Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
For the past few weeks, I’ve been on something of a “breaking games” kick, by which I mean finding ways to trivialize games in order to strip them of any difficulty they may or may not otherwise have had. There is an appeal, I think, to building teams that are so defensively stable they literally cannot lose, or that can topple powerful boss fights in a single hit, or that can lock enemies down with debilitating status ailments, and so on. In some respects, this saps the strategy and difficulty out of a game—I most often do this in games like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, chess-esque tactical RPGs that ostensibly necessitate strategic thinking to win—but I find the planning and effort involved in building “broken” setups to be its own sort of strategic thinking. It is, essentially, an alternative and more general solution to the puzzles the games present. While breaking a game in some ways goes against the spirit of the game, I do think having the ability to “solve” a game generally rather than specifically can add a lot of potential depth and value.
Fire Emblem provides the simplest case of this. I’ve been gradually replaying Fates and Awakening, taking a different approach from my initial plays of the games. As a tactical RPG, Fire Emblem is built to encourage strategic placement of units. For the unfamiliar, the game plays out on gridded boards—again, not unlike chess—and you can move your units across the board to attack other units. Smart Fire Emblem play involves a combination of monitoring enemy attack ranges, blocking off chokepoints, and ensuring you always go to battle with favorable unit matchups. It’s not a complicated series, relatively speaking—if you want a tactical RPG that actually involves a high degree of flexible strategic thinking, I’d recommend the Devil Survivor games—but on a “normal” playthrough victory is dependent on learning the maps and developing tactical approaches that solve each individual fight.
I went into my current runs of Fates and Awakening, though, with a different approach. I wanted to build teams that were so absurdly powerful they could win every fight with essentially zero strategy—in other words, I wanted a “general solution” to the game rather than a collection of “specific solutions” for each individual fight. I played the Birthright version of Fates specifically as it allows for level-grinding (which is helpful for the general-solution approach), and much of my playtime in both Fates and Awakening was spent grinding to build up my ideal teams.
Theoretically, this shouldn’t be as fun as playing “normally.” Fighting generic enemies for experience in order to get powerful units that can steamroll everything sounds pretty boring in the abstract. The games have just enough customization, though, that the process ended up being quite fun, particularly in Awakening with its potentially-powerful second-generation units. The planning involved in creating the ideal skill- and stat-distributions needed for a ridiculously powerful team held my interest throughout the long level-grinding periods, and seeing my team gradually come together—an army of Aether-spamming Snipers and Swordmasters in Fates and a horde of super tanks and Galeforce-fueled glass cannons in Awakening—was highly satisfying.
There comes a point in a playthrough like this were motivation to actually finish the game dwindles. You build a ridiculously powerful team, you steamroll through a few fights, and you start to feel done. Because you have solved the game generally, there’s little need to actually play through each of the specific fights. You get the sense that you’ve pre-emptively beaten the game. It’s a fundamentally different experience from a “normal” playthrough, but not, I would say, an inferior one.
Some would say that breaking a game in this way eliminates the fun of actually playing the game, and I half agree with this. It hinders the fun of playing through the game’s fights in that the game is already generally “solved,” as noted, but I wouldn’t say it removes the fun of the playing the game so much as shifts it. The enjoyment isn’t in actually playing through the individual story quests so much as it is in building up the general solution. It’s a different sort of enjoyment that appeals to a different sort of player.
Some games actively try to inhibit this sort of play. The aforementioned Devil Survivor games approach this in multiple ways. Most importantly, the AI in the Devil Survivor games has access to all of the tools that the player does, so any potentially “broken” abilities the player can make use of can and will be used by the enemy. This unifies the “general-solution” and “specific-solution” approaches, as the player needs to build a strong team and plan in advance in order to do well—the general-solution approach—and then the player has to respond to the powerful combinations and smart play that comes from the AI—the specific-solution approach. The games also feature severe experience scaling, mitigating the ability for the player to level-grind and become overly powerful, and the games reward playing through the entire story without grinding. The player remains on roughly even footing with the enemy throughout the game, ensuring the focus remains on the actual in-battle strategy, albeit without removing the customization and planning elements that tend to make tactical RPGs fun to play.
And then you have games like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne that essentially require players to look for the most powerful options available in order to even survive most boss fights. Nocturne has a number of tools that are quite powerful when they become available, but it also has fights like the infamous Matador that are nearly impossible without the use of the aforementioned powerful options. A lot of people love the way Nocturne plays (and I do think it’s an excellent game overall), but mechanically it often devolves into a game of odds, with the strength of the player’s strategy only serving to reduce the likelihood of dying to bad luck. It’s often described as a hard game, but I wouldn’t categorize it as “difficult” so much as “frustrating” or “time-consuming”—It’s more a game of patience and perseverance than one of strategy.
My favorite games to break tend to be those where getting really strong is more dependent on customization and team synergy than on raw level-grinding. Persona Q and Persona Q2 are fabulous examples of this. You can play these games “normally” and do just fine, but there are also several ways you can break the game by manipulating the customization systems and building synergistic teams. In Persona Q2 (which I’m still not finished with, 105 hours in), I’ve built a team that can tear through most boss fights in exactly four turns, dealing thousands of damage per turn in a game where doing a few hundred at once is a lot. I’ve spent barely any time grinding—and what grinding I’ve done was more because I wanted to test out different team comps against powerful enemies than out of a need for levels or money—but with understanding of the game’s systems and a cohesive plan I was able to build a ridiculously powerful team. It’s all the fun and satisfaction of the “general-solution” approach to Fire Emblem but without the hours upon hours of monotony.
The best part about PQ2 in particular is that the game retains variety and difficulty even with a completely busted-good team. In the original Persona Q, bosses were mostly uniform in function (with only the fabulous second boss, the Merciful Clergyman, being notably interesting from a mechanical standpoint), so a powerful team burned through everything with ease. In PQ2, however, bosses have a lot more variety, and certain fights can still stymie powerful builds depending on how the boss operates. Similarly, PQ had a simple solution for most random encounters—Naoto, my favorite party member, could just instantly wipe most enemies with her instant-kill spells—but that solution is far less reliable in PQ2, which makes late-game random encounters surprisingly threatening, especially for a team built around boss-killing. As a result, the game avoids becoming boring even once it’s been “solved,” and you get the impressive dual sense of being absurdly powerful and yet still needing to think during battle. It’s super cool.
While Persona Q2 is among the best games I’ve played in this regard, I think I like the Final Fantasy Tactics games slightly more in this regard. The FFT games are not balanced nearly as well—on the contrary, the balance in those games is terrible—but that is itself a large part of the charm. Final Fantasy Tactics is full of hilariously powerful tools, as well as ostensibly well-balanced tools that become hilariously powerful in conjunction with other ostensibly well-balanced tools. The classic example of this is the Arithmetician class in the original Final Fantasy Tactics, which can drop expensive, high-level, single-target spells on the entire enemy team, at once, for free, with just a little bit of planning. It’s the kind of thing that you look at and go, “The developers made no attempt to balance this whatsoever.” And it’s glorious.
There are all kinds of ways to create “general-solution” teams in the Final Fantasy Tactics games, and they range from obvious to non-obvious answers. A personal favorite of mine involves the Assassin class in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Assassins get instant-kill abilities that have a low chance to hit. There are, however, certain status ailments, like sleep and stop, that raise the accuracy of all attacks and skills to 100%. If you put an enemy to sleep, Assassins can then kill that enemy immediately 100% of the time. It’s not hard to do, and there’s little actual “strategy” that goes into it, but stumbling upon and/or building those sorts of combinations is a ton of fun, and it’s what keeps me coming back to the games.
I really do appreciate games that are balanced carefully and that require actual case-by-case strategy in order to win. The Devil Survivor games remain my favorite tactical RPGs for this reason (although it helps that they’re also fantastically-written games with intriguing philosophical implications). That said, good difficulty is super hard to achieve in RPGs, and if I’m presented with a choice between unsatisfying or luck-based difficulty and ridiculously broken team planning, I’ll choose the latter any day of the week. Building a team that’s strong enough to break a game requires its own form of strategy, and there’s fun to be had in being absurdly powerful.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition