What are the world's finest Zelda games that aren't Zelda games?
November 1, 2010 4:03 AM   Subscribe

Action RPGs akin to the Legend of Zelda? No turn-based fighting please. Any system.

It seems that my good lady and I really enjoy action RPGs, as exemplified by the Legend of Zelda series. So: cheerily epic storyline, item upgrades, cute graphics, dungeon-centric gameplay with memorable bosses. One key requirement is for it NOT to feature turn-based battles, in the Final Fantasy mould, but instead the more interactive Zelda-style HYA HYA HYA sword-slashing battles; FF-style games abound but high quality action RPGs of this type seem thin on the ground. Which hidden gems would we enjoy?

I've seen prior questions similar to this but which were system-specific, whereas I have a range of current and older consoles and am always amenable to buying more. No Xbox suggestions, though, please, and console rather than PC would be preferred.

We have already really enjoyed Okami and I'm currently pursuing a copy of Alundra on the PS1, but otherwise, anything goes.
posted by thoughtless to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Jade Empire (PC & original Xbox)
Torchlight (heavy on the action, very light on the RPing) (PC)
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:11 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy on the Playstation 2/Gamecube was a thoroughly enjoyable action/puzzle RPG with pleasing cartoonish graphics, a charming adventure story, a pretty wide-open world, and game mechanics that match up with what you're after. It covers your standard swashbuckling stuff with the Sphinx character, but also incorporates some fun parts where you have to pilot the titular Mummy around like an invinceable ragdoll to solve certain puzzles. Gameplay sample, reviews, TVTropes page.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:25 AM on November 1, 2010

If you want something old style for NES, get Crystalis. It has some of the best controls of the entire 8-bit era along with great music.

Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma (PAL only, lucky you) are solid examples on the SNES. Most of these involve a few more role-play conventions than the Legend of Zelda games, but the core gameplay remains action based throughout.

Depending on how much RPG stuff you are okay with, Secret of Mana may be exactly what you want. You can control two (or three, with a multitap) characters at the same time, which may be just your thing. Another SNES offering there.

If you like the RPG conventions all around and the sole gripe is with the turn based combat, you may even be alright with the Star Ocean and Tales of ___ series of games. The translated offerings didn't show up until the PS1 era, but PS1 and PS2 cover most of them.

Finally, any mention of action RPGs would be incomplete without suggesting Nihon Falcom's flagship series, Ys. That covers from 8-bit era to PS2 and DS versions.

Honestly, it's a matter of your own personal taste and where you want to go, but that list is a good starting point for action-RPGs.
posted by Saydur at 4:31 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

A potentially weird suggestion, but, the God of War games seem to scratch the Zelda itch for me. They aren't cute, but they are pretty funny and definitely have style. I think the second game is my favorite, although the trilogy as a whole is very strong.

Definitely play Jade Empire. It's worth buying an Xbox (well a 360 will play it too of course and then you'd have it for a myriad of other games...) all on its own. It's one of the very few games that I've ever revisited so thoroughly. It starts out kind of realistic but there are sections with highly stylized, cute, colorful designs and it's undeniably stylish.

I find the Tales of __ series to be incredibly boring grindfests, but some people are obsessed with them. It's worth renting one and trying it out. I do love most of their character and environment design, it's like delicious concentrated classic anime goodness.

Odin Sphere and its slightly easier but no less GORGEOUS successor, Murumasa, are hack and slash 2-d action games with kind of strange stat building mechanics. Murumasa is for the Wii and I highly recommend it to pretty much anyone. Odin Sphere is distinctly Japanese and involves nutty things like growing plants that sprout sheep that you kill for food that you eat to gain health, and is much harder.

Although it isn't really any sort of RPG, you have to play Ico. It's just a thing that you need to do, as a person who plays video games. I believe that they're releasing a new version with improved graphics at some point, though, so if you haven't already got it you should hold off and get the refined edition, I suppose. Ico is like the most distilled execution of Zelda concepts I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

And there's the Kingdom Hearts series. It's cheesy and sometimes grindy and oh, the first one doesn't let you skip the incredibly long cutscenes even if you've already seen them, but oh, if you like Disney stuff or are just the right type of person, Kingdom Hearts games are like crack. They are simple in terms of the action but very fun to watch, so make excellent games for taking turns and having an audience.
posted by Mizu at 5:14 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I heard Darksiders was very Zelda-y.
posted by GilloD at 5:38 AM on November 1, 2010

Secret of Mana is a hybrid of action RPGs like Zelda and Microsoft-Excel-with-characters-and-cut-scenes games like Final Fantasy. I think it strikes the perfect balance. Battles are real time action hack-and-slash, but hit points, armour, etc. are treated a little more quantitatively than Zelda's heart meter. Personally, I hate the Final Fantasy series, but Secret of Mana is probably my favourite game of all time. It becomes (optionally) two-player within the first hour, and three-player in about the second hour of play.
posted by caek at 5:54 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seiken Densetsu 3, somewhat-aka Secret of Mana 2, is amazing if you're down with running these things through an emulator. It was never released in the US, but it was fan-translated at some point. It has everything caek likes about SoM but with amaaazing graphics.

Also seconding Odin Sphere and Murumasa, which are beautiful but aren't really that Zelda-y. They're more like those old side-scrolling ninja games with a little extra RPG oomph.
posted by soma lkzx at 6:02 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Magic of Scheherazade was to me very similar to the original Zelda. Very catchy music too!
Star Fox Adventures is regarded to be be very similar to the later 3D versions of Zelda as far as overall gameplay.
Dark Cloud (2) Is more on the RPG side, but very similar feel to the Zelda franchise
Beyond Good and Evil has almost a cult status level where it was initially a failed launch, but later on held in high regards. It has a lot of the same elements as Zelda, puzzle solving, realtime action, etc.
posted by samsara at 6:04 AM on November 1, 2010

For me it lacked some of the charm and atmosphere of Secret of Mana, but Seiken Densetsu 3/Secret of Mana 2 certainly fits with the OPs requirements and is definitely worth checking out.
posted by caek at 6:10 AM on November 1, 2010

It's a little unclear which "Legend of Zelda" you're talking about. The gameplay of The Twilight Princess is pretty radically different from that of the NES original.

If you're looking for a modern game that plays more like the original Zelda, I recommend the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games very highly. They're sort of genre-defining Action RPGs to my mind. And they're probably not what you expect from a superhero game, so don't let that turn you off. They are sprawling dungeon crawls with characters that you level up and equip as you go along with near constant button pounding combat. And you can play cooperatively with up to four players with extra players dropping in and out at any time.

If you're thinking more along the lines of the new Zeldas, well, you're not really talking about a genre that I would refer to as Action RPG, but rather 3D Adventure. The fact that you mention Okami makes me think that this is what you're looking for. Though they really belong entirely in their own category, you should definitely try out Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. They are pretty similar to Zelda on the surface and there is a reason that they are so often brought up when people are trying defend against someone insisting that video games aren't a valid medium of artistic expression.

Another sort of oddball suggestion is Super Paper Mario. It's an RPG platformer and it's really tremendously fun, and the writing is excellent to (which is pretty hard to come by).
posted by 256 at 6:14 AM on November 1, 2010

Although it isn't really any sort of RPG, you have to play Ico. It's just a thing that you need to do, as a person who plays video games. I believe that they're releasing a new version with improved graphics at some point, though, so if you haven't already got it you should hold off and get the refined edition, I suppose. Ico is like the most distilled execution of Zelda concepts I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

April 2011 is the rumored release date. If you wait you'll also get the equally amazing Shadow of the Colossus, which is also Zelda inspired while being very different.

3D Dot Game Heroes basically is a NES era Zelda game, redone in a Minecraft style voxel world.
posted by ecurtz at 6:18 AM on November 1, 2010

My favorite games! Seconding Sphinx, lots of fun. Also The Hobbit and some of the Spyro games (especially "A Hero's Tail" and "Enter the Dragonfly") have this feel (plus the Spyro games have awesome music by Stewart Copeland). You do sort of want to look for well-done games aimed at kids for what you're looking for. The good news is that most of these are available used.
posted by biscotti at 6:33 AM on November 1, 2010

Shadow of the Colossus ripped my heart out and stomped on it. I emphatically do not recommend it to people who are playing games primarily to enjoy some frivolous adventure funtimes. Certainly games can, and should, elicit emotions, but that thing should've come with a warning label. I don't know any other game company that has made two games I am so radically split about.
posted by Mizu at 6:34 AM on November 1, 2010

Okami. (More then one Zelda comparison has been made with this game)

Agreeing with the above about Shadow of the Colossus and the Kingdom Hearts series.

Tales of Vesperia is also an awesome game with active battles.
posted by royalsong at 6:41 AM on November 1, 2010

Kingdom Hearts!
posted by hermitosis at 6:51 AM on November 1, 2010

Thanks for the suggestions so far; there have been some that have introduced me to games I had never heard of, and some that had educated me about ones I had heard of but didn't know a great deal about. (I didn't know that Kingdom Hearts or Secret of Mana had real-time battles, for example.) Lots for me to look at, and I look forward to more.

Addressing a couple of points above -

- Ico / Shadow of the Colossus: I've played these and enjoyed aspects of them massively, but felt that playability niggles detracted too much from the experience. (Hopefully the PS3 update will address SotC framerate and camera issues, for example.) I wouldn't recommend them to the SO as I think she'd become frustrated.
- 256's comments about 2D/3D Zeldas: either is fine really, as I see them as very similar at heart, though I agree there are differences in emphasis. (And I LOVED Super Paper Mario!)
posted by thoughtless at 7:19 AM on November 1, 2010

I just finished and would highly recommend Batman: Arkham Asylum, as it has simple real-time combat, environmental puzzles, item upgrades, dark-but-comic-book graphics, a "cheerily epic" story, and you get to be the goddamn Batman.
posted by Lifeson at 7:40 AM on November 1, 2010

DeathSpank was pretty fun. (Also, the 'sequel')

3rd Person Action RPG. Amusing story / dialog.

I found both games well worth the $15. And I expect Hothead will be releasing more going forward.

(And you can sorta play co-op. I didn't try it myself ... but the 2nd person can do something.)
posted by ChrisManley at 7:40 AM on November 1, 2010

Darksiders for the PS3 and 360 is Zelda except in name and theme. The gameplay is virtually identical; it's the HD Zelda that we all wanted. It's awesome.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:19 AM on November 1, 2010

Surprised that no one has mentioned Ratchet and Clank or Uncharted for the PS3. They're both relatively new action adventure games, with sequels and they're quite good.

I've never heard of Darksiders, but now I'm intrigued.
posted by purephase at 9:08 AM on November 1, 2010

How about Psychonauts? It may be more of a platformer than you're looking for, but the main character gets a variety of special powers and the level and boss design is... memorable, to say the least. (It's by Tim Schaefer, so you know it's awesome.) You know you've always wanted a game about kids at psychic summer camp! The levels are the insides of other people's minds!

If by action-RPG you might also accept a modified action-RPG setup in which combat is action-based but can occasionally be paused for item menus, firing, etc, this opens your range of possibilities a lot. The Parasite Eve games (or at least the first one) have real-time field movement but bringing up the aiming sphere pauses the action. And you get to fight dinosaurs. (Vagrant Story works pretty much the same way; the story is awesome but the game itself is fairly difficult.)

My obscure pick is the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner series for PS2. Definitely RPGs. Action-based combat (shooting, slashing) with pausing for items/directing other party members. They are set in alternate-universe 1920s Japan and your compatriots are a talking cat and a variety of "demons" (generally mythological entities from various religions; gotta catch 'em all) who fight with you. Also the first one has a robot Rasputin. I don't know why either.
posted by sineala at 11:20 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to nth Kingom Hearts 1/2. Don't let the Disney tie-in fool you; the games are a fantastic combination of a typical Final Fantasy-style story with the action elements of Zelda and not terribly "kiddy" to my mind. Both are very worth playing.

Jade Empire is also quite fun; it's available on PC if you don't want to get an Xbox for it. It may or may not be buggy, however - I had terrible time getting the PC version of Knights of the Old Republic to work on my modern PC, and it's from a similar era. Otherwise, it's a fun action martial arts adventure with the usual excellent Bioware story. Plus Nathan Fillion voices one of the characters!

Actually, come to think of it, you might enjoy Mass Effect 1/2; they're more shooters than sword-slashers like Zelda, but they're not turn-based and the story is awesome. Definitely not on the Cute spectrum though, so maybe not to your taste.
posted by ashirys at 1:03 PM on November 1, 2010

Cave Story is available for download on the Wii. It's lovely.
posted by klausman at 1:39 PM on November 1, 2010

I'll second the Star Ocean recommendation, specifically for Star Ocean 3: Til the End of Time. The only downside might be that it can get a bit too involved for some aspects of the game than you might want, but the fighting parts are pretty fun.

The game has an angled overhead map where you can move the camera relative to what you want to see, with battles conducted in some separate thing, similar to how Final Fantasy works (or, used to work, prior to FFXII). Once you're in that separate thing though, you have a large amount of control over how your character fights - you have four different physical attacks to choose from (in addition to spells/items/etc.), which change even further depending on the battle situation. You get rewarded based on how many attacks you can combo together on an opponent, but it's not an essential part of the game.

Also, you can see the enemies on the general overhead map, so it's possible to avoid enemies (sometimes) if you don't feel like fighting them.

Speaking of FFXII, that might actually work for you. Not as much variation in attacking as in Star Ocean, though.
posted by LionIndex at 4:25 PM on November 1, 2010

I liked Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem for the Game Cube. It's anything but "cheery", but it has a lot of the other things you were looking for: an epic storyline with lots to explore, great variety in characters, upgrades, and a small number of highly memorable boss fights. It's a third person 3-D view that takes a little getting used to, but it's pretty easy to deal with after a while.

It's very..."different", but in a good way. It's like Zelda in that there are real-time battles, but they depend more on strategy than having the reflexes of a hyperactive 8-year old. Now that I'm 30 those kind of games don't appeal much to me. :-)
posted by jdwhite at 7:25 PM on November 1, 2010

Someone already mentioned it, but Starfox Adventures really does feel like a re-skinned Zelda game, down to the "you discovered a secret!" musical cue and the "you opened a big treasure chest!" animation and musical cue. The Dino-talk gets on my nerves after a while, though.

While it's older, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles for Gamecube is an absolute blast, provided you have the hardware for multiplayer (one Gamecube, plus a Game Boy Advance / GBA SP etc, not a DS, for each player.) Similar style of real-time combat to the Zelda games, encourages teamwork, and hey, Moogles!

Also on the Gamecube and with the same setup (Gamecube + a Game Boy Advance for each player) is The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, which is also crazy multiplayer fun, but for just the opposite reason. Instead of actually cooperating, we always wind up just messing with each other until it breaks down into giggle fits. Two words for those who have played it: Spotlight Level.
posted by xedrik at 11:12 PM on November 1, 2010

Great answers one and all, thanks. I've marked a few as best answers where they mean I'll be heading to eBay right away ...
posted by thoughtless at 3:41 AM on November 2, 2010

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