Turn-based RPG’s have been around for a long time. Not only that, but they have also spawned some of the greatest and much-loved games ever–think Final Fantasy 6 or Chrono Trigger.
These days, though, the Japanese style, turn-based RPG has become less and less prevalent, simply because they are so hard to sell to this newer generation of players.
Think about it, if you were born in the year 2000, your first console was probably the Xbox 360 or the PS3, or maybe the Wii. When you look at a list of the top selling games on the PS3, you find it littered with titles like GTA 5, Battlefield 3, The Last Of Us & God Of War 3. In fact, the top ten list doesn’t even include one, traditional turn-based RPG. By comparison, the list of top selling PS1 games includes Final Fantasy 7, 8 and 9.
Obviously, as technology has moved on, developers have been able to branch out with more interactive gameplay styles, but it’s not like the turn-based RPG has died a death, just look at the Pokemon series.
Now, granted, the Pokemon series is a behemoth unto itself, but its sales figures still show that the battle system isn’t putting people off, particularly in the west. What makes Pokemon different though, is that it is handheld, and there is something more accessible about playing a turn-based game on a handheld device in bed or on the train than on a console where you are locked in one place, usually your sofa.
The problem for console games looking to keep or use the turn-based battle system extends far beyond the lack of portability of a console compared to a handheld. These days gamers are used to fast paced, Twitch and YouTube friendly gameplay. Games like Horizon, Zelda, Assassins Creed, Call Of Duty all utilise a faster style, and it sells. Even Square Enix changed the Final Fantasy series to a new action based system. Even worse for some, Square is also remaking Final Fantasy 7 as an action RPG. This was a game that was so beloved in its initial style, and they are changing it because they don’t believe the battle system will sell.
There is an argument that the reason turn-based RPG’s are dying out is not the gameplay style per se, but that they lack immersion. Gamers feel more connected with their characters in battle if they have to think on their feet–like dodging attacks while thinking about their next move. In a turn-based battle system, friends and foes stand around cordially until someone has a go. This polite battle technique is not realistic nor representative, so gamers shun it. The immersion is lost, and fighting becomes a chore. ‘The Grind’ is a famous JRPG trope.
On the flip side, turn-based RPG’s force players to stop and think tactically about their next move because they are locked into a cycle. You attack, guard, summon, etc, before you receive a return move. Such a style promotes critical thinking, evaluating what your attack will do and what your opponents attack will do in return, and in the case of FF’s active-battle system, under time pressure.
Modern gamers don’t have that issue. Yes, they think about their moves in games like Far Cry, but they aren’t locked into that cycle, so they can think less critically and go more on instinct. When a player like that is dropped into a traditional turn-based RPG, they struggle, because they are conditioned to play a different way.
Even I struggled to get used to a turn-based system. Apart from Pokemon, I had never played a proper turn-based RPG until I played Final Fantasy 7 a couple of years ago. Even though I came out loving the experience, I initially found the turn-based system slow and boring. The only reason I played it in the first place was that I was interested in why it’s revered so much. But, having completed FF7 I quickly moved on to FF6. The Final Fantasy series had gained a new player in spite of the system and due to the great advantages of a JRPG; namely, the story beats. Admittedly, FF7 is an old game, but the core your-turn-my-turn mechanic still remains a staple of modern JRPG’s.
One of those modern JRPG’s is Persona 5. I am currently working through Persona 5, and I love it, but I am, now used to a JRPG’s slower battle system. It’s a fantastic system that rewards careful play as well as being able to conduct quick battles and it feels like an evolution on traditional turn-based play. I fear, however, that even that won’t be enough for this new generation of players. More than likely, they will still shun it in favour of an action RPG like Nioh or Dark Souls. Final Fantasy can get by on its reputation and name, but the fact that even that series decided to shift away from turn-based is worrying.
There is no doubt that if traditional turn-based JRPG’s are going to survive, they need to market themselves well and try and attract new players. The problem is that the battle system turns younger players away, and the real charm of games like Persona and Final Fantasy, the story, are never experienced, and therefore not likely to leave an impression and in return gain a new fan.