Pokemon Gives Turn-Based RPGs A Bad Name
I love everything about Pokemon, except playing the mainline games. Collecting, trading, and adventuring through each region is always a worthwhile experience that takes me back to childhood, but the combat just doesn’t keep me engaged like it did when I was nine years old. I’m fully aware of how deep and complex Pokemon’s battle system can get when you’re competing at a professional level, but for the 20-25 hours it takes to win the Pokemon League, I’m frankly bored out of my mind. It’s not that Pokemon battles aren’t hard enough, it's just that the four-move system is far too slow, simple, and unrewarding to keep my gamer brain from zoning out. My disinterest for Pokemon’s combat has extended to all turn-based RPGs, which I assumed were all just as dull. I’m finally starting to explore some other turn-based games for the first time, and I’m quickly realizing that Pokemon is the worst example of what classic RPGs have to offer. They’re not all as boring as Pokemon, and in fact, a lot of them are actually pretty exciting to play.
My problem with Pokemon battles is just how little they’ve evolved since the very first game. Throughout the game you will have to defeat hundreds of trainers, and every battle is as simple as picking your strongest Pokemon, picking its strongest move, and then nuking whatever pathetic, underleveled excuse for a Pokemon they send at you. I’m fairly confident I could defeat every trainer in Sword & Shield with a single appropriately-leveled Cinderace with Pyro Ball. There’s the rare occasion where type advantage really matters, but as long as you have a team that covers at least 4 or 5 types, you can clean sweep any gym leader in the game by just spamming high damage attacks.
Again, it’s not that it’s too easy, it’s that it's far too simple. There are very few instances where Pokemon battles present you with meaningful choices to make. 99 percent of the time, you’re fine to just use the same Pokemon and the same attack over and over and over. People complain that the Pokemon formula hasn’t changed much over the years, but it isn’t the structure of the story that’s really holding the series back – it’s the battles.
I’ve recently discovered for myself that turn-based combat doesn’t need to be as painful as Pokemon makes it seem. If you play a lot of turn-based RPGs, I probably sound like a fool to you, but it turns out that modern RPGs have found a lot of interesting ways to evolve Pokemon’s combat system. Take Ruined King for example, the new League of Legends RPG from the developers of Darksiders Genesis and Battle Chasers. In Ruined King, each character has a selection of instant abilities and lane abilities. Instant abilities activate right away and put the character on a cool down, while lane abilities activate later on the timeline. The battle timeline is broken up into three lanes, and each ability can be activated in any lane you want. The speed lane lets you use abilities faster but with weaker effect, the power lane makes abilities stronger but slower, and the balance lane is somewhere in between. The lanes allow you to arrange the turn order of your fighters in specific ways so that you can plan combos, interrupt enemies, and take advantage of buffs that appear in certain sections of the lane. It’s not that much harder than a Pokemon battle as long as you pay attention to your enemies and try to fight around them, but a system like this offers so much more variety to combat.
Octopath Traveler is another great example of an RPG that mixes up the Pokemon formula with interesting new mechanics. It still uses the rock-paper-scissors advantage system that Pokemon uses, but it complicates combat by introducing a simple stagger meter that causes enemies to get stunned after a certain number of attacks. This helps you be more selective about which abilities you use so that your strongest attacks are ready to go when the enemies become vulnerable after getting stunned. It gives each battle a more interesting pace and you patiently whittle away at shields and set yourself up for big damage phases.
This is not a plea to the Pokemon company to overhaul the way Pokemon battles work. Pokemon sales have only increased in the last 20 years, and it warms my heart to see younger generations get to experience the joy of collecting, battling, and trading the way I did when I was a kid. I have to admit, however, that as I grew out of Pokemon battles I wrote off turn-based RPGs altogether, and likely missed out on some exceptional games over the years. Pokemon games are turn-based, but they should really be treated like they’re in a genre of their own. Turn-based games can be a lot of fun, even though Pokemon sets a poor example.
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