As I’m sure you can tell by my previous articles, I love RPGs and strategy games. It should follow, then, that I love the Strategy RPG genre. Just like peanut butter and pizza. Although I like some SRPGs, I have some issues with the genre, particularly the Tactical subgenre. By “Tactical”, I mean finer-scale games where you manage each individual taking part in battles.
For example, I started up Shining Force a couple months ago via the wonders of Virtual Console. I began noticing occasional oddities; enemies with low agility would move twice when my high-agility archers never got a move in, for example (Hans was useless anyways). Levels would either be quite useful or really suck.
You can’t tell from this picture, but the priest and thief are horribly under-leveled.
It may be sacrilege (and I expect to be hanged by sundown), but I didn’t especially enjoy it. To be fair, though, I no longer enjoy the original Final Fantasy 1 or the first Mega Man either. In any case, around Pao I decided to try Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance instead. It resolves a lot of the issues I had with Shining Force; the action flows quickly, and the turn-based system kills the possibility of an enemy mage moving twice before anybody can attack him.
But there are several nagging things about the entire genre that bog it down, often removing strategy entirely from the equation and making the Tactical RPG merely a very complicated balancing act.
1. Experience Balancing
It may be the OCD in me, but when I see a character is under-leveled, I “favor” him or her a bit more. Let the higher leveled characters stay back a bit, let lower-level characters get killing blows. Unfortunately, the lower-leveled characters also are the ones who are most vulnerable, which makes for some rough decisions. Do I let them have a kill, and risk Lowe/Soren/Gallant getting swarmed and massacred? If I have to make decisions like this constantly to let that character keep up, is he/she worth keeping around at all? Why does this feel more like gambling than strategy?
This ties into a large balance issue: healers. Apparently no game has figured out a way to let healers keep up with normal combatants. Lowe was crippled for the first five maps of Shining Force. Rhys sucked up nearly all my bonus EXP in Fire Emblem, until an even-harder-to-level-cleric came along. Even poor generic Mercator from Stella Deus gained more experience from running around behind the lines and swatting his friends in the back than from doing his job, which ties into my next point.
Solution: Of all TRPGs I’ve played, Fire Emblem does it best here with the Bonus EXP feature, which lets you distribute it amongst your party as you choose. Of course, better balancing of characters would help too.
2. Stupidity is Rewarded
Instead of fighting I will stand here for an hour casting spells on my own characters.
This complaint is more about the more recent grind-RPGs than anything. I am of the opinion that if a game feels like work, I shouldn’t be playing it. Except maybe at work (hmm, there’s an idea). Sometimes stat-maxing is fun, but it should be optional. If the game is going to expect me to grind, I would really appreciate it if the best way to grind does not involve having my mages beat the tar out of my fighters. In fact, I don’t see why this should be rewarded at all. I hoped that having your party beat itself up to gain levels was an awkward relic of the past – perhaps an entertaining little oversight in Final Fantasy Tactics. I’ve played a few different PS2 TRPGs that have the exact same mechanic, and instead of just being a good way to level up casters, it was the best way to level up everyone.
Solution: Everyone should be able to get experience doing their job. Give healers some low-cost positive-status spells that are worth using and give them EXP, for example. Give archers enough range to gain EXP without getting killed. Give slower characters a bit more EXP if they hit harder.
3. Micromanagement and Movement
My main complaint with Shining Force, and one that many TRPGs share, is that I spent half of the damn time just moving my increasingly oversized army across the map to finish off the final few enemies. Many Tactical RPGs give you upwards of 10 characters to control. The more reasonable ones limit you to around six, but even with that many you are often moving four and actually attacking with only one or two. The less reasonable ones give you 12-15 characters, of which at any given time half are too far away from any enemies to attack.
Solution: Denser maps would help here. Failing that, at least make movement go quickly – Suikoden Tactics does a decent job with this. Also, less army bloat is good. If we need to command a large army, give us some macros or semi-auto AI like Fire Emblem.
4. One-man Army
Luckily for the player, Ike is nigh invincible.
Shining Force, Fire Emblem, Suikoden Tactics, Vandal Hearts… just about everyone does this. If the main character dies, it’s curtains for your whole group. Okay, so don’t use him in combat, right? Too bad he’s also one of your hardest hitters, and you’re forced to use him every single battle. What makes it even more frustrating is how every character in, say, Vandal Hearts (and some even in Fire Emblem) simply “run away” when they die. “Sorry, Ash, I’ve got to withdraw!”, then when Ash gets down to 0 HP, he just sorta says “Blaaaaargh… man, I wish I could run,” and dies. Same with Ike, same even with Sanzo of Saiyuki (though he is a healer, so he shouldn’t be getting hit at all). To some extent, this is understandable – but it only adds to the general level-balance frustration.
Solution: If you’re going to force our main character to be essential, be forgiving. Final Fantasy Tactics did a really good job with perma-death; give us a set number of turns to revive in. Also, more variety in main classes would be cool – give us more mages and clerics so at least they can gain EXP from the back lines.
Thanks to the cult popularity of Disgaea and its ilk, as well as the solid performance of Fire Emblems all-round, Tactical RPGs have a chance to do pretty well for themselves. As long as they keep these flaws in check, I’ll keep trying them.