The Introduction of the Active Battle and the Decline of Turn-Based Combat
On March 16, 2006, Final Fantasy XII was released to a Japanese public expecting greatness. In the first week, one and three quarter million copies were sold in Japan, rising to 2.1 million by the fifth week. A week into its North American release, one and one half million copies had been sold on that continent. Final Fantasy XII went on to become the world's fourth-best selling PlayStation 2 game for 2006. It became the sixth game in history to receive a perfect score of 40/40 from Famitsu--and the first PlayStation 2 title to do so. The success of the game, and its popularity, seem beyond doubt.
Amongst the many innovations lauded by the press was the evolution of the battle system. Seamless transitions and a gambit system made the battle truly 'active' in a way which had not been seen before. Yet, this evolution did not occur in a vacuum--it was the result of years of progress and advances in gameplay which spanned many generations of consoles. How innovative was this shift? If it was the result of years of slow progress, was it as substantial as has been claimed? Or, was it rather the result of trends in the industry, effects of which can be seen to varying degrees in nearly all modern roleplaying games?
Final Fantasy, released in North America in 1987, is the definitive example of a turn-based menu-driven RPG. Much like D&D, on every turn each player and each monster are allowed to act. The order of these actions is affected by the speed statistic of the creature. When all the units have acted, the turn ends, and the player enters their commands for the next turn. In this way battles are played out in all three of the Final Fantasy incarnations released on the NES. Other games of the period implemented the same one-action-per-turn system.
By the time the Super Nintendo was released, Square was ready to edge away from the strictly turn-based system they had established in the first three iterations of the series. It may surprise some fans of Final Fantasy XII to know that the advent of the active battle system took place in Final Fantasy IV. For the first time, the battle would continue whether the player had finished entering character commands or not. Now, character speed affected the speed with which the character would be 'ready' for another action. If the player were to set the controller down, the monsters would continue to attack. No longer were characters and players constrained to one action per round--indeed, the entire idea of a 'round' had been eliminated.
In many ways, this system of turns remained fundamentally unchanged even through Final Fantasy XII. This is where the claims of innovation seem a bit grand, for the battle system in Final Fantasy XII, despite being transitionless is, roughly, the same system. The major change which has taken place is a small one. Characters who are ordered to attack will now continue to do so repeatedly until given another command. In all other ways, the flow of time in battle has not changed. There are aesthetic changes, options to automate character actions (gambits), reduced reliance upon menus, and character movement in the field--but as regards the flow of time and the occurrence of turns in battle, Final Fantasy XII is no different from Final Fantasy IV.
The flow of time and the occurrence of turns may be mechanically the same, but the speed at which those turns come and the degree of constant player interaction has surely increased. This is a trend seen throughout the industry. Modern gamers may well find the battles of the original Final Fantasy slow and tedious. One needs only to look at the progression of the series to see the attitude of the genre as a whole in microcosm. With each iteration, the speed seems to increase. In a development environment where action is highly desirable, RPGs are adapting to meet consumer demand. But is this innovation or self-preservation?
The recent release of Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360 provides an excellent example of what can happen when these expectations for speed and action are not met. Though widely praised for its storyline and content, Blue Dragon fell afoul of some reviewers for the pace of its battles. For in Blue Dragon, battles take place in the 'rounds' of action typical of earlier RPGs. Commands are entered, action takes place, and the cycle begins again. It must be said that these events take place much more quickly than in the original Final Fantasy (or even any of its updated re-releases), but they apparently still do not take place quickly enough for professional reviewers.
Is it therefore practical to continue using the round-based turn system? If so, it is hard to see how it can be implemented without frustrating a significant portion of the user base. With that in mind, the 'active' battle seems less of an innovation and more of a necessity in the fast-paced world of modern RPGs. Facing a difficult development environment of high expectations, corporate budgets, and release dates, it is easy to see why a developer might try to mitigate the options for negative press. If there is an option for a fast-paced active system, why not employ it?
As the release of Blue Dragon shows, the wholly turn-based battle system is not yet dead. But, with each passing year, it becomes increasingly relegated to an earlier time. The 'round'-driven combat flow has begun to show its age. With conditions as they are, with gamers hungry for increasingly immersive, active content, this trend seems unlikely to change. For better or for worse it may well be the case that for turn-based combat, time has run out.