Monday, February 2, 2015

Final Fantasy XII, Dragon Age Origins, and Xenoblade Chronicles - Real-time Tactics A to Z

at 5:00 PM

Since I've been enjoying Final Fantasy XII recently, I decided to give Dragon Age Origins (that's the first one, $4.49 on XBL) a try, just for point of comparison on combat systems with customizable AI. My first observation is that DAO's "tactics" are literally a carbon copy of FFXII's "gambits", and I mean literally literally. Same wording, same organization, same numbers, and the exact same goddamn menu (i.e. visual presentation and settings). It is weird to the degree that I now suspect Yasumi Matsuno sold BioWare the FFXII source code after his falling out with Square Enix.

Plagiarism aside, Dragon Age might be the first BioWare game I like without reservation. It comes from the same mold of real-time tactics RPG that spawned Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade Chronicles, not to mention BioWare's own games since the Baldur's Gate II days. People sometimes call these kind of games single-player MMOs since they involve indirect control of party members, but that's kind of a stupid way to categorize a game. "It's just like a massively multiplayer game except that it isn't massively multiplayer". It makes sense that this style of combat is popular in MMOs for reasons so obvious I could be sued for repeating them, but hey, no reason it can't work solo.

Within this particular real-time tactics portacanado, Dragon Age Origins lands closer to the MMO-standard (Xenoblade-standard to me) rhythm of "do a bunch of actions then wait out a bunch of timers", in contrast to the Final Fantasy Action Time-Battle flow where a charge period separates a command from the designated action. I'm not gonna get too deep into that distinction because it's a pretty detailed topic of its own. Xenoblade's and Dragon Age's instant feedback suggests strategy through reservation and punishes rash overaggression, while Final Fantasy XII's action delay permits adaptation through cancellation, but requires prediction for timing. The former is more accommodating to a safe, passive play style, while the latter smiles on (TM) the risk-taker, though generally they accomplish the same strategic depth.

As in Xenoblade, space is the foremost resource of the battlefield in Dragon Age. The player can influence enemy spacing with skills that cause aggro, blocking, movement penalties, and knockback, and can take advantage of position with ranged attacks, flanking bonuses, and area of effect. AI-controlled party members can even be assigned range/movement tactics (e.g. "if enemy is elite rank stay out of melee range"). Final Fantasy XII kinda doesn't give a shit about space, leading the action back to the cinematic nature of turn-based battles. It gives lip service to the concept with ranged weapons and area of effect spells, but provides only the most minimal means for the player to control allied and enemy spacing (if it uses aggro it's too subtle to notice, there's definitely no blocking, and there's only a single spell for immobilize). Though the party leader can be freely controlled with the joystick during battle, they won't execute skills while under direct player influence, and when they do return to their script they'll automatically reposition. It's a bit arbitrary - a bit Chrono Triggery, if you will - that there are means to take advantage of spacing, but very few to set it up.

Then again, Final Fantasy XII's small-scale battles (rarely more than 3v3) tend to be either far too short or far too long for dynamic spacing to play a role. The game is more a traditional dungeon-crawler, challenging the player to manage expendable resources (HP, MP, and items) over a long span of battles. Defense isn't all that important when you're not at risk of dying in a single encounter. Every fight in Dragon Age and Xenoblade is one for survival, with HP and MP refreshing after every victory (for what it's worth, Final Fantasy XIII picked up this trend). The high stakes and tactical density do make a lot of sense for standard WRPG pacing (1 battle, 8 hours of walking around talking to people, the first third of a battle, 19 hours of one character reading his Lord of the Rings fanfiction), though luckily one of Dragon Age's great advantages over most BioWare shlock is that is has actual dungeons. Like, mazes where you have to fight strings of battles! They're still pretty scripted, but there's a bit of exploration that allows the player a risk/reward balance on choice of engagement.

When it comes to actually surviving those encounters, Xenoblade offers the least combat micromanagement of the group, with no scripting of companions and only a preset subset of player character actions available for orders. FFXII and DAO sport interfaces for the issuance of any command to any allied character on any target, thus theoretically allowing the player to control every single party action that transpires. They also allow the player to swap leads at any point, with FFXII going one step further to allowing full mid-battle party reconfiguration. While combat can be approached at a fully explicit level, the control and default behavior of the player-controlled character ultimately distinguish the systems beyond their basic rules and timing mechanics.

Final Fantasy XII allows the party lead to be scripted with the same tactical gambits as companions, providing a true hands-off auto-battle experience. With gambits enabled, the only thing that distinguishes the lead is that they're the focal point of the camera. If the player disables gambits on their leader and sets the timing to "Active", they can bring up a full menu of commands as battle progresses in real time, queuing actions up to one in advance. Navigating the menus and timing orders in real-time so they queue properly can be a bit cumbersome. If the timing is set to "Wait", the game will pause any time the menu is activated, removing the challenge of timing orders... but also slowing battles drastically. Thus the player is encouraged to stick with gambits and the choice between "Active" and "Wait" is more just minor difficulty tuning.

Dragon Age Origin requires the lead character to be controlled manually. They won't act autonomously, though if the player switches to a new lead, the previous one will pick up their scripted tactics where they left off. As in Final Fantasy XII, the player can bring up a menu (that here will always pause the action) and dictate actions, though again, it's cumbersome and slows down the pace. To speed things up, the command menu is supplemented with a handful of shortcuts, just like the preset action list from Xenoblade. Since a shortcut order can be initiated in real time with a single button press, it's to the action-seeking player's advantage to organize and prioritize their skills to fit into this schema.

Prioritization as determined through experimentation provides the fundamental structure of tactics scripting as well. DAO lays out all of its tactics behaviors from the onset, but is stingy with tactics slots. Each character starts with only two tactics slots and far more individual actions than that (even ignoring items and just looking at skills). As any actions not scripted will need to be manually ordered, this provides an optimization challenge on benefit vs. practicality for tactics. The player will want to cover risky scenarios that will relieve them of distracting monitoring in battle, e.g. "if health<25% use: potion". They'll also want to structure opportunistically ("if enemy-is-stunned use: melee attack") and to eliminate redundant micromanagement ("if enemy-is-any use: raise shield"). The diversity of tactical combinations (conditions multiplied by actions) that have to be pruned down to fit a few slots offers a great deal of customization. Defining class roles in the party is more a matter of tactics assignment than skill point distribution.

Final Fantasy XII's gambits are almost identical in setting and function. The biggest difference is that each gambit (i.e. tactical condition) must be acquire in the progression of the game. A few are found in chests and most are bought in shops, though they won't appear til fixed points in the story. I get the point of meting out gambits to tutorialize the player on mechanics before they start thinking too hard about strategy (learn to play the game before you let the game play the game), but the same process is accomplished more elegantly by the slot limits alone in DAO. Skill growth generally outpaces tactics slots, so if a character picks up a new skill, the player can't throw it at the AI without sacrificing something else. This will inherently trigger manual experimentation (with the new skill or the replacement of the sacrificed one), encouraging the player to learn their combat functions one at a time. Ironically, Final Fantasy XII ends up with a much harsher introduction because the player is forced to remember all of their strategies instead of saving them to a script. It is no surprise that I didn't like Final Fantasy XII at all until around the 15 hour mark where any but the most useful gambtis became available.

Overall Dragon Age does a great job of emphasizing the interplay between manual player orders and AI scripting, making the combat feel like one integrated system that requires both pieces to function. Final Fantasy XII stretches hybrid all the way to its extremes - at the starting point you've got nearly 100% orders-based combat that may as well be Final Fantasy VI, then through a really slow process of gambit introduction the game works its way all the way to full automation, with even the player character dependent on scripting. It's actually an interesting and unique scope, fittingly symbolic for the game that popularized AI-scripted auto-battling. It's just that the system without gambits (the Final Fantasy VI battle system) is kinda lame and sucky. So Dragon Age Origins feels more nuanced for trimming it down to that good middle part of the spectrum.

I realize I didn't talk a lot about Xenoblade here. My original concept was that Dragon Age Origins merges the rhythm, flow, and enemy interplay of Xenoblade's combat with the free-form tactics of Final Fantasy XII. What I came to realize is that as far as these high-level tactical structures are concerned, Xenoblade is mostly just a subset of Dragon Age. That's not to say it's redundant gameplay-wise - the absence of mid-battle pausing and character-swapping makes a pretty huge difference when it comes to conceiving strategies. Xenoblade builds on that challenge with systems for attack chaining, syncing, interrupts, and Distant Early Warning, so it's a more structured kind of depth. But let's cut this here where it's already really long. 

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