RPG Battle Systems - Adjusting to the Times?

October 14, 2009

What do you want out of the battle system in the latest and greatest RPG? That’s a bit of a broad question, eh? It’s highly subjective; based on each gamer’s perspective and interpretation. But, what sort of gamers tend to gravitate to what type of battle system? You have your real-time battles, action-based battle systems, turn-based, strategy, a mixture of all of the above and more. Why the RPG focus? Because most games outside the genre usually have a fairly standard genre-wide flow to battles, even though the specific mechanics of battle differ greatly. Take first-person shooters, for example. They’re all “the same”, in that if you pick up an FPS title, you pretty much know what you’re going to be getting into. You have a good idea of how the game is going to be played, even though the specifics might change from one FPS to another. The same goes for third-person, action-oriented titles like Grand Theft Auto IV or Infamous. However, if you pick up an RPG without ever reading anything about it, it’s a toss up. I know the phrase is overused, but it really is like a box of chocolates given to you by your sweet old aunt – you never really know what you’re going to get, and sometimes it might be scary.

First off we’ll talk about the tried and true RPG staple of turn-based battles. Whether it was pioneered by Square-Enix in their Final Fantasy franchise or not, the fact remains that those games are what made it popular. Their “Active Time Battle” system first appeared in Final Fantasy IV, although elements of it were introduced in earlier incarnations. They even filed a United States patent for the ATB system in 1992 under the title “video game apparatus, method an device for controlling” and, three years later, was awarded said patent. These days, though, the idea of turn-based battles turn many people off. It can sometimes be slow, boring and even tedious, and the mentality of certain gamers just can’t handle that. This isn’t a bad thing – after all, you like what you like. But, the gamespace has changed in the last decade and this, perhaps in a small way, reflects on the change of society in general.

In the past, people didn’t mind inputting commands and watching them play out onscreen. No one was in a hurry to do anything and they appreciated that RPGs were lengthy games that were there to tell a story, not to be rushed through. While many still do “get” this, the general mentality of people over the last decade or two has changed from more of an easy-going attitude to a “must have now” impatient one. This, in turn, squeezes its way into how we view our gaming and what we want from the games we play. Turn-based battle systems still have their place, as long as they’re executed properly. Those with an aversion to the mechanic would do well to check out how speedy and efficient the battle system in Persona 4 is handled. It’s a turn-based system, but tweaked to the point so battles progress very quickly, in case you’re suffering from a bit of ADD (we all do at times, right?).

Evolving from the turn-based battles came strategy RPG battle systems and semi-action battle systems. SRPG systems, especially those most commonly associated with a grid-lined battlefield like Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, tend to be even more tedious in general than a standard turn-based system. Those who have an aversion to turn-based battles will likely not be satisfied with SRPG battle systems at all. You usually input commands for all your characters on the field, then they are executed in epic battles that could take anywhere from five minutes to half an hour or longer. It’s all about strategy instead of speed.  (As an aside: If you dislike typical SRPG battle mechanics and are interested in trying something new, hit up Valkyria Chronicles – one of the best RPGs of last year.  It does something new with SRPGs and succeeds.)

On the other side of the fence, semi-action battle systems have evolved from the turn-based in an effort to speed things up, make things less tedious and give players more to do than just wait as actions are performed during battle. Examples of these systems can be found in the Star Ocean or Tales franchises. I refer to these as “semi-action” because you can usually pause the action at any time by bringing up a menu, so if you’re hurting to figure out the right tactics to use in a given situation, just bring up the menu and you have all the time in the world to think about what you want to do next.

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The last type of battle system doesn’t have a huge saturation in Japanese RPGs, but mostly their Western cousins – real-time battles. While various forms of action-based battle systems do have a real-time element, the fact that action pauses as you rummage through your inventory looking for an item doesn’t quite fit the truly “real-time” feel. Games such as Oblivion, Diablo 2, Fable 2, Demon’s Souls and others, while various other genre influences abound, are truly “real-time” in most ways. Typically these are more action-oriented titles, so they play to the gamer who wants to charge into battle and have all action all the time (although you will likely be decapitated in Demon’s Souls if you attempt this). It seems many RPGs, especially those of the Western variety, lean toward more real-time battle techniques to cater to the FPS crowd, the impatient ones, the ones who have to be doing something all the time or they get bored and move on. Again, this, I believe, is a reflection on the way society in general has been moving – from a more slow-going, lackadaisical life to a fast-paced, must have everything now mentality.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. It all depends on the type of gamer – the type of person – you are. However, I feel a real gamer would, while not necessarily liking something outside of their comfort zone, at least appreciate the direction these different battle systems are coming from and the type of person they cater to. I’m interested in hearing what type of battle systems you enjoy in an RPG and for what reasons. While certain reasons may, no doubt, be cliché, they are reasons nonetheless. What matters most to you in a battle system? Not a fan of slower-paced, turn-based fare? Need time to think in battle and can’t handle real-time battles? Do you believe that the greater emphasis on more action-oriented battle systems in RPGs this generation is a reflection on the attitudes of modern society in general? Let’s here what you have to say in the comments!

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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