Earlier this year, 1up.com published a rather unusual interview with one of the original programmers of Final Fantasy (the first one…but not just the first one), Hiroyuki Ito. I recommend reading it, but in short, Ito reveals himself to be quite a fan of the NFL, and explains that the basis of the game’s combat, in which each “side” lines up facing each other, plans their moves, then executes them all in a sequence, was inspired by the similar structure of offense (and defense) present in professional sports, particularly American football. As fascinating as I found this little revelation, I can’t say it truly changed my perspective on the game or the series, particularly since I’m not really that much of a sports fan anyway. But what it does do is underline how even concepts that seem simple or obvious in retrospect still tend to have lots of rather surprising thoughts behind them.
But what I usually find missing in FF games, and most RPGs in general, is feeling some kind of risk. There’s a lot of ways to create tense situations with risk and reward, and while I tend to disagree with a lot of the commonly used ones (like the common SMT trick of “you don’t know what these guys have until you get killed by them” or the general old-school “that last save point was an hour back”), most of them can work well enough when surrounded by an engaging setting or enjoyable mechanics. In my opinion, though, there’s a much more elegant way to cultivate these situations: you let the players make their own risk.
I’m using the word “risk,” because this is literally what the mechanic is called in Vagrant Story, one of the best and oldest examples of this idea. Although players may at first be inclined to go for big chains on the game’s timing-based combo system, as they present the most obvious path to major damage, doing so will quickly raise the main character’s “Risk” to dangerous levels, both making further combos more difficult and increasing the amount of damage taken from attacks. Increasing Risk has its benefits as well, so it’s not simply a punishment for playing well, but the tradeoffs create a mechanic for which neither increasing or decreasing is always the “best” option, and the desired consequences ultimately come down to situational factors and more importantly, player preference.
In general I feel like this idea hasn’t really caught on, which is fair enough since I think most players prefer the “your party can just become gods” approach, but at least one developer has tried pulling this out a few times: Star Ocean creators tri-Ace. Its first appearance is in Star Ocean 3, where your characters’ attacks use a special resource called Guts (Fury, in the English versions, but “Guts” is a commonly appearing mechanic name in the company’s games and “Fury” is not), with special attacks also consuming hitpoints (or magic points, in the case of spells, but since the MP bar is also a health bar, it still works out to the same thing). The Fury bar has two main purposes. First, characters (and enemies) can block “weak” attacks when their Fury is at 100%. For players, there are many ways to set up guaranteed combo situations off of blocked attacks, so it’s very helpful to block when possible. Fury is also the limit of how long your combos can be, as you have to stand still (stop attacking and moving) to regain it, so a single character can only chain moves until their Fury is too low to use the next one. The game’s “basic” combo path is Weak Normal (optional) -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> etc. In other words, you can only cancel a Strong special if you have canceled it from a Weak special, and Strong normals don’t cancel into anything. (There are still ways to begin combos with Strong normals, and the main character’s ability to do this on his own is one of his biggest strengths.) There are a small number of other restrictions on the ways you can use moves together, but in general this combo system allows you to alternate any pair of moves you want…whether or not they even “combo” in a standard sense. For example, a common tactic is to have the “Weak” special be one that doesn’t physically touch the enemies (as this will prevent them from being able to block it), either because it “buffs” your character temporarily (although canceling the move usually overrides these effects) or doesn’t reach at the spacing you’re using. But in short, the system tends to create a flow in which both sides “take turns” in the battle without specifically enforcing that structure. It’s possible to focus on a “slow and steady” strategy in which you chip away at enemies in a relatively safe manner, but you can also play for a big “bait and punish” game where you wait for big openings and capitalize on them with full combos. Really, really long combos, if you can master playing multiple characters at once.
Valkyrie Profile 2 uses a similar system, where big combos tend to leave your party open (often even more directly than in SO3) due to the resource drain limiting your available actions, but their most recent major release, Resonance of Fate, takes the concept to something of a logical conclusion. Although it’s possible to perform extremely weak actions for “free” in ROF, the standard turn involves having a character strafe the enemies while shooting a bunch, and by doing this repeatedly you can go for a big triple attack where all three characters do this at once. Both the single run and the tri-attack cost a single “turn,” and you gain back turns by destroying enemies and/or objects that may be on their bodies. For example, a common enemy is a gangster, and by shooting his bowler hat (usually by jumping over his head) you can gain back a turn. It’s very common to end up in situations where you spend all of your turns priming enemies and moving your team into position for a big tri-attack, which causes so much carnage that you regain all of your turns. Running out of turns is almost always a Game Over situation (although the game’s penalty for “dying” is quite low), and as a result that moment when you’re about to gamble everything on your last turn is almost always loaded with tension. Even if the enemies aren’t doing much, watching that critical moment where everything comes together or collapses is an exciting, rewarding situation for the player, created simply by everything they’ve done to that point.
And who says this has to be limited to RPGs? (Personally, I’d argue that generally tri-Ace’s games aren’t JRPGs in the first place; for example, SO3 is more of an action game in which the RPG elements primarily serve to change the difficulty curve in various ways, rather than “forcing” players to simply master the game…but I digress.) Fighting games already tend to create a sort of unenforced “turn” system, with one player at a disadvantage, waiting for a chance to reverse momentum and get their own turn. Powerful characters like Eddie in Guilty Gear and Arakune in Blazblue can often override a game’s “normal” cycles as they gain nearly unstoppable mixups and blockstrings, which lead into excruciating damage. But when they don’t have their extra tools they have to run away, as the alternative is to be put in pressure too intense for them to handle alone.
To me, the idea of having to reverse disadvantages, turning them into the upper hand, every fight, is almost irresistible, but those examples are a bit extreme. Arakune, in particular, practically wins games long before the last combo starts (with that last combo itself being absurdly long and damaging). I prefer to feel like there’s still some real risk on the line, even when I’m ahead, like with GG’s ABA, whose “empowered” mode lasts a long time but decreases in large portions if she ever gets knocked on the ground and leaves her incredibly vulnerable if it runs out. And sometimes you can find good cycles even without such pronounced highs and lows at all, like with Litchi in Blazblue, who fights both with and without a long staff. While holding it, she commands much more of the screen, but is limited in her options for converting combos. Barehanded, she has to play a short-range game but has more options for movement and damage. Persona 4 Arena‘s Teddie also has a constantly shifting set of options, as the items thrown by his persona go through their prescribed cycle. Although only a couple of the items are clearly weak, the variety of setups and tricks available to the character require that both players stay aware of what’s coming next or be caught unaware.
One final genre where I’ve seen this sort of thing a lot are, perhaps surprisingly, shmups. The ultimate example is Cave’s Espgaluda II, in which you can save up magical crystals, then spend them at any time you want to slow down time. The most obvious use is to slow down patterns you have a hard time dodging to make them much easier to avoid, but the game offers a number of increasingly convoluted ways to increase your score by manipulating time. Normally, destroying a slowed enemy will clean all their bullets off the screen, but there’s also a special slowdown where the bullets will reappear and reorient themselves to move in your character’s direction each time you destroy another enemy. These bullets give you points every time they disappear and respawn, but inevitably choke the screen with an unavoidable cloud of death that must be managed before it becomes too much.
Other games also allow you to save up bonuses like invincibility or powerful weapons for score or survival purposes. There’s too many to even mention, but Psyvariar is a great game where getting close to a number of bullets gives you a brief period of complete invincibility. In high level play these cycles often pass by every few seconds, while beginners will probably start by trying to sync up their shields with the most difficult bursts. In Radiant Silvergun you can capture certain bullets by touching them with the “sword” weapon, and after ten captures the next use of the sword produces a gigantic sword that gives invincibility and cuts almost everything on the screen. Like all of the other weapons, precise use of these options makes the game much easier to get through, and it all comes down to the same thing; finding the best opportunities to build the cycle.
Essentially, it all comes down to rhythm. It so happens that I’m also a huge fan of music games and have played music for a long time, and when I was thinking on all of these examples that suddenly struck me as very similar, I realized that’s what I really love: being able to find my own rhythm within a heavily structured game and play with it. While all of these games, and many more, give you the instruments and stage, it’s up to the player to find the beat and write their song.