I have written before that I prefer turn-based battle systems over action orientated ones, but some designs are better than others. Back when turn-based was the popular choice for RPGs, many developers came up with extremely creative ways to add new mechanics to the traditional systems. Some relied on deep character customisation, while others added team attacks and summons spells to make battles more epic and interesting. The following games made combat fun with game play ideas that were well implemented and developed.
Regarded now as a classic, the second game in the Suikoden series build on the foundation of its predecessor and offered tradition RPG battles, Scissors, Paper, Rock style one-on-one duels and massive scale grid-based strategy war combat. The variety was great and the different combat styles fit in with the story, but even the regular battles were full of strategy and new mechanics. Firstly your battle party could consist of up to 6 members out of a possible 108 recruit- able characters, offering a lot of diversity in how you customised your party. Another mechanic that worked well in turn-based battles was that your characters would overlap their attacks resulting in more intense combat and the ability to combine certain characters attacks. The range of options in Suikoden II kept the game feeling constanly fresh and new.
Final Fantasy VII
The Final Fantasy series has made a name for itself by reinventing its battle mechanics in each new iteration. The seventh installment saw the implementation of the Materia System. What seems at first like a simple way of equipping your characters with magic, actions and stat boosts, becomes a system that enables you to link Materia into infinite combinations. Weapons and armour come with empty slots to fill with Materia that you can purchase or find on your quest and many of them come with linked slots. Combining the Lightning Materia with an All Materia means you can cast a spell that targets all enemies, but if you also combine it with HP Absorb, then you will also regain health when you cast the spell, but then if you also use the W-Magic Materia you are able to cast that spell twice and regain health each time, then if you combine it with MP Absorb… you see where this is going? The Materia system is simply the best customisation system utilised in any RPG, as it is both intuitive and simple to learn, but extremely complex and dense all at the same time.
As the most recent game released in this article, it proves there is still plenty of ways to make turn-based battle systems relevant in the modern era. Radiant Historia places enemies on a 3-by-3 grid and your characters can knock the enemies around the battle field or stack them on top of each other to allow your other characters’ attacks to hit multiple targets at once. The most interesting addition though, is the ability to manipulate the turn order of battle. When it is your characters’ turn you can opt to swap it with any other character, so you can exchange your turn with an ally that can heal the party when desperate, or you can even give up your turn to the enemy in a strategic ploy to line up your characters turns together to enable you to perform a combo attack. These strategies become very important in boss battles and are often the deciding factor between winning and losing.
There are a number of features that can keep combat engaging, fun, strategic and challenging. Over the years RPG mechanics have evolved, but I often think that designers should take a note from battle systems of past and see how they used creative features to expand upon an old formula and make it feel new and exciting. What have been some of your favourite battle systems in RPGs?