Friday, October 28, 2016

The Great PokeClone-Off Part 3: Combat

When you go to visit the Mona Lisa, you may notice they don’t react kindly towards your attempts at rotating the painting, plugging it into a wall charger or smooshing Poffins all over her face. As was explained to me by an unusually patient police officer, this is because the Mona Lisa is not a video game. Through rigorous abuse of the term “scientific method”, I’ve done some testing and confirmed that:

1. Some things are not video games.
2. Video games are different from other things.

I’m planning on writing my thesis on this one: 3. Video games are things you can play. And the first thing you think of when you hear the word play? Murder. So it’s high time we broke down the “playing a game” aspect of these video games, starting with the part where you physically harm others to become successful. These gameplay sections will be worth extra points, because horrific violence is inherently hilarious. Or because it’s a big part of the experience, if you’re feeling boring and accurate.

Gameplay (Combat) – 15 points

Pokemon Pearl

If you somehow stumbled into this obscure blog post without knowing how Pokemon combat works, allow me to give a quick, skippable paragraph of explanation: Pokemon is a traditional turn-based RPG. RPG stands for Role-Playing Game, and is derived from the stat-based gameplay of tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. You have a set list of attacks you can perform, and once selected you and your enemy use those attacks one after starting with whoever is faster. When a combatant has their HP* reduced to 0, they are defeated. When you win a fight, you gain experience points. Enough experience causes you to ascend to a higher level, which increases the statistics that govern battle performance (like HP, Attack and Defense).

*Hit Points or Health Points, depending on the game

There’s a growing contingent of people in recent years who say turn-based combat is dying. It’s a dull outmoded relic, it was never good to begin with, we just put up with it for the games attached to it, etcetera etcetera. To be fair, there are legitimate issues and trade-offs with turn-based combat. That being said? Pokemon is a gigantic middle finger to that argument. The writing in Pokemon games (which we’ll get to) is…passable. It’s inoffensive but barely there in the first place, so it can’t be used as the “real reason you like the game” like with so many other turn-based RPGs.

“What?! I play it for the story!”

The core appeal of these games has always been purely mechanical. So how does Pokemon take a style of game typically seen as boring and make it appeal to multiple generations of kids and adults alike? Part of it is that turn-based combat is better than some shrieking internet commenters would have you believe. But the other parts? There’s a (magne)ton to unpack here. So much that we’re going to take it point by point.

Pokemon is easy to understand.

A certain amount of depth is required in turn-based RPGs. These games have completely discarded the skill-based* aspect of play. Tactical management and decision making need to pick up the slack. In their attempts to address this, a number of RPGs forget an important fact: complexity does not equal depth. Unless a system can produce a clear change in player behavior, that system is worthless. The value of a given system depends on how favorable its ratio is for complexity versus depth.

*Skill-based might not be the best term. Tactical thinking is a skill. I just needed a quick way to say “aspect of play comprised of reflexes, timing, real-time decision making and physical execution of tasks” without taking too long. But now I’ve had to take even longer explaining that. And longer still lampshade-ing my explanation.

Allow me to give an example: Magical Lands of Fantastical Magic IV introduces a new sword polishing mechanic. Killing enemies will bestow you with alchemical components, which you can take to the polish store, which will rank you up within several different trainers of polishmancy. The trainers allow you to slowly unlock skills within several different disciplines of polishing by performing quests for the polishing guild. After achieving one of the many polishing doctorate degrees, you can then begin crafting your own sword polish. This requires choosing the correct alchemical apparatus for your recipe, ensuring that you’re using the right blend of ingredients, flavoring to taste, accounting for the correct phase of the moon, and performing a three-stage sword polishing mini-game. The end result will imbue your blade with a 5% increase in damage against certain monster types, but not if they’re also certain elemental types, and for a limited duration, and only on even numbered days of the month.

I had too much fun exaggerating, so people may come away from this with the wrong idea. That complexity exists isn’t the problem here. Systems create complexity by nature, they are complexity. The problem is that the more difficult the system and the smaller the benefit, the less likely anyone will care. Significant effort should yield significant results, and everyone has a maximum threshold of complexity that they simply won’t bother with. So let’s bring this back to Pokemon.

Pokemon is remarkably simple for the amount of depth the system has. Battles are kept one-on-one. Every Pokemon has a type, every attack has a type, and certain attacking types deal double or half damage against certain defending types. That’s it. The type system is drastic, simple and all-encompassing. It’s drastic because the numbers are large, simple because the numbers are round and easy to follow, and all-encompassing because it affects everything. Every single time you deal damage, you must consult this mechanic. Every time you encounter a new foe, you must consult this mechanic. Every time you learn a new attack, every time you add a new member to your team. You are never not thinking about type advantages.

“Honey, do you love me?”
“Scizor can learn Superpower through the move tutor.”
“What does that have to do with anything?!”
“Uh…b-because it provides Scizor needed coverage against steel types since it can’t learn fire or ground moves?”
“Well shit, I can’t argue with that. Guess we have to get married now!”

The other systems in the game aren’t quite a simple, but still get a lot of depth for their level of complexity. The attack power for moves is kept to clean increments of 5, all between 20 and 150. Certain moves temporarily boost or lower a stat, again in tidy 50% increments. Conscious effort is made to provide all the important information to the player. You know exactly what your stats are, what type you are, what level you and your enemy are, and what the exact accuracy and base power of your attacks are. Effort is also made so that all effects in the game are clear and noticeable. There are no 2% increases in Pokemon.

On top of everything else, the game is designed so that even these simple systems can be ignored. Being an RPG where you can level up and opponents can’t, you can grind* until your numbers are big enough to brute force any problem. In similar fashion, you can grind enough cash to buy tons of healing items. With enough healing and a high enough level, nothing can stop you. This allows even very young children to get through the game with determination, keeping the barrier of entry very low.

*Perform repeated activities (fights) to earn experience

But if those children were to make it into multiplayer battles or the post-credits battle arenas, they’d be in for a shock. Here, all levels are equalized and healing items are disabled, and it becomes apparent…

Pokemon is difficult to master.

Pokemon has a huge amount of tactical depth. You choose from a pool of several hundred characters with differing stats and types. There are over five hundred moves out there, and though no Pokemon can learn all of them, most have access to around fifty or a hundred of the things. You choose four. Some moves cause status ailments like poison which damages slowly over time. Some moves grant positive effects to the user. Some moves cause field effects like weather that enhances certain types of attack, barriers that reduce a certain type of damage, hazards that damage Pokemon when they switch in and more. Each Pokemon has a passive ability with unique effects, some of them quite valuable. You can train your Pokemon in certain ways to boost specific stats. You can breed Pokemon with ones in the same egg group to inherit particular moves and stats. Every Pokemon can hold one item that can confer all manner of passive bonuses.

For example, the item Leftovers gradually heals all wounds and can be eaten an infinite number of times, because this is a universe without REAL PROBLEMS.

All these new mechanics and elaborations on existing ones can be completely ignored in the single-player campaign. Only when you’re ready to compete with others or tackle the games toughest challenges does this depth reveal itself to you. And all of this I just mentioned? You need to consider it for any possible combination of six different party members and how their strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Have fun with that.

Pokemon is customizable and personal.

This is the most unique thing about Pokemon. The huge amount of potential party members and moves they can use creates an insane amount of choice and variety. But it’s such an important part of the games that it’s getting its own category later, so I’ll shelve discussing it for the moment.


So now that I’ve laid the groundwork on why Pokemon is such a great combat system, there’s an obvious follow-up: What does this specific game add? Like other Pokemon games, Pearl keeps the basic combat system mostly unchanged and simply adds more creatures and moves. But there are two major changes, one positive and negative, worth noting.

Pokemon Pearl split types of attack.

There are two types of attacking stat in the Pokemon games: Attack and Special Attack. There are also two corresponding types of defensive stats: Defense and Special Defense. This adds a layer of strategy by giving multiple avenues of attack to consider. Many Pokemon are good at one specific type of attack or defense, and that needs to be taken into account to get the most bang for your bash. Prior to Pokemon Pearl, whether an attack was physical or special depended entirely on its type. For example, all Fire type moves were special attacks, and all Fighting type moves were physical attacks.

There were several issues with this system. It was another thing to memorize on top of the usual type chart, and memorization was key due to a couple bizarre types (Ghost type deals physical damage???). It also limited the tactical options you could present a user. You couldn’t choose between two attacks of the same type targeting different defenses. Since Pokemon gain a 50% Same-Type-Attack-Bonus (STAB, as it’s called), it limited the diversity of builds for that Pokemon. For example, a Fire type Pokemon would always be best as a special attacker, since Fire is a special type. This also mean that Pokemon with the wrong type of attack were objectively bad.

Example: Kingler is a Water type Pokemon, and Water is a special type. Kingler had great physical attack but poor special attack, so his OWN SIGNATURE MOVE that ONLY HE could learn was objectively bad for him to use.

Then these games came along and fixed all that. Now every move is individually assigned as either a physical or special move. This means that no more Pokemon with blatantly “wrong” stats, and Pokemon with equal attacking stats can be specialized in whichever direction you wish. It adds a small but significant layer of strategy to building your team, choosing your moves, and deciding what’s best to attack an individual opponent. The combat wasn’t bad before this change, but I’d call this a definite improvement. I’d also say there hasn’t been a more significant improvement made since.

Mechanically speaking, generation 6 made some nice changes. But most felt like additions tacked on to the combat rather than improvements of what was already there. Generation 5 added…basically nothing.

So that’s the major improvement Pearl brings to the combat. What’s the major flaw?

Pokemon Pearl is   e x t r e m e l y   s l o w .

This one is pretty simple to understand. Combat moves slower in Pokemon Pearl. Messages take longer to move through, attack animations are generally longer, and there’s just that little extra half-second delay between every single thing that happens. It’s not the end of the world. You might not even notice it in an individual fight. But over hours of random battles and trainer fights it adds up, and it gets annoying once you’re conscious of it. Based on the incredibly laborious and precise research of “watching a few videos and eyeballing it”, I’d say that the battles in Pearl are 23.67934% slower than the average Pokemon game. Y’know. Roughly.

This is annoying, and I’m glad things sped up in subsequent games. But I also really like the physical/special split, and don’t think mechanical changes of later generations are as massive. For these reasons, I’d say Pokemon Pearl rounds out to a combat system of One Full Pokemon. It’s dead average for the series, which is still pretty dang good.

 Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker

If you’ve played a turn-based RPG, you’ve played Dragon Quest. Its combat system was a fairly standard example when it released in the mid-80s. Unlike other series like Final Fantasy, it’s changed very little since then. You have three monsters on your side of the field and enemies on the other. You take turns whacking each other or using special moves and spells at the cost of MP (Magic Points). And that’s it! I can’t even spend a full paragraph describing this system.

I couldn’t spend much effort getting an image for it either.

That isn’t to say it’s a bad system. Having multiple party members on your side of the field allows them to use various abilities to support one another, and having multiple enemies encourages prioritizing targets and allows for moves that effect several targets. Dragon Quest, much like Pokemon, also operates on lower numbers than normal for the genre. When games have you dishing out numbers in the hundreds of thousands it’s hard to make calculations and see how changes affect things. When you start out Joker you’re dealing single digit damage numbers. It’s unlikely you’ll see triple digits until the end is nigh, if at all. It’s very easy to follow how much damage you’re doing, which is useful for planning attacks.

But there are definitely downsides. Like many RPGs, DQM will have you spamming the standard attack 90% of the time. You don’t want to waste your limited pool of special moves on regular enemies. In Pokemon, there is no standard attack. In Pokemon, every move has a type with pros and cons to consider. DQM does allow you to equip weapons with advantages against certain types of monsters. But you can only have advantage against one type at a time, only certain weapons have these advantages, and the damage bonus is usually underwhelming. I say “usually” because the bonus isn’t even consistent, it varies wildly depending on the specific weapon and they don’t tell you what it is. On top of that, there’s no tactical decision beyond equipping the weapon. Unlike Pokemon, there’s no alternative to weigh. Either every attack deals bonus damage or none do.

So normal combat is kind of mindless, but what about boss battles? Well, the bad news is that boss battles are just high-ranking monsters you can obtain in game, but with increased health. The worse news is that this means they have no interesting abilities. They mostly just deal damage, deal extra damage, or, if they’re feeling particularly daring, deal damage to multiple targets.  The enemy AI is similarly uninspired. It felt like moves are selected more or less at random. The result is, well…not good.

In MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, there’s a frequently used term called a “rotation”. It’s a certain combination of abilities that you use over and over to maximize efficiency. An example would be something like Raise Defense->Attack->Heal->Attack->Repeat. This is the sad fate of old, standard RPGs such as DQM. Even MMOs, which are often criticized for bland combat, have the advantage of an unpredictable social aspect. In DQM you treat every boss the same way. They don’t have any unusual abilities or mechanics to change player behavior, and there aren’t tactics inherent to every move like with Pokemon types.

The default fight option doesn’t even let you select commands. You have to select “Give Orders” unless you want monsters to spam whatever tactic you assigned them. Whew, was worried I’d have to think during these dozens of hours battling!

So you figure out the best combination of moves at your disposal and use them over and over. Sometimes extra damage here or there requires a heal spell, an item or some other act of predictable maintenance. Beyond that it’s smooth sailing. It doesn’t matter how much strategy needs to be put into building your rotation (not much), it gets stale in the long run. There are worse combat systems out there, but there are also certainly better. 3/5ths of a Pokemon.

Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals

Spectrobes is the only of these three competitors, as well as the only PokeClone I can even think of, that has real time action combat. This is unique enough that it’s a definite strength for the game. However, when you get down to execution it also proves to be...the opposite of a strength. An unstrength, as I believe they are called in academic circles.

Let’s start with the good stuff. An action game with over a hundred collectible fighters is an inherently fun idea. It’s enjoyable to acquire a new Spectrobe and try it out, because there are definite differences between them. Each Spectrobe has differing speed and a unique attack. Some are ranged projectiles or several hit combos you can break out of when you wish. The area of effect on attacks also varies, with some striking all around you, in narrow ranges, or lunging forward.

You can dodge quickly in any direction to avoid attacks, which adds some basic timing and depth to the combat. There’s also a special meter you fill up by damaging enemies. When it fills up, you can either do a special area attack that hits the whole arena or a special attack specific to that Spectrobe. The individually unique specials are built in the same style as normal attacks (melee attacks, ranged attacks or charging attacks) but are more powerful, flashy and fun to use. You send in two Spectrobes at once, so there’s strategy in finding two that work well together, or which ones the AI companion is better at handling. A full special meter can also revive a fallen companion, so there’s tactical value to rationing it or playing defensively.

So who’da thought, Spectrobes is capable of generating actual joy. But this is still Spectrobes we’re talking about, and there are reasons this collectible action-RPG premise hasn’t been attempted elsewhere. Let’s talk downsides. Movement often feels sluggish. This is somewhat intentional, as the speed of the various Spectrobes also applies to the swiftness of their dodge maneuver. But this means a sufficiently speedy opponent can chase, strike and flee over and over without any fear of counter-attack.

It’s like how in fighting games casual players have much more difficulty with slow characters, because small and fast ones can just spam some difficult-to-stop move over and over and DAMNIT MATT TALIM IS BULLSHIT!

There’s a term in gaming known as “stunlock”. When someone is stunlocked, they’re caught in an infinite loop of being hit by attacks, their recovery period too long for them to do anything about it. For all the potential strategy and depth Spectrobes could’ve had, this is what it ends up being. You chase down an enemy with a quick attack ready, then press the button over and over, possibly while holding forward to walk towards them in between blows. And if you don’t take advantage of this, your opponent may turn the tables. The AI is dumb as bricks, and mostly just walks towards you and tries to hit you. It does so with slight pauses so that players can get out, but with multiple opponents you can end up a battered ping-pong ball served back and forth with no chance of retaliation. In this world, it’s stunlock or be stunlocked.

Ranged attackers take far more hits to kill anything and can’t stand up to a stiff breeze. The special moves are neat, but the bar for them fills so slowly you’ll never get one in the average fight until you’re a couple hits from victory. At that point it’s often faster to just keep spamming attack, so there’s no benefit from executing a harder to land move. Beyond boss battles, I rode the stunlock express straight to success and never looked back. And really, what else are you going to do? It’s your only attack except for a special every 30 seconds or so, and leaving enemies room to breathe does nothing but make your life more difficult. So for all that potential, only a slight amount of strategy in a half dozen or so boss fights ever actually matters.

Oh, and as mentioned in the first article, the camera sucks.

I’ll give it some points for trying something new and being engaging to learn…until it all falls apart. Spectrobes earns a frankly generous 2/5ths of a Pokemon.

And so concludes the battle of who has the best battles. Pokemon Pearl is perpetually packing in powerful pummelings. Is Spectrobes simply a sorry spectacle? Is Joker just a joke? Are authors awkward when they apply an amazing amount of alliteration? Answers to all these questions can be found next time on The Great PokeClone Off, when we’ll tackle customization and writing. See ya then!

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