South Park’s Choice Of Turn-Based Combat

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I only had enough time to try out a little bit of South Park: the Stick of Truth. I think it’s a fine game but one thing stuck out at me most of all — its choice of an action-turn-based combat system. The way it casts that system though is a pretty good lampshade of turn-based combat in general.

As an RPG about South Park, what I played of Stick of Truth is pretty much of the quality you’d expect from Obsidian Entertainment (Alpha Protocol, Fallout New Vegas). The mechanics feel deep yet mesh well with the world of the TV series, and most importantly it carries the same writing that brings people to South Park. If I decided to buy Stick of Truth and beat it, it would be for the story. I’m still kind of surprised by the combat system though.

It’s one of those systems that’s turn-based but has timed button presses for every action in some bid to feel a little bit like an action game. You have to press a button at the right moment to get a more effective attack or defense, and the timing is different for each weapon which gives the system some depth. It’s very similar to Paper Mario in this fashion. Personally, I don’t really think that works but a lot of people seem to like it. I think those Penny Arcade RPGs tried to do the same thing. I guess it adds a bit more variability to what happens in turn-based systems — how much damage is dealt and whatnot. Vagrant Story for the original PlayStation has a very odd style of this system where you use your choice of timed button presses to chain combos of different actions.

My issue with these systems is that I think there are better alternatives. I feel like the attempt to be a little bit like an action game is kind of a waste if a game isn’t already a straight-up action game about quick reflexes — an action RPG essentially. If the idea is to have the best of both worlds, then in my opinion the best option is to have a real time system with the ability to pause when making tactical decisions, recent examples being the Dragon Age games and Final Fantasy XII. They’re not as slow as turn-based systems, feel more immersive because they don’t transport players to an alternate battle board dimension, and you still get all the time you need to use your brain when pausing to strategize.

Stuff like this comes from fundamental disagreements between people about why RPGs have turn-based or real-time combat systems. One widespread belief is that older RPGs, especially Japanese console RPGs, only used turn-based systems because the NES and Super NES couldn’t render real-time combat, and that turn-based became largely obsolete as soon as the hardware allowed real-time. You could say I subscribe to this belief, but it takes a sort of “one size fits all” approach to game design that assumes everyone is trying to make the “perfect” RPG. Another belief approaches every games as, of all things, a unique game which may choose one system or another, a lot like board games. This belief actually makes a lot of sense for the setting of Stick of Truth.

From the beginning of the game it’s apparent all the characters are playing make-believe fantasy depicted as an RPG. Stick of Truth is basically a video game about people doing live-action role-play. In this, the characters are aware they’re taking turns and comment on this during gameplay. It’s a neat comment on both the oddity of turn-based combat in modern times and on the gamified nature of RPGs. The question after that is how much might that intrude on the fun of the actual game.

Probably not much in the eyes of a lot of people. There are, again, a lot of people who like the this brand of turn-based gameplay. For them, being able to play it with a comedic spin is probably even more fulfilling, especially if they watch South Park. I personally get more of my enjoyment out of the game from that commentary than the mechanical game itself. Then again, I feel that way about a lot of RPGs, so that’s not a slight against Stick of Truth at all.

People have their preferences as always, I’ve just become tired of games that juxtapose real-time exploration with slower turn-based combat.

BULLETS:

  • So apparently FRACT OSC will be coming out soon.
  • The Witcher 3 was my most anticipated 2014 game. My year is now significantly changed by its delay. There really isn’t much else out there that I know I’m buying for sure when it comes to full retail games.
  • My custom cover art for Titanfall. http://t.co/T9vvCSsUWM
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