Turn-based combat is not dead

Rowan Kaiser’s article on role playing game systems seemed to cause a bit of an uproar the other week on perceived disdain at turn-based combat.  Gut reaction I had to reading the article was just: people are not going to like this, and it turns out I was right!  Its not because I inherently agree or disagree with the points made, its because its a touchy subject that, frankly, needs to be discussed a little more in length.  People are just now starting to discover that JRPGs don’t need to fall into the rigid status quo of the last 2 decades when it comes to combat systems and similarly western RPGs could probably benefit from some of the ideas of the past.

I actually didn’t grow up with turn-based combat systems.  RPGs were pretty uninteresting to me until late high school, when I began to love stories.  Just so happens RPGs are one of the best sources of deep, epic story-telling in gaming.  But I guess the point is I don’t have some sort of long-time attachment to one style of RPG gameplay over another.  I know what I like and that’s all there is to it.  What I like is fluid and quick gameplay, not necessarily fast-paced, but to the point.

When I played Fallout 3, the VATS system was quite profound.  It gave some enhanced options in the heat of combat, allowed you to take a breather and assess the situation you were in, but similarly was quick and to the point.  I also liked that it was completely optional.  Mudcrabs could literally be taken out with one or two shots in many cases, no sense in pausing the game over that.

But I played Final Fantasy XIII when it released and I hated it.  There was nothing fluid about the gameplay, even with how hard they tried to make it that way.  The way characters sprung into action felt clunky and weird and the menu options were extremely limited, at least for the 10 or so hours I could stand to play of the game (I quit at this point, I couldn’t stand the idea of doing this monotonous combat for 80 hours).  I didn’t have a problem with it being turn-based, I had a problem with how, even with the auto-attack options, things didn’t really seem to flow right.  It felt like I was just getting in the way of letting the game play itself.  That’s an example of bad turn-based gameplay.  If we’re going to pause for a moment to slow everything down to menu options, why take so many of the options away?  Nothing about this felt fluid.

Then, having never played Chrono Trigger before, I bought it when it first released for the Nintendo DS and instantly fell in love the gameplay.  Here was a turn-based JRPG at its best.  It demanded attention, quick-thinking, and constant action, but didn’t feel like the options were limited either or that it was rushing me.  Maybe its just a presentation problem?  Its hard to put my finger on, but Chrono Trigger nailed it for turn-based gameplay and for many its become the gold standard for JRPGs everywhere.


Around the time that FFXIII released, people began realizing how long-winded cut-scenes do not a good game make.  “Paradigm shifting” to this day feels like the biggest gameplay joke I’ve ever seen.  As if the characters are suddenly shifting their entire outlook on life in the heat of battle at the push of a button.  “Combat stance” would have made a lot more sense in the heat of the moment and I think its also a little more intelligent sounding.  But that’s always been the problem with Final Fantasy hasn’t it?  Its a series that wants to innovate while retaining many of the traits of the original gameplay.  The result is a cut-scene heavy mess with an auto-attack button and all sorts of paradigms to shift.  Does that make any sense to gamers?

Gamers prefer to be treated with intelligence and that’s where the turn-based way of gameplay really shines, when it offers depth, but quickness.  Being able to flip through the options at a quick clip while making smart tactical decisions is the real draw of turn-based systems.

Let’s get off of RPG games here for a moment.  What about something more strategic?  Over the weekend I found myself playing a lot of Frozen Synapse.  This is a game for people who love both chess and old-school combat games.  Or, for me personally, those who loved the planning phase of Rainbow Six back in the day.  Its very easy to mark out what you need your guys to do.  You’re greatly rewarded for smart planning, decimated for overlooking certain details.  This sort of gameplay is catchy and addictive and treats the gamer with respect.  When men are killed there are no do-overs and the next turn feels that much harder.  Its these sort of games of innovation that really show there is a lot more to do be done with turn-based systems than what RPGs offer.

For those who are detractors or worried that Wasteland 2 might do poorly if it sticks to old-school gameplay design, realize this: we can’t improve turn-based combat without taking some risks.  There are numerous old games that prove how amazing the style can be and some modern ones that continue to innovate.  The main sink-hole is in trying to streamline it.  There is no streamlining to menu-based combat, its inherently suppose to be more complicated.  Treating your players with respect and intelligence goes a long way and gives far more memorable experience.  And that is why we need more of this style.


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About Ryan Saul

Hailing from Portland, OR I work by day and blog by night. I like to consider myself a video game connoisseur, playing as many new things as I can get my hands on. Its hard to hold me down to one game for very long before I move on to the next big thing. Luckily, that works pretty well in terms of video game blogging.

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