Improving Rock-Paper-Scissors Based Gameplay
If you read my review of the recently released Fate/Extra for PSP (go ahead, take a minute), then you know how undesirable the battle system sounds. Turn-based fights in RPGs nowadays are practically doomed to criticism as people continue to favor real-time encounters more and more. A game that combines a slow grind with the chance laws of rock-paper-scissors is even less appealing to prospective players, who'd probably prefer rigid but reliable combat rules to random odds. Fate/Extra is a hard sell, even if it does offer constant challenge.
Calling yourself a master of Fate/Extra is like professing to be the ultimate master rock-paper-scissors (RPS) player. Few people are because RPS operates on random selection, which requires unbiased input and no premeditated thought. Since humans aren't very good at this, the World RPS Society (yes, such a thing exists) suggests all sorts of psychological tricks and deceptions to fool your opponent and all but ensure a win.
An RPS-based battle system might sound simple and accessible in theory, but considering how miserable we actually are at adapting the principles of the game, it's a bad choice for a primary mode of combat. The developers of Fate/Extra could have and should have implemented additional rules to tip the odds in our favor. Even if players did, as the World RPS Society recommends, use strategies to predict their opponents' moves, the enemies and bosses of Fate/Extra are artificial intelligences, not human competitors. Their inputs are truly random, and as everybody knows from challenging the computer in any digital board game, beating the AI is exceedingly difficult.
Fate/Extra could have compensated for its AI in a number of ways. For one, after the player character's servant executed its combination of six Attacks, Breaks, or Guards, the game could have preserved those inputs for convenience in the next round. In other words, while players can determine the proper inputs—whether their choices were successful or whether they should have used a different move—as they watch the combat occur, there are times when spectating alone fails to give a clear impression of how to win. If your character's servant uses Attack and the command succeeds, then you know the enemy servant must have used Break—since Attack beats Break, Break beats Guard, and Guard beats Attack. If your character's servant uses Attack and the command backfires, then you know the enemy servant used Guard. But if the two servants clash, both having used the same move, the game doesn't show on screen whether Attack, Break, or Guard was chosen. Unless you can remember your original six inputs while also keeping track of the results mentally, you're out of luck and you've failed to discern the entirety of the combination. Since enemies and bosses can employ over a dozen combinations, an incomplete observation of their six moves in any given turn translates to wasted effort.
And considering players have no more than a second or two to figure out whether a move was successful (and if not, what move should have been used) and then repeat the process five more times before the round ends, confirming the right combination takes split-second thinking and a lot of marking moves down on paper. Nobody wants to do that much work and still call it playing a game for fun. If the game would keep the player's previous inputs or even highlight successful and unsuccessful ones in corresponding colors, the amount of work involved would decrease significantly and players would find more enjoyment in battles.
Maybe the game could simply recall the successful hits and record each combination in a pop-up list, distinct to each enemy type. As mentioned in my review, enemies and bosses have more combinations at their disposal than is manageable, so limiting the number of move sets (fewer for enemies and more for bosses) could make battles less complicated, as well.
However the developers of Fate/Extra chose to give players an advantage over the AI would have been fine as long as they were given an advantage at all. Having auto-recorded combinations to use against enemies would take some of the pressure off players and even speed up battles.
One older, more successful example that comes to mind is the original PlayStation RPG from Contrail, Legend of Legaia. Like those of Fate/Extra, its battles functioned on a turn-by-turn basis, and players selected different inputs to create a combination of moves. As the three characters leveled up, players could select more commands to execute longer attacks. These commands, or inputs, corresponded to the parts of the body—right arm, left arm, right leg, and left leg—as a series of punches and kicks. The battle system wasn't exactly straight RPS, since enemies and party members took separate turns, but enemies were occasionally vulnerable to high or low attacks, and players could put together random inputs to discover a new move. These moves, or attack combinations, were recorded in a viewable list and were unique to each character. When able, players could string them together with other combinations to deal more damage.
As with Fate/Extra, which uses three commands, the four-command-based Legend of Legaia used RPS principles to add more depth to its gameplay. Unlike Fate/Extra, however, Contrail's game only applied one side of the equation. Instead of having both enemies and player characters simultaneously execute inputs, inputs that would prevent one side from dealing or taking damage or end the turn in a tie, each battle participant had the chance to perform random inputs or predetermined combinations, the latter of which resulted in special, more powerful attacks.
Legend of Legaia compensated for the human player, who is by nature helpless against the random, artificial intelligence of a rock-paper-scissors game's opponents. The developers of Fate/Extra could have also made RPS innovative, improving upon the primitive concept in whatever ways they could think of. Lack of foresight, however, cost them an audience for what is otherwise an amazing game.