Editor's Note: I'm on vacation today, but since I know you're all craving your regular dose of JRPG goodness, I've enlisted the wonderful Kirk Hamilton to jazz up Random Encounters this week. Be nice! —Jason Schreier
Oh boy, here we go. If I'm gonna take over Jason's column for a week, that means I'm gonna talk about Japanese role-playing games. And if I'm gonna talk about Japanese role-playing games, that means I'm gonna talk about one of their defining characteristics: turn-based gameplay.
Surely turn-based combat is one of the defining characteristics of the JRPG genre. This is, of course, a video game genre that's notoriously difficult to encapsulate or define. I usually help Jason edit his column each week, and I always get a kick out of watching him write such well-articulated observations regarding a genre that's nebulous at best.
What makes a JRPG a JRPG? Man, I couldn't even begin to say. Ask ten people to define a JRPG, and they'll give you ten slightly different answers. But if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say those ten people would all mention at least a couple of the following:
• Something about hair.
• Something about a group of teens saving their hometown and/or the world.
• Something about a burning village.
• Something about turn-based combat.
I'm no JRPG expert. I never had a PSX or an SNES growing up. I first played Final Fantasy VII in 2011, when Leigh Alexander and I wrote a letter series about the game. But recently, I've come to fall in love with the genre, thanks in no small part to the gentleman who normally writes this column.
And of all the qualities that could be said to largely define the JRPG genre, turn-based gameplay is the one I find the most appealing. In an effort to abdicate myself of having to seem like some sort of expert on the subject, I bugged Jason on his vacation to see if he agrees that turn-based combat, while not necessarily present in every JRPG, is still a defining characteristic of the genre. Here's what he said:
"First of all, I can't believe you're interviewing me for my own column. Sneaky, Kirk! I think that it's hard to find a game with turn-based combat that isn't a JRPG, but a JRPG doesn't have to have turn-based combat. It's like... okay, let's say a JRPG is a salad, mostly because that's what I'm eating right now. Turn-based combat is the lettuce. If you have lettuce, you probably have a salad. And there are all different kinds of lettuce, all with different tastes and textures. Lettuce is pretty much the defining characteristic of a salad. But you can have a damn good salad without it, too. Right now I'm eating kale and edamame, which is pretty much the Secret of Mana of salads. "
Sweet! Okay, this has been Random Encounters, your one-stop-shop for all things JRPG. Have a great weekend!
Just kidding. Okay, that's good stuff. Let's stick with the lettuce metaphor: Of the JRPGs I've played, even the ones that didn't exactly feature strict turn-based combat still had turns of a sort. They were all salads, even if they didn't quite look like salads. Final Fantasy XIII, the combat system of which Jason has mentioned being a fan of and I enjoy too, uses an active-time battle system that isn't as turn-based as Persona 4 or Trails in the Sky, but it's not quite Bayonetta, either. Ni no Kuni's combat has never really gelled for me, but it got easier to conceptualize when I began to treat it as a sort of turn-based system where the turns were defined by my cool-off time. Those salads still have some sort of lettuce, it's just been prepared quite differently than we're used to.
But by and large, most of the JRPGs I've played (and liked) over the last couple of years have featured strict turn-based combat. Those include: Persona 3 and Persona 4, Final Fantasy VII, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, Final Fantasy Tactics, Devil Survivor Overclocked and Fire Emblem: Awakening, among others.
Those games are all very different in a lot of ways, but they appeal to my video-game-brain in the same way. And they all feature turn-based gameplay. I thought I'd break down why turn-based play appeals to me (and, I sense, to many others) so much. Here we go.
I love the moment at the very start of a JRPG battle, when my party is standing still, squared off against the enemy. The battle music starts up, and everything pauses—it's the deep breath before the storm. I size up my enemy. I like to imagine he or she is sizing me up, too. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, I'm picking my party as that amazing music is playing. In Persona 4, I'm analyzing my foe for weak spots and picking my best persona. In Final Fantasy Tactics, I'm taking the lay of the land as my little dudes march in place. So good.
No matter what I'm doing, no matter what strategies I'm planning or plans I'm hatching, I have the space to do it. I'm unharried by my enemies and unhurried by the game's design. When so many games force me to rely on muscle memory and years of practice in addition to quick decision-making, JRPGs let me rely on my brain. Turn-based gameplay is purely cerebral in an uncommon, welcome way.
I really like games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, but sometimes I have a tough time with bosses. Particularly the massive, skyscraper-sized ones that require me to run up, bash a weak spot on a heel or a knee-pit, and then strike when the moment is right. I love the spectacle, but the entire thing can be difficult to get my arms around.
JRPGs certainly have building-sized bosses, but due to their turn-based nature, it's much easier to methodically approach the fight. I may be facing a god-sized Sephiroth or a world-ending Nyx, but I can take as long as I need each turn to get my head together and figure out what's working and what's not. As Jason and I once discussed, the best JRPG boss fights feel less like fights and more like puzzles, and I really like that. I'm not sure this makes me any better prepared to actually fight an apocalyptic leviathan in real life, but it certainly makes the game more enjoyable.
Some of the best JRPG music happens during battles. And in a turn-based game, you're really able to listen and enjoy. The Persona 3 sub-boss music. The bitchin' Final Fantasy VII boss music. The jazzy battle music from Trails in the Sky. The amazing way that Fire Emblem: Awakening mixes two musical arrangements into one musical milieu. The list goes on.
With all of those games, the turn-based rhythm of play allows the music to really get under my skin.
Similarly, turn-based gameplay gives me a chance to really sit back and appreciate the artists who worked on the game. JRPGs often feature some amazingly designed, imaginative enemies, and it'd be a shame to blast through fights without ever really seeing them standing still. I love the design of every monster and boss in the Persona universe, but I'd never have had a chance to really take a good look if they didn't stand still so often.
By way of contrast, I'm reminded of both Kid Icarus: Uprising and Bayonetta, two very fast-paced games that featured cool enemies, but enemies I rarely had much of a chance to study and appreciate. Sure, games like that often unlock "miniatures" that you can go and check out some sub-menu or another. But I like to be able to appreciate a game's art during the actual game. Turn-based combat lets me do that.
Between the 3DS XL and the Vita, it's something of a golden age for the portable JRPG. While the 3DS library continues to fill in with all kinds of varied games, I've heard the Vita jokingly referred to as a JRPG-device. That's been true in my experience, but that's also a-okay. I've played many of my favorite games of the last year on one of those two systems, and I've come to realize that turn-based games and handheld consoles are a match made in heaven.
For starters, the notion of wolfing down an 80-to-100-hour JRPG becomes much more doable the moment it's happening on a handheld platform. If I can play on the couch, on the bus, or over at my sister's hours, it makes it easier for me to fit such a large game into the cracks and crevasses of my life. After recently spending 60 hours completing Ni no Kuni on my TV, I can report that I would've happily played that game on Vita and it wouldn't have lost a thing.
Turn-based games are particularly well-suited for mobile gaming. If I'm playing a video game on the go, there are all manner of distractions. I have to be aware of what stop I'm on, or which seat just opened up, or whether my bag of groceries is about to tip over. I've tried to play action-packed games like Mario Kart and Uncharted on the go, and find that in general, a transit environment isn't all that compatible with involved, action-packed video games.
But turn-based games work perfectly. If I need to look up to check which stop Im' on, or push over to let someone else sit down, I can do so without even pausing the game. (Though I've certainly still missed my fair share of bus stops due to Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics.) What's more, most mobile gaming takes place in fits and starts—five minutes while waiting for the bus, then a pause to get on the bus, then ten more minutes on the bus, pause to get off, etc. Turn-based gameplay itself takes place in fits and starts of a sort, and as a result is much more compatible with being on the go.
JRPGs are almost always incredibly deep games. Their combat starts out simple and gets more and more complex, until you're dealing with five or six different sorts of magic, weapons that have been crafted to feature any of a number of specializations, half a dozen party members who each have unique abilities, enemies that change states and are immune to an ever-shifting variety of attack, and a codex-worth of buffs and debuffs changing your party's entire makeup at the drop of a hat. If these games weren't turn-based, I wouldn't even be able to process half of that stuff.
I find that with action games, from relatively simple ones like God of War to the more complex DmCs and Metal Gear Risings, I tend to keep things fairly low-level. I just don't have the bandwidth to deal with the constant speed of battle and my increasingly elaborate move-set. I'm certainly not saying that this type of game is invalid or less-than—the ability to master DmC's combat is amazing, and a rewarding, fun experience for those who choose (and are able) to do so. But for me personally, I find that when a game is turn-based, I'm able to go a lot deeper into the game's dusty corners.
I love talking with people about JRPG combat, because for once, I get to be really hardcore about it. Stephen and I still have these hilariously micromanagey conversations about our party makeup and approach in Fire Emblem. Whenever I'm able to snag some time to play more Final Fantasy Tactics, the conversations I have about job points and mission strategy are mostly impenetrable, hugely nerdy, and utterly wonderful. I really like going deep into a combat system, and find that turn-based games give me the space I need to get comfortable enough to do so. I understand that this is a personal preference, but I'm generally able to wring a lot more out of turn-based games than action games, which makes them feel richer and more rewarding.
Of course, turn-based gameplay is nothing new. People have been taking turns for ages, and many of the world's most popular games—from Go to Chess to Checkers—are turn-based. The notion of "turns" is one reason football is so much fun to watch, since as Tim Rogers puts it, it is in essence "a real-time/turn-based hybrid strategy game." Turns are in games' DNA, and video games are simply reflecting that.
JRPGs aren't the only video games to use turns, either. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my favorite games of 2012, and that was largely due to its turn-based design. The underrated 3Ds game Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is the closest thing I've currently got to a mobile XCOM game, unless you count Fire Emblem: Awakening. And the increasing popularity of asynchronous multiplayer games like Hero Academy, as well as less obviously RPGish games like Words with Friends and most recently, Super Stickman Golf 2 are further evidence that turn-based gameplay isn't going anywhere.
I guess The Byrds had it right with their riff on the Book of Ecclesiastes:
To everything, turn, turn turn!
There is a season, turn, turn, turn!
And a boss fight for every hero
in the kingdom.
…or something like that.