Role-playing Games: Turn-based, Real Time and the Myths that Love Them

Today, internet, we are going to be looking at the illustrious RPG genre and a rather divisive aspect of it: combat. There has always been a huge amount of proponents and detractors for both turn-based and real time combat in RPGs. Turn-based combat is seen as more traditional JRPG (Japanese role-playing game) fare, which isn’t particularly true as many old, classic JRPGs relied just as much on real time combat as western counterparts. Conversely, real time combat is seen as a staple of WRPGs (Western role-playing games) despite the fact that many prominent WRPGs rely on turn-based combat. There is also the stereotype that turn-based combat is archaic and traditional, while real time combat is the wave of the future. While this makes logical sense, it is blatantly untrue and great games are being made using both systems. Today, we are going to look both combat systems and we will try to debunk some myths related to both styles of combat.

I bet you can’t wait to see Scarmiglione’s luscious body in the next fight.

Firstly let’s look at the myth that turn-based games are ancient relics of the age of JRPG dominance. This myth is almost definitely the fault of two prominent gaming franchises: Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (Warrior). Dragon Quest is one of the biggest RPG franchises in the world, but nowhere more so than in Japan. This led to a lot of  JRPGs mimicking the style and form of the series in order to try to catch some of this success. For those who don’t know, Dragon Quest has what one would call a very traditional JRPG combat system with the party separated from the enemy and each side takes turns beating on each other until one side passes out (Or dies, whatever). The original Final Fantasy was heavily…ahem, “inspired” by Dragon Quest, leading it to adopt a similar style of combat. The main Dragon Quest series’ combat has pretty much not evolved at all through the years, whereas the Final Fantasy series has; however, it has maintained a turn-based combat system. To call the Final Fantasy series the most popular JRPG in the west would be a major understatement. After all, it was Final Fantasy VII, which brought JRPGs to the mainstream back on the original Playstation. So, similar to what happened with Dragon Quest, many RPGs have attempted at copying the Final Fantasy formula and part of that includes a turn-based battle system.

This is your fault. You did this!

So what I’ve basically told you, internet, is that there is a good foundation for why people associate turn-based combat with JRPGs, but it is a very limited view. Looking at Square-Enix (Developer of both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy) alone, one can find many examples of prominent JRPGs that utilize a real time combat system. Looking back at the SNES days, the Seiken Densetsu series uses real time combat. The Seiken Densetsu series being known in the west as the Mana series, which has produced such hits as Secret of Mana on the SNES and Legend of Mana on the PS1. Secret of Mana was such a success that it inspired other games to copy its style and real time combat system, such as the blatant rip-off Secret of Evermore. Again, just looking at Square, you have the prestigious Kingdom Hearts series, which is one of the company’s flagship series, and it uses real time combat. There are of course many, many more examples of JRPGs with real time combat outside of Square-Enix. It would be foolish to assume that turn-based combat is limited to JRPGs. WRPG classics such as Fallout and Knights of the Old Republic both relied on a turn-based system, as do most MMOs. To simply stick turn-based combat in with one type of RPG would be very short-sighted.

More turn-based than you might remember

Next there is the myth that turn-based combat is inherently archaic. This one is very easy to believe. After all, how silly is it that one side would attack while the other patiently waits for its turn. Also, what is considered the traditional JRPG turn-based battle system is indeed very archaic now. The problem with this assumption is that turn-based combat did not stop evolving when Final Fantasy IV came in with its ATB (Active Time Battle) system. For example look at Chrono Trigger. It is an SNES game with a turn-based battle system, but it isn’t simply having your team of heroes lining up on one side of the screen and the enemy lining up on the other side. Instead, your team-mates and the enemy will be positioned in various places along the battleground. This is important as many skills in battle take enemy position into account. Some turn-based games integrate real time elements into their combat in order to ramp up the excitement.  MMOs and games such as Final Fantasy XII have made a point of allowing characters mobility during combat, and games such as Xenoblade Chronicles have built on this system to allow position-based attacks, and allows real time execution of skills with a turn-based auto attack. There are also games which have added more strategy and complexity to turn-based combat such as SMT: Nocturne where striking an enemy’s weakness will give you more actions in your turn. The point isn’t me showcasing how many RPGs I’ve played, but to show that the vision most people have in their head about of turn-based system being simple and archaic like Final Fantasy VII is just plain wrong.

We’re past this now. Try to keep up.

There is the myth concerning real time RPGs that there is no strategy involved with them, and they all end up as nothing more than button mashing affairs, or simply action games with minor RPG elements. This myth is based on the fact that almost every genre has been integrating RPG elements in the past two or three generations so developing your character is no longer the exclusive domain of RPGs, and there are plenty of button mashers that integrate RPG elements to distract from their lackluster combat. Truthfully, it is often very hard to differentiate between RPGs and many action games these days. I tend to look at the game’s emphasis on developing your character to decide what side of the fence to put the game, but the waters are very murky in this regard. Dark Souls (Or Demon’s Souls, take your pick) is a great example of an RPG with real time combat which is not turned into a mash-fest. Dark Souls’ combat has a real weight to it and spamming attacks will do nothing more than get you killed faster. As much as you don’t need to use it because the game is so toddler-level easy, Kingdom’s of Amalur: The Reckoning also has a fairly strong combat system with multiple skills reliant on positioning, parrying, and dodging. The point here is that good real time combat can be just as strategic as turn-based combat. Adding in elements of player skill and not total reliance on stats and strategy also adds a great deal of depth to real time RPGs. Of course some real time RPGs rely just as much on stats and strategy as their turn-based counterparts. For example; The Elder Scrolls series. While trying to integrate skill-based combat in the form of blocking and power attacks, The Elder Scrolls’ combat remains, largely, a test of stats and proper preparation in the same way that many turn-based games are.

Pause the game, equip fire spell, put on magicka enhancing equipment, drink potion. Time to fight!

Traditionally it is thought that the biggest advantage to turn-based combat is the level of strategy and planning that can go into each round of combat. They are often (Not always thanks to the ATB system) slower paced than their real time counterparts and this often makes them more of a thinking man’s game. Conversely, real time combat is traditionally held to involve more player skill, which can help get rid of the frequent problem of overleveling, making the game too easy. However, even these advantages are based on the assumption that turn-based RPGs are all like the original Dragon Quest and that all real time RPGs are like Dark Souls. In reality, there are many heavily skill-based turn-based RPGs out there, which require more than simply strategy. This is because of the integration of aspects of real time combat into many turn-based systems. At the same time, many real time RPGs aren’t very fast paced and allow the player to properly prepare a strategy for each fight and/or opponent. The problem is the stereotypes simply don’t work. I have played turn-based RPGs with very traditional combat systems, which are so deep and fresh, calling them archaic would be a grave insult. At the same time, I have played real time RPGs which are so detailed and methodical that calling them mindless would be idiotic.

Above: deep and fresh

The point to this whole post was simply to look at the assumptions people make concerning types of battle systems. As technology keeps improving, players will be able to manipulate their characters in increasingly interesting ways; however, this does not mean that turn-based combat is archaic. Instead, turn-based combat can give players an extremely deep and complicated system that one really has to delve into. There are great rewarding experiences from both sides of the coin, and it is a shame that the simple idea of teams taking turns hitting each other, or that the player may have to develop skills such as proper timing, is enough to turn people away from some truly amazing games. No matter what kind of RPG combat system you prefer, every RPG enthusiast owes it to themselves to play Dark Souls, and Xenoblade Chronicles. In the end, it shouldn’t matter if the game is turn-based or real time, a good combat system will shine forth like a light in the fog.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer


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