Axe of the Blood God Episode 21: Turn-Based Combat and Modern RPGs

What does turn-based combat mean in the modern era? Bob, Kat, and special guest Steve Tramer explore a mechanic that is as old as the medium itself.

Column by Kat Bailey, .

Axe of the Blood God is our weekly RPG podcast hosted by Kat Bailey. You can find the show notes for previous episodes here.

In this week's episode of Axe of the Blood God (download link here), Bob Mackey and returning guest Steve Tramer return to discuss the evolution of turn-based RPGs, their appeal in comparison to more action-based systems, and their place in modern gaming.

The impetus for this episode is this article and the rather long thread it spawned discussing the relative merits of turn-based and real-time gameplay. I was rather surprised by the number of readers who expressed their feeling that turn-based combat is outdated, so I decided to make it the main topic of discussion on this week's episode. Is turn-based combat truly not fit for a "Triple-A RPG?" Steve, Bob, and I discuss.

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Show Description

Bob and Steve join Kat to discuss the evolution of turn-based RPGs, their appeal versus real-time combat, and the news that the Final Fantasy VII remake's gameplay is in for "dramatic changes." What does turn-based combat mean in the modern era? The crew is here to find out.

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 Check it out!

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Comments 16

  • Avatar for NateDizzy #1 NateDizzy 2 years ago
    Kat, I'm so glad you mentioned Grandia 2. That's the system I often point to when I need an example of a good turned based system. Frankly, I hope Squeenix does do something similar, but I'm not going to hold my breathe.

    However, there is one mechanics I don't want to return in the remake: random battles. If they absolutely must come back, at least make them like FFXV's.
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  • Avatar for Thumbscar #2 Thumbscar 2 years ago
    Final Fantasy IX and Vagrant Story remakes, yeah, they deserve it.

    Very nice conversation on the FFVII remake. You all pretty seriously adjusted my expectations for it, or at least, got me to think about it differently. What was it that the people who returned their launch copies said? "Your guys just stand there in the fight... too much reading... I thought this was gonna be like an awesome movie or something." Well, the remake might be an action based, acted and voiced, sprawling-world epic laced with cinematic presentation cues.

    Thanks to Steve for bringing up FFX-2, I need to give that game another shot. And Kat, it never occurred to me until you were talking about Valkyrie Profile that parts of the battle system are actually kinda similar to Project X Zone. Optimize combo, stun, heavy damage/special.

    But, do tactics games get a spot in the turn-based combat conversation? Possibly a segment in a future episode?
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  • Avatar for detten17 #3 detten17 2 years ago
    I was a big FF7 back in the day, but Square kinda soured me on the FF7 universe, all addendum but Crisis Core sucked. Not sure but I guess it coincided with my fallout with anime as well. To me the combat system is a means to an end, whether it's old school ATB or some hybrid as long as the story and characters are good I can put up with it. This is primarily why i'm not a fan of FF8, FF10, or FF12, I liked all the other side characters but the main protagonists. Hopefully square does something interesting and maybe lay off the whole Emo Cloud motif they've been inserting into any and every other game they can fit him into, looking at you kingdom hearts.
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  • Avatar for SanguineSymphony #4 SanguineSymphony 2 years ago
    Great discussion spearheading many of my viewpoints. I worry FFVII will somehow become more simplified and turned into KH. Action can be done well but I've never seen it with 3 person party combat. Souls/BB both succeed by being more thoughtful action games with a strong leaning towards customization.

    I'm not sure I agree entirely with Bob's assessment of 7 due to early PS1 games all looking terrible. I agree with that assertion in regards to the other PS1 FFs but quite a bit less with 7. Cosmetically 7 is probably the worst aged FF without a suitable remake. That being said if they're using AC as an aesthetic template I can't see the remake being that much better. The use of neon colors in 7 is iconic to me and remodeling it with stark black, white and grays doesn't sit well with me. So far this remake reminds most of 2004's Dawn of the Dead which hilariously missed the point of the original and succeeded commercially in doing so.

    As for the turn based discussion I feel the Persona games all dumbed down the PT system too much to be engaging. SMT and the Avatar Tuner games made better use of the system.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #5 Lord-Bob-Bree 2 years ago
    I don't think turn-based combat is in any way out-of-date. The idea that it is either comes from peoples' preference for actiony stuff, or thinking that twitch reflexes are what makes a game difficult. You hit on it in the podcast that the remake needs to make battles require more planning and decision-making to really bring the system to its potential. And remove things like FFVI's "teach Ultima to everyone, kill everything".

    I've wondered how to deal with status effects in this series. If you don't know what works, and don't want to try things, they often seem useless. If you do, they can be extremely debilitating. I guess one possible middle ground would be to just make then not quite as powerful (without sending their accuracy into the basement). Like Silence not lasting forever, or enemies who are affected by it having something that isn't blocked by it.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #6 Monkey-Tamer 2 years ago
    I always wondered why FF4 held up so well for me. I thought it was the nostalgia rose tinted glasses. Great insight on the battles being tailored to the skills of the characters. The problem with only having a few characters in turn based is that it limits the amount of variations that can occur in combat. I still think it can be viable, it just needs to be handled with care. Great episode.
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #7 kevinbowyer34 2 years ago
    Lost Odyessy had one of the best turned based combats of modern games. It felt like it used the format for great dramatic effect. The idle animations and constant focus on the characters (as opposed to many action rpgs where you are looking at someone's backside 90% of the time) really connected me to game. That, Legend of Dragoon, Xenosaga (1 or 3), the original Baten Kaitos.. All felt they really nailed turned based and still kept a tension about them.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #8 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    SE will not remake VS without boning it up, and the combat being an illogical, rote, domesticated, shallower, and slower system being just one victim.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #9 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    I would love to see Final Fantasy return to a more turn based system. I was really hoping they would do that with the FF7 remake: it's the perfect chance to bring it back into the main series. I would love to see beautiful HD graphics married with turn based mechanics, there's absolutely no reason it can't work well, and Final Fantasy is the perfect series to do it with.

    Well, I guess we'll always have Persona.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #10 link6616 2 years ago
    Oh Realmz. I loved that game so so so much. I remember when my brother finally bought the full version and editor and enjoyed it so much.

    If any game needs a retrospective it's that
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #11 JohnnyBarnstorm 2 years ago
    I'm with@Bobservo on this one - I enjoy the ugly polygon look. But at least that means, other than the crappy translation, I'll always have this game to go back to no matter what the remake does.
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  • Avatar for Thad #12 Thad 2 years ago
    I am actually totally onboard with Bob(? I think it was Bob; I listened to it last night so I'm not sure) that the remake would be better off using detailed chibis for the non-battle, non-movie portions of the game than switching to realistically-proportioned characters. I went into this some years back in a blog post titled Final Fantasy 7 and Iconic Images, but the tl;dr is that a bunch of really ludicrous stuff happens in that game and keeping the content but switching the character models would just make it weird.

    (Though I was, at the time, focusing mostly on fan mods; obviously the official HD remake has more leeway in changing the content of the game. But unless they plan on, say, removing Cait Sith entirely, I think my point stands.)
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  • Avatar for pdubb #13 pdubb 2 years ago
    @Monkey-Tamer FF4 holds up well because it is a brisk jRPG that came out before it was mandated that every JRPG has to have 40+ hours of content to get a good score on IGN.

    FF4 has very little bloat. It's melodramatic on a level just short of a Telenova. However, it works for FF4 because by before you can figure out how many times Yang has dramatically come back from the dead, you are already on to the next dungeon or area.

    Also I think people forget how awesome the last say... 3 to 5 hours of FF4 were. It's basically boss rush mode as you fight 9 - 13 bosses and some really tough enemies. But what makes that even better, as Bob said, is that the developers are tailoring those bosses to the skills they know you have.
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  • Avatar for dr134 #14 dr134 2 years ago

    Lost Odyssey does not get the love it deserves. Really good game.
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  • Avatar for sylvan #15 sylvan 2 years ago
    @kevinbowyer34 I really enjoyed the combat in Lost Oddysey. I feel that was a really under-appreciated 7th gen JRPG.

    I love that you mention Legend of the dragoon. That was kind of a throw away JRPG that came out in the very peak of their popularity, but I actually remember liking it and playing it all the way through. I did like the combat; it was like a combination of turn-based, power ups, and QTE button pressing thrown in. Pretty fun, and novel at the time.
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  • Avatar for ToiletAndBowels #16 ToiletAndBowels 2 years ago
    It's a bit old to count as recent but Temple of Elemental Evil is a Western RPG with great turn-based combat. Imagine something along the lines of a Baldur's Gate bunfight conducted through a Final Fantasy Tactics style battle system. Check it out!
    Also, glad to hear someone talk sense about FF9, I tried replaying it a few years ago and couldn't take it. The first hour of the game requires nothing more of the player than the ability to press one button. Also the random battles are a drag, after what feels like a minute of the camera swooping around to let you know it's a crazy exciting battle all you need to do is hammer X for 5 seconds and the fight is over. Lovely art design in the towns and cities though.
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