(or: How I learned not to worry and why buffing is underrated)
Buffs. In our video gaming life, we have all, at a certain point, at least heard of them. People who play MMOs and RPGs in particular. In the first case, buffs tend to have a very high level of importance in them. I heard a lot of people who play World of Warcraft mention how they are essential in team events, mainly when facing a hard dungeon or a boss. But I don't play MMOs, so I'd like to go in deeper in the second genre. RPGs. Any fan of the RPG genre knows what a buff or a debuff is - think about The Witcher, where you can obtain consistent advantages by drinking potions you bought or made yourself (it should be noted that when selecting a difficulty the game classifies as "essential" alchemy on hard). Or maybe you could go more tactical, just think about Baldur's Gate 2, where you can cast spells to hasten your party, or even shapeshift into different forms (Gaining strength and losing agility by becoming a bear? Even that, if you think about it, is a buff). I could go on forever, but in most WRPGs it is clear: buffs can be a great help to the player, especially on the higher difficulties. But are these buffs an increase in complexity or are they simply an extra nuisance to take care of?
I personally haven't really bothered about buffs until lately. I would summon creatures to help me where I could, but would ultimately avoid the world of "increases your party's strength". And while in WRPGs the art of enpowering your party and weakening the enemy party is not essential, but appreciated, it goes just a bit differently in JRPGs. And here pops in the reason for which I never really bothered about buffs and debuffs. Simply put, in JRPGs they're completely useless.
To make the most recent example, I recently tried out Dragon Quest IX on the DS. With a somewhat decent party (Ministrel, Warrior, Priest, Mage), I got to the boss of Alltrades Abbey. The battle began and I was ready to plan out my strategy (this was after I actually started caring about buffs, mind you. I'll explain when I started looking at them with respect later). I would have my warrior test out a few of his abilities to check if the boss was weak against one particular attack, I would have my ministrel do some support, I would have my priest heal and I would have my mage attack with magic spells. Pretty elementary, right? However, I couldn't avoid noticing an ability I got on my mage just a few levels back - this spell would "increase my party's agility". I tend to bother a lot about agility - when I can distribute skill points, I always favor agility before anything else. Attacking first and being able to evade easily are two things I really like, just because it allows me to mock the boss for failing to hit me at all. So I told myself: "Before I start casting magic spells, I might as well try this out". So I did.
The message "Tomo's party agility increased a little" popped up (I use that name when there isn't enough space to type out "Doomguy" or a canon name for the protagonist, don't ask why). "Only a little?" I thought. The turn passed and the boss attacked, raining hell upon my party. With the usual healing, I told myself: "Wonder what changes if I do it again". And so, I cast the spell again. And the message "Tomo's party agility increases by a lot" appeared in front of my eyes. I told myself "Now we're talking" and started fighting. As I progressed through the fight, rebuffing when the boss debuffed me, healing and dealing damage, I noticed a fatal flaw in my reasoning.
Absolutely nothing was changing. I still wasn't avoiding any attacks at all. The attacks that I did avoid basically were the same chance I had to evade as being unbuffed, in an enemy encounter.
After losing (my party just wasn't strong enough) I retried.
This time, without any buffs. And... nothing changed. Absolutely nothing. At ALL.
To win the fight, I didn't have to use a particular strategy, no. I had to go out, and do the thing I loathe the most in all RPGs. I had to, dear readers, grind. It was my first Dragon Quest. I had heard from many people that DQ has got a lot of grinding, but in my eyes when a JRPG forces you to grind... it's not a very good JRPG. Why do I have to grind for gold to buy myself a +10 helmet to survive the boss, when I could just buff myself for the moment, and then buy a +20 helmet with the money I saved and obtained along the way? It just doesn't make any sense. Without buffs and weakness-exploting, JRPG boss fights are just a simple comparison of force. "This is my strength, this is your strength. We're even. Only I have a healer, so I win". That's not how you create difficulty.
You don't just ask the player to beat hordes of monsters that look the same so that the guy can create powerful armor or gain a few levels. Where is the skill of the player, at that point? In the dedication put into the game? Shouldn't be judged that way. Every boss should have a few difficulties that affect the player. No matter how much you grind, the boss should still be able to kick your ass. Which brings me to mention a series of JRPGs that actually does the buffing party very well - ladies and gentlemen, Shin Megami Tensei.
Remember what I told you before? About me not caring about buffs up until a certain point? Well, my "baptism of fire" in the world of JRPGs was exactly this. MegaTen. A lot of games in the series make buffing almost a necessity and most importantly, they completely burn down the necessity to grind. Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne ("Lucifer's Call" third party port for we Europeans, since Atlus doesn't handle Europe) is the most infamous example.
The game is THE hardest JRPG out there, mind you. Just because it does buffing well doesn't make it easy. There are two main rules in Nocturne. Rule number one, exploit weaknesses. Number two, buff like the fist of the north star. In common encounters you'd best have the first rule ready. If you don't, you'll have to use the second to avoid having your ass handed to you by a couple of rather weak demons. During boss fights you WILL buff, let me tell you. In particular, the Matador (see above) is the dread of many people who have played this game. The Matador is, basically, the way the game welcomes you. "Feel free to grind any amount of time you want. Grind for half an hour. Grind for three hours. Grind for a day. But you still won't get past this dear fellow".
Very quick resumè of the battle system in the game: each member of your party has one turn. Exploiting a weakness gives an extra turn. The Matador just happens to have not one turn, but two. His first move will ALWAYS be a nifty thing called "Red Capote". It brings his agility to the very maximum, making him impossible to hit and reducing your chance to evade to... zero. And to beat this guy, there is one main thing to do (there is also getting a demon that knows a multiheal spell, but that's beyond the point): bring yourself to the same level as him. Not by grinding, but simply by buffing your party's agility enough. And there you go, you now are on the same level as the Matador. Kick the shit out of him. However, ANYONE who isn't a SMT veteran doesn't know this/can't think of this, so the Matador truly is a "baptism of fire". Hell, it basically was mine to buffs.
And that's just how buffs should be in JRPGs. Not just a cosmetic, useless +1 increase to your stats (And not really cosmetic, considering it's just a simple firework), but a way to completely reverse what happens in the battle. Buffing is a test of skill to the player - plan your moves right, or you're screwed.
Choose where to increase your skills - but be sure to be able to power yourself up just enough to be able to survive. Respond to the enemy's buff by buffing yourself, and show them that you've got what it takes. Exploit weaknesses in the meanwhile. Inflict status aliments (and higher your probability to inflict them by raising your agility). JRPGs can and are supposed to be much, much, much more complex than Final Fantasy XIII. And buffs are just a way to insert this complexity into the genre.
Start looking at buffs another way, because they're probably one of the most underrated things in the history of JRPGs.
Or go play Nocturne, that will be enough to teach you what the art of buffing is and is supposed to be.