Turn based RPGs used to be the staple of the genre. Seemingly molded from the table top adventures of Dungeons & Dragons and portrayed on the screen allowed console gamers in the mid to late 80’s and throughout the 90’s to experience an amalgamated variation of the style. For years, I thought it was the only way to play RPGs. I grew up playing Dragon Warrior on the NES and the Phantasy Star series on Genesis. While primitive by today’s standards, it was fascinating at the time. I had been used to playing Double Dragon or Contra, where the action is right at your fingertips and less is relied on in terms of brain power and more towards muscle memory and reflexes. Turn-based combat put the pace of the battle at my fingertips by providing me with the skills at my disposal, their costs, and the kind of damage they dealt. It was addicting and by 1997, when I got my PlayStation, Japanese RPGs became my primary choice of gaming. Einhander, Parasite Eve, Final Fantasy, Jade Cocoon, Vagrant Story… I really just couldn’t get enough of these titles and the style of combat. As far as my brothers went, they always scoffed at me for playing them, asking obnoxious, but fair, questions, if you’re unfamiliar with the genre:
“Why do they stand in lines and take turns hitting each other? That looks stupid.”
“Why don’t they just make it a fighting game?”
Hard for me to answer those questions when I never considered them for myself, so the only defense I could offer is that it’s just a certain play style, like POV shooters only emulating POV, but at the same time not really. Suffice to say, while they still were, to a degree, a niche genre for more casual gamers, RPGs saw their brightest days on the Playstation.
Then came the next generation of consoles, and with those came greater expectations. A part of the charm of those great RPGs on the Sony PlayStation was that even though the technology was far more enhanced than anything the 16 bit consoles could produce, there were still certain limitations the developers had to work around. This means that even with those advances, the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 could only go so far as visuals and processing power. We were treaded to anime and fully rendered CGI cut scenes and openings.
That felt really special! The SNES couldn’t do this!! The blocky visuals still looked incredible in providing you with a solid template to bring those vivid images the were once in your head and put them on TV! The caveat is that now with the PS2 and Dreamcast, it was time to see what could be done to take those great storybook/anime images to the next level and see how the combat could become unique. This is where I noticed these games became a little less fun to play. Not to say that these games were terrible, but after a certain number of .Hack//Sign…whatever variations… I saw some games taking shortcuts of creating visual masterpieces instead of evolving the stale gameplay. Franchises like Namco Bandai’s Tales series continued to stick to their strengths (a real time action field crossed with random encounters) while Capcom’s Breath of Fire Dragon Quarter put a nail in the coffin of the series for the foreseeable future. Now, for the sake of discussion, I’ll leave tactical RPGs like Suikoden, Disgaea, and Fire Emblem out of the equation, only because I have never played much of FE other than the recently released Awakening, and also, the former have shown to make improvements while keeping the battles refreshing and challenging.
In the mid 2000’s, World of Warcraft made MMOrpgs a mainstream phenomenon and it wasn’t too much longer after that major AAA developers here in the U.S. started to capitalize on it. The style has been around since Diablo, but now with new tech, these games no longer have to only be played on your CPU. With the success of Baldur’s Gate, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, I took one look at what Final Fantasy XII tried to do an…it was boring!!! What? What is this?? blue lines? Gambits? Nothing feels interesting, it’s on auto pilot!!RRRAAAAAAAUUGHHH!!!!! I hate you, License Board!! You were okay in Final Fantasy X, when the characters had a unique set of skills!! In this game, you’re just a lazy temp worker, refusing to challenge me in any way, it’s like you didn’t even care!!! Characters had no boundaries, no limitations. Not even a variable set of abilities to call their own! Ashe could be as strong as Balthier, or stronger if you wanted! Fran could be super fast and agile while chopping things with a Great Ax! This game didn’t care! All while running around in an oversized drag and drop world map that’s more of a hassle to run through than one would think! It’s a Final Fantasy, so people will say its great! (9/10 on Electronic Gaming Monthly! 9.5 on IGN! Did these people actually PLAY this game?!?! I leveled up killing skeletons when I fell asleep! Standards have fallen.)
Popular franchises like the Persona series from Atlus have evolved their latest game, Persona 5, into more of a real time action mash-up than its predecessor. The Tales franchise continues to stick with what has kept them successful for so long and just might be the oldest style of Japanese RPG combat left on the major consoles (not to undermine it’s improvements, mind you). Final Fantasy 15 looks to be the game I wanted to play and Agito isn’t so bad in it’s own right. Is there really no longer a place for Japanese-style turn-based combat games? Are they considered too archaic to hang with heavy hitters like Bloodborne or Witcher? I’ll try to provide an answer in the second part of my editorial. In the meantime, let me know what you think, if you like. Are you a Turn-Based or an Action fan?