Without question, one of my favourite genres of game is the humble turn-based RPG. In the main, it’s not a very fashionable genre these days,1 and I’ve even seen some people argue that the fact that it ever existed at all was only as a “compromise”. Early gaming consoles didn’t have good enough hardware for action RPGs to work – only by separating out all the battle logic to its own screen could you keep the main map “light” enough not to run out of memory. This might well be true, but the dismissive implication of these kinds of explainers – that we shouldn’t have turn-based RPGs any more, because they were only ever a poor imitation of the action-adventure games that didn’t yet exist – really rankles with me. It’s like arguing that we shouldn’t have 2D pixel art games now we can animate 3D models. Pixel art is still great! And so too are turn-based games.
I think I started with turn-based RPGs out of necessity: when I was a kid we didn’t have any gaming consoles or even a Windows computer, so I was pretty much restricted to browser games (or the FOSS games in Fedora’s repositories). Neopets actually had a couple of turn-based RPGs in their site – NeoQuest and NeoQuest II – that I’m pretty sure were my first exposure to the genre (and of course I soaked them up 😂). When I was a little older I came across Kingdom of Loathing, which I still keep coming back to as probably having the best replayability (and one of the best combat systems) of any turn-based RPG I know.
In recent years I’ve been able to play a bunch of turn-based RPGs, now that playing PC games on Linux is more viable (and I also play on my Mac, sometimes). Some of the ones I’d highlight (because I really enjoyed them) would be West of Loathing, Earthlock, Signs of the Sojourner, and SteamWorld Quest. There are a few fun ones made with the RPG Maker software – like Heartbeat, Skyborn and Echoes of Aetheria – which are full of charm despite some jank that seems to be inherent to that engine. And there are some that are roguelikes as well as turn-based RPGs, which I have mixed feelings about. Generally I find it frustrating to just die over and over again. But the aspect where you do runs and there’s variety between them, and you can mix things up with different playstyles or whatever, that part appeals.
I still have a bit of a backlog of games I bought and either haven’t played, or haven’t played for long enough to really get into them. (Who doesn’t, right? 😂) But despite this backlog I feel like it’s hard to find enough good games to play – or at least games that suit my tastes. Sometimes I wonder, am I just too fussy? But then I’ll find one of those games that I really do enjoy, and I’m like no! It’s definitely fair to want more things like this. Or even, you know, if I could find one RPG that nailed everything I like and had enough variety to be infinitely replayable, I’d probably be set for life.
Sometimes I daydream about what this “set for life” game would look like. Some of the characteristics I think it’d have would be:
- fun, turn-based combat: It’s easier, I think, to describe some of the pitfalls that games can fall into: either not giving you any reason not to use the exact same skills/attacks in the exact same order every single time, or else giving you too many options with too many nuances as to their ideal use so you spend two minutes calculating your best move every single turn… and of course, I have played many RPGs that started out with super-fun combat, but the deeper you get into the game, the longer, more drawn-out and frustrating every single battle gets. (This is one of the best things about Kingdom of Loathing, in my opinion: the further you get into that game, the more your expanding skillset makes battles faster and more efficient. That’s how things should be!)
- a run-based, replayable game with variety between runs: For example, the ability to try out different player classes or challenge paths. I think it’s also cool when games give you options – forks in the road – so you can’t do everything all in one game, but have to do different runs to pursue different storylines. Also ideal is for a game to keep getting content updates over time, so there’s always something new to try 😊
- metaprogression between runs: for example, another thing I really liked about Kingdom of Loathing is that you get to “perm” one skill each run (i.e. you unlock it permanently, so you can use it without rebuying it, even as a different character class). As you perm more and more skills, not only do subsequent runs get faster and easier, but you also open up more “expert-level” strategies for solving quests that you just can’t do as a low-skill character. I dunno, I just liked that feeling of progression! In other games, this kind of progression might mean unlocking new player characters, or new equipment (or cards, in a deckbuilder) to be available as drops in future games, or unlock higher-difficulty zones, or even just to work towards upgrades for your “home base” that may or may not have any gameplay effect. Stuff like that is cool.
- a gradual ramping-up of complexity: this is another way that metaprogression can help, by unlocking new options for players progressively over time instead of dumping 972578256762 choices on you all from the start when you don’t know what any of these choices even mean or do yet.
- a light-hearted and preferably colourful vibe: I just can’t get into games that are all drab and gloomy and take themselves too seriously.
- decent writing: I also can’t really get into games where the writing is all so bland and generic that it’s obvious it was a real afterthought for the developer. Give me something a bit quirky, character-filled, with a good sense of humour, and I will be very happy :)
- preferably not a roguelike: even though I like the variety and run-based nature of roguelikes, I don’t like the whole “if you die it’s game over” thing. I mean, there would be circumstances in which I could live with it – like if we’re talking more about “bad endings” with dedicated writing, especially if they give you achievements for “unlocking” them 😛 Or if it’s like “permadeath” that’s easily avoided so long as you don’t play too aggressively. But overall my preference is to be able to start a game and play it through to the end (or an end).
- a quest log and in-game reference material: so, feeling railroaded isn’t fun, but I do like having somewhere I can quickly remind myself of what I’m in the middle of doing (especially if I have numerous quests/sidequests all on the go at once, which is generally more fun), and if I don’t have to constantly refer to a wiki or a walkthrough because the in-game instructions are clear enough, I really appreciate that too.
- a single-player game you can play at your own pace: a lot of these points boil down to “I like how Kingdom of Loathing did that”, but the main reason I stopped playing it is that it’s a browser game where you get (and can generate) a certain number of turns each day and you have to keep coming back day after day to finish a run. It’s not like you’re required to play every day, or use up all your turns, but optimisation is a big part of the appeal for me, and it just got too time-consuming for me to actually play “optimally”. Funnily enough in single-player games that you just buy and download and play whenever you want for as long as you want, I don’t really care about “optimal” or “fast” at all – in those, I’m more about doing every side quest, unlocking every alternative ending, seeing every piece of content and getting every achievement that I can. I don’t really mind if a game runs a timer for how long I take to do a given run, but it should at least only run while I’m in the game, and other stuff should factor into score as well 😛
- not too difficult: look, I want to enjoy content, not bash my head on the brick wall that is an extremely tedious and irritating boss. I’m OK with a game having multiple difficulty settings, to give the “bash your head on a brick wall” experience to those weirdos who enjoy that while letting me just enjoy the game on an “easy” or “story mode”, but there are some games where even the “easy” mode is really difficult and that sucks. I play games to relax, not get that “failing an exam I didn’t know I had to study for” feeling.
Now obviously, financial viability is another matter. Despite their near-infinite replayability a lot of roguelikes are one-off purchases, but if you wanna be sure you can keep releasing content updates indefinitely into the future then you might have to go to a subscription model (something I’ve never really heard of for single-player games), or at least release some of the content as paid expansions. Honestly, for a game I get a lot of enjoyment and hours of playtime out of, I wouldn’t even mind that 😛2 Whether there are enough people like me to make this model work, though, that I do not know.
At least I know there are plenty of turn-based RPGs out there, even if I’m struggling to find the “perfect one” that can keep me occupied for a long, long time. Many of my favourites are probably 90% of the way there, lacking either the replayability or the “play in your own time” factor, but awesome in nearly every other way. And truth be told, I’d be unlikely to actually play only one RPG forevermore 😛 It’s just it’d be nice to have a reliably fun fallback when I feel like gaming and don’t have a better idea what to play. Perhaps I’d be better off if I was more like Viv, who’s happy to replay the same old Zelda games from his childhood even though every playthrough is the same, but that’s just not me 😂 Ah well. One day I’m sure I’ll find the kind of game I’m looking for… that or run out of free time to care about it 😛
Except where RPGs have been fused with roguelike deckbuilders – that genre is very “in” at the mo! ↩︎
Since I’ve already talked about it a lot this post: Kingdom of Loathing, for what it’s worth, offers Items of the Month for US$10 that usually make runs way faster and easier, to the point that making the leaderboards is generally dependent on using them. At least as far as I know, content isn’t usually locked behind them, though – usually the IOTMs will generate consumables that can be sold to other players for the in-game currency, so “free” players can still enjoy any content zones associated with the IOTMs. And yeah, when I was really into KoL I did buy a number of these – I got many more hours of enjoyment out of the game than the number of $ I put in, so I considered it good value 😛 ↩︎