I was asked to do another Game of the Year analysis this year, but I was having a hard time coming up with a Top Games of 2014 that was both accurate to my tastes & interesting to read. I mean, I enjoyed inFamous: Second Son & Mario Kart Wii U, but I’m pretty sure nobody cares that I thought that they looked pretty & were fun to play.
So instead, I’m going to take a look at some of the 2014 JRPGs I played this year and discuss some of things they did well and some of the things that they could have improved at. This article will be focused on gameplay mechanics and will largely ignore other aspects that a game may have done well or poorly on like story, characters, visuals, music, etc.
Note, even though I’m going to be discussing flaws with all of these games, I greatly enjoyed each one.
—Child of Light—
Yes I’m well aware that Child of Light wasn’t made in Japan. I don’t care; it’s obviously a JRPG in style.
Child of Light borrows liberally from Grandia’s battle system (aka one of the best turn-based battle systems) around. For those unaware with the Grandia system, by using certain abilities on a target right before their turn, you are able to interrupt them, pushing them back on the turn bar and delaying the time until their next turn. Child of Light takes this one step further by giving all attacks interrupt capabilities & by giving the player more control over when the enemy will be in interrupt status via a helpful ally that can slow down enemies while the enemy is targeted and a button is held down (but only while the ally’s meter has charge).
Individual characters have few abilities in Child of Light, but character can be replaced with one of your many reserve characters mid-battle. Frequent use of character swapping is essential to success in the harder battles.
With a character limit of 2 allies & 3 enemies, a lot of the battle situations can start to feel the same over the course of the game. The game only has 2 difficulty levels which roughly translate out to “Hard” and “Embarrassingly Easy” with no good medium level for those who don’t want to steamroll the game but also don’t want to spend a lot of time on every single random encounter (reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings JRPG although it had the 3 difficulty levels of “Embarrassingly Easy”, “Easy,” and “Tediously Difficult”). The LV-Up system is far less interesting than it could have been – characters tend to get all of their abilities early on and further levels merely serve to upgrade their abilities & give them higher stats. Between the repetitive encounter design and a low number of non-combat areas & activities, the game felt like it was in an awkward position as far as overall time goes – a little too long for its depth & variety.
I’m a big fan of job systems that allow you to mix & match abilities and Bravely Default has a great one, born from years of making Final Fantasy games. The Brave & Default system that the game uses (which allows you to store up turns for future use or unleash up to 4 moves in a single turn) makes for some great boss encounters. The game also gives the player control over things like random encounter frequency to allow them to fine-tune the game to fit their own playstyle. The game also has a fun metagame in the form of a town reconstruction project that’s reminiscent of some freemium schemes but doesn’t require real money to use.
The Brave & Default system that is so good in boss encounters turns out to be incredibly broken in random encounters with most random encounters being possible to beat in a single turn, often without the enemy taking any moves at all. Certain combinations of abilities completely trivialize the game, enabling the character to become perpetually invincible, or generate a large number of extra turns. Being able to adjust random encounter rate feels like a bandage trying to cover up deeper design flaws like making sure that battles are engaging & properly paced out. Having the player repeat the game works in a loot-focused RPG like Diablo since the main goal in playing is to gain power & to acquire powerful equipment (which has a random element); in an otherwise traditional JRPG, having to repeat the game over and over feels cheap & tedious.
Persona Q gives all of the characters except one the ability to gain a certain amount of temporary HP & MP. This temporary HP & MP is restored at the beginning of each battle & encourages the use abilities in each battle while still allowing for longer-term resource management (any MP used beyond your temporary pool is lost until you return to the infirmary or use a rare MP restoring item). Attacking enemy weakpoints puts characters in an enhanced state that allows them in the next turn to act first & use abilities free of cost – this is a very rewarding bonus while being drastically less broken than the bonus turn systems that Persona 3 & 4 used. And in general, Persona Q has a very solid ability set as it’s based on both the Etrian Odyssey & Persona series and includes useful ailments, binds, buffs, debuffs, tanking abilities, and more.
Instant kill abilities are too good and allow the player to trivially win most random encounters when properly built for. Persona games limited instant kill spells via MP requirements (you’d eventually run out of MP) and by character restrictions (in Persona 3, the two types of instant kill spells are divided between two characters. In Persona 4, the ally with the great instant kill spells only joins up fairly late in the game & has other weaknesses to compensate for). These limitations could be overcome in Persona 3 & 4 with proper planning & effort but they’re relatively trivial to overcome in Persona Q thanks to the temporary MP system and the greater flexibility in character building & customization. The other major weakness with Persona Q is that with no world map & no real town (the safe area in Persona Q is just a menu for selecting different shops & talking to party members), the game lacks the more pleasant ebb & flow of pacing that a more traditional RPG structure would give.
—Some Lessons to be Learned from these games—
Make sure that your battle system works for both regular & boss encounters. And if it doesn’t, maybe you don’t need regular encounters – hey, it works for many Strategy/RPGs (which often carefully design each and every battle).
Something that works well in one game’s system might turn out to be incredibly broken or unpleasant when transplanted into another system.
Offer difficulty options but try to make sure that in making the game more difficult that you’re not just making it more tedious.
A certain amount of over-poweredness via ability combinations is to be encouraged to give the player something to shoot for & discover. However, be very cautious to avoid combinations that prevent the possibility of losing (perpetual invincibility) and combinations that can be reused for easy victories regardless of the circumstances.
A constant string of battles can become tiresome regardless of the quality of the combat system. World maps to explore, safe areas, story-heavy sections, and mini-games help to break up the flow and make your battles that much more enjoyable when they do occur.