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Axe of the Blood God: Diving Deep Into RPG Battle Systems

PODCAST | Kat is joined by a guest to dissect the history and design of RPG battle systems. Plus: NieR Automata and Persona 5!

Article by Kat Bailey, .

Axe of the Blood God is our weekly RPG podcast hosted by Kat Bailey and Nadia Oxford. You can find the previous episodes here.

In this week's episode of Axe of the Blood God (download link here), friend of the podcast Steve Tramer returns to discuss one of our favorite topics: battle systems!

We cover battle systems from multiple angles in this episode, tracing their development from D&D to Ultima 3 to the present day. We also pick our favorite (and least favorite) battle systems. You may be surprised by our choices!

Plus: If you're not already sick of us discussing Persona, Steve take a moment to talk about what he considers to be some of Persona 5's flaws, and also extols the virtues of NieR Automata. So have a listen!

Want to share your thoughts on RPGs? Email us at usgamer@usgamer.net. We may read your letter on the show!

Where to find us (Subscribe, rate, and review!)

Show Description

Friend of the podcast Steve Tramer returns to have an honest discussion about Persona 5's flaws and extol the virtues of NieR Automata (12:26). Then the pair dive into this episode's main topic: battle systems! (27:00) Kat and Steve discuss the evolution of RPG battle systems; what defines them; notable systems throughout history, and of course, their favorites!

Music from Axe of the Blood God is courtesy of Lena Chappelle, who has also contributed the themes to Active Time Babble and Roleplayers' Realm. I also use music from the RPG Music Pack over at rpgmaker.net. Check it out!

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 19

  • Avatar for melkore #1 melkore 2 months ago
    If you don't go down Ryuji's storyline I can see him coming off as a confusing, brash and unlikable character. He becomes a pretty deep character that's trying to work though some of his prior mistakes and figuring out how to move forward while not letting on that something is wrong. His character spoke to how I grew up so I was on board.

    Also, it was pretty apparent his leg was broken as you train with him that becomes a part of his story. Kamoshido was most definitely involved in breaking his leg. I haven't beaten the game yet but I've gotten Ryuji up to level 9 or 10 around the time I got through the Makoto intro dungeon. He's been one of my favorite characters in the game so far.

    My bigger issue is that Ann, Morgana and Yuske have all been a little disappointing after coming off of playing through Persona 4. They don't seem to have the same charm that Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko and even Teddy had at a similar time investment into the game (around 50 hrs). Ryuji is my Kanji equivalent and I was not disappointed.

    Your guest might have been looking at the story a little too deeply. The feeling of being powerless in a world full of corrupt 'adults' is speaking pretty clearly to many in the US these days. I think the story will age just fine. There has always been corruption with people of power and there will continue to be in the future.
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  • Avatar for Talraen #2 Talraen 2 months ago
    Final Fantasy II defense squad incoming! Well, not really. FF2 is kind of terrible, but I created what I'm pretty sure is the definitive English-language guide on it, so I have to at least make a token effort.

    You do not in fact have to cheat to win at FF2. You can play the game legitimately and do perfectly fine, but only if you have a complete understanding of the game's totally opaque systems and numerous bugs. I've beaten the original Famicom version multiple times without ever using the target-cancel bug, attacking my own party members, or even spending time or MP performing completely useless actions. There are a few truly unfair parts of the game where random chance can just screw you over, but the same is true for FF1 and FF3.

    The most important thing to note when playing FF2 is that customization is a lie. Sure, it seems like you can create a hybrid sword mage, but it will be terrible, and the game won't tell you why. Stick with the basic FF tropes (except red mage) and you'll be much better off. You also need to plan ahead and play into the systems. For instance, don't heal damage taken during a fight, to maximize your chances of gaining HP. If you're really daring, heal up during the next fight, which can level your Cure spell and help gain MP.

    The game has a ton of bugs, two of which have a particularly large influence on your party's development. Any spell that targets the whole party can raise Firion's spirit, making him a good choice for a white mage. And your two middle characters are twice as likely to be targeted as your first and (if you have one) fourth characters. Which is why, if you leave Maria in the back row, Guy will end up with a ridiculous number of HP. He'll be taking 2/3 of the hits for the party for much of the game.

    All that said, I actually would agree that FF2 has the worst battle system, except maybe for the games it inspired: FF Legend 1 & 2. I hate their battle systems a little bit more.Edited August 2017 by Talraen
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  • Avatar for jeffk #3 jeffk 2 months ago
    I have a very, very soft spot for the battle system in Enchanted Arms. If anyone knows of another JRPG that cribbed that system, I'd love to hear about it. I'm not saying EA deserved a sequel, but I would have liked to see them refine and expand what they were doing.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #4 riderkicker 2 months ago
    We may be seeing a version of abuse of power and the abdication of the responsibility of the abuse of power through a Japanese lens, but to say it doesn't affect us Americans, or Canadians, or Englishmen? Western countries, NOT just Japan, are dealing with a nationalistic streak where reactionary politicians are either gaining power or in charge of so many people's livelihoods. Read the news about our own President and his party as they target the most vulnerable and turn them into the demons that supposedly threaten the livelihoods of Americans. Japan may have its own set of problems ranging from lack of justice for sexual assault victims, young people working themselves to debt, stagflation, and much more, but they are hardly unique, as across both sides of the pond we're still dealing with them.

    That being said Persona 5 is a great piece of escapism, and I enjoyed the main character's rehabilitation. I wouldn't want to just see a Crimson edition, but for Sega to fund a Gaiden that takes place in another country. I'd definitely like to see how a different city tackles themes of reformation and rebellion.Edited August 2017 by riderkicker
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #5 riderkicker 2 months ago
    @Talraen Yeah, I'm cool with Final Fantasy II. I may not like it as much as the other game in Dawn of Souls, but it was pretty heart breaking and breaking. I remember beating the bosses with Scott equipped with a Blood Sword in the last dungeon and that was pretty funny.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #6 The-Challenger 2 months ago
    My only real problem with FF II is the extremely high encounter rate. I wish Square had done something about that in the subsequent rereleases.

    I remember that exact line the guest host brought up from Person 5 regarding the conversation between K. and R. I, too, am still unclear as to how Ryuji had his leg broken. In the end I just assumed Kamoshida did it.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #7 The-Challenger 2 months ago
    @jeffk Wild Arms 5 had a similar battle system.
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  • Avatar for SkywardShadow #8 SkywardShadow 2 months ago
    I adore FFVIII as well, though it isn't quite my favorite. Please do a retrospective!

    I felt like I was in the extreme minority during the FFVII-VIII years, as I disliked VII after what seemed to be a masterpiece in VI. I remember playing the demo for VII and thinking "well that clearly wasn't a finished product", but then it came out with the Lego-characters intact.

    I think this ties into your hinted-at debate regarding the"best" RPG game console. While I have nostalgia for the SNES years, I have to side with Nadia's view that the PSX won out over time. A short list from the top of my head: FFVIII, Valkyrie Profile, Parasite Eve, Suikoden I + II, FFT, and to cheat a little, re-releases of the original Ogre Battle (improved), and Tactics Ogre. I'd I could only take one system to a desert island mysteriously powered to allow video games, the PSX would also let me play FFV, FFVI, and Chrono Trigger, though with annoying load times.
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  • Avatar for FTLMantis #9 FTLMantis 2 months ago
    I'm totally on board with the sentiment that Persona 5 should have been shorter. I personally think Haru should have been dropped as a character and had her dungeon removed. As a character I feel she added very little, and the extra 10 or so hours thatbthe dungeon added felt wasted to me. I also could have done with a reduction in the text messages repeating themselves, which probably added at least an hour or two as well. I ended up enjoying the game, but sort of plowed through it in 80 hours (hah) by skipping a lot of text and some extra things. It would have been a better game if things were slightly scaled back.
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  • Avatar for Jonnyboy407 #10 Jonnyboy407 2 months ago
    I HATE HATE HATE FF8!

    However I'd like to hear a retrospective on it. And, hey, if you happened to do it in a few parts, like a Report segment, I'd play along! I'm willing to give that game another chance.

    Favorite battle system: final fantasy 10; I also really like the elemental systems of Persona and SMT - using type weaknesses to knock down or gain extra turns. I suppose I just like when battles are also puzzles to solve.

    I agree with Kat in her thoughts on Tales battles systems. They're not for me.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #11 riderkicker 2 months ago
    I love FF8. For this I'll say I like the battle and equipment system, as where else can you make your female protagonist eat an enemy to gain it's abilities?

    SMT Strange Journey and Persona Q have definitely tough battle systems. Reg Persona gives you some leeway if you make a mistake, but you will get destroyed in the harder games.

    I'm not a fan of the Tales of the Sky games, though I start and never finished it. Tactics are fun but not when they are the random battle.
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  • Avatar for Jonnyboy407 #12 Jonnyboy407 2 months ago
    @riderkicker despite my distaste, I'm curious to try it again. I've tried to play it 4 or 5 times and always drop off around the same spot.

    I did not like the drawing system or the junction system. However, I also used to also dislike any battle system with real time elements but now xenoblade is one of my favorite games.

    Who knows, FF8 may become my favorite FF game, 2 decades after it released!
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #13 SatelliteOfLove 2 months ago
    Persona 5 is a sequel to Persona 3.

    Actually, Persona 4 is the odd one out of the 5 due to its positivity (read the notes from Soejima on 4).

    Anywho, Tales only gets good once you get up and past Moderate. Play on easy, it's Press A For Awesome.



    Or you play Graces f. LAWD Graces f plays so good...Edited August 2017 by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #14 donkeyintheforest 2 months ago
    My favorite overall RPG systems are those like Baulder's Gate, KOTOR, FF12, Dragon Age-- ones that can just keep going in real time during the simpler encounters, but can be paused and function completely as turn based systems when you need to get more granular during the more difficult or puzzle like battles.

    I also like when games are really hard, but beatable without grinding if you really strategize-- AND when they also give you the option to grind if you just want to brute force your way through. One of my best friends and I often enjoy many of the same games, but I tend to die more often trying different glass cannon techniques and he grinds and builds up his characters and hardly ever dies. I love that grinding/leveling can basically be a built-in difficulty slider.

    Lastly, I really love the Judge system in the FF Tactics Advance series. Much like the oft maligned weapon breaking in Breath of the Wild, it really encourages you to try different things all the time and to try approaching battles from different angles. I also prefer the lack of load times, colorful sprite graphics, and lighter tone of FFTA to the original FF tactics, but that's another story.
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  • Avatar for riahk #15 riahk 2 months ago
    Tales was my favorite RPG series when I was a kid, mainly because I was playing Nintendo games like zelda and smash bros. The real-time combat was familiar and fun and I found more traditional turn-based battle systems to be largely boring. But I agree it can feel like it lacks depth, and as I've gotten older I've been less engaged in the newer Tales titles and more into turn-based and strategy RPGs like persona and fire emblem.

    That being said, holy crap I love the Tales of Graces battle system. It has more complexity and you often couldn't just hack/slash your way to victory. I remember some very frustrating boss battles that I played with my brother where we had to be extremely coordinated and really conscious of our actions. Definitely on my list of games to eventually replay.
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  • Avatar for baseballguy #16 baseballguy 2 months ago
    STEVE. You're supposed to be an RPG expert, bro. Speak with authority and stop ending all of your statements in the form of a question!
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #17 SIGGYZtar 2 months ago
    Wow, that cruise ship dungeon was pretty on the nose considering what a CEO is supposed to do.
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  • Avatar for Jairo-MC #18 Jairo-MC 2 months ago
    Since English is not my native language, I didn't have any problem is Persona 5 localization, which I thought was pretty solid. Regarding the story, I don't think you need to know Japan's context to relate to it. I didn't know the context of Japan and I got a lot from the story because I think it has some universal theme such as fighting to be free, fighting corruption, and being a misfit in the society. Granted, Persona 5 lost some opportunities to dive deeper in some questions, but the game is well executed.

    Final Fantasy VIII is also my favorite Final Fantasy, probably because it's the first I could finish. I never owned any of the FF's that came to Super Nintendo, so I played only bits and pieces when I could rent it. FF VIII however captivated me with its first cutscene and I loved playing it all the way.

    As for the topic, I enjoy SMV IV battle system as well as the traditinal ATB from the Final Fantasy series. I love FF XIII battle system because it's fast-paced and demand quick thinking on how to react and shift paradigms, even if I don't imput the exact commands. Pokémon's battle system is also pretty addicting with its simplicity and depth.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #19 Lord-Bob-Bree 2 months ago
    I'm really not fond of Persona 3-5's battle system. It almost always comes down to picking the right color attacks for the battle to keep the enemy from doing anything. P5 encourages it even further by adding baton passes, and has the easiest boss fights on top of it (Except for Mot. That one went badly for me.)

    I don't know what I'd pick for my favorite system, but Grandia is one I really like, even if the actual battles couldn't quite match up to what they could have aspired to. final fantasy Tactics is in the same boat, I feel.

    I haven't quite finished Persona 5 yet, but I do agree that it feels like it has been stretched out too long. At least it has been picking up at the end.
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