Bravely Default characters

The 6 Most Innovative Turn-Based Combat Systems in RPGs

When you talk to RPG enthusiasts, you’ll often hear them say, “I play RPGs for their stories.” I’m not entirely outside that camp, though I feel gameplay in RPGs is very important. (That’s why it is, you know, a GAME.) Part of the criticism leveled against RPGs is that the battle systems are all too similar and therefore there’s nothing to look for in the gameplay. It is true that the mjaority of RPGs borrow from the turn-based system, but it is by no means true that there is no innovation in the genre. To prove my point, let us look at some of the turn-based combat systems that changed the face of RPGs.

Final Fantasy III

Final Fantasy III Android

We’ll begin with perhaps the most obvious (and one of the earliest) role-playing games. Though the original Final Fantasy had a job system of sorts, it merely had the player select the characters’ jobs at the beginning of the game and you were stuck with your choices. Final Fantasy III made the revolutionary change of allowing characters the freedom to change a character’s class (or job) freely throughout the game. This twist on the original’s formula was dubbed the “job class system,” and it revolutionized the series.

The most notable influences include various Final Fantasy titles, including VTacticsXIXIII, and XIV, as well as the acclaimed 3DS title, Bravely DefaultFinal Fantasy Tactics, in particular, took the job class system to a new level by including it in its strategy motif. In addition to equipping a secondary ability on each character respective to a particular class’s skill (example: “white magick” for a white mage), players could equip reactive abilities, passive abilities, and movement abilities that could only be obtained through specific class’s abilities. It added a much-needed layer to what is already considered one of the greatest combat systems in JRPG history.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

SuperMarioRPG Castle

A joint effort between Nintendo and Squaresoft (as Square Enix was known in its heyday), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars took a brilliant twist on turn-based combat and platforming by introducing the conditional turn-based (CTB) battle system, with an emphasis on timed attacks. Eschewing an active time battle (ATB) gauge, players took turns in a much simpler format, though a layer of challenge was added with timed attacks—pressing a corresponding button at the correct moment after a player has input an attack command but before the character has completed the attack.

Obviously, this battle system has provided the basis for the entire Mario RPG sub-franchise (Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi), but shades of the combat can also be found in Final Fantasy VIII (where players timed Squall’s attacks for extra damage with the gunblade) and Final Fantasy X, which revived the conditional turn-based battle system, albeit with a bit more polish and complexity.


Grandia battle

While perhaps overshadowed by its little brother, Grandia succeeded in innovating turn-based combat in its own way. Providing an additional element of strategy, Grandia saw all players advancing on a uniform time bar until reaching a point where players were able to input commands, after which they enter the “charge” phase. If the character is unable to reach the end of the bar before s/he is attacked, the attack is negated.

Perhaps the best example of its influence is on the recently released Child of Light. Taking the strategy a step further, Child of Light added a lively sprite named Igniculus who, when used against an enemy, would slow them down, or when used on an ally, would slowly recover health. When to do which greatly depended on player preference and could alter with situations, but it was a tremendous amount of fun either way!

Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together

Tactics Ogre battle

Though by no means the first Strategy RPG (SRPG), Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together has become something of the norm for the SRPG genre. Expanding greatly on the combat system of Ogre Battle: The March of the Black QueenTactics Ogre utilized an isometric view where characters are assigned classes and move along on a grid to attack enemy units. Characters move individually, breaking the familiar trend of parties acting together.

Like Final Fantasy IIITactics Ogre greatly influenced Final Fantasy Tactics, which may have more in common with the latter series than the former. In turn, the entire Tactics sub-series was influenced, and even other SRPGs, like Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, used Tactics Ogre as a basis.


pokemon red

Some may not think of the combat in Pokemon as particularly innovative, but when use the term loosely, the franchise is one of the most influential. Sure, the battles themselves are pretty routine, involving standard turn-based mechanics. However, a major factor involved in combat is weakening and capturing enemy monsters (Pokemon) to add them to your ever-growing army of evolving beasts. It was an addicting system that has kept players hooked nearly twenty years later.

Pokemon may have not been the first game to feature monster recruiting, but since its release many monster-recruiting systems have mimicked Pokemon’s evolving mechanic. Perhaps the most recent example is Ni No Kuni, whose battle system relied heavily on recruiting and evolving monsters to fight for the main characters.

Bravely Default

Bravely Default battle

Yes, I mentioned Bravely Default as drawing inspiration from another game (Final Fantasy III), its battle system involved so much more than Square Enix’s precious job class system. The title of the game stems from its option to “default” or “brave” in battle. Allowing the player much more control over the pace of battles, Bravely Default’s system allows players to store battle points (default) and later unleash a string of powerful attacks (brave). This also added a much welcome later of tactical planning.

As for what it’s influenced? Well, its own sequel, Bravely Second, I’m sure. Beyond that, I’m sure we’ll see other JRPGs attempt to tweak this game’s brilliant battle system with their own flavor of innovation.

To list all the innovations in RPG combat would take far too long, but these are some of my favorites! Feel free to share your opinions!

There are 4 comments

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  1. RogueWatson

    Needs more CRPGs. Or any for that matter. I do agree with Pokémon, amazing how effective that combat system has been over the last 15 years despite being incredibly simplistic.

  2. DaveLanders

    I would add the combo system in Chrono Trigger. That was pretty amazing and added some serious complexity with party formation.

  3. Stephen Pollard

    I haven’t played any CRPGs, which is why you don’t see any on here. Which ones would you say were the most innovative?

  4. Stephen Pollard

    I had considered it, but I felt others were a bit more influential. I could see where you’d point to future RPGs and say they took a page out of Trigger’s playbook, though. I guess since Bravely Default made it, too, there’s no reason Chrono Trigger couldn’t have made it, too. It was a great game!

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