The State of Turn-Based RPGs and the Future of Final Fantasy

In Features by Michaela2 Comments

Brief note: When talking about Square Enix, I am referring to the Japanese division of Square, not the Western parts of the studio that make games like Tomb Raider and Hitman

“Turn-based combat is old. It’s outdated. It’s as dead as linear, single-player games. It will never work in another AAA game again. It’s a thing of the past – a nostalgic memory of yesterday’s games at best.”

Or is it?

If you’re like me and you follow the trends shaping RPGs closely, you’ve probably seen arguments like these a thousand times before. But is it truly time to close the door on turn-based combat for big-title games like Final Fantasy? Let’s discuss.

Many fans, myself included, may have thought that with the release of Final Fantasy XV and the unveiling of a non-turn-based Final Fantasy VII Remake, Square Enix (and the AAA JRPG market in general) were waving the white flag and saying a permanent goodbye to turn-based combat. Since the 1980s, Square Enix has been the developer helping to shape the JRPG genre with franchises like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana. So for them to eliminate turn-based combat from the AAA lineup of what is perhaps their most famous and far-reaching series ever was a monumental move in the JRPG world.

When asked about the incredibly significant changes (i.e. open world, action-based combat, etc.) to the Final Fantasy series, Square has cited one fact in particular on several occasions: a drastic shift in the market. Recent years have seen record-low console sales in Japan, giving way to rising mobile sales. So to keep sales up for their Japan-based games, Square decided to shift their strategy and target Western audiences, hence the abandonment of turn-based combat.

But since FFXV’s release, I think there’s any number of reasons that have emerged to give renewed hope for the return of turn-based combat to the mainline Final Fantasy series. Case in point: 2017 was an amazing year for JRPGs, and 2018 is already shaping up to be something that is perhaps even more special. 2017 gave us games like Nier:Automata, FFXII: The Zodiac Age (albeit a re-release of a 2006 PS2 game), and Persona 5. Meanwhile, 2018 has already promised to bring the release of highly anticipated games like Kingdom Hearts 3, Ni No Kuni II, and Monster Hunter: World.

What do these games all have in common? They are Japanese-made RPGs that had a significant impact in either shaping the gaming audience’s experiences in 2017 or dominating “most anticipated upcoming release” charts. For example, Nier:Automata shocked everyone and not only revived a niche franchise but brought it into the limelight and had it circulating many a Game of the Year discussion. To take it one step further, Persona 5 – the only “truly” turn-based entry in the list of games I just rattled off – actually won many RPG or even Game of the Year awards, shocking many video game fans with its success.

So let’s take a minute to talk about Persona 5’s success and what it could possibly mean for the future of the Final Fantasy series.

Persona 5: Proof that Turn-Based is Alive and Kicking

Even though Persona 5 will probably never beat FFXV in sheer numbers of units sold, it did something amazing: In 2017, it made turn-based combat’s health a relevant discussion that couldn’t simply be dismissed.

To date, P5 has sold over 2 million copies, making it perhaps the best selling Persona game of all time, and it’s only been out for less than a year (at least for Western audiences). So in a year when Square Enix, one of the (former) kings of turn-based combat, was more or less silent on the traditional JRPG front, here comes one of their smaller competitors, with a franchise that is younger and contains fewer entries than the storied Final Fantasy behemoth, and they put Square Enix’s lack of faith in the combat system to shame.

But how did Atlus do it? What made P5 so special in terms of its fun-factor and staying power?

The answer to those two questions could comprise a whole article in and of itself, but for me it really comes down to five essential factors:

  1. The game’s artistic style
  2. Rewarding cinematics
  3. A fresh exploitation of classic JRPG conventions
  4. The interconnection of non-combat and combat mechanics
  5. The king of them all: story and character

Right off the bat, P5’s art style is flashy and eye-catching, with some of the most engaging menus and post-battle screens that I’ve ever seen. Take that design one step further and see how it performs in combat, and you get some incredibly rewarding graphics. Every time you knock down an enemy by finding their weakness or getting a crit, you’re rewarded with extra turns called “one more” and eventually, you’ll get an all-out attack screen that after over a hundred hours of playtime can still give me a rush. Not only do you beat your enemies, you get positive, exciting, visual feedback that reinforces the message in your mentality of just how soundly you trounced your opponents.

But that’s not the only success of P5’s “one more” and “all-out attack” system. This system takes some incredibly classic turn-based JRPG elements and puts them on display, namely elemental weaknesses. As mentioned above, you are significantly rewarded for identifying and exploiting enemies’ weaknesses across a number of elements. This system of “fire beats ice” and so on is a tale as old as time in the video game world, and can be found in pretty much any classic Final Fantasy title, but P5 manages to make it feel fresh and new again.

But what happens in-combat in P5 isn’t the only part of the game that informs whether you’ll win or lose battles. Paying attention to the out-of-combat mechanics is just as important as paying attention to your in-combat tactics. I won’t get too into detail here, but for those of you familiar with the game you’ll know I’m talking about the confidant and social skill systems, as well as the persona fusing system. All of your decisions in P5 – including who’ll you’ll hang out with, where you’ll get a job, what after-school activities you’ll participate in – they all affect the different buffs and abilities you’ll gain throughout your playthrough. These abilities that you get while not in combat can be critical, make-or-break factors in battle, from starting fights with a barrage of bullets and being able to remove status debuffs from your characters without wasting a turn, to improving your negotiation skills with personas or even being able to avoid combat altogether.

But the real icing on P5’s cake is its story and character development. The game’s cast of characters is varied and deep, and since so many of your battle tactics can hinge on hanging out with certain characters, you really get to know them and watch them grow. You can choose to get closer to some characters than to others, some may even surprise you at times to either comedic or deeply emotional effect, and still others may just manage to worm their way into your heart while you’re not looking. All the while, the story marches forward, the pacing of which informs your each and every decision.

I personally believe it’s this last factor – the game’s ability to make you care about its characters and keep you guessing at the outcome of its story – that takes this absolutely massive game that averages around 100 hours per playthrough and makes it feel like almost no time has passed at all.

Now, all of that being said, I am not looking for Final Fantasy to make its next entry a P5 clone. But I do believe that P5’s commercial, critical, and popular success has turned quite a few heads over at Square Enix. I just hope that they pay attention to the right factors, and learn the lesson that not every game has to be an open world, graphically massive, hack and slash undertaking.

In fact, P5 is far from the only place Square can draw inspiration from for their upcoming Final Fantasy projects. One of the first places they should look is in their own portfolio of games.

Square Should Look Back and Take a Page out of Their Own Playbook

All of the things I just said about P5, Square Enix has already done in many of their own turn-based games. Just somewhere along the way, they lost their confidence in the ability of these types of games to succeed. Flashy, visually-gripping combat? Check. Rewarding battle and post-battle cinematics? Double check. Use of the classic JRPG elements we all know and love? Well, they wrote the book. Strong story and character? Don’t even get me started – Final Fantasy’s pantheon of characters has some of the strongest, most-dedicated, long-term fans in the world.

On top of all that, Square Enix has been experimenting with the turn-based formula for generations – harking all the way back to Final Fantasy I in 1987. But especially around the time of FFX-2, Square really started to shake up their traditional turn-based and class-based combat. Just look at their MMOs that came out after that, namely FFXI and FFXIV. On top of that, FFXII and FFXIII had some incredibly inventive gameplay what with the gambit and role systems that put a new face on active time battle (ATB) combat. Not every FF fan loved these systems, but some gamers really took to them and saw the new potential in Square’s willingness to change their classic formula.

If anything, the new combat systems in FFXII (which some would argue is not technically turn-based) and FFXIII achieved one critical goal that most Final Fantasy games had failed to in recent years, or had at least stagnated in their efforts to do so, and that was challenge the player to well and truly hone their skills. In terms of a lot of the older Final Fantasy games, if you’ve played and learned one of them, you could pretty much play all of them without having to learn many new facets of the combat.

But FFXII and FFXIII challenged players to cultivate new skills. When playing these games, strategy is always at the forefront of your mind as party composition can and will need to change at a moment’s notice. You don’t get to control every one of your characters in turn, so you have to set them up for success before and maybe even during battle, making sure that timing, attacking, defending, and healing all happen at just the right moments. If you get it all right, you’re rewarded for your decision-making and tactics. But if you don’t – or if old tactics start to struggle against newer, stronger enemies – you’re forced to experiment and adapt.

Even more recently, the Tokyo RPG Factory is a very small, very young division of Square Enix that has dedicated itself to making very classic JRPG games, starting with I Am Setsuna and now their follow up title, Lost Sphear (which at the time of writing is less than one week away from its Western debut). Now here’s a studio that is a part of Square and it’s making classic, to-a-T turn-based JRPGs in the nostalgic art style of much older games.

Here, you won’t find many modern conventions. There’s very little voice acting, characters on the over-world map aren’t to scale, and the stories are fairly linear. But the Tokyo RPG Factory has bravely committed to making games like the ones they remember from their childhood, or even games they discovered from before their own time. And funnily enough, Square has backed this development – albeit for games that are far from the budget and resource requirements of AAA titles.

Regardless, there’s still a lesson to be learned here, especially as the Tokyo RPG Factory continues to experiment with turn-based, ATB combat. Most notably, Lost Sphear has introduced movement to the ATB system and has also retained the momentum system from I am Setsuna. In Lost Sphear, you still have to wait for a time gauge to fill up before each character can act, but you also get to move and position your characters so that they can either strike multiple enemies with a single, linear attack or so that they can take advantageous defensive positions. Also, with the momentum mechanic, if you time a button press after giving your character a certain command, you are rewarded with added damage, buffs, debuffs etc.

This last mechanic in particular is a fantastic segue into my next point: since momentum requires players to actively time button presses in response to visual feedback on the screen, it adds an element of active participation that doesn’t normally exist in turn-based combat. And while this momentum system is a small addition to the game, I think it opens up the discussion of “hybrid” combat – or gameplay that mixes elements of turn-based and active combat.

The Move to Hybrid Combat

While this isn’t necessarily the direction Square has to take – especially after seeing the success of a fairly traditional combat system with P5 – I think it’s an interesting conversation to have nonetheless. What if Square could successfully mix turn-based and active combat on the scale of a AAA game?

Let me give some examples of what I mean so you can get a better mental picture. Let’s say we’re making the hypothetical combat system for one of Square’s next big Final Fantasy projects – whether that be a mainline entry like FFXVI or a sequel, like FFX-3 (that second one is wishful thinking, I know, but just go with it).

Start out with a party three or four characters. Each character gets a turn, the order depending on their speed and agility – pretty basic stuff. Maybe each one has a class or element that they excel in, whether they be a fire user or a healer or a tank, you get the picture. Perhaps you can even change their class or tactics as they level up and advance down a skill tree or sphere grid like the one in FFX. But now let’s add some layers.

Let’s say that the more your character levels up, the more moves they unlock. But you can only have so many moves in your combos at a time, and you have to manage these combos and pre-determine what they will be in a menu before combat – kind of like setting up Sora’s moves in Kingdom Hearts 2 (yet another Square Enix game) or even like the gambit system from FFXII. And let’s say you have a special combo set that you can only use when you knock down an enemy with a critical hit or something to that effect. To add to the damage you deal, you take this preset combo list that’s mapped to different face buttons, bumpers, triggers, directional pad keys, etc. and you have to time the button presses to deal maximum extra damage to your felled foe.

For example, you knock down a traditional FF flan type enemy because it was a water fiend and you used a lightning attack that happened to hit for extra damage. Then a visual prompt appears on the screen as your character rushes the enemy and you press Square — Triangle – R1 – X in time with that visual queue, after having set up that combo pre-combat (this is largely reminiscent of some of the overdrives from FFX). If done successfully, you get to deal extra non-physical, non-elemental damage to your opponent.

Or perhaps, speaking of KH2, you do something even simpler. Can you imagine if you had certain enemies and boss fights that trigger the famous Triangle-button-based reaction commands that set off flashy, cinematic high damage attacks if you manage to press the button in time?

What these types of time and reaction-based commands do is introduce player skill back into the turn-based formula. It forces them – much like ATB does – to pay attention and act faster than traditional turn-based combat demands. You have to build your strategy, pay attention to enemy vulnerabilities, react quickly, and participate in an active, ongoing flow of battle.

Or, to take things one step even further, you can have segments of combat that are fully active. Never mind just timed events, let’s say you knock down your opponent or you enter a scripted part of a boss battle, and the whole turn-based system falls away for that particular moment. Say you’re fighting a boss deep in the bowels of dungeon, and you get him down to half-health or whatever specified health barrier, and all your party members fade away except for the one you’re currently controlling. In this event, you take full control of the character – running, walking, dodging, light and heavy attacking – until either you or your enemy has struck a heavy blow, thereby ending the event and returning you to normal combat.

Now, this system seems like it could be very complex from a design standpoint and it’s far from a perfect idea, but I find this notion of hybrid combat and all the different ways it could be achieved fascinating. Because how do you get modern gamers interested in turn-based combat again? You challenge them. You give them multiple different activities and mechanics to master – whether they be in combat or out. You make them feel the urgency of time, just like they do in action combat games.

Bringing it All Together

So in the end, am I saying take all the best pieces of these games – Nier:Automata, P5, KH2, FFXII, Lost Sphear etc. – and mash them all together? No, of course not. But what I am saying is look at these games and try to pinpoint what makes them work.

How do they challenge players? How do they reward them? What do they do differently from their predecessors? How do they build character and story? Do the game mechanics relate to that development?

Essentially, I think Square needs to ask themselves: Is there no room left for innovation in the turn-based genre? Or is there still another boundary that needs to be pushed, explored, and exploited?

To me, that answer is unequivocally yes. Just look at Square’s own portfolio of games. Look at the history of success there. And then look at their peers, like Atlus, who have taken the genre and ran with it, even in 2017.

I’ll admit, it’s risky, and Square is right to be concerned about the viability of AAA turn-based games in today’s market. But isn’t everything in video game development a risk? I think Square need to go back to their roots and take a chance on what they know how to do best: Make games with ever-evolving turn-based combat that are first and foremost, rooted in strong stories and characters that have players coming back for more and more. And besides, with franchises like Kingdom Hearts, Nier, etc. already bringing action-based combat to their lineup, there might be some good business sense in producing another AAA turn-based Final Fantasy game to diversify their portfolio.

It’s definitely a tall order, but if anyone can still deliver on the promise of turn-based or even hybrid-combat games, it’s the experienced teams over at Square Enix. But first, they need to change their fundamental approach to making mainline Final Fantasy games to do it. Instead of focusing on how RPGs are being made in the Western markets, Square needs to go back to their strengths as a Japanese development studio – and let those strengths shine, based on their own merits.

One of my favorite Final Fantasy YouTubers, Final Fantasy Peasant, put it best when he said in one of his recent videos that “the goal shouldn’t be, Square, to make JRPGs westernized; but to make Westerners fans of JRPGs.” And that, rather than change their development style to work more like a WRPG factory, Square should “encourage an Eastern taste in Western audiences.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. And it’s not like they’re starting from scratch. Clearly, Final Fantasy, Persona, and dozens upon dozens of other traditional JRPG franchises have already succeeded in winning fans in the West. It can be done, Square. I have faith in you.

Now that’s enough from me, so why don’t you tell us, do you think turn-based combat could return to the Final Fantasy series, and is it still a viable approach for AAA games?

Michaela on TwitterMichaela on Youtube
I'm a life-long lover of RPGs and I recently started streaming on Twitch, you can always find me as RedxMaude. Favorite game of all time ...FFX.

I can be super nerdy about novels, anime, and sports too (especially football - Clemson and NE Pats all the way).

Also, may or may not be an 80 year old woman trapped in a 20-something year old body. Who knows?

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“To date, P5 has sold over 2 million copies”

I feel like we’re on the same page when it comes to what we look for in games but ultimately it comes down to that. Square Enix aren’t interested in shipping 2 million copies, they’re looking for much bigger numbers. Did I see that in a similar amount of time, FFXV has shipped over 6 million units somewhere?

I love turn based combat but it’s finished in Final Fantasy, Square will not simply go back because, like it or not, gaming has moved on. Turn based is definitely out dated and whilst it is still loved by many, it isn’t loved by the majority.