that only this company can provide.
Alongside the help of Level-5's commitment to a seamless art style with the cel-shaded characters and an immaculate attention to detail, everything is brought to life in a wonderful way.
This not only makes it one of the best-looking games of the year, but arguably one of the most impressive-looking titles of the generation, helping it truly shine on the big screen.
Runner Up: Tales of Xillia
Best Soundtrack: Ys Memories of Celceta
If there's one thing that best defines the Ys series to its fans, it's the music, and Ys: Memories of Celceta keeps up the series high standard of great and fitting tracks. If you're in a monster infested field or dungeon, the music is full of energy and gets you pumped to power through and fight the foes in your way.
However, Memories of Celceta also knows when to tone down on the electric guitar (something even some Ys games fail to accomplish) and offer more somber tracks for heartfelt and serious moments in the story.
Falcom's sound team did a masterful job with this title's soundtrack, and the music makes Memories of Celceta worth experiencing on its own... not to mention the game's other strengths.
Runner Up: Shin Megami Tensei IV
Best Writing: Ni no Kuni
A simple yet charming tale with just the right amount of humor and drama, Ni no Kuni is a worthy holder of the writing award for 2013. Studio Ghibli's own brand of subtle maturity in a story with all-age appeal is fully present in young Oliver's quest to revive his deceased mother.
The people that Oliver meets along the way are just as charming, each with their own motivations and end goals, and all developed so remarkably well that you care about their plight.
The combination of witty dialogue, interesting developments, and poignant yet heartwarming moments comes together perfectly, especially in the final acts.
Runner Up: Fire Emblem: Awakening
Biggest Surprise: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
If you told me that Square Enix would revive a dead and broken game that we labeled Most Disappointing of 2010 by remaking it in two years time and somehow end up making it good, then I would have laughed. I'm glad I was wrong. A Realm Reborn is a simple MMORPG that doesn't try anything exceptionally new or special. It borrows elements from many games, and while it doesn't excel in a single particular aspect, it does a damn good job wrapping up the entire package into one good, cohesive experience.
The basic combat is simple, but the various jobs are fun to utilize, which is especially nice given how one character can play all of the classes. There are some questionable game design decisions, but the impressive story, outstanding soundtrack, beautiful world and lore, and the memorable experiences that the world of Eorzea can create makes A Realm Reborn not only a wonderful surprise, but also one of the best titles of the year.
Runner Up: [Game Developer] Neverland closing
Best Overall: Fire Emblem: Awakening
Fire Emblem: Awakening represents a culmination of many ideas the pervade through the industry but most importantly it shows that dedicated portable gaming is relevant in the industry even today. The franchise long-thought to be abandoned by Nintendo is suddenly reawakened with addictive strategy elements maintaining its simple rock-paper-scissors combat system.
However, the gameplay's unique marriage systems lends to a deeper experience drawing players in for more than they bargained for. The offsprings of the parents will inherit skills and certain stats making each pairing a fun and enjoyable experience as you get to deck out your crew with powerful units.
The clever and witty script immerses you into the world of Fire Emblem by creative political intrigue and the dastardly unique characters that are thrown in your face. It doesn't end there. The impressive soundtrack, solid voice acting, cute visuals, cutting-edge cel-shaded cutscenes, DLC support, and a ton of extras using SpotPass round out Awakening to be one hell of a package.
The game of the year award is reserved for the absolute best and not in any one particular category. It must excel in all things and Awakening meets that standard and more.
Runner Up: Ni no Kuni