Wait… what IS Indivisible…?
Role-playing games are one of the most flexible genres because unlike shooters or platformers or sports games, they are less identified by what the player does and more by how the player does it. RPG elements have become commonplace in dozens of non-RPG franchises, but to classify the genre we use pretty much one rule: “You play as a character (or a party of characters) who gains ‘experience’ that raises their level and stats by doing normal gameplay, and these stats affect most of that gameplay.” Even RPGs that intentionally subvert this convention still follow it to a lesser extent. Everything else is tentative, including what kind of gameplay the user plays with.
Traditionally, RPGs use turn-based gameplay to emulate the tabletop nature of the games that inspired them. But even as far back as Link’s Adventure on the NES, games have challenged the notion that these character progression and stat-based mechanics need to follow a turn-based structure. Real-time action RPGs have continued to grow more prominent relative to their turn-based counterparts.
So on a curious whim, I asked which of those two styles the Destructoid community prefers in a Quickpost. Most replies sat on a situational “it depends” or otherwise expressed a lack of strong preference, which I should have expected as I don’t believe either is objectively better than the other. But out of the fraction of replies that leaned one way or the other, most preferred turn-based. As someone who leans towards action RPGs myself, that piqued my curiosity to dive deeper into the differences between them.
While I enjoy both styles, I have more interest in action RPGs largely because I prefer impulsive and reflex-based gameplay. I get antsy when I’m forced to do nothing, such as when I’m bouncing through the Mushroom Kingdom and I miss a platform that takes 20 seconds to rotate back. That has never ruled out turn-based gameplay for me, but it does mean I have less interest in games where I feel like I’m constantly waiting to repeatedly do the same thing. It feels more engaging to constantly evaluate the positions and animations of my enemies alongside the status of my party to react appropriately.
Turn-based strategy is only a small aspect of most of my favorite turn-based RPGs. Mario RPGs taught me to change up my strategies to the enemies I fought, but I had little incentive to think ahead. I grew up on Pokémon games thinking that power grinding was more rewarding than trying to outsmart equal-level foes. Dragon Quest V has a special place in my heart for its writing, but I almost never used most of my party’s spells and abilities. I’m usually able to apply the same few strategies to most battles in these games, so I don’t feel as if making new strategies is worth the effort. By extension, I find turn-based systems less fun, challenging, and rewarding than battle systems based on thinking, acting, and reacting on the fly.
But that’s just my perspective, and as I said at the top of the article, I posted this question to the Destructoid Community through a Quickpost. Right away, several of our most prominent members, including DeScruff, Samhain, Dr Mel, and absolutfreak, responded with varying levels of favoritism for turn-based games and a common complaint about why they dislike action games with multiple party members. In DeScruff’s words, “I prefer turn based, but action can be fun at times. Unless there are other party members… Then it almost HAS to be turn-based, and I have to be able to control them. I hate nothing more than suicidal AI, or AI that always gets in your way. Evil Wizard is about to throw big giant F-You fireball? You can count on the AI will find the nearest door and stand right there. ‘What’s that you need help? Na I’m just run around in circles, my Fitbit wants me to do 10,000 steps a day.’ ‘You need to sneak past the guards and not kill them? Is that where you make a bunch of noise and charge at somebody 50 yards away?’“
I’ve never had AI encounters remotely as bad as those, so I can’t empathize with the exact sentiment, but I am familiar with the general problem. Technically, turn-based RPGs also have a history of making players rely on AI for party members, but today pretty much every turn-based game lets you manually control everyone for good reason. We’ve all watched the warrior repeatedly smack the fire-absorbing monster with his fire-imbued weapon. We’ve all had Donald heal us immediately after we cast Cure on ourselves. AI just rarely keeps up with the human-decision making processes that drive real-time games.
Despite wanting improved AI myself, that complaint has no effect on my preferences because my efficiency in combat relies mostly on my own performance, as I would expect in action gameplay. While all games should iron out the problems above, I think it’s best to balance an action-based game as if the player should be the most competent one in the party. Emphasizing action would be pointless if allies could automatically win the battle (or nearly win) without an active player. Though as a side note, absolutfreak mentioned wanting a return of Final Fantasy XII’s gambits, and that would be a great system to make AI more reliable while still requiring time and effort to master it.
Yet, that was one of the two common explanations in favor of turn-based gameplay. The other is that turn-based combat does more to stimulate and challenge the brain. Another community member, Boxman, stated that many action RPGs are chaotic to the point where you can’t do much other than hack and slash, writing, “Most action RPGs for me feel like a bunch of random nonsense is happening and it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on.” Dr. Mel preferred to think of RPG combat like a puzzle, or as user Perro summarized, “I like strategizing my attacks more than button mashing.” Oddly, this also helped me realize why I don’t share that preference for turn-based gameplay. And it’s not because I dislike thinking. I think.
It doesn’t surprise me that gameplay revolving around a metric ton of math feels more at home in a system that involves the brain more than the fingers. Some of us even explicitly enjoy action games more without RPG elements, as FakePlasticTree shared. “I like my action games to not have RPG mechanics (eyeing the new God of War) with a few exceptions like the Souls games. I love Atlus RPGs so turn based it is.”
I believe that RPG elements can make for a great addition to the right action formula, it’s just that statistical elements themselves are difficult to bring to their own potential in a system prioritizing dexterous gameplay. Rather, the number-crunching and resource managing elements of most RPGs is a more natural fit for gameplay that revolves around strategic planning and tactical foresight, much like the tabletop systems they were first derived from.
What did surprise me is that as I’ve already described, most turn-based RPGs I’ve played don’t reflect that. I basically button mashed my way through menus to win most turn-based fights, and button mashing is at its least interesting in menu navigation. Though, I have experienced one exception more in line with what most turn-based aficionados celebrate. In fact, I already praised Cosmic Star Heroine for this very reason, so I’ll elaborate here.
Cosmic Star Heroine is designed so that it’s impossible to repeat encounters unless you go out of your way to do so through menus, thus it’s much easier to avoid unintentionally (or intentionally) over-leveling yourself. This means I more often relied on improving my strategies to overcome harder battles. And thanks to its plethora of simple mechanics, making strategies in this system is easy to learn but hard to master.
Each character has their own “Hyper Mode” rhythm that gives them a huge buff on certain turns, so maybe I should save my strongest attack for that. But I deal more damage as I gain Style from using abilities and my abilities go on cooldown until I defend for a turn, so maybe I can put off my heaviest attack for my second Hyper or spam Style buffs from other party members. But enemies inflicted with the defense down debuff will shake it off after a single hit, so maybe I ought to use a shield breaker on the turn immediately before that second Hyper. But maybe Z’Xorv is down to 3 HP a few turns into the fight and nobody but Dave can heal him, so maybe I should ignore that shield breaker to save his life instead. But most enemies also deal more damage as they gain Style, so maybe I should just deck the boss’s lackey in the face before it mauls mine off.
My point being, this system made multi-turn strategizing satisfying and involving, unlike any other turn-based RPG I’ve played. It even kept me busy during enemy turns because I constantly paid attention to how their actions would alter my plans. So I definitely understand and empathize with the appeal of a strategic battle system! But most of my favorite turn-based RPGs don’t instill a remotely similar feeling in me. Thus, my preference for action games could also be attributed to the fact that my extensive experiences in turn-based games rarely showed me their full potential. Maybe I just have a habit of grinding too much to have an incentive to strategize. Or maybe more RPGs need to go out of their way to make level grinding less prominent.
Grinding is effectively impossible in the tabletop RPGs that inspired them, whereas it’s normalized in video games. I might be on a weird tangent, but a player’s stats relative to their enemies has a big impact on how much they need to strategize and plan to overcome any disadvantages they might have. This means that the appeal of turn-based strategy largely hinges on whether or not a player sits a power level that requires effort to strategize. I theorize that if more RPG designers limit the player’s ability to grow outside of the DM’s intended difficulty curve, more players would find more reasons to appreciate turn-based combat. I’m not sure whether I would want that to become the new universal norm for RPG design, but I believe it would go a long way in making the true strengths of turn-based design shine.
Either way, I am only one person speaking in favor of action RPGs. Likewise, these comments speaking in favor of turn-based ones represent a tiny fraction of our community. So I’d like to propose the same question to all of you. Which kind of RPG do you prefer and why?