The Revival of Isometric RPGs in recent years is a breath of fresh air in an industry that now elevates graphics and play to win, over content quality and story depth. Isometric RPGs have always provided the latter evidenced in the popularity of Baldur’s Gate that has garnered legendary status for its immersive narrative.
For a lot of us isometric RPGs were our first introduction to character customisation-based fantasy in video game format. It’s a really exciting time for fans of the genre with the announcement of Baldur’s Gate 3, and the exposure of the Enhanced Editions are making their way to console. This can only be a good thing for the genre.
The Appeal of Isometric RPGs
It can be therapeutic to remove yourself from the sensory overload fashioned by triple A games. Take a moment and pull yourself away from the mayhem of Borderlands. Stop yourself from playing that 10th game of Fortnite after a confronted opponent just built the Taj Mahal to dominate you from.
Instead, step into a stationary environment majestically crafted to narrow in the players focus on their character, dialogue, and strategic combat unfurling on their screens.
Story telling & Lore
The story & lore of an isometric RPG is vast, with depth in abundance to trigger your emotions. You’d think a lack of voice acted narrative would be an issue, but it expands the scope of the world as writers are not limited by budgets and time constraints. Instead of cut scenes and voice actors to guide the attention of players, they pull on the strings of inquisitiveness as the player is guided on a journey of discovery.
Each NPC interaction can branch into a crossroad of dialogue that sparks the imagination. Unravelling lore and puzzling together that quest you’ve had in your log for 2 hours. You aren’t spoon fed quest or NPC locations. We effectively become detectives in our own story.
The static backdrop is creative in its simplicity. Most isometric RPG maps are hand drawn before being digitally rendered. Adding an element of rustic authenticity that you just don’t get in the triple A blockbusters.
Because of this is no time wasted in exploration. You are always where you need to be. The game has been developed to show you where you need to go, but at the same time stimulates a sentiment of freedom in the player. It sparks an impulse to explore every undiscovered shadow on the map with reckless abandon. Are those bandits related to my quest and what secret does that cave harbor… oh a dragon? Let’s fight it anyway.
By the very nature of isometric RPGs you are not pigeon holed into one class. Recruiting companions means you can broaden your character horizons. Tired of being a mage one day, then use the warrior in your party as your main protagonist in combat. Fancy a bit of stealth and shadow play, then switch to the rogue.
Granted for some this removes the attachment to their main character. Fortunately, in matters of story telling the game will always resort back to your protagonist. It’s just along the way you can indulge your class curiosity.
The revival of isometric RPGs is partly down to their simplicity. Granted a lot of work goes on behind the scenes, but to a player on the front-end they are quite simple. The zones aren’t huge, so quest clues can eventually be narrowed down. Classes aren’t overly complicated, and the weapons are modest in their variety.
For some of us, this simplicity after a hard day’s graft is the true selling point. In a way it’s like reading a book, intersected with intense moments of combat.
Giants of the genre
Game companies have invested a lot of time and money in the revival of isometric RPGs so they must recognise the demand from gamers. Shortly before the reveal of Baldur’s Gate 3, BeamDog announced the Enhanced Editions of our favourite D&D games would be coming to console by late 2019.
You’d be forgiven for connecting the two as it’s a resourceful marketing strategy to leverage a new fan base from the console gaming audience, just in time for BG3.
Most of you will have heard of Baldur’s Gate even if you haven’t played it. This game will always feature on bucket lists across the internet and it’s not hard to see why.
Baldur’s Gate is considered the godfather of isometric RPGs. Credited for reviving the flailing Western RPG genre. It burst onto the scene in 1998 during a time where Japan ruled the genre in the East. A small team of amateur developers broke the mould in the late 90’s by utilising a new Microsoft software called Direct X. At a time when tile based RPGs ruled the genre.
BG channelled the themes of Dungeons & Dragons in video game format. It garnered a lot of mainstream popularity with its well-placed voice acting, real time combat, character customisation and compelling story. I still remember the first time I saw Irenicus schooling a group of judicial wizards in the first chapter. “You bore me, mageling!”
In more recent years the legacy of Baldur’s Gate is seen in contemporary releases such Pillars of Eternity. So similar in game play it’s obvious to note the close relationship between Obsidian Games and Black Isle Studios.
Units sold: Unfortunately, there are no credible sources for the Balder’s Gate units sold. Piecing together I would say upwards of 10 million since 1998. Including the remastered versions.
Divinity Original Sin
Fuelled by a kickstarter campaign, the first Divinity Original Sin release had a slightly different selling point with it’s turn based combat. Initially this was a sticking point for some, me included, but once you start playing you quickly learn that Larian Studios got it right. Something that is reflected in the positive acclaim following it’s release.
Original Sin has already laid a foundation to build on after it was launched on consoles amid critically acclaimed reviews. It’s complex combat and interactive world hooked fans of the isometric genre from day one, and gained a new following of admirers along the way.
Units sold: 1st game = 200,000 copies sold, 2nd game over 1 million.
Diablo first made it’s way to the shelves after the golden age of RPGs. The brainchild of David Brevik, the initial proposal was positioned as a turn-based version, but rejected by publishers on the grounds that RPG genre was dying. Until Blizzard took interest.
The true selling point of Diablo was it’s multiplayer facility through LAN and Battle.net. Revolutionary at the time, it allowed players to work cooperatively or against one another. Unfortunately it was riddled with cheating.
Blizzard’s more recent release in the form of Diablo 3 had the same effect on the revival of isometric RPGs. Development of the third edition started in 2001, with an announcement in 2008 that the game was on its way. The 11 year inception of Diablo III was a long period for fans who were craving a resurgence in the genre. Like they did in 1997, Blizzard once again led the revival of isometric RPGs when it hit the shelves in 2012. It channelled the essence of its older brothers with its click and bash approach that rocketed the success of the original games. Its success prompted the team to explore the concept of a console version in 2014.
Units sold: Over 30 million
Bioware’s Neverwinter Night’s hit the market in the renewed era of isometric RPGs. Baldur’s Gate and Diablo had laid a foundation of restored appetite for the genre and Bioware built on this with another D&D inspired vehicle. Within 10 days of its release Bioware had sold 125,000 copies and it featured as the #1 video game seller during the period according to NPD group. By 2003 it is believed over a million copies had been sold worldwide.
A lot of the success of Neverwinter Nights can be attributed to Bioware promoting community made expansions through the release of hakpaks, models and tileset expansion packs. Its simple build packs made it easy for even the most novice of fans to create their own scenarios and quest lines.
As for the story itself, the addition of acquiring, managing, upgrading and defending your own stronghold is a common theme across of lot of RPGs these days, but Neverwinter Night’s was one of the first games to successfully pioneer this concept.
Units sold: over 2 million copies worldwide
What the future brings
Originally a niche specific to the PC, isometric RPGs have widened their reach in recent years in the console market with Divinity II Original Sin. With a further announcement that the Enhanced Editions of some of the titans of the genre are making their way to Xbox One and Playstation 4 in late 2019. Although unconfirmed, Baldur’s gate 3 will likely also feature on the console sooner or later. With this wider audience the future is looking bright for the revival of isometric RPGs.
Leaping to console will only benefit the genre as exposure breeds popularity, which in turn boosts profits and extends the lifespan of this type of RPG.