Where Have All The Turn-Based RPGs Gone?

Roleplaying games used to be my favorite genre of video game. Final Fantasy VII was the very first game I ever bought completely with my own money as a kid (as opposed to having my parents buy it or receiving it as a birthday/Christmas gift). Back then when games came on multiple discs it was seen as a good thing rather than a hassle. You looked at a game with three or four discs and knew that you were in for a lengthy journey of epic proportions. The stuff of legend.

Sadly it seems that RPGs are now a relic of the past. Sure you have video games that are officially classified as RPGs such as Mass Effect or Dragon Age but these are not true RPGs in my opinion. These are merely action games with RPG elements. A game isn’t an RPG just because you can level up or because you can acquire new and better equipment. The combat is the most defining aspect of an RPG in my opinion and games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are lacking in this crucial criterion.

Combat in an RPG is supposed to put an emphasis on strategy and out-thinking your opponent both mathematically and tactically. A game like Mass Effect wouldn’t fall under that umbrella. Mass Effect is more like a third-person shooter. How well a player can aim their attacks and taking cover behind objects to avoid damage are both very important aspects of that game’s combat system. Now compare that with Final Fantasy VII for example. Do you have to aim your attacks outside of simply choosing which enemy to target when you cast a spell? No. Do you have to take cover to avoid or mitigate damage an enemy inflicts upon you? Nope. In fact you can’t even move around.

This is why battles should be turn-based. You know that you’re going to be taking damage and have to plan accordingly. Not only do you have to actually THINK about what you are going to do during your turn but you also have to ANTICIPATE how your enemies are going to behave and plan accordingly. Perhaps this means assigning one member of your party to attack physically while assigning another member of your party to be the healer. Then a third member of your party can act as your mage or summoner. In Mass Effect (not to keep picking on that game - it’s an excellent game in its own right – but also a very well known example of the modern RPG), you only control one character running around the battlefield. You can duck behind crates to avoid gunfire and do cheesy things like heal yourself by running into the next room and waiting for your health to go back up. Does this sound more like combat taken from a Final Fantasy game or from Gears of War? Exchanging gunfire in the hallway of a ship is something you expect to do in a shooter, not an RPG.

To be sure, you can issue orders to other members of your party from the menu but it’s not the same as actively controlling the party as a whole because your party members are still governed by A.I. It’s like the stupid gambit system in Final Fantasy XII. Assigning A.I. controlled party members to “do X if Y happens” isn’t the same as taking the time to issue everybody every command they ever carry out. Not even close.

Turn-based RPGs are like chess. You have to think three moves ahead and envision a plan of attack. Modern RPGs are like checkers. It appears sort of similar to chess because they are both set on the same game board, but the two games play and feel completely differently.

Perhaps the last true RPG that was released on consoles was Lost Odyssey. Lost Odyssey came out back in 2007/2008 on Xbox 360 and was developed by a new game studio called Mistwalker. Considering people like Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu worked at Mistwalker, two of the most important names in Final Fantasy history, I was enthusiastic about possible Lost Odyssey sequels. I had hoped this franchise would capture the essence of the RPGs I grew up playing. Despite relatively average review scores from critics, the game was loved by gamers. It had all the hallmarks of a classic RPG, including four discs. The game failed to surpass one million in global sales, however, and must have not sold enough to warrant a sequel so one was never made. Even today some gaming forum regulars are holding out hope they’ll make a Lost Odyssey 2 but at this point LO2 seems about as likely as Sony green-lighting an HD remake of Final Fantasy VII.

By now you’re probably yelling at your computer monitor how much of a gaming noob I am because I’ve been describing Japanese RPGs (JRPGs) as the “true” RPGs while the games I am criticizing are simply Western RPGs (WRPGs) and these are two different styles of roleplaying game. Yes I know that. That is the point, though. What happened to all the good JRPGs? Why have they been changed to feel more like Western RPGs when JRPGs have their own interminable track record of success? Western RPGs are action games with RPG elements but what games can you pick up if you want a “pure” RPG experience with slow, methodical combat? These days you’re pretty much out of luck and have to settle for the faster paced, more action-oriented games like Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age. Unfortunately, these games just don’t scratch the same itch for many people.

Even the storied Final Fantasy franchise has long since abandoned the turn-based combat system that it had perfected over a decade. Final Fantasy XIII’s combat did a slightly better job than XII’s gambits, but it still wasn’t turn-based like old school games (XIII has numerous other faults as well which I won’t get into here). Many diehard Final Fantasy fans maintain that Final Fantasy X was the last “good” game in the series (not counting the MMORPGs). Continually decreasing sales over the last several years certainly reflect this sentiment. Considering Final Fantasy X was originally released in 2001, we’ve been waiting a loooooong time for another good, classic Final Fantasy game. Almost an eternity.

The problem is that people are so darn impatient now. It seems all gamers want is fast-paced, mindless action. Turn-based combat is deemed as too slow and antiquated (these were literally the words some reviewers used to describe Lost Odyssey when it came out!) Reading dialogue is thought of as “boring.” Most people don’t even want to read books anymore so why would they bother to read dialogue or back-story on a video game? Things have gotten so bad that now games like BioShock Infinite (which is an amazing game by the way) literally have to give you the equivalent of audio books called Voxophones so that you can at least listen to things as you continue to shoot bad guys without having to stop and *bleh* READ parts of the story.

Iconic titles like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, The Legend of Dragoon, Final Fantasy VII, and Xenogears are all getting older and older. Fans of these classics wish they could play RPGs like them again and every year they are disappointed. Although lots of gamers are impatient action junkies, there is still a solid audience of RPGers out there wishing there were new games with that old school feeling to them. Developers and publishers should not fearfully shy away from this style because they think it won’t review well. Turn-based RPGs have become an untapped market and could be prosperous once again. They aren’t boring. They are awesome! Dragon Age is awesome but Chrono Trigger it is not.

Posted: 8th May 2015 by Alexander Hinkley