RPG Primer – Combat Systems
Welcome to the RPG Primer – a series of articles in which we’ll take a look at certain multi-faceted components core to many RPGs and provide an overview of them alongside some additional commentary. To kick things off, we’ll be diving into the various types of combat systems within RPGs. While the story told within any RPG has always been a driving force since the days of mainstream tabletop RPG sessions introduced back in the 70s, an equally important factor which has grown in popularity – ushered in by the age of video games – is combat. Gone are the days where your imagination alone is crucial to enjoying an RPG – in fact, combat often plays an integral role in most RPGs these days. Some would argue that it is even more important than the story because of its role in bridging the gap between story points.
Combat has had to adapt to the ever-changing tastes of players over the years, however, and we’ve seen various iterations of the system throughout the history of RPGs because of that. Today, we’re going to be focusing on the most recognizable triad of systems, consisting of turn-based, action, and tactical combat.
The oldest of the bunch, players have relied on turn-based combat since the early days of tabletop RPGs, up through modern games such as 2018’s Octopath Traveler. While the underlying mechanics within can vary widely across titles, the general concept remains the same: take the time necessary to make your move and then your opponent will have a chance to do the same (or vice versa). The idea behind turn-based is that, while being slower in execution, it can leave room for a more mentally-stimulating, methodical experience. I emphasize can because many turn-based RPGs are notorious for encouraging a “button-mashing” approach – something of which hardcore RPG fans tend to view as a turn off.
However, when done properly, turn-based RPGs can arguably be just as exhilarating as any action combat system out there. Octopath Traveler and Battle Chasers: Nightwar are good examples of engaging turn-based combat systems that cannot necessarily be beaten through brute force (ie. button mashing) alone. Turn-based combat has proven time and time again that it can conform to a modern palate no problem while still maintaining its traditional roots.
Tactical / Strategy
Tactical RPGs are generally capable of sating those that seek even more depth out of their combat systems. I like to think of tactical combat as a spin-off to classic turn-based combat that is catered more towards the hardcore RPG audience, but can certainly be enjoyed by any RPG enthusiast. Tactical combat takes the traditional turn-based formula and magnifies its depth drastically by requiring you to consider more aspects to combat, such as movement and height differences between the various units on a field. Actual unit turn order may or may not adhere to the traditional “player side – enemy side” approach too, and instead might base the entire system around the speed of individual units and their pool of actions.
The Chess-like design of many tactical RPGs, especially when combined with a speed-based turn order usually demands that you think ahead multiple steps into the future for optimal play. The added levels of depth naturally present in Tactical RPGs can prove to be an engaging, satisfying experience to some while likely frustrating those not familiar with its requirements. In short, the tactical RPG is not necessarily for everyone. If you’re looking to dip your toes into this somewhat niche subgenre on the Switch, you might consider checking out the Banner Saga series, the Disgaea series, or perhaps Into the Breach – just be warned, they aren’t always for the faint of heart.
If the slow but steady approach is not your thing, then perhaps the more action-oriented approach might be better suited to tickle your fancy. More instantly gratifying by design, the action combat in RPGs have come a long way since the days of the early Ys “bump” system and the “arcadey”, hack and slash approach in NES titles like Crystalis. Although these more basic action combat systems still exist in some modern games today, plenty of others have pushed the envelope in terms of the depth possible and expectations of an action RPG. The risk/reward involved through actively dodging and parrying an enemy’s blows, as well as capitalizing on an opponent’s openings and weaknesses are common practice in action RPGs these days. They can be incredibly satisfying once you “learn the ropes” though, and are usually way more satisfying visually than their turn-based or tactical counterparts.
Tales of Vesperia is probably the most recent example of an action RPG on Switch, relying on timing and chaining attacks, as well as actively guarding against blows in order to maximize damage on the opponent while minimizing the pain on your end. There are action RPGs aplenty available on the Switch, but some that are most definitely worth checking out would be, of course, Tales of Vesperia, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, Diablo 3, Dust: An Elysian Tale, and Dark Souls (if you aren’t easily angered).
Bonus: ATB (Active Time Battle)
Although I believe that the combat in most RPGs can be filed under one of “the big three” mentioned already, I would be doing the RPG scene a disservice if I did not also mention the Active Time Battle system. Conceived for Final Fantasy IV, the inclusion of the ATB system brought a time factor into the traditional turn-based equation without developing the turn-based approach into full-on action combat. Instead of choosing the actions of each party member and executing them in one fell swoop, the ATB system required an individual unit’s time gauge to fill up before taking an action, and depending on whether you went with “wait” or “active” ATB, time would stop until a unit made a decision, or would continue to flow regardless of action, respectively.
The ATB system is a great choice for people looking for something a bit more active than traditional turn-based combat, but perhaps not as frantic as an action RPG. Final Fantasy VII, IX, and XII set to arrive on Switch later this year are fantastic examples of the ATB system, but you can go ahead and jump into games like I Am Setsuna, Lost Sphear, and Cosmic Star Heroine for a taste of what’s to come soon in the future.
I really love all forms of combat in RPGs but my heart belongs to the ATB approach, most likely due to growing up in the age of its prominence. That said, I can get behind any kind of combat system as long as it proves to be an engaging, fun, and rewarding experience. If you’re looking for a more in-depth take on combat in RPGs, I would suggest checking out Evan Bee’s RPG Lexicon series of articles here.
What is your preferred method of combat? Any thoughts on combat in RPGs in general? Be sure to let us know!