RPG Grind Time – Turn-Based Battle Systems Need To Evolve To Survive

by Kimberley Wallace on Apr 26, 2017 at 03:01 PM

To stay relevant, evolution is necessary and many RPGs have gone bigger and flashier, often choosing open worlds coupled with action combat. I don't begrudge this at all, but I don't think any RPG has to fit a specific mold to be fun and successful. Lately, I've been thinking about the turn-based battle system, especially considering it's the core of Persona 5, the upcoming Dragon Quest XI, and the recently launched Cosmic Star Heroine. I'm glad to see developers aren't backing away from it entirely, because I still find value in this form of combat despite more and more RPGs moving away from it. Even Final Fantasy, a long-time stanchion, abandoned it in its latest iteration.

My love for turn-based battles doesn't come just from nostalgia. I'm someone who likes to be calculating. Sure, heat-of-the-moment decisions can be fun, but there's something about thinking through your choices and maximizing your opportunities that I revel in. Turn-based combat isn't about twitch skills – all that matters is statistics and tactics; it's one of the purest forms of strategy in games. In some ways, you can compare action battle systems to sports, while turn-based battle systems are akin to chess. They're both thrilling for different reasons. Personally, I've always been a planner who likes to get the most out of my every move, which is why I think I'm drawn to turn-based combat.

The problem most modern games face is keeping interest and generating excitement. If the system doesn't have depth, it just drags battles on without requiring effort or thought. This goes against everything that makes turn-based combat shine. When I think about my favorite games that use these systems, they have good hooks to build upon. Persona centers on exploiting elemental weakness, while also giving you the power to fuse powerful personas to expand your options in battle. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel makes you consider placement and which characters you want to group for bonuses. As you progress in Dragon Quest, buffs are essential and downright deadly. If you want to get into strategy/RPGs, nothing punishes you for not making the most out of your turns like permadeath in Fire Emblem.

When I think about what these systems all do well (outside of the obvious 'you don't mash attack to win') is that they force you to engage with a wide range of abilities. Some games make actions optional, like casting ailments or buffs, but successful systems make them integral to your success. This might not always be apparent in regular battles, as I think there's always some leeway there, but bosses always pull out the stops to make you prove your mastery. I recently played through Cosmic Star Heroine and it made me feel so accomplished when I'd push its battle system to its limits by casting numerous buffs and waiting until I hit hyper mode for double the damage. Seeing the powerful attacks I could inflict on bosses with huge health bars was satisfying.

While there is promise, I see fewer turn-based battle systems than I did years ago. I don't want this style of combat to become a relic of the past, nor do I want it to be considered niche. I think many developers are just stuck in a rut, not figuring out how to keep these systems satisfying and fun for the long haul. Developers must keep innovating and thinking outside of the box to avoid this. Sometimes that might mean adding fun elements outside of battle that play back into combat, such as how in Persona 5 your team gets perks based on how far you advance your relationships. Other times, adding new skills that change up your strategy through the journey could make all the difference, or even giving the player some customization over their skills so they feel more involved with the strings they're pulling. Turn-based battles often struggle with predictability, so adding little things such as taking certain party members or skills away could make all the difference.

The turn-based battle system has a future, but how bright it is will be determined by developers improving on the system's high points and trying new things. Even Final Fantasy could be successful again with traditional combat; it just has to be interesting and challenge players the right way.