Battle Systems and Analysis

Most JRPGs have some depth to their battle systems.  Of course, some people love investigating how those systems work. People online play Final Fantasy Tactics battles via punching in their attacks into various formulas.  That is to say, you can tell exactly how well three oracles and three monks will do in a battle without ever having to use the actual game.  In Etrian Odyssey, someone found the formulas for attacks and calculated the exact best build for certain characters.  Thanks to understanding how monster placement is handled, people understand why, say, Final Fantasy II has unusually strong enemies near an early part of the game.

The world map, at the edge of an enemy group shift.

One step south, and you'll be fighting late game enemies.

When a battle system is broken or exploitable, there’s really a couple of things going on.  First of all, the system may be exploitable and irrelevant.  In Final Fantasy VI, evasion is never calculated in attacks.  For the most part, most people playing the game will never notice this bug.  Since magic isn’t that common in the game until the later two thirds, most people don’t think to boost magic evasion (which is the actual evasion stat.)  Unless you know about the bug, you can play the game perfectly normally and never notice any differences in how it plays.  Exploiting the bug will simply make it easier.

Secondly, the system may be exploitable and the game may assume you’re going to try to exploit it.  This may appear, for example, in a harder level of difficulty.  Secret bosses might require a specific strategies.  In Etrian Oddyssey, the final boss has a specific attack pattern that requires a precise attack plan to survive it.

Unlimited Saga (Square Enix 2002 JP 2003 US) for the Playstation 2 is an excellant example of a underdocumented and complex system. Here, multiple attacks are lined up to try to combo them.

Another aspect of exploiting game systems is the opaqueness of them.  If you can’t tell how skill growth works, and it’s not easy to figure out with trial and error, the system is unfair if it wants you to exploit it.  If there’s crafting elements to make armor and you can’t easily understand how they work, it’s unfair to set a difficulty level / amount of crafting goods that prevents you from making adequate armor.  If you want a player to attack enemy weaknesses, it’s unfair to make it incredibly difficult to find the exact weakness to attack.

Unfair systems don’t necessarily mean un-fun systems.  Final Fantasy V, for example, has bosses that can be killed incredibly quickly if you know the exact weakness or set up to try.  They are, ignoring some end game secret bosses, beatable with less optimized attempts.  In fact, some people find their fun in using non-optimized groups so that they don’t kill things instantly.

On the other hand, there’s a system like Final Fantasy III.  As a NES game, of course, you can’t expect amazingly complex systems at play.  However, the skill growth system in the game has some issues.  In the DS game, you gain job levelling points dependent on your actions in battle.  At the end of battle, if your points are high enough, you gain a single level in your job.  In other words. the best way to level a job is to fight a weak enemy, and to guard obsessively.  Bosses normally lead to job levels simply because they take a long time to fight.  However, you do not get the same rewards if you do well in battle, since you take less turns to fight the boss.

The NES version of Final Fantasy III's status screen (Square 1990.)

In my opinion, this makes the system broken.  Since the endgame dungeon is a long rambling affair with no good way to heal, it’s relevant what your job levels are, since they determine your stats.  It’s relevant, in the game, what your job levels are.  It’s not obvious how job level points are gained, since they’re invisible.  It’s not blatantly obvious how they work, since they’re dependent on fighting as long as possible.  This means that leveling your job levels don’t require strategic destruction along enemy weaknesses.  You can get around the job level bonuses if you grind for a higher character level, but that doesn’t change the fact that the system is problematic.

I suppose, in the end, that an ideal system in my mind either shows you your progress transparently, or enables both high level play and simple mindless bashing with ease.  If high level play is required, I’d prefer a game that helps such planning in detail, rather than a game that hides required stats or doesn’t help rebuilding characters when new details are unearthed.  Of course, part of that opaqueness might be the fun for a player.  This does not mean that everyone will enjoy it.   Personally, I’d sooner know if the game requires meticulous builds and planning to win or if the game becomes ridiculously easy if you apply such planning.


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