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On the face of it, defining "action RPG" is pretty simple — it's the branch that eschews menu-based combat for more direct input from the player. It's hardly a black and white definition though, given that certain games such as Star Ocean mix both. And different action RPGs choose to emphasize different elements.
Many action RPGs have a strong dungeon crawling component, such as Dark Souls. A few like, Illusion of Gaia and Xanadu, go further and mix in a heavy dose of puzzle-solving with the combat. And then there are RPGs like Monster Hunter and Borderlands, both of which mix cooperation with lots of loot.
The key is adding depth without compromising the action, which obviously isn't as easy as it sounds.
Mass Effectis one franchise that has arguably struggled with that delicate balance. The original game had a reasonable amount of depth, but it was also a technical mess. The second game was extensively reworked, but depending on who you asked, it had the opposite problem — little to no technical depth.The skill system had been so thoroughly stripped down that to some it resembled nothing so much as an ordinary shooter with a lot of dialogue trees.
Repetition is another easy trap for an action RPG to fall into. With the hack-and-slash variety in particular, it's all too easy to fall into a pattern of using the same combos with relentless regularity. Kingdom Hearts has long been particularly repetitive, and if anything, it's only gotten worse over time.
I imagine that some of the repetition stems from the number of variables the developers have to juggle. As one example, it's probably harder to design a variety of unique set pieces when worrying about what armor, weapons and skills a particular player might have. I've certainly run into my share of uninspiring foes playing Phantasy Star Portable and its ilk.
There are plenty of fine action RPGs that manage to maintain a solid balance between the action and the customization while minimizing repetition. Deus Ex deserves special mention for its thoughtful approach to problem solving and deep skill system, while Secret of Mana boasts an adventure every bit as complex as the average 16-bit Final Fantasy. In recent times, Dark Souls has won praise for mixing decent customization with some of the most intense dungeon crawling this side of your average roguelike.
The rise of important of portable and online gaming has also lead to the increased popularity of cooperative adventures like Monster Hunter, offering action RPGs another means by which to distinguish themselves. But while co-op is a fun novelty, these games are still vulnerable to the same pitfall that afflicts any other action RPG — repetition.
Action RPGs are more prevalent than ever, and many of them are mediocre to awful for just that reason. While some are bound to disagree with me, I found that even Fallout 3 and its V.A.T.S system got a little tiring after a while.
There's a reason that many of today's most popular RPGs are action-oriented though — they're simply easier for the general population to grasp. Whether or not Fallout 3 was repetitive at times, it had great graphics, a painstakingly crafted world for players to explore, and most importantly, a gun. Couched in the language of first-person shooters and hack-and-slash action, action RPGs will always have something of an advantage over their turn-based brethren when it comes to cultivating popular opinion.
Given the choice, I would rather play a game like Final Fantasy Tactics than the average action RPG. But then again, my favorite RPGs of recent times include Torchlight, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Kingdom Hearts Re:coded — all action RPGs of one sort or another. If an RPG has enough depth, I'm more than happy to eschew a more tactical experience for some button-mashing.
For more on Action RPGs, as well as other types of RPGs, head over to http://themolloyboy.blogspot.com/!
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