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7 great tactical RPGs that every developer should study

7 great tactical RPGs that every developer should study

July 20, 2017 | By Rich Moss

July 20, 2017 | By Rich Moss
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More: Console/PC, Design



Few genres have the capacity to intimidate newcomers quite like tactical RPGs. With a complex blend of tactical and strategic combat systems and traditional role-playing mechanics, story structures, and characters, not to mention the dozens of hours they commonly take to complete, they can seem as frightening to developers unfamiliar with their quirks as to players. 

But tactical RPGs also touch on ideas that transcend their genre. They are very much rule-based experiences, and both their rules and the implementations of these rules that games in the genre have tested could easily be adapted beyond the tactical RPG. We reached out to several developers who were influenced by great tactical RPGs, and asked them to select some instructive exemplars.

Whether you're making a pure tactical RPG of your own or looking to incorporate tactical and RPG elements into another genre, these seven games — covering both Western and Eastern-style approaches — are sure to provide some handy lessons. 

1) Final Fantasy Tactics: a masterful spinoff into a related subgenre

"One of the original greats that inspired and influenced many many other games," Halcyon 6 co-creator Ken Seto says of Final Fantasy Tactics, which is perhaps the most recognizable tactical RPG — and not just because of the Final Fantasy in the name. Final Fantasy Tactics is a master class in how to adapt and reimagine an existing design and visual framework to fit a different style without losing its essence.  

It appropriates the character classes and their innate abilities and properties from the main series, along with most of the usual story beats related to treachery, moral dilemmas, and life and love. And while its strategy and tactics-heavy combat mechanics are radically different, it retains enough of the traditional Final Fantasy ruleset to be familiar — character stats determine turn order, which Children of Zodiarc creative director Jason Kim notes justified the inclusion of iconic abilities such as Haste and Slow, while side or back-attacks give a damage bonus. Furthermore, Kim says, "it's free-form in the abilities you use — other than strategy (haste, stop, etc) and specific enemy weaknesses (fire monster weak vs ice attacks), it's up to the player to choose which abilities to use and when." 

TAKEAWAY: There's an art to adapting a franchise for different genres and subgenres, but it helps to wrap new systems around familiar ideas, rules, and mechanics.

2) Interesting decisions and deep systems in Battle Brothers 

Seto describes German indie Overhype Studios' Battle Brothers as "a gritty, wonderfully detail-focused indie newcomer to the tactical RPG space." With influences including both X-COM and medieval action-RPG sandbox Mount and Blade, it's a curious mashup of tactical turn-based combat and open-ended Dungeons & Dragons-style campaigning, with a procedurally-generated map, permadeath, and dynamic events.  

Darkest Dungeon creative director Chris Bourassa elaborates: "The control you are afforded over how to kit out your squad, and what to do with them, creates a beautiful black hole that really sucks you in. Decisions wait around every corner, and while the first impression can be overwhelming, there is a joy to unpacking the systems and figuring out how to make them work for you." 

TAKEAWAY: Decisions generate depth, and sometimes the fun of a game is figuring out how decisions affect systems.

3) The mixture of depth and simplicity of the Fire Emblem series 

It's one of two series that kicked off the whole tactical RPG genre (the other being Sega's Shining Force), and both Seto and Kim suggest it's still one of the most important franchises to study. Seto calls it "one of the top, if not the top" game in the genre for its "challenging, highly-tactical combat," deep meta-game, and great characters and story. 

Unlike Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem's combat system groups all player moves and all enemy moves into discrete chunks — each faction gives orders to all its units before the other gets a look in. Moreover, the series' combat system is built on a rock-paper-scissors-style system related to character class (of which there may be dozens, depending on the game). "So the abilities you use and against whom is determined by the game's rules, not the player's creativity/agency," explains Kim. Combat in Fire Emblem games thus becomes more akin to a tactical puzzle than a traditional RPG. 

TAKEAWAY: Increasing player agency isn't the only way to add depth or complexity; sometimes rules — even rooted in something as simple as expanded rock-paper-scissors relationships — can make long-lasting, engaging depth all on their own.

4) Choice and consequence in The Banner Saga 

Both Seto and League of Geeks lead developer Karl Burdack praise indie trio Stoic's fantasy-themed tactical RPG Banner Saga for its simple-yet-elegant combat mechanics, with Burdack specifically pointing to its (mostly) deterministic combat as a positive. With randomness derived from the knock-on effects of sequences of player and enemy/opponent choices rather than mere dice rolls, the player always retains a sense of control in combat — like no matter what, their fate is in their own hands, which is especially important when the story elements of the campaign often give much the opposite feeling. 

It's also important to note that the strategic, tactical side of The Banner Saga extends beyond combat. Each day spent hiking through its frigid world uses up supplies, and members of your fighting forces may die if you run out. Similarly, the resource needed to buy supplies is the same one that levels up the heroes that do the bulk of the fighting. If decisions outside combat cause morale to drop, that too impacts on battle performance. It's a superb example of how to use choice to intertwine story with mechanics. 

TAKEAWAY: Even in tactical RPGs, story and gameplay can feed off each other, and when there's a deterministic depth to the combat systems coupled with unpredictable narrative devices, this effect can be all the more powerful.

5) Humor and personality in the genre-mixing Jagged Alliance 1 and 2 

Often billed as two of the most underrated games of all time, the original pair of Jagged Alliance games from the mid-1990s remain cult favorites for their humor and personality-laden spin on the X-COM-style of tactical RPG. Seto calls the first one a "fantastic" early example in the genre and adds that it also had "a cool lightweight mercenary company management simulation" component. That's one of the biggest lessons here — the manner in which its many disparate elements fit together. Jagged Alliance fuses the computer RPG with squad-level turn-based tactical combat, management simulation, and traditional strategy gaming like they were meant for each other. 

Seto further notes that the player's mercenary characters each have a personality that effects how they behave, along with a great sense of humor, lots of attitude, and oftentimes a grudge or two against other mercenaries. (This last thing can have unexpected results in the field of combat or between missions.) In a similar vein, Seto points to apparent Jagged Alliance homage Silent Storm for its determination to innovate on the framework established by X-COM: UFO Defense, especially with the addition of destructible environments — at the time unheard of in the genre and rare outside of it. 

TAKEAWAY: Pure tactics and strategy can get very dry and unexciting, but if you add humor and engaging, charismatic characters then it quickly comes to life. (And mixing genres, if done well, makes games more interesting.)

6) The newbie-friendliness and subtle depth of Valkyria Chronicles 

Much of the belated success of (pseudo-)World War II-themed cult hit Valkyria Chronicles, its beautiful stylized graphics and touching story aside, likely lies at the feet of its genre-defying user-friendliness and unique combat mechanics. It's not a tactical RPG-lite so much as a full-blown genre title minus restrictive staples such as movement and action-locked map grids and overhead or isometric viewpoints. Rather, its battles allow third-person shooter-style free movement — except with only a limited number of steps and/or actions per unit per turn, as depicted by a diminishing action-point meter.  

And attached to this more readily-familiar control model is a deep, challenging tactical combat system that provides cover opportunities, unit strengths and weaknesses, limited supplies, weapon range, "command points" for using the same unit twice in a turn, and so on (with the added consideration that movement and most actions take place in real time). 

TAKEAWAY: To bring a genre to a broader audience, you need not necessarily sacrifice depth; rather, the trick may be to strip out the UI elements that scare people off and replace antiquated systems with more modern equivalents.

7) The fresh ideas and light-heartedness of the Disgaea series 

SideQuest Studios (Rainbow Moon) CEO Marcus Pukropski considers the Disgaea series to be the most interesting games in the genre. "They try weird and fresh new ideas and are highly polished and well balanced at the same time," he explains. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, for instance, includes a randomly-generated dungeon within every piece of equipment in the game (this is called the Item World) where players can level-up the item in question.  

The Disgaea games follow the trials and tribulations of the netherworld — demons, often goofy or silly, squabbling among themselves and battling against angels. As such, they gleefully allow players to bribe, kill, and steal, and their combat systems tend to have room for greater numbers of characters in battle. In battle, Kim explains, "there's a much stronger tactical emphasis on positioning" because many abilities will move either the attacker or target to a different tile after use. Outside of battle, there's a strong strategic element in figuring out the most efficient way to get character levels up into the hundreds or thousands as well as a tactical emphasis on making decisions about how to build out a party as opposed to how to use it. 

TAKEAWAY: Tactical RPGs may be serious, challenging, stat-heavy experiences, but in even the most solemn or expansive games there's plenty of room for absurdity, experimentation, and offbeat ideas.

CONCLUSION: Tactical RPGs are more than RPGs with grids or strategy games with leveling

It's easy to fall in a trap of thinking of tactical RPGs as just being regular RPGs with combat set to a grid, or as being straight tactics and strategy games with character levelling, but in truth the genre is much richer. The best examples tend to combine good RPG conventions with good tactical systems to form great multi-layered systems, and contrary to popular belief there are many ways to do this well without ever mapping movement and actions to a grid.

Consider also that there are many fine ideas to mine at the periphery of the tactical RPG genre, where it blurs into traditional RPGs like Ultima VI and the original pair of Fallout games — which all had battle systems with strong but underutilized tactical elements — or into tactics and strategy games with RPG elements — like mobile roguelike Hoplite, which Banner Saga technical director John Watson calls "turn-based tactics stripped down to its core," or long-running series like Syndicate and X-COM

When all's said and done, the idea perhaps most central to the tactical RPG — in whatever variant forms it takes — is that choices should have consequences, and not just at the moment you make them. To evoke the old Sid Meier adage of great game design being about a series of interesting decisions, these games all point toward the notion that a tactical RPG is really all about unpacking how decisions tie into the various underlying systems, and then figuring out how to manipulate the systems for the player's (and thus their characters') benefit. 

Thanks to Ken Seto, John Watson, Chris Bourassa, Marcus Pukropski, Jason Kim, and Karl Burdack for their help putting this list together.



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