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On Battle Systems

The Death of Originality

Glenn Wilson

Video game genres are segregated based primarily on their gameplay, which generally works well, but the poorly titled genre of role-playing games is where this completely breaks down. Now all genres do an adequate job of allowing the player to role-play as well as, if not better than, most RPGs. RPGs are primarily categorized based on outdated definitions that hardly influence gameplay at all — such as the existence of experience levels — but more often are defined by what does set them apart rather well: their battle systems.

Specifically, it's the turn-based battle system Japan has gone over two decades without greatly changing that has come to define a genre once known for strong settings, open worlds, and freedom in movement relative to shmups and platformers. The lack of progress in how RPGs let the player hack, slash, and burn standard fantasy creatures makes for an awkward divide between Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs; Western RPGs have pushed the gameplay forward, cannibalizing and incorporating mechanics from other successful genres such as action games and shooters while Japan still spits out slag made on the assembly line constructed for Dragon Quest in 1986.

My cynicism comes not from a dislike for JRPGs, but from my patience being worn thin after playing what feels like the same game scores of times over the years. So a developer drops Final Fantasy I's battle system on a hex grid, or rewards hitting elemental weaknesses by granting extra attacks, or adds auto-win abilities that slowly charge during combat — it's all the same, and we RPGamers enjoy laughing at the sheep who religiously buy Madden every year even as we pick up our Crimson Gem Saga pre-orders.

What I want, and the point of all this complaining, is for Japan to start taking risks and finding new ways to make heroes bopping slimes fun. Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and Fable II were huge successes while pushing combat forward, and if Japanese developers want RPGs to move past its niche status in the Americas where games still get print runs of 50,000 copies, they need to provide Western gamers with something more interesting than forty hours of selecting "Attack" from a menu. As has been known for a while, the gaming fad is fading in Japan, and Square Enix is the only major RPG developer making any sort of attempt to put out unique RPGs such as The World Ends with You and The Last Remnant. Little King's Story and Muramasa: The Demon Blade will break the mold when they come out this year, and since they are on the Wii there is a real chance they could take off. The probable lack of advertising and *wink* *wink*, *nudge* *nudge* attention from mainstream news and reviews sources would make their success depend on word of mouth.

As for rating battle systems in reviews for RPGamer, I found for most games I didn't want to say much more than "standard JRPG battle system" and leave it at that, possibly going into detail about the parts that differ from Final Fantasy VII. While there have been complaints about why originality gets its own subscore in RPGamer reviews, I'd rather see the battle score go from numeric to text for JRPGs. There could be three options on the score panel: "Deviations from Dragon Quest III Are Good," "Deviations from Dragon Quest III Are Bad," and "Dragon Quest III." Leave numeric subscores for games that actually try to be different while keeping reviewers who are rabid fanboys of traditional JRPGs from doling out 4s and 5s for a battle system that was invented before many of the readers were born.

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