In the old days of PC RPG gaming, spirits were brave and the stakes were high. Men were real men, women were real women, and small furry hamsters sitting in the pockets of sociopaths were real small furry hamsters sitting in the pockets of sociopaths. Most importantly though, the view was top-down and slanted at an angle – the isometric perspective. RPGs in those olden days were more strategic, and everything was available at the click of a mouse. Then the genre embraced action and 3D cards and never looked back at the isometric games of yore… dramatic pause… until now.
In 2013, that year we dun be doing now, Isometric RPGs are returning in a big way. So much so, in fact, that they’ve gone from the "no 2D RPGs, except SNES-style indie games" of previous years to actually outnumbering 3D RPGs this year. In fact it’s already begun. At the tail end of 2012 we got Inquisitor, a Czech-made RPG that was pretty damn tough, and the
Let’s just compare announced titles shall we? On the big-budget side we have Dragon Age III: Inquisition (which may or may not be 2014), Ni No Kuni (PS3-only Studio Ghibli/Level 5 co-development, out this month), Tales of Xillia (already been out in Japan for years, also PS3-only), Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, and South Park: The Stick of Truth (if THQ exploding doesn’t take that game with them). Three JRPGs and two games that might possibly miss 2013. The nebulous possibilities of The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4, the certainly-not-2013 Dark Souls II, the STALKER + Fallout 3 crossbreed Nuclear Union, and the announced but unknown Brandon Sanderson-scripted Mistborn: Birthright don’t change the fact that this is a pretty meagre year for visually spectacular RPGs, especially if you’re not a JRPG fan.
And on the 2D top-down flip-side, dude-meister? We have The Banner Saga (ex-Bioware guys in a strategic Norse adventure), Wasteland 2 (inXile and Obsidian collaborating on what is essentially a new classic Fallout), Shadowrun Returns (played the SNES/Megadrive title? It’s a sequel! Played the Xbox one? Look elsewhere), Sacred 3 (okay, it’s an action RPG, but that counts), Divinity: Original Sin (once was 2D, second was 3D, now third is back to 2D), Dead State (ex-Obsidian/Troika guys making a Fallout-style zombie RPG), Project Eternity (spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment), and Torment 2 (actual sequel to Planescape: Torment). Plus a load of action RPGs and possibly a Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition.
There’s clearly a lot, and the funny thing is that I thought of that entire isometric RPG list off the top of my head, whereas I really had to scrounge the internet for some of those 3D titles (I mean, Mistborn?). It’s not bias, push comes to shove I actually prefer the big-budget 3D titles and both Dragon Age III and South Park are at the top of my most wanted, but almost that entire selection of 2D titles have me very excited. In the end I just want creative ideas, stories from great storytellers, unique settings, sequels to classics, and most importantly RPGs that feel like they were made with real love and care by developers who simply want to superb RPGs.
So how did we get to this state of affairs then? Well, first of all why did Isometric RPGs die out in the first place? The simple answer is the rise of more powerful consoles and an ever-growing fixation on better graphics. Early attempts at melding 3D polygons and AD&D-style gameplay (like Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption) were a bit unwieldy, but it was Bioware’s foray into the console RPG market with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the massive leap between Final Fantasy VI and VII that really kicked off the modern 3D RPG. No longer was the genre the exclusive domain of Dungeons & Dragons players and Japanese SNES owners. The genre got cool… and the Isometric RPG started looking very old-fashioned, very fast.
With that the case, why are they coming back now? Numerous answers to this one. The first, and most ironically, is once again consoles. I personally believe (and I know I’m not the only one) that an end-of-generation malaise is settling in to gaming. With current titles beginning to feel samey and the next generation still feeling far away, nostalgia gets a foothold and we begin looking backward more than forward – we want more of the games we used to love which the “greater market” pushed out. Isometric RPGs, even more than adventure games (which still were around), are a perfect example of this.
Then there’s the development problem with these big 3D RPGs… they’re getting damn expensive, and an imminent new generation will only increase that cost. That’s okay if that money is made back, but all you need is one high-profile failure to make developers nervous. Last year Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was such a failure. A popular head in Curt Schilling, numerous experienced designers from Bethesda, noted fantasy author R.A. Salvatore… all producing a fun game that went several million dollars in debt and knocked two studios, an ambitious MMO, and Curt Schilling’s fortune out forever. Big-budget titles look great, but if they don’t sell great too then there are jobs on the line.
I also personally blame Legend of Grimrock for being so defiantly old-school RPGy and awesome, but I’ve been saving the primary culprit ‘til last: yes, it’s Kickstarter. That lovely website where you can back developers to help kickstart their visions rose to massive prominence in 2012 when Tim Schafer said “give us some money, I’ll make another adventure game”. People realised how much they missed the likes of Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle and gave Double Fine loads of cash, then they realised they missed other games too. Such as Isometric RPGs, which joined adventure games in the Kickstarter Mexican Wave.
It’s telling that most of the Isometric RPGs on that list above were helped to fruition by Kickstarter. Dead State may have been in development before its campaign but it was certainly helped along by player cash, but the likes of Project Eternity and Wasteland 2 didn’t just get funds from Kickstarter, they also proved that a decently sized audience of gamers still really wanted these games. On the back of these, Larian were confident enough that people wanted isometric viewpoints to return to an overhead perspective for their third Divinity title and Baldur’s Gate was able to return.
So with us heading into a distinctly isometric 2013, is this rampant nostalgia a good thing? I don’t see why not, as long as developers are setting out to make the game they want to make in the medium they and their players want.
Variety is the spice of life too, so it’s good to have different types of RPG on the market – remember, gamers getting bored with getting the same game over and over again was a large part of the reason isometric RPGs disappeared a decade ago. Furthermore it doesn’t matter if Project Eternity looks like Icewind Dale or The Witcher 2 as long as the story, dialogue, characters and world shines through. That’s the real reason why people laud titles like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment and Fallout as classics, nothing to do with their perspective. It’s not the graphics, it’s the game. That’s an important lesson right there: get the world right, and the gamers will come.
Like it or not, the Isometric RPG is back and might even well be here to stay this time. The hurdles aren’t over with just yet as the games still have to prove themselves, but it’ll be damn exciting to find out and it’ll be welcome to engage in a more tactical RPG once again. Furthermore if Beamdog or Obsidian Kickstart Baldur’s Gate III I’ll immediately begin chucking money at my screen continually until the game gets made.