The 5 best villains in RPG history

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By Teo Borconi – 31st January 2014
The 5 best villains in RPG history

We always talk about the good guys, but what are the protagonists without some proper antagonists? Throughout the history of western RPGs, players had to face various villains connected to the main story arc. Some were plain boring, some were dull and uninteresting, some where challenging to defeat, while some were absolutely great. We’re taking a look at the best of the best and narrowing them down to a top 5 list. Things like voice acting, motivation, character complexity and evolution or hero-villain interactions were taken into account.

*Note: This list focuses on western RPG’s in general, and will not touch upon some of the epic villains of JRPGs. This is to avoid confusion (and, well, rage). I’m not here to dismiss the quality of JRPG villains, it’s just that my experience with JRPGs is somewhat limited, and I can’t presume to compile an accurate and objective list as such. If anything, I too consider Kefka from FFVI to be one of the greatest villains in RPG history. That being said, on to the top!

5. The Master – Fallout

The Master

The Master was the main antagonist of the first Fallout, and managed to be both an imposing threat, and a memorable villain. There was just something fascinating about the mutated and deformed creature with an exceedingly high intellect. Sure, its plan to mutate humanity was serious enough to warrant an execution mission. But his (or its? hard to tell!) plan wasn’t completely void of logic. In a nuclear wasteland, the Master saw mutation as a means of survival. He was also not completely unreasonable in his beliefs, and offered unwilling subjects a chance to live, assuming they would accept sterilization.

*Spoilers ahead* In one of the three possible endings, the Vault Dweller can convince the Master about the futility of his plan by proving that Super Mutants are sterile and do not represent a key to the future of humanity, the Master commits suicide. This goes to show that the character is still capable of emotion and can admit failure. Some remnants of the Master’s humanity are also evident in this. For those that don’t know, the Master was originally a brilliant scientist named Richard Moreau, who became the mutated being seen in the game through exposure to the Forced Evolutionary Virus (aka FEV).

What’s great about this particular villain is the fact that he was inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel, “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. In the novel, Moreau experiments and mutates animals through vivisection. Interestingly, Fallout’s the Master is a somewhat post-apocalyptic representation of the previously mentioned character, and the complexity of the character from the novel is not only transferred to the game, but also expanded upon. Lastly, The Master is one though bastard to beat in a straight fight, making him both a complex villain, and a tough in-game challenge. Definitely a memorable character that makes the world of Fallout stand out.

4. Saren Arterius – Mass Effect

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When it comes to RPGs, few developers equal the storytelling abilities of Bioware. Shepard would have never been driven enough to face all obstacles ahead without the presence of Saren, and the painful consequences of his actions. Saren’s history paints him as a heroic yet brutal and merciless spectre, one of the very best. His apparent corruption and deviation from the path of protecting the galaxy isn’t a complete and illogical one. Saren manages to bring rational arguments as justifications for his actions, and while he ultimately becomes a puppet that must be swept aside, he manages to stay menacing, intriguing and threatening.

By often outsmarting the council, Andrews and even Shepard, Saren definitely is worthy of this spot. The voice acting performed by Fred Tatasciore is top-notch, and the characters is extremely skilled and intelligent. Brutal he may be, but nobody can argue with the effectiveness of his methods or his results. *Spoilers ahead* The fact that he can be persuaded by Shepard to commit suicide in an attempt to redeem himself is a nice completing touch to the character, and somehow, in the end, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

3. Darth Traya

darth traya

Star Wars produced some of the most memorable villains in cinematography with Darth Vader and the Emperor, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did not disappoint in this regard either. By far the most complex villain of the two KOTOR games was Darth Traya, a mysterious and three-dimensional force wielder bent on taking down both the Jedi Order and the Sith. Traya acts as a sort of mentor for the Jedi Exile, with the not-so-obvious goal of manipulating the protagonist and using him (or her) to achieve her own goals.

And Traya’s goals aren’t the typical villain’s fixations either. She doesn’t want to destroy worlds or rule them. Her drive comes from a deep desire to destroy the two opposing orders that both rejected and exiled her, to rid the galaxy from the force altogether. Which is even more interesting as she’s a force sensitive herself, and is not afraid to use the force in order to ensure its own destruction. I was particularly impressed with Traya’s judgement, reasoning and motivation, and was by far one of the most complex villains I’ve encountered in gaming. Period.

2. Jon Irenicus

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There’s nothing much to say about Jon Irenicus. The character is flawlessly developed, and it’s such a thrill to spend over 100 hours chasing him down. He’s a sociopath, but a cunning and merciless one, and his thirst for vengeance is unparalleled. Irenicus always seems to be two steps ahead of you. His long and elaborate speeches actually makes sense, and I’ve more than once pondered upon the implications of his line of thought. He made Baldur’s Gate 2 special. Sarevok is a great villain as well, but doesn’t even hold a candle to what Jon Irenicus.  Not to mention the fact that on the hardest difficulty (on the first playthrough), Jon Irenicus was one tough bastard to take down.

1. Letho

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And we’re down to the last and the very best. This villain isn’t really a villain. The world of Andrzej Sapkowski is never black and white, it’s more like an ever-changing shade of pale gray. I’ve often felt that Geralt wasn’t necessarily the good guy, and Letho wasn’t necessarily the bad guy. They simply were two witchers with distinct views about how the world should spin, meeting each other in inevitable masterful sword combat. I just couldn’t hate Letho. If anything, my drive to chase him down was fueled by a desire to see more of the character. *Major spoilers ahead* Granted, the first time I’ve finished the game, I fought Letho and killed him (after dying a couple of times, of course). Replaying the game, I took the time to sit down for a chat and a drink with the bald ugly kingslayer, and I opted to let him go. And that was one of the most satisfying endings to a game I had ever experienced.

It’s hard to do justice to the character in words. If anything, you’d have to play the Witcher 2 with a focus on the story and sink deep into the world of the game in order to properly understand the true craftsmanship behind this foe. But when you do, the character etches itself into your memory, forever linking himself with your gaming experience.

Oh, and he also has one of the best CGI trailers in recent years: