Friday, February 25, 2011

RPGs and Reflexes

Following on from my post regarding difficulty in RPGs based on the fact that they are not reflex based, I think it's time to take a look at some exceptions to this rule.

The first example is The Witcher. The Witcher does rely on reflexes in order to succeed in combat at a very basic level. Combat revolves around "attack sequences" which you can "continue" provided that you click to attack at the right time during your current attack. This effectively enables the player to perform better provided that the master the click timing. Unfortunately, this is the limit of the complexity of the reflex element of the combat - it's a series of quick time events where you click the mouse button to attack at the right time. This simplicity meant that it added little, if anything, to the game.

Second off the rank is Risen. This game has a click based system that also improves the player's performance with proper timing - press the attack button within the appropriate time window and the character will make another swing. However, as the character's (as opposed to the player's) skill improves, additional moves become possible. Counter attacks become possible (though again requiring timing), but the player can also defend, either by using a shield or by rolling out of the way. There is potential for this combat style to become tedious after many fights, but the variety of offensive and defensive moves available to the player means that they have choice in their approach. The player can choose to defend and wait for an opening to attack, or attempt to attack wildly and dispatch the enemy without giving them a chance to retaliate.

Click timing fighting plus strategy

Lastly, consider Mass Effect 2. This took the third person cover-based shooter mechanics popularised by games like Gears of War and adapted it to an RPG. Add in the choice of classes and companions (and the skills of each), and there's a significant amount of complexity in both the reflex and knowledge based aspects of the combat. In addition to this, the familiarity of many players with the shooter genre offers the potential to implement set pieces requiring specific strategies yet still remaining accessible to most of the player base.

However, Mass Effect 2 does have shortcomings in its design. Particularly on higher difficulties, many enemies have protection (in the form of shields or armor) that render many skills useless until this protection is removed. Now while this is potentially a good thing in terms of forcing the player to implement different tactics on higher difficulties, the problem is that there are too many skills rendered ineffective against these protections. Worse, once enemies are unprotected, the damage required to finish them off is often quite low, meaning that those skills offer little benefit over simply shooting the target a couple of times with a gun.

Any armour or shields renders this skill useless

The key difficulty in implementing these mechanics in an RPG is striking a balance between the relative strength of reflexes and character build. If a player picks their character's skills poorly, then they should be expected to function with appreciably less power than a character who is optimised for combat. The Witcher relies on reflexes in order to function, but does not engage the player, and thus relies more on classic RPG approach of using the character's base skills to determine success. Mass Effect 2 handles this issue by having a limited range of skills for players to choose from within a class, making it very difficult to create a "bad" build, which is far more feasible in more complex rule systems. Risen appears to tread somewhat of a middle ground between the two, but still sits towards the side of lacking depth in possible character combat skills.

Determining a happy medium between reflexes and character builds is still a work in progress for even leading game designers and companies. I'm looking forward to seeing how it is handled in the major RPG titles to be released this year.

PS I've just finished the Dragon Age 2 demo on the PC (I wrote this post yesterday), and have to say that it goes a long way to introducing reflexes into Dragon Age. While the pause and play system is still possible, the changes in combat making the encounters a lot more active for the player. No longer do warriors and rogues spend lots of the fight doing very little except auto attacking. I have to say that from my perspective, the new combat is a welcome change over DAO by introducing a more active fighting style.

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