One of my all-time favorite RPG battle systems is the one found in Grandia—more specifically, Grandia II for the Dreamcast.
For me at least, the Grandia battle system has it all. It moves at a fast enough pace to stay interesting; it's not based on random encounters, and it strikes a really nice balance between magic and more basic attacks. Very few RPGs nail every one of those aspects. Some don't hit on any of them.
What really set Grandia apart though was the influence it let me have over turn management. During a battle, a small gauge in the corner shows the progress of both enemies and allies before they get a turn. At a certain point on that gauge, they will begin charging an attack, which is the optimal time to strike and interrupt them, which sends them all the way to the end of the line. It's a mechanic that brings with it a really nice element of risk and reward; and brings with it a degree of tension as well, as I constantly found myself sweating out moments where it looked like a boss would get off an ultimate attack before being interrupted at the very last moment.
Since Grandia II, a few games have picked up on this idea, with varying degrees of success. Up until this point, one of my favorite examples was Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 3, which mixed elements of the Grandia and Final Fantasy XIII battle engine to create encounters that played almost like puzzles. But recently, I was surprised and delighted to find a variation on the Grandia approach that I liked even better—Child of Light, the new Ubisoft RPG that was recently released across all of the major consoles as well as the PC.
Child of Light's system is much the same as Grandia's, but with a few key differences. Traveling with Aurora—a girl who has seemingly fallen into a dream world after going into a coma—is a tiny firefly named Igniculus, which has the power to blind foes by hovering them, dramatically slowing the time to their next turn. Conversely, Igniculus can hover over Aurora and her allies, slowly recharging their life with its healing light. Igniculus can't abuse the mechanic for too long though, because its light will eventually be drained of energy and must be recharged.
I find this mechanic fascinating because it adds an additional element of agency to the time bar. In Grandia II, I could always buff my speed or slow my enemies, but otherwise hitting on an interrupt was partly a matter of luck. Sometimes, a boss would get an ultimate off no matter what I did, at which point I was pretty much screwed. I ran into this quite a bit with the second to last boss in Grandia II—a real bastard that could sometimes get off multiple ultimates before I had even had a turn.
That element of luck isn't completely gone from Child from Light, but I like that I have some degree of agency when it comes to the time bar. More importantly, it forces me to make interesting decisions, which is the crux of any good RPG. When I was streaming Child of Light last week, one of my viewers chimed in to suggest that it was always better to heal Aurora than to slow enemies. A polite debate followed over the chat, with each side raising valid points. For my part, I found that it was usually better to slow enemies as much as possible, since it sometimes meant that they wouldn't get an opportunity to strike at all. If I ever found myself in trouble, I could quickly shift Igniculus from interrupt duty to healing duty.
I've since found that this enhances Child of Light's rhythm, particularly the boss encounters. Sometimes that rhythm goes my way, and I'm able to get enemies into a cycle where they are constantly being interrupted. Other times, the rhythm goes the way of my enemies, and I'm forced to scramble to find the beat again as they pound me with powerful attacks. Like any good RPG, Child of Light enhances that rhythm with both passive and active buffs that have the power to shift the advantage to one side or another. Naturally, speed is one of the more powerful buffs on the enemy side, which partially negates the healing advantages on my side. With those abilities in play, the battles become kind of a cat-and-mouse game as both sides attempt to gain the initiative on the other. If Ubisoft Montreal had the mind to, I'd bet they could make Child of Light one hell of a competitive multiplayer RPG.
Admittedly, I haven't made that much progress through Child of Light. But I'm far enough, at least, to have gotten a taste of the more aspects of the battle system. I've unlocked some of the better spells; I have party members now, and even some of the basic encounters are starting to push me a bit (but just a bit). It's readily apparent that Child of Light has a quality battle system—maybe the best I've seen since Persona 4 Golden. If there's anything that concerns me about Child of Light, it may be that it's a shade too easy. Already, healing and protection abilities abound, making it easy for me to get back on my feet even after a particularly powerful attack. I've seen signs that the enemies will get more powerful as the game goes on; but with a tool as powerful as Igniculus, I wonder if they would have a chance.
Regardless, even if Child of Light is ultimately on the easy side, it's a relatively minor quibble. It's apparent to me that Child of Light is a marvelous RPG. It takes everything that I liked about Costume Quest—the whimsy, the art direction, and the exploration—and enhances it, with the dramatically improved battle system being the cherry on top. It gives lie to the assertion that turn-based RPGs are too old and inflexible to be successful anymore. It's been a pleasure to play, and I'm delighted to see Ubisoft Montreal pick up the baton where Square Enix and other Japanese developers left it and push the sub-genre to the next level.
More importantly, it shows that some JRPGs are hardly outdated. That Ubisoft Montreal was able to take some of the ideas found in Grandia—even if it was coincidental—and build a really good RPG out of them is a testament to how forward-thinking that battle system was even in the late 90s. We may well have to welcome our new action RPG overlords one day; but as Child of Light shows, that day is not today.