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The Trouble with Tactics

posted on February 6th, 2008 by chris

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.

10 Comments

  1. Christian said on February 6, 2008:

    This is a great article. My experience with Strategy RPGs isn’t as deep, but I do tend to favor them in the RPG genre on a whole.

    Agreed about Shining Force. Game just hasn’t aged well. I think, however, that this is due mostly to there not being much of a “strategy RPG” subgenre at the time. Camelot didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and as such too much of the game is left to random chance, especially considering there are a fixed number of maps in the game. If you look at how the game actually works, and what characters are strongest, it practically begs you to play via an emulator and save states. Not a good thing for a game that existed before those concepts.

    FF Tactics really is goofy in some ways, but for some reason it seems to be a lovable kind of goofy among fans of the genre. I don’t know how it managed to create some of its biggest flaws, considering it wasn’t the first time Matsuno made this kind of game. Yet somehow it is still my favorite game with the Final Fantasy name and a definite classic.

    I can’t really get myself to play a game like Disgaea. It and its ilk seem far too obsessed with numbers going up than genuine strategy, and that isn’t my cup of tea. It is a fetish the genre needs to remove on a whole.

  2. Stefan said on February 6, 2008:

    If I recall correctly, the way to fake the shining force emulator/save-state combo back in the day was to save in combat right before leveling up one of your characters, then re-load your game. You’d then level up, and if you got a bad roll for your stats, you could just cut the power to the genesis and re-load the same game. It took some time, but functioned in effectively the same way.

    I didn’t do it very often, but I have to admit to stooping to that strategy for a few characters that I really wanted to get up to snuff, like bleu, adam, and arthur.

  3. Christian said on February 6, 2008:

    Stefan, I did that tactic when playing SF1 on the Smash Pack. Took too damn long to reload for me to try it after one day of play.

  4. Max said on February 6, 2008:

    Nice piece. I personally never understood why the healer issue is so difficult. To me, there is an obvious solution: the healer should have some powerful self-protection spells, which cannot be used on other party members, but ensure adequate protection for himself. He should have a chance to cast these immediately at the beginning of the battle. Modus operandi for a healer should be to buff up, then use his remaining MP on healing/buffing for other party members. This second class of spells should be his main focus during leveling as well, whereas the self-buffs should basically exist mostly as a means of allowing him to properly perform his role in the party. However, they should consume a fair amount of MP, so as not to be freebies. Now if the healer wants to forego the self-buffs to save more MP for the other spells during battle, that his choice, but then he is vulnerable to quick death if the enemy tanks do get through to him. To me that’s a natural and reasonable way to implement a healer; unfortunately, I’ve never seen this actually done (granted, I don’t play all that many TRPGs, but still).

  5. Christian said on February 6, 2008:

    On the Healer, I also never understood why a Cure spell can’t be worth more XP than an standard attack.

    Or just make some more Paladin style healers/fighters in the genre.

  6. Stefan said on February 6, 2008:

    Huh, I started poking around Shining Force forums, and it seems that while stats vary greatly from level to level, the game enforces a fairly strict formula for what the aggregate sum of all the level ups will be over the course of the game. This is why you’ll occasionally get a +10 or +15 to some stat after getting very low values for several levels; it’s catching you up.

    http://forums.shiningforcecentral.com/index.php?showtopic=10714

  7. jay said on February 6, 2008:

    Speaking of healers, why can’t healing do even as much as attacking? In Shining Forces and Fire Emblems you get like 48 or so for killing a guy and 11 each heal. It’s just too imbalanced.

  8. TrueTallus said on February 6, 2008:

    I agree, great article Chris!

    I wonder how many of these problems are here because most people don’t care about them till they are too burnt out on the genre to have a voice. I remember a certain pride I once had in saying that my FFT game went on for more than 300 hours, even if most of that time was spent hitting my own people over the head with sticks or keeping that one lone chocobo on the Mandalia plains seesawing torturously between life and death. Nowadays I look at people’s 9999 level Disgea save and can only feel a vague exhaustion. It stands to reason they’ll one day do the same thing when some punk kid shows them the awesome gear they fused from 85,000 flint knives in Stella Deus 2. I guess what I mean is that maybe the plodding nonsensical portions of SRPGs will never entirely go away because there’s something there that’s enjoyable to people- until they get tired of it and never want to try it again.

    To see good healing experience payout put to practice, Jay, try Luminous Arc for DS. Preist-like characters get a beefy 30 experience (in a standard 100 points to level setup) per successful heal, which lets them stay highly leveled throughout the game without any power leveling at all. That game has a lot of great concessions to balanced, quick moving gameplay.

  9. jay said on February 6, 2008:

    I played Luminous Arc and actually abused the hell out of the healing and magic casting in general. so maybe I’m part of the problem.

  10. chris said on February 6, 2008:

    You know, I never knew about Shining Force trying to “catch you up”.

    I got tired of La Pucelle after about 3 hours of beating the tar out of my own characters followed by 3 hours of setting up needlessly complex elemental flows. It just wasn’t worth it, so I went ahead and finished the game right then.

    A couple months later, I tried Disgaea for around 10 hours. When it reached the point where I had to get to a certain area in the supposedly-optional dungeon, I realized the rest of the game would probably be similar and gave up.

    Same deal with Stella Deus. 2 hour grind -> 1 hour gameplay. I love the style but I just can’t take that anymore, and the plot was getting suspiciously cliche.

    In FFT grinding just isn’t as mandatory, so I found reasons to do it for fun. I would try and reach a certain job, or a specific skill, between each story battle with major characters and be ready to beat the game before I even noticed.

    I was also informed today that Vandal Hearts did pretty well in the healer department, giving huge bonuses to healing higher-leveled people. I haven’t played it for a while, but I remember healers doing okay.

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