Thursday, June 28, 2012

RPG Design: Three Ways to Fight

This topic is based on my experience playing RPGs - mostly Japanese, granted, but it applies across the board. I have observed that turn-based or somewhat turn-based RPGs tend to have three different high level strategies. In fact, I'd go as far to say that all three should be supported. I'm going to call them "Just tank it", "tricks and deceit" and "kill him first". Although the names are pretty self-explanatory, there's a bunch of details concerned I'd like to discuss. They are applicable when the player encounters a fight they cannot outright win. This usually implies a boss fight, so for brevity's sake I'll be talking about them.

1. Just tank it

This is a very traditional approach. The concept is really simple: if the boss does too much damage for you to handle, grind levels until you can handle it. Handling it can mean a couple of different things, depending on the game's exact mechanics. Either having high enough defense and hit points to last the entire fight, or having powerful enough healing abilities to keep up with the damage. Typically a mixture of both since more defense means less healing. The purpose is not just to survive, but to actually negate all threat from the attacks - i.e., there is simply no way to lose. It's the safest way to go and it always works (well, unless the boss is designed to be challenging for maxed out characters - hello Atlus!) but it's a really really boring way to go. It sucks all the fun out of the boss fight. Oh and it involves all that grinding.

If this strategy is the only one supported in a game, that game is going to suck. It typically means the game is too simplistic and doesn't allow any actual combat tactics. This can also be a syndrome of too resilient bosses - when fights go on too long, using other strategies might not be feasible. So there's yet another reason to avoid designing boss fights that drag. It can also happen a lot with bosses that use nothing but area of effect attacks that hit everyone (and cannot be prevented). Although this strategy is boring, it still needs to exist in games. It's a useful fallback strategy, especially for less experienced players. The emphasis is on the word fallback. Designers should take care to incorporate the next two strategies as possibilities in their games. 

2. Tricks and deceit

Incorporating this strategy in a game means offering the player all sorts of means to gap differences in power level. This can mean a myriad of things. Protective spells fall under this category as do various immunities. Games often provide abilities to become temporarily more resistant or offer more resilience as a tradeoff. Protect (FF series) is a standard issue example, a spell that halves physical damage. One-time immunity to a given element in Digital Devil Saga is another good example. The effectiveness of defensive tricks is often but not always dependent on the boss. Most importantly this typically means that the player needs to tailor his defensive tactics against each boss individually. By doing this a lot of grinding can be avoided. Even when the player does not have access to the abilities, there's often a lot less grinding involved in obtaining one ability than overleveling the entire party.

Instead of defensive tricks, players can also employ all sorts of measures that prevent the enemy from attacking. This gets especially intriguing if the boss can one-shot the entire party if it gets just a single turn. Although bosses often are immune to most debilitating status effects, they should not always be. This is actually what's led me to believe that status effect spells are useless in many RPGs - now I'm pleasantly surprised to find a boss that's not immune to everything. Negative effects are not the only way to go though. Some games have abilities that allow the player to delay their enemies' actions or make them miss a turn. Although we're now mostly talking about turn-based or similar games, stagger in real-time combat systems also falls in to this category.

The correct way to go about involving tricks in the game is to avoid too broadly applicable ones. Using them should always involve creativity from the player. It is always satisfying to complete tough battles in creative ways with characters who are way out of their league. This is what makes hardcore RPG fans play all sorts of crazy challenges where typically the first strategy mentioned here has been forbidden to a ridiculous extreme (e.g. no leveling up at all during the game). The need for tricks also often comes up when playing a game in an accelerated fashion, skipping a lot of leveling up possibilities and resources. Sometimes though, a boss is immune to all sorts of trickery and his attacks cannot be defended against. That's where the third strategy comes into play.

3. Kill him first

The name really says it all. If your healers cannot keep up with incoming damage, sometimes it's best to not heal at all and focus 100% on offensive. This is also known as a DPS race (damage per second, although damage per turn is more appropriate here). Some defenses might be set up in the beginning but after that everything is done to maximize damage. A well-designed game should not allow this strategy to dominate though. It needs to be risky. Typically the success of an all-out attack strategy depends on the boss pulling off somewhat favorable attack patterns and/or certain random effects triggering. That, and careful calculations. To make matters more interesting, the formula should not be the same for all encounters. This is relatively easy to achieve by varying the defensive capabilities of bosses. Another design consideration is to avoid bosses with too high HP because that is guaranteed to invalidate this strategy.

Although it is often to some degree up to chance to win with this strategy, the intriguing part is manipulating the odds to make that chance big enough that the time consumed by attempting the battle is on average clearly less than time it would take to grind for better characters. Various means should be available for the player to utilize. These can roughly be categorized into manipulating the odds of random effects and buying time to get more opportunities to trigger effects. This strategy is also very common in various challenges, especially towards end of the game where the level gap grows huge. It can also be present within longer battles. It is not rare for RPG bosses to assume stronger powers when they drop to low health. When that happens, it sometimes is more fruitful to switch into this strategy instead of trying to keep up with increased incoming damage. Likewise it may be the result of having limited recovery items.


Most of the time, all this is achieved by just design intuition. The third strategy here is perhaps a bit rarer than the others. In some ways, it is the hardest to integrate into a game - there's a real risk that it can become dominant if not kept in check. It demands that the system is complex enough. Also note that although this entry was written about turn-based or similar games, the same principles do apply to real-time games as well. They do however typically incorporate one very strong trick: a skilled player can evade most attacks. This also applies to turn-based games where attacks can be avoided by careful positioning of characters. Real-time games are also more likely to have stagger mechanics to prevent enemies from attacking during attack chains. These can often be utilized as stagger loops to prevent attacks.

In their respective order, these strategies go from the safest strategy to the riskiest. Likewise, the time spent grinding goes from highest to lowest. If the game is properly designed, the knowledge and planning required should go from lowest to highest, again in respective order. The strategies are also often attempted in this order. The first is pretty much the default because it's pretty steady. If it doesn't work, then it's time to look for tricks that can be used. If there aren't any available, then it's DPS race time. If none work, then it's time to check which strategy would involve the least amount of grinding. This is typically either 2 or 3, and I think this is as it should be. Player experience also determines how deep they are going to dig. Beginners might only try strategy 1, then immediately grind for experience if it doesn't work. In most games though, strategy 2 is often advertised enough so that even new players can pick it up.

I know this stuff is hardly news for anyone, but I've been wanting to put this in writing for some time now. So here it is.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy

I briefly mentioned Dissidia in my previous post on Crisis Core. I realized that I haven't actually written about it, even though there's some stuff there that does deserve mention. In case you haven't guessed yet, Dissidia is yet another Final Fantasy spinoff. In a sense it's the ultimate fan service game for the franchise. It brings together heroes and villains from all games in the main series to fight epic duels in an endless conflict between good and evil (such an original plot there!) Although it's about Final Fantasy characters facing off, it's not really a fighting game in either 2D or 3D tradition.

1. Full 3D Combat, Anime Style

Dissidia is truly three dimensional fighting. It is more reminiscent of third person action games than fighting games in this sense. All in all, it's a strange fighting-action-rpg hybrid. By saying that Dissidia is truly three dimensional, I mean that every dimension is used in almost equal fashion. On average characters tend to spend as much time in air as they do on the ground. Considering all the insane crap these characters do in their respective main series games, I think this is highly appropriate. Most importantly, it portrays the characters as truly powerful individuals who literally defy the laws of physics. For a game controlled with just six action buttons the range of movement is pretty amazing.

The characters run quickly across the ground, they jump high and can do fast evasive maneuvers. They cannot exactly fly, but evasive maneuvers can be done in the air and they work a lot like air jumps. On top of this, some characters' aerial attacks help them stay afloat. Terra for instance can pretty much stay in the air for the entire match, using her long range spells to harass her opponent. While characters cannot fly freely, they can use dashes to cross distances along the ground, across air, from ground to air or air to ground. It's a simple mechanic: as long as the players holds the dash combination, the character charges towards his locked-on target. This allows melee characters to quickly close in on spellcasters. The dash can be modified by certain skills to charge away from the target or even to allow dashing into chosen direction (I'm not sure how this works though).

A lot of attacks also knock the opponent all around the battlefield. Ground attacks can send the opponent flying forward or into air. Aerial attacks can also send them crashing down. Smashing opponents against walls, roofs or floors opens options for more damage. Finally there's the chase mechanic. Some attacks that launch opponents into the air allow chasing. A chase is always a 50-50 guessing game. Guessing wrong can lead to more chasing (or crashing into something). Guessing correctly opens the option to counter with a similar guessing game. All in all, these mechanics combined make sure that combat really moves across battlefields.

2. Brave New Damage

Instead of going with the traditional way of trading blows for direct damage, designers of Dissidia have chosen a different approach. Yes, characters still have hit points and eventually these will be reduced to zero. However the way there is a bit different. The game features two kinds of attacks: HP attacks that deal the actual hurt, and bravery attacks that are used to power up HP attacks. Characters have a bravery gauge. This is a number that indicates how much the damage next HP attack that connects will inflict. Unless nothing special happens, bravery is a zero-sum game. Each bravery attack that hits gives the attacker bravery and takes as much away from the defender. It's an interesting concept - no matter how much you connect with bravery attacks, damage only realizes when you connect with an HP attack. If you guessed that HP attacks are slower and therefore hard to connect with, you are right.

The system is not just a simple zero-sum game though. Connecting with an HP attack uses up all accumulated bravery. Although it raises back to the initial level fairly quickly, there is a serious risk in spamming HP attacks: getting hit while at zero bravery inflicts a 'break'. Whenever an attack breaks the opponent, the attacker immediately gains a huge bonus to their bravery. The bonus comes from stage bravery which is also reset when it's collected. When stage bravery is high it is especially important to avoid breaks. Gauge resets and breaks cause the total amount of bravery in the game to fluctuate. Finally, a lot of summons affect bravery in some way. Summons are once per battle effects that are equipped and can do a wide variety of things (multiply, freeze, reset etc.)

Overall, the system allows for two types of builds. Characters that have high initial bravery can try to connect with HP attacks often, taking advantage of the fact their bravery resets into high number soon after connecting. Alternatively characters can build for bravery damage and aim to score a few charged up HP attacks. The choice between these two strategies depends a lot on what kinds of attacks a character has. Some characters have HP attacks that are really hard to avoid and/or safe to use while others rely on solid bravery attacks. While HP attacks don't differ in damage, there's still a lot of reason to have more than one - they differ in speed, hit area and other stranger factors, all of which dictate what kinds of situations it can connect in.


Although the game has other aspects - what with being an RPG and all - they are not particularly interesting. Character development is pretty standard. Abilities are gained in a linear fashion. Learned abilities are equipped using a point cost system. Each character has a limited number of attack slots. Characters can also wear equipment and choose an assisting character who can be summoned into the battle. But yeah, all that's pretty standard, we've seen it before. Overall, the game is really good at portraying battles in hyperpowered anime style - a style highly suitable for Final Fantasy characters. The combat system is something that should be looked at when thinking about real-time RPG systems, especially when trying to make it really flashy. Dissidia is fast and has insane attacks but at all times it remains easily controllable. For a fighting game I am pretty sure that it is not balanced enough to be really taken seriously.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII

Crisis Core is one of the three big productions from the Final Fantasy VII 10th anniversary compilation. With the mediocre-at-best fanservice movie Advent Children and the horrible third person shooter Dirge of Cerberus, the compilation looked a lot like a big money grab. What distinguishes Crisis Core from the pack is that it's actually a roleplaying game - something where Square-Enix is still relatively strong. Action-oriented with real-time combat, sure, but roleplaying game nonetheless. It's a prequel with lots of familiar characters and appropriate amount of fan service, but it is also a pretty solid game. The main character is Zack, who was mentioned on several occasions in Final Fantasy VII.

1. How hard can hard be

Knowing that I was about to play a Square-Enix RPG, I decided to finally break my habit of playing most games on normal for the first time around and chose hard mode instead. Little did I know that the hard mode was in fact added to the North American version as an afterthought and the game failed to mention how hard the hard mode is. When I finally got pretty badly stuck in the game maybe halfway through, I got curious and checked from the source of all gaming information (GameFAQs). To my shock, the hard mode was no small adjustment - they had multiplied all monster stats by the average factor of 3.5 and up to 5. Whoa. A small mention in the difficulty selection menu might have been appropriate, huh?

Anyway, challenge is usually fun. What was not fun was that save point placement was sometimes very frustrating. But wait, it gets better! This game features unskippable cutscenes, yay. They are just unacceptable in this day and age. The game also does a really poor job of explaining its most important non-combat mechanic but I'll write about that under its own section. On hard mode players are really expected to really use that system to their advantage so a little more information would have been nice. Sure, it's kind of a JRPG standard that you'll need GameFAQs as a complementary game manual to actually understand how the game works. Just for future reference, not all standards are good.

2. Let's fight in real time!

In the Final Fantasy franchise, real-time combat has been reserved for spinoffs. Curiously they - at least the two instances I have played (Dissidia and Crisis Core) - have mechanics that are better than the main series' active time battle (prior to FFXIII). The system is not particularly special. It is more or less Final Fantasy VII transformed into real-time action. Actions are chosen from a menu using shoulder buttons and performed with X. This is system is okay and pretty much required given the number of available buttons on the PSP. It really only falls on its face with items. The item submenu should have used a unique icon for each item. Items are used relatively rarely so memorizing their positions in the menu does not happen automatically while playing.

Attacks in the system are very simple and in this sense the system was quite disappointing at first. However attacks do have appropriate hit stun, evasion is not overpowered, physical attacks do critical damage from behind and guard only covers the front sector (although rather generously). Because of these factors, movement and timing are essential to survival in Crisis Core, especially on hard mode where enemies really dish out the hurt. Because of hit stun, it is possible to pin enemies or be pinned by a chain of attacks. It's also a good idea that they gave evade a proper recovery time. In many action games, evade is generally quite powerful get-out-of-jail-free card, but in Crisis Core a poorly timed evade can lead to a nasty chain of back hits.

On hard mode the game really is surprisingly defense-oriented. A lot of the harder fights require preparation to guard against the most common element attacks and most debilitating status effects. Even poison is nasty in this game because poison damage causes stagger and interrupts Zack's actions. All in all, it is very important to not get hit. Zack can often pin down single enemies simply with his attacks but multiple enemies can get really troublesome really fast. This is often typical for games that have hit stun as a mechanic. For the delight of Devil May Cry fans, attacks are properly telegraphed, giving the player an opportunity to react before getting hit. Evades also have invulnerability frames during the animation.

I have one complaint. The game's auto-targeting sucks. Zack doesn't target the closest enemy, he targets the enemy closest to his line of sight. This is a rather poor mixture of targeting the closest enemy and manual targeting (hitting where you're facing). For example, let's say there are two enemies. One is really close and the other is behind it, on the other side of the battlefield. You evade the closer one's attack, getting behind its back in the process and try to hit it, only to realize that the targeting has switched to the far away enemy instead and Zack starts running across the battlefield. Fortunately you can cancel your attack by doing an evade but really, this should not happen. It also makes targeting specific enemies a bitch sometimes.

3. How random can we make this?

(Almost) every JRPG tries to add its own tricks into the combat bag. Crisis Core introduces Digital Mind Wave (DMW) which is essentially one big slot machine that's constantly running. Sounds very random, and it is too. There's actually two modes: normal and Activating Phase. The DMW has multiple roles: it controls the flow of battle with buffs; it acts as the game's limit break system; and finally it even controls character development to some extent. The most common are the buffs. They are short time advantages such as removing casting cost from spells or invulnerability to one of the two damage types, or even complete invincibility. These buffs are mostly to add a little variance. With zero MP cost you can go crazy with spells for a while. Immunity to damage is less useful than it sounds because the attacks still cause stagger but it can be useful in a tight place.

Activating Phase is more interesting. It is basically a limit break system that activates when the same character lines up on both left and right slots. If the third slot also comes up with the same character, a limit break is activated, resulting in a damaging attack or a bigger buff. They also give Zack a varying amount of HP, MP and AP back upon triggering. This is an interesting mechanic because it lends a hand to the player by restoring Zack at random intervals. Finally, before unleashing the limit break, Zack is invulnerable against all attacks for a short while. This has been done so that all attacks that were already coming out are carried out against Zack's invulnerability before the limit break activates. Although the player cannot directly affect this, it is a neat mechanic because it often opens up opportunities for attacking or getting out of trouble.

To make it just a little more complex, there is a chance for Activating Phase to change into one of two special modes, summoning and, well, special. Especially the latter one has even wilder effects which can give the player free items are level up their materia. The DMW is in charge of leveling up materia in another way: if two of the same number line up in Activating Phase, the materia in that corresponding slot gains a level. Zack gains a level if three sevens line up but this is not in fact completely random - the game runs a hidden experience calculator which eventually forces level ups to happen. Materia development on the other is completely random.

From the description it might seem that the system is truly too random to be of much use. It would be so if it weren't for DMW materia. These handy things can be equipped to make specific effects a lot more probable. There is one DMW that actually makes Activating Phase in general a lot more probable for a while. I found making that DMW more probable be equipping its materia a solid strategy for some of the harder encounters (remember, even limit breaks that you don't really need give free restoration and a breather). This sort of indirectly controlled randomness is in fact a quite interesting mechanic. By sacrificing some flexibility (materia slots), the player can manipulate the odds of getting free goodies to his favor.

4. Fusing for win

To my experience, when a development system is named Fusion it tends to be great. Atlus has demon fusion, there was monster fusion in FFXIII-2 and there is materia fusion in Crisis Core. It's a surprisingly complex system so it is very weird that the game doesn't really reveal its true importance to the player. It's portrayed mostly as a way to create new materia. However, it has a much more important function: raising materia stat bonuses. These start at very low values which makes fusion seem rather useless. This couldn't be much further from the truth - materia stat bonuses are the most important avenue for stat development. The system has a bunch of rules that are left for the player to discover (i.e. read from GameFAQs). It actually needs one key item from a side quest before it becomes really useful. That item allows using items as a component in fusion, which strengthens stat bonuses further.

Once the player actually figures out the system, it is quite clever. Because materia can only gain levels when they are equipped, there are also some serious considerations about which ones to wield - farming levels for materia reduces the number of more useful materia that can be equipped. The reason I like this system is that like Junction in FFVIII, it gives the player a powerful parallel development lane. Leveling up is just a general indicator of progress while real leaps in power are made by crafting materia with solid stat bonuses. This imbues character development with a lot of really meaningful choices for the player. It is what truly distinguishes action RPGs from plain action games.

Although I like the system, there is one particular problem with tying stat bonuses to equipped abilities. Because transferred stat bonuses in fusion are always halved, moving stat bonuses between materia is not feasible. This makes endgame builds rather rigid. At some point the player needs to decide which materia they will ultimately equip, and stack the big bonuses on those materia - and keep them there. There is still some flexibility: in fusion only one materia loses half its stat bonus (the weaker one). So by manipulating fusion results, it is possible to transform materia into other materia, but there are limits because of the system rules. Most importantly, the most powerful materia in the game cannot be transformed from any other materia type and fusing almost anything with them transforms them into other, weaker materia.

Overall, all the systems combined, the game does allow for quite a lot of builds. However, it does suffer from the Final Fantasy Syndrome. I just named this syndrome, but it is very prevalent in the series so the name is fitting. In short, a game that suffers from the syndrome has certain skills / equipment / whatever that are so obviously more powerful than anything else in the game that not using them would be stupid. In Crisis Core there is one peculiar materia called Costly Punch that is ridiculously overpowered. Immediately upon getting it, I reached the increased damage cap with it. It also ignores pesky things like enemy defense which makes it an ultimate weapon against, uh, everything. Curiously hard mode didn't become a steamroll with this materia because even normal enemies can stand and deliver ridiculous amounts of damage.

5. Bonus: Not so random encounters, or wallhuggers unite!

There was another curiosity about Crisis Core I forgot to mention. The game doesn't exactly feature random encounters. It also doesn't show the enemies on the map. So what does it do? Well, the environments in the game have these invisible zones where battle (with random enemies) commences. Usually, not always. Confusing huh? It gets better though: the zones typically do not go from wall to wall. Zack can avoid most battles in the game by tightly hugging walls while moving. It's uh... a very interesting solution. I kind of appreciate the fact that it's possible to not have to fight every single encounter in the game but really, invisible zones?


Crisis Core has surprisingly lots of depth. This seems to be a common trend in Final Fantasy spinoffs - the riskier ideas are realized in them instead of the main series. I guess it's a sound strategy from SE because the spinoffs are typically played by their core fans who are prepared to tackle more complex systems. It's still not Shin Megami Tensei complex in Crisis Core, but enjoyable enough to warrant full post-game experience all the way to the ultimate boss. I haven't gotten there yet but I have a good feeling that I will. The game also goes to show that SE really should include a hard mode in every single one of their games. Only difficulty demands players to learn and use various systems in these games.