JRPG Combat Is The Best Kind Of Combat

"Oh, I don't really like battles. I just play JRPGs for the story." You've probably heard something like that before, or wrote it, or thought it. There seems to be a general consensus, for better or for worse, that a Japanese RPG's merits, if they exist at all, lie in its story and characters and overall charm. Not its combat, which is just something you do in between cut-scenes. That part is just a chore. I am here to tell you that this belief is wrong.

Yes, JRPG battles can be a pain in the arse. Turn-based combat in a game like Dragon Quest IX really can feel like an obstacle, particularly when you're grinding your way through a dungeon full of underpowered minions. In many Japanese RPGs, your strategy for random battles is to smash the attack button as many times as possible until you get to the victory music. These fights aren't necessarily fun on their own; they're blocks you have to leap over in order to get to the real meat of the game, the story. Your rewards for the combat grind are dialogue, cut-scenes, and pretty new places to see.

Critics of JRPGs like to bring up this point as a way to disparage the genre, often noting that JRPG combat is always the same: you've got your attack, your spells, and your items, and not much else. Nevermind all the creative ways you do battle in games like The World Ends With You, Valkyria Chronicles, Vagrant Story, and many others. JRPG combat is boring and stale, they say.

Of course this isn't true, and while I can't help but love a good Dragon Quest-style slugfest every once in a while — the rhythm of turn-based combat is relaxing in a certain monotonous way — JRPG battles come in many shapes and sizes.

So let's look at three totally different combat systems. Let's pick them apart, figure out their strengths and their weaknesses, and determine what makes them work.

Final Fantasy XIII

In the thirteenth Final Fantasy, battles are built around two main concepts. The first is that your characters all have classes — called Paradigms — that can be shifted at any time during battle. The second is that every enemy has a meter — called the Stagger gauge — that you have to gradually fill up by smacking it with your weapons. Once the meter is filled up, that enemy will turn super weak for a while, and you'll be able to deal more damage than normally possible with your boomerangs and spears and rifles.

Different classes perform different roles; the Ravager Paradigm, for example, boosts Stagger very quickly, but the meter will rapidly decrease unless you use a Commando to keep it from falling. In order to fight, you have to balance them all.

Pros: The coolest thing about this system is that it allows for a lot of strategy. Stat and ailment spells, while superfluous in many RPGs, play a large part in battles here. Final Fantasy XIII's combat is never boring: you have to focus on switching classes, balancing abilities, and keeping your party healthy as your enemy's Stagger meter goes up and up.

Cons: Paradigm-switching turns even the simplest battle into an exercise requiring massive amounts of brain power. This might seem like a good thing, but in a 50-hour game, there are times where you'll want to just plough through slow or boring sections of the world, but instead you'll have to stare at the screen and think.

Final Fantasy XIII is also not very good at giving you cool things at a reasonable pace; it takes roughly 10 hours before you actually have the freedom to master the game's combat. Tutorials are important, and it's important for a game to teach us things, but many players will likely give up on FFXIII before they even see what its combat can do.

Verdict: This is a fascinating system — the idea of switching character classes mid-battle in order to open up new techniques and strategies is really interesting — and I'd love to see developers tweak and refine it as time goes on.

Persona 4 Golden

Perhaps the closest this list will get to a "traditional" turn-based system, Persona 4's combat revolves around menus, turns and your characters standing around while they wait to get hit. As you progress through the game's surreal, twisted TV World, you'll have to fight enemies called Shadows. There are many of these enemies, and you defeat them by entering a combat screen and commanding your characters to attack and cast spells on them. Most of these Shadows have elemental weaknesses that you can exploit with your spells in order to knock them down for a turn. When everyone's knocked down, your party can gang up and take a turn to do heavy damage to every baddie on the battlefield.

Pros: The elemental weakness system is like one big puzzle; there's something very satisfying about working your way from enemy to enemy and figuring out exactly which spell to cast on whom and when to cast it. The funny "EVERYONE ATTACK!" animation is a pleasant reward for your efforts.

Cons: It's a grind. This is a 60-hour game, filled with taxing boss battles that require you to keep your characters' experience levels up, which means you'll have to either 1) grind or 2) fight every monster in every dungeon to keep up. Somewhat alleviating this is the "auto-attack" function, which speeds up battles and tells your characters to keep attacking until someone's dead.

Persona 4 also immediately slaps you with a Game Over if your main character dies, which is cruel and unusual punishment in a game full of insta-death attacks and randomly-powerful enemies. Not cool.

Verdict: Persona 4's battles — particularly its boss battles — require a great deal of strategy, but that strategy often involves finding a routine and sticking with it. defence buffs on your first turn; spells on your second turn; attacks on your third turn; rinse, repeat. It's easy to burn out.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Longtime readers of Random Encounters are undoubtedly familiar with my love for Trails in the Sky, which I recently started replaying (after buying a second time just to have on my Vita, in convenient digital form). I love the characters, I love the world, and I love the music. But Trails in the Sky also excels at making battles feel like they really matter.

Combat in Trails places importance on both time and space. It's turn-based, but you can see the order of turns in the top left corner ala Final Fantasy X or Grandia, and you can manipulate that order in subtle ways. Every battle is also laid out on a grid. You can order your characters to move around that grid instead of attacking, and their positions play a key role in their interactions with enemies on the field.

Pros: Trails feels very kitchen-sinky, in that it's stuffed with all sorts of neat abilities and you have to sift through them to find the best one for any given situation. For some challenging fights, you'll have to make tough decisions: do you want to use one of your character's Crafts right away, or let them charge up their energy for a game-changing uber-powerful ability later on? Strategy!

Cons: Like Persona 4, Trails can drag you down and burn you out. There are a few too many monsters to fight, a few too many paths you'll have to visit and revisit over and over again. Even the best battle systems can drain your patience when you have to fight through them too many times.

Verdict: Other than the grind, there are few things unappealing about the combat system in Trails, which might be why I'm so in love with this game. Every piece of the puzzle fits together perfectly.

It is easy to say that combat in Japanese RPGs is lame and uninteresting. It's easy to generalize and sweep the entire genre under the "OBSOLETE" rug because you think that every JRPG is filled with the same turn-based combat system.

You know what's more fun? Actually playing them.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


    NI NO KUNI! <3

      I know right. So close!!

        Pushed back a week though. They're giving out free DLC because of it, well at least for Europe but by my assumption they still think we're part of Europe.

        God save the Queen.

          Had always planned on buying digital via the US psn store so in theory should still be getting it at the normal time.

    I stopped reading at "Final Fantasy XIII‘s combat is never boring".

      Was just about to say the same thing.
      A whole article telling people their opinions are wrong is pointless enough but when you say a combat system that realistically comes down to 'press X to win' is never boring and always requires massive amounts of brain power, you just come across as trolling.

      Absolutely. One button spamming. Seriously. Worst system EVER. I read a joke on Penny Arcade years back where they said the game played itself, I thought it was kidding.... until I left the controller alone and the damn thing near did during battle.

      i honestly thought the most redeeming quality of FF XIII was it's combat system, if you got through it by just using the auto-battle i applaud you for your luck, the auto-battle made stupid decisions sometimes, i felt choosing things myself made the combat exciting and never once was i bored by the combat... the story however...

        It wasn't really about luck... The only real thing you needed to think about was when to switch paradigms. Anything else is just making your own fun.

          My biggest gripes with XIII was the pacing of the story/rewards-for-getting-shit-done and the "length" of most of the boss battles. If the boss changes it up every now and then, then by all means, make the fights long but when you are going through the same motions for an exorbitant length of time then the combat gets stale. If there were an amalgamation of combat systems I would want to see FFXIII ATB gauges with FFXI skill system. The power of any given attack/spell would be based on the amount of ATB charges you had stocked up and you could cut them short for a quicker cast but less powerful spell. Attack animations would resolve with multi attacks for cool factor but it would still effectively be "the one attack". Also, let me control all my party members again properly.

        At times it was great. But 90% of the time it was Auto-battle.

    maybe if you like turn based combat, but i prefer real time combat for rpgs like the Witcher 2 and modded skyrim

      I prefer real time combat in JRPG's. They are out there, but there's surprisingly few of them and I have no idea why JRPG's seem to have a love affair for turn based battles. It's one of the reasons why Secret of Mana is one of my most favourite JRPG's of all time...real time battles!

      I did like the turn-based/real time hybrid systems used in games like Tales of Symphonia and Xenoblade Chronicles though. While not fully real time they were different and interesting, innovative systems that provided more natural control than turn-based battles.

        Dude... If you have a PS3 try the Ni No Kuni demo, if not buy a PS3 ASAP.

    I really liked the combat system in Gladius, unbelievable game, was never into anything like that before. When will I see something like that again. I don't know.

    I absolutely loathe JRPGs and it's purely because the combat is so bland (it doesn't help that in many cases the script/storyline are ridiculous melodrama to an even greater extent than the MGS franchise, but that's really not the main issue).

    I don't even dislike turn-based games. But there's generally so little actual strategy in JRPG combat (and yes, I have actually tried every game on this list). It'd be unfair to say there's NONE, but honestly, compared to other types of RPGs, it's pretty minimal. The Witcher 2, Dragon Age, and even Dark Souls (which is from Japan, but not a JRPG per-se) all feature MUCH more strategy and much more interesting combat. Add in the fact that in many JRPGs you're forced to grind - meaning you're doing the exact same attack sequence time and time and time again - and you have a good formula for the completely opposite of a fun experience. Some of the less grindy examples of the genre can be okay I guess, but that's really the best I can say about JRPG combat.

    Generally speaking, I find the combat so dead-as-a-doornail dull that even if a game has little to no grinding and an amazing story, I will have a hard time forcing myself to play any JRPG.

    No mention of dark souls? That game's all about the battles and I'd count it as a jrpg

    This would've been a great article if you hadn't mentioned ff13. That game singlehandedly ruined square enix's reputation as an industry standard of quality.

    These aren't really good examples to use if you want people to think of JRPG battle systems as being interesting (Although Trails' grid based positioning is a good point), in fact, they somewhat exemplify the common perception highlighted. The problem with a lot of JRPGs is that they appear to have a lot of tactical depth on the surface, but really, there's a dominant strategy that just gets you through the entire game. Even if they offer the depth of Rock, Paper, Scissors elemental weaknesses, once you know them, it's just down to using the same attacks every time when fighting that enemy.

    I'm disappointed that Jason didn't go for the more interesting systems. The Tales games, Eternal Sonata, the Shadow Hearts series, Vagrant Story, FF XII and Resonance of Fate all have interesting combat systems on offer that would be great to see in other games and show it's not just about repeating the same attacks over and over again until the enemy stops moving.

    Good on Jason for giving FF13 a little love. It had a really fun battle system that stopped me getting bored of random encounters, which I've found can be a problem in other JRPGs. Shame some people just didn't seem to get it - too used to the standard fare maybe? Anyway LR:FF13 should see quite a refined ATB system so look forward to it :)

    Pointless article. Telling people their opinion is wrong because they disagree with you is childish. Not to mention the fact that Jason seems to think he's some sort of JRPG specialist and his article serves no purpose other than to justify his love for a genre that's stale, dull and almost dead in terms of originality. Such a typical weeboo JRPG fan. Always telling what other people to like *sigh*

    Btw Demon's Souls & Dark Souls demolish your typical cliche' turn based JRPG. They prove turn based gameplay is obsolete. Its also not impossible for games to have a good story, pretty new areas and great gameplay. Dunno about you but if wanted to sit there mashing X and sitting through 30hrs of cutscenes, I'd probably just watch a movie.

      berates author for telling people their opinions are wrong.

      precedes to do the exact same thing.

      Please tell me more about how it's 'stale, dull and almost dead'. You obviously completely missed Xenoblade, The Last Story and the upcoming Ni No Kuni. JRPG's are so far from your delusional explanation it's not funny. Enjoy missing out on some of the best games due to your unjustified hate towards their genre though.

    Turn-based RPG combat is my favourite. FF:X's battle system was perfect to me and I was disappointed to see it die in order to add "moar akshun" to games. It was the most strategic battle system to date in the FF series, as it isn't based on reacting as soon as your bar fills - you can see when each character will move and carefully choose your moves accordingly. The order of things is crucial and clear - you even know how much said move is going to slow you down. You know that you have 2 turns to take out the enemy before it moves again. You know you can Raise your downed Wakka and have him Blind the enemy just in time for their next move. It's not all predictable, though. Do you take the above move and hope Dark Attack blinds the enemy so they don't KO your White Mage or do you have them cast Protect on themself and certainly survive it, but with less health, less damage done and your teammate still down? Your choice. Point is you know what you have time to do and have the time to plan intricate sequences or moves, rather than a more general set of moves in an ATB system.

    FF XII's gambit system was guilty of generalising your actions. Hell, for the most part, you programmed people to make a rough move set based on vague criteria. It also strongly encouraged every character to be built the same. It was a decent battle system, but it nerfed the strategical purity of FFX (and I guess the tactics series) in a big way. The battle system was not designed to make many choices during a battle. You *can* do everything manually, but it certainly doesn't facilitate that well and time doesn't stop while you plan it out.

    Last edited 13/01/13 11:09 am

    Its always hilarious when you argue with JRPG weeboos. They can't accept that some people just don't like the genre.

    Why would I be missing out on anything when I find the genre absolutely dull as piss? You weeboos always think its out of ignorance when someone attacks the genre. Just accept that some people don't like the bloody games!

    If you think they're some of the best games of the generation, then good for you. But I don't, so get over it.

    If Kotaku Core had actually been a thing would this have qualified?

    Well I suppose that if getting clicks by being contrary and riling up the audience was the goal you succeeded.

    FFXIII's combat is awful, it can't decide what it wants to be. Either go all the way and make an action game like it wishes it was, or send it back to the old ATB system.

    FFXIII-2 system was actually very good. I think the best battle system of any final fantasy. Improved on the Original which was way too forgiving.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now