By Bryan Lufkin
June 09, 2011 at 12:38 PM EDT

Magic spells. Character development. Mayhap a duel with a malevolent knight, possibly a love triangle or two, customization up the yin-yang, and sometimes hair spiky enough to dent a car door. Role-playing video games have been my life-long genre of choice, so I spent a bit of my Wednesday sniffing out some choice RPGs at E3 in the Los Angeles Convention Center. Many RPGs lurk on the showroom floor: Ruin, for Sony’s upcoming portable, for example, or the much-anticipated Mass Effect 3, which will use RPG elements. But here are a few highlights that especially raised our Interest and Excitement stats six or seven points each:

Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Square Enix, PlayStation 3) — While some players complained that last year’s Final Fantasy XIII was too linear, it sounds like the sequel places more emphasis on player choices and exploration. You’ll control Serah, Lightning’s little sister, as well as a new character, scrappy lad Noel. Without getting too spoiler-y about either game, know that the sequel picks up a few years later, and while many think Lightning is dead, Serah, who’s flanked by a floating moogle that transforms into a gun or a bow and arrow, commits to finding her.

Random battles return, but not without a twist. It’s called the “Mog Clock.” When an enemy randomly appears, you’ll have a limited amount of time to strike it before the battle begins. Hit the cretin fast enough and be rewarded somehow, like starting the fight with a preemptive strike. Monsters you fell will be able to join your party and fight alongside you. Sort of like an attack dog, but these critters resemble titanium-gnashing Cerberuses more than they do pit bulls. Also: maze mini-games, less linear environments, and something called “Live Trigger,” event crossroads that cause other characters to react in different ways based on choices you make. (early 2012)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC) — Ever think a video game location could appear more vast than anything in real life? Well, it can. It’s a place called Skyrim, and it makes southern New Zealand look like a backyard with a pipe leak. In the latest Elder Scrolls, trek through a sprawling world filled with as many biomes as there are dragons. (And there seem to be a lot of dragons.) Slay beasts, and either steal their souls or eat their meat to nourish those soul-stealing ways. Level-up weapons and magic from healing to freezing spells, and sabotage local towns’ economies, if you so choose. Lots of freedom, lots of battles, beautiful graphics, and lots of dungeons — over 150. (Nov. 11, 2011)

Bastion (Warner Bros. Interactive; Xbox 360 and PC) — This cute, colorful, post-apocalyptic romp may shape up to be E3’s little engine that could. Tucked into a corner of the Warner Bros. booth, next to the Green Lantern and Harry Potter hooplah, Bastion‘s an unassuming action-RPG that utilizes a Tom Waits-sounding narrator who delivers over 3,000 lines as he color commentates your every move (“He falls to his death!”). The story’s set after a mysterious event simply described as the “Cataclysm,” and a young boy must rebuild his ravaged world, which turns out to be pretty lush-looking. There’s something throwback-y about this one, and the gravel-throated storyteller makes everything feel like a grizzled, Clint Eastwood movie. (summer 2011 for Xbox LIVE Arcade version, later in 2011 for PC)

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