Action RPGs give the player realtime control over game characters, usually this is most noticeable in regards to movement and combat. The term action rpg gets used more often when speaking about console games. On the PC, action RPGs overlap with the older category of hack and slash games.
The screenshot below is from the Secret of Mana on the Super Nintendo.
Compared to standard RPGs, action RPGs commonly have these properties:
- Combat has more flow (and is more fun as a rule!)
- Combat is generally less strategic
- RPG elements may be less pronounced
- More likely to have environmental obstacles - jumping puzzles etc.
- Less likely to be party based
How Action RPGs Differ
The game that the "How to Make an RPG" book often references is Final Fantasy 6. Final Fantasy is not an action RPG, movement and combat are distinct states. When the player enters combat he sees his party side-on and has no realtime control over any of the party members.
Contrast Final Fantasy 6 with a game like Terringma, from the same era.
Terringma has no special state for combat. Combat occurs on the same map as exploration. The player can move the character around in realtime and launch attacks. Despite these differences they have a lot of commonalities; tile-based map, varied items and equipment, varied enemies and special skills. They also share a linear story.
On the PC, games like Ultima Underworld, Skyrim, System Shock, Deus Ex or the Witcher are rarely referred to as action RPGs but they have realtime combat and movement. Instead these games are usually just called RPGs. The term action RPG seems more prevalent when talking about SNES-era games like Secret of Mana, Zelda; games from a period when the difference between turn-based and realtime combat was more common and distinct.
You may hear games like Zelda referred to as action-adventure games. I can see this argument, Zelda doesn't have leveling or skills but this kind of genre fidelity gets into too much hair splitting for me! I'm happy to lump Zelda into RPGs and action RPGs.
A Turn-Based Diablo
Diablo did not start off as a hack and slash action RPG. It started as a traditional turn-based game taking inspiration from roguelike games such as Nethack. It was changed to a realtime game at the publisher's request.
After everyone left for the weekend, Dave sat down at his computer and pulled up Diablo’s code. He scanned through and hit on something. The game was written so every action—movement, combat, quaffing a healing potion — took up a certain amount of time. Monsters moved immediately after the player initiated a command. Once the time to perform an action expired, the game turned back the clock and the player-monster turn cycle began anew. All he needed to do was whittle the time between actions down to nothing.
The design of realtime combat systems actually has a lot of subtle details. There's a good overview over at the article Designing a Realtime Combat System.
Genres and Genes
The overall takeaway is genres aren't black and white and games are ever changing. Don't stress too much about categories they're not very important!
The RPG as a category itself has been weakened as games have changed. Many modern games have absorbed some previously RPG exclusive traits, like leveling, intricate stories, varied gear and character customization.
What a genres but collections of game mechanics and ideas? Like genes these can be swapped and inserted into new games all the time. Popular games see their mechanics copied and rifted on.
Action RPG Foundations
To get a feel for what an action RPG has to offer consider playing some of the games below.
- Secret Of Mana
- Ys Series
- The Diablo Series
- Darksouls Series
- Borderlands Series
Perhaps controversially, I think Castlevania : Symphony of the Night is also well worth playing and studying, as well as number of other platformers.