According to Yoshinori Kitase Final Fantasy will not be implementing a modern turn based system in the future instalments of Final Fantasy.
So why is this significant to the genre as a whole?
Kitase was the director of fan loved favourites Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy X. These along with final fantasy IX were the most well received of the final fantasy games and many people are still divided about the following mainline iterations of the franchise. (XII, XIII and XV) That is not to say that they are bad games but many fans feel they removed the heart of what made the games the final fantasy that we knew and loved.
Final fantasy VI, VII, VIII and IX embraced a ATB system whereby the speed of actions mattered thus keeping the pace of the battle. X on the other hand developed a more orderly approach in that you could actively plan ahead more effective increasing the strategy element but removing some of the pace of the battle and despite these changes was well received.
XII’s gambit system was a completely new change all together more in keeping with an MMO, increasing the focus on strategy again. Not everyone was a fan of the new direction however the game still kept many of the facets that made final fantasy popular the first instance. Storytelling, side quests, and towns were still apparently along with the perfect pacing that never made you rush but always encouraged you to progress the story at an acceptable pace. XIII took away the towns and sidequest’s and funnelled you down a trodden path which lead you to ruined corridor which in turn lead you to a claustrophobic tunnel. The battle system once again suffered the “game plays itself criticism” but I personally found the combat enjoyable and varied through the use of paradigms. The characters were varied with abilities and challenge was reasonable. The flaw in FFXIII lay elsewhere.
Finally XV embraced an action battle system but still Square-Enix could not pull away from the game “playing itself” criticism of the previous two mainline titles. Story and pacing issues aside unfortunately you could complete the majority of the game by holding phasing and attack buttons. It actually became more fun to play as companions in the subsequent updates. It would be unfair to say Square Enix can’t do action orientated combat as shown by Nier: Automata and Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2.
Firstly lets look at what makes the combat in Nier: Automata and Kingdom Hearts so enjoyable. In both of these there is some element of challenge. In Nier: Automata this is achieves through the fast pace of the combat and combining different type of combat from side scrolling to third person.
Kingdom Hearts has less challenge in my opinion than Nier: Automata but the combat flows, is satisfying to use and finally is very varied depending on enemy type, location and abilities equipped. You can use magic in both FFXV and Kingdom Hearts, but in FFXV you often think what is the point it is far too cumbersome and neither is their apparently advantage to utilising it over standard combat. Combat was also too easy in FFXV, unless you ran out of potions it was nearly impossible to die. Stunning graphics and aesthetically pleasing combat can only take you so far. By offering very little challenge within the combat system, repetitive simplistic move sets and lack of variation as to the means to defeat your enemies it is easy to become board and thus pushes you towards the other shortcomings present the game. (non-existent story pacing and incomplete content)
Next lets look at a few games that still successfully implement the turn based battle systems successfully on console. Namely Persona 5 and Dragon Quest 11. Both games and very simplistic combat system but do what they do very well.
Persona 5 has a rich rock, paper, scissors mechanic whilst Dragon Quest has a very traditional role based mechanic with standard turn based action. There is a strong focus of embossing strengths, not so much to hide drawbacks to the turn based system but so they are not at the forefront of your enjoyment whilst you play. A varied cast of characters (in terms abilities and personality) in both coupled with strong unique styling mean there is plenty to occupy the player whilst playing even through the simpler bits.
I don’t feel that the developers intended on the combat being the main focus of the game but rather one of the main ingredients along with story, exploration and clear styling to create a well combat is a rounded game. My wife and I had been watching a lot of MasterChef Australia (the best one by the way) over the last year and one thing they talk about in abundance is “Hero-ing” ingredients i.e. Creating a well constructed dish that really accentuates and highlights the positive impact of said ingredient. Persona 5 does this through style with beautiful character designs, Hauntingly addictive soundtracks and clear sense of style throughout, Dragon Quest heroes its’ captivating story and excellent characterisation.
The combat is an integral cog to “hero-ing” their chosen ingredient and must be functional and smooth, it is not required to be anything groundbreaking. Like any cog should it not quite be the perfect fit the mechanism will not run smoothly and you may start to look to other parts of the machine for flaws. Both games have flaws but neither detract from the playability of the title.
In summary there is a future for turn based games as evidenced by the success of Persona 5 and Dragon Quest. I can understand why Final Fantasy once to progress down the action route as turn based is seen to be very Niche thus limiting their target audience and revenue however another game whereby the battle mechanics are executed in highly flawed manner could lead to the original fans of the genre abandoning it entirely. It is always a tightrope to walk when creating a game to maintain the loyalty of the original fan base whilst enticing new players to the series with a gameplay mechanic they are familiar with.
They are plenty of games that I believe will continue to persist with turn based combat but I also believe they will have to adapt to maintain their place in gaming. Below are a few areas I believe need to be address should turn based combat maintain relevance in the future.
- Appropriate level of challenge- Making a game too easy or too hard is the quickest way to lose engagement from players. This is often cited as a main area in teachers planning lessons and teachers and developers share more in common with teachers than you might think. Both are in the business of getting to enjoy what we are doing whilst getting better.
- Variation- whether it be changing the dynamic completely as in Nier: Automata’s changing perspective and battle mechanic or varied abilities and personalised approaches to every battle there has to be room to experiment with the combat and a real reward for doing so. Mashing one or two buttons (or not in the case of FFXV) is no recipe for success.
- If you want to Hero the battle and fighting mechanic you can make a strategy or beat’em up game. In my opinion RPG’s are all about exploring, story telling and excellent character casts. Therefore the battle mechanic should be something the slides in smoothly, is simple to understand but offers enough variation and challenge to ensure battles are not a chore and have multiple rewarding approaches. It should not be the hero of the game at the expense of the story telling and exploration. Players who seek that experience will usually go elsewhere for that towards action titles.
I am not against innovation and am a big fan of action RPG games as well as turn based games. There is room for both in gaming. Variety is key as well as challenge and engagement. Primarily the focus should be on creating great stories, characters and populated environment to explore, the combat system should fit into this rather than the other way round.
Daniel Jones, December 2018