Abstraction in game combat: turn-based systems and why I don’t have a problem with them (probably)

I haven’t been putting the usual care into these post titles, probably because I’m just doing my best to get them out the door this month. This daily schedule shit is exhausting, even when you’re sticking with shorter posts. But I ran track in high school, and while I wasn’t the top athlete (I kind of sucked honestly) I never gave up in a race, so I won’t this time, especially when the only competitor is my own laziness.

Recently I thought back to a one-time conversation I had with some guy years ago. Video games somehow came up, and what we were playing at the time, and of course I had a JRPG going and brought that up. Then the inevitable question: does it have turn-based combat? Well of course it did, and that guy said he couldn’t play it in that case.

This issue comes up on gaming Twitter every so often, most recently when Square-Enix announced news about the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI keeping the action-based combat of XV, along with a reason provided by producer Naoki Yoshida: essentially that they’re looking for a younger audience who aren’t used to turn-based combat or don’t find it exciting.

What could be more exciting than fighting demon dogs in a post-apocalyptic mall, even if it’s turn-based?

I don’t know whether younger gamers as a whole are averse to the turn-based style. I’ll even defer to Square-Enix on that point, since they presumably have a far greater ability and budget for demographic studies than I do (though against my nothing and $0 that’s not saying much.) Given how popular the turn-based RPG Persona 5 is among young people, I’d still say Square’s way of thinking is narrow here but maybe there are other factors behind the decision they just don’t want to get into.

But I can understand why some people prefer real-time combat in their RPGs. For that guy I talked to years ago, the problem with turn-based systems was their high level of abstraction — he just couldn’t get into a game that interpreted a fight as the two sides standing in lines opposite each other and taking turns whacking each other with weapons and spells.

That’s a fair reason to dislike turn-based combat, but I don’t feel the same way about it at all, and I think the main reason is that I played it enough as a kid that it ended up feeling natural to me. At least it felt natural enough that I never minded seeing it in the context of an RPG. Sure, turn-based combat of this kind is very abstract, but if you can get past that, I think this system offers plenty of upsides to make up for that potential weirdness, the main one being the added complexity it makes possible with various types of attacks/buffs/debuffs and how they operate with ally and enemy strengths and weaknesses.

There’s a reason I bring up Megami Tensei when people bring up the point about turn-based RPG combat being crusty, old, and boring: the games in that series mostly use that format and manage to make it dynamic and interesting by turning the combat into a sort of puzzle. Brute force leveling isn’t an effective option when the game requires you to keep and use a varied set of skills on your party because the alternative is getting your ass handed to you not just by a boss, but a random encounter. And that’s not the only way to spice up turn-based combat — you can also incorporate rhythm elements if you want to actually test your players’ reaction and timing skills.

Or mix combat up with complex item and weapon-crafting and inventory systems, putting emphasis on planning and teamwork to succeed in what otherwise might be a standard turn-based combat format? Okay, maybe I won’t go that far, that’s only for the truly insane like me.

Not that I have anything against action games or action-based combat in RPGs, but it just annoys me when I see what really seem like lame excuses from Square-Enix or any other developer for taking one path vs. another. Square made Final Fantasy a household name by setting new trends, not by following them, and it sure as hell doesn’t sound like they’re interested in innovating anymore. But maybe I’m wrong and FF16 will be amazing. You tell me whenever it comes out.

That’s all for today. I think I covered a lot of old ground here, but there’s no way I’ll be able to keep a daily posting schedule this month without doing that. Until tomorrow, and hopefully with something new.

2 thoughts on “Abstraction in game combat: turn-based systems and why I don’t have a problem with them (probably)

  1. Ramble incoming: I think the main problem with the discourse around turn-based combat is that it’s very easy to make general statements that aren’t necessarily untrue. Example: I have beaten games like Yakuza: Like A Dragon and Pokémon over the head in articles and podcasts because they have exactly the type of crusty turn-based combat that most people seem not to enjoy. The kind where you can brute force your way through problems by over-leveling, or otherwise find a dominant strategy that carries you through the overwhelming majority of the game. So it becomes really easy to generalize and say “turn-based combat bad. Me no likey.”

    Hell, even I’m guilty of doing this. I’ve stated that I don’t like turn-based combat a couple times over my stint of making content on the internet. However, that’s not exactly true when you look at the games I’ve enjoyed playing over the years. Every card game I’ve played is technically turn-based, as are many of the strategy games I’ve enjoyed. But those aren’t usually the genres people are thinking of when they rag on turn-based combat – RPGs are.

    I can also kind of see why Square wouldn’t want to keep making games with turn-based combat. Taking their limp excuse out of the mix for a sec – the spectacle of more recent Final Fantasy games is what those turn-based games of old were trying to convey. Technology finally caught up to the vision the creators had in their head. It therefore makes sense to transition away from an abstract system to one that is far more literal. Plus that can also help to win over people who struggle with the abstract.

    There’s like…a whole ass discussion worth of points for and against turn-based combat, but I dunno if I’m up for it on a Monday morning. I guess my closing thoughts are this: disdain for turn-based combat has a lot less to do with the combat itself, and more to do with the numerous popular examples of it being done poorly. At least, that’s always been my thought on the matter.

    • You make great points here. If I weren’t on this daily posting schedule this month I probably could have expanded on some of this — maybe I will later on. But I agree that the sort of crusty old-fashioned turn-based combat you bring up isn’t fun and probably never was. This new approach may well be the best one for modern Final Fantasy, and I wish they’d come out and say that instead (and probably someone connected to it has already and I just haven’t read it.)

      I wish more series would take interesting approaches with turn-based combat. I haven’t played Like A Dragon but I’ve seen combat footage, and it does look pretty old-fashioned in that sense — and I can especially see why people have a problem with that format in what was always an action series, aside from the fact that it’s supposed to have a connection with how the main character likes Dragon Quest or something.

      These days I don’t play 50/100 hour+ games much anymore so my opinions about modern RPGs probably won’t count for much, but I’m fine with any combat system as long as it’s fun to play. I think turn-based systems still have a lot to offer, but they have to offer more than what they did 20 or 30 years ago for sure. I think I only give most of the Atelier games a pass on their pretty basic turn-based combat because they contain so much depth in their crafting systems, and I know that’s a dealbreaker for a lot of players.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.