Real Time Battle Systems

A battle system in a JRPG is a serious concern. Bad JRPGS, for example, often have battle systems that are bad in some way. A bad battle system in a “good” game can still damage the game. Look, for example, at a SaGa game. People praise the music, the world building, and often the graphics, but it’s almost always followed up with some warning about the quirky battle system. Unlimited SaGa is a good example of a game that was basically hated due to the gameplay systems.

In recent years, a lot of people have this idea that a JRPG should have a certain structure. Usually this amounts to a short playing time, no random battles, a skippable story, and a real time battle system. Some people might fixate on great voice acting or plot, others might fixate on a lack of the nebulous ‘anime’, and others might want great music. Still, even in reviews, you’ll see references to this wish list of the “perfect” JRPG.

This is a perfectly valid wish list. In fact, flawed JRPGs abuse things that are against said list. There’s games that just drag on for ridiculous amounts of time.  There’s games that have excessive random battles. There’s games where you cannot speed up text or skip a cut scene after the 10th time you’ve seen it. There’s games where the battles involve slowly mashing your way through menus to do the exact same tactics used the last million times it was done.

However, that doesn’t mean that a game with those elements is automatically better. In fact, I think the last one – the need for a real time battle system is a red herring. If the alternative is a slow, un-strategic, and ugly turn based battle system, then yes, any battle system is better. A real time battle system can make for visually dramatic battles and tends to be unique to the game series. That does not mean, however, that a real time battle system is faster to load or faster to complete. Button mashing frantically may feel more strategic, but if you traded “mash attack” for “mash spinning wind kick” you’re still doing the same thing. You could argue that a real time battle system is more “realistic,” but realism very rarely appears in most real time battle system games.

To list some examples, let’s start with the Tales series. Most of these games involve a team of characters with almost fighting game like tactics. You could, say, kick an enemy up in the air, so another character would attack it in the air, so another character would catch the enemy as it comes down, and so on. Most of these games have a very “anime” look and feel to them, and often include chatty conversations that can be triggered between characters. Another series is the Star Ocean series. Much like the Tales series, it tends to revolve around strategic use of characters on a battlefield. Again, there’s fantastic elements and anime style story-telling.  Star Ocean, in particular, aims for a higher difficulty level. Unfortunately, it also tends to have “optimal” character choices that result in having one easy way to win battles.  Still – they’re two series known and praised for their real time battle systems.

Saying that a game is bad because it’s turn-based is kind of ignoring why people don’t like turn-based systems. Yes, someone could have an irrational hatred for all turn-based systems to the point that even a mediocre one is teeth-grittingly awful. A time-crunched reviewer has every reason in the world to find a flashy real time battle system to be preferable. However, that doesn’t mean that a competent turn-based one is a death knell for an enjoyable game.

Why is ignoring turn-based games bad? Well, by just dismissing them, there’s no analysis if the game has a good turn-based system or a terrible turn-based system. Since the battle system tends to take up a large part of the game play in a JRPG, it’s quite relevant to worry about the quality of it. If someone dislikes real time battle systems, praising one does let them know to avoid the game or to treat it with caution. If someone is neutral to them, though, they have no reason to know if the battle system is actually enjoyable or if it’s simply praised because it’s not turn-based.

Let’s say, though, that our hypothetical reviewer can see no value in any turn-based rpg.  The problem then, one could argue, isn’t that turn-based RPGs are bad.  The problem is that this reviewer is simply incapable of judging a good one from a bad one, because the bias is so strong that no good features will ever be apparent.  Even worse, if the reviewer did find a turn-based game that was “good,” there’s a good chance that it is alien to the gameplay that a more typical turn-based rpg fan prefers.

So, it’s my conviction that it’s better to talk about the act of playing the game and how the game plays. Actually trying to analyze how a battle system works (or doesn’t work) helps other people decide if the system is a selling point or a major blow to the game.

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