5 RPGs That Don’t Force You to Grind

Chester Teck
Elder Scrolls Xbox
Elder Scrolls Xbox Games Nintendo PlayStation

If only grinding stayed in the realm of MMOs. There, at least, we have no end of people sharing the game world with us to grind with and show off the fruits of our labor! But grinding predates the MMO phenomenon and endures even in single-player CRPGs. It can be a bit of a task sniffing out titles where you can lift your nose from the grindstone and smell the roses instead; if that appeals to you, here are five good RPGs from the past decade you won’t want to miss.

Torment: Tides Of Numenera

A sample of skill-based challenges in Tides of Numenera.
One billion years in the future and communication breakdowns are still a thing.

You know you’re in for something special when you sit down to the spiritual successor to one of the best-written CRPGs of all time, a game that has been described as a philosophical essay in CRPG form — Planescape: Torment. And Tides of Numenera does not fail that grand old tradition.

A stellar example of brains over brawn, this game is replete with opportunities to overcome challenges without having to retreat, retrain, and retry. Failures can yield interesting alternative results. Long, deep dialogues tax your comprehension and memory instead of your free time. These allow you to concentrate on immersing yourself into the fantastic, alien tapestry of the Ninth World.

Dragon Age: Origins

The Warden speaking with Leliana at the party camp.
The hauntingly beautiful music of the Party Camp interludes is every bit as memorable as the conversations.

Think of all the lovable characters and interactions you’ve had in JRPGs. Then, think of how much better those experiences would’ve been without the Byzantine battle systems and repetition-gated progress. Now, stop thinking and go play Dragon Age: Origins.

BioWare’s last truly great CRPG offering has the interactive finery of JRPGs with little of the tedium. It’s an epic romp through a lavishly designed world, where the strength of your gear takes a backseat to the strength of your comrades’ affections. The game’s tactical combat also rewards fine control and careful use of party synergies over raw power. The nighttime fireside chats at the Party Camp with memorable characters like the wry, charming Alistair and the pious, waifish Leliana will linger long after the memories of battle and dragon-slaying have faded.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong

Examples of cyberware upgrades the player can install in Shadowrun: Hong Kong.
Six Million Nuyen Man you are not. Deal with it.

Grinding in the world of Shadowrun would count among the biggest of death wishes, given that the targets of said grinding are massive mega-corporations with armies of private security and high-tech defenses. Good thing that, in the recent RPG revival of the franchise, you don’t have to.

Instead, the games run on a sort of ‘anti-grind’ concept. It siphons away most of your ill-gotten gains for plot reasons, leaving you on a tight financial leash that forces you to be savvy with upgrades. Shadowrun: Hong Kong is no different.

Struggling to stay afloat in the seedy underbelly of a futuristic Hong Kong, you find yourself thinking as a shadowrunner might: treating every purchase as a costly investment, weighing alternatives and trade-offs and future scenarios, and going forth with the grim knowledge that you’ve gotten what bang you can for your buck. No other game offers a better immersive experience in the cyberpunk underworld.

Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir

A party fighting dinosaurs in the jungles of Chult.
Be the Batman Faerûn deserves: build a fortune by day, hunt baddies (or dinos!) by night.

NWN2′s second expansion brought a bevy of innovations to the game, including open-world adventuring, a create-your-own-party system, and — shock! — optional grind.

Past a certain point, you’ll unlock the option to open your own trading company for fun and profit. Well, a lot more profit than fun. Play with trade routes long enough and you’ll make more than enough money to buy your party everything they could ever want. But what if you prefer playing the swashbuckling adventurer to the merchant baron? Well, more power to you, says the game. Earn your treasure and upgrades the old-fashioned way. Just know that you have a choice not to — and that’s how RPGs should be.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Forging iron daggers in Skyrim -- a well known grind to level the Smithing skill.
Would you rather spend hours doing this or exploring one of the most gorgeous fantasy worlds ever rendered?

Why would you grind in an Elder Scrolls game? Actually, you might in the earlier ones. The dense leveling systems of Morrowind and Oblivion made such a thing desirable for characters handicapped by suboptimal early leveling. But Skyrim streamlined this, enabling you to focus on the story, the exploration, and the overall experience.

In addition, improved movement and combat controls open up opportunities to get creative with taking down enemies. So, no, you don’t need swords that can whack dragons like mosquitoes to succeed in Skyrim, and you certainly don’t need to grind your way to those by banging out hundreds of iron daggers at the forge. Not to mention that, once again, it’s an Elder Scrolls game. There are so many other things to do in that magnificent world than bump up numbers on a character sheet.

Grind is often, and rightly, called out as unnecessary padding — a cheap way to prolong a game. But it’s really only a bad thing when it’s necessary. Games that don’t force you to grind do exist and are usually well worth the experience and the recommendation. Pass them on.

Chester Teck
A pheasant masquerading as a human being who writes, games and dreams. Extinct in the wild. Best served roasted.
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