Oooh, I just love an RPG. It's my guilty pleasure in gaming, but there just aren't enough hours in the day for some of these monsters! You've got to sink hours and hours of time into most of them and generally it's worth the pay-off.
The toughest part in choosing RPG games for the year was that many games offer "RPG elements" these days, such as increasing the players health or strength automatically. But I've always had a fairly clear feeling about what a true RPG is: it's about story, events and most importantly, character development both in their statistics and personality.
So, what makes good character development? Well there's a manga author called Rumiko Takahashi who has written several very popular series of comic books such as Ranma1/2 and Inuyasha. A few years back I was talking on irc (how l33t was I?) about Inuyasha which was still being written at the time. However someone else was constantly going on about how bad these were and when I asked him why he said "3 words: Stunted. Character. Development." and ever since I've not been able to enjoy the books becase he was unfortunately correct. The growth of the characters was unnaturally restricted to prolong the series.
Anyway, a good example of character growth would be probably any Final Fantasy game between 7 and 9 where each character usually has to go through a personal hell of sorts, but usually come out an improved, or more rarely worsened person - but the important thing is that they haven't stagnated.
Enough of my irrelevent ramblings about characters! I've not even mentioned numbers yet! But forget that, here are my "nominations" (heh) for 2009:
The Spirit Engine 2
Although released in 2008 it wasn't until 2009 that I really managed to play this fantastically make side scrolling game. The battle system was great, letting the player choose sequences of actions for the characters to take rather than having to constantly direct them, which could also be done. The music was probably the best music I've heard in an RPG since the Final Fantasy series lost it's signature musician. Amazing bits of melody and atmospheric tunage, really.
But the thing I really loved about The Spirit Engine 2 was it's well written dialogue, especially considering you could choose 3 out of 9 individual characters to play as. It was seemless no matter what combination you chose, often triggering different events throughout the game! Marvellous.
Dragon Age Origins
I'm actually playing this right now (well not right now) and it's a huge time theif but terribly rewarding. Character development is quite dynamic depending on the choices you make throughout, being a goodie goodie is far more time consuming, not to mention difficult and it's surprisingly tempting to choose the quick and dirty route.
So far there's yet to have been a dull moment, it even almost escapes the trap of being repetative - something that I'm sure is unavoidable in any numbers based RPG. The scenery is fantastic and although there are a fair few similar corridoors each area is sufficiently distinct. Not sure if there will be a review of this, it depends on if I ever finish it, but if there is expect a fairly high score!
Aveyond: Lord Of Twilight
The Aveyond games have been quite a pleasant surprise, turning up as a 'casual RPG' on sites such as BigFishGames. That's not how I'd describe it, in fact I can't really imagine a casual RPG at all, but I did enjoy what I saw as a far more traditional Japanese RPG style game.
So this is a top down exploration based RPG with many very large areas to explore. It also had a fairly challenging difficulty curve in that if you visited some areas too soon you really knew about it! The characters were fairly unique in most cases and, as you may have guessed from the title, included Vampires! Not only vampires however, it included a vampire trying not to be a vampire, which is something I've not seen anywhere except a Terry Pratchett novel. So overall, pretty good!
And the verdict is:
Difficult, difficult! Gut feeling tells me that I should probably go with the biggie, Dragon Age, which has had some fantasitc reviews out there and is undeniably impressive. But for me it lacks heart, which is where the other two step up with their far more diverse and interesting characters. Graphically the two that stand out are Dragon Age, with it's wonderful locations and The Spirit Engine 2, with it's beautifully drawn sprites.
Overall I just have to go for The Spirit Engine 2 as it beats both for it's fantastic music and it's heart warming story that is told so well through it's characters.
You can read the review of The Spirit Engine 2 here