Turn-Based Combat Is The Best Kind Of Combat

Oh boy, here we go. If I'm gonna take over Jason's column for a week, that means I'm gonna talk about Japanese role-playing games. And if I'm gonna talk about Japanese role-playing games, that means I'm gonna talk about one of their defining characteristics: turn-based gameplay.

Editor's Note: I'm on holidays today, but since I know you're all craving your regular dose of JRPG goodness, I've enlisted the wonderful Kirk Hamilton to jazz up Random Encounters this week. Be nice! -- Jason Schreier

Surely turn-based combat is one of the defining characteristics of the JRPG genre. This is, of course, a video game genre that's notoriously difficult to encapsulate or define. I usually help Jason edit his column each week, and I always get a kick out of watching him write such well-articulated observations regarding a genre that's nebulous at best.

What makes a JRPG a JRPG. Man, I couldn't even begin to say. Ask 10 people to define a JRPG, and they'll give you 10 slightly different answers. But if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say those 10 people would all mention at least a couple of the following:

• Something about hair. • Something about a group of teens saving their hometown and/or the world. • Something about a burning village. • Something about turn-based combat.

I'm no JRPG expert. I never had a PSX or an SNES growing up. I first played Final Fantasy VII in 2011, when Leigh Alexander and I wrote a letter series about the game. But recently, I've come to fall in love with the genre, thanks in no small part to the gentleman who normally writes this column.

And of all the qualities that could be said to largely define the JRPG genre, turn-based gameplay is the one I find the most appealing. In an effort to abdicate myself of having to seem like some sort of expert on the subject, I bugged Jason on his vacation to see if he agrees that turn-based combat, while not necessarily present in every JRPG, is still a defining characteristic of the genre. Here's what he said:

"First of all, I can't believe you're interviewing me for my own column. Sneaky, Kirk! I think that it's hard to find a game with turn-based combat that isn't a JRPG, but a JRPG doesn't have to have turn-based combat. It's like... OK, let's say a JRPG is a salad, mostly because that's what I'm eating right now. Turn-based combat is the lettuce. If you have lettuce, you probably have a salad. And there are all different kinds of lettuce, all with different tastes and textures. Lettuce is pretty much the defining characteristic of a salad. But you can have a damn good salad without it, too. Right now I'm eating kale and edamame, which is pretty much the Secret of Mana of salads. "

Sweet! OK, this has been Random Encounters, your one-stop-shop for all things JRPG. Have a great weekend!

Just kidding. OK, that's good stuff. Let's stick with the lettuce metaphor: Of the JRPGs I've played, even the ones that didn't exactly feature strict turn-based combat still had turns of a sort. They were all salads, even if they didn't quite look like salads. Final Fantasy XIII, the combat system of which Jason has mentioned being a fan of and I enjoy too, uses an active-time battle system that isn't as turn-based as Persona 4 or Trails in the Sky, but it's not quite Bayonetta, either. Ni no Kuni's combat has never really gelled for me, but it got easier to conceptualize when I began to treat it as a sort of turn-based system where the turns were defined by my cool-off time. Those salads still have some sort of lettuce, it's just been prepared quite differently than we're used to.

But by and large, most of the JRPGs I've played (and liked) over the last couple of years have featured strict turn-based combat. Those include: Persona 3 and Persona 4, Final Fantasy VII, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, Final Fantasy Tactics, Devil Survivor Overclocked and Fire Emblem: Awakening, among others.

Those games are all very different in a lot of ways, but they appeal to my video-game-brain in the same way. And they all feature turn-based gameplay. I thought I'd break down why turn-based play appeals to me (and, I sense, to many others) so much. Here we go.

It gives me time to use my brain.

I love the moment at the very start of a JRPG battle, when my party is standing still, squared off against the enemy. The battle music starts up, and everything pauses -- it's the deep breath before the storm. I size up my enemy. I like to imagine he or she is sizing me up, too. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, I'm picking my party as that amazing music is playing. In Persona 4, I'm analysing my foe for weak spots and picking my best persona. In Final Fantasy Tactics, I'm taking the lay of the land as my little dudes march in place. So good.

No matter what I'm doing, no matter what strategies I'm planning or plans I'm hatching, I have the space to do it. I'm unharried by my enemies and unhurried by the game's design. When so many games force me to rely on muscle memory and years of practice in addition to quick decision-making, JRPGs let me rely on my brain. Turn-based gameplay is purely cerebral in an uncommon, welcome way.

It makes even the toughest boss feel manageable.

I really like games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, but sometimes I have a tough time with bosses. Particularly the massive, skyscraper-sized ones that require me to run up, bash a weak spot on a heel or a knee-pit, and then strike when the moment is right. I love the spectacle, but the entire thing can be difficult to get my arms around.

JRPGs certainly have building-sized bosses, but due to their turn-based nature, it's much easier to methodically approach the fight. I may be facing a god-sized Sephiroth or a world-ending Nyx, but I can take as long as I need each turn to get my head together and figure out what's working and what's not. As Jason and I once discussed, the best JRPG boss fights feel less like fights and more like puzzles, and I really like that. I'm not sure this makes me any better prepared to actually fight an apocalyptic leviathan in real life, but it certainly makes the game more enjoyable.

It lets me enjoy the soundtrack.

Some of the best JRPG music happens during battles. And in a turn-based game, you're really able to listen and enjoy. The Persona 3 sub-boss music. The bitchin' Final Fantasy VII boss music. The jazzy battle music from Trails in the Sky. The amazing way that Fire Emblem: Awakening mixes two musical arrangements into one musical milieu. The list goes on.

With all of those games, the turn-based rhythm of play allows the music to really get under my skin.

It lets me enjoy the art.

Similarly, turn-based gameplay gives me a chance to really sit back and appreciate the artists who worked on the game. JRPGs often feature some amazingly designed, imaginative enemies, and it'd be a shame to blast through fights without ever really seeing them standing still. I love the design of every monster and boss in the Persona universe, but I'd never have had a chance to really take a good look if they didn't stand still so often.

By way of contrast, I'm reminded of both Kid Icarus: Uprising and Bayonetta, two very fast-paced games that featured cool enemies, but enemies I rarely had much of a chance to study and appreciate. Sure, games like that often unlock "miniatures" that you can go and check out some sub-menu or another. But I like to be able to appreciate a game's art during the actual game. Turn-based combat lets me do that.

It's perfect for handheld gaming.

Between the 3DS XL and the Vita, it's something of a golden age for the portable JRPG. While the 3DS library continues to fill in with all kinds of varied games, I've heard the Vita jokingly referred to as a JRPG-device. That's been true in my experience, but that's also a-okay. I've played many of my favourite games of the last year on one of those two systems, and I've come to realise that turn-based games and handheld consoles are a match made in heaven.

For starters, the notion of wolfing down an 80-to-100-hour JRPG becomes much more doable the moment it's happening on a handheld platform. If I can play on the couch, on the bus, or over at my sister's hours, it makes it easier for me to fit such a large game into the cracks and crevasses of my life. After recently spending 60 hours completing Ni no Kuni on my TV, I can report that I would've happily played that game on Vita and it wouldn't have lost a thing.

Turn-based games are particularly well-suited for mobile gaming. If I'm playing a video games on the go, there are all manner of distractions. I have to be aware of what stop I'm on, or which seat just opened up, or whether my bag of groceries is about to tip over. I've tried to play action-packed games like Mario Kart and Uncharted on the go, and find that in general, a transit environment isn't all that compatible with involved, action-packed video games.

But turn-based games work perfectly. If I need to look up to check which stop Im' on, or push over to let someone else sit down, I can do so without even pausing the game. (Though I've certainly still missed my fair share of bus stops due to Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics.) What's more, most mobile gaming takes place in fits and starts -- five minutes while waiting for the bus, then a pause to get on the bus, then 10 more minutes on the bus, pause to get off, etc. Turn-based gameplay itself takes place in fits and starts of a sort, and as a result is much more compatible with being on the go.

It lets me get the most out of combat.

JRPGs are almost always incredibly deep games. Their combat starts out simple and gets more and more complex, until you're dealing with five or six different sorts of magic, weapons that have been crafted to feature any of a number of specialisations, half a dozen party members who each have unique abilities, enemies that change states and are immune to an ever-shifting variety of attack, and a codex-worth of buffs and debuffs changing your party's entire makeup at the drop of a hat. If these games weren't turn-based, I wouldn't even be able to process half of that stuff.

I find that with action games, from relatively simple ones like God of War to the more complex DmCs and Metal Gear Risings, I tend to keep things fairly low-level. I just don't have the bandwidth to deal with the constant speed of battle and my increasingly elaborate move-set. I'm certainly not saying that this type of game is invalid or less-than -- the ability to master DmC's combat is amazing, and a rewarding, fun experience for those who choose (and are able) to do so. But for me personally, I find that when a game is turn-based, I'm able to go a lot deeper into the game's dusty corners.

I love talking with people about JRPG combat, because for once, I get to be really hardcore about it. Stephen and I still have these hilariously micromanagey conversations about our party makeup and approach in Fire Emblem. Whenever I'm able to snag some time to play more Final Fantasy Tactics, the conversations I have about job points and mission strategy are mostly impenetrable, hugely nerdy, and utterly wonderful. I really like going deep into a combat system, and find that turn-based games give me the space I need to get comfortable enough to do so. I understand that this is a personal preference, but I'm generally able to wring a lot more out of turn-based games than action games, which makes them feel richer and more rewarding.

***

Of course, turn-based gameplay is nothing new. People have been taking turns for ages, and many of the world's most popular games -- from Go to Chess to Checkers -- are turn-based. The notion of "turns" is one reason football is so much fun to watch, since as Tim Rogers puts it, it is in essence "a real-time/turn-based hybrid strategy game." Turns are in games' DNA, and video games are simply reflecting that.

JRPGs aren't the only video games to use turns, either. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my favorite games of 2012, and that was largely due to its turn-based design. The underrated 3Ds game Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is the closest thing I've currently got to a mobile XCOM game, unless you count Fire Emblem: Awakening. And the increasing popularity of asynchronous multiplayer games like Hero Academy, as well as less obviously RPGish games like Words with Friends and most recently, Super Stickman Golf 2 are further evidence that turn-based gameplay isn't going anywhere.

I guess The Byrds had it right with their riff on the Book of Ecclesiastes:

To everything, turn, turn turn! There is a season, turn, turn, turn! And a boss fight for every hero in the kingdom.

...or something like that.


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


Comments

    Sweet! OK, this has been Random Encounters, your one-stop-shop for all things JRPG. Have a great weekend!

    You got a chuckle out of me, it even happened right at the bottom of the page. Nice article although as a minor counter point I find that turn based does mean that smaller, easy fights seem like a waste of time, you are just going through the motions. In an action style game it can make you seem more powerful and you can just rush through them with a turn based game that but just get annoying.

    Real Time for life. In my opinion, battles aren't as intense when you get to take your time and think before each decision, and although turn-based does allow for a more intelligent level of strategy, it doesn't feel quite as intelligent due to having so much time to make decisions. Being able to process information and make decisions almost instantaneously will make you feel like a complete boss during a real-time battle. Most of the games I play are against friends and are used to scale our worth against each other (in broad terms), mainly in age of mythology. The more criteria involved in this game-type (like response-time, multitasking), the greater the feeling of victory because you've beaten your peers across so many areas. So when it comes to turn based games, I just don't get the same feeling of accomplishment from defeating one of my friends. Also, in terms of music, I think music can easily be appreciated when it suits the intensity of a battle in real time.

    When it comes to combat I'm not a big fan of turn based. It's not so much the actual turns, that's fine in a game of chess or go or whatever, it's the fact that turn based almost always involves randomness, and I'm not ok with that in my games.

    You can talk about strategy all you want, but when a game just arbitrarily decides that my attack missed, my opponent's was a critical hit and I'm now dead, that just sucks. If I fail in a game it should be because I messed up, not because the game just randomly assigned me a losing number.

    Front mission 3 and Valkyria Chronicles are two of my favourite games of all time. However I'm not a huge fan of other JRPGs.

    I haven't liked turn based combat for a long time. To me it feels like an archaic leftover from the 16 bit era. The JRPG's I have enjoyed the most are those that have real time combat, or at least some kind of interesting hybrid of the two.

      More like a holdover from the dungeons and dragons era! I appreciate that people love the strategizing that goes with it, I mean that's the appeal of chess, but its not for me, the most I ever played turn based was the original pokemon and that grew boring quickly.

    I would have to say turned based combat kills games for me. I can go about half way through a game then it just becomes the same thing over and over. Really annoys me cause they are usually (other than the combat) good games

    I still prefer turn based combat to all the action stuff they put in these days, that being said the combat has to match the game design.

    I tend to disagree with the notion that TB combat is a defining characteristic of JRPGs and that it's hard to find TB combat outside of a JRPG (In fact, the article contradicts that statement at the end). Using the salad analogy, just because it has lettuce, it's not necessarily a salad, and just because it's a salad, doesn't mean there's lettuce and as we all know, lettuce is served everywhere and is a great way to add volume to a meal but is rarely its defining feature (unless it's something like a Mesclun).

    The lower quality salads tend to be overloaded with lettuce or use lettuce that isn't fresh or crisp, making the whole experience mediocre because it uses cheap lettuce to pad it out instead of thinking about balance. The best salads use lettuce sparingly, and use the right lettuce for the occasion if it is even necessary. It should complement the colours and taste, and work in concert with the other flavours and textures to provide the best experience. Then again, the same is true of any meal, the good ones allow you the ability to enjoy the flavours, the colours, and the textures without resorting to using cheap padding to make you feel full.

    ... Now I'm hungry.

    I love Turn-Based games. It's good to play games that you can think through thoroughly and win purely because of your tactics instead of, for example, not pressing buttons fast enough in the right combination, or not aiming with enough precision (although I enjoy that too). When action elements are introduced, it is always taking away from the strategy to some degree. That's not to say action games aren't strategic, just that they are inherently less strategic then turn-based games.

    Also, FFVII isn't technically turn-based. In fact, almost all of the main FF's aren't because they use the 'Active-time-Battle' which is time-based, the exclusive opposite of turn-based. The first three FF's, FFX and a few side games like Tactics are the only turn-based ones. I'm sorry, I'm a FF nut, I need to annoyingly correct people like this. Enjoyed the article though.

    Wow, this article really hit the nail on the head, I can't think of anything I would have added. :D

    I love turn-based. I like planning my moves like an army commander but on a small scale. This is why I dislike the way Final Fantasy has gone from extremely turn-based (FFX) to hack and slash as fast as you can (FFXIII and FFXIII-2). It's ruined a big chunk of what I liked about the series.

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