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The Art of Turn-Based RPGs I: Menu-based battles

by Felipe Pepe on 09/22/17 12:14:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

One of the saddest things about being an old-school RPG fan is just how misunderstood one of the most traditional and exciting RPG systems is: the Turn-Based combat.

For many gamers, turn-based combat is best know as "JRPG combat". And it's often seen as outdated, slow, unrealistic, repetitive and many other unflattering adjectives.

There are many reasons for this. In the West, Turn-Based RPGs dominated the 80s but, with the rise of FPS and RTS games, they started to be replaced by Real-Time and Real-Time-with-Pause RPGs.

As TB games vanished from the shelves, misinformation, prejudice and hype-driven reporting stepped in - such as this infamous 2011 interview with InXile's president Matthew Findley, where he states that turn-based games were just a "technical limitation":

"I think these games always wanted to be action games at their heart. I think all those old turn-based games, it’s just that’s all the technology would allow."

Ugh.

While JRPG series like Final Fantasy kept TB combat going for a while longer, the Japanese game industry had a lot of difficulties during the PS3 & Xbox 360 era. Fewer games were translated and crossed the oceans, and many of those were disappointments. For a while, the biggest news on Japanese games was Phil Fish saying that they suck.

In 2012 Kotaku's Jason Schreier even wrote an entire article just to counter-attack the perception that Japanese games are "Stale, Old-Fashioned, Archaic, Obsolete, Out Of Touch Rehashes".

I completely agree with the article, but the fact that it had to be written says a lot.

Thankfully, things improved greatly since then. More JRPGs get localized, we have a more healthy & diverse industry open to trying different things and digital distribution made everything more accessible. 

Today you can open Steam or GoG and find all sort of Turn-Based RPGs, from indies like Age of Decadence, Lords of Xulima and Underrail to Japanese imports like Trails in the Sky, Strangers in Sword City and Hyperdimension Neptunia to big AAA titles like XCOM 2 and Divinity: Original Sin 2

In fact, D:OS2 stands as this year's highest rated PC game on Metacritic! So let's take some time to celebrate Turn-based RPGs, looking at some of their most interesting systems!

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In this first article I'll focus on the basics: the so-called "menu-based combat", where there's little to no movement - your party stands in front of the enemy and trade blows until one side is dead.

This is what many consider the typical "JRPG combat", though it actually originated in the US - first in PLATO games from the 70s, then it matured with Wizardry: Proving Ground of the Mad Overlord (1981), as it was the first RPG to allow its players to create & control a party of characters in battle: 

I usually prefer holistic analysis, as game systems are (or at least should be) deeply interconnected, but for this article I'll just show some of the most common and interesting design choices regarding Turn-Based combat. It will be long, but hopefully it will be worth it.

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Action Order:

Ok, so the game is Turn-Based... but who goes first? Well, it depends.

In traditional Turn-Based games, each character has a turn. Turn order is usually decided by initiative/speed, and sometimes a very fast character can have more turns than a slow one. You can see this in games like Final Fantasy X, Temple of Elemental Evil, Fallout 1 & 2, the Gold Box games, etc. 

Some games - especially tactical ones such as X-COM, Disgaea or Jagged Alliance 2 - instead alternate between a "player turn", where you control all characters and attack, followed by an "enemy turn", were the opposing force does the same. This elevates the risk & reward: you can coordinate your attacks and deal a lot of damage, but then you'll have to endure the enemy doing the same.

However, a few RPGs use instead a Phase-Based system (aka "We-Go"), where you and your opponent give orders to all characters and then the actions are executed all at once. 

This is a more chaotic system, that requires some gambles. Let's say you are facing a strong monster and one that is near-death: how many characters should attack the near-death one? Just one? But what if the attack misses? Several? But if the first attack kills, then the others might be wasted... 

Initiative is also key. If one of your characters is dying, a fast monster might kill him/her before your slow Cleric can cast a healing spell - will you take the gamble, or order the Ninja to use a healing item? 

This system was used mostly on older RPGs, such a Bard's Tale and Wizardry, but lives on in modern Wizardry clones, such as Etrian Odissey, Stranger Of Sword City or Elminage: Gothic

In 1991 Final Fantasy IV introduced the ATB (Active Time Battle) system, where characters can act as soon as their ATB bars fill up. This remains the quintessential JRPG combat system for a lot of people - especially since it was used in several of Squaresoft JRPGs in the 90s, including FFVII:

Final Fantasy X-2 expanded upon the concept, adding bonus damage when the player chains attacks together. Final Fantasy XIII added more flexibility: you could quickly execute weaker attacks, or wait for it to charge further and unleash stronger ones - a useful choice when trying to keep a combo up:

It's interesting to note that later Lightning Returns added do many nodes to the ATB bar that it effectivly plays like a stamina bar in a real-time RPG like Dark Souls.

Bravely Default elevated combat turns into a resource. Characters can skip turn to save them for later, attacking several times at once or using powerful attacks that take several turns to execute. They can also spend more turns than they saved, which will force them to helplessly stand still for a few turns.

Grandia, on the other hand, made the turn order itself interactive - characters "race" each other on a timeline to select an action. Each action takes a certain time to be executed, and you can try to interrupt an enemy's attack, delay it or quickly prepare a defense before it lands. This system was later used in games like Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 & 4 and Child of Light:

Nowadays many gamers are familiar with the Persona series, where hitting an enemy with elemental magic he's weak to will negate his turn and leave him exposed. But the Turn Press system in the Shin Megami Tensei games goes much deeper. During your turn you get a certain number of points to use - and each action will consume some of those points.

However, Critical hits or exploiting enemies' weakness consumes less points than normal, while a miss will consume more points. And if you screw up big - like using a spell the enemy can absorb, you lose ALL points and your turn will end. 

It's an elaborate system, that requires you to know each enemy and their weakness, then exploit those to make your turn last as long as possible.

Position & Reach:

Wizardry 1 divided your characters into front & back row, meaning only the three characters in the front could physically attack & be attacked. The problem was that this limited party composition. For example, Mages and Priests could still cast spells from the back row, but the Thief class was useless in combat - it was too weak to be in the front row, but unable to cast spells from the back row. 

Final Fantasy I "solved" this by making front & back rows more subtle - everyone can hit everyone, but characters in the front row deal & take full physical damage, while those in the back take & deal less:

A better solution came in Wizardry V, with the addition of weapon range. Now characters from the back row could attack as well, as the game's manual anxiously explains:

Recently, Lords of Xulima spiced things up, adding horizontal range: characters with short weapons can only attack adjacent enemies. In the image below, the far right goblin can only be attacked by the right-most Warrior or the bow-wielding Thief. For the Cleric to hit him, he'll have to move to the right: 

Wizardry 8 revolutionized the concept by mixing a fully 3D world with a circular party formation. Now enemies could engage you from any direction, so being attacked from the left means that your right-side characters likely wouldn't be able to reach the enemy. Being surrounded means you have to spread your defenses thin, and enemies will likely have easy access to your fragile casters.

Meanwhile, we also have games where position not only who can attack/be attacked, but also which skills can be used. In Darkest Dungeon some skills are only available if the character is in the two front slots, while others can only be used from the two back slots:

A further example is Yumina: The Ethereal, where only the front-most character can attack - the others provide support, buffing the attack, debuffing the enemy or trying to interrupt/counter the enemy's buff/debuff. It looks chaotic, but it's quite intuitive: 

Radiant Historia inverts things by offering attacks that allows you to manipulate the enemy's position on the grid - you can push them into traps, into the range of AoE spells or pile them up in a single square, so that you can deal damage to all of them at once. The game even allows you to delay your turns, so that you can coordinate the attack better & land multiple hits with the same character:

A common characteristic in all these games is that the heroes and the enemies are in separate fields - even when characters can move around, they cannot enter the opposing field. 

Obviously, not every Turn-Based game follows this rule. There are RPGs where encounters take place in small tactical maps, like Albion or Agarest: Generatios of War; in large areas, like Final Fantasy Tactics or X-COM; in oddly-shaped arenas, such as Wild Arms 4 & 5; those with free movement inside a radius, such as Hyperdimension Neptunia; and even those set in large open worlds, like Jagged Alliance 2, Divinity: Original Sin or Fallout 1 & 2:

However, these add several new elements, such as Action Points, Grids, Stances, Flanking, Attacks of Opportunity, etc... so we'll address them and Tactical RPGs another time.

Timed button press / QTEs:

An advantage of TB combat is that during a character's attack the game & player are 100% focused on that single attack, so many games ask players to perform additional actions during the attack.

A very common one is to press a button right when the attack/block happens, to make it more efficient. Several RPGs, from Paper Mario to Final Fantasy 8 make use of this feature.

Final Fantasy 8 actually takes it further. Some Limit Break attacks require special inputs - Squall's just asks players to time the button press correctly, but Zell's come with a long list of attacks that must be executed by pressing a specific button combination:

A fan-favorite is Shadow Hearts' Judgment Ring system, where attacks require that players time their button presses to hit certain areas on a clock-like artifact:

                           

Executing the attack is usually easy, but landing a critical requires hitting a very narrow area - and might lead to a miss. More than a gimmick, this is a key part of the game - different attacks have different rings, and some buffs/debuffs can affect the ring's speed or the size of the hit areas. 

In a slightly different take, Mario & Luigi blended the brother's platforming skills with RPG by having not only timed button presses to boost attacks, but also asking players to jump with both characters to avoid attacks during the enemy's turn:

                    

Other games, like Valkyrie Profile and Agarest 2 go for a combo-like approach. In Valkyrie Profile each of the PSX's four face buttons is assigned to one party member. During your turn you can attack with each character a certain number of times - the goal is to make them combo the enemy with as many hits as possible - but the trick is that each hero has a different speed and attack type. 

If you can coordinate all characters and land enough its in a short amount of time, you'll unleash extra special attacks. Of course, enemies won't just stand there - they may block or counter your moves.

Party Members

Turn-based games rely heavily on abstraction - mechanics over verisimilitude - or "gamistic" rather than "simulationistic", if you prefer. As such, they more easily acommodate mechanics like instantly swapping party members during battle - although it begs the question of WTF were they doing instead of fighting.

Pokémon, arguably the world's most popular Turn-Based RPG, uses character swapping as a core mechanic. You may have a party of six pokémons, but only one will fight at a time. This is complemented by the several Pokémon types, each with their strengths and weakness. A key part of the game is knowing which Pokémon to use and when to swap it.

If you push this concept to its ultimate limit, you get Labyrinth of Touhou. These games allow you to fight with a four-character party, but with eight more characters in the reserve, where they slowly regenerate. This is because characters are all very fragile - and there's no way to resurrect them mid-combat. You have to play smart, selecting characters with the appropriate attacks & resistances, then swapping them out a soon as their HP starts to go down:

Other games, such as Breath of Fire 4, will keep extra party members as support. The game only allows three characters to battle (again, mechanics over realism), but the rest of the party stays in the back, occasionally using support skills. They can be instantly swapped with active characters, as well:

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis also keeps half your party on the reserve, but you can swap them in mid-attack or even while defending. Not only this allows for extra damage, but you'll later unlock special finishing moves that require you to deal a certain number of combos, or use all characters in one attack.

Another design choice is to have a party, but only give players control over one character at a time. A few games do this, but IMHO the pinnacle of such system was Final Fantasy XII and its gambit system, where you "program" party members using a series of conditionals - "IF health < 30%, USE Potion", and so on:

The Last Remnant might be a mess of a game, but it's a very interesting mess. While most RPGs have between three and eight party members, here you have up to 18 characters at once, split in up to five different squads - each with their own formation. The stats of each squad are a mix between the individual character stats and a group average + current formation bonus:

Instead of asking you to control all 18 characters, the game takes a more "macro" approach: you give orders like "Full Attack!" to each squad, and each character will use the attack they think works best.

Another example of fighting large scale battles is Sengoku Rance, in which you control generals & their armies. Their troops are their HP - and the more troops, the more damage they can deal:

BTW, another unique aspect of Sengoku Rance is that battle & character has a turn limit. Each unit can only attack up to four times per battle, and battles can't last more than 24 turns. Once time ends, the side with the highest morale wins. 

Time-keeping & Status Effects:

Speaking of time, an cool side-effect of having turns is that it makes the passing of time much easier to measure & understand. Compare it to a Real-Time RPG: even if you know that a buff lasts 35 seconds, that doesn't clearly convey how many actions you're able to perform. In TB games, that's very simple to understand - it will just say "this buff last five turns".

As such, many TB games make great use of effects that happen over time, such buffs, debuffs and trade-offs - or even just annoying enemies that regenerate 20% HP each turn. 

The Etrian Odyssey series has plenty of skills based on short time windows or temporary trade-offs - such as dealing more damage this turn but being left vulnerable; forfeiting a turn to boost damage for the next 2-3 turns; or dealing a lot of damage at once, then resting for 1-2 turns.

Cosmic Star Heroine has several systems that will make you carefully track time. Each turn both you and the enemies get stronger, so combat grows increasingly deadly. Also, every X number of turns your characters get a "hyper" buff, which grealty increases their damage.

Moreover, there's no mana: each ability can be used once, then you must rest or defend to be able to use it again - effectively asking you to "waste" a turn to recharge your powers. Thus, knowing when to use your best attacks (ASAP to quickly kill enemies? When hyper activates? Later when they're more powerful?) and when to rest is key to surviving.

Other games, such as Chrono Cross, play with the alternating nature of turns. Each spell you cast has an element color, which affects the battle's "Field Effect". Cast three Green spells in a row and the field will be 100% Green - this boosts characters that are attuned to the Green Element, and allows them to use higher-tier spells such as summons or ultimate moves.

The trick is that you control only three characters, so even if you cast three spells of the same color in a row, the next turn the enemy might cast a different color - or take advantage of the field for himself!

Yumina, which I mentioned previously, also does this with its shared mana bar: there are four colors of mana - if you cast a spell that costs 12 Green mana, the Green portion of the mana bar will go down by 12 and the other colors will go up by 4.

            

If you use too much of one color, you'll drain it - but also allow more powerful spells from other colors to be cast. All characters in battle draw from the same mana bar, so if the opponent has a powerful Red attack, you can use a heavy Red spell immediatly before him, leaving him out of mana.

Joint Attacks

Another tradition of TB RPGs are joint attacks. Instead of having each character attack separately, two or more heroes join forces in a single attack. Several games do this, but Chrono Trigger is perhaps the most famous, with its double and triple techs:

Ah, the memories...

But Chrono Trigger is far from the only - or the best game at this. Suikoden II uses its massive 108 character roster to allow all sizes of joint attacks, from a double strike all the way to five humanoid squirrels joing forces to instantly kill an enemy:

However, not all combination attacks are openly presented. Some games "hide" them - they occur when a specific sequence of attacks is inputted. In Phantasy Star IV, for example, instead of individually selecting what each character will do, you can create a macro - in theory to make combat faster, but using certain spells in a certain order leads to powerful attacks executed by multiple characters:

Truly weird stuff

Finally, we get to the truly weird & unique TB games.

SD Snatcher is a spin-off of Hideo Kojima's adventure game Snatcher. The game can be described as a "Turn-Based FPS": each turn you choose a gun and aim with the crosshairs - you can destroy specific body parts of your enemies to make them slower or weaker, but they'll often move before you fire. Thus, aiming for a small critical spot is risky, while shooting at the body is a guaranteed hit... unless they have shields or hostages: 

After a Turn-Based FPS, why not a Turn-Based 2D fighting game? Windwalker is a martial arts RPG where battles play like a turn-based Street Fighter - each turn you choose one of ten movements, such as jumping, kicking, dashing forward, cartwheeling, punching, etc - each with its own range, damage and execution time. Plus, after each battle you can watch a real-time replay! 

Undertale deserves a lot of credit as well: a turn-based RPG that requires you to play through short gameplay segments during the enemy's turn - from bullet hell to platforming. Perhaps most importantly, it uses the game as a whole to convey its story - from the soundtrack to the user interface.

A favorite of mine is NEO Scavenger. The game is a survival RPG that almost hides all information from the player. You never see damage numbers and there's not a single combat animation. 

Instead, you select commands, such as “shoot”, “kick” or “sneak towards”, and the combat log will describe what happened. While this may seem crude, it allow for actions that even AAA games find too complex to animate, such as head-butting, leg tripping and even grappling (with mods) – all while pushing a shopping cart. You'll have to use your intuition to understand which actions deals more damage and are more useful. A nice twist on what's usually a very number-driven genre. 

Finally, here's Hylics:

                 

The gameplay is quite standard, but damn the art looks cool.

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There's many more games to talk about, but this article is already long enough as it is. I shall return soon(ish) with a second part about interesting aspects and systems in turn-based tactical RPGs, but feel free to point out other games & systems that I missed.

In the meanwhile, if your heart desires more RPG-goodness, check the CRPG Book Project, my ongoing FREE ebook on the history of Computer Role-Playing Games. Cheers!


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