When I have to wrack my little peanut brain for too long about what to write here I will default to writing some kind of easy listicle, let me just be frank about it, adroit Lcom readers. But because these things are fun to write, can be fun to read and can help generate discussions in even the most lethargic comments sections (cough), I have let myself go ahead with this one. So without further ado, my top five RPG battle systems in no particular order:
Grandia II: Grandia II was one of the first RPGs I played that showed me a truly wonderful mix of real time elements and turn based elements. At the time of playing I loathed any RPG with real time battle systems and tended to stay far away from them. Upon learning of Grandia II‘s unique offering, I took a risk on grabbing a copy.
The battle system is sort of an extension of Final Fantasy’s ATB system but with more direct impact on turn order for party members and enemies. All combatants have icons that sit on a gauge that moves them to the right. They reach the COM section to set their commands, then go through the WAIT section for it to resolve ending at the ACT section when it finally does. Certain actions can push combatant icons back on the gauge or, if timed properly, cancel their command and put them back at the beginning. So why not the original Grandia or Grandia III? I never played the first and the third, while pretty, is just lacks some of the second’s charm.
Shadow Hearts: Now this one is a fun one. Particularly Shadow Hearts Covenant on the PS2 as it looks great, has the best balance and the best cast and plot. A turn based affair, this game makes heavy use of the Judgement Ring, a roulette style mechanic where the player stops a spinning needle on certain points to make their actions more effective. And these include all major actions in the game, from attacking to buying items from a vendor. It is actually possible to turn this fundamental mechanic off if it is too hard for the player (??) but I would imagine this would pretty much ruin the game.
Getting the timing down to land on those Critical spots on the ring for an attack (or even on the tiny Step spots to activate a complex move) is satisfying and keeps an otherwise standard turn based game from being too slow.
Super Mario RPG: As my first real RPG, this game will fall into a lot of my personal favorites. But the game did do something objectively clever, too. The battle system revolved around a timing mechanic that made attack and defense more potent. Pressing A at the right time while giving or receiving an attack would increase or decrease its potency, respectively. The timings were never outright given so it was up to the player to use auditory or animation cues to determine when to press that button.
It helped child-me to get through the ins and outs of a turn based battle system by keeping something else involved during the fight besides just watching attacks resolve. The inclusion of familiar Mario characters also helped give me a reason to care. It might not even be that unique for its time, but it was my first and therefore very special to me.
Valkyria Chronicles: The most real time battle system on this list, the PS3’s Valkyria Chronicles was one of the driving forces behind my purchase of Sony’s third console. The game’s stunning visuals and (!!) Skies of Arcadia cameos only bolster the amazing underlying battle system. Essentially a class-based game, it combines elements of real time battle, top down strategy gameplay and turn based inputs to great effect. While picking actions for a specific unit, time is stopped, but while moving enemies are free to take reaction shots (a.k.a, attacks of opportunity). Movement is limited by a gauge as the player moves to take advantage of the game’s crucial cover system.
In all, Valkyria Chronicles has some of the toughest gameplay on this list, especially on the optional missions. While not impossible for most players, it is still one that demands full attention and clear thinking. Recent rumblings of a possible PC port of this fine title makes the sad fate of the subsequent two entries in the series sting a little less.
Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra: I put this one on the list because it combines all the best elements of the systems from the previous two Episodes of the series into one product. Episode III closes out the series, albeit two entries sooner than originally planned, in a graceful way. The battle system addresses all the issues that cropped up in the previous two entries, particularly how lengthy most encounters could be. And so, Episode III presents one of the fastest PS2 turn based battle systems I have ever played. Even the transition onto the battlefield happens in about a second, the animations are all fast, the menus are streamlined and all the redundant point-spending in Episode I is removed.
Sometimes over simplification throws out the beauty of the system, but this game proves that simpler is not always worse. The character and mech battles are both fun (and challenging) in their own ways, with the ESs (the mechs) throwing out massive damage numbers in the tens of thousands and relying on energy gauges for their most powerful attacks. The normal character battles demand more nuance to battle strategies like targeting a weakness or predicting an enemy attack to defend against. In many ways a love letter to a series cut short, Xenosaga Episode III strives adamantly not to repeat the famously poor conclusion of its namesake Xenogears and that goal shines through in every aspect of the title.
These are fun to write, I must admit. While thinking of what to write about every one of these games I have been honestly tempted to just start playing through them again. I may one day make a list of old RPGs I need to replay and then just focus on that until I do it. But not right now, because there are simply too many other titles that demand my attention. So what of you, listicle readers? Give me some feedback on my list and let me know what you would consider for a list of your own. Everyone has favorites. Even Ethos.
Also I did not put Skies of Arcadia on this list, you are very welcome.