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Sometimes it seems as if pure turn-based RPGs are a dying breed. Storied franchises that were once synonymous with the style have inched further and further away from their roots, continually adding more action elements chasing after the masses’ supposedly short attention spans. However, Yakuza — a series that was previously as ensconced in the action RPG realm as any — decided to buck that trend, toss out the brawler style, and craft a love letter to Dragon Quest games of yore.
Surprisingly, it all came together in a fantastic package with Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Ryu ga Gotoku Studio went for a very traditional turn-based system but reimagined it for a modern Japanese setting. What results is a fun, visually engaging, modern take on what a turn-based system looks like. Despite being turn-based, the developers still incorporated positioning and the environment into the combat; if an enemy is near a street you can knock them into the road and a car may run them over, and characters will still pick up nearby implements to bludgeon their enemies. Like a Dragon also incorporates a class system that allows players to use Riot Police, Chefs, and Idol Singers with vastly different playstyles to beat their way through the mean streets of Yokohama. When this battle system is paired with the serious main story of Ichiban figuring out why his surrogate father betrayed their clan, shot him, and left him for dead, as well as mixing in some very silly side stories — like battling an out-of-control, car-sized robot vacuum — you end up with the best turn-based experience of the year.
Nihon Falcom absolutely found its turn-based footing with Trails of Cold Steel. It had already achieved some fantastic world-building with the Trails in the Sky subseries and the currently Japan-only Crossbell duology, but the quicker turn-based system of Cold Steel brought the gameplay to a brand new level. Trails of Cold Steel IV picks up where the fantastic third game left off, with one of the most engaging and deep turn-based combat systems out there. Though the fourth game had a mighty task ahead of it, bringing a conclusion to not only the Erebonian Saga but plot threads that started in other sub-series, it managed to pull it off successfully. The charm and incredible world-building combines with its highly polished gameplay to ensure another strong entry in the series and a deserved placement here.
Although RPG mechanics are seemingly missing from Paper Mario: The Origami King at first, they eventually reveal themselves through the engaging battle system that introduces puzzle-solving aspects. Each random battle starts Mario in the middle of a series of enemies, who are positioned on rings around him, with the player has a set number of moves to rotate or shift the enemies on the board to a favored position. If they are aligned appropriately, Mario is given a damage multiplier which usually resolves the battle in one turn. Boss battles mix things up and keep it interesting with an inverse on this with the boss in the center. The combat system reveals addition layers of complexity as the game wears on, while a witty localization, beautiful graphics, and engaging music help add to the experience. While The Origami King may eschew “proper” JRPG mechanics on paper, there are qualities here for any RPGamer to appreciate.
by Joshua Carpenter, Alex Fuller, and Paul Shkreli