For those not aware of the nerdier RPG terms – which let’s be honest, should be everyone – Western RPGs, regardless of the quality of their combat system, tend to have “Trash Mobs”.
Not every combat encounter can be as engaging and challenging as the Boss lurking at the end of the dungeon, the Dragon in the cave, or the androgynous villain who never speaks but is so so super cool. To make up for this, there are Trash Mobs – they’re the group of weak enemies you mop up with ease on your way to the end of the dungeon – the horde that doesn’t require any tactics beyond selecting Attack over and over – the bandits on the road who give no experience, and no worthwhile loot. Trash.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Trash Mobs – they exist for a reason. When used properly they can help the pacing of the game, and also provide a sense of empowerment. When your character is supposed to be a demigod, and you’ve spent hours leveling him up and kitting him out in the best equipment you can buy, it’s nice to see him hit an enemy so hard it literally explodes.
Unfortunately, Trash Mobs can also be abused. Combat in: Planescape, Arcanum, Fallout 3, Dragon Age Origins, Dragon Age Inquisition, Knights of the Old Republic, etc, are all laid low to varying degrees by T-Mobs (Trying that one out, does it work? No? Alright then) Hell, Dragon Age 2 is basically nothing but trash mobs.
Developers sidestep overuse of Trash Mobs by working on encounter design. They’ll throw a varied group of enemies at you that require different tactics to defeat, set up the fight in such a way that you have to think through the battle to succeed, not just click attack a few thousand times. Or they’ll place you in a position of weak terrain, bottle-necked or on low ground, and make you fight from beneath, using your skills and spells to close the gap.
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
This is how you know my blog is classy – I quote Churchill.
No game has perfect encounter design, Aarklash is not the exception: the battles are not staged creatively, you’re not going to see terrain difference, or any interesting wrinkles in the basics of battle. However, the encounter design is better than most(See now how I tie in Churchill!). In a fight you face 7-8 enemies at once, carefully arranged so that you are facing cadre’s with complimentary skills and abilities. Your enemies also use their abilities intelligently, which may not sound like a lot, until you’ve played a game where the AI ignores your weakest character for no reason, fails to use their best skills, or merely marches toward you waiting to die.
Combat in Aarklash is Real Time With Pause. Combat systems in RPG’s tend to be one of three types – Turn-based, Action, or Real Time With Pause.
Turn-based combat consists of distinct turns, each turn the player inputs commands for their characters actions – and depending on the system, the actions are played out after input (Sometimes one character at a time, sometimes all at once) . After input, the individual executes their command(s), and they are done until their next turn. It tends to play out a little different with each game, but those are the basics.
“Action” combat occurs in real-time. All commands you input are 1 to 1, you press a button, your character executes the action.
Real Time With Pause is the middle ground. As the name states, combat occurs in real-time. You don’t have direct control of your character, but you also don’t have the luxury of turns to make decisions, commands are input and then the character acts them out in order in front of you. Tactically you are given the option to pause combat so that you can plan out your commands and adjust based on the results.
Aarklash Legacy has a Real Time With Pause combat system. You have an active party of four members, and each character has four skills of different effect they can use in battle, as well as the option to simply attack an enemy. Your parties skills have a cool down timer (with exceptions), so when you use one skill you have to wait the necessary time before it’s “cooled down” and you can use it again. Your characters also have a Skill/Magic limit, each use of a skill takes points from the limit, and you need a certain amount to execute every skill – the two work in conjunction, you can’t cast spells if you don’t have magic points even if the skill is ready, on the inverse you can’t cast a spell if your cool down timer is ticking regardless of how many magic points you might have. Finally, your party members have a hit point limit – this is your standard hit point concept with one wrinkle, when your characters lose all their hit points, they fall into an “Agony” state at which point you are on the clock to have one of your other members pull them up before their Agony timer runs out – sending a character to revive someone leads to a gauge appearing on-screen. Once this gauge fills up you’ve successfully revived the dying – however if you are attacked at any time during the revival, the gauge resets, and if you can’t fill the gauge up before the Agony timer runs its course, it’s game over, one party member dying ends the game.
This might sound simple on paper (or at least, it should if I explained it well), but each character plays a little differently and they all have quirks that violate the basic rules of battle either through inherent abilities, or their skills. Though you are only given four skills to work with at any one time, you are able to customize them as you level up. Each skill has multiple options – so, for a basic example, you might have a spell that heals one character for 50% of their hit points initially, but with a level up you can choose to increase healing percentage to 60% for one character, or change the skill so it heals all your units for 30%. You can’t do both at any one time, but you are able to adapt your skills to fit your style of play.
That’s a pretty big info dump, and it may not all make sense without some sort of context, so here’s an ideal combat breakdown:
While moving around the dungeon, I run into a group of six enemies. My four person party consists of Knokka, Wendaroo, Nella, and Devlin. The game automatically pauses when the enemy is in sight, and I begin to issue orders.
While paused I examine the enemies. They have two healers and four front line fighters. I target the healers first, otherwise they’ll just continuously heal the front liners, and I’ll be stuck in a Sisyphean loop until they kill me. Nella queues up a lightning bolt on one of the healers – this has a charge time of 5 seconds – I have Devlin sneak around the fighters, and target the other healer. Knokka charges forward and uses her taunt skill – as a result the four fighters are forced to target Knokka and only Knokka, however once taunt is used she can’t move or block their damage, so I keep Wendaroo in reserve to heal her.
Nella hits one of the Healers with a lightning bolt, bringing them close to death. Her inherent ability allows her to use all skills without any cool down, so I cast lightning again, and she begins to charge it. By this time Devlin has closed with the other healer and is a blur of violence. Now that he is engaged, I pause and use one of his skills to increase his rate of attacks, then unpause and watch him go to town.
Knokka is getting pounded, so I use one of her skills to heal herself gradually over time. Her inherent ability means she doesn’t have to use magic points, but every skill she uses takes HP, injuring her. As a result, she’s getting healed gradually, but she’s close to death. Wendaroo throws a “Healing star” which is basically a big shuriken that looks like it would do anything but heal. I’ve upgraded her healing star skill so that it can pass through any player and keep moving – ostensibly this is so I can heal another party member behind her, but in practice sometimes the big ass healing shuriken moves through my unit and heals an enemy – as a result I have to aim carefully to make sure I only heal Knokka.
Meanwhile Devlin’s target is close to death, but he is about to get healed by his comrade who Nella hasn’t yet hit with her lightning bolt. Because of the charge time for Nella’s magic, I can’t switch her over to him and kill him quickly, so I am unable to stop the spell from going off – if I had leveled Nella’s magic skill differently, her lightning bolt would have been instantaneous, but done less damage Luckily Nella kills her target with her lightning bolt, and Devlin is able to kill his target. They move on to the four remaining enemies, and with no healers left, I make short work of the group.
That’s a simplistic, and ideal, take on the combat, but it gives a general sense of how it plays out. To succeed you have to prioritize targets, manage skill times, positions, etc.
I stress, however, that this is an ideal combat scenario, because this game is hard – like Wu-Tang Enter the 36 Chambers, hard. Wurtzite boron nitride hard. I played through on the second hardest difficulty, and I hit the reload button so many times I have callused fingers.
So while my little combat rundown above gives a good general of how combat should play out – I’m going to rewind and show how it actually plays out.
While moving around the dungeon, I run into a group of six enemies. My four person party consists of Knokka, Wendaroo, Nella and Devlin. The game automatically pauses when the enemy is in sight, and I begin to issue orders.
Looking at the enemies on the field, I can tell that they have two healers, a mage, a long distance unit, and two front line fighters. Healing is, again, the priority, so I have Nella get her lightning bolt ready, while Devlin targets the second healer. I set Knokka to taunt the fighters and draw them in, and hold Wendaroo back for healing.
So far, so good, and pretty much the same. Then I unpause, and all hell breaks loose.
Knokka runs forward to taunt, but the mage hits her with an immobilize spell, so she’s out of taunting range, and standing like an idiot, unable to attack.
Now I figure, shit – I should have targeted that mage – so I pause, break Devlin off from his healer and send him after the mage, I leave Nella on the other healer, and satisfied with my new orders, I unpause, and figure this wrinkle will iron out.
Except then the two fighters – who are not taunted, because Knokka is stuck with her hammer pants flapping in the wind – are free to target whoever they want. They charge Wendaroo. Wendaroo might have great healing skills, and boundless sex appeal, but she’s ass at fighting, so I direct her to turn tail(HA, tail, get it? Cause she’s a dog.) and run while I pull Devlin and Nella off their targets to try to kill the fighters before they can put down my doggy friend. Knokka is still frozen. The healers are standing back completely untouched, the long distance unit is pelting me with arrows, and the mage is off in the corner charging up another spell.
I start to panic, but Knokka frees up, and I send her to taunt the fighters who are pounding Wendaroo – she’s close to death. Knokka gets her taunt off, and takes the brunt of the fighters attacks, but now the Mage stewing in the corner decides to hit my party with an attack that targets all of them. Wendaroo howls, and falls to the ground, because of course, that’s what dogs do when they die, and the rest are hit pretty hard. I rush to get Wendaroo back to life with Devlin – but he’s getting peppered by the archer, so his revival skills are shit. I can’t get Wendaroo back to her feet until the Archer is down – so I have Nella target the archer.
Meanwhile the Healers have healed up the two enemy fighters, and Knokka is going down quickly. Nella manages to kill the archer, and I finally manage to get Wendaroo back to her feet, and pause – taking a breath, I queue up Wendaroo to heal Knokka (who is close to death), and smile, confident that I have managed to pull this one out – I unpause – and Knokka is dead. Shit.
I try to get her back up, but the remaining enemies overwhelm me – everyone dies – I yell a curse – my wife gives me a look like I’m insane – as if it’s not normal behavior to scream and curse at the TV.
Anyways, I try again. New strategy, new tactics – and I die. And again, and again, and again.
Normally this would be irritating, but the failure is my fault – it’s not a symptom of poor design or programming, it’s my failure to keep all the plates spinning in the air. I’m not prioritizing targets, not using my skills adequately – it’s not until I finally come up with the right plan – silence the mage, focus all attacks on one healer, then another, then pick off the remainder that I win, and it’s oh so satisfying when I do. Very few Role Playing Games can offer this kind of reward – every fight in Aarklash Legacy is meaningful and challenging – every one is an obstacle to overcome.
So yeah, like I said in the last entry, the combat is wonderful.
Next entry – the final review score – and final post on Aarklash