Immersion into a unique magical setting. Escapism at its finest.
Those are the things I’m looking for in this list of the very best fantasy video games taking place in the very best virtual fantasy worlds.
I’ve loosely grouped the games by genres to make the list more useful according to your preferences.
I’ll start the list with the open-world RPGs for a simple yet undeniable reason: they provide the best possible immersion into a fantasy setting.
The Witcher 3 is so good, that more than 5 years after its release some people still argue it’s the GOAT in its genre. The immersion is simply brilliant. Amazing, period-appropriate atmospheric music, beautiful, well-aging graphics, a lot of story-driven quests and activities in a vast open-world, and last but not least - deep and interesting characters.
Unlike a lot of open-world RPGs, The Witcher doesn’t allow you to build a character of your own, but rather places you in the shoes of professional monster hunter Geralt of Rivia. While at first glance it seems like this would reduce immersion, the fact that you are playing a character with a personal history, personality, and a complex relationship with other characters in the world actually gives the experience a much stronger feeling of realism.
The characters and world are based on the popular fantasy books by author Andrzej Sapkowski, which is a big benefit: the characters have a lot of history and depth and you have the option to dive into the Witcher world in many other forms of fictional media, including the recent Netflix television series (although, personally, I think the books out-class the series).
While the open world of Fable is tiny compared to some modern games, the game was truly revolutionary for its time. The ability to be good or evil, to romance random NPCs, to purchase real estate, and the many secrets hidden all over the world made the game an extremely immersive fantasy experience.
Equally importantly, the game had a brilliant light-hearted, humorous fantasy atmosphere which made its title an apt description of the feeling of playing around in Fable's world.
Unfortunately, the next games in the series never lived up to the original. Let’s hope that the upcoming installment will remedy this!
The game was so successful that it became a meme. Bethesda released it 9 years ago and still hasn’t released a sequel. Instead, it’s been re-releasing Skyrim on all possible platforms, leading to gamers joking that the next thing they expect is Skyrim playable on your fridge.
This, however, doesn’t detract from the quality of this masterpiece. On the contrary – while it isn’t as plot and character driven as the Witcher, it has one of the best open fantasy worlds you can experience.
Despite some internal realism/consistency problems that can break the sense of immersion, the sheer size, scope, and unrivaled freedom of exploration you have in Skyrim makes it one of the best open world games hands down.
If slaying dragons and exploring dungeons for ancient treasure is your kind of thing, Skyrim’s got you covered.
Much more light-hearted and arcade-y than the other entries in the genre. Yet, this doesn’t detract from the brilliance of this open-world gem. In fact, you could argue BotW’s world is a more open playground than most of the entries from above. For example, its main storyline is non-linear, which means much more agency is left to the player.
While Origins’ world is the least open from the series, it certainly has more heart and is arguably a better game than its sequels (graphics aside). It’s a 3rd person take on the classic isometric RPG’s, which means that while the world isn’t as big and as open and the side-activities aren’t as many as in the other more modern open-world RPGs in this list, it is unique in allowing you to lead a party of characters to adventure rather than a single hero.
This puts a heavier focus on the interpersonal relationship between the characters and their unique takes on events and places in the world, which is awesome. The witch Morrigan is one of the most beloved fantasy video game characters to this day because of her complex character and rich personal history.
Honorable Mention – Horizon Zero Dawn
If we have to be technical, it’s not fantasy, its SciFi, and that’s why it’s not on the list. However, it has a much more palpable fantasy taste than e.g. Mass Effect, which is SciFi in a more traditional sense. So, if you are looking for a brilliant fantasy open world RPG, Horizon Zero Dawn will fit right in even though it doesn’t technically qualify as fantasy.
The distinction between this category and the one above (open-world) is extremely blurred in the modern era of gaming. The titles in the open-world section from above focus more on the player freedom to explore the world, while the titles here present a more traditional, linear interaction with the story and world. (If I have to be completely honest with myself the main reason I did this separation is to be able to give “Best Modern” to both The Witcher and God of War.)
The latest God of War game is simply brilliant. Engaging characters and story, visually stunning, fun combat.
The reason it’s on the top of this list, however, is its extremely fresh and imaginative version of a setting that theoretically has been done to death – Norse mythology. Rather than feeling like a fairytale, GoW grounds the Norse mythos into a realistic and modern high-fantasy setting. It’s hands down the best fantasy take on northern mythology I’ve personally experienced. You see the world through the eyes of extremely well-written, complex, and realistic characters that are involved in a great story that manages to be epic as well as deeply personal.
If I had to recommend a Dark Souls game, I’d recommend the latest entry into the franchise – Dark Souls III. Unlike some other classics, the sequels in this franchise keep getting better and better. In terms of impact on the industry, however, the first Dark Souls game is without a doubt one of the most influential titles in the last decade (and arguably, in gaming in general).
Gameplaywise, it demonstrated that a tough and unforgiving game could be commercially successful.
However, it was also very influential in the way it presented the fantasy setting and the story. Instead of following a clear-cut plot, the player is left to his own devices to find clues and stitch together what is happening in this extremely dark and morbid world. The feeling of unfathomable mystery and an unmistakable atmosphere are central to all Souls games. The unforgiving difficulty, the morbid aesthetic, and the cryptic story and lore are something that made a serious mark in the gaming industry.
From the creators of Dark Soul, Bloodborne provides a similar experience, but in a different setting. While Dark Souls plunges the players in death and morbidity, Bloodborne plunges them in madness.
It clearly draws some inspirations from the Lovecraftian mythos and is probably your best bet if you’re searching for some for of existential terror fantasy experience.
Guys with giant anime swords slaying giant monsters is a simple premise, but unquestionably a fun one. And the execution in Monster World is quite brilliant. While you won’t find the same focus on story in Monster Hunter as you do in some of the other titles here, you will get a brilliant fantasy experience nonetheless.
Fantasy is not only about elves and orcs and gods. It’s also about dragons and monsters of brutal power, and the heroes who slay them. MHW hits the nail on the head in this regard.
Strategy games are not the most immersive because of the lack significant role-playing elements. You’re not a character in the world - you have a more distant, birds-eye perspective.
Nonetheless, this has a certain charm of its own. If you are interested in maps, battle tactics, and high-level overview of the elements in the world (races, creatures, technology), strategy games give you a unique experience from a god-perspective.
The pinnacle of modern 4x, turn-based, and real-time fantasy strategy games.
The Warhammer universe has had the luxury of decades to development and evolution, so it’s extremely rich and has a very distinct feel to it – epic, violent, and gritty. While the god-perspective doesn’t get you close enough to really feel the grittiness (as e.g. Virmintide does), Total War: Warhammer 2 showcases the violence in epic scales amazingly well.
The Total War campaign adventure map accommodates the various factions and races of the Warhammer world extremely neatly and makes them the centerpiece of this experience. Leading your own fantasy faction in its struggle to dominate the world through war and diplomacy is certainly an awesome experience:
And the large-scale real-time tactical battles feel like the perfect manifestation of Warhammer’s Tolkienesque fantasy conflicts of epic proportion:
Warcraft 3 is without a doubt the most influential real-time strategy in a fantasy setting. It spread over the world as wildfire (mostly through online piracy) and laid the cornerstone for Blizzards’ amazing commercial success that was World of Warcraft.
While WoW and Warcraft are very different games, both take place in the same epic fantasy world. Warcraft is very story-driven (untypical for strategy games) and has a legendary campaign with a ton of lore and some of the most amazing cinematics in gaming.
The fantasy world is not the most unique and innovative, however, the execution is so good that you will easily forgive that and fully submerge yourself in Azeroth.
The commercial success of Warcraft games means that the world got a chance to develop drastically in scale and scope, and you can explore it in various media – a feature film, traditional and graphic novels, card games, board games, etc. This is a big benefit, as it builds on the lore. The more familiar you are with the world, the more pleasant are all of your interactions with it. I must confess to being a hopeless Warcraft lore nerd in my teens.
Lok'tar ogar, my brethren.
HoMM3 is the most iconic turn-based strategy video game of its time for a good reason. The combination of an easy-to-get-into, yet sufficiently deep strategy with an easy-to-get-into, yet sufficiently rich fantasy world is... magical.
The Might and Magic fantasy world is a hotchpotch of familiar fantasy creatures and races gathered from all kinds of mythologies (and other sources) to form somewhat stereotypical playable factions. While this doesn’t sound very unique and creative (as was fantasy itself in the 90s), the brilliant light-hearted art and sound design of the game gives it a uniquely warm and welcoming fairytale-like atmosphere.
The game is a turn-based-strategy, which means it’s not particularly character or story-driven, yet it manages to be immersive nonetheless. You can easily lose yourself exploring the map, finding mystical places, artifacts, and enemies to conquer while you grow your empire. This can make any fantasy and strategy nerd feel right at home.
And indeed, HoMM3 made a lot of kids feel that way. To this day some of these now grown-up kids regularly return to the HoMM3 world for a hefty dose of nostalgia (HOMM3 is still one of the most pirated games years later). A feeling of being transported back to simpler, happier time. A fantasy-filled, fairytale-like childhood. A trip to the old computer in the home of your parents and a world full of dwarves, dragons, and titans.
Somewhat of a contemporary to Heroes 3, Disciples 2 was a turn-based strategy with equally (if not more) immersive world but a very different fantasy setting with a much darker atmosphere and a very unique and iconic art style.
Disciples inserted heavier RPG elements and a heavier focus on the story in the classic turn-based strategy genre. It wasn’t as diverse and repayable as Heroes 3, but it definitely deserves a place on this list for having an awesome fantasy setting. Without a doubt, it’s one of the games closest to my heart.
Sadly, the Disciples III sequel didn’t live up to its predecessor.
Even though the successors of HoMM3 are not very well-liked, some of them have redeemable qualities. The final version of HoMM5 (Tribes of the East) is one of the games me and my best bud have lost whole nights playing in hot-seat mode. The highlight of the game are the amazing 3D-modelled fantasy cities with their fly-by cameras, the awesome music, and the well-designed fantasy creatures. Sadly, the franchise cut down on those in later versions most likely to cut down on costs.
If what you’re looking for a modern game closely resembling HoMM3, however, then HoMM7 is your game. That said, the-same-thing-but-shinier is in my book not a great game design philosophy and I prefer titles that have a stronger identity (and braver developers/producers), which is why I decided to put HoMM5 instead of HoMM7 on this list.
Wesnoth is a light-weight turn-based indie strategy game that has some of the charm and appeal of HoMM3. It loses the exploration element, but the light-hearted atmosphere, numerous archetypal fantasy races/factions, and the strategically interesting battle system means it’ll most likely satisfy the cravings of some turn-based fantasy fans.
It has a couple of campaigns (some fan-made) that bring some story and depth into the setting of the game, but it’s fair to say that battles rather than the story is the highlight of Wesnoth. It’s also a great game for hot-seat.
Age of Empires 2 is not on the list despite being indisputably one of the greatest RTS games of all time simple because it doesn’t have a fantasy setting.
In a way, however, it still sneaks on here because Age of Mythology has a lot of what makes AoE2 great and inserts a pinch of awesome mythological elements very efficiently. It allows you to play with the Greek, Egyptian, and Norse cultures in the original games, with the two expansions adding Atlanteans (Titans) and Chinese (Tale of the Dragon).
Very similar to Heroes 3, but it focuses entirely on a single player campaign – it is the only playable mode. The benefit is that it increases your immersion into the carefully crafted world a great deal. The drawback is that it makes it impossible to enjoy the game with friends on hot seat or LAN.
King’s Bounty has a great light-hearted fairytale-like atmosphere and the campaign map is full of whimsical characters, quests, and events to keep you entertained. The game has a couple of expansions that give you additional campaigns in a new setting if you’re craving for more!
An under-appreciated RTS gem. Battle for Middle Earth 2 manages to capture very well the epic scale of the battles that you associate with Lord of the Rings by using a similar battle system to the Total War games, while managing to preserve the real-time progression feeling of games like Warcraft with the base-building and the very important hero units.
More importantly for this list, it provides great immersion into Tolkien’s fantasy universe by using familiar music, locations, and characters very well as well as interesting campaign and
Action RPGs are generally speaking more arcade-y and less character/story driven than their traditional 3rd person RPG counterparts. They are mostly played for their character progression and item systems rather than the world and story. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that certain ARPG titles don’t have a brilliant fantasy setting.
Few would disagree that PoE is the most successful modern ARPG, and it achieves this mostly through very interesting and complex character progression systems. That said, the fantasy world of PoE shouldn’t be underestimated. The feeling that you are walking in the ruins of fallen, ancient empires works very well with the fact that you are going around the world chasing and killing the actual gods of these ancient times.
Moreover, unlike classic ARPGs which make you walk through the same campaign multiple times to progress to the end game, Path of Exile has a unique solution to this problem. It reuses the same setting (which is economical from a dev perspective), but it makes the effort to change up the storyline and quests. This makes it very satisfying to return back to e.g. Act 1 for the second time – you will see how the world and characters have changed based on what you did the last time you were there. And once the story is over – you have actual endgame to look forward to in the form of maps and diverse seasonal events.
I expect no one will disagree with the verdict that Diablo 2 is the best classic ARPG especially bearing in mind the active players it maintains after decades of being out (and the countless mods, most notably the more recent Path of Diablo and Project Diablo 2).
It is the title that arguably revolutionized (and according to some perfected) the ARPG items system.
But along with it, it created a unique, gritty, dark fantasy world based loosely on Christian mythos (the battle between Heaven and Hell) along with a simple, yet powerful story and amazing music that contributes greatly to the atmosphere.
Playing through the D2 campaign at least once is in my opinion something any hack-and-slash RPG fan needs to experience. I’m personally eagerly awaiting Resurrected (fingers crossed it will turn out better than Reforged).
As the successor of the GOAT, D3 has a lot of problems, yet also a lot of redeemable qualities. The best way to enjoy it is not to think of it as a D2 successor – this way you can enjoy it for what it is rather than feel frustrated because of what it could have been.
D3 is the smoothest ARPG you can play – simply hitting monsters with a sword or spell feels extremely satisfying, and I find myself coming back every once in a while for some simple hack-and-slash fun. While the world lost some of D2’s iconic atmosphere, D3’s fantasy setting is still very interesting, quite beautiful, and quite immersive for an ARPG. And while the story is a bit more cheesy than the one in D2, it’s by no means terrible and the campaign can be a lot of fun to go through a couple of times with different characters.
Grim Dawn is made by the team that created Titan Quest and inherits its great character building system that allows you to combine two classes. Its ARPG fundamentals are very solid, but more importantly for this list Grim Dawn boasts a very interesting fantasy world. Rather than a generic medieval world, Grim Dawn feels as if it takes place in a post-apocalyptic, magical wild west (swords and retro pistols), which is quite unique and refreshing.
Even though it’s created by some of the people involved in Diablo, Torchlight feels like an absolute opposite in terms of story and atmosphere. It takes place in a light-hearted, colorful, magical world. Personally my favorite game in the franchise is Torchlight 1, as it felt more focused on what it did best, but there’s no question Torchlight 2 has a lot more depth in terms of RPG elements as well as world exploration.
Sadly, the third installment in the franchise is getting negative player reception so far (although it’s worth saying it’s still in early access at the time of writing this).
A classic ARPG that is definitely worth experiencing. Its main innovation is the ability to combine two classes to build your character (inherited by Grim Dawn), but the setting is also great – an interesting interpretation of the mythical world of ancient Greece. Keeping in mind that a lot of games take place in a medieval fantasy setting, the ancient world aesthetic of Titan Quest feels new and fresh.
Isometric RPGs draw their inspiration mostly from Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and as a result they put a lot less focus on high-speed action and a lot more on immersion in a rich world and the classic RPG elements of character and party customization. The genre was dead for a while, but since they are significantly cheaper to produce than modern AAA games, the isometric RPGs experienced a renaissance thanks to the availability of crowdfunding.
Divinity Original Sin 2 gives you one of the most immersive fantasy experiences in video games, full stop. The player choices are integrated into the game so well that you would feel as if your decisions have unexpected and inevitable consequences, much closer to reality, rather than a simple branch of choices as in most games that try to implement such a system. The high fantasy world of the game is incredibly rich on creatures, cultures, magic, powers, and basically everything you might expect from a lore-rich fantasy experience.
THE classic transfer of a DnD experience to the computer, Baldur’s Gate was the game that forged BioWare’s stellar reputation as developers. Both Baldur’s Gate I and II are great games and even though their age is noticeable, the overall experience, story, and immersion into the Forgotten Realms is top-quality.
All of this makes us very excited about the upcoming release of Baldur’s Gate III, especially bearing in mind it’s being developed by Larian Studios – the creators of the Divinity games.
Pillars of Eternity is another IRPG gem from the crowdfunding age. Instead of focusing on knights and castles, it gives you a swashbuckling adventure with very strong characters and a great feeling that you are the leader of a real group of people - trying to manage conflicts between them and making choices that have consequences for the characters you’re playing with.
Made from the creators of Pillars of Eternity, the twist in Tyranny’s world is that you are an arbiter of an evil overlord/emperor snuffing out the last embers of resistance in his dominion, which is quite fresh in the isometric RPG genre. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a bad guy – rather, it forces you to make hard decisions.
This (very broad) “genre” is dominated by indie titles because games in this niche are cheaper to produce. This, in my book, is a huge benefit, as it incentivizes a lot of innovation and creativity. If you get a large part of your immersion from realistic graphics, cinematics, and production-value as whole, the titles here won’t deliver on that front. If you value innovation, however, this is where you’ll find the biggest treasure throve.
I’d restrain from giving the best modern/classic distinctions in this category because the titles are extremely different from one another and I believe comparing them directly is a bad idea.
You recruit a party of adventurers to go dungeon-crawling in an extremely grimdark world. The twist is that your party is equally grimdark, and fighting the terrors of the dungeons has a toll on their physical health as well as sanity. The world of Darkest Dungeons is definitely a fantasy world you wouldn’t want to visit personally. Permanently losing party members is an inevitable part of the game and a big part of the fun.
The game has a very recognizable art style, atmosphere, and superb narration which makes the overall fantasy experience unmistakable. Moreover, it has a great mods scene which creates a lot of new characters and monsters to enrich the original experience.
An action oriented roguelike dungeon crawler like Dead Cells, but instead of a side-scroller with platforming elements, you get a top-down isometric action RPG. While the action takes place in the kingdom of the dead (the realm of the Greek god of the underworld Hades), the game isn’t as morbid as the two games from above and presents a colorful world with an anime aesthetic. You play as Zangreus, son of Hades, and your goal is to escape the underworld and to reach mount Olympus. The worldbuilding in the game is great – your interactions with the characters in the underworld manage to constantly increase your curiosity about this fantasy incarnation of Greek mythology.
Another beautiful pixel-art fantasy world, but this time instead of having a souls-like cryptic worldbuilding of a morbid world, you have the exact opposite: a character-driven game focusing on traditional family values. It’s executed brilliantly, and shows that an ARPG/Dungeon Crawler could make you care about characters as much as any other story-driven game – something that more mainstream ARPG titles like PoE lack, and something that the upcoming ARPG projects can learn from.
Bastion is one of the games that demonstrated that pixel art indie titles could be a critical and commercial success. It uses narration extremely well to help keep you interested, and even though the fantasy world of the game is more minimalistic, it’s still very interesting. It’s colorful, beautiful, and the shattered “floating” islands make it very distinct.
Even though the MMORPG genre isn’t my cup of tea because of the required time commitment, it’s a fact that it could provide unique immersion into a fantasy world because of the very-important social element.
Without a doubt the OG and arguably still the greatest MMORPG out there, WoW Classic conserves a lot of what makes this genre shine. The downside is that the gameplay consists of a lot of repetitive drudgery, but the upside is that everything you do feels meaningful and you are contributing to the overall success of your community – usually your group of friends and guild.
The world itself is the familiar Azeroth, but unlike the RTS which gives you a linear (epic) story, the MMORPG gives you a true open-world experience. You are an average-Joe adventurer in the vast fantasy world and it feels as if you are a small part of a huge world, rather than the focal point of a predetermined narrative.
The gameplay forces you into a lot of exploration, which in itself is awesome as the vast world is full of hidden gems.
If we have to simplify the great Classic vs Retail debate, the consensus seems to be that:
Realistically, if you are an MMO fanatic, you’d probably prefer Classic. If you are a person who likes to play in moderation, retail might be a much better fit.
Moreover, the leveling experience (including side-quest storylines, etc.), have undoubtedly improved since Classic. People rarely talk about it since it’s not part of the end-game, but it’s an important aspect if we’re talking about immersion into the world. The end-game is usually much more gamified, which means it’s less about world and narratives and it’s more about status and numbers.
Arguably the second biggest name in MMOs, Guild Wars gives you another vast (and beautiful) fantasy world to explore in a multiplayer setting. The biggest unique achievement of Guild Wars is that it manages to incorporate world events very seamlessly into the exploration experience. This helps the world feel more dynamic/alive compared to the more static world in WoW (especially Classic).
Moreover, the game is build more around cooperation than competition between players. Even though I avoid talking about gameplay in this list, I think in the case of MMOs this might actually impact the way you are immersed in the world. Guild Wars has more of an “all players vs the world” feeling, while WoW has more of a “my guild vs all other players” feeling. This has an impact on the community as well – the GW2 community tends to be friendlier to new players compared to WoW, while at the same time the game has a bit of notoriety for being difficult for new players to get into (mainly because it’s quite different from WoW, and most other MMOs are WoW copycats.).
Personally, I prefer GW2 to modern WoW, but putting it as the “best modern” feels a bit like imposing my biased opinion, when the player bases of the two games speak for themselves.
In spite of a bad launch, ESO in its modern version does the Elder Scrolls world justice in terms of exploration and story. In fact, while not on the level of single player RPGs, it does one of the best jobs at telling a compelling story for MMOs.
It’s not the most beautiful MMO out there, but it’s modern-looking nonetheless. Combined with some great sound design (music and voice acting), it manages to be sufficiently immersive.
If you like MMOs and you like the Elder Scrolls games you’re most probably going to appreciate it a great deal.
We hope this list helped you to discover something new that you might find interesting!