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The Ten: Updated Wednesdays-Fridays-Sundays

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

JRPG Talk- Part 4: Combat

Welcome to another installment in a continued discussion of JRPGs. Today, we'll take a look at another core element of the genre- combat systems. While many of the terms and concepts in these articles may be applied to WRPGs as well, our discussion will mainly focus and reference JRPGs. Let's review our ever-growing glossary of terms:

Organic grinding- the experience (EXP) the game developers force you to accrue because of thoughtful game design.
Artificial grinding- the experience accrued for no other reason than to lighten the burden on the player or subvert the difficulty spikes.
Motif- A fundamental mechanic of a core environment in an RPG, such as a dungeon, or the overworld. Motifs encompass reoccurring mechanics.
Gimmick- An area-specific mechanic of a core environment. Usually a puzzle or gameplay element exclusive to an area.
Aesthetic- The artistic design of a core environment. This artistic element can contribute to gimmick mechanics.
"Traditional" Overworld Design- A reference to the top-down, "miniature" aesthetic present in classic role-playing games, this design often features terrain obstacles, random encounters, and minimal interactive elements outside of town and dungeon portals.
"Unconventional" Overworld Design- With the expansion of the genre, many new titles attempt Overworld design that increases or simplifies exploration to further enhance the experience. While there are a number of different styles, we have simplified this definition to any Overworld not top-down based.
Travel Cycle- The cyclical and predictable stages of travel found in "traditional" Overworlds, in which terrain obstacles and distance gradually become a non-issue thanks to new traversal elements.

While many JRPGs possess world-building elements, there is one aspect that is fundamental for creating a compelling, epic narrative. While there are some RPGs that do not feature a combat system, the vast majority of them do, simply because killing things makes for more engaging gameplay. Although that's not the whole of the matter- RPGs in general were originally attempts to integrate or replicate the systems of Dungeons and Dragons in digital form, so naturally, combat was a high priority. From the humble turn-based beginnings, to the more recent, methodical action-oriented affairs, we'll be taking a look at some of the standards of JRPG combat in this article.

The most obvious starting point is with the back-and-forth nature of turn-based battles. This is a style of combat that is relatively straightforward, but many talented developers have shown how it can be expanded upon and improved with additional systems and motifs. In fact, when discussing different angles of JRPGs, the terms "motif" and "gimmick" seem to be a recurring. Should we update the definitions? Well, not really. We'll just end up slapping "battle" on the front and see how they apply.

A battle motif is an element of combat that a player must adhere towards throughout the course of a JRPG. I say "adhere" because they are not optional- they are built into the combat system, and the player must understand and exploit them in order to be successful. Some examples of battle motifs are ATB gauges from Final Fantasy, the Brave/Default system of the aptly-named Bravely Default, the Press Turn system of the Shin Megami Tensei series, and the Elemental Contract system of the Legend of Legacy. There's some non-turn-based examples out there, as well, such as the Stamina system of Monster Hunter and the Souls series, or the Arts system of Xenoblade.

A battle gimmick, on the other hand, is something that applies to a specific subset of battles. The most apt example of this I can think of are classic Adamantoise battles, where magic is favorable over physical attacks. Many enemies that feature a specific gimmick being placed in the same area, or a combination of different battle gimmicks depending on a dungeon or region, result in a continuously transforming approach to combat that still adheres to the battle motif.

Of course, as JRPGs have taken advantage of new and different hardware, turn-based combat has evolved to take on more active roles, although most turn-based combat boils down to menu navigation and the selection of the proper skills and resources. Not that there's anything wrong with that- if balanced properly, these kinds of battles can have an enjoyable ebb and flow to them. But generally, the point of making combat more active has been to keep players engaged and alert, resulting in a more immersive experience.

As we continue our discussion, we begin to see the overlap of turn-based systems and action-based systems. Although this is a bit of a gray area, these kinds of combat systems are what I like to call active-selection battles. While many might consider ATB to overlap with this section a bit, I would argue that active-selection battles implement movement into the player choice as well as some turn-based elements. While this definition may sound a bit like a strategy game, that's not the comparison I'm going for. Games like Contact, Secret of Mana, Vagrant Story, and Xenoblade Chronicles fit into this sort of play. With that in mind, many MMORPGs also fall into this category. Positioning may factor into the performance of certain types of moves, or whether or not a hit connects, and can even take place as a player is selection techniques to perform. These sorts of combat systems sometimes rely heavily on cooldown cycles, which can become a point of contention.

Lastly, on the opposite side of the spectrum, we have action battles. These require specific button inputs into order to perform attacks, and usually feature some sort of hit detection. These kinds of games often rely on the detail and length of character animations in order to increase tension and commitment, and they may sometimes have overlapping systems in order to increase player choice. As mentioned before, games like the Tales of series, Kingdom Hearts, Dark Souls, and Dynasty Warriors rely on these kinds of systems, which can either revolved around titanic battles with larger enemies, navigating claustrophobic areas with many smaller enemies, or, in the best-case scenario, a combat system elegant enough to do both at the same time.

There are many variations of these three different categories, and at times, they might overlap with one another in a finished product. However, while these are very sterile definitions for combat styles, I would also like to mention another aspect that is equally crucial for the enjoyment of such systems, and that is the ebb and flow of combat. Interestingly enough, the two extreme sides of combat styles have the most literal and rewarding representations of this idea, while it becomes a bit more difficult to achieve with active selection battles. Ebb and flow is the idea that enemies should be attacking just as much as the player character does, or at least, their actions should have equal weight. Turn-based games do this well enough, as both the player and the enemy have turns during which they can attack. Usually, this ebb and flow is subverted by becoming more powerful than the enemies challenging the player, or identifying and exploiting the battle gimmick of a set of enemies. Either way, both of these are organic results to the issue of certain enemy types. On the other hand, action battles not only have the potential for the player to exhaust their options and expose themselves with continued inputs, but the amount of enemies means that they can respond to player attacks individually and exploit them with their own abilities. However, ebb and flow in active-selection battles often has to juggle player positioning, inputs, cooldown timing, and additional elements in order to operate successfully, and can be further complicated by the number of enemies and aggro. In other words, active-selection is a middle ground that, because of its time- and movement- and careful strategy-based mechanics, might not appeal to fans of turn-based or action battle systems. This is perhaps why we see it most often in the MMORPG, where players can focus more directly on performing a singular role within a team.

I would say that balancing an active-selection battle system is a far more difficult task than balancing an action battle system, except that collision detection can be an extremely fickle mistress and that crafting engaging action battle encounters is in itself a herculean task. The reason we see so many variations on the turn-based battle system is because it reliably provides ebb and flow while also being familiar enough to gamers that it can be modified and iterated upon with relative ease. Likewise, action battle systems seem to have grown in popularity as of late and garnered attention thanks to the success of a singular style, with many developers now attempting to emulate this system, albeit with mixed results.

Of course, combat systems are directly tied to another integral part of a game, which is character progression. In the next installment of JRPG talk, we'll take a closer look at character progression and how it relates to and enhances these systems.

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