For nearly 30 years, Bethesda has been pushing the limits of the RPG genre. Though Bethesda has developed and produced a number of great games across numerous genres, their name will always be synonymous with titles like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. As the studio prepares to unleash its latest RPG epic, Starfield, on the world, we thought this would be the perfect time to take a look back at the company’s history of blockbuster RPG experiences and try to determine which is the very best.
Before we dive into that, though, here are a few rules and pieces of selection criteria I used to assemble this list:
– This list largely focuses on RPGs developed by Bethesda (Bethesda Softworks/Bethesda Game Studios) rather than RPGs published by Bethesda. While that represents the bulk of the studio’s RPG output, titles like Pirates of the Caribbean and pseudo-RPGs like Dishonored, Prey, and Hunted: The Demon’s Forge are not on this list.
– That said, I decided to include Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas on this list. Though it was not developed by Bethesda, it is an important part of Bethesda’s Fallout legacy and is based heavily on Fallout 3.
– Though this list features a variety of RPGs, games like Fallout Shelter and The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard are excluded simply because they do not feature enough RPG elements to be ranked alongside these other games.
– Finally, we will be adding Starfield to this list once we (and all of you) have been able to spend more time with it.
With that out of the way, here is every Bethesda Game Studios RPG ranked worst to best:
12. Fallout 76
Though there are a few games I initially considered ranking below Fallout 76, those games largely suffer from their age rather than significant inherent flaws. Fallout 76 is different. It’s a relatively modern game that should have enjoyed all of the advantages that the biggest modern games get to enjoy. Instead, Fallout 76 came to represent some of the absolute worst elements of modern game design and the modern gaming industry.
Following a nightmare development process, Fallout 76 was unleashed upon the gaming world with a whimper and a groan. There were always concerns about the viability, and even the appeal, of a multiplayer Fallout experience, and Fallout 76 validated all of those concerns. Those who dodged enough of the game’s countless technical problems for long enough to spend substantial time with the title found a largely barren world devoid of NPCs, Fallout-quality storytelling, and…well, things to do. Adding insult to injury were the many examples of design decisions that showed how Bethesda clearly wanted Fallout 76 to be a long-term live service cash grab.
To be fair, Fallout 76 has improved over time. Many of the major technical issues have been fixed, the game now offers more things to do for solo players, and the game’s communal multiplayer elements (which were always one of the title’s rare highlights) are better than ever. Yet, I feel like the best thing you can say about the game now is that it is roughly where it should have been when it launched. Unlike a somewhat similar project we’ll talk about later on this list, Fallout 76 not only doesn’t feel true to the name it was sold on but it has yet to find an identity that helps separate it from some considerable competition.
11. The Elder Scrolls: Blades
Unlike Fallout Shelter (which, as noted above, is not on this list), The Elder Scrolls: Blades tries to offer a loose, mobile-friendly approximation of the series it is based on. Actually, the game harkens back to The Elder Scrolls‘ roots by offering a first-person dungeon crawler experience that serves as the backbone for various other gameplay concepts (roguelikes, town-building, and PvP multiplayer). At a glance, it certainly looks like a proper Elder Scrolls game.
And that’s a big part of the problem. Blades comes close enough to being an actual Elder Scrolls game to ensure that you feel betrayed when you learn that Blades is actually closer to being one of those wait-time-heavy, grindy, microtransaction-pushing mobile management games that always seem to be popular despite rarely offering anything new. While Blades attempts to do something a little different with its more traditional role-playing elements, they soon prove to be too simple, too boring, and often too frustrating to elevate everything else the game is really about.
Fallout Shelter did a much better job of tapping into the spirit of its source material while offering a management title that actually felt fun to play on a mobile device. Blades is a more ambitious but somehow more painfully familiar experience.
10. The Elder Scrolls: Arena
The game that kicked off the Elder Scrolls franchise is both wildly different from what the series would become and strangely representative of many of the bigger ideas the series grew to represent.
Like many future Elder Scrolls games, Arena boasts a detailed world, plenty of sidequests, an involved character creation system, and tons of options and opportunities to live out your role-playing fantasies. It’s fascinating to look at the game today and see the basis of many of this series’ best and most influential features.
However, actually playing Arena for a prolonged period of time can be…rough. As a dungeon crawler, I find that Arena’s size and other ambitions sometimes work against the game. Compared to something like Ultima Underworld (a huge influence on this title), Arena doesn’t focus quite enough on its pure dungeon-crawling elements to clearly distinguish itself from modern open-world role-playing experiences. When judged more along the lines of such experiences, Arena is a bit too rough and a bit too incoherent to remain an enjoyably playable piece of history.
Arena deserves all the credit in the world for its ambition and eventual influences on gaming. Whether you ever actually bother to play it is another matter entirely.
9. An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire
Alongside The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard (which isn’t enough of an RPG to qualify for this list), Battlespire is the most forgotten piece of the Elder Scrolls franchise. Originally conceived to be an expansion for Daggerfall, Battlespire is a more “pure” dungeon crawler that forgoes many broader role-playing elements in favor of handing you a weapon, sending you into a dangerous pit, and allowing you to grow and gear your character as you work your way to safety and glory.
However, just because Battlespire is forgotten doesn’t mean that it’s forgettable. There are times when it actually feels closer to a dungeon crawler take on a ‘90s FPS game than the kind of RPG that we associate with the Elder Scrolls franchise. It offers some fun (if flawed) ARPG dungeon-crawling action that features the kind of storytelling, lore, and writing that you may not typically associate with somewhat similar titles. There’s actually a lot here to like, especially for a game that is never really talked about.
Unfortunately, Batltespire is also a fundamentally rough experience that is still shockingly buggy and stunningly difficult. Seriously, you have to be an absolute masochist for these kinds of experiences to stand a chance of getting through this game with a smile on your face. Even still, Battlespire deserves more of a legacy than it currently enjoys.
8. The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall
This was the toughest game on this list to fairly rank. The fact of the matter is that many of the complaints I had about Arena carry over to Daggerfall to at least some degree. Anyone who doesn’t have a tolerance for PC RPGs of this era will struggle to get through even the most basic elements of the Daggerfall experience (action, navigation, and UI, specifically). Even at the time of its release, Daggerfall was criticized by some for being far more ambitious than it was fundamentally sound.
After all these years, though, it remains nearly impossible to not be awed by Daggerfall’s ambition. How can you not at least respect a game that features a playable area that is roughly the size of Great Britain? Granted, the procedural generation technology required to generate a world that large means that the game often repurposes textures and even entire areas (a perfect example of the give and take of the game’s scope), but it’s hard not to respect the boldness of the thing.
While Daggerfall’s sheer size often dominates conversations about the game, it’s some of this sequel’s other innovations that impress most all these years later. Daggerfall not only greatly improves upon its predecessor’s storytelling, combat, and character growth possibilities, but it does so in ways that we see in the next Elder Scrolls game and throughout the rest of the franchise. It was far too ambitious for its own good, but it was a necessary step forward for the genre and this series.
7. Fallout 4
If you can separate Fallout 4 from the rest of this franchise and the other games on this list, you’ll find a lot to like about it. It offers a sizeable open world filled with both narrative-driven activities and substantial distractions. You can spend hundreds of hours wandering around Fallout 4 (many of which will likely be spent on the character creation screen) and eventually encounter enough worthwhile moments to justify your considerable time investment. If that’s not enough, Fallout 4 even offers a couple of really well-designed DLC expansions that are arguably more interesting than the base game (Far Harbor and Nuka World). As a Fallout-themed open-world game, Fallout 4 understands and completes its assignment.
As an RPG, though, Fallout 4 falls apart almost immediately and never really recovers. For an entry into a franchise that raised the bar for actual role-playing in video game RPGs, Fallout 4 features shockingly few role-playing elements. Your dialog and character-building choices are laughably limited, the story is frustratingly narrow (and, honestly, often quite bad), and for a game that emphasizes looting and shooting quite as often as this one does, the looting and shooting in this game feel quite bad. Even its much-hyped settlement building mechanic feels woefully disconnected from the role-playing elements of the experience.
Fallout 4 is a game at war with itself and large sections of its fanbase. It’s playable, it’s often amusing, and it’s more impressive than many modern major open-world titles, but it is so far removed from the things that make this studio and this series so special in the first place that you can’t help but see it as a step back.
6. The Elder Scrolls Online
At the time of its release in 2014, there was a slight stigma surrounding The Elder Scrolls Online’s very existence. At a time when many Elder Scrolls fans simply wanted the next mainline game in the franchise, some saw ESO as a detour that would only delay The Elder Scrolls 6 by another couple of years (simpler times). It didn’t help that the initial version of ESO felt painfully basic and did little to distinguish itself from pretty much everything else out there.
Over the years, though, Elder Scrolls Online has grown to become one of the most interesting MMORPGs on the market. Compared to something like Final Fantasy 14 or World of Warcraft, ESO focuses slightly less on the communal multiplayer elements of the genre and more on the idea of emphasizing the PvE elements of a solo-player MMO experience. However, unlike other pseudo-MMOs like Destiny or Diablo 4, ESO still offers fairly substantial multiplayer content that will eventually incentivize you to play nicely with others. Indeed, some fans feel that ESO may be a little too overwhelming for those looking to treat it as a slightly more traditional Elder Scrolls experience.
While Elder Scrolls Online’s attempts to please so many different types of gamers sometimes work against it, the title’s incredible storytelling and exceptional expansions make it more than worthy of a second (or first) look. Honestly, it’s that strange kind of game that will likely appeal most to those who are least compelled to try it.
5. Fallout 3
I sometimes feel like the narrative has shifted on Fallout 3 in a disheartening way. Over the years, the idea that Fallout 3 is a Bethesda cosplay version of the Fallout franchise seems to have really taken root. To be fair, I do think that some of those criticisms are not just valid but offer a necessary counterpoint to the otherwise glowing reviews Fallout 3 received at the time of its release. Just look at what happened with Fallout 4 when it leaned too far in that same direction.
Having said that, I think it’s important to not lose sight of what an incredible game Fallout 3 so often is. To this day, I don’t know if I’ve played an RPG of its size and scope that combines elements of horror, sci-fi, and role-playing quite as well as it does. Bethesda has always excelled at world-building, and the world of Fallout 3 is filled with the surprises, discoveries, adventures, and, perhaps most importantly, dangers, that separate the best Bethesda RPGs from the best of the rest of the genre. Even just standing still in the middle of a bombed-out town and listening to the crackling radio spit out an old tune puts you in a time and place quite in ways that otherwise great games just can’t hope to achieve.
And that’s the magic of Fallout 3. This is a game built on the idea that you are stepping out of a safe lie and into the possibilities of a nightmarish world, and it perfectly captures that complicated concept nearly every step along the way. Its absolutely incredible collection of DLC expansions also addresses one of the more notable issues with the base game: its abrupt ending and lack of a proper endgame.
4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
For many, it’s easy to say that Skyrim is your favorite Elder Scrolls game and/or Bethesda RPG and not have to overthink it. It’s one of those rare games that received immediate critical praise, set sales records, and somehow still retains its somewhat mythical status despite so much mainstream success.
For the record, my decision to not rank this game higher largely comes down to a few factors. Namely, I sometimes feel like Skyrim sacrificed a few too many role-playing mechanics, a few too many quality sidequests, and a little too much depth across the board in pursuit of some of the qualities that ultimately made it such a massive hit. To be fair, I also think that there are quite a few Skyrim mods out there that address those issues and help make this the best overall Elder Scrolls game. Of course, these rankings do not account for mods.
Having said all of that, Skyrim remains a truly special game. If the game’s legendary introduction isn’t enough to convince you that you’re about to experience a masterpiece, then the moment you stumble into your first dungeon will almost certainly do the trick. The level of care that went into even the seemingly least important areas of this game set a benchmark that few titles have surpassed (or even matched) to this day. At a time when so many open-world titles rely on filler to boost their digital square mileage, the craft that went into nearly every aspect of Skyrim’s world feels as significant as ever.
After all these years, though, it’s Skyrim’s playability that helps it stand apart from the rest of the Bethesda collection. For a studio that has sometimes struggled to get combat “right” in their titles, Skyrim makes every swing, every spell, and every arrow fired feel remarkably satisfying. This is quite simply one of the greatest gaming blockbusters ever.
3. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Like many people, Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls game I ever played. Like quite a few people, I also didn’t have the chance to play it on the PC (where it obviously performed best) at the time of its release. Instead, I took a chance on the console version of this game during the early days of the Xbox and was blown away by what I saw. I had played RPGs that looked that good, and I had played RPGs that were as deep, but I had never played a massive 3D RPG that allowed me to do so much in so many different ways.
After all these years, I often still feel that way about Morrowind. Bethesda has always excelled at world-building, but Morrowind’s blend of cosmic horror concepts, traditional fantasy, and lush landscapes may just be their crowning achievement in that particular area. There’s nothing quite like Morrowind’s world, which is appropriate given that there are so few games that allow you to do the things that Morrowind does.
Yes, you’ve created a hero and saved the world in countless role-playing adventures, but that’s not really what Morrowind is about despite sometimes appearing that way from the outset. This is a game that is often remarkably indifferent to your personal adventure, and I mean that as a compliment. You have to put a lot of work into your character to make them worthy of being known in this world of gods and legends. Alternatively, you can just carve your own path and exist in Morrowind in a way that makes sense to you. No matter how you play it, everything you achieve in this game feels earned.
I can’t deny that Morrowind lacks a lot of modern conveniences that make it pretty tough to play these days. Hell, it lacked a lot of conveniences that were considered modern at the time of its release. However, this may be the best pure role-playing game Bethesda has ever made.
2. Fallout: New Vegas
I feel a little guilty putting a game that wasn’t even developed by Bethesda (that honor goes to Obsidian Entertainment) so high up this list, it must be said that Bethesda’s fingerprints are all over this game in some pretty major ways. Mechanically, technically, and structurally, New Vegas is clearly built on the back of Fallout 3. Hey, that’s what happens when you hand the keys over to another studio and ask them to make a sequel to one of your biggest projects in about a year and a half.
Well, New Vegas’ launch was plagued by the technical problems that you would expect to see in such a massive game developed so quickly. Over time, though, New Vegas overcame its disastrous debut and slowly forged its legacy as one of the absolute best RPGs ever made.
Being able to build off of Fallout 3 allowed Obsidian to focus on the things they do best. Specifically, New Vegas features some of the absolute best writing you’ll ever find in an RPG of this size. When I praise this game’s writing, though, I’m not just talking about dialog, characters, and the other more traditional concepts we associate with that creative area. Though New Vegas excels in all those things, it truly distinguishes itself through the complex web of narrative possibilities that it (and, by extension, you as the player) weaves over the course of the game. You’re never sure where New Vegas will take you, which really forces you to consider what you want out of this experience and how you’re going to get it.
New Vegas often represents the best of Obsidian, the best of Fallout, and, strangely, the best of Bethesda. It is an absolute triumph.
1. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Though Morrowind did an exceptional job of opening the door just wide enough for a new group of gamers to get a peek at a deeper and different kind of role-playing experience, Oblivion kicked the door open. It was seen as one of the Xbox 360’s biggest early exclusives, and it delivered the kind of experience that immediately declared the next generation of gaming had arrived and was going to offer the kinds of things we never dared dream of before.
You could say the same of other notable launch/early release games in new console generations, but what made Oblivion special is that it wasn’t a glossy linear title designed to simply showcase the hardware at its best without really pushing too hard in a new direction. A generation or two before Oblivion, games like Oblivion were considered to be largely experimental experiences limited to a relatively niche PC gaming market. Now, they were lighting the way for gaming’s future.
What’s so remarkable about Oblivion’s breakthrough success, though, is that the game was able to streamline many aspects of Morrowind without entirely diluting that game’s essential role-playing elements. The U.I., navigation, and combat mechanics had been streamlined, but they all contributed to a substantial adventure that put role-playing first. Classes retained their identities, new mechanics and skills encouraged experimentation, and Oblivion still offers the best quests in the Elder Scrolls franchise. Even the game’s DLC expansions helped kick off a golden era of DLC expansions (once Bethesda temporarily learned their lessons from the horse armor debacle).
Though there are many things that make Bethesda and its RPGs unique, I think one thing that has long defined the studio is its desire to bring more substantial role-playing experiences to the masses. They certainly haven’t always succeeded in that mission, but from at least Morrowind on, you can really see their desire to make the best role-playing experience possible for the most people possible. While Bethesda Game Studios has no shortage of masterpieces in their catalog, I still believe that Oblivion best represents the importance and possibilities of that design philosophy.