Kudos to Ecclesiastes for letting me shoot some ideas at him while I was writing this rant. You’re a proper righteous chap, good sir.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you’ve probably come to know 2 things about me. The first is that despite RPGs being my preferred gaming genre, I find the actual process of playing them invariably tedious, and see the large majority of battles in RPGs as being meaningless filler that distracts and distances the audience from the only reason to play the games at all: the story. You know that when I judge the worth of an RPG, combat is a complete non-factor, as it should be for a genre whose gameplay mechanics are so repetitive, and frequently can’t be distinguished from the process of ordering breakfast from a Denny’s menu.
But the other thing you know about me is that I like the sound of my own voice (such as it is in text form) enough that I have no problem whatsoever chattering on about things that don’t matter in the slightest. And so here we are.
Battle systems! They may not matter a lick to me, but even so, I can tell when they work and when they don’t. And even if it doesn’t make a difference to whether or not a piece of interactive art should be experienced, a programming team’s good work on making a battle system whose repetitive mediocrity is as low as possible deserves some credit. So today, I’ll be looking at the very broadly defined types of RPG combat I know of, and judging which RPGs are the very best examples of these different battle systems.
Enjoy! Or don’t. I make the same amount of $0 either way.
The most traditional, iconic battle system of the RPG genre, utilized in countless titles going as far back as the original Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and even Phantasy Star titles, and still going strong today in major series like Shin Megami Tensei, Pokemon, and Indie RPGs like Shadows of Adam, released just this year.
It’s also the reason I find RPGs so fucking boring to play. This is a battle system built on the same premise as navigating through the Windows operating system. How the hell this genre managed to take off with this as its starting point, I’ll sure never know.
Winner: The Shin Megami Tensei Series
Although not every SMT game employs traditional turn-based combat (SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha, for example, is an Action RPG), the majority do, and, quite frankly, this series has got a simple-to-understand take on Turn Based gameplay that manages to allow for complexity and strategy without abandoning even the slightest functionality. With most RPGs, the constant addition of nuances and complexities to battle systems is a detriment, cluttering an already annoying play experience with superfluous crap that feels more like an attempt to stand out than an attempt to build something actually enjoyable to play. The press turn nuance of SMT games, which encourages you to understand enemy weaknesses by rewarding you with more attacks per turn when you exploit them and punishing you with fewer when you fail to account for enemy defenses, makes even regular battles more interesting as you play a game of balances against your opponents, seeking to maximize your turns and minimize the turns they get. In addition, beyond the press turn function, SMT games are generally made with enough care that their difficulty curve keeps you on your toes for the majority of the game, and strategy beyond manipulation of press turns is a must. To say nothing of the effort that Atlus puts into the weaknesses of its bestiary! Yes, the Shin Megami Tensei series is the best possible example of Turn Based battle systems: a straightforward, functional, intuitive system that naturally allows for complexity and strategy rather than trying to artificially inject it as a gimmick. Kudos to Atlus on this one.
Active Time Battle
It wasn’t long into Turn Based battles’ run that some bright young man or woman realized that they weren’t actually fun. In a (futile) attempt to remedy this, the ATB system evolved from traditional Turn Based games, offering ever so slightly closer an experience to actually playing a game, and not just cruising through someone’s My Documents folder. With ATB, there is no overarching turn in combat--rather, each combatant receives their turn individually, determined by how their Speed stat (or its equivalent) matches up against that of everyone else in battle. This was Squaresoft’s bread and butter during its iconic years of the SNES and first Playstation, and it, like its Turn Based predecessor, is still going strong today, particularly with Indie RPGs like the recent Cosmic Star Heroine.
Still boring as hell, though.
Winner: The Grandia Series
In a manner not entirely unlike Shin Megami Tensei, Grandia makes the most of the ATB system by implementing mechanics that encourage “juggling” your enemies as much as they do actually harming them. With Grandia, your attacks and your exploitation of weaknesses don’t just do damage to your foes, they also halt them for a moment, delaying their turns from arriving, or even stun them, outright stopping and setting back your foes’ approaching turn. Your foes can, of course, do the same to you, and so the game adds an element of strategic budgeting of your attacks to its battles that keeps you engaged. It’s a good idea that’s executed well enough that I actually, incredibly enough, found myself enjoying most of the battles in Grandia 1 and 2. And sure, there are plenty of other ATB RPGs that make some use of juggling enemy turns, to varying degrees of success...but it’s rarely so well and essentially incorporated as Grandia’s system, and certainly it’s never been as satisfying to hear see and hear you soundly smash your foes down the turn order as it was with Grandia.
First Person Slasher/Shooter
You know, we tend to think of FPS/RPG hybrids as being a newer concept, introduced by games like Fallout 3, the Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect, but actually...this has been around in RPGs for ages, when you think about it. What else would you call all those old first person dungeon-crawling PC games from back in the day? You know, the ones that Orcs + Elves mimics? This is actually an old and storied type of RPG, which has simply gotten a facelift in the last decade.
And thank goodness for that. If Orcs + Elves is anything to go on (I don’t pretend to have played the old school hack and slash titles), FPS systems used to be boring as hell. Heck, they still can be; the Elder Scrolls titles do absolutely nothing for me. But Mass Effect and Fallout are actually legitimately fun to play, so the system has evolved in a very positive direction.
Winner: Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas
It’s hard to believe that the engine the recent Fallout games use was developed for Elder Scrolls, and not the opposite way around. The system that just never feels quite right, a little inescapably clunky, for the series it was created for, by contrast fits Fallout like a glove. But it goes beyond just providing a good First Person Shooter experience--otherwise, Mass Effect would be here. No, what really makes the Fallout series shine is the way they incorporated the turn-based battle system of the original Fallout 1 and 2, with its great feature of targeting specific places on enemies’ bodies to cause various effects. With its VATS system, the Fallout series has become the absolute perfect blend of RPG and shooter, seamlessly letting you go back and forth between relying on your stats to turn the tide and dominate difficult battles with selective Turn Based pauses, and relying on your own capabilities in real time for the rest. Beyond Undertale’s incorporation of Bullet Hell into its menu-dependent Turn Based system, I can’t think of another RPG that even comes close to Fallout in blending substantially different combat types into a single, efficient entity
Eventually, someone somewhere figured out that there really wasn’t any law in place that said RPGs had to be patience-testing slog-fests of selecting the same commands from a DOS simulation about a thousand times per playthrough--it was, in fact, legally possible to incorporate stat-based gameplay and still have characters do things. From this groundbreaking concept that video games could actually involve movement came Action RPGs, RPGs whose battle systems allow for free and generally continuous movement. Menus may and usually are still involved, but pressing a direction button does more than just move a cursor.
This is the only RPG battle system that I find to be consistently fun. Well...mostly consistent. Lagoon still managed to be ass.
Winner: Kingdom Hearts 2
Honestly, there’s a lot of competition here. Kingdom Hearts 2 is competent, functional, and fun, incorporating stats into its free-moving gameplay well, involving menus in a simple and effective capacity while leaving the meat of combat to remain the player’s actual movement and attacks...it’s solid stuff. But a lot of other RPGs can say the same, to the same degree of competence...hell, a few of them, like, say, SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, do it slightly better. But KH2 has 1 important feature that pushes it into the top spot for me: its triangle button actions. I covered this a while back, but a quick refresher: You don’t just have the option to fight enemies normally in KH2--with each foe, you have an opportunity in combat to react to their movements and pull off a special attack or defense that’s singular to that enemy. For normal foes, this can be as simple as a quick dash behind them, which isn’t that interesting...but when you take advantage of triangle reactions against bosses, the results are frequently exceptionally cool and fun to watch, bringing the battle to a whole different realm. Who can forget how awesome it was to have Sora ride the Heartless chandelier thing in the Beast’s castle, smashing it against the columns of the ballroom? To make him leap atop Cerberus’s heads, grab the Keyblade, and dive-bomb them? To watch Sora run up the walls of the Master Control Program’s chambers, and use the height to hurl himself straight at the giant Sark? Every boss can be unique for what strategy must be employed to beat them, but Kingdom Hearts 2 takes it a step forward, and makes the choreography of its epic battles just as singular, lending a sense that this really is a special battle of its own. Very enjoyable.
Of course, this isn’t the only RPG out there to do something like this, I should note. Recent Legend of Zelda games, for example, also have many reaction commands. Nonetheless, KH2 stands apart for how thoroughly it incorporated them, and the fun and epic nature of them is still unmatched, to me.
Action battle systems are generally fun, but even they get repetitive when you go through an RPGs’ typical hundreds of battles doing the same thing each time, even for most bosses. Kingdom Hearts 2 goes out of its way to make its epic battles a part of its cinematic experience, and that pushes it to the top.
The Fire Emblem series, Nippon Ichi’s canon, most Shining Force titles, Live A Live, the early Fallouts, the recent Shadowruns...you know the drill with Tactics battle systems. They’re sitting around, waiting for your turn, much like Turn Based and ATB, but your turn also involves moving where you are on a battlefield, and your placement affects what you can do and who you can attack. From ancient titles like Crystal Warriors and Fire Emblem 1, right on up to this year’s Torment: Tides of Numenera, Tactical RPGs have been around for ages, and they’re going nowhere anytime soon.
They range in terms of how boring they are. Some are very boring. Others engage one’s mind enough that they’re kind of less boring...until you realize that each battle takes like 20+ minutes to get through. I’m not really a fan, but I guess that they’re better than the standard battle systems of RPGs.
I originally thought I’d separate Tactical RPGs into 2 types: Turn Based, and ATB, in the sense that some RPGs (like Vandal Hearts 1 + 2, Bahamut Lagoon, and the Fire Emblems) strictly follow an order of everyone on 1 side getting to move and act, then everyone on the other side getting to move and act, back and forth like a regular Turn Based system, while other RPGs (like SMT Devil Survivor 1 + 2, Hoshigami Remix, and Project X Zone 1 + 2) are more like an ATB system, in which turn order is about individual units and their stats and actions. But honestly? I kind of feel like the differentiation doesn’t matter all that much...whereas it’s a huge thing on its own, Turn Based vs. ATB in terms of Tactical RPGs comes off as more just one of many potential features and approaches to how it works, a part instead of the focal point. The focus with Tactical systems is on the strategies of troop placement and all the details that go along with it, so I don’t see the point of splitting this category up.
Winner: Final Fantasy Tactics
As if there were ever any doubt. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but the method of Final Fantasy Tactics’s gameplay is sensible and engrossing, with a staggering level of complexity built into it. There are dozens of different ways to use dozens of different units in dozens of different scenarios of terrain, formation, stats, angles of fire, turn order, and various other interacting details. If most other Tactical RPGs are checkers, this is chess, the ultimate cumulation of tactical aspects that the genre aspires to.
The only flaw, really, is that the level of possibility and detail in the battle system is so nuanced and expansive that the developers didn’t really seem to even know what to do with it, as there are few battles that really strive to explain to you or push you to try various facets of the system’s possibilities--like they developed a supercomputer and then had no idea what to do with it beyond using it as a calculator. Still, there’s enough opportunity and different scenarios to sink your strategic teeth into this insanely detailed battle system to appreciate it.
I don’t know what else to call this style of battle system. Maybe there’s a term for it, and if so, let me know. This is that weird thing where it’s not so much characters following your direct commands, so much as it is you setting the pace for them and directing them from afar. Hard to explain...like, Final Fantasy 12, or Dragon Age 1, where it’s less you directly controlling your characters’ actions than it is pointing and clicking to set their target, and they follow a set action automatically. Setting up the gambits of FF12, auto-attacking in Xenoblade Chronicles 1 when you’re near an enemy, ramming into foes in Eternal Senia and the Fairune series, that sort of thing.
To me, this battle system has the capacity to be the most boring of all of them--and it lives up to that potential more often than not. It works out okay enough when it’s the ram-into-stuff variety, I guess, like the Witch + Hero series and Eternal Senia, but in the more common MMORPG styles of this battle system, things can get really asinine. The only thing I can imagine that’s more mind-numbing than repetitive Turn Based combat is spending 20 - 40 minutes messing around with combat command orders and priorities, and then for the rest of the game just watching every battle happen on its own, with you occasionally directing someone to use a potion. Set up your little automated combat strategies well enough in some of these systems, and you can just sit back and read a book while the game plays itself without you and Jontron freaks out. This is the only battle system so ass backwards, it’s guaranteed that the better you are at it, the less you’ll actually play. You can play some of these RPGs in the background while you’re doing something else.
...Someone did remember to tell the Final Fantasy 12 development team that video games are generally regarded as an INTERACTIVE medium, right? A memo clarifying what products SquareEnix made did circulate around the office at some point between 2001 and 2006? Then again, maybe the FF12 team designed the game the way they did as an apologetic mercy to the player. Maybe they fully realized that their game was a self-important coma-inducing wad of garbage, and in a last-ditch effort to mitigate the damage, Final Fantasy 12’s developers designed its battle system to be so excessively automated that you could actually play a different, better game while playing theirs.
Winner: Defender’s Quest 1
Okay, so, this is kinda cheating, because Defender’s Quest isn’t so much an Automated RPG as it is a Tower Defense RPG, and Tower Defense games just naturally have units which are automated. Look, I don’t know what to tell you. The best that Automated battle systems ever seem to produce are either things like Xenoblade Chronicles 1, which is functional and fine but also would have clearly worked better as an Action RPG, which isn’t something I’m gonna congratulate, or things like the Eternal Senia/Fairune/Witch + Hero thing, where you just spend the game ‘attacking’ enemies by body slamming them and hoping they die first. That works just fine, but can I really glorify something that careless and basic with a winning spot?
Anyway, cheating or not, DQ1 is an Automated RPG, and it works damn well, incorporating the RPG concepts of leveling up and stat/ability-building into the naturally addictive (if perhaps kind of stupid) Tower Defense genre’s gameplay smoothly and effectively. There’s not a lot to say about it, really. Just imagine a Tower Defense game that is an RPG, imagine that it’s done exactly as well as you’d think it should be, and you’ve got Defender’s Quest 1. I can’t for the life of me figure out why we haven’t seen more games try merging these genres since DQ1 came out, because it’s strong proof that they have a natural chemistry.
And...that’s it for now. I can’t think of any other really major RPG battle system types that aren’t just somewhat varied versions of the above, although if you can, you’re welcome to share your thoughts with me. Barring that, though, this is the end of the rant, and I have no closing thoughts to share, so have this awkward paragraph, instead! Thanks for reading.