While the Action RPG is most commonly described as a sub-genre, most of us would agree that this style of video game has essentially become a defining genre of its own.
We’ve come to accept open-world game design as the defacto AAA format to the point that it’s become ubiquitous with the medium itself, and invariably, these types of adventures combine action-oriented gameplay with deeper role-play components to bring their universes alive.
Of course, the open world isn’t the only way these ideas are expressed; this melding of two age-old archetypes permeates all possible styles and formats. Combine a natural diversity with what’s been twenty years plus of innovation, and any player seeking a simultaneously fast and frantic yet intelligent experience has a diverse pool to choose from.
No matter which platform you play on, a vast array of enticing sales are at the ready as we creep further into winter — the perfect time and climate, then, to reflect on two decades of Action RPGs, and help you decide what to sink your teeth into next. Let’s take a dive into 15 titles that define the genre!
Criteria | Defining an Action RPG
For this list, we’ll also focus on the following specifics:
- The game must have a large focus on RPG elements like experience points and leveling, exploration, and quests — without that, we’re looking at more of an action-adventure game. They should also feature real-time combat.
- The list won’t be in any particular order — the games here are already the best of the best, and they can be so different from one another that orderly ranking would feel a bit arbitrary.
- Even though the ARPG exhibits most of its heavy hitters on PC, I’ll most certainly be including the wealth of great console entries.
- Flexibility in approach will be allowed as long as the game’s main focus is roleplaying and combat.
- I’ll only be including one entry per series for variety’s sake.
With that out the way, let’s get to it!
1. Elden Ring
- Year of release: February 25, 2022
- Developer: FROM SOFTWARE Inc.
- Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, and PC
Elden Ring came at a time when the Action RPG genre was going through somewhat of a lull: an over-milked style with which the boundaries began to become ill-defined and a bit of a mess. It remedied that by providing both equal parts Action and RPG, with no one area feeling half-baked or bloated.
Since the likes of Skyrim, many believe developers have started to spoonfeed the player to the point that, ironically, the sense of choice so emphatic of this type of game became saturated with meager tasks: quest markers, fetch-quests, and simple dungeon crawls. Elden Ring did away with all of that.
Teasing the player gently with numerous points of interest in the form of glittering golden trails, they were free to explore however they wished. The principle even extended to its story, hidden in cryptic yet tantalizing lore for the player to uncover if they wished and ignore if they didn’t.
The game made few demands other than with its combat—characteristically punishing melee skirmishes against some of the most impressively and intricately designed bosses the genre has ever seen. It’s a long, arduous journey, but it’s also the top of its class.
Continue reading our Elden Ring Guides:
- Elden Ring Rune Farming Guide: Leveling Made Easy
- Elden Ring Greatsword Guide: Swords, but Greater
- Rya Elden Ring Guide: The Snake Lady
- Elden Ring Malenia Guide
- Elden Ring Castle Sol Guide
2. The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
- Year of release: November 11, 2011
- Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
- Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S
I’m not certain of any other game in the genre to have had as much staying power as The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, Bethesda’s 2010 magnum opus that inspired scores of similar titles to follow.
Time slips away as you get lost for hours in its then unprecedentedly huge world of dense forests, snowy peaks, and bustling towns. No matter how many times you go in for another run, there seem endless possibilities: always a new quest to undertake, NPC to meet, spell to learn, and dragon to fight.
Whenever I return to it, I’m forever taken aback by that huge celestial skill tree—so much to learn, such potential for your fledgling convict in their tattered rags. It was the first game I’d ever played to evoke the sense of open-world wonder that’s become so common today, and even now, its omnipresence is still as strong as ever (Skyrim is still being modded with new quests, weapons, and characters to this day: check out this article to explore what’s on offer).
Even when Bethesda’s next entry in the series finally rolls around, it’s hard to imagine Skyrim will ever die.
- Skyrim Aetherium Shards Guide
- Skyrim Getting Started Guide
- Cicero Skyrim Guide: The Jester Assassin Agent of the Night Mother
- Skyrim Blood on Ice Guide
- Raven Rock Skyrim Guide: The Heart of Solstheim
3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Year of release: March 3, 2017
- Developer: Nintendo
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch and Wii U
I deliberated for a while as to whether Breath of the Wild or Tears of the Kingdom should take the Zelda spot on this list.
Tears of the Kingdom was most certainly as good, if not better, in many instances, but unshakable was the notion that it was Breath of the Wild that made the most impact and changed the genre forever. You could also equally look back at the entire series and make the same case for Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past, yet while those games had an undeniable impact on the gaming landscape as a whole, it was Breath of the Wild that pushed the Action RPG into new and unexplored territory.
Upon release, not only was this one of the biggest open-world games ever made, but it was also one of the most alive. The series had forever teetered on the edges of embracing modernity in design, but now they’d done so and far exceeded anything before it; at the same time as bringing Zelda into the modern age, it also provided a stark contrast to formulas that were getting long in the tooth.
Fully scalable terrain, which emboldened that all-important, genre-defining aspect of choice, felt like a breath of fresh air in 2015, and the puzzles, combat encounters, equipment, and crafting had this ingenious level of modularity to it that constantly inspired experimentation.
4. Fallout: New Vegas
- Year of release: October 19, 2010
- Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
- Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3
I didn’t come out of Fallout 3 or 4 particularly satisfied, nor did I find revisiting Fallout 1 or 2 anything other than a stark reminder of how video game design has improved over the years. The former Bethesda titles, despite impressive world-building, felt somehow devoid of meaning with their simplification of RPG choice-driven mechanics, whereas the latter original titles, despite fantastic writing, felt horribly dated in the gameplay department.
Fallout: New Vegas—a genius mix of the best parts of the aforementioned two variants of Fallout—was exactly what fans wanted. The developers, who were made up of those who’d worked on the original series, managed to embolden everything great about the atmosphere and poignant moral decisions of the first two games, all while rendering it with the much-needed visual makeover of Bethesda’s engine.
Virtually all the complaints from Fallout 3 were gone. There was a much greater emphasis on role-play through a deeper, more well-written story with choices you legitimately felt mattered, and the world was truly reactive, with morality being much more so on a spectrum rather than the more black-and-white attributions of good and bad from Fallout 3 (and 4).
There was also a great deal more so far as customizability with weapons and equipment, and in this across-the-board doubling down on player freedom, the developers struck gold with an RPG whose balance hasn’t been replicated since.
5. System Shock 2
- Year of release: August 11, 1999
- Developer: Looking Glass Studios
- Platforms: PC
I certainly enjoyed Night Dive’s System Shock 1 remake, but I don’t think I’m the first to suggest that it didn’t have the certain special quality of the original or its sequel, System Shock 2.
There are so many ways to make your way through the hallowed halls of the desolate Von Braun, the vengeful AI Shodan tracking your every move, that it’s completely overwhelming in the beginning. Where many modern Action RPGs often feel safe in the sense that you’re never penalized too much for making a bad decision, System Shock 2 instills a sense of intense trepidation every time you make a new upgrade or use one of your precious skill points.
You need to be ruthless yet proficient, violent yet organized, and in this sense, it embodies the dichotomous principle of Action RPGs that forces you to both be a skilled player and a legitimately intelligent thinker.
It’s the sort of game where you can get halfway through and realize you completely messed something up and made the wrong decision three hours ago, your only option being to plod along and adapt (all while chastising your own idiocy).
The game gives you such an incredible amount of choice in what sort of skilled combatant you’re going to become, but how are you going to get there? That forms the main mental hurdle. It’s this sense of urgency, the necessity to adapt, that makes the horror so palpable.
6. Deus Ex
- Year of release: June 23, 2000
- Developer: Ion Storm
- Platforms: PC, Mac OS, and PlayStation 2.
Deus Ex is no doubt the most unique entry on this list—not for its cyberpunk world or conspiratorial storyline, but for an attention to detail that encompasses everything that makes the Action RPG genre so enticing.
There’s plenty of action, and there’s plenty of RPG. You’re able to tweak every part of JC Denton’s cybernetic body to your liking: will you hack your way through a building’s locked doors and turrets? Sneak about with a crossbow and poison darts? Or mow the place down with an assault rifle and plates of armor, Terminator-style? The choice is yours, but the game will make you work for those precious skill points to do it.
And then there’s the world itself—a cyberpunk dream that, despite an admittedly lacking graphical style for the time, is so evocative in the environments you skulk through and the interesting characters you meet. Much of Deus Ex’s uniqueness comes from a juxtaposition between a seemingly slapdash style and such deep and interesting mechanics (the game has some of the most enjoyable A.I. to date).
The sequels are great in their own right, but nothing can quite come close to the original sublime blend of immersive simulation and Action RPG.
7. Fable 2
- Year of release: October 21, 2008
- Developer: Lionhead Studios
- Platforms: Xbox 360
The second entry in a trilogy being the standout entry usually tells you something: a great idea was roughly formed with the first, honed to perfection in the second, and grossly overdone by the third. This is very much the case, in my opinion, with the Fable series.
Before the blatant deception of Project Milo for the Xbox Kinect or the scandal of Godus that seems fit for a feature in The Wall Street Journal, Peter Molyneux had hit upon something special with Fable 2. It was one of the first Xbox 360 exclusives I was truly hyped for; the promises of a globally changing world that reacted to your moral compass, the ability to buy the property and raise a family, and, of course, the fact that you could perform a sustained fart to impress the denizens of Albion and gain their affection.
There were many impressive Action RPGs already on the market, but Fable 2 undoubtedly had the most personality of all of them. It was always funny and entertaining, no matter what you chose to do, and unlike Fallout 3 and Skyrim, you could visibly see the world growing and changing around you (even your physical appearance changed to be more demon-like or angelic depending on how you were behaving). Hopefully, Fable 4 will deliver that same magic.
8. Yakuza 0
- Year of release: March 12, 2015
- Developer: SEGA
- Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC
I was tempted to add Yakuza’s spiritual pre-cursor, Shenmue, to the list, but beyond Ryo’s martial arts upgrades, I don’t think you could really justify it as an RPG. Yakuza 0, though, vastly expands on the concepts found there: you’ve got three distinct skill trees to choose to specialize in, each encompassing considerably different fighting styles, and as you walk the seedy streets of 1980s Tokyo, opportunities to practice those moves present themselves every few minutes.
The combat represents the most cathartic melee action I’ve ever experienced — and that’s coming from a hardcore Bayonetta fan!
Everything here oozes style and detail. The main story is incredible in its own right, but there are so many hilarious side quests to engage with in between if you’re weary of the heavier themes; it’s classic SEGA, a tantalizing blend of surrealness, comedy, and gritty realism that enables the game to stand out against any other Action RPG of its type.
There’s even a complex property management system in the game—something I didn’t even realize was there until I’d nearly finished the main story! What’s more, every other game in the series is just as excellent, but it was 0 that truly set the stage.
9. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
- Year of release: September 30, 2014
- Developer: Monolith Productions
- Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, Linux, macOS
Shadow of Mordor kind of came out of nowhere in 2014. While I fondly remember the God of War-type hack and slashes that were released alongside the movies, I think I speak for most Tolkien fans when I say that we’d been waiting for a fully-fledged Action RPG based in Middle Earth since, well, forever.
And that’s exactly what we got with Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor—an incredibly violent and surprisingly deep experience from Monolith Productions. I can’t quite believe that the game is nearly a decade old, as it still feels so modern going back to it.
The game balances its combat with leveling seamlessly. Its two skill trees, Ranger and Wraith, merge both traditional combat and more classic environmental abilities into one fluid, addictive system. With only twenty or so nodes per tree, It doesn’t drown you in possibility, but everything that’s there is something impactful and legitimate to work towards. Tough decisions made with trepidation more often than not turn you into an animalistic, destructive force on the battlefield, and whatever you specialize in, you’re always going to have fun.
Combat is weighty and realistic, with enemies you didn’t quite finish off coming back later in the game for vengeance. If I have one piece of advice for you, it’s to make sure you sever their heads!
10. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
- Year of release: August 30, 2016
- Developer: CD Projekt
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, and PC
I remember The Witcher 2 being given away with the Xbox 360’s Games With Gold program back in the day, but I couldn’t get into it. I wasn’t much used to heavy RPGs of the time having come from Skyrim, so I went into The Witcher 3 with trepidation.
It wouldn’t be long, though, before I was well and truly hooked. It’s one of those games where everything melds perfectly; story, world design, combat, and RPG management combine to make for what is widely considered the pinnacle of the genre. It has a distinct grittiness to it that most fans will be deeply familiar with. Every action you take and every choice you make has a distinct weight to it.
The Witcher 3 is a very purposeful game. This isn’t your standard situation of your decisions being boiled down to a good or bad morality system, and you never really know when your mouth might get you into trouble. Things can escalate from a curt word or two to an NPC in a bar, to a brutal fight to death. You might also find your decisions having a knock-on effect on gaining entry to certain settlements, with Geralt being bared from a town after the higher-ups learned of his behavior.
It’s an Action RPG through and through, offering the opportunity to cleverly solve your problems with diplomacy or intimidation, but just as gratifyingly with your sword.
11. Diablo 2
- Year of release: June 28, 2000
- Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
- Platforms: PC and Mac OS
No Action RPG article like this would be quite right without an entry from the Diablo series, and I’m pretty sure I’d be chastised by fans around the globe had I not put the second game in the series in the first place!
Diablo games are known for differing significantly from their previous entries, and where Diablo 3 and 4 missed the mark for many, Diablo 2 offered huge acts, a ton of new items, more character classes that were considerably more fleshed out, and perhaps most importantly, balance. The ARPG genre is one of the most complex to get right, yet Blizzard has wielded it so expertly here.
Not to mention that the game had an unparalleled degree of replayability, offering the player something new to learn each time they started the journey all over again. You’re just that little bit better, more efficient—it fostered a sense of satisfaction through gradual improvement like no Action RPG I’ve ever played.
Diablo 2 is easily up there for the best Action RPG of all time, something most consider a community consensus at this point.
12. Grim Dawn
- Year of release: February 25, 2016
- Developer: Crate Entertainment
- Platforms: Xbox One and PC
Where many games in the genre require a considerable grind to become powerful, the player is a force to be reckoned with right off the bat in this game. It was a wise choice on the part of the developers, as that enabled Grim Dawn’s best feature to shine right from the get-go.
The game throws hordes upon hordes of enemies at you to satisfyingly slash through in myriad ways, with each of the six classes offering such a unique and enchanting set of powers that you just have to play six different runs to see how drastically the gameplay can change. As is the case with any RPG worth its salt, the skill trees are masterfully crafted, enabling a baffling degree of nuance for how you can tailor each class to your liking.
Grim Dawn’s post-apocalyptic world, Cairn, is a miserable-looking place that oozes detail, pressing you to explore every corner of each flaming town and dingy cavern. Everything is here that you’d hope for in a game of this class, and while Diablo 2 will always remain my favorite in top-down design, a case could easily be made for this game improving upon it and stealing that top spot.
13. Torchlight 2
- Year of release: September 20, 2013
- Developer: Runic Games
- Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, and macOS
Torchlight 3 just didn’t deliver, and I think most of that was due to the hugely hyped expectations that had been set following its predecessor, Torchlight 2.
It must be difficult to follow up on what is widely considered one of the greatest Action RPGs ever made—and also easily one of the most accessible. While Diablo 2 could often feel a bit daunting for new players, Runic Games simplified a classic formula while maintaining all the necessary punch.
There’s nothing of great depth here, but the impactful thwack of a hammer meeting your enemy’s skull will keep pushing you to discover the next, even more gratifying weapon to do the same thing with. More so than others, this game has a distinct rhythm to it whereby you’re almost playing on autopilot; there’s not much of a story to speak of, so your entire focus is placed on the fact that everything that moves wants to tear you limb from limb. It hones that classic pilgrimage to ultimate power exceedingly well.
If you just want to crush stuff and become a god, this is the Action RPG for you.
14. Kingdom Hearts 2
- Year of release: December 22, 2005
- Developer: Square Enix
- Platforms: PlayStation 2
The Kingdom Hearts series is something no one asked for, but having arrived, it supplanted itself within gaming culture as an undisputed staple.
The series is known most for its addictive combat and zany story, and despite a long list of sequels, it was the second game in the series where most fans agree things peaked. I never thought I could get behind a mashup of Disney and Final Fantasy, neither of which I’m particularly invested in, yet where the original Kingdom Hearts had piqued my interest, Kingdom Hearts 2 made me care for the characters and the world.
It’s easy to fall in love with how Square Enix cleverly interweaves the lore between the two worlds, but it wasn’t just a two-dimensional love letter to fans of either series. The game gives you an astonishing amount of tools and weapons to defeat your enemies in combat, and the diversity in the bosses rivals that of even FROM SOFTWARE’s work.
It’s not the sort of RPG depth you’d expect from a game that looks like this, and in many ways, it’s this juxtaposition that makes it stand out as one of the genre’s greatest.
15. Dragon Age: Origins
- Year of release: November 2, 2009
- Developer: BioWare
- Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Mac OS, and PC
Rich and detailed lore; a cast of memorable and always entertaining characters; a plethora of interesting ways to react to any given situation; and of course, viscerally thrilling combat. These elements form the pillars of a great Action RPG, and they’re all featured to a stunning degree in Dragon Age: Origins.
On the mechanical front, I was truly impressed with how differently each character could be developed over the course of a single play-through. Even more so, no matter how you design them, they always work brilliantly together within your party: there’s always a new combo to discover or strategy to enact, and being one of the most re-playable Action RPGs on this list, you’ll never stop finding new ways to experience the world.
I was also consistently thankful for the game’s ability to be funny, placing these rather oddball characters in continually entertaining situations. Humor is invariably the cherry on top of an exemplary ARPG, and there aren’t many entries that execute it well enough.
Having finished Origins, I immediately picked up the other two and enjoyed them immensely, but neither gripped me quite as much as the original. There’s also a huge array of mods you can add to the game to keep it fresh forever.
It wasn’t possible to include all the games I wanted on this list, so here are some other great Action RPG options that didn’t make the cut:
- The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
- NeiR: Automata
- Dark Souls 3
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
- Horizon: Forbidden West
- Path of Exile
- Mass Effect 2
- Lies of P
- Din’s Curse
I hope this trip down memory lane has been both informative and nostalgic for you. If you’re after more, be sure to check out our other articles, like 10 RPGs Where Combat is Completely Optional or 15 Extremely Difficult RPGs to Play in 2023. Also, don’t forget to check out our News section to hear of any new Action RPGs in the works as and when the developments happen.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What is the best platform to experience the Action RPG?
Answer: It is not the case anymore that the genre is a PC-centric type of game, though the more hardcore amongst the list do tend to lend themselves to a mouse and keyboard layout — even if just from an inventory management perspective. That said, there are plenty of great games here available on consoles, and most of them that are PC exclusives you’ll be able to run on a cheap system.
Question: I’m mostly used to JRPGs. Might the more fast-paced combat in these games be too difficult for me?
Answer: I don’t think you should worry too much about that. The action doesn’t necessarily equate to a huge jump in difficulty, and none of these games exhibit a particularly outstanding learning curve (even Elden Ring just takes a bit of practice). If you’re particularly concerned, though, I’d try something like Skyrim or Breath of the Wild first and build your way up to the likes of Elden Ring and Diablo.
Question: What was the first action RPG ever made?
Answer: Dragon Slayer by Falcom is widely considered the first true action roleplaying game. Released in 1984 for the PC-8801, it was the first to abandon traditional RPG combat for real-time hack-and-slash mechanics. The original Diablo, released in 1997, was considered the first to truly popularize the original isometric styling, however.