"Oh, I don't really like battles. I just play JRPGs for the story."
You've probably heard something like that before, or wrote it, or thought it. There seems to be a general consensus, for better or for worse, that a Japanese RPG's merits, if they exist at all, lie in its story and characters and overall charm. Not its combat, which is just something you do in between cut-scenes. That part is just a chore.
I am here to tell you that this belief is wrong.
Yes, JRPG battles can be a pain in the ass. Turn-based combat in a game like Dragon Quest IX really can feel like an obstacle, particularly when you're grinding your way through a dungeon full of underpowered minions. In many Japanese RPGs, your strategy for random battles is to smash the attack button as many times as possible until you get to the victory music. These fights aren't necessarily fun on their own; they're blocks you have to leap over in order to get to the real meat of the game, the story. Your rewards for the combat grind are dialogue, cut-scenes, and pretty new places to see.
Critics of JRPGs like to bring up this point as a way to disparage the genre, often noting that JRPG combat is always the same: you've got your attacks, your spells, and your items, and not much else. Nevermind all the creative ways you do battle in games like The World Ends With You, Valkyria Chronicles, Vagrant Story, and many others. JRPG combat is boring and stale, they say.
Of course this isn't true, and while I can't help but love a good Dragon Quest-style slugfest every once in a while—the rhythm of turn-based combat is relaxing in a certain monotonous way—JRPG battles come in many shapes and sizes.
So let's look at three totally different combat systems. Let's pick them apart, figure out their strengths and their weaknesses, and determine what makes them work. Because JRPG combat is the best kind of combat.
Final Fantasy XIII
In the thirteenth Final Fantasy, battles are built around two main concepts. The first is that your characters all have classes—called Paradigms—that can be shifted at any time during battle. The second is that every enemy has a meter—called the Stagger gauge—that you have to gradually fill up by smacking that enemy with your weapons. Once the meter is filled up, that enemy will turn super weak for a while, and you'll be able to deal more damage than normally possible with your boomerangs and spears and rifles.
Different classes perform different roles; the Ravager Paradigm, for example, boosts Stagger very quickly, but the meter will rapidly decrease unless you use a Commando to keep it from falling. In order to fight, you have to balance them all.
Pros: The coolest thing about this system is that it allows for a lot of strategy. Stat and ailment spells, while superfluous in many RPGs, play a large part in battles here. Final Fantasy XIII's combat is never boring: you have to focus on switching classes, balancing abilities, and keeping your party healthy as your enemy's Stagger meter ebbs and flows.
Cons: Paradigm-switching turns even the simplest battle into an exercise requiring attention and brain-power. This might seem like a good thing, but in a 50-hour game, there are times where you'll want to just plow through slow or boring sections of the world, but instead you'll have to stare at the screen and think.
Final Fantasy XIII is also not very good at giving you cool things at a reasonable pace; it takes roughly 10 hours before you actually have the freedom to master the game's combat. Tutorials are important, and it's essential for a game to teach us how to play by its rules, but many players will likely give up on FFXIII before they even see what they can do.
Verdict: This is a fascinating system—the idea of switching character classes mid-battle in order to open up new techniques and strategies is really interesting—and I'd love to see developers tweak and refine it as time goes on.
Persona 4 Golden
Perhaps the closest this list will get to a "traditional" turn-based system, Persona 4's combat revolves around menus, turns, and your characters standing around while they wait to get hit. As you progress through the game's surreal, twisted TV World, you'll have to fight enemies called Shadows. There are many of these enemies, and you defeat them by entering a combat screen and commanding your characters to attack and cast spells on them. Most of these Shadows have elemental weaknesses that you can exploit with your spells in order to knock them down for a turn. When everyone's knocked down, your party can gang up and take a turn to do heavy damage to every baddie on the battlefield.
Pros: The elemental weakness system is like one big puzzle; there's something very satisfying about working your way from enemy to enemy and figuring out exactly which spell to cast on whom and when to cast it. The funny "EVERYONE ATTACK!" animation is a pleasant reward for your efforts.
Cons: It's a grind. This is a 60-hour game, filled with taxing boss battles that require you to keep your characters' experience levels up, which means you'll have to either 1) grind or 2) fight every monster in every dungeon to keep up. Somewhat alleviating this is the "auto-attack" function, which speeds up battles and tells your characters to keep attacking until someone's dead.
Persona 4 also immediately slaps you with a Game Over if your main character dies, which is cruel and unusual punishment in a game full of insta-death attacks and randomly-powerful enemies. Not cool.
Verdict: Persona 4's battles—particularly its boss battles—require a great deal of strategy, but that strategy often involves finding a routine and sticking with it. Defense buffs on your first turn; spells on your second turn; attacks on your third turn; rinse, repeat. It's easy to burn out, and many fights are way longer than they need to be.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
Longtime readers of Random Encounters are undoubtedly familiar with my love for Trails in the Sky, which I recently started replaying (after buying a second time just to have on my Vita, in convenient digital form). I love the characters, I love the world, and I love the music. But Trails in the Sky also excels at making battles feel like they really matter.
Combat in Trails places importance on both time and space. It's turn-based, but you can see the order of turns in the top left corner ala Final Fantasy X or Grandia, and you can manipulate that order in subtle ways. Every battle is also laid out on a grid. You can order your characters to move around that grid instead of attacking, and their positions play a key role in their interactions with enemies on the field.
Pros: Trails feels very kitchen-sinky, in that it's stuffed with all sorts of neat abilities and you have to sift through them to find the best one for any given situation. For some challenging fights, you'll have to make tough decisions: do you want to use one of your character's Crafts right away, or let them charge up their energy for a game-changing uber-powerful ability later on? Strategy!
Cons: Like Persona 4, Trails can drag you down and burn you out. There are a few too many monsters to fight, a few too many paths you'll have to visit and revisit over and over again. Even the best battle systems can drain your patience when you have to fight through them too many times.
Verdict: Other than the grind, there are few things unappealing about the combat system in Trails, which might be why I'm so in love with this game. Every piece of the puzzle fits together perfectly.
It is easy to say that combat in Japanese RPGs is lame and uninteresting. It's easy to generalize and sweep the entire genre under the "OBSOLETE" rug because you think that every JRPG is filled with the same turn-based combat system.
You know what's more fun? Actually playing them.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.