Other than Barbie Horse Adventures...
March 31, 2009 7:00 AM   Subscribe

What are some video games where unique gameplay complements a great story?

I've recently found myself running out of good video games to play, and I'm looking for some suggestions.

The games I enjoy the most seem to defy easy categorization. I like RPGs, but hate grinding. I like fighting, but stink at figuring out combos. I tend to dislike games that can be summed up in one sentence (unless it's a really impressive run-on sentence). I guess the genre that best describes my preference is adventure-puzzle-action-rpg, if it has a good storyline.

Bad: "You have to kill the (aliens/Nazis/zombies/etc)."

Good: "You play as Raz, this kid who runs away from the circus to join this summer camp for psychic warriors, but while he's there, he finds out..."

Some more about me:
-I consider Beyond Good & Evil to be the greatest game ever made. I also enjoy playing Okami, Psychonauts, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (although Warrior Within made me seethe with rage), and God of War 1 and 2. I like the story in Dreamfall, but found the gameplay a little boring and repetitive in places.
-The only Final Fantasy game I've ever completed is X (although I'm working on XII). I tried VII and VIII, but quit both before the halfway point. I know, I know. I'm a terrible excuse for a gamer. The only Zelda game I've played at all is Twilight Princess, which was fun for the little that I played.
-I have access to PS1, PS2, Xbox, Xbox360, DS, GBA, GC, Wii, and a nice PC.
-I play games to have fun; not for completion or achievement. If the mini tasks required for completion are fun (photography in BG&E, stray beads in Okami), then I'll do them.

So how about it, Hivemind? What video games should I play next?
posted by specialagentwebb to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (40 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Take a look at Portal
posted by DanW at 7:10 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't believe you haven't played more of the Legend of Zelda series. Seriously, pick up Ocarina of Time and Windwaker, both for the Game Cube. They are perfectly characterized by "adventure-puzzle-action-rpg with no grinding and no combos."

The LoS games for DS are a lot shorter and more puzzle-oriented, although they are also lighter on the story-aspect.
posted by muddgirl at 7:13 AM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

As everyone will pile in here shortly to post, Portal is generally regarded as a high point in storytelling and game design. The fascinating thing about Portal is the extent to which the story works both as part of the Half Life world and as metaphor, and the way that the story builds using play devices and monologue rather than conventional narrative. They managed to weave something mighty rich with two holes, a single speaking character and a single (all singing, all baking) cut scene.
posted by eschatfische at 7:14 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Shadow of the Colossus (for PS2) is an excellent game. The story is subtle, and mostly implied. The gameplay is definitely unique.
posted by Gneisskate at 7:14 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Braid: utterly unique time-puzzle platforming, strange and wonderful story. (It doesn't tell a straightforward plot, but there is certainly story and theme, and -- unusually -- the gameplay is about the story and vice versa.) It's also visually stunning in a way that looks like no other game.
posted by grobstein at 7:18 AM on March 31, 2009

Assassin's Creed, Fable I and II, and nthing Portal and Shadow of the Colossus.
posted by sephira at 7:18 AM on March 31, 2009

I liked Portal but Braid is more interesting from a gameplay point of view and has a more affecting story. The story of Portal (like most of the Valve oeuvre?) is a brilliantly executed cliché; Braid examines cliché, along with everything else it does.
posted by grobstein at 7:21 AM on March 31, 2009

Yeah, you'll love Shadow of the Colossus. I found it achingly sad to play and loved the "implied" story as Gneisskate mentioned. And by design it's pretty much the exact opposite of "grinding." Its predecessor, Ico, is also an interesting play although it's very short.
posted by bcwinters at 7:23 AM on March 31, 2009

I just finished Professor Layton on the DS and I really enjoyed it. The puzzles were challenging and I found the story interesting. Reminded me alot of these puzzle storybooks I had as a child.
posted by melissam at 7:25 AM on March 31, 2009

Best answer: If you want something quick but very charming to play on the Wii, you might try LostWinds. You'll probably beat it in just a few hours but it has some real style to it, and it really takes advantage of the Wii's unique controls. It's the closest to a Zelda-like experience any independent game company has gotten, I would say.
posted by bcwinters at 7:26 AM on March 31, 2009

Planescape Torment: Oldie Interplay, but one of the most interesting stories you'll ever be part of - talk to your friends... constantly... you learn something, they learn something... and the story goes deeper. Free download at Home of the Underdogs

Lets see... you're dead...or... imortal...or... well... you have no idea who you are... and there's this floating skull that won't seem to leave your side and keeps babbling on... Combat is important, but it isn't the end-all-be-all - its the story that makes this one the *best* rpg I have ever played, and replayed, and replayed...
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:26 AM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cave Story is really famous (maybe you've already heard of it), but it has a cute story and it's short enough that even a terrible excuse for a gamer could easily finish it in a few sittings.

The Longest Journey is a PC adventure game that's... pretty epic. I was disappointed with the endgame, but everything leading up to that was great.

Lots of other older PC adventure games also have great stories and are mostly available for free these days (some of them by semi-legal means). Scumm VM will let you play the ones by Lucas Arts (of which MONKEY ISLAND is definitely the greatest). Sierra games are great as well. (I like Space Quest, but others may disagree).
posted by AAAA at 7:29 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

GTA IV has a fantastic storyline, and has many different ways to play it.

Portal does have incredibly unique gameplay, but I personally don't see the story as anything to write home about. I think most of the praise is from fanboys who were all excited to have a Jonathan Coulton song at the end of a videogame.
posted by mkultra at 7:30 AM on March 31, 2009

Best answer: The games I've played with the best storylines:

Deus Ex. Pick your conspiracy theory. It shows up here. Decent shooter to boot.

System Shock 2. A true classic, and one of the scariest games out there.

The Baldur's Gate series. Arguably the best AD&D adaptation ever made. Has a definite D&D flavored plot, but if you like that sort of thing it's almost unbeatable.

Except by Planescape: Torment. Hands down best writing in a game for any platform or genre. Characterizations are complex and compelling, and your choices radically affect the game outcome, sometimes a long, long way down the road, in ways that are far from obvious. Replayability is very high.

If you liked Dreamfall, you should definitely get is predecessor, The Longest Journey. One of my favorite modern adventure games, and far better--and longer--than Dreamfall.

Oblivion and its predecessor Morrowind are worth checking out. Both have decent stories, but they're basically tagged on to a freaking huge sandbox world. The Morrowind map encompasses the equivalent of approximately 10 square kilometers, and the Oblivion map is over 40 square kilometers. In-game that feels much larger. Of course, if you want a truly huge game, you can go for the notoriously-buggy (and now rather aged) Daggerfall, which has a map approximately the size of Britain.

The Fallout series is worth looking into, especially as Fallout 3 was just released, by the same people that did Oblivion. The first two were done by the people that did Baldur's Gate, so either way, they're venerable storytellers.
posted by valkyryn at 7:36 AM on March 31, 2009 [4 favorites]

Viewtiful Joe is a game in which a movie fan gets sucked into his favorite super hero movie and gets the power to slow down or speed up everything (not like bullet time) around him. He has to use these powers to solve puzzles and beat up the bad guys that kidnapped his girlfriend. It's not all about combo memorization, but rather how you combine your use of speed up and slow mo in combat.

Rez is a rail shooter in the style of Panzer Dragoon in which the enemies you destroy contribute to a growing techno soundtrack.

Paper Mario
(Gamecube) is an RPG that relies on turn based battles that require you to actively participate in them. You don't just hit 'A' to attack. You have to use the unique 2D nature of Mario to navigate the 3D World.

Mario & Luigi
has combat similar to Paper Mario in that it's a turn based RPG with a similar combat style that you control in real time.
posted by DrDreidel at 7:36 AM on March 31, 2009

Bioshock, Fallout 3, most of Oblivion.

Seconding pts on both of those games. The World Ends With You never made it big here, and I've never understood why. If you liked FFX, you'll like it (it's also a Square Enix game, so there you go).

I'm working on Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars right now. Not far enough into it to say for sure if it meets your criteria, but it seems like it might.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:38 AM on March 31, 2009

Where do you find Braid? Can't find a game called Braid on Amazon.
posted by musofire at 7:43 AM on March 31, 2009

Best answer: Shadow of the Colossus is a fantastic game but it is a prequel of sorts to another game called Ico. I never played Ico but my girlfriend has and she got considerably more out of SotC's story than I did. It's still a great game but be warned that the story may be lost on you if you haven't played Ico (it was on me!).

You owe it to yourself to play any game in the Katamari Damacy series. The story is completely off the wall but the gameplay can't be beat.

Portal is great fun but the game is rather short - 5-10 hours or so - and it doesn't really have much replay value. It is set in the Half Life universe and some of the references might be lost on you if you aren't familiar with those games.

Definitely play any and all console Zelda games from Ocarina of Time thru Twilight Princess.

Braid for XBLA (and PC soon enough) is a very fun platformer with a Sands of Time-esque rewind time feature. I've only played the demo but a few of my friends own the full thing and found the story to be engrossing enough for a platformer.

Chrono Trigger DS is a fairly "standard" RPG but it is so ridiculously well done that it is worth playing. The original game came out almost 15 years ago but it feels timeless.

If you're into Star Wars, the first Knights of the Old Republic is a phenomenal RPG set in the Star Wars universe.
posted by Diskeater at 7:45 AM on March 31, 2009

Where do you find Braid? Can't find a game called Braid on Amazon.

Sorry! It is on XBox Live Arcade (the digital distribution service for XBox 360) for about $15, and due on PC on April 10 (probably also digital distribution; $10). Here's the home-page.
posted by grobstein at 7:59 AM on March 31, 2009

I recently played through Indigo Prophecy, and it was an absolute blast. Totally story-oriented, innovative control scheme, not frustrating except in a few places. Strongly recommended. (It's downloadable on the Xbox for about $15, I think.)
posted by jbickers at 8:03 AM on March 31, 2009

Seconding the Katamari series. The play mechanics are simple but entertaining, essentially like rolling up a snowball to make a snowman, but you're rolling up objects instead, ranging from thumbtacks at the lower levels to tankers and bridges later on.

The music and graphics are fun and lively, and the humor is offbeat and strange: the plot is that you're rolling up balls to turn into new stars, as your father, the King of All Cosmos, went on a cosmic bender last night and shattered them all. The original PS2 game retailed for $20 to lure in those of us who were skeptical of the notion, but it's totally a masterpiece, and definitely worth playing.
posted by explosion at 8:13 AM on March 31, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the great suggestions. I didn't mention it in the original post, but I have played Shadow of the Colossus. Beautiful game; you've inspired me to play it again starting tonight. In the meantime, I'll have to track down a copy of Ico. It looks like it's out of print -- eBay ahoy!

With all these great-sounding games, I should be set for the next couple of months!
posted by specialagentwebb at 8:22 AM on March 31, 2009

Kingdom of Loathing.
posted by painquale at 8:36 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

For the PSP, I just got Crush, which is a really interesting puzzle-platformer. The story is mildly interesting, but not necessary to the game, so I have to admit, I usually skip the cutscenes.

echochrome (for PSP and PS3-downloadable), which I've only played the demo of, has a similar concept, but with an entirely different, more puzzle-ish feel. It completely lacks a story, which I don't think it really needs.
posted by Xoder at 8:44 AM on March 31, 2009

I didn't finish Oblivion 'cause I don't have the time or the patience to get through games as deep and rich as that, but I did manage to complete several early Thief class missions, one of which floored me. Here's the nickel version.


I traveled to another town where I soon met a balding middle-aged merchant. He explained that some of the locals were after him -- the troll girls from the vineyard, I think. I have forgotten some of the details. It's an episode of my career I'd like to forget. Maybe I could help him out by keeping an eye on those girls for an evening. He'd pay.

I needed the money. I took the job.

I followed the troll girl around for an afternoon and an evening. She didn't do much. She picked grapes. She wandered around town. She chatted with some townsfolk. She returned to the farmhouse and went inside and called it a day.

At midnight I rendezvoused with the merchant to brief him on what I'd seen. He wasn't relieved. The troll girl must have sensed me, he said. She was laying low. He wanted me to tail the blacksmith, instead, because the blacksmith was out to get him, too.

I still needed the money.

The blacksmith was just a blacksmith, of course. But my weakness for coin is a powerful force.

At our midnight debriefing I told the merchant he was right about the blacksmith. The merchant suggested I continue following him. This is the easiest money ever, I thought. I wondered how much longer I could keep stringing him along.

Not long.

The next evening I repeated the warning and the merchant thanked me and asked me if I would kill the blacksmith for him.

I declined. I am not an assassin, I told him.

Well then, he said, I'll have to do it himself.

On the way back to the boarding house I wandered the midnight alleyways, shadow to shadow, and saw in those dark crevices the depths of my thiefly greed and the shallowess of my character. I had just killed the blacksmith. He wasn't dead yet. But it was only a matter of time.

Near dawn I happened upon a guardsman on patrol and I decided to undo what I had done.

He thanked me for the information and turned and hurried back the way he had come. I followed.

Eventually we arrived outside the blacksmith's shop. The portly merchant emerged, dagger in hand, and seeing the guardsman, cried out in fear, and turned to run.

The guardsman drew his broadsword and cried, Halt! but the merchant stumbled on. Please don't kill me. Halt, murderer! In a moment the guardsman was upon him. Please, no. You're all out to kill me. The guardsman cut him down.

Just like that I was guilty of two murders instead of one.

The guardsman thanked me again for the tip. Why, if it hadn't been for me, who knows how many townsfolk the madman might have killed.
posted by notyou at 9:15 AM on March 31, 2009

I think you might like Jak & Daxter: The Precurser Legacy. This is the first game in the series and has more unique gameplay elements than the 2 sequels. It's one of my favorite games; maybe my most favorite. You can probably pick it up used for $7 - $10.

For a truly weird story, try Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. They are sort of RPG-lite. I sort of like the Final Fantasy games but they get to be a grind; Kingom Hearts is super enjoyable.

I loved Portal, loved every Zelda game (even the Adventures of Link that everyone hates), LOVE God of War (III coming someday, woo!) hated Ico and Katamari.
posted by peep at 9:16 AM on March 31, 2009

System Shock 2, without a doubt. Perhaps a little dated, but the most immersive game I've ever played, and with a number of fascinating and tragic subplots that play out as you discover the last frantic messages of the dead...

"What is a drop of rain, compared to a storm? What is a thought, compared to a mind?"

For something a little more lightweight, both of the Katamari games are fun and easy and have a hilarious little story that plays out in your interactions with the King of the Cosmos.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 10:35 AM on March 31, 2009

Nthing Ico, Katamari Damacy and the World Ends with You. The World Ends with You has a great story, and you hardly need any grinding unless you want to play through a second time for the special ending.

If you're in Europe you might want to see if you can get ahold of Vib Ribbon. It was never released for America, but it's a really interesting PS1 game. It's all vector graphics where you deal with different obstacles to the beat of the music. And then you can take the game disc out and play with your own music CDs.

for the DS I'd suggest the Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney series. They're a hilarious set of point and click mysteries. The Professor Layton puzzle game is fantastic. And Puzzle Quest is an odd hybrid of RPGs and Bejeweled.
posted by Caravantea at 11:04 AM on March 31, 2009

Iji (Wikipedia link) - Iji has a pretty good storyline (if a bit cliche in places) that branches based on certain choices you make. It's a 2D sidescroller with rpg elements (stat upgrades) and is surprisingly fun. It's also free.
posted by ODiV at 11:12 AM on March 31, 2009

Tomb Raider: Legend was actually pretty decent. It's corny but the puzzles are fun and inventive. The game is short though. All the other suggestions I would have are already here.
posted by chairface at 11:52 AM on March 31, 2009

Neverwinter Nights!!!! Best game ever.
posted by sickinthehead at 11:56 AM on March 31, 2009

Is A Boy And His Blob (old NES game) available in the Wii store yet? Cause that's definitely different, and also awesome.
posted by inigo2 at 12:02 PM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Definitely the Thief games for the PC. Thief II: The Metal Age probably ties with Ico as my all-time favourite game. They are amazingly atmospheric and have extremely compelling stealth gameplay. Also, if you like collection minigames you'll love these games, as you can spend hours and hours exploring the gigantic levels looking for secret rooms and pieces of loot.

Also check out Grandia I and II. They are RPGs, but they are also quite easy, with no real grinding required, and they have great stories. From what I've heard Grandia II ramps up the difficulty significantly, so it might be worth giving it a miss.
posted by fearthehat at 12:09 PM on March 31, 2009

posted by Drexen at 1:31 PM on March 31, 2009

Well, I wasn't sure if this was appropriate or not, but if you like Psychonauts (and somebody else has mentioned Monkey Island), you might dig Grim Fandango. Unique gameplay? Not so much - it's like every other LucasArts adventure. Unique story? Eh, what story is really unique anymore? Unique setting and great characters? Hell yes.
posted by McBearclaw at 9:21 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

3rding Planescape: Torment

It is the best game I've ever played.
posted by pwicks at 12:04 AM on April 1, 2009

I'm a huge fan of the Legend of Zelda series, and I think the series definitely fits the bill - especially Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask and Wind Waker. The stories in the series are usually though of as pretty thin, and I suppose that's true.

Of particular interest to you, though, might me Majora's Mask - it's the n64 sequel to Ocarina of Time, and it's the darkest in the series, beyond a doubt - the moon will fall and destroy the Termina (a darker, creepier version of Hyrule) in three days, and you have to repeat the same three says over and over and attempt to stop it from happening, but at the beginning of the game you've been transformed into a helpless deku scrub... here's an interesting article from the other day about what makes it a great game.

There's a lot more story there than in some of the other installments, and its gameplay is pretty unique - later in the game you get to switch between multiple forms of yourself - but it might be best to play Ocarina first, because part of what makes Majora's Mask so creepy is how Termina and its residents mirror those of Hyrule. Majora's Mask is still amazing on its own, though.

You might also take a look at Metroid Prime, for the gamecube. Don't bother with either of the sequels, you really only need to play the first. The story in Metroid Prime is fascinating because most of it is told visually, through the setting - the buildings, animals and environment of Tallon IV. There's also some of it as text, but mostly it's told through the atmosphere.

Anyway, good luck and have fun.
posted by Rinku at 7:16 AM on April 1, 2009

Majora's Mask is available for the Gamecube, by the way, on Legend of Zelda: Collector's Edition, and it'll be released soonish on wiiware.
posted by Rinku at 8:00 AM on April 1, 2009

It is a crime that EarthBound (SNES) and MOTHER 3 (the Japan-only sequel that had a pro-caliber translation patch released last fall) have not been mentioned here yet. The former, to be fair, has a bit of a tough difficulty curve at the start, but it is an RPG set in a parody of the modern western world, and is both endearing and actively hilarious. It's more a collection of silly situations than an overarcing storyline, much like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The sequel is perhaps even better (although that's hard to call), and has a much more tightly written plot, like the Dirk Gently books.

The one major thing to mention, though, is that you must be okay with lots of text. Particularly incredibly delightful text.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:30 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing Deus Ex and pretty much any game in the Zelda series starting from the SNES era. They fit your description almost perfectly. You might also enjoy No One Lives Forever 1 and 2.

The Half-Life series (especially Half-Life 2 onward) and Portal don't have any RPG elements, but they play very differently from most other first-person shooters. I would categorize them as more adventure than action. Mirror's Edge is similar.

Perhaps you'll enjoy the upcoming Zeno Clash.

If you liked Psychonauts, check out Grim Fandango. It's written by the same guy, Tim Schafer.

Jason Rohrer's Passage and Gravitation have very unique gameplay with abstract but strongly expressed stories.
posted by archagon at 12:59 AM on April 2, 2009

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