Still finding love in turn-based Japanese role-playing games

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Still finding love in turn-based Japanese role-playing games

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

When Japanese role-playing games come up in casual conversation, one word that I hear a lot is "nostalgic." As in, it's a genre that brings people back to a childhood spent playing old SNES RPGs, or maybe PlayStation classics like Final Fantasy VII. Traditional JRPG storytelling and gameplay tropes are seen as outdated, none more than the turn-based battle systems that drove all those 8 and 16 and 32-bit RPGs.

It's a sentiment shared by many in the industry itself. Responding to the repeated drumbeat for change, for example, Square Enix has broadly hinted that the next numbered Final Fantasy will be an action RPG. In Japan, the action-based co-op RPG Monster Hunter has become something of a holy grail for the industry – the series that everyone aspires to emulate.

This is where I take a stand though. Much as I like Ys and a handful of other action RPGs, I like good old-fasionhed turn-based RPGs that much better. Not every RPG has to be as frenetic as a Call of Duty. In fact, I rather prefer it when they're not. Case in point? The turn-based Persona 4 Golden, which remains as relevant now as it was when it first arrived on the PlayStation 2 in 2008.%Gallery-165800%If you haven't had the chance to play Persona 4 yet (shame on you), here's how it works. The system is predicated on exploiting an enemy's elemental weakness, with the right attack or a critical hit knocking them down and earning a party member an extra turn. Knock down every enemy and you'll get a high-powered "All-Out Attack." From time to time, party members will also chip in with instant kills and other useful attacks when a goes down.

It's actually pretty simple, but Persona 4 Golden manages to get a few very important things right. Chief among them is the fact that it moves at a really good pace. The typical battle often lasts less than 30 seconds, which in turns makes it less of a burden to engage foes during an extended dungeon run. Bigger boss battles takes much longer to complete, but they lack that sense of overt repetition that comes part and parcel with hack-and-slash RPGs, mainly because such foes frequently change up their strategy.

Another somewhat less obvious element that Persona 4 gets right is the concept of momentum. A lot of the best turn-based RPGs are really a struggle to gain the iniative over an enemy. In Pokemon, for example, there are attacked like U-Turn, which allows you to scout switches by launching an attack and automatically switching out. If an opponent sends out a new monster, then you can send in a counter of your own. In Persona 4, momentum is built by either exploiting enemy weak points, or buffing the party to the point that they can go on the offensive.

Every boss battle in Persona 4 Golden ends up being a battle for momentum. They might knock you down and gain the initiative, or maybe launch an extremely powerful attack, forcing your party to hunker down and heal up. But once you get your chosen strategy up and running, it's the enemy who must adapt. I find this kind of give and take fascinating, especially when it's done as well as it is in Persona 4 and Pokemon.

In the end, it's probably down to taste. I know people who simply can't abide turn-based games because they find them boring. I think these people are from the moon, but I suppose I can allow that there are people out there with opinions that differ from my own (maybe even a majority of people!). Still, I think turn-based battle systems can continue to be relevant beyond the bounds of nostalgia and my own interests.

Persona 4 Golden and Dragon Quest IX are two examples of relatively modern systems that still play very well today. Dragon Quest IX obviously takes more of a vintage approach, but it still manages to differentiate itself with some really excellent local co-op. Playing with friends, I was struck by our level of individual communication as we worked to beat the very tough bosses and enemies found within the game's hidden maps. You know the saying that everything is better with co-op? That's one good example.

Here's Why I Still Love Turnbased JRPGs
Another thing that Persona 4 Golden and Dragon Quest IX have in common is that they're both mobile. As I've discussed in the past, turn-based games are really great for the road. Oddly enough, they feel like less of a commitment to play than their more action-oriented counterparts, mainly because the discrete battles and slower pace make it easier to pick them up for short bursts. Menu-based combat systems also play much better on platforms like the iPhone, where controls are always at issue. Having spent a lot of time struggling with Spell Sword's virtual d-pad, any menu-based command system feels like a blessing.

Looking ahead to next year, Ni no Kuni, Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 4, Etrian Odyssey 4, and Fire Emblem are four RPGs that figure to offer solid turn-based combat; and if it ends up getting localized, so will Bravely Default: Flying Fairy (or All The Bravest, as it may end up being called). I find myself looking ahead to all of them, and whatever else ends up getting announced (c'mon Super Robot Taisen OG, I know someone wants to release you).

I'm not looking for nostalgia, just the richest possible role-playing experience. For me at least, that experience is to be found in the never-ending tug of war that is the turn-based RPG.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.
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