Editorial: Turn-Based RPGs Flatline
For the longest time, I played almost nothing that wasn't a role-playing game. Even those who don't enjoy the genre probably can't blame me, considering the time period in question stretched between the early-to-mid-'90s and...well, a few years ago. Remember the glory days of the late '90s? With all those wonderful PS1 and PC RPGs? If you're a fan, you know exactly what I'm talking about, and you also know the significant and appreciated difference between the WRPG and JRPG in those days. These days, though, with the apparent death of the turn-based RPG - even on the Japanese front - I have found myself extraordinarily disappointed. Even straight-up pissed.
I suppose you could call this nostalgia. You know, pining for the good ol' days that were only the "good ol' days" because of the rosy memories that occasionally flit through my oft-overloaded brain (no, not bragging; it's mostly just debris). But in retrospect, and as I sit down objectively and look at the situation now, I miss the turn-based RPG because it offered a legitimate, and more importantly, different, role-playing experience. Some will claim there's no challenge involved with "a bunch of menus," but chances are, the only people who claim that are under the age of 20 and just think all RPGs use a real-time mechanic. Well, yes, they do now. I enjoy the micromanagement and preparation and strategy and everything else that comes with the turn-based RPG. And I could turn around and claim that a dungeon-crawler with hack 'n slash is far more repetitive than any old Final Fantasy.
The debate will always rage, and the supposed elitists will say there's more depth, realism, and freedom involved with real-time combat. There is some truth to that, of course, but it's merely ignorant to think all turn-based RPGs consist of "select Attack and watch." I have played well over 60 RPGs by now, and the most diverse experiences have always been between the turn-based RPGs. Take it or leave it, but that's how it is. For example, my experience when utilizing the Judgment Ring in Shadow Hearts is nothing like my experience using the Demon recruiting/breeding system in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. The Suikodens were nothing like the Final Fantasies. On the flip side, today, I have real trouble distinguishing between one real-time RPG and another; what exactly is the mechanical gameplay difference between Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect? Of course there are differences, but did they affect the way I interacted with the game? Not really.
Furthermore, I think they could've gone much further with the turn-based idea. Look what they were doing with the Star Ocean series; 'Til the End of Time was an interesting hybrid that played like nothing else out there. Or something like Suikoden III, where the characters would actually move from fixed positions during the course of battle. Or how about substituting characters in and out like they did in Final Fantasy X? There are any number of ideas, and many of them will never be realized now that the turn-based RPG appears to be dead and buried. And unfortunately, I attribute this to a generation that simply has no patience. They constantly have to be pressing a button; it's as if the entire planet is loaded with the twitch-gamers I detested from yesteryear. Those who couldn't wait 30 seconds for a cut-scene and had to drop the controller and run out of the room to bounce off the walls for a few hours.
I think it has more to do with the general lack of patience in the game-buying crowd, rather than with developers believing they can "do more" with a real-time mechanic. Because I don't even think that's true. Depending on how you view the situation, what's stopping you from implementing countless different mechanics in a turn-based system? The Arts in Legaia and the Judgment Ring in SH would only be the start; it's just a glimpse of what might be possible. How many different ways can you have a character move and use a weapon, and on top of which, how close is that really to any action/adventure title? How close are we to blurring the lines between Devil May Cry and Fable? Yes, of course, they belong in separate categories, but it may not be much longer before one genre borrows enough elements from the other to turn what used to be black-and-white to a very hazy gray. I still think that I have seen more variety in the turn-based RPG realm than in any other "sub-category" of any other genre in gaming.
People just can't sit still. They refuse to even bother to understand the full range of the turn-based mechanic. All they see is "Attack," "Defend," and "Item," and in fact, there was always a great deal more beneath the surface. If they're not pressing a button to swing a weapon, they think they aren't doing anything, and strategy and planning fly right out the window. Yes, I know there's strategy in real-time RPGs, too, but it's hardly to the same extent. I have searched high and low for a turn-based RPG on either the PS3 or 360, and I can't find one. I'm talking about new titles, here, by the way. I thought Infinite Undiscovery might be one, but it's not, and then I looked at Eternal Sonata and Tales of Vesperia. Nope, no go. The last one was Lost Odyssey, which I loved, and as far as I can tell, it may be the very last turn-based RPG they ever make for next-gen consoles. It saddens me.
As a general, open note to developers out there: there are a lot of avid RPG fans out there who don't require medication to sit still long enough to play a game. We enjoy a well-written story with nicely drawn characters and we're not so enamored with the pseudo-freedom we have with games like Oblivion. We like turn-based gameplay because it's something entirely different from everything else out there, and we can sit back and plan our next move. We like the different mechanics we've had over the years, and how so very unique many of them have been. We don't require flashy action every second of every moment to keep us interested, and we'd rather do a little thinking when facing an opponent. Yes, we're well aware it's not realistic, but what part of fantasy-based real-time RPGs is "realistic?" I doubt any RPG on earth can be considered a freakin' simulator. So while we all enjoy a great RPG, be it real-time or turn-based, could we at least have a little of each?
The turn-based RPG took a bad rap from people who are absolutely clueless about the genre, and with a new generation that has the patience of a flea, one of my favorite gameplay styles has now flatlined. And by the way, I do know about games like Disgaea 3, of course, but we all know that's closer to strategy than role-playing. I also know FFXIII won't be turn-based, but of course I'll still play it because it will be amazing. I refuse to believe, however, they couldn't make an equally amazing turn-based experience. That's where I stand.
9/3/2008 Ben Dutka