Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth released in Japan a few days ago, and my copy of the game arrived yesterday. Even aside from my continued amazement at the black magic that is Amazon's supply chain, this is pretty exciting--I've been looking forward to this game since it was announced while I was in attendance at 2017's Persona music concert, and the original game was a lot of fun. A few hours into it, I'm impressed thus far, and odds are good I'll end up writing more in-depth about the game at some point, but in the early game there's one particular concept that's stood out to me: balance.
"Balance" is a concept that tends to be most important in multiplayer games, like Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. In the most abstract sense, it refers to the idea that two equally skilled players should be equally likely to win regardless of which in-game playstyle they prefer. I sometimes compare fighting games to speed chess, and a perfectly-balanced game would be like chess in that neither player has an inherent advantage and skill determines the outcome of the match. Perfectly-balanced games do not exist, of course, outside of games where there are no game-defined characters or playstyles (see puzzle games like Tetris and Catherine). Even in well-balanced games certain characters or playstyles usually have advantages over others just due to matchups and affitinies; for example, a character in a fighting game who can attack from a distance might have an inherent advantage over a powerful character who can only attack up close.
Balance in competitive games is a pretty established concept, but it applies to single-player experiences as well. Some people scoff at the notion of balance and relative strength in single-player games--the argument essentially goes that so long as there's no competitive element to a game, there's no need for optimal play and thus balance is a non-issue--but balanced games do tend to be more enjoyable to play, and consequently balance is an issue worth considering.
Where balance in a competitive game takes the form of the relative strengths of different options available to competing players, balance in a single-player context involves the relative strength of all options available to one player at any given time. This matters most in RPGs with high degrees of customization, where players or characters can specialize in things like physical strength, magic power, defense, evasion, and so on. In a balanced game, all such styles are comparably powerful assuming reasonably smart play, and prioritizing one build over another doesn't make the game measurably easier or harder. Few games adhere to this ideal, and the ones that come closest (such as, for example, Kingdom Hearts II) tend to have very little in the way of actual customization. RPGs are complex puzzles of interrelated mechanics, so you usually have certain strategies that emerge as being stronger than others.
This isn't inherently problematic, and there are games where a large part of the fun is finding the most unbalanced setups and using them to trivialize the game's difficulty--I really enjoy Final Fantasy Tactics for that exact reason. What makes a game like Tactics work, though, is that there is a wide range of exceptionally powerful setups, those setups take work to obtain, and the game can be reasonably completed even with sub-optimal play. As a result, this lack of balance feels like flexibility and in some ways enhances the overall experience. FFT wouldn't be nearly as fun without its absurdly powerful Arithmetician builds that can freely keep your entire team healed and bombard all enemies from anywhere on the field with nothing more than the power of math. (For those who haven't played FFT, I'm not exaggerating--the best class in the game is a math-themed spellcaster, and it's every bit as silly as it sounds).
So for a game like FFT, balance isn't super important, and the game's emphasis on customization and strategy arguably makes the vast power disparities between certain setups a good thing rather than a flaw. Where balance becomes a problem, though, is when only one or two approaches are powerful, or when the game is difficult enough that sub-optimal approaches do not work. A large part of the fun in RPGs is building teams that match your preferred playstyle, whether that's bursting things down in a few turns with super high damage, cautiously maintaining your defenses as you whittle down the enemy, using status ailments to cripple foes, or any other common RPG tactic. When only one of those approaches is reliable or effective, the game's balance undermines its customization features. Players can be discouraged from exploring the options the system provides, often feeling tunneled in to one or two powerful strategies in order to complete the game.
For all its strengths, the original Persona Q is a highly unbalanced game. PQ has a highly flexible and satisfying system of character customization, which is a lot of fun to play around with, but pretty much any team is eventually going to gravitate towards one of two strategies, one of which involves making it so attacks can't miss and then using powerful-but-low-accuracy skills, and one of which involves a mechanic called "links" in which one character makes a series of follow-up attacks throughout a turn. Both of these strategies are fun to piece together and execute, and it's highly satisfying watching difficult enemies melt under a barrage of physical attacks, but anything that doesn't fall under those two umbrellas is so much weaker as to be borderline unusable for lategame fights.
Part of the problem is PQ's clever resource management system. When you hit a weakness or land a critical hit on an enemy, your action on the next turn has no cost, meaning you are free to use powerful attacks or spells. While this sounds fine, it ends up heavily favoring physical attacks for a number of reasons. For one, spells are ridiculously expensive relative to the resources available, to the point where you can only cast high-level spells a few times in a fight without using the free turn mechanic. Physical skills, on the other hand, are much more affordable. Additionally, magic can't crit, which means magic only gives free turns if you hit a weakness, while Physical skills can hit weaknesses and crit, boosting damage and reducing overall costs. For longer fights, physical attacks end up being far more economical.
Additionally, the most powerful attack types have physical variants, but not magical ones. The low-accuracy-high-power skills, like Myriad Arrows, are all physical attacks, and the strongest magic attacks do far less damage and are far more expensive in exchange for being more accurate. Since PQ has a variety of ways to boost accuracy, and damage boosts can be applied to both types of skills, magic is pretty much strictly inferior to physical attacks. The link attacks, similarly, only exist in physical variations.
The end result of this is that certain characters are severely disadvantaged, and using spellcasters tends to make the game a lot more difficult. The difference is so pronounced that a semi-common strategy involves teaching one of the spellcasters (Yukiko) a bunch of physical skills and using her as a physical attacker even though her stat spread and base skills are all optimized for magic. If you want to play a magic-centric Persona Q run, you're basically out of luck. The game is fun enough and designed well enough that it's highly enjoyable regardless, but balance is a significant problem.
I'm not yet far enough in PQ2 to know whether it improves upon these issues, but I've already seen magic-flavored link skills, which is promising. It can be difficult to tell how well something is balanced until players actually get to try using it, and even then there's often room for debate about what is or isn't good or useful within a game--particularly when there aren't head-to-head matches and statistics to reference. I do think it's good for developers to be sensitive to and intentional about balance in single-player games, though, if only to ensure that players feel free to play how they like.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition