Action role-playing game

Not to be confused with Live action role-playing game.
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Role-playing video games

Action role-playing video games (abbreviated action RPG, action/RPG, or ARPG) form a loosely defined subgenre of role-playing video games that emphasize real-time action where the player has direct control over characters, instead of turn-based or menu-based combat. These games often use combat systems similar to hack and slash or shooter games.[1] Action-RPG or ARPG, as it is also called, is often referred to as an action game that includes a mission system, similar to most MMORPG titles, like World Of Warcraft or Guild Wars.

Early real-time elements

Early dungeon-crawl video games used turn-based movement: if the party didn't move, neither did the enemies.[2] Dungeons of Daggorath, released for the TRS-80 Color Computer in 1982, combined a typical first-person dungeon crawl with real-time elements, requiring timed keyboard commands and where enemies move independently of the player.[3] The game lacked numerical statistics such as hit points or vitality, but instead used an arcade-like fatigue system where the heart pulsates to indicate the player's health,[4] a concept inspired by the 1978 arcade game Space Invaders where a heartbeat-like sound gradually increases pace as enemies advance towards the player.[5]

In 1983, ASCII released the Sharp X1 computer game Bokosuka Wars,[6] considered an early example of an action RPG,[7][8] though it is also considered an early strategy RPG.[9] In Bokosuka Wars, each soldier was able to gain experience and level up through battle,[9] while the action occurred entirely in real-time.[10]

Also in 1983, Nihon Falcom released Panorama Toh (Panorama Island) for the PC-88. It was developed by Yoshio Kiya, who would go on to create the Dragon Slayer and Brandish series of action RPGs. While its RPG elements were limited, lacking traditional statistical or leveling systems, the game featured real-time combat with a gun, bringing it close to the action RPG formula that Falcom would later be known for. The game's desert island overworld also featured a day-night cycle, non-player characters the player could attack or converse with, and the need to survive by finding and consuming rations to restore hit points lost with each normal action.[11]

Classic action RPGs / hack & slash

Early 1980s

While Western computer developers continued to explore the possibilities of real-time RPG gameplay to a limited extent,[12] Japanese developers, with their recently aroused interest in the RPG genre, created a new brand of action/RPG, combining the RPG genre with arcade-style action and action-adventure elements.[13][14] This trend of combining RPG elements with arcade-style action mechanics was popularized by The Tower of Druaga,[14] an arcade game released by Namco in June 1984. However, the company often considered the pioneer of the new action RPG genre is Nihon Falcom,[1] which produced the Dragon Slayer series and won its reputation as the progenitor of the action RPG genre.[15] Dragon Slayer was created by Yoshio Kiya,[16] who built on the action RPG elements of his previous game Panorama Toh,[11] as well as The Tower of Druaga.[14] Falcom's Dragon Slayer series abandoned the command-based battles of previous RPGs in favour of real-time hack-and-slash combat that requires direct input from the player, alongside puzzle-solving elements.[1] The original Dragon Slayer,[16] originally released for the PC-8801 computer in September 1984,[17] is often considered to be the first true action-RPG.[15][18] In contrast to earlier turn-based roguelikes, Dragon Slayer was a dungeon crawl RPG that was entirely real-time with action-oriented combat,[18] combined with RPG mechanics found in traditional RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima.[14] Dragon Slayer also featured an in-game map to help with the dungeon-crawling, required item management due to the inventory being limited to one item at a time,[16] and introduced the use of item-based puzzles which later influenced The Legend of Zelda.[15] Dragon Slayer's overhead action-RPG formula was used in many later games.[19] Both The Tower of Druaga and Dragon Slayer laid the foundations for future action role-playing games such as Hydlide and Ys as well as The Legend of Zelda.[16] Another early action RPG was Courageous Perseus,[20] released by Cosmos Computer for Japanese computers in the same month as Dragon Slayer.[21]

Screenshot of the original NEC PC-8801 version of Hydlide (1984), an early action RPG

T&E Soft's Hydlide, released in December 1984,[22] influenced by The Tower of Druaga and possibly Dragon Slayer,[16] introduced its own innovations. For example, Hydlide introduced the ability to switch between attack mode and defense mode, quick save and load options which can be done at any moment of the game through the use of passwords, and the introduction of a health regeneration mechanic where health and magic slowly regenerate when standing still.[23][24] Another influential early action RPG was Namco's 1984 arcade release Dragon Buster,[25] the first game to feature a life meter, called "Vitality" in-game.[26] It also introduced side-scrolling platform elements and a "world view" map similar to Super Mario Bros. released the following year.[27]

Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, released in 1985 (billed as a "new type real time role-playing game"), was a fully-fledged action RPG with many character stats and a large quest,[18][28] with action-based combat setting it apart from other RPGs.[1] It also incorporated a side-scrolling view during exploration and an overhead view during battle,[19] though some rooms were also explored using an overhead view. The game also allowed the player to visit towns, which had training facilities that can improve statistics, and shops that sell items, equipment that change the player character's visible appearance, and food that is consumed slowly over time and is essential for keeping the player alive. It also introduced gameplay mechanics such as platform jumping, magic that can be used to attack enemies from a distance,[18] an early Karma morality system where the character's Karma meter will rise if he commits sin which in turn affects the temple's reaction to him,[18][28] and individual experience for equipped items.[28] It is also considered a "proto-Metroidvania" game,[29] due to being an "RPG turned on its side" that allowed players to run, jump, collect, and explore.[30] The game gained immense popularity in Japan, setting records for PC game sales by selling more than 400,000 copies.[28] Xanadu Scenario II, released the following year, was also an early example of an expansion pack.[19] The way the Dragon Slayer series reworked the entire game system of each installment is considered an influence on Final Fantasy, which would do the same for each of its installments.[31]

According to Dragon Slayer creator Yoshio Kiya in a 1987 interview, when he developed Dragon Slayer, "Wizardry and Ultima were the only two kinds of RPGs," and so he "wanted to make something new" with Dragon Slayer which "was like a bridge" to the "action RPG" genre and Xanadu took "those ideas to the next level," after which "more and more action RPGs were released" to the point that action RPGs became "one of the main genres of computer games." He also avoided random encounters because he "always thought there was something weird about randomized battles, fighting enemies you can't see, whether you want to or not."[32]

Hydlide II: Shine of Darkness, released in 1985,[33] introduced an early morality meter, where the player can be aligned with Justice, Normal, or Evil, which is affected by whether the player kills humans, good monsters, or evil monsters, leading to townsfolk ignoring players with an evil alignment, denying access to certain clues, dialogues, equipment, and training. The game also introduced a time option, allowing the player to speed up or slow down the gameplay.[23] Magical Zoo's The Screamer, a 1985 post-apocalyptic cyberpunk horror RPG released for the PC-8801,[34][35][36] featured gameplay that switched between first-person dungeon crawl exploration and side-scrolling shooter combat, where the player could jump, duck and shoot at enemies in real-time.[36]

Late 1980s

The Legend of Zelda (1986), while not considered a role-playing game by Nintendo, was an important influence on the action RPG genre

The next two years, 1986 and 1987, would see the release of games that would further define the action/RPG genre in Japan. An important influence on the genre was the 1986 action-adventure, The Legend of Zelda, which had many features in common with RPGs and served as the template for future action RPGs.[37] In contrast to previous action RPGs such as Dragon Slayer and Hydlide which required the player to bump into enemies in order to attack them, The Legend of Zelda featured an attack button that animates a sword swing or projectile attack on the screen.[16][23] It was also an early example of open world, nonlinear gameplay, and introduced innovations like battery backup saving. These elements have been used in many action RPGs since.[38] The game was largely responsible for the surge of action-oriented RPGs released since the late 1980s, in Japan as well as in America, where it was often cited as an influence on action-oriented computer RPGs.[39] When it was released in North America, Zelda was seen as a new kind of RPG with action-adventure elements, with Roe R. Adams (who worked on the Wizardry series) stating in 1990 that, although "it still had many action-adventure features, it was definitely a CRPG."[40] The Legend of Zelda series would continue to exert an influence on the transition of both console and computer RPGs from stat-heavy turn-based combat towards real-time action combat in the following decades.[41] Due to its similarities to action RPGs and its impact on the genre,[42] there continues to be much debate regarding whether or not The Legend of Zelda should be considered an action RPG.[43] The Legend of Zelda series was for a long time synonymous with action RPGs, but as the genre expanded to include more RPG mechanics, The Legend of Zelda games were eventually recategorized as action-adventure games.[14]

1986 also saw the arcade release of the sequel to The Tower of Druaga, The Return of Ishtar,[44] an early action RPG[45] to feature two-player cooperative gameplay,[44] dual-stick control in single player, a female protagonist, the first heroic couple in gaming, and the first password save system in an arcade game.[46] Other 1986 titles were Rygar and Deadly Towers, which were notable as some of the first Japanese console action RPGs to be released in North America, where they were well received for being a new kind of RPG that differed from both the console action-adventures (such as Castlevania, Trojan, and Wizards & Warriors) and American computer RPGs (such as Wizardry, Ultima, and Might & Magic) that American gamers were previously more familiar with at the time. Deadly Towers and Rygar were particularly notable for their permanent power-up mechanic, which at the time blurred the line between the power-ups used in action-adventures and the experience points used in RPGs.[13]

In 1987, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link implemented an RPG-esque system, including experience points and levels, with action game elements,[47] making it closer to an action RPG than other Zelda games.[48] Zelda II was also one of the first video games where non-player characters (NPCs) walked around and seemingly had their own agendas, giving the world a life of its own rather than being a simple stage for the story to unfold.[49] Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was an action RPG that combined the platform-action mechanics of the original Castlevania with the open world of an action-adventure and RPG mechanics such as experience points.[50] It also introduced a persistent world with its own day-night cycle that affects when certain NPCs appear in certain locations and offered three possible multiple endings depending on the time it took to complete the game.[51]

Another "Metroidvania" style open-world action RPG released that year was System Sacom's Sharp X1 computer game Euphory, which was possibly the only Metroidvania-style multiplayer action RPG produced, allowing two-player cooperative gameplay.[52] That same year also saw the release of several Dragon Slayer titles, including Faxanadu, a spin-off of Xanadu and a fully side-scrolling action RPG,[19] and Dragon Slayer IV: Legacy of the Wizard, another early example of a non-linear open-world action RPG.[53] The fifth Dragon Slayer title, Sorcerian, was also released that year. It was a party-based action RPG, with the player controlling a party of four characters at the same time in a side-scrolling view. The game also featured character creation, highly customizable characters, class-based puzzles, and a new scenario system, allowing players to choose which of 15 scenarios, or quests, to play through in the order of their choice. It was also an episodic video game, with expansion disks released soon after offering more scenarios.[16][54] Falcom also released the first installment of its Ys series in 1987. While not very popular in the West, the long-running Ys series has performed strongly in the Japanese market, with many sequels, remakes and ports in the decades that followed its release. Besides Falcom's own Dragon Slayer series, Ys was also influenced by Hydlide, from which it borrowed certain mechanics such as health-regeneration when standing still, a mechanic that has become common in video games today.[23][24] Ys was also a precursor to RPGs that emphasize storytelling,[55] and is known for its 'bump attack' system, where the protagonist Adol automatically attacks when running into enemies off-center, making the game more accessible and the usually tedious level-grinding task more swift and enjoyable for audiences at the time.[56] The game also had what is considered to be one of the best and most influential video game music soundtracks of all time, composed by Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa.[56][57][58] In terms of the number of game releases, Ys is second only to Final Fantasy as the largest Eastern role-playing game franchise.[56]

Hydlide 3: The Space Memories, released for the MSX in 1987 and for the Sega Genesis as Super Hydlide in 1989, adopted the morality meter of its predecessor, expanded on its time option with the introduction of an in-game clock setting day-night cycles and a need to sleep and eat, and made other 'improvements' such as cut scenes for the opening and ending, a combat system closer to The Legend of Zelda, the choice between four distinct character classes, a wider variety of equipment and spells, and a weight system affecting the player's movement depending on the overall weight of the equipment carried.[23] Another 1987 action RPG, The Magic of Scheherazade, was notable for several innovations, including a unique setting based on the Arabian Nights, time travel between five different time periods, a unique combat system featuring both real-time solo action and turn-based team battles, and the introduction of team attacks where two party members could join forces to perform an extra-powerful attack.[59] That same year, Kogado Studio's sci-fi RPG Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War featured a unique "tug of war" style real-time combat system, where battles are a clash of energy between the party and the enemy, with the player needing to push the energy towards the enemy to strike them, while being able to use a shield to block or a suction ability to absorb the opponent's power. It also featured a unique conversation system, where the player can recruit allies by talking to them, choose whether to kill or spare an enemy, and engage enemies in conversation, similar to Megami Tensei.[60] Wonder Boy in Monster Land combined the platform gameplay of the original Wonder Boy with many RPG elements,[61] which would inspire later action RPGs such as Popful Mail (1991).[62] The Faery Tale Adventure offered one of the largest worlds at the time, with over 17.000 computer screens without loading times, and it had various unique game mechanics.

1988 saw the debut of Telenet Japan's Exile, a series of action-platform RPGs,[63] beginning with XZR: Idols of Apostate. The series was controversial for its plot, which revolves around a time-traveling Crusades-era Syrian Islamic Assassin who assassinates various religious/historical figures as well as modern-day political leaders,[64] with similarities to the present-day Assassin's Creed action game series.[65] The gameplay of Exile included both overhead exploration and side-scrolling combat, featured a heart monitor to represent the player's Attack Power and Armour Class statistics, and another controversial aspect of the game involved taking drugs (instead of potions) that increase/decrease attributes but with side-effects such as affecting the heart-rate or causing death.[64] The developer of the Ultima series, Origin Systems, released an action RPG that year, Times of Lore, which was inspired by NES titles, particularly The Legend of Zelda.[39] In turn, Times of Lore inspired several later titles by Origin Systems, such as the 1990 games Bad Blood, another action RPG based on the same engine,[66] and Ultima VI: The False Prophet, based on the same interface.[67] That same year, World Court Tennis for the TurboGrafx-16 introduced a new form of gameplay: a unique tennis-themed sports RPG mode.[68]

In 1989, Sega released a Metroidvania-style open-world action RPG for the Master System console, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap.[52] Dungeon Explorer, developed by Atlus and published by Hudson Soft for the TurboGrafx-16 in 1989, is considered a pioneer title in the action RPG genre with its cooperative multiplayer gameplay,[69] which allowed up to five players to play simultaneously.[70] That same year, River City Ransom featured elements of both the beat 'em up and action RPG genres, combining brawler combat with many RPG elements, including an inventory, buying and selling items, learning new abilities and skills, needing to listen for clues, searching to find all the bosses, shopping in the malls, buying items to heal, and increasing stats.[71] It was also an early sandbox brawler reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto.[72] Also in 1989, the early enhanced remake Ys I & II was one of the first video games to use CD-ROM, which was utilized to provide enhanced graphics, animated cut scenes,[73] a Red Book CD soundtrack,[74] and voice acting.[73][74] Its English localization was also one of the first to use voice dubbing. The game received the Game of the Year award from OMNI Magazine in 1990, as well as many other prizes.[73] Another 1989 release, Activision's Prophecy: The Fall of Trinadon, attempted to introduce "Nintendo-style" action combat to North American computer role-playing games.[75]


1990 would see the release of Crystalis for the NES as well as Golden Axe Warrior for the Sega Master System. These games featured Zelda-like gameplay blended with genuine RPG elements, such as experience points, statistics-based equipment, and a magic-casting system. Crystalis also featured a post-apocalyptic setting inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Crystalis in turn influenced Secret of Mana.[76] Data East's Gate of Doom was an arcade action RPG that combined beat 'em up fighting gameplay with fantasy role-playing and introduced an isometric perspective.[77] That same year, Enix released a unique biological simulation action RPG by Almanic that revolved around the theme of evolution, 46 Okunen Monogatari, a revised version of which was released in 1992 as E.V.O.: Search for Eden.[78]

In 1991, Square released Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, also known as Final Fantasy Adventure or Mystic Quest in the West, for the Game Boy. Like Crystallis, the action in Seiken Densetsu bore a strong resemblance to that of Zelda, but added more RPG elements. It was one of the first action RPGs to allow players to kill townspeople, though later Mana games lack this feature.[79] That same year, the erotic adult RPG Dragon Knight III, released for the PC-8801 and as Knights of Xentar for MS-DOS, introduced a unique pausable real-time battle system,[80][81] where characters automatically attack based on a list of different AI scripts,[81] though this meant the player had no control over the characters during battle other than to give commands for spells, item use, and AI routines.[80] Arcus Odyssey by Wolf Team (now Namco Tales Studio) was an action RPG that featured an isometric perspective and co-operative multiplayer gameplay.[82] In 1992, Sega released the Climax Entertainment game Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole, an early isometric RPG that combined the gameplay of an open-world action RPG with an isometric platformer, alongside an emphasis on varied puzzle-solving as well as strong characterization and humorous conversations.[83]

Secret of Mana (1993), an action RPG that was acclaimed for several innovations, including its combat system, cooperative multiplayer, and customizable AI settings

In 1993, the second Seiken Densetsu game, Secret of Mana, received considerable acclaim,[84] for its innovative pausable real-time action battle system,[85][86] modified Active Time Battle meter adapted for real-time action,[87] the "Ring Command" menu system where a variety of actions can be performed without needing to switch screens,[85] its innovative cooperative multiplayer gameplay,[84] where the second or third players could drop in and out of the game at any time rather than players having to join the game at the same time,[88] and the customizable AI settings for computer-controlled allies.[89] Edge magazine in 1993 praised it as "a class of its own as far as action RPGs or adventures go."[90] The game has remained influential through to the present day, with its ring menu system still used in modern games (such as The Temple of Elemental Evil)[91] and its cooperative multiplayer mentioned as an influence on games as recent as Dungeon Siege III.[88] Other action RPGs at the time combined the puzzle-oriented action-adventure gameplay style of the Zelda series with RPG elements. Examples include Illusion of Gaia (1993) and its successor Terranigma (1995), as well as Alundra (1997), a spiritual successor to LandStalker.

Unique among video games are arcade hack and slash RPGs that blend together beat 'em up and RPG characteristics. An early example was Alpha Denshi's 1990 game Crossed Swords, which combined the first-person brawler gameplay of The Super Spy (released the same year) with RPG elements, while replacing the shooting with hack & slash combat.[92] Most other such games, however, used a side-scrolling perspective typical of beat 'em ups, such as Capcom's Knights of the Round (1991), King of Dragons (1991), Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom (1993) and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara (1996); these games were released for the arcades and later released for the Sega Saturn together as the Dungeons & Dragons Collection (1999). Several other beat 'em ups followed a similar hack & slash brawler-RPG formula, including Guardian Heroes, Castle Crashers, Dungeon & Fighter, and the Princess Crown series (including Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade).

Around this time, some within the American computer RPG community argued that cartridge-based Japanese console action RPGs "are not role-playing at all" due to many of the popular examples back then, such as Secret of Mana and especially The Legend of Zelda, using "direct" arcade-style action combat systems instead of the more "abstract" turn-based battle systems associated with table-top RPGs and American computer RPGs of that era. In response, game designer Sandy Petersen noted that not all console RPGs are action-based, pointing to Final Fantasy and Lufia, and that some computer RPGs such as Ultima VIII have also begun following the console trend of adopting arcade action elements.[93]

Late 1990s–present

The Super Famicom (Japanese-language) version of Tales of Phantasia (1995), which featured a fighting game influenced combat system that influenced later Tales and Star Ocean games.

On the Super Famicom, Tales of Phantasia was released in Japan in 1995, featuring a real-time side-scrolling fighting game influenced combat mode and an exploration mode similar to classic console RPGs. In 1996, Star Ocean was released with similar real-time combat and classic exploration, but featured a more isometric view during battle. Star Ocean also introduced a "private actions" system, where the player can affect the relationships between characters, which in turn affects the storyline and leads to multiple endings, a feature that the Star Ocean series has become known for.[94] Namco and Enix did not publish these two titles in America, though many of their sequels were later released in the U.S., beginning with Tales of Destiny and Star Ocean: The Second Story, respectively. LandStalker's 1997 spiritual successor Alundra[95] is considered "one of the finest examples of action/RPG gaming," combining platforming elements and challenging puzzles with an innovative storyline revolving around entering people's dreams and dealing with mature themes.[96]

The fifth generation era of consoles saw a number of other popular action RPGs, such as King's Field, Brave Fencer Musashi, The Legend of Oasis, Tail of the Sun, Dragon Valor, and Tales of Eternia. All consoles of the sixth generation era had a number of action RPGs, such as Phantasy Star Online, Dark Cloud & Dark Chronicle ((Dark Cloud 2)), Sudeki, King's Field IV & Shadow Tower Abyss, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, Champions of Norrath, Kingdom Hearts, Chaos Legion, .hack, Monster Hunter, World of Mana, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles & Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Rogue Galaxy, Odin Sphere, Souls series and several Tales games such as Symphonia.

Other subgenres

First-person dungeon crawl

The great majority of first-person computer games up until the late 1980s were turn-based, though a few had attempted to incorporate real-time elements, such as Dungeons of Daggorath and the 1985 game Alternate Reality: The City. Most first-person computer RPGs at the time, used turn-based movement, where if the party didn't move, neither did the enemies, though The Bard's Tale in 1985 attempted to generate random encounters when the player is away from the keyboard to give the impression that monsters weren't just waiting for players to stumble across them. In late 1987, FTL Games released Dungeon Master, a critically acclaimed dungeon crawler where the game world and combat was in real-time, requiring players to quickly issue orders to the characters, setting the standard for real-time first-person computer RPGs for the next several years.[2] Dungeon Master achieved the number-one sales rank in both the U.S. and Japan, where it was released in 1990. Other real-time first-person RPGs in the style of Dungeon Master include SSI's Eye of the Beholder (1990) and Raven Software's Black Crypt (1992).

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992), which utilized ray casting graphics, laid the foundations for future real-time, first-person dungeon crawlers.

Arsys Software released Star Cruiser for the NEC PC-8801 computer in early 1988. This innovative game is notable for being a very early example of an action RPG with fully 3D polygonal graphics,[97] combined with first-person shooter gameplay.[98] It was later ported to the Sega Mega Drive in 1990.[98] That same year, Alpha Denshi's Crossed Swords for the arcades combined the first-person beat 'em up gameplay of SNK's The Super Spy (released the same year) with RPG elements, while replacing the first-person shooting with hack & slash combat.[92] In 1992, Blue Sky Productions released Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, which was considered a technological marvel for its 3D first-person ray casting graphics combined with real-time action and a surprisingly deep role-playing experience. One of the game's developers, Warren Spector, would go on to help develop more games combining first-person action and RPG gameplay, such as System Shock and Deus Ex.

Other first-person RPGs in the style of Ultima Underworld include Shadowcaster by Raven Software and id Software in 1993 created with an early version of the Doom engine, The Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3 by Bethesda, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines by Troika Games, Baroque by Sting Entertainment and Hellgate: London by Flagship Studios which was formed from Blizzard North executives and developers responsible for the Diablo franchise (also supports third-person view). FromSoftware's King's Field series of dungeon-crawler action RPGs for consoles had been using a fully 3D polygonal first-person perspective from 1994 to 2001, though the series' 2009 spiritual successor Demon's Souls had adopted a third-person view instead.

Lately there has been a slight revitalization of the genre. In 2012, game developer Almost Human created a franchise called Legend of Grimrock and then in 2014 the sequel Legend of Grimrock II was released. Both games in the franchise are throwbacks to the older dungeon crawler days, but in a modern 3D setting and with real-time combat. A sequel to the long-running franchise Might & Magic was also released in 2014, Might & Magic X: Legacy. This maintains the older tradition of turn-based combat.

Point and click

Video showing basic point and click action RPG gameplay.

Action RPGs were far more common on consoles rather than computers, due to gamepads being better suited to real-time action than the keyboard and mouse.[99] Though there have been attempts at creating action-oriented computer RPGs during the late 1980s and early 1990s, often in the vein of Zelda, very few saw any success,[99] with Times of Lore (1988)[39] and Ultima VII (1992) being some of the more successful attempts in the American computer market,[99] where there was a generally negative attitude towards combining genres in this way and more of an emphasis on preserving the purity of the RPG genre.[14] For example, a 1991 issue of Computer Gaming World criticized several computer role-playing games for using "arcade" or "Nintendo-style" action combat, including Ys, Sorcerian. Times of Lore and Prophecy.[75]

An early attempt at incorporating a point-and-click interface in a real-time overhead action RPG was Silver Ghost,[100] a 1988 NEC PC-8801 game by Kure Software Koubou.[101] It was a tactical action RPG where characters could be controlled using a cursor.[100] A similar game released by Kure Software Koubou that same year was First Queen, a unique hybrid between a real-time strategy, action RPG, and strategy RPG. Like an RPG, the player can explore the world, purchase items, and level up, and like a strategy video game, it focuses on recruiting soldiers and fighting against large armies rather than small parties. The game's "Gochyakyara" ("Multiple Characters") system let the player control one character at a time while the others are controlled by computer AI that follow the leader, and where battles are large-scale with characters sometimes filling an entire screen.[102][103] Another early overhead action RPG to use mouse controls was Nihon Falcom's 1991 game Brandish, where the player could move forward, backward, turn, strafe and attack by clicking on boxes surrounding the player character.[104]

Diablo (1996) laid the foundations for point & click action RPGs.

The 1994 game Ultima VIII also used mouse controls as well as attempting to add precision jumping sequences reminiscent of a Mario platform game, though reactions to the game's mouse-based combat were mixed. It was not until 1996 that a stagnant PC RPG market was revitalized by Blizzard's Diablo, an action RPG that used a point-and-click interface and offered gamers a free online service to play with others that maintained the same rules and gameplay.[99]

Diablo's effect on the market was significant, inspiring many imitators. Its impact was such that the term "action RPG" has come to be more commonly used for Diablo style games rather than Zelda style games, with The Legend of Zelda itself recategorized as an action-adventure.[14] Diablo's style of combat eventually went on to be used by many MMORPGs that came after. For many years afterwards, games that closely mimicked the Diablo formula were referred to as "Diablo clones." The definition of a Diablo clone is even vaguer than that of an action RPG, but typically such games have each player controlling a single character and have a strong focus on combat with plot and character interaction kept to a minimum. Non-player characters are often limited in scope. For example, an NPC could be either a merchant who buys and sells items or a service provider who upgrades the player's skills, resources, or abilities. Diablo clones are also considered to have few or no puzzles to solve because many problems instead have an action-based solution (such as breaking a wooden door open with an axe rather than having to find its key).

Blizzard later released a sequel, Diablo II in 2000, and it became an international sensation in America, Europe, and Asia. Diablo II's effect on the gaming industry led to an even larger number of "clones" than its predecessor, inspiring games for almost a decade. Diablo III was released on May 15th, 2012. Some of the aforementioned Diablo "clones" are: the Sacred series, Titan Quest, Dungeon Siege series, Darkstone: Evil Reigns, Loki: Heroes of Mythology, Legend: Hand of God, Fate, Torchlight, Path of Exile, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, Marvel Heroes 2015, and Grim Dawn.

Role-playing shooter

Role-playing shooters (often abbreviated RPS) are sometimes considered a subgenre, featuring elements of both shooter games and action RPGs.[105] An early example was Magical Zoo's The Screamer,[36] a 1985 post-apocalyptic sci-fi RPG released in Japan for the NEC PC-8801 computer, set after World War III and revolving around cyberpunk and biological horror themes.[34][35] The gameplay switched between first-person dungeon crawl exploration and side-scrolling shooter combat, where the player could jump, duck and shoot at enemies in real-time.[36] That same year, Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu allowed the player to shoot projectile magic attacks at enemies.[19] The earliest to feature 3D polygonal graphics was the 1986 game WiBArm, released by Arsys Software for the NEC PC-88 computer in Japan and ported to MS-DOS for Western release by Brøderbund. In WiBArm, the player controls a transformable mecha robot, switching between a 2D side-scrolling view during outdoor exploration to a fully 3D polygonal third-person perspective inside buildings, while bosses are fought in an arena-style 2D shoot 'em up battle. The game featured a variety of weapons and equipment as well as an automap, and the player could upgrade equipment and earn experience to raise stats.[52][106] In contrast to first-person RPGs at the time that were restricted to 90-degree movements, WiBArm's use of 3D polygons allowed full 360-degree movement.[106]

In 1987, Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead, an MSX2 title developed by Fun Factory and published by Victor Music Industries, was the first true survival horror RPG.[107][108] Designed by Katsuya Iwamoto, the game revolved around a female SWAT member Lila rescuing survivors in an isolated monster-infested town and bringing them to safety in a church. It was open-ended like Dragon Quest and had real-time side-view battles like Zelda II. Unlike other RPGs at the time, however, the game had a dark and creepy atmosphere expressed through the story, graphics, and music,[107] while the gameplay used shooter-based combat and gave limited ammunition for each weapon, forcing the player to search for ammo and often run away from monsters in order to conserve ammo.[108]

Star Cruiser (1988), an early role-playing shooter, combined first-person shooter and role-playing game elements along with 3D polygon graphics.

In 1988, The Scheme, released by Bothtec for the PC-8801, was an action RPG with a similar side-scrolling open-world gameplay to Metroid.[52] Compile's The Guardian Legend that year was a successful fusion of the action-adventure, shoot 'em up and role-playing game genres, later inspiring acclaimed titles such as Sigma Star Saga in 2005.[109] That same year, Arsys Software released Star Cruiser for the PC-88. This innovative game is notable for being a very early example of an RPG with fully 3D polygonal graphics,[97] combined with first-person shooter gameplay,[98] which would occasionally switch to space flight simulator gameplay when exploring outer space with six degrees of freedom. All the backgrounds, objects and opponents in the game were rendered in 3D polygons, many years before they were widely adopted by the gaming industry. The game also emphasized storytelling, with plot twists and extensive character dialogues.[97] It was later ported to the Sega Mega Drive in 1990.[98] The game's sequel, Star Cruiser 2, was released in 1992,[110] for the PC-9821 and FM Towns computers.[111]

In 1990, Hideo Kojima's SD Snatcher, while turn-based, introduced an innovative first-person shooter-based battle system where firearm weapons (each with different abilities and target ranges) have limited ammunition and the player can aim at specific parts of the enemy's body with each part weakening the enemy in different ways. Such a battle system has rarely been used since,[112] though similar battle systems based on targeting individual body parts can later be found in Square's Vagrant Story (2000), a pausable real-time RPG[113] that uses both melee and bow & arrow weapons,[114] as well as Bethesda's Fallout 3 (2008) and Nippon Ichi's Last Rebellion (2010).[115] In 1996, Night Slave was a shooter RPG released for the PC-98 that combined the side-scrolling shooter gameplay of Assault Suits Valken and Gradius, including an armaments system that employs recoil physics, with many RPG elements such as permanently levelling up the mecha and various weapons using power-orbs obtained from defeating enemies as well as storyline cut scenes, which occasionally contain erotic lesbian adult content.[52]

Other early shooter-based action RPGs include the Parasite Eve series of survival horror RPGs (1998 onwards) by Square (now Square Enix),[116][117] the Deus Ex series (2000 onwards) by Ion Storm, Ancient's vehicular combat RPG Car Battler Joe (2002),[118] Konami's solar-powered stealth-based Boktai series (2003 onwards),[119] Irem's Steambot Chronicles (2005),[120] Square Enix's third-person shooter RPG Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII (2006)[121] which introduced an over-the-shoulder perspective similar to Resident Evil 4,[122] and the MMO vehicular combat game Auto Assault (2006) by NetDevil and NCsoft.[118] Other action RPGs featured both hack & slash and shooting elements, with the use of both guns (or in some cases, bow & arrow or aerial combat) and melee weapons, including the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner series (1995 onwards) by Atlus,[123] tri-Ace's Star Ocean series (1996 onwards),[124][125] Cavia's flight-based Drakengard series (2003 to 2005),[126] and Level-5's Rogue Galaxy (2005).[127]

Other RPS games include the Mass Effect series (2007 onwards), Fallout 3 (2008), White Gold: War in Paradise (2008), and Borderlands (2009).[105] Borderlands developer Gearbox software has dubbed it as a "role-playing shooter" due to the heavy RPG elements within the game, such as quest-based gameplay and also its character traits and leveling system.[128] Sega's Valkyria Chronicles series (2008 onwards) features a unique blend of tactical role-playing game, real-time strategy and third-person tactical shooter elements (including a cover system), for which it has been described as "the missing link" between Final Fantasy Tactics and Full Spectrum Warrior.[129] Half-Minute Hero (2009) is an RPG shooter featuring self-referential humour and a 30-second time limit for each level and boss encounter.[130] Other recent action role-playing games with shooter elements include the 2010 titles Resonance of Fate by tri-Ace,[131] Alpha Protocol by Obsidian Entertainment, and The Last Story by Mistwalker which uses crossbows (instead of guns) in a manner similar to cover-based third-person shooters.[132] Square Enix's 2010 release, The 3rd Birthday, the third game in the Parasite Eve series, features a unique blend of action RPG, real-time tactical RPG, survival horror and third-person tactical shooter elements.[133][134] 2010 cult hit NIER is a multi-genre action-RPG with a heavy emphasis on 2D and 3D Bullet hell game mechanics. Knights in the Nightmare is an RPG with Real Time Strategy/Bullet hell gameplay.

Upcoming shooter-based RPGs include Imageepoch's post-apocapytic Black Rock Shooter which employs first-person shooter elements,[135] as well as third-person shooter elements,[136] Square Enix's Final Fantasy XV which will feature both hack & slash and third-person shooter elements,[137] and Final Fantasy Type-0 which plays similarly to the The 3rd Birthday but is not limited to shooting.[138]

Choices and consequences

While most action RPGs focus on hack and slash while exploring a world (often an open world) and building character stats, some non-linear titles contain events or dialogue choices with consequences in the game world or storyline. The concept of moral consequences and alignments can be seen in action RPGs as early as the 1985 releases Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, with its Karma system where the character's Karma meter will change depending on whom he kills which in turn affects the way other NPCs react to him,[28] and Hydlide II: Shine of Darkness, where the player can be aligned with Justice, Normal, or Evil, depending on whether the player kills good or evil monsters or humans, leading to townsfolk ignoring players with an evil alignment.[23] Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War in 1987 featured a non-linear conversation system, where the player can recruit allies by talking to them, choose whether to kill or spare an enemy, and engage enemies in conversation, similar to Megami Tensei.[60] One of the first action RPGs to feature multiple endings was Konami's 1987 release Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, which introduced a day-night cycle that affects when certain NPCs appear in certain locations and offers three possible endings depending on the time it takes to complete the game.[51] In 1988, Ys II introduced the unique ability to transform into a monster, which allows the player to both scare human non-player characters for unique dialogues as well as interact with all the monsters. This is a recurring highlight in the series, offering the player insight into the enemies, to an extent that very few other games allow to this day.[56]

Some of Quintet's action RPGs allowed players to shape the game world through town-building simulation elements, such as Soul Blazer in 1992 and Terranigma in 1995.[139] That same year, Square's Seiken Densetsu 3 allowed a number of different possible storyline paths and endings depending on which combination of characters the player selected. The game also introduced a class-change system that incorporated light-dark alignments.[140][141] The following year, Treasure's Guardian Heroes in 1996 allowed players to alter the storyline through their actions, such as choosing between a number of branching paths leading to multiple different endings and through the Karma meter which changes depending on whether the player kills civilians or shows mercy to enemies.[142][143]

Some of the earliest action RPGs to allow players to alter the storyline's outcome through dialogue choices were tri-Ace's Star Ocean series of sci-fi RPGs. The original Star Ocean, published by Enix in 1996, introduced a "private actions" social system, where the protagonist's relationship points with the other characters are affected by the player's choices, which in turn affects the storyline, leading to branching paths and multiple different endings.[94][144] This was expanded in its 1999 sequel, Star Ocean: The Second Story, which boasted as many as 86 different endings,[145] with each of the possible permutations to these endings numbering in the thousands, setting a benchmark for the amount of outcomes possible for a video game. Using a relationship system inspired by dating sims, each of the characters had friendship points and relationship points with each of the other characters, allowing the player to pair together, or ship, any couples (both romantic heterosexual relationships as well as friendships) of their choice, allowing a form of fan fiction to exist within the game itself. This type of social system was later extended to allow romantic relationships in BioWare's 2007 sci-fi RPG Mass Effect. However, the relationship system in Star Ocean not only affected the storyline, but also the gameplay, affecting the way the characters behave towards each other in battle.[146]

In 1997, Quintet's The Granstream Saga, while having a mostly linear plot, offered a difficult moral choice towards the end of the game regarding which of two characters to save, each leading to a different ending.[147] In 1999, Square's Legend of Mana,[148] the most open-ended in the Mana series,[149] allowed the player to build the game world however they choose, complete any quests and subplots they choose in any order of their choice, and choose which storyline paths to follow,[148][150] departing from most other action RPGs in its time.[151] That same year, Square's survival horror RPG Parasite Eve II featured branching storylines and up to three different possible endings.[152]

Other games allow the player to make many game-altering choices in dialogues and events, while still maintaining their respective action elements, whether they be in the first person or the third person. Such games include Chrono Trigger (1995), Orphen: Scion of Sorcery (2000), Gothic (2001), Gothic II (2002), Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003), Tales of Symphonia (2003), Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004), Radiata Stories (2005), Steambot Chronicles (2005), Gothic 3 (2006), The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006), Odin Sphere (2007), Fallout 3 (2008), White Gold: War in Paradise (2008), Alpha Protocol (2010), Dragon's Dogma (2012), and the Way of the Samurai, Drakengard, Fable, Yakuza, Devil Summoner, Mass Effect and The Witcher video games,


Jordane Thiboust of Beenox criticized the term "action RPG", saying that it does not represent what core experience the game offers to the player. He claimed that "action RPG is not a real subgenre" but "the current marketing slang for [...] 'RPGs that are cool to play with a pad'", so as more and more RPGs are marketed as "action RPGs", the label becomes increasingly useless. He also pointed out the danger of creating false consumer expectations, as "action RPG" describes mainly what type of combat to expect in a game but says nothing about the overall player experience (narrative, sandbox, or dungeon crawl) it has to offer.[153]

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