Well, it usually is. I mean, let’s be honest here, one of the most praised and loved RPGs ever starts with a bunch of fights that the only thing worth doing is holding down confirm to select attack. I bet you’re not even entirely sure which game I’m talking about. So lets stop for a moment and talk about the biggest opportunity in the entire RPG genre: combat.
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that I briefly flirted with the idea of calling this post “fun rpg combat – a love letter to Panzer Dragoon Saga” so don’t get irritated when I don’t shut up about PDS. As a general rule, combat in RPGs is already impacted by the sad necessity of poor math making tons of combat a must. It’s hard to make any system fun to do endlessly, especially when it rarely involves any actual input. With the vast majority of RPGs making combat pointless beyond being a leveling mechanic (which begs the question why running away doesn’t net experience – it’s an effective method of conflict resolution (of course, so is talking, and that’s almost never an option in jRPGs and certainly not one that grants experience)) it’s no wonder they don’t take time to figure out how to make it fun. They just worry about making it streamlined enough to do absurd amounts of it.
One fundamental flaw assaulting jrpg combat is the issue that almost every fight is about dealing raw damage. Why not make various fights have various objectives relative to what’s currently happening in the story? Even without the smart move of making every fight have a point this can be done. The best solution involves making it possible to resolve conflicts with more than just violence, but lets assume jrpg makers are married to the idea of having combat all the time Sneaking through an enemy base and trying to remain undetected? Give the party maneuvers to lock the enemy down and give the enemies a warm up to trying to escape the fight. You need money. Make stealing more rewarding than killing. Make groups of enemies count as dispatched by just beating the leader, and make it possible to identify the leader based on how the group acts in and out of combat.
I think we should pause here and talk about what Panzer Dragoon Saga did terribly right. Every fight in the game, you get a rating based on how fast you win and how little damage you take. This means that every fight there’s a chance you can do just a little better than you have before. On top of that, they included the ability to move to one of four positions in relation to the enemy (in front, behind, left, right). Some of these positions the enemy can attack you with high power attacks in. Some of these the enemy takes more damage. Some of these the enemy can’t attack you at all. There are even more options, but I think you get the idea. Finally, this is capped off by letting you attack one enemy multiple times, or a large number of enemies once each (but only once each, no matter how few enemies there are). All of these elements are simple, but combined introduce and insane amount of strategy to every fight, along with a reason to try to work as quickly and effectively as possible (did I mention that the post fight rating determines the amount of xp and money you get?). This is about as interesting as jrpg combat can possibly get.
There are tons of ways to make jrpg combat interesting: manipulate the options, the objectives, the clichés. Just please, don’t give me yet another stock Dragon Quest style combat with a million add ons. Some amazing things have happened to action games since the NES, why not some love for RPGs?