Fire Emblem Fates released on the 19th this month and has sold better than any game in the franchise. Its success proves turn-based RPGs still have a place in a market full of fast-paced action titles. Yet Fire Emblem has also shown that games using this “old-school” system need to innovate in order to capture gamers the way they used to.
When defining the turn-based subgenre, it’s important to differentiate between RPGs that are marketed as tactical, like Fates, versus those where strategy plays second fiddle to narrative.
Tactical RPGs have experienced something of a second wind in the U.S. while their “grind to win” cousins have suffered—necessitating entirely new gameplay or elements that refresh the turn-based experience.
Finding an Audience
Fire Emblem shows that even hardcore games can enjoy broad appeal by adding the right “bait.”
The game’s long-time fans seem split between complaining Fates isn’t as tough as Awakening, or applauding it for removing much of the RNG found in modes like Lunatic+. Meanwhile, newer players can ease into the combat while focusing on unique additions such as “My Castle” and character relationships.
I think the latter elements are what has truly made Fates such a hit.
Strategic combat may be the game’s calling card, but it also doesn’t skimp on features that tap into “casual” gamers’ likes, such as city building and relationship sims.
While it caused some uproar initially, it was genius to release two versions of the game, each touching on different markets: Conquest for the crowd wanting a challenge and Birthright for newbies mainly attracted to the sim elements.
Birthright even serves as a gateway game for those just getting into tactical titles, who may feel more confident transitioning to Conquest afterwards.
Strategy games will always have a market among the die-hards, but considering the amount of money needed for localization, Nintendo made the right move by introducing gentler types of gameplay to expand its potential audience.
When Turn-Based Combat Falls Short
In contrast to Fates’ diversification, I worry about RPGs that take the turn-based route simply because it’s less resource intensive than action combat. This is especially true if the game lacks the tactical depth and narrative power of western titles like Shadowrun Returns, Wasteland 2 and my personal favorite, Divinity: Original Sin.
My first major introduction to the genre, like many, was through the Final Fantasy series. I was quickly swept away by the colorful worlds, intriguing characters and uplifting plots.
What became an issue later was the grind. And the games’ turn-based nature didn’t alleviate this struggle.
As a kid, I didn’t care about spending hours on battles that involved mindlessly hitting “attack” 20 times in a row, but eventually it became a time waster.
Were some of the fights challenging? Sure. Certain bosses required unusual tactics or foresight to defeat, and that’s why they stand out in my memory. But no one wants to trudge through a bunch of boring battles just for one moment of excitement.
As years passed, developers overcame the grind by creating real-time combat. You can dodge, you can slash, you can smash five enemies at a time! While even this can get dull, it does help people feel more involved in minor encounters, and makes the process of reaching important battles more palatable.
Square-Enix was eventually forced to face gamer’s changing attitudes and the new industry landscape. Final Fantasy XV will involve more elements of open world games as a result, and has done away with turn-based combat entirely.
There are several eastern games that still make the system work despite not being intensely tactical, such as the Persona series, Pokémon and Bravely Default.
I think Persona and Pokémon‘s pet/summoning systems are what make them more engaging to the masses, along with additional gameplay elements that give you a break from battling.
As such, Bravely Default is the only truly traditional RPG that seems to have made waves. Was pure nostalgia for a Final Fantasy-esque experience enough to drive sales? This seems to be the case, considering few other traditional RPGs have enjoyed such success.
A Game of Chess
It’s interesting to note that many of the most enduring turn-based RPG series come from the east. Yet as Japan has struggled to introduce new IPs, their western counterparts have created a number of well-received tactical games that include strong story elements.
While I wouldn’t say turn-based RPGs are flooding the market, the continual backing of games like Torment: Tides of Numenera and the 2nd Divinity: OS shows promise.
You’ll notice these games all have something in common, though. Every battle is a hand-crafted affair (excepting the random encounters in Wasteland 2, which are mostly disliked by fans).
Every fight is a puzzle that’s been tweaked and twisted to perfection by the devs to present you with a distinct challenge—much like the mission-based battles of Fire Emblem.
It makes sense. If you’re going to use a combat formula derived from board games, some of the most tactical titles in the world, then you’d better provide an experience that makes your audience think.
While it worked for a time, most gamers have grown out of turn-based RPGs that don’t deliver heavily planned and optimized encounters. If we wanted simple hack and slash, after all, there are plenty of titles that deliver the experience more effectively.
Fire Emblem is an example of a tactical game expanding its reach, but it hasn’t abandoned the hallmarks of its genre. Meanwhile, FFVII is returning with a remake featuring real-time battles, using a system that was, perhaps, always the better choice for its audience.
Do you think there’s a “right way” to do turn-based RPGs, or that certain titles are more suited to this type of combat than others?
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