A whole three in fact!
Turn-based gameplay has certainly fallen from the limelight over the generations, and for me, my relationship with it has not always been favourable. I know that every genre has its good, mediocre and awful, but I always run into the same issues with turn-based games time and time again. One of those problems is the unbearable runtime, with Persona 5 being a great example of a game that you could easily cut in half and get a far more palatable experience. Instead, you are plagued by identical hallways, with identical enemies, that you dispatch with identical tactics. Dungeons felt like battles of attrition that grated more and more on my patience the further I progressed. I mean holy hell, going through Shido’s palace was like breaking a brick wall down with a spoon.
And then you get the Bravely Default 2 demo, which illustrates my other gripe perfectly: the insane difficulty spikes. It started fine as these things tend to do, I gained XP, learnt abilities, amassed gold for new equipment, and was having fun. Then I decided to explore some nearby ruins I was being pointed to by my quest marker…and proceeded to get absolutely destroyed. “Oh, no no no no,” said the game, as it made its intentions clear that I would have to do some grinding before I could even stand a chance. And yes, I know that the demo was made harder, but for what purpose, so I would need to grind more? If we have an option to speed up battles, perhaps the developer should consider why people want to rush through them in the first place.
So what are some good turn-based games? Well, Into the Breach for starters, which focuses on offering short but hugely repayable bursts of strategic mech vs. bug action. Contrary to developer Subset Games’ previous game, Into the Breach cuts out the ambiguity pretty much completely. You’ll always know what the outcome of an action will be, but to make things interesting, every action comes with a difficult choice – especially when battles start to get more complex. Do you deal damage to the Vek directly to finish them off quick, or do you use your mech to block an emerging Vek to keep their numbers low, or do you use your mech to shield a building full of civilians? These options keep you constantly guessing, and due to the overwhelming number of Vek that can appear, sacrifices will need to be made.
So while you know the immediate consequences of your decision, a win is never a certainty. Even on the standard difficulty, the Vek are surprisingly adept at working themselves into positions that can give you a real headache. Such as when the bastards blocked one of my mechs into a corner, reducing my freedom to attack. I’ve seen Into the Breach get compared to chess, and I can definitely see that since the key of the game is to outmanoeuvre the enemy. And these intense battles matched with its brevity make Into the Breach a wonderfully addictive game.
Moving on to a game for people who hate themselves: Darkest Dungeon provides some of the most stress-inducing turn-based battles I’ve ever come across – both for you and your party of heroes. Even if you’ve never played Darkest Dungeon, I’m sure you know of its stress meter. As you push through all manner of mind-breaking horrors, your party begins to slowly lose their grip on their mental faculties. Left untreated, they’ll start attacking at random, or start attacking each other, or just cower in fear. But unlike in Persona 5 where running out of SP (Persona’s magic currency) pretty much meant you had to return back to base, Darkest Dungeon allows you to make the choice to carry on despite the odds.
And choices make this game shine, because everything needs to be weighed and considered. You have to decide on the most effective team composition, decide on who has the best quirks for the area you're going to, decide on how many supplies you want to take and how much space you want to leave for treasure – and this is all before you even enter the dungeon. Inside you’ll have to make the call on whether you’re going to take out the enemy that does the most damage, the enemy that can stun you, the enemy that causes the most stress and so on. It places an importance on the choices you make, because a bad one can have serious ramifications. The random nature of the game can also be its greatest positive and its greatest negative, but these moments of unexpected disaster can make for some truly exciting fights. And if Darkest Dungeon isn’t playing on your anxiety, then it isn’t doing its job.
Lastly, Paper Mario, which unlike a lot of JRPGs, can be completed in the very reasonable time of just over 20 hours. And unlike Into the Breach and Darkest Dungeon, Paper Mario isn’t exactly going to have you sweating the consequences on whether to stomp on the Goomba, or to stomp on the Koopa. However, it is going to win you over with its effortless charm and its simple yet satisfying turn-based combat. While not the hardest game ever conceived, I never felt like it was a necessity to grind in Paper Mario either. There are optional bosses which can prove tough, but these give you plenty of warning before attacking. You can pretty much see a mile off that Anti Guy will wreak your shit if you aren’t careful, for instance. The whole experience is so smooth that I could easily boot up my N64 for another play-through.
The turn-based mechanics cheat a little by rewarding well-timed button presses with extra damage, but I would say it is a decision that enhances player engagement without sacrificing strategy. Turn-based gameplay has had a rocky partnership when it comes to real-time elements being mixed in. Such games as Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch ended up with an absolute mess of a combat system. It bounced between both extremes where you could either get stun-locked to death before you could even make a move, or the enemy could try in vain to hit you as you gleefully ran around the arena. Paper Mario’s attempt to liven up turn-based combat might seem gimmicky, but sometimes a gimmick or two is appreciated, and it arguably adds a layer of skill as you are required to time each hit.
As I look back on why I put some turn-based games over others, the good ones either place a huge importance on the choices you make, or don’t pad out the runtime with mind-numbing grinding. Persona 5 and Bravely Default 2 actually have fun combat mechanics, but that fun only lasts up to a certain point. It is quite evident that people delight in the grind, and I guess there is a comforting familiarity to be found, I had the same experience with the decent-but-not-spectacular Driveclub. But for me, a game that lasts a 100 hours is like eating an entire cake: probably not worth it in the long run.