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What's better than a free RPG? Most gamers will reply: A good RPG. While free games have a reputation of being broken, buggy, and boring to the point where you'd rather be doing literally anything other than playing them, there are actually quite a few diamonds in the rough if you know what to look for. There are free RPGs that have eaten as much of some gamer's time as full $60 new releases. However, these few good games are completely overshadowed by the hordes of dross that make up the huge majority of free games. Really, it can be an adventure in itself, wading through the towering mounds of crap in order to catch that ever-so-rare free-roaming jewel, albeit an adventure akin to trying to find a lost watch in an infinite dumpster -- the infinite dumpster that is the internet.
Fortunately for you, you can take off those rubberized internet waders, because we've done the dirty work for you. Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of the best freeware RPGs available.
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Nethack was born from a long tradition of rogue-like RPGs (that is, RPGs that had gameplay similar to the original Rogue that emerged in the early 1980s). These types of games are typically turn-based and focus on exploring dungeons to find loot and kill monsters. With such simple goals, you might be surprised that Nethack has such high replayability, but each level is randomly generated so no two games will play the same.
There are a host of free roguelikes out there, but Nethack is one of the more well known, and it is still being actively developed. Nethack will also run on virtually any hardware, which makes it extremely portable, and there are versions for the iPhone and even the Nintendo DS.
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The Elder Scrolls: Arena
You might be more familiar with one of the more recent Elder Scrolls games, such as Oblivion or Morrowind, but Bethesda had a tradition of making large, open world games long before then. Arena is the first game in the Elder Scrolls series, and it was released as freeware by Bethesda Game Studios in 2004. You play the game from a first person perspective, and wander around the world looking for quests and dungeon-diving for loot. The main quest recruits you to restore the emperor to his throne, and destroy the imposter that is ruling the empire. Like most Elder Scrolls games, Arena offers extremely high replayability because of the massive amount of content there is to explore. There are hundreds of towns and dungeons, and the land area is huge. Because it was released in 1994, it also has a high chance of being able to run on any old hardware you have lying around.
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Betrayal at Krondor
Based on the world of Midkemia created by fantasy author Raymond E. Feist, Betrayal at Krondor was considered one of the best computer RPGs of all time. Like the Elder Scrolls: Arena it is a commercial-turned-freeware game. It was released as a free download by Sierra in 1997. The game is arranged in a book format, and the different sections are divided up into chapters. It is one of the earliest games to feature a first-person perspective, and there is a huge, 3D rendered world to travel across. Combat in Betrayal at Krondor is turn based and viewed from a third-person perspective, more like a traditional RPG. There are plenty of side quests to keep you busy, and the world is free to explore as well. This game features a rich quality of writing unmatched by most RPGs, and the huge world and large amount of content make this game highly re-playable.
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There are certainly more free games that are worthy of download, like Angband and other roguelikes, but by far the most common free RPGs you'll find were created with one of the many versions of RPG Maker. This could almost be a sub-genre in itself, and there are a few that stand out against the thinly-veiled clones of commercial games, or incomplete amateur projects. Games such as A Blurred Line and others serve as a counterpoint to the loads of near worthless RPG maker projects, and show that great games can be made with such programs.