Now that we've discussed the concept of role-playing game
, let's take a more detailed look at different RPG types or subgenres. A few things to note first:
1) I'm not trying to define the genre or the sub-genres for you. There are many ways to sort and organize an imaginary pile of all kinds of RPGs. Some people, for example, will define action RPGs as games using players' skills and reflexes instead of the character's, or will prefer to sort games into real-time and turn-based. I'm simply offering you what makes sense to me and I invite you to discuss and argue these obviously very important matters until heads start exploding.
2) Keep in mind that while RPGs are normally a mix of traits, usually only one or two are dominant, and that's what I'll use to categorize games. Take Temple of Elemental Evil, for example. The game has a bit of everything: combat, quests, dialogue trees with skill checks, choices & consequences, double- and triple-crossing, non-linear design, elven porn, bugs, but in the end, tactical combat and dungeon crawling are the most dominant aspects of the game. It was never designed to be the next Fallout or Baldur's Gate and it can't be directly compared to either of those games.
3) What's in a name? Whether or not "action RPG" is a misnomer isn't important. It's a label describing a specific genre. Feel free to replace it with "hack & slash" or "mindless & pointless violence".
Now that I've enriched your life with this knowledge, let's finally jump to the point:Action RPGs
- games that offer nothing but fast, real-time combat. You kill monsters, collect items, level up, kill bigger and badder monsters, collect better loot. Rinse and repeat. Nothing distracts you from killing, looting, and levelling. Silly things like story and characters won't get in the way of your action. Choices mean "which item compliments this build more". The goal is to make an ultimate killing machine in the chosen class, capable of cutting through anything the game throws at you like a hot knife through butter, achieving the prized "IT'S OVER NINE THOUSAND!" power status.
Contrary to popular beliefs, the concept of killing things in real-time as the main attraction isn't a novelty, but a 25-year old veteran. Two biggest events are Gauntlet, an arcade 1985 game, and Diablo, a 1996 game that started the clone war mentioned in Star Wars. Condor Games pitched the idea of "Gauntlet with better graphics" to Blizzard and although the idea was laughable, Blizzard decided to give this craziness a shot, bought Condor and renamed it into Blizzard North. The idea was laughable because in 1992-96 huge behemoths like Darklands, Star Trail, and Daggerfall ruled the RPG world offering so much more to players. Ironically, the dinosaurs died, sticking with the the evolution program, and were replaced by waves of Diablo clones: Nox, Darkstone, Revenant, Lionheart, Space Hack, Harbinger, Blade & Sword, an army of Dungeon Siege games, Sacred, Fate, Loki, Silverfall, Restricted Area, Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows, Titan Quest, that outstandingly horrible MageKnight game, Space Siege, Rise of the Argonauts, Mythos, and circle-completing Hellgate.
Diablo 2 still remains the king of the genre, offering brilliant and unmatched design. Tactical RPGs
- the smart cousin of action RPGs. The focus is on using slow, turn-based tactics, not real-time speed and reaction, to kill things. Instead of clicking and watching monsters exploding like gore-filled pinatas, you plan, calculate, and ponder. If action RPGs are a party of 8-year olds, screaming and beating each other with rubber foam baseball bats, tactical RPGs are old men's "we aint got nothing but time" chess parties. Being ambushed in that ToEE's tower - your low-level pre-fireball party against 3 times as many enemies including strategically placed crossbowmen and spellcasters - and then trying different strategies for hours and amusement is every tactical RPG fan's wet dream.
The Japanese gave the world Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy Tactics. The North Americans raised the bet with Wizard’s Crown, Pool of Radiance, Jagged Alliance, and Temple of Elemental Evil. The Russians made a grand entrance with Silent Storm, adding destructible environments to the overall tactical awesomeness. Then turn-based tactics became uncool, first on the PC, then on the consoles where action battle systems slowly replaced turn-based systems which were dubbed "an archaic exercise in tedium." Now turn-based tactical games can only be found in museums or handheld consoles where they tend to sell very well.
If you want to play great TB tactics of the olden days, get Jagged Alliance, Silent Storm, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, or XCOM.Dungeon Crawler
- This time the focus is on dungeons. You explore dungeons, find hidden doors and passages, fall into bottomless pits, play with pressure plates, trigger traps, fight the denizens, and look for treasure as you are descending further and further for one reason or another. It’s not about tactics or killing, it’s all about the dungeons and staying alive long enough to see the super VGA sunlight again.
The first dungeon crawler was a wargame scenario revolving around crawling into a castle via its dungeon. The scenario proved to be a lot of fun, calling for bigger and better dungeons and less wargaming and eventually leading to Dungeon Master, Wizardry, Might & Magic (before Heroes hijacked it), Anvil of Dawn, Stonekeep, and the mother of all dungeons crawlers – Daggerfall.
Daggerfall made you fear the dungeons. It was no longer a quick hit-n-run business. For the first time ever in video games history I entered dungeons without being sure that I’ll be able to return. Descending to yet another level greatly increased both your chances of never coming out and a feeling of great accomplishment when you finally emerge from a dungeon weeks later. Levers, pits, flooded levels, air shafts, climbable walls, huge underground halls made playing Daggerfall a very special experience. Buggy? Sure it was buggy as hell, but what great RPG isn’t? Story-driven RPG
- the focus is on the story. After all those years of killing monsters and looting dungeons for the fun of it, you have a higher purpose, like stopping ancient evil once and for all (or at least until the next sequel) by killing monsters and looting dungeons. While the advantages of having a good story to follow are obvious, stories are restrictive by definition and every now and then the control will be yanked away from the player and handed to the storyteller dude. That’s when you’ll be betrayed, fall in love, will be thrown in jail, do something stupid, decide to travel to the ends of the Earth, gain awesome powers, kill all party members, be defeated even though you are capable of wiping out armies due to an unbalanced combat system, allow your enemies to escape you again, etc. That is the real reason why Aeris died, in case you are wondering. No, it wasn’t your fault, son.
If you’re looking for some interesting story-driven RPGs, I’d recommend Planescape: Torment (simply the best), Mask of the Betrayer, the first two Realms of Arkania games, the Baldur’s Gate games, the Witcher, Knights of the Old Republic games, and for good measure, Betrayal at Krondor and Betrayal in Antara. Sandbox RPGs
– the focus is on exploring and adventuring in a “visiting all kinda places and looking for work and fun” way. Here is a huge land with hundreds of places to visit and loot. Have fun, see you in 6 months. The sandbox reference means that much like in a real sandbox, you can do whatever the hell you like. Such games are open-ended and over-abundant side quests usually add a lot more than optional and extremely patient main quests.
I’m pretty sure that 1992’s Darklands was the first and the best sandbox game, but I could be wrong. Other notable games of the genre are Daggerfall – second only to Darklands, Morrowind, indie Mount & Blade, and Gothic 3.Classic RPGs
- the focus is, surprisingly, on role-playing. A role-playing game focused on role-playing. What kinda nonsense is that? Anyway, classic RPGs offer choices & consequences. Anything else is secondary. It doesn't matter whether the game is turn-based or real-time, first person or isometric, filled with action combat or Hamlet-approved monologues; as long as the focus is on making decisions fitting your character and enjoying ass-biting consequences, we're talking about classic RPG here.
In classic RPGs non-combat gameplay, filled with dialogue trees and skill-checks, often becomes the main attraction, overshadowing combat and even saving games with uninspiring or plain bad combat. You rarely follow a story; instead you craft your own story using the overall theme and easier-said-than-done goals ("find a waterchip").
Best games of the sub-genre: Fallout, Arcanum, Bloodlines, Prelude to Darkness, Mask of the Betrayer.Roguelikes
– games that are too cool to have graphics, unless you think that ASCII worlds are real pretty. What’s ASCII? Well, let me put it this way. You won’t have to worry about advanced shaders, bloom, and anti-aliasing when you’re playing an ASCII game.
As the name suggests, Rogue (1980) was the founder of the sub-genre, offering you to fight your way to the bottom of a dungeon and a very good chance of dying before getting there. Twenty eight years later we have hundreds of roguelike games, offering every setting known to man, but Nethack and ADOM are probably the most well known and well polished representatives of the genre.
So, why should you play crappy-looking games straining your blinded by frequent exposure to bloom eyes? For the freedom to do anything you can think of. Roguelikes offer unmatched interaction with everything: environment, items, even easy to piss of deities. You will lose hundreds of character (no, you can’t save your game and thus you’ll die many, many times learning what you should and shouldn’t ever, ever, EVER do the hard way), but finally mastering such a game will give you more satisfaction than beating Heavenly Sword in a day.