Why Turn-Based Combat Should Never Die!

So, you're a JRPG fan.

You've grown up with Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Grandia and countless other traditional JPRGs which make use of that tried and tested you hit, I hit turn based combat mechanic. You've wandered the vast expanse of numerous identikit dungeons wincing ever so slightly each time your screen swirls or explodes into yet another random battle. You've become irritable, nay, irate as your party is wiped by a boss who seems so powerful you think it must be one of those 'this boss is meant to kill me' moments, at least until the screen goes black, melancholy music kicks in and before it's even had the chance to fade in, you know the screen's going to read: 'GAME OVER'.

Yet, you load from your last save point.

You slog through the dungeon all over again, you whizz through the random battles, you find the super boss repellant item which makes that uber-boss a total doddle, you rejoice in your perseverance and you rinse, wash and repeat for 60 hours until the game is finished.

Sound familiar? If so, you are a true JRPG fan and you're part of dying breed. Search enthusiast forums and you're bound to find plenty of fans who are calling time on turn-based combat as a pre-historic gaming convention comparable to men-only voting or slavery in terms of it having no place in modern society. But I really don't understand why. Turn-based combat to me has had as much innovation over the years as shooting things in the face has, you just have to know where to look.

Rewind to 1997. On November 17th, European gamers were falling over themselves to buy a game called Final Fantasy VII. To date, according to VGchartz, FFVII has shifted 2.7 million units in Europe and a staggering 9.37 million worldwide making it the most successful turn-based JRPG of all time.

I remember I was still at school when FFVII launched and going over to a friends house to watch him play it. I was blown away by the graphics and what I pieced together of the story. Immediately afterwards, a Playstation went on my Christmas list along with this game. It literally couldn't come soon enough. A lot of my friends also bought into the hype, shelling out £44.99 in order to be a part of what was being lauded by some critics as 'one of the most important games of all time.'

It was amongst these friends I encountered my first turn-based combat naysayers and retrospectively it makes me think FFVII may also have been one of the most traded in/returned games of all time (though I can't really back that up)!

"It's boring innit? You hit them, they hit you, there's no skill. I took it back to the shop" - This was back in the days of Game's 10-day no quibble money back guarantee...

"Why do I have to randomly fight shit? It doesn't make any sense and all you do is press X to win"

"Why has Cloud got stupid hair?"

"Tifa has massive tits."

I'd try to reassure them that it was about the story, that the turn-based combat was deep and tactical if they'd just give it the chance and that the anatomically unlikely appearance of Tifa was keeping in line with the Japanese aesthetic (it's possible at 16, I worded this slightly differently). For the most part though, kids in my year weren't interested. They would rather shoot things in the face and how could I argue with that. I however, fell hard and fast for the JRPG and never looked back.

This disdain for turn-based combat has reared it's ugly head many times over the past 13 years with criticisms levelled at this tried and tested JRPG convention that I've never been able to understand. I don't like FPSs (in truth, I'm just not very good at them!) but I can understand why millions of people rushed out to buy Black Ops and would never pour scorn on that game for not only being incredibly similar to Modern Warfare 2, but to my inexperienced FPS eyes, being incredibly similar to every other military shooter. I'm sure Battlefield: Bad Company and the new Medal of Honor do slightly different things to Black Ops but ultimately they're all about shooting the enemy and arguing with 13-year-olds online. Right? No. People undoubtedly enjoy these games because of the way a traditional FPS formula has been tweaked and implemented to produce an enjoyable gaming experience. It's the same for JRPGs and turn based combat.

There's a post on Destructoid (actually one of the more well-rounded criticisms of turn-based combat from a self-confessed JRPG fan) where the author cites the unrealistic nature of turn-based combat as his main reason for hating it. He talks about it being unrealistic to stand there and wait for someone to hit you only for your attacker to stand idly and wait for you to hit him back. He's got a point I guess, but I don't play games for the realism. I definitely don't play JRPGs for the realism.

Turn-based combat is about strategy, and devising and perfecting different strategies for me, is a lot of fun.

For example - and staying with FFVII for the time being - you equip your characters with the most suitable materia, items and weapons for the job ahead. If you're going to be fighting robots for a large part of a dungeon, Junon for example, you ensure you have Lightning materia equipped. You always try to stay one step ahead of your foe, anticipating it's attack pattern (this is particularly true of bosses) and ensuring your party are properly prepared for any heavy hits that might be doled out.

In comparison with some more recent JRPGs, the FFVII system, while still excellent, has become a little bit dated. Fans who called for more innovation in the genre after being hit with raft of games attempting to capitalise on the success of FFVII, eventually got it, while people who criticised JRPGs for becoming stale and repetetive in their approach to combat missed out on some wonderful tweaks to a classic system.

Shadow Hearts launched for Playstation 2 on March 29th 2002. While it never achieved critical or commercial success, largely due to poor marketing and the looming release of Final Fantasy X, it did add a couple of particularly important improvements to the system. Firstly, the introduction of Sanity Points (SP) which upon reaching zero would see your character go beserk and start tearing up everything in sight. It provided an extra element to take into consideration when planning your next move. Secondly, there was the Judgement Ring system, which for me was a revolutionary step in evolving the turn based system and countered criticisms that all you had to do in JRPGs was press X to win.

Simply put, the Judgement Ring is a circle containing a number of highlighted areas which you have to hit X on as the dial spins round to register hits with your character. The ring can be affected in a number of different ways altering the dynamic of a fight drastically. It can be slowed to make combat more precise, it can be sped up which can make it harder to hit as a negative status effect or enable you to hit twice as hard as a trade off of power and accuracy as a postive effect. Check it out:

This innovation was further expanded on in Shadow Hearts: Covenant, where a combo system was introduced allowing you to chain your characters' moves together. This would result in accessing an extremely powerful spell or ability at the end of a successful chain and made better use of the battle order mechanic which I first saw in Final Fantasy X.

Many of the same development team from the Shadow Hearts series became part of the Mistwalker/Feelplus combo responsible for the awesome, Lost Odyssey, which is easily one of the best current-gen JRPGs in my opinion. The team refined the Judgement Ring idea making each basic attack an elaborate QTE where you were required to hold the trigger down as your character ran towards the enemy, releasing it at precisely the right moment for optimum damage. This took time to master but was a fantastic way of keeping players concentrating on battles from start to finish.

Other games should be praised for adding layers to the turn-based combat mechanic, Resonance of Fate is a great example. RoF mixes turn-based combat with the kind of system we're more used to seeing in SRPGs where your position and your cooperative actions impact on the overall outcome of the fight. Final Fantasy XII has an amazingly deep combat system which is essentially turn based though acted out in 'real-time'. I preferred to have the combat stop when I wanted to select actions and as a turn-based fan appreciated the option to do so. The Gambit system in FFXII is one of the most advanced and intricate back-ends I have ever experienced in a JRPG battle system. It wasn't for everyone, but for me it was strategic heaven and I could literally spend an hour and a half designing indvidual gambits for any given situation.

Sometimes though, you don't even have to do anything particularly special to produce a winning turn based system. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinel of the Starry Skies (which is most certainly NOT a stopgap title just because it's on DS!) takes us back to the old school battle mechanics but subconciously encourages you to learn a tactic for defeating almost every kind of enemy. You are required to pay attention to enemy weaknesses and attack patterns and failure to do so will almost certainly result in frustration and death. Your characters play very specific roles and finding the correct balance (Paladin, Ranger, Sage, Armamentalist for me) is integral to progression. It's also extremely addicitve...I've clocked over 100 hours on DQIX now and it's one of the very few JRPGs I actually enjoy grinding in because of the retro, strategy heavy, no-bells and whistles combat system. Quests which encourage you to explore your abilities are a brilliant way of teaching players (especially newcomers to the genre - DQIX was marketed towards a younger audience) how to get the most enjoyment out of the system.

This video shows a player fighting Leviathan and is a great example of how DQIX makes you think about strategising. To go in gung-ho, attack, attack, attack invariably leads to death.

There are literally tons more JRPGs out there which have done something a little bit different with the system over the years. Honourable mentions to Tales of Symphonia for being the inspiration for the Gambit system in FFXII, Legend of Legaia for combining basic fighting game mechanics with traditional turn-based combat, Parasite Eve for making us dodge enemy attacks between turns, Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light for being so stoically retro it stands out a mile as a nod to the classic systems we've been enjoying since the early eighties.

Love it or hate it, there's no escaping the fact that turn-based combat is to the JRPG genre what shooting things in the face is to the FPS genre. It's a genre covention and it's not going anywhere so don't expect too many drastic changes to it in the near future!

So the next time someone says to me JRPGs are boring because turn-based combat systems are so basic, I feel I've collected my thoughts on it to the extent where I can shout them back down into their COD playing hovel. Turn-based combat is here to stay and games like DQIX, Resonance of Fate and Lost Odyssey are flying its flag for a new generation of RPG fans and I for one couldn't be happier, especially in a time where it's beginning to look like this particular convention might be on the wane.

DISCLAIMER: Not all COD players live in hovels. In fact most of them come from respctable homes and contrary to BBC and Metro reports are not gun wielding psychopaths with an insatiable blood-lust.

The action-RPG is most certainly on the ascendancy with the number of quality turn-based titles limited as a result but with titles like Golden Sun 3: Dark Dawn just around the corner (Dec 10th people!) and White Knight Chronicles 2 scheduled for next year there will be good turn-based JRPGs to sink your teeth into in 2011. Happy days I say! Bring on the strategising, optimising and pulverising for many years to come, turn-based combat should never die.

1 comment:

  1. I know this was posted a year ago but I enjoyed reading it nonetheless. I also have something to say about the "unrealistic" aspect of turn-based battles. I used to think the same way--didn't mean I didn't enjoy it for what it was of course, but it was unrealistic. And then I had a try at a tabletop RPG for the first time (sad, I know) and it all suddenly clicked.

    The reason why it feels unrealistic is that it's the limitation of the medium. With the roleplayer's participation, a GM is usually narrating the battle to create the illusion of real time combat. It's harder to pull that off in a video game...but not impossible, as several games have shown, such as The Last Remnant, FFXII as you already mentioned (<3) and Skies of Arcadia. All of those are still turn-based, but they used graphical capabilities (and a few more things) to help pull off the illusion of something much more active going on, or at least that's what I think; your mileage may vary.

    Either way, long live turn-based combat!