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The Science of Battle Systems in Quasi-Action RPGs

Game design concepts for creating different combat systems in RPGs

If role-playing games immerse players in amazing imaginary worlds behind puppets, maps, and simple 2D or 3D graphics, then why can’t they also have turn-based combat masquerading as real-time battles? In fact, many RPGs can do this. Here we’ll show you some ways to create “make-believe” action-RPGs, particularly with mechanics developed in RPGs since the 1990s.

Action RPGs are those with real-time battle systems that feature significant physical challenges in combat— such as hand-eye coordination and reaction time. These range from more slow-paced combat (like Dark Souls) to hack ’n’ slash combat dynamics (like those from Diablo, NieR and The World Ends with You). And while this mix of genres may be especially popular in recent generations, action RPGs are almost as old as traditional console RPGs.

Although computer RPGs have been around since the 1970s, this genre really became relevant on home game consoles starting with Dragon Quest (1986) for the NES/Famicom. Meanwhile, action RPGs go back to at least Dragon Slayer (1984), developed and published by the legendary Nihon Falcom, which spawned the eponymous series and two major sub-series: Xanadu and The Legend of Heroes.

Inspired by Nihon Falcom’s games, but also action-adventure titles such as The Legend of Zelda series, other companies started to create different ways to combine action and RPG. Among these Japanese companies were Nintendo itself, with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987), and Square, with Final Fantasy: Adventure (1991). The latter gave rise to the incredibly popular and iconic Mana series

However, since the 1990s several developers have been interested in making non-action-RPGs that somehow approach “real-time”. The simplest way to do this without changing an RPG’s turn system is to simply limit the number of turns you can use to win the game. This strategy is particularly common in Tactical RPGs (TRPGs), as in the classic Nintendo Fire Emblem series, created by Shouzou Kaga and a precursor to this hybrid subgenre between RPG and turn-based tactics (TBT).

Thus, in Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019), for example, there is by default a limit of 99 turns to finish a game, but it can decrease in some chapters. Yet this strategy was present all the way back in Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 (1999). Specifically, in Chapter 14, the player is given for the first time the objective of defending a territory for a “certain time”, that is, for a “certain number of turns”. This type of “turn limitation” serves as a design strategy to give the player the impression that there is a “time limit” to winning the battle.

Basically, the reasoning above involves doing a one-to-one function between time periods (seconds, minutes, days, etc.) with turns. So, if you need to defend a location for 24 minutes, you can convert that to 24 turns (depending on the game).

The problem with this strategy is that it does not convey a dynamic sense of time. The player does not feel any pressure during their turns and does not see dynamic implications of time in their units. The exception is found in the case of TRPGs, regarding movement where some units walk more cells than others. For this reason, new battle systems in RPGs have been developed specifically to capture action elements.

There are two main mechanical motivations for developers to create a battle system for an RPG that more closely resembles those present in action games:

Objective #1 — Bring physical challenges to the player that test motor coordination and reaction time

Objective #2 — Capture part of the realistic and dynamic experience of real-time combat

The first item is directly linked to the definition of an action game, while the second is a consequence of the first. It is also possible to make a game that contains the second item but not the first, but it seems impossible to do it the other way around.

In the case of RPGs whose battle systems contemplate both items, we say it is a “quasi-action-RPG”, as we will define and explain later. On the other hand, an RPG whose battle system only includes the second item from above is what we call a “limited turn RPG” (as explained above) or a “variable turn RPG”, which will be defined and addressed next.

Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age — Definitive Edition. Source: Game Blast.

Constant-Turn and Variable-Turn RPGs

Usually, when we think of traditional RPGs we think of RPGs with a battle system whose turns are evenly divided among the participants, like in the Dragon Quest series. That is, in the case of a 1x1 combat, it would be a battle system that works more or less like in a Chess game. This is where each player makes their move and passes their turn to the opponent, and so on until someone wins or the game is a draw. An RPG with this type of system is called a constant-turn RPG.

In contrast with constant-turn RPGs, we can define variable-turn RPGs as those in which turns are distributed variably among players during combat. Turn variation can be implemented for several reasons, including reason #2 (cited in the previous topic), i.e. to convey part of the dynamic experience of real-time actions even in a static (turn-based) battle system.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. Source: Game Vicio.

There are several variable turn RPG battle systems. As examples, it is worth mentioning at least two of them in this topic:

  • Conditional Turn-Based Battle System (CTB), first implemented in Final Fantasy X, in 2001;
  • Press Turn System, first implemented in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, 2003.

The CTB system, designed by Toshiro Tsuchida, allows the Final Fantasy X player to select their characters’ actions in the party without time pressure. There is a graphical timeline on the upper right-hand side of the screen that details who will receive the next turns and how the various actions taken will affect the subsequent order of turns.

Final Fantasy X HD Remaster. Source: Square Enix.

Turn order can be affected by a number of spells, items, and abilities (such as Haste and Slow) that inflict status effects on controlled characters or enemies. Also, some characters may take actions more often than others in a “natural” way simply because one character is faster than another, due to their intrinsic personality or “job” attributes. The concept of “job” is not fully applicable in Final Fantasy X, given the flexibility with which it is possible to evolve characters, but the principle remains.

On the other hand, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (and also some other later games in its series) has its battles governed by the Press Turn system. In this system, each character participating in combat (ally or enemy) has one or more Press Turns represented in the upper-right corner of the screen as icons. Any action (attacking, using abilities, items, contacting demons, summoning commands) will usually cost a full turn. But there are a number of cases that make the distribution of these turns variable in nature.

If a character lands a critical hit, exploits his opponent’s weakness, or fails to take any action, he gains an additional turn marked by a pulsating icon. These added turns allow characters to perform all available actions within normal turns. Also, if the player decides to pass an additional turn, that turn will be lost. And if an attack fails by dodging or blocking, then several turns will be lost (the amount varies by how many combatants dodged or blocked it). Finally, if an attack heals an enemy, all remaining turns are lost as well.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster. Source: RDS Jeux Video.

Although the Press Turn system makes battles in Shin Megami Tensei more dynamic, not all the rules of this system involve capturing real-time experience. Some of them contribute in that direction, such as gaining additional turns for exploring a weakness of the enemy, as if the previous action that weakened him had slowed him down for a brief period of time or lost his focus on action.

It is worth noting, therefore, that variable turn RPGs can be built to fulfill objective #2 (of partially capturing real-time experience), but are not necessarily designed just for that. They can occur to emulate another type of combat dynamics or simply to make it more challenging or differentiated.

However, we still have the quasi-action-RPGs that inevitably capture a portion of the real-time experience, but don’t mix that experience with the static thinking experience of traditional RPGs.

Quasi-action-RPGs

The particle “quasi” (Latin for “as if”) designates a “make-believe”, therefore presupposing something that passes for something else without actually being. In this sense, when we talk about “quasi-action-RPGs” we are talking about RPGs that, in fact, are not action RPGs. They have action elements employed in such a way in their battle systems that they provide elements for the player to have the challenge and partial experience of real-time combat. In this topic we will cover three of these systems:

  • Active Time Battle (ATB)
  • Active Dimension Battle (ADB)
  • Active Pause Battle (APB)

Perhaps the first attempt to implement action elements in RPGs without making them action RPGs was through the classic Active Time Battle (ATB) system. This was initially developed in Final Fantasy IV (1991) and later implemented fully or partially in almost all major titles in the series, sometimes with variations, like the ATB 2.0 in Chrono Trigger (1995).

Final Fantasy IV (PSP). Source: Satoshi Matrix.

Designed by Hiroyuki Ito, ATB can be defined as a mechanism represented by some kind of timer (usually a bar) that, when it reaches its limit allows the action chosen by the player to be performed. This mechanism is interesting because it allows assigning each character (ally or enemy) a different time to be timed.

Thus, as an example, if we consider a party with a thief and a knight, naturally the thief will be faster than the knight since he wears lighter clothes and has a greater amount of agility among his attributes. This concept can be captured through ATB, which assigns a thief timer that finishes faster than that of the knight.

For this or various other reasons, abilities, items consumed, etc., turn-based RPG battles that use ATB not only become more dynamic but also require a reaction time challenge. They also capture part of the experience of real-time combat and thus is a system that fulfills both objectives #1 and #2.

Chrono Trigger. Source: Steam.

It is worth mentioning that the ATB was deliberately designed for these purposes. In an interview with 1UP (2012), Ito explains that he was inspired by how Formula One vehicles depart from the same point in a race and then drift apart, as each car has different accelerations.

But ATB can also be used in real-time movement, taking your quasi-action-RPG experience to another level. And so it was implemented as a subsystem of the Active Dimension Battle (ADB) of Final Fantasy XII, which consists of allowing characters to move in real-time while the ATB bars are filled over time.

Note that, unlike the free movement in Dragon Quest XI in traditional turn, in Final Fantasy XII movement is relevant in combat. The player can, for example, attract enemies that are attacking an ally or try to escape from them (some being faster than others).

Of course, real-time movement makes it impossible to simultaneously control more than one character, requiring AI for the other characters not controlled by the player. They can switch between them and also program the AI behavior of each one of the party members in advance.

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Source: Final Fantasy Fandom.

It is curious to note how ATB, implemented in classic mode (different from Final Fantasy VII Remake), which was previously the only action element in Final Fantasy games, became the only element in Final Fantasy XII that prevents it from being a strict action RPG.

Finally, another way to create a quasi-action-RPG is through Active Pause Battle (APB), as implemented in Parasite Eve (1998) and other games. This is a battle system that allows the player to control a character in real-time, but necessarily requires a pause in time for the execution of its action, as well as for the execution of the actions of other characters (enemies or allies).

This system, when implemented in such a way as to only allow time-paused actions, should not be confused with pausable real-time RPGs whose battle actions occur fully in real-time, but which give the player the power to optionally pause or delay the time. This is the case, respectively, of video games like Dragon Age: Origins and Final Fantasy VII Remake.

Unlike the games mentioned above, in titles like Parasite Eve and Vagrant Story (2000), actions cannot be performed in real-time, only the movement of characters. This design decision, as in Final Fantasy XII, has consequences. It is possible, for example, to run away from enemies or attack them from behind, where they may be more vulnerable.

This aspect is explored, as seen in Vagrant Story, as the player needs to determine which part of the enemy (head, arm, leg etc.) will receive his attack. Furthermore, it is still possible to perform many attacks simultaneously if the player successively hits the timing when clicking the attack button, similar to physical reaction time challenges present in rhythm games.

Final Fantasy VII Remake. Source: Wccftech.

Advantages of “make-believe” action-RPGs

One could question the relevance of systems development for variable turn RPGs and for quasi-action RPGs. After all, if the developers’ intention is to create physical challenges or capture the combat experience in real-time, wouldn’t the project be more successful in an action RPG in the full sense? Well… Not necessarily, and I think there are advantages to opting for a make-believe action RPG.

First, there are many advantages to static gameplay systems. As already argued in articles such as StrategyPlanet (2001) and Gamasutra (2009), RPGs that do not take place in real-time allow for more realistic management of multiple units, in addition to generally having a better artificial intelligence governed by clearer rules for the player. These and other turn-based system advantages can be preserved partially or fully in variable turn RPGs or even in quasi-action-RPG systems.

Second, make-believe action RPG systems have advantages that traditional turn-based RPGs don’t. In general, both quasi-action-RPGs and variable-turn RPGs, respectively, bring the variable of time to the battle, directly or indirectly. This brings along some real-time benefits, such as greater realism in dynamism and interference of attributes such as weight and agility during gameplay, with greater immersion in the combat situation.

Vagrant Story. Source: Ingur; Game Blast.

For both the first group of reasons and the second, good make-believe action RPGs are able to combine advantages of both traditional and action RPGs. They create interesting and unique experiences that simultaneously challenge intellectual and physical aspects, both planning and execution. Furthermore, make-believe action RPGs are able to immerse the player in the battle situation without their battle being just ruled by habit and reflexes rather than by logical reasoning based on statistics and knowledge of system properties.

Thus, “make-believe” action RPGs — especially quasi-action-RPGs — might have a broad base of appeal. Not just to players of traditional RPGs or action RPGs, but to at least two more player profiles. These include players who like both styles (action RPG and traditional RPG) and those traditional RPG players who don’t like physical challenges as much but would like to experience, to a lesser degree, the real-time experience during more static gameplay.

It is clear from the resurgence of JRPGs and the mainstream popularity of games like Nier, The Witcher, and others that all styles of RPG are popular. It’s important to understand the various styles to let developers understand their potential audiences when developing the various combat systems available to them.

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