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9/30/2015

Top 50 PC Games, #20-11

20. Blood (Monolith, 1997)

The Build engine may have looked just a bit dated by 1997, especially since Quake was the hot new game on the market, but Blood proved that superior design could more than make up for older tech.  Blood is a master class of horror elements, with a grim, creepy atmosphere and enemies like giant spiders, gargoyles, cultists and flame-spewing cerberus dogs, all with the same, immersive and surprisingly realistic level design that made Duke Nukem 3D work so well.  The weapons are equally inventive, with mundane options like a shotgun and tommy gun taking a back seat to weapons like a flare gun or a spray can/lighter to ignite enemies, a voodoo doll that inflicts extra damage to undead/magical enemies (but will damage you if you stab it when no enemies are onscreen) and a crazy-looking skull staff called the Life Leech that doubles as a stationary sentry gun.  The game was exceptionally tough (not aided by a bug that would cause the difficulty level to cycle every time one loaded a saved game), but the sheer inspiration behind its design is something that must be seen.  Oh, and grab the Deathwish map set too, which is a fantastic fan-made addon that rivals, if not surpasses, the main game in quality.

19. Torchlight II (Runic Games, 2012)


There are quite a few Diablo-styled action roguelikes on the PC, but the one that takes the genre to perfection in my book is Torchlight II.  Created by a team partly made up of former Blizzard North (Diablo I) staff, Torchlight 2 takes everything that made Diablo a hit and cranks it up to eleven.  Combat is fast and frantic, the four playable classes in the game can be customized in any way the player wishes, and online multiplayer (sorely missing from the first game) is now back in full force.  The game even has full support for player mods which can even be used in online games, though all players must have the same set of mods installed in order to play together.  Some other clever tweaks, like each player finding separate loot drops and being able to send your pet back to town with a haul of items to trade in for cash or potions, also make sure that the action remains constant throughout.  Torchlight II is pure fun.

18. Pool of Radiance (Strategic Simulations, 1988)

I could honestly put almost any of the Gold Box games in this slot as the engine was staggeringly good for 1988, containing a surprisingly faithful set of Dungeons and Dragons rules, strategic turn-based and large-scale battles and enough room left over to tell a good story on top.  But I think the most iconic one is the first game in SSI's four-part tale, so I ultimately went with that one.  At the time, seeing a game that combined all of these elements so expertly in spite of all those technical hurdles was nothing short of breathtaking, and it's still a fun one today because it doesn't fall into the trappings of so many D&D games - endless tedious combat and powergaming being all but required to defeat broken, spammy and poorly designed encounters.  If you're a serious RPG fan and you haven't experienced the wonders of the Gold Box franchise, head over to GOG right now, as you can get nearly all of them for a tiny token sum.

17. Quake (Id Software, 1996)


Quake is a game with a complex history, beginning its life as an action-RPG titled "the Fight for Justice", slowly changing over the years to incorporate a 3D engine and ultimately turning into a shooter with some fantasy and Lovecraftian elements.  That ended up being no bad thing, though, as Quake was a great, fast-paced experience with a creepy atmosphere (in no small part due to featuring audio design by Trent Reznor) and some creative level design.  It even brought us elements like "Rocket Jumping" which lent themselves to all sorts of crazy (and impressive) speedrunning stunts, as well as some killer mods that would become successful franchises in their own right like Team Fortress.  Even with its chunky, blocky 3D models, grainy textures and choppy animation overall, Quake is another classic title from Id.

16. Castle of the Winds (Saadasoft, 1993)

Roguelikes have always been a pretty PC-centric genre; various attempts at creating them on consoles have always been met with relatively lukewarm reception (Fatal Labyrinth, Nightmare of Druaga) or relegation to cult classic status at best (Toejam and Earl).  Out of all of the games in this vast genre, though, Castle of the Winds has to be my favorite, in no small part because it manages to be relatively easy to pick up and play while retaining the challenge the genre is known for.  Simplistic yet charming visuals and a relatively bare-bones yet still captivating story also make it an enjoyable experience, and let's be honest, it's always fun carving your way through an entire swath of ogres or giants and emerging victorious with enough loot to buy a luxurious mansion, only to spend it on some better equipment instead.

15. Max Payne (Remedy Entertainment, 2001)


Max Payne was the game that put Finnish developers Remedy Entertainment on the map. The game at its core is a tale of revenge as a New York cop goes on a killing spree, gunning down the mobsters who killed his family and partner.  What made it into something really special, though, was the strong writing in the game thanks to Sam Lake; equal parts disturbing, visceral and funny, Max Payne was an experience unlike any other to that date.  Of course, the gameplay also had an innovative element of its own thanks to incorporating "Bullet Time", allowing the player to take on large enemy forces with relative ease by slowing down time in order to effectively dodge enemy fire and draw a bead on them before they could even react.

14. Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015)


Is it fair to put a game that hasn't even been out a month yet on the list?  Well, I'm doing it anyway, because Undertale is totally worthy of the honor.  Taking inspiration from the SNES classic Earthbound for its simple yet charming visual style, quirky sense of humor and sincere charm, Undertale also adds an element of player choice to the proceedings.  The player is given full reign over their actions in this world - they can fight their way through everything, or resolve battles more diplomatically (which entails all sorts of silly dialog options), and each choice is perfectly valid and can lead to one of several endings.  The game's combat system is also innovative in itself, being based on timed button presses to land attacks and a shoot-em-up styled bullet dodging experience to avoid enemy attacks (which you will have to get very good at in order to reach the Pacifist ending).  The game is also overly short, but in an era of 50+ hour games that are that long just for the sake of being that long, I don't mind this fact one bit.  Undertale is a stroke of genius and deserves all the acclaim it's gotten in the short time since its release.

13. Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1988)


The Ultima series surfaces again on this list, but that shouldn't surprise anybody by now as I absolutely love the franchise; it was an incredible innovator for its era and continues to be a major influence on every game that followed it thanks to the merits of its innovative concepts and strong writing.  Ultima V is no different; taking place in Britannia after it has slowly been turned into a brutal dictatorship under the corrupted ruler Lord Blackthorn, the player must follow a trail of clues to reunite with their former allies, recover the crown jewels of Lord British, free him from his prison and restore him to power.  Of course, with a very ambitious development team also comes a very high demand on the player, and Ultima V doesn't pull any punches in terms of difficulty - getting started in the game is a very steep task since you're frequently outnumbered and have little in the way of decent equipment, and it only gets tougher once you venture into the dungeons and start meeting reapers, demons and dragons who can lay waste to your entire party in no time flat.  Ultima V is a harsh experience, but ultimately an extremely compelling and rewarding one once you're used to it.

12. Thief Gold (Looking Glass Studios, 1998)


Looking Glass returns to the list with the first entry in what is probably my favorite stealth franchise of all time: Thief.  Thief Gold is an update of Thief: The Dark Project, adding in three new levels as well as some minor tweaks to existing ones to make things more in line with the revised storyline.  But what makes Thief so great?  Well, the gameplay, for one, which requires the player to use shadows and diversions in order to draw enemies away so they can slip past unharmed.  To that end, the player also has a wide variety of tools to utilize - flash bombs, gas arrows, mines, rope arrows and noisemakers to name a few.  Also adding a nice twist to things was the fact that it was one of the first objective-based games out there - instead of just killing everything in your path, you now had specific goals to carry out in each stage, and the less attention you attracted along the way, the better off you were (not to mention that the higher difficulty levels forbid you from killing people anyway).  Of course, beneath it all was also a menacing atmosphere and pretty solid storyline involving the resurrection of a dark god whose existence is a threat to the world itself, but that tends to take a backseat to the thrill of the heist the game so effectively pulls off.

11. Fallout 2 (Black Isle Studios, 1998)


An excellent title from Black Isle, and one of my favorite games of all time to boot.  The original Fallout definitely had charm to spare with its open-ended character development, multiple ways to complete objectives, heavy world lore and a wry sense of humor despite itself, but Fallout 2 took all of that and expanded upon it tenfold.  Bigger guns, new monsters, a wide variety of recruitable characters, and tons of new locations to explore and characters to interact with - some lovable, some you just love to hate.  There's also a reworked Perk system and a very handy new feature in the form of a drivable car, which makes transportation around the landscape more convenient and gives you plenty of extra carrying capacity to boot.  A stellar RPG experience from beginning to end and, again, one of the finest games in the CRPG genre.