Highlights Unique progression systems in video games offer more creative and rewarding ways for players to advance compared to standard objective-based systems. These systems make games more memorable and provide a cathartic experience. Games like Final Fantasy 10 and Yakuza 0 have innovative progression systems that allow players to customize their characters and gain unique abilities. These systems break away from the repetitive skill tree mechanics seen in many games. Games such as Warframe and No Man’s Sky offer progression through exploration and mastery of different tools and weapons, rather than traditional leveling systems. These games provide organic and immersive ways for players to level up and become more powerful.
Quest markers on open-world maps, cookie-cutter puzzles and challenges, and XP as a reward; these things get old fast. In many video games, they might even cause nausea or boredom as soon as the players start seeing a checklist of these progression metrics. But every once in a while, some brilliant developers go against the grain and think outside the box. The result is a progression system in video games that incentivizes players in more creative and rewarding ways than objective stomping.
These unique progression systems not only give players more special gameplay but also make the game a lot more memorable compared to the usual template that’s all too common in numerous modern games that don’t really need to be named. The sheer amount of fun that players can have while getting stronger is an incredibly cathartic experience that is a blast to experience first-hand in every way. It’s a testament to how creative video game developers can be that something like a progression system that is usually so robotic ends up being one of the highlights of their respective games!
Updated on August 10, 2023, by Ritwik Mitra: Many games try to make progression have more player agency with systems that actively encourage players to individually select the skills, talents, stats, or anything else along the same lines that suits their fancy. So, it’s easy to see why some games can get boring for players if the same skill trees and branches are repeated over and over again. However, there are times when games go above and beyond, adding extremely unique progression systems that will grab a player’s attention and make them extremely excited for an upgrade, no matter how many hours they pour into this experience.18 Final Fantasy 10 Release year: 2001 Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One
Final Fantasy 10’s Sphere Grid system may not seem like the most innovative progression system in the world. After all, a lot of games have skill trees, but it’s the manner in which this game presents the upgrade paths that make it so amazing. For starters, the idea of leveling up with the Sphere Grid was a fresh change of pace for the series as is.
On top of that, players could jump around the Sphere Grid to gain access to another character’s upgrade path. This essentially allowed players who understood how the Sphere Grid worked to create multi-class characters who enjoyed the best of both worlds and could enjoy the best and more perfect stats to augment their attacks!17 Yakuza 0 Release year: 2017 Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
The Yakuza series is one of the most popular and beloved open-world franchises around, and many people consider Yakuza 0 to be the game that launched the popularity of this franchise to new heights. The game was set during Japan’s bubble era, reflecting just how ridiculous money had become during this era by using it as the sole metric that players used to obtain everything from items to skills.
This made for a great upgrade system as players strove to earn millions of yen and level up their abilities as quickly as possible. It was a unique spin on this iconic moment in Japanese history, with both Real Estate Royale and Cabaret Club Czar allowing players to rack up a ton of cash in no time at all!16 Empire Earth Release year: 2001 Platforms: PC
Most strategy games have a pretty unique progression mechanic of going through the ages as players explore new technologies, enter new eras, and develop units that can absolutely decimate their opposition. Titles like Age of Empires and Civilization did this progression pretty well, but there are games that took this concept and injected it with a ton of steroids to make something truly magical.
Such is the case of Empire Earth, an excellent RTS title that not a lot of people talk about nowadays, which is a shame. This game allowed players to start out from the very dark ages and ultimately enter the future, which made for one of the coolest ways to progress through the ages. It helped that the campaign also leveraged this by letting players explore stories across the times, with these story-driven experiences showing the ages of Empire Earth and how well they were fleshed out as well!15 Warframe Release year: 2013 Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S
There’s nothing standard about Warframe, which was part of the reason why it maintained its loyal player base over the years despite the notorious lack of proper tutorials. In this space ninja game, players progress partly by completing mercenary missions across the solar system.
There are standard quests, but players don’t level up by doing those. Instead, they must literally try out and master as many weapons and warframes as they can to increase their rank. In hindsight, it’s quite an organic way of leveling. Being proficient in many tools is one of the best ways for mercenary ninjas to become good at their job.14 No Man’s Sky Release year: 2016 Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Mobile
It had a rough release, but No Man’s Sky managed to turn its reputation around thanks to updates and free DLCs. It went from an empty, procedurally-generated playground to a game that incentivizes exploration and strategizing about survival, especially in harsh environments.
Due to the procedural nature of the game world or, rather, the game universe, there’s no ceiling to No Man’s Sky’s exploration. And unlike other games that also feature this kind of game world, there’s more to do in No Man’s Sky. Players can follow storylines, go in all directions, or just build bases all over the universe.13 Death Stranding Release year: 2019 Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC, PlayStation 5
Death Stranding was initially an acquired taste, but numerous updates and newfound player appreciation made it age well over time. Nearly four years later, the game is now one of the most thoughtful cooperation exercises in gaming, where players literally build bridges and roads for others in an online space. For that matter, offline play isn’t recommended.
And even before its numerous fixes, Death Stranding was already a unique game due to its odd progression system. Players assume the role of Sam Bridges in the most dangerous delivery man job in history as he unites a broken world.12 Path Of Exile Release year: 2013 Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Path of Exile initially comes off as a Diablo clone, but after a few hours, it quickly sets itself apart. Progression is deceptively standard at first until players start hitting a wall with their builds, and they’re compelled to think outside of the box and start abusing the skill tree and skill system.
That’s where the meat of Path of Exile’s progression lies. Its complex passive skill tree and novel skill gem system make it the Rubik’s cube equivalent of ARPGs. After that, the mechanics just keep getting more and more complex as players reach the endgame; developers just keep piling them on with no end in sight.11 Pathfinder: Wrath Of The Righteous Release year: 2021 Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Unlike its simpler predecessor, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous shakes up the CRPG formula with its Mythic Path system. This allows players to become literal villains with swarms of insects at their disposal. Or, if they want, players can even turn themselves into permanent dragons.
This kind of freedom in a CRPG was rather unprecedented, making Wrath of the Righteous a surprise hit. With this kind of Mythic Path-fueled progression system, replaying the game is massively rewarding since there are so many avenues of gameplay, and it puts other RPGs to shame.
Elden Ring’s popularity is proof enough that it’s more than just a thinly-veiled Dark Souls sequel but in an open-world playground. Because by removing all quest markers and common progression UI elements, the game breathed a fresh new perspective into the open-world genre.
This is an RPG where players can go anywhere they want. There are no limits, though there are a couple of literal gatekeepers (in the form of bosses). Making questlines as vague as possible also ensures that players are rewarded with lateral thinking and exploration.9 The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Release year: 2017 Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Wii U
Before Elden Ring started redefining open-world RPGs, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild already set an example of how it should be done. Likewise, the progression here is tied to exploration in a way that doesn’t water it down to a level metric.
Players have to find locations based on images in order to progress quests and help Link with his amnesia. The game also doesn’t set up a railroad for players to follow; they can go any direction they want and even head to the final boss as early as the first 30 minutes or so, assuming they can.8 Hades Release year: 2020 Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
As far as roguelike games go, Hades has one of the most clever ways to tell its story because players get to unravel more about this Greek myth drama whenever their hero, Zagreus, dies. This way, players get rewarded no matter how they play the game.
Dying in Hades is also one of the best ways to become stronger. Hence, the death in this roguelike game isn’t as anxiety-inducing compared to others. And despite the roguelike tag, Hades is a pretty chill game where every mechanic seamlessly blends together to ensure that players keep trying again despite failure.7 Monster Hunter: World Release year: 2018 Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
The Monster Hunter series is a franchise so distinctive that its gameplay loop is its own trademark. Thus, not many games were able to imitate it successfully. Monster Hunter’s rare formula was in full swing and made more accessible in Monster Hunter: World.
In these games, players will go on hunts or missions where their progression relies on how efficiently they can hunt the monsters again and again. Hunts go anywhere from five to 20 minutes, depending on the player’s skill. Monsters themselves have varying and quirky personalities, making each hunt different from the last, and classes are divided by weapons.6 Nier: Automata Release year: 2017 Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Seeing the ending screen for the first time in Nier: Automata is not the end of the game. It’s usually just a fourth or fifth fraction of the game because players will have to replay the game several times in order to get the most out of the story.
Each subsequent playthrough is offered from the perspective of different characters. They all achieve different endings, but these endings are all tied together to the final one. That’s game director Yoko Taro’s creative signature for his titles, and this narrative freedom translates to an unforgettable gameplay experience.5 Darkest Dungeon Release year: 2016 Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Mobile, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
Darkest Dungeon is one of the most brutal video games in existence due to the randomness of its combat mechanics. Players control a town or manor that serves as a gathering hub for adventurers or heroes. They must then delve into horrific dungeons to uncover the manor’s secrets and obtain treasures.
Thanks to the game’s sadistic mechanics, players who try to conserve their heroes and pick favorites will have a bad time. The game compels players to work around failure and embrace the impermanence of their fragile and mortal adventurers. Thus, the town or manor has the illusion of a sanctuary that needs rebuilding; but in reality, it’s actually a meat grinder. Heroes go in, and gold or treasure comes out, usually covered in the heroes’ blood and guts. That’s how to progress in Darkest Dungeon.4 The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind Release year: 2002 Platforms: Xbox, PC
Morrowind will forever remain one of the most daring and wondrous environments in an Elder Scrolls game. How the developers handled the titular Dunmer province was nothing short of spectacular. To solidify Morrowind’s status as an alien game, its progression system is equally eccentric.
There’s the standard Elder Scrolls stat suite, but players level them up more organically compared to something like Skyrim. Jumping around increases Acrobatics, and running around increases Athletics, etc. Questlines are also somewhat vague, and players can lock themselves out of the main quest by killing certain NPCs. It was the wild west of RPGs back then.3 Divinity: Original Sin Release year: 2015 Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Its sequel is a lot more polished and casual-friendly; hence, Divinity: Original Sin offered a more hardcore experience. In the sequel, it’s easy to follow quests and complete everything. But in the first game, players will have to fend for themselves.
The quest system is a journal that players have to read for clues. Using one’s common sense and deductive abilities is also one of the ways to progress here. There’s no hand-holding, and party members can even debate with others regarding what to do. It makes the sequel look tame by comparison.2 Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain Release year: 2015 Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
It’s a Metal Gear Solid game, so a unique progression is a given. However, the open-world element here gives players unprecedented levels of freedom they wouldn’t expect in a Metal Gear or a Hideo Kojima title.
Part of the progression system consists of kidnapping enemy soldiers and sending them to Snake’s off-shore mother base. Bolstering mother base resources is necessary, especially for the game’s multiplayer component. Besides, it’s an open-world stealth game, progression is bound to be peculiar here.1 Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord Release year: 2020 (early access) Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord gives players so much freedom that it can put off those used to having a hint of direction in their RPGs. This sandbox RPG lets players be whatever they want in a fictional medieval world. How they do it is a learning process with quite a considerable curve. The progression here is, thus, whatever players set their minds to. That could be anything from being a rich merchant, a powerful emperor, or even a carefree bandit.