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As a die-hard fan of “turn-based” games, 2021 was a monumental year for me. Some of the best games that came out in 2021 adopted mechanics once reserved for RPGs. However, this year truly felt like a shift for that style of play (which has players waiting to take their turn, as opposed to smashing buttons to fight in real time).
While we saw some excellent games utilize the idea this year, the collective old guard of turn-based games walked away from this timeless mechanic, leaving space for new games to carry on the torch.
My love for turn-based games started when I was very young. I owned a Game Boy and many of the handheld’s greatest hits were turn-based. That includes classics like Pokémon Red, Dragon Quest III, and Dragon Warrior Monster. That rabbit hole went deeper the older I got and I started to branch out and play even more games in the genre, like Yu-Gi-Oh! Dark Duel Stories, Fire Emblem, and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. My cup runneth over. I’ve been obsessed with that play style since the beginning of my gaming career and I have seen it evolve from a mechanic of necessity to something that is unique and intentional.
Turn-based games often get a bad rap for being too slow or too boring, especially in modern times. Why play a game where you have to take turns smacking each other when Hyrule Warriors has a myriad of enemies you can chop up and slay in less than a second? Turn-based games can’t compete with the frenetic violence of certain action games. Instead, they offer an alternative built around strategy and patience. It gives players a chance to soak in all of what is happening on screen and the time to properly prepare their action. Knowing full well you will beat a boss or another tough enemy in only a couple of turns feels amazing. It’s like watching dominos fall.
Inscryption is a perfect example of a 2021 turn-based game shining brightly. It uses slow-paced deckbuilding mechanics to create atmosphere and tension. It’s brilliant and what it does could not be accomplished in a real-time game. Even games like Bravely Default II and Darkest Dungeon II show that turn-based games still have something new to offer their audience. The Bravely Default series addresses the criticism of slow combat with it’s Brave system, which allows players to execute multiple actions in one turn. Bravely Default II brings more class combinations that allow for devastating combos that can be pulled off in one turn. Darkest Dungeon II does the inverse, with each turn so heavily weighted that it can spell out success or total failure, which makes every turn more impactful.
All of these games confidently stand behind their systems, even as big RPGs drop turn-based combat one at a time.
Earlier this year during the anniversary stream for the Dragon Quest series, we got to see a little teaser for Dragon Quest XII, a game that will boldly help map out the future for the series. It was confirmed that Dragon Quest XII will, in fact, not be turn-based. This series has been a foundation for turn-based games and the newest one, the one that is promised to reimagine the series, will leave a core mechanic in the past.
It’s not the first iconic RPG series to ditch turn-based combat. Final Fantasy VII Remake, which came out last year, also removed the turn-based gameplay and offered a more frenetic and fast-paced style. This year’s Game Awards-winning Tales of Arise also switched to real-time combat. Seeing so many high-profile games walk away from my favorite playing style naturally has me worried. Instead of trying to find new ways to innovate on the genre, they have decided to ditch it entirely.
While my concerns are definitely real, it is not as hopeless as I feared. Even with the biggest franchises ditching turn-based mechanics, new games filled the gaps. Ruined King: A League of Legends Story masterfully used Airship Syndicate’s iconic RPG mechanics from Battle Chasers: Night War to create a unique feel to the combat that’s reminiscent of League of Legends’ lane battles. Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin doubled down on the success of its predecessor to prove that Monster Hunter can survive and thrive as a turn-based game. And beyond RPGs, Lemnis Gate showed the gaming world that a first-person shooter can even work as a turn-based game.
As much as it breaks my heart that Dragon Quest is going the action-RPG route, I’m confident that turn-based games aren’t going anywhere. This year proved that game developers still have plenty of ways to keep the playing style from getting stale. Maybe it is OK that Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are moving away from turns. They have both paid their dues and helped make the mechanic a staple in video game language. Now it’s time to see how many ways it can be twisted on its head.