What’s Happening To Turn-Based Games On Consoles?

2015-06-24-022413

Trying out Lost Dimension for a couple hours gave me an opportunity to think again about why I (and perhaps a lot of other people) have been averse to turn-based Japanese RPGs in recent years. The reasons are complex and probably different for everybody, but I think it’s an interesting issue to look at when you compare them to the massively popular western RPGs on consoles these days. I also coincidentally seem to be putting this up just as Square Enix suggests the possibility the Final Fantasy VII remake might leave behind the original’s turn-based combat system.

Elder ScrollsFalloutDragon Age, and The Witcher are all pretty popular RPGs these days, but I’d venture to say none of them is known for having an excellent combat system. Dragon Age Origins and the VATS system in Fallout might be the exceptions, but the other games are routinely criticized for having boring or imbalanced combat. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has sold upwards of 35 million copies despite its combat basically consisting of “left click until dead.” Yet these games still sell in the millions and get high scores from critics. I also find all those games very easy to hop in and out of.

Whenever I rent or otherwise try out a new Japanese RPG however I start to groan whenever I get introduced to the combat system and character development systems, particularly if they are turn-based. In most cases I find myself asking why I have to try to figure out and master yet another unique set of rules for these games, even if they might be very well-balanced and thought-out.

For some people at least I think one issue may in fact be the turn-based nature of some of the JRPGs. I’ve come to believe single-character action games are pretty much the backbone of western console gaming, and almost all of those popular western RPGs I mentioned above fit that bill while also being RPGs, BioWare games being the only exception (which I’ll get to in Monday’s blog post). The mainstream console audience wants brisk gameplay uninterrupted by turns and transitions. They want worlds that are borderline virtual reality with bleeding-edge graphics. Even if Skyrim’s combat is boring on its own, it serves as inoffensive filler while players are exploring the game’s world.

A turn-based system puts the rest of the game world on pause and forces all attention on itself as well as the fact that it’s a game, not an “immersive” world. I’d venture to say turn-based RPGs are not unlike board games run by computers, and that’s just not what most people who buy consoles want. They have to be very good board game systems to maintain most people’s attention. Portable and mobile games on the other hand don’t have that same expectation of technological show of force, and turn-based systems are useful when you’re just playing for five minutes at a time. PC gaming also has dedicated audiences for turn-based RPGs and strategy games. For me personally though the issue with console games is it’s more than that, and maybe it is for everyone else too.

What I’ve noticed is most, or at least a great deal of western RPGs play a little similarly to each other. It doesn’t take that long to grasp the combat in Dragon Age Inquisition — you deal damage, gather gear, and assign skill points. You do the same thing in Mass EffectElder Scrolls, and Fallout. Even Dark Souls feels very straightforward once you figure out how souls work. A great proportion of JRPGs on the other hand feel the need to feature special gimmicks and completely unique sets of rules for their combat, thus taking longer to acclimate to. Often when I start a new JRPG it feels like I have to learn a whole new board game, and I’m probably not going to keep playing unless that board game immediately grabs me. That may happen in cases like Grandia, or Valkyria Chronicles, but probably not most of the time.

Lost Dimension is a strategy RPG, which is ironically very much my kind of thing. I find the systems in games like Final Fantasy TacticsFire Emblem, and Valkyria the be quite addictive. Lost Dimension patterns itself mostly after the latter. I just didn’t have enough time to see what flavor, if any, it brings to the table. Even Valkyria’s pre-release demo felt immediately fun to play. Maybe I just prefer strategy RPGs with a military theme. Maybe the visual and sound design of Valkyria clicked with me more. Screenshots suggest to me that Lost Dimension has more interesting level design later on in its story, whereas Valkyria had fairly complex level design from the start.

Even the more straightforward turn-based RPGs that don’t trade in crazy gimmicks are easier for me to jump into. I’d never played a Dragon Quest game until Dragon Quest IX but ended up getting sucked right into it, partly because of how direct the whole game feels. You take turns, deal damage, get gear, etc., and it all just happens to be fun on account of being well-balanced. Bravely Default feels similar but with just one cool twist regarding how you manage turns.

I’m not saying I dislike JRPGs or turn-based games by any means. I’m just saying they often have a hard time grabbing me because they tend to take more creative risks with their design instead of staying on accessible and dependable ground. Sometimes that pays off resulting in gameplay unlike anything else (Grandia), sometimes it doesn’t.

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