Japanese AAA games seem to have a penchant for convoluted, complex combat systems. I mean, they all have such ridiculous names. FFXIII‘s “command synergy battle.” TWEWY‘s “stride cross battle.” Tales of the Abyss‘s “flex range linear motion battle system.” Don’t get me started on Kingdom Heart’s real-time menu.
It’s interesting because American/European AAA games seem to be leaning towards minimalism and simplicity. The freeflow combat pioneered by the Batman Arkham series has been coming through in many other titles like Shadow of Mordor or Mad Max because it’s so simple and intuitive for the player. Movement in games like Mirror’s Edge or Assassin’s Creed is often reduced to a very few amount of buttons that cover many different actions depending on the context. When you think minimalism, you still think indie, but it’s leaking a little bit into modern AAA titles.
But this article isn’t about the differences between Asian design philosophy and American/European design philosophy (which is probably an article I should get around to sometime). I may not personally agree with the Asian penchant for overly complicated control schemes, but I do have to agree that they’ve refined their craft to a point.
There was a certain boss fight in FFXIII that struck me as very well-designed, particularly in regards to how they used it to ease the player into the game’s more advanced nuances. This was the boss fight (or rather, series of boss fights) against the Ushumgal Subjugator. Apparently, they like to name their bosses as strangely as they like to name their battle systems.
For a little bit more context about FFXIII’s “command synergy battle,” check out my post on the mana system paradox.
Anyway, FFXIII’s combat is just very weird. You have three people in a party, but you only directly control one. As for the others, you can assign them roles and they’ll automatically do things based on their role. A healer will heal, a fighter will fight, a defender will defend, so on and so forth. So you get a really weird situation where the player isn’t sure where they should put their focus. On one hand, you can control your one main character, but on the other hand, enemies are also moving and attacking in real-time, and on the third hand (???) your ALLIES are also moving and attacking in real time. It’s a lot to take in at once.
For the first half of the game, you never really have any extended periods of gameplay where you have a full party of three people. Instead, everyone splits up into pairs and wanders around as separate groups, then they all come together and you can swap party members out. This helps reduce the burden, because a party of two is easier to manage than a party of three. Not only that, but the game is very careful to make sure that the two people who are paired together can work together and cover each other’s flaws. There will never, ever be a situation where your team doesn’t have a healer, for instance.
But that means that there’s a very interesting design challenge: how do you ease players from controlling a party of two, to a party of three? The game continues in groups of pairs for a very significant amount of time, and the player has probably developed habits and tactics revolving around their two characters. Fortunately, the Ushumgal Subjugator boss fight does it in a very smooth transition that trains players to rethink their strategies and feel really powerful while they’re doing it.
The Ushumgal Subjugator has three stages: an aerial form and a ground form that is fought over two battles. When you first fight the aerial form, you’re doing it with a party of two, just like any other boss fight. However, it helps prime the player for the upcoming shift by introducing a new mechanic: knockups. Periodically, the Ushumgal Subjugator will use an attack that launches any characters hit up in the air, which renders them completely unable to take any actions until they land and recover. Here, you can see an obvious connection: if a character has been knocked airborne, you have a few seconds where you don’t need to worry about controlling them. During the first boss fight with two people, it’s a major setback, but when you have a party of three, you can afford to lose someone for a moment, and it actually helps ease the transition a little.
Otherwise, the first Ushumgal Subjugator boss fight isn’t particularly interesting or noteworthy. The player defeats it quickly (it’s meant to be an easy boss) and moves on. But then it shows up again during a sob story cutscene, and one of the characters is too wounded to fight. Now, suddenly the tables are turned: for the first (and I think only) time in the entire game, you fight against a boss with only one character. This second fight is scripted, and the boss does nothing interesting except keep attacking. Whether you run out of health or survive for long enough, two allies run in to join the fight and the third stage starts.
Now, the player controls a full party of three against a boss. It’s really sudden, but there are a lot of subtle mechanics in play to make sure that the transition goes as smoothly as it can. First, two of the three characters can be healers, which means that there’s always an opportunity to restore health. Second, the boss uses many light attacks that damage everyone on the team, which means that healers will always be topping off their allies: there are almost no times when a healer is useless. The player is most likely using some combination of two attackers and one supporter, so that the two attackers can be thought of as a single entity and the supporter is constantly topping everyone off from the boss’s multi-target attacks.
Third, and most interestingly, the boss uses a variation of the lockdown mechanic that was seen earlier during its first stage. It doesn’t knock characters airborne, but instead, it will select a single character and launch a series of concentrated attacks against that character. This is telegraphed ahead of time (the boss will say that it is targeting someone) so the player has plenty of time to switch their playing style. Now that the boss is focusing attacks on a single target rather than multiple ones, the player needs to take healing and defense more seriously: topping everyone off evenly isn’t viable anymore.
Whether the boss is doing light damage to everyone or heavy damage to a single attack, it makes the appropriate counterattack obvious and accessible. The player doesn’t need to think of their team as three separate characters, but rather in two categories: high offense, or high defense. They can put three characters on offense, or two on offense and one on defense, or two on defense and one in offense, or three in defense. No other mechanics are necessary for this immediate boss fight.
This is interesting because with the parties of two that the player has been controlling up until now, there were many more mechanics in play than offense or defense. They had to worry about buffing allies, or debuffing enemies, or splitting their attacks across multiple enemies, or removing status effects, or all sorts of other things. But the boss fight against the Ushumgal Subjugator involves none of that. It is literally just offense or defense, and the player allocates their resources on a slider across that spectrum. As the player progresses, they slowly have to relearn all of these mechanics with three people instead of two. The Ushumgal Subjugator bossfight acts almost like a hard reset: it brings the player back to a simpler time, before they need to worry about invulnerability windows or elemental typings.
I think the fight could have been improved if the Ushumgal Subjugator’s knockup attack was brought back for the third stage. For example, when the Subjugator locks onto a single target, it should do something to suppress that target for an extended period of time, and in exchange do less damage to that target. That way, it gives the player an opportunity to rethink the combat scenario with two characters instead of three. This would also be empowering because the player still has access to a wide range of actions while a single member of their party is suppressed, as opposed to before when they only had parties of two people.
This boss fight is a really good way of introducing complex game mechanics through play, which is a good thing. Many games will introduce complex game mechanics by adding more mechanics on top, which is a little counterintuitive but happens more often than you’d think. For example, in Lethal League, there’s a whole world of parries and special attacks that form a precarious system of checks and balances. When you hit a ball, there’s a special move you can do to make sure that someone else can’t hit the ball out of your hands, and that special move feels like a bandaid design solution. It’s solving a problem by adding a new mechanic, and maybe for them it was inevitable, but in general I think a designer should hesitate to add new mechanics.
And that’s not to say that FFXIII doesn’t have a truckload of extraneous mechanics, because it does. Upgradeable weapons, tactical points, full ATB attacks, the list goes on. But the Ushumgal Subjugator boss fight is a nice exception, because it doesn’t add anything new to confuse the player. Instead, it gives the player all the exact same mechanics they had gotten used to previously, and throws a third party member into the mix while keeping the overall tension level low enough that the player can understand everything that’s going on. I think that’s good design and it’s something to be learned from.