With a semi-revival of one of the oldest role-playing genres, strategy RPGs, it's hard to know what games are just okay, worth playing, or musn't be skipped. Since playing Shining Force on the Sega Genesis as a child, I have loved this genre more than almost any other for over two decades. In that time I played some of the best games ever made, languished when the genre almost faded into nothing, and lately, I have been extremely happy with the development of strategy RPGs on modern consoles/Steam.
This list will only contain strategy RPGs that can be purchased on a current generation platform. So, sadly, games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre won't be mentioned, but every game on this list is nothing short of spectacular. They are listed in no particular order since I wish people to make their own judgments on which are the best.
Lastly, I haven't played every strategy RPG known to man, so there may be a few highly acclaimed titles such as Xcom 2 or Mario + Rabbids, etc. that don't make the list, simply because I don't want to judge them without playing them.
1. The Banner Saga
The Banner Saga is an incredible trilogy of strategy RPGs developed by Stoic and published by Versus Evil. It's a Viking themed adventure with a lot of bleakness and western-themed lore. Your decisions in the game can affect who lives and dies and stays in your entourage, and the vistas and the hand-drawn sprites are breathtaking. Even Tolkien would have been inspired had he seen the gorgeous backdrops behind your caravan as it marches through snowy peaks, plains, and around tons of unique landmarks and religious sites.
Most importantly, this game has very in-depth combat. It's a traditional grid-based game with a lot of innovations. Your characters have two health stats, one for armor and one for health, and you often need to bring a foe's armor down before you can really do significant damage to their health. You also have stats that allow for extra damage, and each character has a special ability.
The combat is intense. You really need to think about which enemy will move next, which party member will attack which foe, and keeping certain characters, like archers and mages, out of harm's way (one or two blows may take them out of the battle completely). Getting surrounded or losing just one powerful ally can mean an almost certain defeat or grisly victory.
It's also unique in that you can lose battles. If defeated. characters get injured and have temporary stat deductions until rested. Losing may not usher in a game over, but the effects can be devastating on your next battle, or your supplies, which you also need to stock up on and maintain to feed your entourage.
Each game is about ten to fifteen hours long, and once you get the hang of the gameplay (took me a few battles), it becomes addicting; the precarity of decision making and battles makes this one of the best modern strategy RPGs–not to mention most beautiful–around today.
Wargroove is the most recent release on the list. It came out in February 2019, and it's a highly acclaimed indie gem by Chucklefish that heralds in waves of nostalgia for the Advance War games.
Much like Advance Wars, you have bases where you can buy new units. You can buy units each turn and must strategically purchase and position your forces. Your general also has higher strength than regular units and special abilities that can quickly overturn the tide of war. However, putting them to close to the fray means you could lose the battle.
This game comes with beautiful animations (which can also be skipped or turned off) when your units strike, giving the game a visual edge over many of its 2D predecessors.
While the story won't blow any minds, the addicting and engrossing gameplay is enough to keep most players hooked. You get units ranging from spearman and dogs to catapults, vampires, and all sorts of unique weaponry. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited and a method to maximize the effectiveness of their strikes.
Wargroove requires a lot of strategy and the ability to create maps and play online against opponents adds to the heavy arsenal of awesomeness that is Wargroove. Now, if you excuse me, I need to return to this game since I am still mid-playthrough.
3. Disgaea 5
The original Disgaea was truly a mindblowing addition to the tactical RPG universe. It took so many risks–which mostly succeeded brilliantly–and had a completely different tone and style than most of the more austere competition. Who didn't love demons in hell bickering over who would be the next feared and all-powerful overlord?
While every Disgaea game is technically fun, Disgaea 5 truly felt like it was adding to the franchise more than just relayering an old mold while retaining all the quirkiness and charm.
While Krillia and Seraphina could easily be confused for Laharl and Etna, and the underworld jokes about killing and prinnies remains faithfully intact, the gameplay and optional content were cranked up to a super whoah dude!.
The camera was a bit smoother, the battles a little faster paced, and the ability to fight inside ANY weapon to increase its strength was almost too mind-blowing for me. 100 characters can be displayed on the screen, and the number of shops and optional things to do in your home base was excessive.
You can still stack characters on top of each other, team up and bash foes, and throw prinnies though, and the small refinements make this a series well worth revisiting. While the original will always have my heart due to nostalgia, my brain just kept telling me that Disgaea 5 was the new best Disgaea game. Unfortunately, it's another one I didn't quite get around to finishing; you can literally spend 100s of hours on a Disgaea game, so if money is an issue, this is easily the best bang for your buck on the list.
4. Valkyria Chronicles Remastered
Sega did us a favor when they rereleased the vastly underrated Valkyria Chronicles a few years back. I had originally missed it on PS3, so I knew I had to finally give this game the proper time of day (which started with me having a fever and binging this game).
It's a weird mix of 3rd person movement and a strategy RPG in how you actually attack. As you move you can be shot at, and you need to stop in a position where your soldier will hopefully not be killed or fired upon. This mix of action and strategy was a bold move and one that I had never seen before. However, it's a move that paid off and really sets Valkyria Chronicles apart within the genre. It's common to see this game on lists of best strategy RPGs of all time now.
The story is also poignant, featuring a heart-warming cast amid a war to save their country from an invading power. The well-animated cutscenes and storybook progression really add a nice buffer to the combat, and I won't judge if you shed a tear here and there throughout the emotional and touching plot.
The combat is the highlight though. You can upgrade guns, equipment, and tanks, and choosing the right type of soldier for a given situation is often critical. Having no lancers with tanks present can spell doom for example.
I do have one complaint though; there are scenarios in some battles that happen mid-battle that make it almost impossible to win. I recommend anyone playing keeps two save files, one for progression, and a second where you should save every other turn in battle. Flaws included, this is one of the very best strategy RPGs to grace modern consoles, and any JRPG fan would be remiss to dismiss this game.
5. Civilization 6
Sid Meir's Civilization series is one of the longest-running strategy RPG series of all time. While every game in the series has been a fun and interesting reinvention of the original, Civilization 6 is the newest and most expansive game in the series.
Not only is this Civilization game more polished graphically and more fluid, but it also added in some cool features that make certain aspects of the game less annoying. Diplomatic relationships are easier to maintain and war has been a bit less incentivized. Cities require planning, not just plopping as many fancy buildings in it as you can, and governments influence your civilizations agenda (AIs have agendas also).
While I love the entire series, this is definitely the entry to go with if you have never played a Civilization game. It is definitely hardcore. This isn't simple grid-based hack and slash. You will need to plan moves, whip up many different facets of your society, and try to be cautious of multiple civilizations around you. This is a must-play for any fan of the series and hardcore strategy fans.
Now this game has multiple expansions, which have added some new gameplay implements and new societies (including Canada!). It has been brought to consoles like the Switch, but for me, this is a series I just have to play on my PC.
6. Fire Emblem Awakening
For me, the Fire Emblem series has always been one of those franchises where I could literally draw any game in the series out of a hat to choose my favorite. I have played most of the handheld entries and missed most of the console entries–though I am stoked for the Switch Fire Emblem game this summer–but I don't think I am mistaken in placing the epic 3DS Fire Emblem Awakening on this list.
Fire Emblem Awakening will be immediately familiar to returning players. The colored grids in combat, the sword-spear-ax triad of strengths and weaknesses, and returning characters will all make long-time fans feel at ease. To the contrary, this is the most accessible game in the series to date. The "permadeath" feature, where your characters are killed forever if lost in combat can be turned off, and the game boasts multiple difficulty options; all said, this is the best game for a newcomer to start.
I admit I have forgotten most of the story, but the game has a bunch of returning characters, and new heroes, like Lucina, have made themselves famous in the Nintendo universe since. There are side missions, a meaty story, and tons of DLC for players looking to maximize their experience.
Is this the best Fire Emblem game? That will all come down to preference, but this is certainly the game I had the most fun with. It felt very balanced, and I loved the world and soundtrack. The battles were as addictive as ever, and as of now, there hasn't been a better Fire Emblem game (let's look to the Switch). This is a must-own for all 3DS owners.
7. Grand Kingdom
NIS's Grand Kingdom is the biggest dark horse candidate on this list. I knew nothing about this game before finding a playable demo, which I adored. I played through it and just had to own this game. It's unique and charming, and unlike most games on this list, doesn't feature any sort of grid system for movement or combat.
The player initiates a mission and has a certain number of moves before the mission ends. The player moves a piece on a board, sort of like a tabletop game. While exploring, you can find treasures, traps, hidden characters, and foes that are ready to finish off your quest early.
Battles are played within a different screen. There are three planes and your characters can move back on forth on the 2D planes and attack. Archers and mages can attack from afar while tanks will assault foes head-on. There are barriers which can be used for defense as well as traps that can hinder a foes movement and ability to hit you. It's all quite strategic and fun. The effects of battles carry over onto the map and having a weakened party can change your strategy in how you accomplish the overall mission.
The plot is secondary, but the game has stupidly gorgeous, possessing hand-drawn graphics and a symphonic soundtrack that kicks butt. This game is deep, and it is tailored more towards hardcore gamers. With that said, those that pick up Grand Kingdom are guaranteed to have, well, a very grand time indeed.
8. Shining Force 2
A Sega Genesis game, what? Yes, I am kind of cheating here…kind of. Sega released their Mega Drive Classics on all modern platforms in 2018/2019. Both Shining Force and Shining Force 2 are included, and Shining Force 2 remains one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Now you can play it with rewind and fast forward features and full save states.
It's debatable which Shining Force game is the best (and SF3 is very close for me), but Shining Force 2 marks my nostalgic entrance into the world of JRPGs and still holds up very well. It was a pioneering franchise in the genre and still features some of the most addicting combat ever created.
The story, graphics, and sound are all very good here, but the meat and butter of this game lie in the combat and exploration. It is one of the few strategy RPGs to truly let you explore villages and the overworld, and there are tons of secrets that range from playable characters, items for promotion, and combat buffs to be found.
The combat is amazing. It's fast-paced, simple, and the battle animations still look incredible (and can be turned off if you wish). Most battles don't take too long to complete, and there are some seriously epic boss battles here (The Kraken, anyone?). This game nails pacing, and I guarantee you will fall in love with your band of heroes as well as the combat. Shining Force 2 still wins out over most games today due to its simplicity and fun gameplay; even with a relatively simple combat system, there are still class promotions, exploration, and tons of characters to experiment with. If you still haven't played this game, grab it on the awesome Megadrive Collection Sega has offered and you will have tons of great games to still play after.
9. Shin Megami Tensei Overclocked
To be totally honest, I am not usually a big fan of the Shin Megami Tensei games outside of the Persona series. Devil Survivor is one of the few series that drew me in and showed me one of the very best times I ever had with my Nintendo DS. As the name implies, it's a pretty dark themed strategy RPG in the same universe as personas and Tokyo high school nightmares.
I absolutely loved the plot. Characters had numbers over their heads that told them how many days they had left to live. You make certain decisions in the game that can save or kill characters, and these affect which characters remain in your entourage. It has the usual Shin Megami Tensei vibe, and stuff like animated videos and voice-overs enhance the experience.
As usual, the gameplay is what counts though. The battles are grid-based, but attacking foes brings you into a turn-based combat system. You can have multiple personas with each character, and the difficulty can be pretty intense. The ability to customize your personas and get new ones doesn't feel cheapened by the handheld experience, and this game is also more for hardcore players. I couldn't quite finish some of the final battles due to difficulty, but it's one of the very best strategy RPGs on the DS/3DS, and fans of hardcore strategy RPGs and darker games will adore this one. No RPG list is complete without an Atlus game.
10. Into the Breach
Into the Breach seemingly came out of nowhere. Developed by Subset Games and released in 2018, it received raving reviews. However, it shocked the world when it won the best strategy RPG at the game awards last year. That is when it fell on mine, and many others, radars.
For a game with a simple 8X8 grid, this game is surprisingly deep. You get three mechs in battle, and there are tons of mechs/pilots to choose from with varying abilities. Terrain affects the gameplay and enemies are randomly generated; man, can this game be stressful. You need to protect your buildings, and enemies always move first. It's a clever mix of puzzle and RPG gameplay (like a good strategy RPG should have).
You constantly get upgrades, and you always need to change your strategy based on new abilities, terrain, and foes. The story is nothing special, and it's a game that only lasts a few hours, making it quite accessible as far as the genre goes, but it also boasts some of the best replayability on the list.
This one is available for all modern platforms, and at a low price point, makes it one of the best options on the list for beginners into the genre. Be sure not to miss this modern indie classic.