I love JRPGs. Since discovering them in the sixth grade, I have played dozens upon dozens of them. But my primary reason for playing them has always been the plot — the epic 40-plus-hour adventure. The battle system, on the other hand, has tended to be rather a boring chunk of useless padding — it's just something that comes with the genre.
When playing my first RPG, Final Fantasy VI, I was constantly destroyed by the active-time battle system. There were so many spells, none of which I had any familiarity with, that even choosing the right spell — much less finding it — took me to the point of imminent death. Once I found I could change it into a more standard turn- based system — where the enemies would wait on my turn — I did that immediately. This made the game much more enjoyable for me as a beginner.
But as I grew older and spent more time with the myriad of different JRPG battle systems, I found battle systems where the enemy waits for you were simply boring. And unfortunately, the vast majority of JRPGs use some variation of this "wait" battle system. These RPGs tend to play so similarly that by mastering one, you have practically mastered all the others. And without any real need to act quickly, playing many RPGs felt lethargic at best.
It got to the point where, when I decided to level up, I would mute the game system and listen to an audiobook or music — or watch a DVD on my computer — all while simply tapping the "attack button" to victory.
Then I played my first Tales game, Tales of Symphonia. Out of battle, it could be any other JRPG. All the JRPG standards are there: towns, stores, dungeons, random attacks, and bosses. But when you enter into an actual battle, you control the character in real time like an action game.
Suddenly, I couldn't be inattentive any more. The hours of tapping a single button to become strong enough to move on to the next plot point vanished and were replaced by captivating gameplay. Frankly, when it comes to the battle systems of JRPGs, those of the Tales series are far and away the most fun to play.
This year's anime RPG Tokitowa is another game that demands attentiveness — and even more so than the Tales series. While you don't have free movement, you can attack constantly. The trick is so can the enemy. Thus the whole key to the game is learning the enemies' patterns and dodging — waiting for the perfect moment for a counter attack. Because of this, the battles become just as exciting as the plot.
Still, all this is not to say you can't have a captivating "wait"-based battle system. The problem is that for this type of turn-based system to keep you interested, it must be hard enough or tactical enough that you actually need to stop and think for a moment each turn. A good example of this would be Radiant Historia, which has a battle system built around pushing enemies into the same area so they can all be attacked at once. But if you are just able to mash the fight button unthinkingly, there is no need to stop the flow of battle each and every turn.
When it comes down to it, the trick to having a great JRPG battle system is having battles that keep you active — whether that be controlling your characters in real time or planning complex strategies in your head. Things as simple as having to block at the correct moment or to break enemies' defences by mixing your attacks can be all that it takes. However, simply standing in a single line trading attacks is a system that has far outlived its usefulness.