Chronomantic

From the beginning I knew I wanted this blog to look at the mechanics of Chrono Cross. It was my first JRPG, and changed my gaming taste forever. (It was not, I later realized, my first RPG – that turned out to be Steve Meretzky’s 1994 adventure game/RPG mashup Superhero League of Hoboken, though I couldn’t have put a name on either genre back then.) Thirteen years later, the clunky party management interface and Masato Kato’s storytelling excesses are more obvious, but back then I went in with essentially no expectations, and certainly no knowledge of Chrono Trigger to spoil the fun. Despite its flaws I find it holds up much better than Square’s PS1 Final Fantasies. And let me be the 1,000th person to tell you that Yasunori Mitsuda’s soundtrack is in a class above anything else in games.

Capturing everything I love about the battle system of Chrono Cross seemed like a daunting task, which is why I kept putting off writing about it, but I think the majority of what makes it great, and the design lessons I would take from it, can be distilled down to two fairly simple ideas:

Karsh is very very very wrong. (Image via The GIA)

Karsh is very very very wrong. (Image via The GIA)

1) Everything you do has multiple effects, which means no decision is as simple as it looks.

In a typical RPG, successfully attacking an enemy deals damage. In Chrono Cross, successfully attacking an enemy:

  • increases the probability that subsequent melee attacks will succeed,
  • charges the Element meter that powers magic and other special skills,
  • restores other party members’ stamina so they can take more actions (this happens even on a miss), and
  • deals damage

Using an Element not only does whatever it says in the description but also adds the Element’s color to the Field Effect, calculated from the color of the last three Elements used, which modifies the effectiveness of all ally and enemy actions based on their innate color. If two of the last three Elements were red, blue characters are weakened, and vice versa. And in the rare case that the Field Effect is pure red, the red summon Element can be used, but since the colors of enemy Elements are also included, getting a pure Field Effect can be tricky.

Multiple effects of a single action is the shortest path to making something interesting happen in your system. Knowing that every action you take changes the game state in a non-trivial way (i.e. not just dealing damage and moving in a straight line toward victory) makes every choice an interesting one. But when every choice is interesting, you can just as easily induce paralysis through overwhelming complexity of the decision tree. So it’s just as important that…

There beeba lot of information to process here, but it's never overwhelming. (Image via lparchive.org)

There beeba lot of information to process here, but it’s never overwhelming. (Image via lparchive.org)

2) Despite the complexity of the systems, the game teaches you a viable “default” strategy to fall back on.

The maximum amount of stamina a character can have is 7. This is enough to perform a light attack (costs 1 stamina), a medium attack (2), and a heavy attack (3) before casting an Element, which can be performed so long as the meter is at least 1 (even though it costs 7). Because heavier melee attacks have a lower probability of hitting, but each successful hit increases that probability, the light-medium-heavy combo is an obvious progression that strikes a good risk/reward balance. And since Elements necessarily end your turn because of their high stamina cost, and require melee hits first, they make a natural combo finisher. By default, the interface will explicitly recommend this strategy, automatically advancing the cursor from 1 to 2 to 3 as long as you connect with each attack and bring the next attack level above an 80% chance of success.

For most normal encounters, you don’t really need to deviate from this pattern, reducing the complexity of the decision tree to which party member attacks what enemy, and which Element to cast at the end. This strategy won’t suffice for tougher enemies and bosses – for instance, you might want to think about defending once in a while – and it can be rewarding to experiment with a fancier approach, jumping between party members that still have stamina and then unleashing multiple powerful Elements back-to-back. In fact, solving the “final boss puzzle” to get the good ending requires exactly this kind of stamina/Element coordination across your party.  But by establishing the 1-2-3-element template early in the game, Chrono Cross gives the player a comfortable place from which to start exploring the depth of its systems.

Pulling this off means employing your mastery the game's mechanics toward a completely different goal than you're used to - my favorite kind of final boss. (Image via lparchive.org)

Pulling this off means employing your mastery of the game’s mechanics toward a completely different goal than you’re used to – my favorite kind of final boss. (Image via lparchive.org)

In terms of battle mechanics I only have one real quibble with Chrono Cross’ design, which is the lack of any indication of the enemy’s turn order. Until recently I wasn’t even aware there was a predictable pattern to enemy attacks (each enemy has a counter and after that many player actions they get a turn), but since it is predictable if you count manually, why not let the player see the number? If your answer is that it adds to the difficulty, please see my post on Active Time Battle for my opinion on adding difficulty through a gimped interface. Still, it’s not nearly enough to taint the joy of playing the game, and if I were going to “fix” anything in Chrono Cross, it would be the miserable UI experience of moving a full loadout of Elements from one of your 4,000 party members to another.

Death and Taxes in Rogue Legacy and Dark Souls

I know you’re just exhausted by the multiple-post-per-year pace of updates around here, so let’s take a break from turn-based combat systems and talk about the progression systems of two very, very good action RPGs.

Welp. Image via PCGamer (http://www.pcgamer.com/review/dark-souls-review/)

You did the thing they told you to prepare to do. (Image via PCGamer)

When you die in Dark Souls – and if you know nothing else about the game, you have certainly heard how often you die in it – all your unspent currency (souls) drop in a bloodstain at the spot you were standing a few moments before death. If you can return to that spot before dying again, you can reclaim all that currency, plus anything you collected on the return trip. In order to spend the souls, you have to reach either a bonfire or a merchant. The risk of Dark Souls is overextending – going so far without banking your earnings that when you die, your bloodstain is too difficult to reach. If you have enough souls to convert into something permanent, the conservative play is to head back to safety immediately. Using a bonfire to heal and level up will cause any enemies you defeated to respawn, but as those stats increase, along with your skill and confidence as a player, you begin to view enemies as fodder for growth rather than obstacles. After all, as long as you can get as far as your bloodstain, nothing is lost forever – and with each cycle you accumulate more souls. But seasoned Dark Souls players will also tell you: ignore the souls, unless you’re specifically grinding. Souls are a renewable resource, and only a means to an end in any case. Permanent progress through the world – opening shortcuts, collecting keys, defeating bosses – is paramount.

You CAN take it with you, but you can't come back with it. (Image via Steam user Interloper)

You CAN take it with you, but you can’t go back with it. (Image via unfortunate Steam user Interloper)

When you die in Rogue Legacy, you keep all the currency (gold) you collected, but you must spend it before re-entering the castle; Charon claims anything you have left before allowing you to enter. At great expense you can invest gold in a skill that reduces the amount he takes from 100% down to a minimum of 70%, and I regret having gone down that upgrade path in my first playthrough – I didn’t recoup anything like enough gold to justify the thousands I spent on the discount. If your run was particularly short, you may not be able to afford any of the available upgrades or equipment, in which case you get nothing from it. The risk of Rogue Legacy is not reaching a milestone – the gold required for a new upgrade – before death. It is always best to go as far as possible in one run, to have as much gold in hand as possible when the inevitable happens. Until you discover a boss door, that is – then, if you are prepared for the fight, you can pay the architect, who takes a cut of any gold you earn in return for locking the map on your next run, allowing you to teleport straight to the boss at full strength. The game steps right up and tells you this is a great idea. As in Dark Souls, it’s best to have an objective in mind on any given run. Currency, or progress? The customizable equipment and runes let you decide how to balance combat mastery and gold farming.

SKILLZ (Image via Steam user Cannibalpea)

The money pit. (Image via Steam user Cannibalpea)

In both games, the cost of an extra point in each stat or skill increases with every purchase. How you invest points doesn’t affect the cost in Dark Souls – your 21st upgrade will cost the same every time, regardless of the distribution of the previous 20. As a result, veterans tend to focus on two or three primary stats to level and invest as little as possible in the others; a level added to a mediocre stat drives up the cost of an excellent one. In Rogue Legacy, on the other hand, certain upgrades always cost more than others. Incremental increases to base stats are the cheapest, while high-return skills like new character classes and boosts to gold collection are much more expensive. But again, buying a level of any skill increases the price for all future skills.

Since you can’t save up gold, a twisted thought wormed its way into my head as I watched the price of the gold boost skill become more and more exorbitant: should I start throwing my gold away instead of dumping it into cheap upgrades, so that the expensive ones – which provide a huge return on investment – don’t become even harder to attain in a single run? I didn’t follow through on this idea, and in hindsight I’m pretty sure I was right not to – although the little upgrades don’t make a huge impact immediately, longer survival times correlate pretty directly with bigger gold earnings. But in the moment, standing between Charon and the castle, it wasn’t clear why I was desperately buying anything I could to avoid “wasting” a currency that existed in infinite supply – to a more skilled player.

The combat system of Dark Souls – attacks, blocks, dodges, distance from the enemy, and how the stamina bar ties them all together – is such a confident, elegant design that I get wistful thinking about it. It is possible to beat Dark Souls on skill alone – without spending a single soul. I am not capable of doing it. I need the safety net of more health, more damage, and especially more stamina, so I grind and grind. But where in most RPGs that currency is a marker of my progress – I made it to level 40! – in Dark Souls, it’s a monument to my shortcomings: I had to dick around earning 40 levels before surviving the Capra Demon and his effing dogs.

He is about to PUNCH the Capra Demon to death. With no shirt on. (Image via NeoGAF)

He is about to PUNCH the Capra Demon to death. With no shirt on. (Image via NeoGAF)

It may also be theoretically possible to beat Rogue Legacy without spending gold, though I can barely imagine surviving the final boss’s attacks without unlocking at least one double jump or dash. But looking back, I’d argue that denying yourself permanent upgrades isn’t how you demonstrate mastery of Rogue Legacy, as it would be in Dark Souls. Dark Souls is thoroughly deterministic; like Mega Man, its levels and the behavior of enemies can be (must be) learned. By contrast, the test of Rogue Legacy is managing the unexpected – random levels, random pickups, and most of all, random characters. After each run, you choose from three new random characters to play as, a combination of a class and a few helpful or harmful traits. The skills, equipment and runes you unlock with gold let you play to the strengths of your current character, and survive while exploring each freshly generated map.

So yeah, I was around level 100 when I beat Rogue Legacy. But I beat it with a character afflicted with Vertigo – i.e., the screen was upside down, with left and right inputs switched. Therefore, in conclusion, I’m awesome.

What's up? Image via Rogue Legacy on Wikia

What’s up? (Image via Rogue Legacy on Wikia)

…In actual conclusion: Dark Souls, just two years old, has already become a touchstone for indie developers who want to differentiate their games from the press-this-button-to-win stereotype of current mainstream offerings (I’ve lost count of the games on Kickstarter and Greenlight that are “like Dark Souls but”). Rogue Legacy is this year’s breakout indie hit, likely to inspire further iterations on the “roguelike plus X” genre. I hope that these future games learn the right lessons from the success of Dark Souls and Rogue Legacy – and aren’t just punishingly difficult for difficulty’s sake, but deftly incorporate death and penalization into their progression loops.

Plans Within Plans: Optional Goals Spice Up JRPG Combat

JRPGs tend by nature to be repetitive. You slog through the same random encounters over and over, and the same strategy works every time; occasionally a preemptive strike will shake things up, or leveling up will unlock a new ability that changes the boilerplate formula you apply for the next hour or two. Giving the player optional goals to pursue during combat can make that slog a lot more engaging, especially if those goals come into conflict with the primary goal of “win the battle efficiently.” The simplest example is the ability to steal items, common in Final Fantasy and elsewhere – you can get by without doing it, by and large, but it usually pays to trade some time and damage output for a chance at extra resources. Here are three games that provide great reasons to think about the long-term effects of your choices in battle instead of sleepwalking through.

Grandia Xtreme: XP Bonus for taking no damage

A screenshot would not do justice to the symphony of chaos that is a Grandia battle.

Grandia’s exceptional combat system frankly doesn’t need any tricks to keep the player interested – if anything needs help in Grandia it’s the bottom-of-the-anime-barrel writing and voice work – but the dungeon crawler spinoff Xtreme is more of a grind than the mainline entries. So it offers an optional challenge in every battle: if you can win without taking any damage, which probably means before the enemy gets a turn, you get a bonus multiplier on the XP earned in that battle.

For fights against enemies that are much lower level than your party, this is pretty easy to achieve – which is nice, because as you’d expect, the XP you get from fighting scrubs is unimpressive. For fights where the monsters aren’t such a pushover, deciding whether to go for the XP bonus requires some risk/reward calculation: it’ll probably take some expensive special moves to wipe the enemy out that quickly. If you fall short, you’ll have blown resources for no gain, but if you pull it off, the XP boost is substantial.

Skies of Arcadia: Equip the right color weapon on the last turn

Skies of Arcadia characters use Fruit Gushers to cast magic. Don't ask how Silver tastes.

Skies of Arcadia characters use Fruit Gushers to cast magic. Don’t ask how Silver tastes.
Image from lparchive.org

Enemies in Skies of Arcadia are each aligned with one of six colors (elemental affinities, in function if not flavor), and will take more damage when you use attacks of a superior color, determined by a rock-paper-scissors graph: red beats green beats purple, and so on. On each character’s turn you can rotate between any of the colors you’ve unlocked so far.

At the end of each battle, your party earns both normal XP and magic XP. Each color of magic gains XP independently, and the color of weapon each character has equipped when the battle ends determines how the XP is invested. The colors are far from interchangeable; all the healing spells are green, and silver has both the revival spells and the instant death attacks.

So long-term, you want to end battles with the color of weapon that will unlock the spells you need most, even if in the short-term it hurts your damage output to use anything but the color the enemy is weakest to. The rate of random encounters in SoA is super high, and the combat itself does little to provide variety between battles (though it has one great mechanic in the shared SP bar, which I will talk about more in a later post and which I totally ripped off in Demon Thesis). Switching your characters’ weapon colors each turn to pursue either short-term combat efficiency or long-term character development adds an interesting wrinkle that the game needs badly.

Xenosaga Episodes I & II: End the battle on a bonus rewards turn

The SKL icon in the lower right means this is a good turn to kill a dude. Image from IGN

The SKL icon in the lower right means this is a good turn to kill a dude.
Image from IGN

Xenosaga takes (and merits) a lot of abuse, but there are some really great ideas in each installment’s combat system. My favorite is the Event Slot from Episodes I & II – a sort of turn clock which rotates through a set of effects that drastically alter the decision making process. One slot increases damage from attacks on that turn, one slot increases the efficiency of charging the “boost meter” that allows for interrupting the normal turn queue, and one slot grants bonus XP* for killing enemies while it’s active.

Because I am mildly obsessive-compulsive, I went to extreme lengths to ensure that as many enemies as possible died while that bonus was in effect. This might only mean holding back a deathblow until the right moment, but sometimes I had to spend a boost to get out of a cycle where the bonus always came on the enemy’s turn. If I accidentally killed an enemy a turn too quickly because I misjudged how much damage I could deal in a turn, I felt like I messed up.

Did I mention the bonus randomly varied between a factor of two, five, and ten? Even a less (ahem) dedicated player than myself would have to stop and think real hard about how to time their actions just right to take advantage of a tenfold increase in reward.

*It’s not actually “XP”, it’s Tech Points, Ether Points, and Skill Points, but c’mon.

 

Active Time Battle Drives Me Crazy

There is a gradient of abstraction in RPG combat systems; at one end you have the pure turn-based systems, in which you choose from a defined set of possible actions and the result is simulated, e.g. the original Final Fantasy; at the other end you have pure action systems, like Dark Souls, in which every facet of the action is determined by your fine-grained input on movement and timing. There is also a gradient in the combinatorial complexity of decision making in RPGs. Depending on the design a character may have a handful of spells and items to choose from, or hundreds.

The interface by which the player navigates the game’s decision tree and executes their plan of attack should reflect how abstract and how combinatorial the combat system’s design is. This old Penny Arcade strip about Final Fantasy 12’s Gambit system, while in my opinion not a very smart take on FF12 per se, makes the point that game interfaces are not one-size-fits-all.

Until taking screenshots for this article I had forgotten about the existence of "Drink."

Until taking screenshots for this post I had forgotten about the existence of “Drink.”

Japanese RPGs began as (and in some studios’ catalogs, continue to be) highly abstract games with moderately deep complexity; in the original Final Fantasy for NES you can face upwards of eight enemies in a battle, spellcasters might have a dozen or two spells, and there are three types of usable item. Given that the NES controller has just a directional pad and four buttons, a nested menu interface was probably the only sensible choice for FF1. For each layer of the decision tree a menu lists the available choices; you scroll through until you find the choice you want and hit A to confirm. Since then, menus have been a mainstay of JRPGs – even when the underlying gameplay shifted.

Square’s first Super Nintendo entry in the series, Final Fantasy 4, introduced the Active Time Battle system. Unlike previous installments, FF4 considers a “turn” to be a character-specific event, with a frequency independent of other characters’ turns. Inspired by watching Formula One racers lap each other, the designers gave each character a speed which determined how often they could take action. Each player character (and enemy) has a meter that fills up over time according to their speed; when the meter is full, they are ready to receive input. Status effects can speed up, slow down, or even stop individual characters’ meters. Depending on which action the player selects, the character spends a certain amount of time preparing the action and then executes it – powerful magic takes several seconds, while a basic attack or item is nearly (but not quite) instant. A caster with a sliver of health remaining might not survive the prep time required to perform a battle-ending spell. The decision tree looks essentially just like the original Final Fantasy’s, with more spells, more items, and time simply being another factor to weigh against others.

The ATB system made battles far more engaging and fast-paced than the original Final Fantasy, never going more than a few seconds without requiring the player’s input, and it certainly succeeded in increasing the series’ appeal. Though the long spellcasting times were abandoned after FF4, Square kept the core conceit of ATB around for each of its SNES and Playstation Final Fantasy games, plus perennial “best RPG ever” contender Chrono Trigger. When an American gamer thinks “JRPG”, their mental archetype is probably a game with Active Time Battle.

The new mechanic introduced by FF4 is not  visible in the interface.

The new mechanic introduced by FF4 is not visible in the interface.

I hate Active Time Battle. I also think it’s objectively bad, which is not the same thing, but the reasons for both are the same.

Here’s an extreme hypothetical scenario to demonstrate what drives me crazy about ATB. At the end of a grueling battle, you have one surviving character with 1 HP, facing one remaining enemy also with 1 HP. Your character’s ATB meter fills up slightly before the enemy’s. If you can hit the “confirm” button twice – once to select Attack, once to select the target – in the gap between the menu popping up and the enemy starting its attack action, you win. If you can’t, game over. The “time management” skill that ATB demands from the player extends to managing the time your fingers take to enter inputs through the menu system – introducing a twitchy, execution-centric challenge into a game with an interface designed for complex, abstract decision making. Best of all, in the original version of FF4 you can’t even see the meter to anticipate the appearance of the menu! I have lost many a Final Fantasy battle because of split-second delays in my input, because Square chose not to stop the timer while the menu is open.

What’s most peculiar about this problem, to me, is the existence of Wait mode. In the settings menu of every game with ATB is a toggle between Active mode, in which time continues to pass no matter how deep you go into the menus during battle, and Wait mode, in which time pauses when you are browsing the lists of spells or items, as a concession to people who might not enjoy the gaming equivalent of looking up names in a phone book on a time limit. The international release of FF4 – notoriously rebalanced, simplified, and called “Final Fantasy 2” so as not to overwhelm Western players who missed the Japan-only sequels that expanded on the systems of the original – actually doesn’t offer a choice: the game is in Wait mode, period. U.S. gamers first got a taste of Active mode in FF6 (sigh, “3”).

In FF7, Wait mode expanded to include target selection for basic attacks, but time continues to pass on the primary Attack-Magic-Item menu and so requires at least one quick-trigger button press to avoid wasting time; meanwhile what had been called Wait mode in previous FFs was rebranded “Recommended” and became the default option. So Squaresoft wanted to give players some control over how much pressure there was to navigate menus quickly, and even considered that to be the default experience players should have, but always stopped short of including an option to remove the pressure entirely. Why?

FF7 took one more step towards eliminating twitch from ATB, but stopped short.

FF7 took one more step towards eliminating twitch from ATB, but stopped short.

Many fans of the series say that they don’t play Active Time Battle games in Wait mode because it makes combat “too easy” – and they could well be right. The roughest Final Fantasy is a tea party compared to the brutality of the friendliest Atlus RPG. Difficulty is subjective, of course, so games have different settings to let players choose their level of challenge; it’s not much of a stretch to call Active mode Final Fantasy’s “veteran” setting for players who would breeze through the game otherwise. Square’s decision to remove Active mode from the “Easy Type” international version of FF4 is certainly suggestive.

But the history of game design is littered with cheap, lazy, artificial solutions to making a game more challenging. I’m reminded of how the survival horror genre clung to unintuitive tank controls long after consoles had overcome the technical limitations that necessitated them; the die-hards who defend tank controls argue that making it harder to run away from enemies adds to the tension. Yes, having to input a Killer Instinct combo to cast Fire-3 before my mage gets his face ripped off increases the difficulty. Taping my fingers together or putting on a blindfold would also increase the difficulty.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the game became harder because I couldn’t bring 99 of every healing item into the final boss fight? Call me crazy, but how about tuning the numbers that comprise your game – you know, balancing it – until it’s as hard as it’s supposed to be? Etrian Odyssey can afford to give me all the time I want to make a decision, because the margin for error is tiny even in a random battle against enemies at your level. ATB is a crutch, substituting twitch gameplay for strategic depth.

Square's latest take on ATB is just as fast-paced, but de-emphasizes convoluted menu input.

FF13′s revision of ATB is just as fast-paced, but de-emphasizes the speed of your menu input.

Although my taste in RPGs definitely runs toward pure turn-based games where I can consider options carefully, I don’t mean to suggest that decision making on the clock has no place in RPGs. Final Fantasy 13 represents a substantial improvement over ATB in the compromise between menus and a fast pace of action. Crucially, the player can input commands while the character’s action meter fills, so even though time passes in the menu, that time is not necessarily wasted – it may even be to your advantage to delay the execution of your queued commands to synergize with your AI-controlled teammates. By contrast, only in rare boss battles is it ever strategically sound to spend more than the minimum possible time in menus in FF4.

To be fair to Final Fantasy, the combat system fundamentally works, despite this one thing that makes me hate it so much. Now could someone explain to me why KINGDOM HEARTS, a fully real-time action RPG, makes you pick attacks from a goddamn menu?

Welcome Back, Blogger

kotter

I have needed a new website for a while. Here be it! Though I’m proud that my homemade blog/RSS solution on Gigaville actually held together for 10 years, it should have been taken out back and shot long before now.

The new site serves a few purposes:

  • Hosting this blog, a real blog with WordPress and everything, where I intend to infrequently post some long-winded analyses of JRPG combat systems
  • Moving my old projects to a sensible archival location (see sidebar), with prominent commentary to let new viewers know I am adequately embarrassed by how they’ve aged
  • Motivating me to produce new stuff, e.g. the aforementioned long-winded JRPG combat system analyses
  • “Consolidating my personal brand” because that’s what “Millenials” do, “apparently”

Gigaville.com will redirect here for another year or so. I suggest switching over to the new RSS feed, though.

Also, if you are responsible for one of the bazillion links to individual Last Days of FOXHOUND comics on TVTropes, you may want to update those or they will eventually break – and in 5000 years, when the TVTropes database is the only source of information on 21st century culture, no one will know about my contributions to society.

My first real post, in which I attempt to convert my seething hatred for Active Time Battle into a halfway professional critique, is forthcoming.