Tactical RPGs: Why Randomization Is Important
RPGs at their core are very much a “thinking person’s” genre. While even the most rudimentary titles of any genre have their moments in which exceptional knowledge and skill shines and is rewarded, the RPG features a base level of this philosophy by default. From level ups and gear, to character classes, skill trees, and character compositions, there are generally plenty of systems for the logic-savy to dive deep into within the average RPG. The most extreme form of this is likely found in the tactical/strategy subgenre, where the importance of the aforementioned systems are often amplified in order to circumvent the typically more punishing (or time-consuming) combat experience.
Tactical RPGs pit the player against either an AI or human-controlled opponent in skirmishes thats duration can vary widely, but almost always surpass the time investment required by the average traditional turn-based RPG. The player may very well have as much time as they want deciding their moves, but must consider the branching repercussions of any one action in order to optimize their resources. One wrong move, depending on the game, can often be the difference between victory, defeat, or worse, permanent death of key party members. This is why so many have come to adore the subgenre, though, as it features a satisfying risk-to-reward loop for those that have the patience for it.
It is for these reasons why I’m puzzled that so many tactical/strategy RPGs are releasing without making proper use of randomization. And by that, I specifically mean the randomization of “random” battles and repeatable campaigns. Many games in this subgenre allow for the player to either repeat previously cleared maps, partake in “random” battles, or both, in order to rack up some additional experience and funds for the more serious narrative-driven battles ahead. For a subgenre that supposedly lives and dies by strategy, however, I find it alarming at just how little randomization comes into play in this scenario. Let me explain.
A shining example of battle randomization done right would be Final Fantasy Tactics. When you initiate them, the units on the field are randomized in both their race/job, as well as their placement. Visual and tonal differences can occur, too, with the randomization of weather and even the music making the most trivial of skirmishes feel one-of-a-kind rather than the same old song and dance. Not only does the randomization of content make grinding less of a bore, but it also further encourages what the subgenre is supposedly all about – that being actual “strategy.” While I believe story-driven encounters have a reason for being a more static experience, I cannot for the life of me understand why this should also apply to “the grind.” Do you – the strategy RPG player – honestly want to repeat the same completed maps with the exact same enemy loadouts and placements every single time? I sure don’t.
This lack of randomization is one of my biggest beefs with playing other tactical/strategy RPGs recently, such as Valkyria Chronicles and the Mercenaries titles. Both of these handle previous areas and maps the exact same way every single time, with no real strategy necessary as a result. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but again, the fun of grinding in a strategy game comes from – oh, I don’t know – having to actually be strategic. It’s kind of hard to encourage tactics when faced with the exact same enemies every time you play. Although there’s an argument to be made for differences in enemy AI decisions across multiple playthroughs, it still doesn’t change the fact that you are going up against the same enemy loadout ad nauseam.
Many of the Disgaea titles, notably Disgaea 5, provide what I think to be the best of both worlds. Disgaea 5 specifically provides static story-driven maps that can be repeated infinitely after their initial completion, but also touts some evergreen content via the Item World. This “Item World” (for those not in the know) is essentially an endless wave of maps that are heavily randomized each and every time you go into it – no two maps are ever the same. While I don’t think that randomization should ever be the focal point of any tactical RPG – might as well be a roguelike/lite at that point – there’s certainly an argument to be made for its inclusion in some capacity.
Although I realize that randomization isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it most certainly has a place (to an extent) in a subgenre that prides itself on strategic play. This, again, is why I find it so interesting that so few titles take advantage of it. What are your thoughts on randomization in general, but especially in tactical RPGs? Do you prefer going into random skirmishes that are genuinely “random,” or do you prefer knowing exactly what to expect every time? Let me know!