From the Archives: Battle Systems I Have Loved

Given the amount of time you spend kicking the crap out of everything from small woodland creatures to skyscraper-sized giant robots in JRPGs, it’s fair to say that the battle system is one of the most important aspects of the game.

It’s also one of the most commonly-cited reasons for the genre’s supposed stagnation, as many assume that modern JRPGs still make use of the old Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest-style “Attack, Magic, Item” menu systems rather than doing something a bit more interesting.

While many JRPGs certainly do still make use of simple turn-based menu systems, there are just as many out there that either put an interesting twist on this basic formula or mix things up entirely with something completely wild.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

The most important thing with any battle system is that it works well and is still fun after 40+ hours of gameplay. It should preferably increase in complexity as the game progresses, too, allowing the player a greater variety of strategic options as they become more comfortable in directing their party and making use of their various special abilities.

I’ve played a lot of JRPGs over the years, and the ones that I think back most fondly on are often, not coincidentally, the ones with the best battle systems. Story is important, too — you have to have a reason to fight, after all — but if the battle system is good, it’ll definitely make me look back on the game with fondness, if not actually want to play the game all over again.

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Grandia II (PC)

One of the earliest “unconventional” battle systems I remember coming across was the excellent system introduced in the original Grandia and refined beautifully in Grandia II. For those unfamiliar, Grandia II makes use of a system vaguely similar to Final Fantasy’s iconic Active Time Battle system, only rather than everyone having their own “time bar” indicating when they will act, all players and enemies gradually move along the same bar at the bottom of the screen. When a player character’s marker reaches the “COM” mark on the bar, their menu pops up and they can be given orders. Their marker then starts moving towards the “ACT” mark at a speed determined by the complexity and power of the action they’re trying to perform — a basic attack shoots straight up to “ACT” almost immediately, for example, while a powerful spell has a “charge” time.

While you’re giving orders and charging abilities, enemies are doing the same, meaning that a big part of battle in Grandia revolves around managing what happens when and carefully timing attacks accordingly. For example, unleashing a “combo” attack while an enemy is preparing an attack will do additional damage, while certain abilities allow the player (and enemies) to knock back their opponents’ time markers, effectively allowing for the cancellation of potentially devastating attacks. It’s immensely satisfying, and I’d love to see this battle system make a comeback in a new JRPG.

The Granstream Saga (PS1)

Here’s an obscure one for you, then – The Granstream Saga for PS1. Granted, this wasn’t the best JRPG in the world and had a number of bizarre flaws — the frame rate halved when you rotated the camera to a 45-degree angle and none of the polygonal characters had any faces, for example — but dear Lord it had a fun battle system. Eschewing the usual menu-based system in favor of a real-time fighting engine where the player character took on enemies one-on-one. There was lots of sidestepping, dodging, blocking attacks with shields and attacking when there was an opening. It was difficult and challenging — not quite to the same degree as something like Demon’s Souls, sure, but it was pleasing and satisfying to come across a game that put up a genuine fight.

The Granstream Saga also had an interesting approach to health management. You had two “health” bars — one represented hit points and the other “life points.” Run out of hit points and you’d be knocked flat on your back and lose a life point. Run out of life points and you’d be dead. Meanwhile, the enemy is subject to the same rules, too, so it becomes a struggle to see who can knock the other down first and gain the tactical advantage.

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Persona 3 (PS2)

I’ve mentioned the Persona series a few times in the last few weeks, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to draw attention to the excellent battle system seem in Persona 3 onwards — for sure, the “demon negotiation” gameplay of the first two games was fun (and indeed makes a comeback in Persona 5 – Ed.), but it’s hard to beat the fast pace and sheer fun of the system first seen in Persona 3 and refined in Persona 4.

Persona 3 and onward’s combat has a particularly strong emphasis on elemental strengths and weaknesses. All characters and enemies in the game have elemental attributes determining which elements they are strong and weak against, which ones they can absorb healing energy from and which ones they block entirely.

The player character (and certain bosses) have the ability to change their elemental attributes; most other enemies and party members are fixed, meaning that it’s important to think carefully about your lineup before going into battle. If you’re facing a boss who mainly uses lightning attacks, for example, you probably won’t want to bring Akihiko and Aigis, both of whom get knocked to the floor when hit by electricity.

Efficient combat in Persona is based around exploiting these elemental weaknesses as quickly as possible. Hitting an enemy with an attack they are weak against knocks them to the ground and gives the player a “free” turn known as a “1 More”; knocking all the enemies down allows the entire party to bundle atop their wannabe assailants for massive damage in an “All-Out Attack.” There are few things more satisfying than discovering a boss’ weakness, knocking them flat and whittling their health down in a comedic cloud of dust with visible onomatopoeia going “WHAM” “THUMP” emanating from it.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U)

There are plenty of other combat systems I could mention. The Wii RPGs Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower all have unique twists on the conventions of JRPG combat, for example — The Last Story’s ”encounter-based” design was the subject of the first entry in this column, in fact.

But to give all the deserving battle systems love would take considerably more space than we have, so we’ll have to leave it there for now!

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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