RPG: what is a good turn-based system?
After decades of domination thanks to Final Fantasy and Persona, JRPG combat has fallen out of favor. Why do fans no longer want turn-based combat?
Because their mechanics lack the flair of modern action games, turn-based RPGs are often considered archaic. As a result, many players believe that such titles are increasingly a thing of the past. However, upon closer examination, such arguments do not fully stand up to examination, as turn-based games can still be successful.
In fact, many titles like this offer levels of strategic depth that their faster counterparts have yet to replicate. To date, developers are experimenting with the formula to create memorable masterpieces with mechanics at the heart of their experience. Large franchises like Shin megami tensei to independent darlings like Subtitle, turn-based combat is still a great play system.
Turn-based combat involves players and enemies taking turns performing actions, which can include attacks, using items, or casting spells. After performing this action, the next character in the queue takes their own turn, until one side is victorious. It’s easy to understand, and it has advantages despite the lack of visual dynamism. As actions are limited to turns, players can plan their movements, which also arguably makes it easier to manage multiple characters.
The problem is, most turn-based games are so simple that there is often no need to strategize. Franchises like Square Enix Final fantasy are prized for their storytelling, but the gameplay often leaves something to be desired. Characters can have a variety of spells to poison or immobilize enemies, but rarely need to be used. Many of these abilities don’t work in longer boss fights, and normal enemies are generally easy enough that it’s more convenient to use damaging moves instead. The fight falls into a cycle of attack and healing, with no real need to adjust tactics.
Compare that to something like an Atlus game. In the Character and Shin megami tensei franchises, the intelligent use of status change skills and support are essential to tackle the toughest challenges. Additionally, their press and 1-plus tower systems reward players for exploiting their weaknesses with extra turns. By knowing each enemy’s vulnerabilities, players can effectively eliminate encounters before they have had a chance to begin. However, what makes such systems difficult is that enemies can do the same. This encourages players to build balanced parties to fill their own gaps.
However, this idea of building gameplay around handling turns in combat is not unique to Atlus RPGs. Square Enix itself developed the Active Time Combat System, which attempted to speed up the game by having the character “load” in real time. Unfortunately, depending on a player’s party and game settings, it is possible that characters in games that use this system will get stuck waiting several seconds for their time bar to fill up before they can perform another action.
This is not to say that active elements cannot work in a turn-based game. Super Mario RPG games are well known for their timed shot system, prompting the player to type in commands to boost certain abilities. Bandai Namco’s Baten kaitos also experimented with the formula, allowing players to use their turns to combine attacks but putting timers on their turns once they’ve progressed to a certain power level, encouraging quick thinking and memorization. Subtitle, too, takes this approach by causing enemy attacks to take the form of bullet hells: forcing players to dodge in real time. Either way, players are encouraged to think more about their actions, memorize enemy attack patterns, and strike back with a thoughtful offense.
Perhaps more important than giving players more combat options, some RPGs don’t always force players to fight. Sometimes they can talk to enemies, allowing them to trade items, recruit them, or convince them to withdraw. This adds a role-playing element to an aspect of the game that it typically lacks, opening up a whole new range of opinions as the characters engage in a mid-fight dialogue. This is especially true in games like Subtitle, where prioritizing peace is the only way to get the best ending to the game.
Ultimately, this increased focus on choice and tactics is probably what turn-based games need to stay relevant. While more traditional titles like Dragon Quest XI may still prove to be popular, new competitors will likely have to push the boundaries of the genre to stand out. Turn-based games don’t have to be kept as simple as hitting weaknesses for extra damage. By making more options viable and incorporating each game’s themes into its combat mechanics, developers can make their games more interesting while giving their audiences more freedom to develop their own unique and interesting play styles.
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