Thursday, July 19, 2007

General RPGs' Battle Choreography

I've mentioned many times in the past that RPGs, as a whole, are not very entertaining to actually play. Flashy spells and special attacks only distract one momentarily from the fact that each of the several hundred (possibly thousands) of battles you will fight in most RPGs amount to nothing more than moving a cursor through a menu, hitting Confirm, and watching as your characters kill enemies using special, white little numbers that magically appear above the bad guys' heads with each blow. When not actually taking action, everyone usually just stands in one place, staring at each other. And it's not like there's a whole lot of strategy involved most of the time to distract you from the fact that nothing is happening. For most of these games, there are only two strategies that you'll ever need for 99+% for your battles: Heal When You Need To, and Level Up More. If you have trouble in a normal RPG, then your problem is almost invariably solved by better applying one or both of these "strategies."

Action-based RPGs provide some relief from the RPG genre's general tedium, but it's not always much. Action RPGs can be almost as repetitive and tiresome as the normal, menu-based ones. Take, for example, several earlier ones, like Soulblazer, Illusion of Gaia, Tales of Phantasia, and, to a lesser extent, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Each of these games gives you the freedom to run around the field of battle and use a small set of abilities and tools to dispose of your foes. This allows you to create some real strategies for disposing of foes, and you have to develop some actual skill at attacking, dodging, using opportunities in combat well, etc. Still, by the time you've progressed through the game a fair amount, you often find yourself settling into a rut of doing the same old things against enemies that have long since stopped having varied attacks and patterns. And it's not just the older action RPGs where this happens, either; some fairly newer ones like the Knights of the Old Republic games, Kingdom Hears: Chain of Memories, and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. The Soulless Army (yes, that is, indeed, a ridiculously long title) have the same problem. I can sum up your strategy for the majority of boss fights in that last one in these steps:

1. Block
2. Attack
3. Repeat
4. Profit Level Up

It's not that I can't take a battle system that's obscenely boring, and it's not like SMTRKVTSA doesn't have a good pace and need some decent skill, but after 16 years and 110 RPGs, I'm looking for a little more than that for my gaming experience.

There have been some RPGs lately, however, that have given me exactly what I've been looking for. The recent Suikodens and Dark Cloud 1 gave me tastes of it with their one-on-one battles. In each case, you get to see your characters having a battle with an enemy that actually LOOKS like a real fight, with you vaguely controlling what they do with your attack choices. They're attacking and blocking and dodging and whatnot, actually fighting, instead of just standing around doing nothing for ages while they wait for a turn. There's some neat choreography to the battles that's genuinely fun to watch.

Of course, in Dark Cloud 1's case, this enjoyment is significantly marred by the fact that you have to be watching what buttons to press to keep fighting successfully, rather than watching what's actually happening, so it's not actually so great. But a good try, at least.

What are really great examples of entertaining fight choreography, though, ones that I hope will be copied in the future in this regard, are The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and especially Kingdom Hearts 2. In these games, not only do you have a pretty wide range of abilities to keep your strategies varied and interesting, but fighting enemies allows you to sometimes use special abilities to counter the specific attacks of the enemy you're facing. This allows for some pretty nifty moves in TLoZWW, like Link jumping forward and spinning in the air to slash enemies right across the skull, and some absolutely kickass moments in KH2 boss fights. The reaction scenes in combat are so cool and fun to watch that I found myself looking forward to boss fights for the opportunity to see what crazy stunts Sora and company would be pulling next. It's not just the same old One Sword Combo Kills All of most action RPGs; these games have battles with action and strategies that are unique to each situation. It's not that you're fighting AN enemy, you're fighting THAT enemy, and different rules apply for different dangers. And of course, as I mentioned, the general moves and attacks used in these specific circumstances are all very fun and neat to watch. And I think that's something that would really benefit RPGs in general these days: skillful, fun, and varying battle choreography. When every enemy is a different experience to fight, you get a game that stays entertaining in its gameplay through to the end. And hey, I may play RPGs for the plots and characters, but it would be nice to play something with those AND that's fun.

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