RPG Soapbox: Good Battle Systems Gone Bad
I’ve been playing video game RPGs for darn near 20 years and I’ve seen it all – from the great battle systems that we remember years later to the “what the f**k is that!?” type. So, I got to thinking about this the other day as I got involved – for the first time, mind you – in the rather attractive stylings of the battles in Xenogears: This one turned out pretty spiffy, but there are a lot of other RPGs out there that didn’t fare so well. Some were universally disliked and some are just my own disgruntled opinion.
I’d like to briefly discuss a few of the not-so-great battle systems out there and what went wrong, so please follow me along this journey of unpleasantness into the back of my subconscious mind where memories of these experiences go to haunt my very existence.
Final Fantasy VIII
Let’s start with a doozy, shall we? How much hate mail will I get from this one? I’ll begin with a disclaimer – I absolutely adored FFVIII. I loved the characters and the story a lot, and, frankly, I identified with them way more than the emo-tastic woe-is-me fest that was Final Fantasy VII (not that it didn’t have its own merits, mind you).
That’s why it pains me to talk about these two aspects of the battle system in FFVIII that the entire gaming landscape would have been better off without – drawing magic and the need to jam on one button until your fingers bleed and your controller shatters into a million pieces to improve the power of your summoned monsters.
First off, whoever felt the need to feed my video game OCD with requiring me to sit there and be pummeled to death by monsters while I draw magic and fill my reserves up to 100 with every…single…spell…needs to be bashed in the head with an original anchor-sized Xbox controller. The very idea of viewing magic spells as a consumable just baffles me. I understand the thought of trying something new with the franchise and I don’t criticize them for that. But, quite frankly, it just didn’t work.
The only upside to it was that, if you happened to be out of a spell completely, and the monsters you were attacking had it available, you could just take it from them and use it immediately. This came in handy with Cure spells on more than one occasion through my many play-throughs. But still, the oddball concept of actually stealing consumable magic from monsters ad nauseum was overall rather annoying and a huge weight on the entirely decent ATB system that remained underneath.
On top of that repetitive requirement is another one, albeit a more physically demanding one. When you summoned a creature, you couldn’t harness its full power unless you smashed a certain button on your controller repeatedly. I’m pretty sure I went through at least one controller each time I played this game, and I loathe the idea of playing through it again with my more expensive DualShock 3 hardware.
No, what should have happened was either the requirement to hit a certain sequence of buttons within a certain time period or just not even have various levels of a summon’s power at all. It’s quite understandable that the former wasn’t really considered, with this being before the whole quick time event craze that started a generation later. But, really?! The faster and more times you push a button the more powerful your summoned creature is? That’s craziness at best. At worst, it was a conspiracy between Square and Sony to sell more controllers.
Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse
As badass as the full game title was, this second entry in the three-part Xenosaga series was just downright disappointing. This may sound like a contradiction, but although the story was great, it forced you to trudge through the horrid battle system revamp to see it! I think this is a situation where the developers completely ignored the old axiom, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The battle system in the first title was just fine. Sure, it could have used a few tweaks here and there (which were actually perfected in Episode III), but overall, it was great. In Episode II they made things more strategic, sure, but at the same time, they drew out battles to ungodly lengths, made trivial battles and boss difficulty alike ridiculous if you didn’t do things just right and made the entire game one huge chore.
You know what? As much as we complained about it at the time, we played it because, well, the story was so frakking good that we couldn’t let a battle system keep us from seeing it. Still, this was unfortunately one huge failure and put a taint on the third game to the point that it got little to no fanfare when it launched, making the whole trilogy end on a highly subdued, yet altogether amazing note.
It’s always that middle child that causes all the trouble. I know, because in my family there were three middle children, and they were all troublemakers. Honest.
Resonance of Fate
Taking the leap to this current generation, Resonance of Fate came along right at the beginning of the time that the PS3 actually started getting back into the JRPG groove. It was developed by tri-Ace, a studio I adore, it had awesome character design and artwork and a generally great steampunk feel to the whole thing. It looked like the makings of a great niche RPG. It was not, for one reason – what kind of illegal narcotics were the developers on when they dreamed up this cluster-frak of a battle system?
I mean, seriously.
I will admit, we did not review the game here, but I did my job as a genre fan and supported a new IP – a JRPG at that – and felt good about it. But good lord, for real? The battle system relied on a combination of positioning your characters on their own and in relationship to each other and the enemies, you needed certain ammunition to deal maximum damage to certain types of enemies, you needed to break through enemy barriers, outer plates, shields, shells or what have you before you could actually damage them (and sometimes they had any combination of or all of the above in place) and, on top of it all, the tutorials were craptastic, vague and completely not helpful to understanding anything of what goes on in a typical battle.
I remember playing the demo for this game in Japanese, not understanding it at all. When I picked up the full game, and after going through what apparently passed as “tutorials”, I understood the battle system about as well as I did when I played the demo in a language I don’t understand. That’s how awful it was to comprehend. Either that, or I’m just and idiot, one or the other.
After less than five hours I called it quits and the game still sits on my shelf. I’m glad I own it, but the daunting task of actually progressing through the game and enjoying it is so hampered by the horrible battle system that I’m unsure if I will ever allow that disc to go anywhere near my darling PS3 ever again.
Sure, some people liked the battle system for its uniqueness, and I’ll give them that. It was unique, alright. Uniquely awful. Just my opinion, take it or leave it.
I’m sure there are many more misbegotten battle systems and mechanics out there, but these were just a few that stood out as particularly egregious in my mind. I do, however, think they all started off with a decent concept (well, except consumable spells, which was never a good idea in any of the 11 dimensions). Xenosaga Episode II started off with the battle system of Episode I, it was just butchered beyond belief. I also feel there are cool concepts in Resonance of Fate’s “bullet hell” battle mechanics, but the ultimate implementation was severely disturbing on so many levels, regardless of how great the cinematography was during some battle sequences.
Ultimately, I wish developers would keep in mind that the point of these games is not to make the most outrageous battle mechanics possible so that the game is barely playable, the point is to make it enjoyable by not being too simple or too demanding. Perhaps in the future I’ll talk about stand-out battle mechanics that got things balanced just right.