Recently, I have played Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift and Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days, two really good games in the isometric strategy combat genre. Because those are pretty long, in this post, I will abbreviate them to “Disgaea” and “FFT” respectively.
On the left is a screenshot of FFT, and on the right is a screenshot of Disgaea. Although both games were fun, I had more fun playing Disgaea than FFT. There are a few reasons for this: the combat in Disgaea is more fun than the combat in FFT, and the characters in Disgaea are more entertaining than the characters in FFT. In this post, I will explain why I enjoyed Disgaea more by examining the differences between the combat systems and characters in Disgaea and FFT.
The main combat system in Disgaea and FFT are very similar: combat is turn based and takes place on an isometric field, and each turn, every character can move a certain amount of tiles and perform some actions.
The first difference between the combat systems is how taking turns work. In FFT, each unit has its own “turn counter,” and units get to move when it is their turn. In Disgaea, combat alternates between player and enemy turns. On your turn, you get to move all of your units, and on the enemy turn, all of the enemy units can move. This difference significantly affects how the game feels:
- In FFT, a large portion of combat feels like you are waiting for your turn, especially if the enemy units outnumber your units. Furthermore, during your turn, you can only perform one action.
- In Disgaea, because all enemy units move simultaneously, a lot less time feels like waiting. In addition, you can perform a lot more actions per turn (one per unit you control), creating a lot more depth in strategy.
Another difference between the two games is the mana system. In FFT, during each battle, your units start with 0 mana, and they gain some mana per turn. Every special ability costs some mana to cast, and the more powerful abilities require more mana. Because of this, in order to use your more powerful abilities, you have to “skip” a turn. The pacing of turns in FFT already seems slow, and not being able to cast abilities every turn makes the game even slower.
In Disgaea, units start out with full mana and do not regain mana per turn. In this system, you can cast your most powerful spells right from the beginning, and you can keep casting them until you run out of mana. The ability to do this makes combat feel better, since there is less waiting involved.
Other than the usual mechanics found in strategy-combat games, each game provides a twist on the normal combat system. FFT has “laws” which are conditions that you must obey during the battle. If you break a law, you will get punished. Disgaea has “geo panels” which are conditions that affect certain tiles on a map. Units that are standing on these special panels will gain the effects on those panels. Below, in the screenshot to the left, you can see that “Harming Moogles” is illegal. In the screenshot to the right, the blue panel has the “Evade” and “No Lifting” effects.
Gameplay-wise, the “law” mechanic in FFT feels frustrating. One of the main reasons for this that enemy units can completely ignore the law, while you have to uphold them. This creates a feeling of unfairness in every battle in the game. Even though you can break the law (the punishment for doing so pretty negligible), it still feels unfair to be punished for it, and this feeling makes combat less fun than it could be.
On the other hand, the “geo panel” mechanic in Disgaea (usually) affects both your units and enemy units, which makes combat more interesting. In the above screenshot, the “Evade” condition makes units miss their attacks more often, but if you can get your units on those tiles, you gain an advantage in battle. There are still some effects like “Enemy Boost x3” and “Ally Damage 20%” which boosts enemy stats and damages your units respectively, but unlike in FFT, you can remove these effects in battle by destroying the corresponding “geo symbol” unit.
When you destroy a “geo symbol” unit, if it is a different color than the panel it’s on, it will change the colors of the panels it effects to its own color, damaging all units on those panels (usually enemy units). So unlike in FFT, you are rewarded for removing conditions rather than punished, making the combat feel more fair. In addition, when you destroy “geo symbols,” the damaging effect can end up destroying other “geo symbols,” starting a giant chain reaction:
This is the most fun mechanic that I’ve ever seen in a turn-based strategy combat game. Not only does it add a really cool puzzle element to combat, it also gives a high risk, high reward choice to the player (you get bonus items for getting high combos). Should I risk being attacked by enemies and create giant chains, or should I ignore the puzzle and just kill all the enemies?
With respect to gameplay, the “geo panel” mechanic introduced by Disgaea adds a lot of depth to the strategy, whereas the “law” mechanic introduced by FFT just feels like something that was arbitrarily added to make the game harder.
When it comes to characters, Disgaea also did a better job than FFT. When I was playing FFT, I found myself not really caring about Luso or any other character in the game – for the most part, they felt shallow and boring. In Disgaea though, the characters were much more interesting, and I was compelled to use them in combat.
Facial Expressions and Emotions
One of the reasons why Disgaea has more interesting characters is that the characters in Disgaea have facial expressions. Though you can infer the character’s emotions through dialog in FFT, it wasn’t very convincing because the characters were stone-faced in the game. Take a look at the sprite sheets for Luso (left) and Adell (right), the main characters in FFT and Disgaea respectively:
On the right side of Adell’s sprite sheet, you can see him go through a variety of facial expressions and other animations, but none of that exists in Luso’s sprite sheet. While Adell can perform all sorts of poses, the only thing that Luso can do is walk around, sit, and lie down.
Reasons for Using Characters
In both games, there are generic characters that you can recruit and use in battle. These generic characters have very small impacts (if any) on the story of the game. Having generic characters is fine; they’re actually really good at making the main characters feel more unique. The problem occurs when the generic characters are too similar to the main characters – making your main characters feel less special.
This is exactly what happens in FFT. Almost everything a main character can do, a generic character can also do. There are a few character-specific classes in FFT, but Luso, the most important character in the story, is just a re-skin of the generic human character. Other than a few battles where you are forced to use Luso for plot reasons, there is no other incentive in the game for using him.
On the other hand, Disgaea does a really good job in making its characters feel unique. All of the characters have a set of unique skills that generic characters cannot obtain. Below are two examples of these unique skills:
Not only do these skills give you a reason for using the characters, the short cutscenes that play when the character is performing the skill are perfect opportunites to build their personalities even further.
Although the Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift and Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days are both good games, I thought FFT fell short in two really important areas: the combat and the characters. The combat system in FFT feels slow, and the various mechanics don’t allow for a lot of depth in terms of strategy. The characters in FFT feel shallow, and it is hard to care about them. So how could these problems be fixed?
The current unit-based turns in FFT makes combat slow, but changing that around would require redesigning the entire combat system. By itself, I think the current turn system is fine, but when you add in the mana system, your mage units have to skip their turn in order to cast more powerful spells – and skipping turns never feels good. Reworking the mana system so that you start at full mana would require rebalancing many magic spells, but it will also eliminate the turn-skipping problem that mages face.
The “law” mechanic in FFT is frustrating because it creates an asymmetric situation that is never in your favor. Though this might add another layer of strategy to the combat, it also makes combat feel unfair. There are a few ways that this problem can be addressed. First, change the law mechanic so that it affects both your units and the enemy units. This is how the law system in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance works. With this change, you can use the law to your advantage by forcing enemy units into situations where they have to break the law.
Alternatively, have some battles where the law affects you but not the enemy, and have some battles where the law affects the enemy but not you. This would require reworking the punishment system for breaking laws, but it’s a lot closer to the current system in that game has. A benefit for using this system is that you can greatly change the difficulty of certain battles by setting laws against the player or against the enemy.
There are a lot of things that could be done to make the characters in FFT more engaging. The easiest thing to do is to give the character some more portraits with different emotions, and change the portraits during dialog to reflect their emotions. The sprites can be the same, since players will project the personality that they see in the portraits onto the sprites.
Also, we can make Luso more unique by giving him a class that only he has access to or an item that only he can equip. In the story, he’s from a completely different world… there has to be something that makes Luso different from the other humans, right?
Of course, all of these ideas might have their own problems, and playtesting is the only way we can know about them. For anyone who is considering on making a similar type of strategy-combat game in the future, creating a well-paced battle system that feels fair and making the main characters engaging are important things to keep in mind.