Combination or Cooperative Attacks

I really like Chrono Trigger‘s combination attack system, and I am not alone when I wonder why more games haven’t picked up the torch and implemented their own. Suikoden is the only other mainstream game series  that features cooperative attacks I can think of, although I suppose I could mention the Romancing Saga’s and their Saga offspring too.

It’s even more surprising when considering the games that delve into the relationships between characters, since it would make perfect sense for characters who are friends and fight side to side to adopt and deploy strategies based on teamwork and taking advantage of each other’s strengths. In such a game, the combination attacks would not only become a payoff for working on the relationship aspect of the game, but would also further enhance that sense of ‘friends fighting side by side’.

Combination attacks, and their availability, can also be an important factor in situations where the player must split the party into 2 or more groups to be deployed simultaneously to the same dungeon, or in situations where the player must include a certain character in the party for story reasons. Knowing that characters X and Y have a powerful combo attack would probably motivate the player to put them in the same team together. If a number of different characters have combo attacks with other characters, the player has to factor these into their choice of party composition. Similarly, in the case of dungeons or areas with monsters that are subject to specific elemental weaknesses, powerful attacks dealing damage of that type would probably play an important part in who the player decides to bring along.

Combination attacks can also be used as a way to balance out characters who players might otherwise perceive as underperformers. If a certain character is relatively weak as a standalone, when compared to other characters available, but has a number of good combination attacks, the player’s perception of the character changes.

From my experience with games, there are two distinct types of combined or cooperative attacks: Direct selection attacks, like in Chrono Trigger and Suikoden, and indirect, like in Romancing Saga.

Suikoden and Chrono Trigger allow the player to initiate a combination attack from the menu. The player selects one of the characters in the combo, selects the appropriate command, and the attack fires when the character’s turn comes around. This system is relatively straightforward, with the only requisite being that all characters performing the attack have a full ATB (Action Time Battle) bar, or in the case of Suikoden, just being active (not dead, stunned, off-balance, asleep, etc). This system puts combination attacks conveniently at the player’s disposal.

Romancing Saga’s combination attacks are a little trickier. In Romancing Saga, different weapon skills and magic combine together to create specific combinaton attacks, which can be performed by any characters wielding the appropriate weapon and with the specific skill available. It is then a matter of selecting these skills, and if the characters would perform the combo attack in succession (with no other characters or enemies acting between the two characters) the combo goes off. This system is more complicated, and makes combo attacks harder to pull off. When the attacks occur, though, they tend to do more damage, relatively speaking, than Chrono Trigger’s multitechs.

Using my previous idea for a combat system, with time bars and action gems, and with a ‘friendship’ system solidly in place, I would design a hybrid system: The player would select a character with sufficient action gems and select one of their special attacks. As the character readies their single attack and the name appears on screen, the game would check if any of the characters in the party with available action gems and abilities that combo with the action being performed join in on the attack, based on the friendship stat between the two players. If the character joins in, the player is shown a button prompt on-screen, and given a couple of seconds to press the button – or a different button to press to cancel the prompt, if for whatever reason they don’t want to do the combo attack. If the player presses the button, one or more of the comboing character’s action gems are consumed, and the character joins in on the action, with the name of the combo attack appearing on-screen to replace the name of the first attack. The combo attack would then take place, with damage being dealt, etc.

This would take advantage of what I perceive to be the best aspects of each of the two systems: it uses the predictability of the Chrono Trigger/Suikoden system – as long as your comboing characters have action gems and a high enough friendship rating, the combo will occur – while at the same time avoiding waiting for characters to have full action bars and adding a little bit of spontaneity – you can be selecting the special attack that will start the combo when the comboing character’s action bar is close to their next action gem, such that the action gem will be lit by the time the combo-triggering attack is queued into the battle.

Unique Abilities and Systems

Another aspect of combat that Square seems to have dropped by the wayside is the concept of having different systems for different characters. While Final Fantasy VI is the best example of this, even the characters from IV, VII and IX feel more unique, combat-wise, than those of say X or XII. I understand that giving each character a unique system is a lot of work, and requires a lot more time in design, coding and testing. I also realise it is appealing to some people to ‘max out’ their characters by learning all available skills and abilities and mastering all of the game’s jobs. Still, it creates a whole slew of other problems when all characters in the party have access to all of the most powerful spells and abilities, and it detracts from having unique characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Among things I would like to see or explore: a character with no MP/Mana, who instead uses up their own health to perform special abilities and magic –  an elemental or magical entity might have a single ‘Essence’ stat instead of HP and MP, for example, and can be healed by absorbing elemental attacks of the appropriate type, or vampires as they are described in Vampire: the Masquerade, drawing from their HP – which acts as a ‘blood pool’ to power special vampiric powers, and with the ability to drain HP from enemies to heal themselves – a martial arts ‘combo’ system – I do loves me some Sabin/Mash action – different magical traditions in one game world, and interesting non-human characters. Persistent pets or ‘summons’ could also be interesting, although probably harder to do.

I can’t recall any other games that did this on as grand a scale as FFVI, although Ryu from the Breath of Fire is another great example of a character being made unique – and instantly recognisable – by their signature combat ability.

I’m not saying that all character customisation systems are bad, in fact, I think there are a lot of really good character customisation systems out there. It’s only when a system turns all characters into clones of each other, save for one or two special abilities which play out differently from each other, that the characters’ uniqueness suffers from it. Rather, I feel character customisation should allow the player to change how a character plays to some extent, perhaps choosing to specialise in one or two areas of combat, rather than allow players to create unstoppable tank-mages with all the best abilities in the game.