Friday, 24 June 2016

The Genius of the Job System

Tiz, one of the main characters in Bravely Second, is currently wielding two shields in my playthrough. As my designated party tank, I thought it made sense to focus on his defence. Screw weapons, he's happy lugging around two hunks of metal strapped to either arm. It looks ridiculous, but it's currently helping him pummel out as much damage as my dedicated physical attacker and defend all his companions. He's not just a tank, he's a battle tank. 

Playing through Bravely Second isn't like playing through a typical J-RPG. It's not necessarily because of anything the game does different, but rather through its the approach to character progression: the job system.

I was talking with a friend recently about the state of role-playing games and we both agreed, among character progression mechanics,  there's not many that beat the job system. When done right, you get some of the best role-playing games around; just take a look at Final Fantasy Tactics. Hell, even when it's not implemented in a mediocre way it still makes for an enjoyable game. Final Fantasy X-2 regularly gets written off for its Charlie's Angels tone and radical departure from its predecessor, but I think in many instances I'd much rather play X-2 than X because the job system makes for more creativity and strategy.

Final Fantasy as a series is a great way to look at the job system from a wider perspective, not only because it was the first to implement them (Final Fantasy III is the progenitor of the system if I'm not mistaken) but because various instalments of the series have used it over the years.  Final Fantasy III, V, X-2, the tactics spin-offs and Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, along with Bravely Default and its sequel, all use this core mechanical system with their own unique elements. Hell, Final Fantasy XII even got a straight up enhanced release in Japan that introduced a pseudo-job system to the game, in an effort to diversify the cast and improve the game's combat mechanics. 

But what makes the job system so darn good? Flexibility. Because gameplay is interactive, it's fundamentally about choices. Therefore, when games produce interesting choices and decision points for the player they typically generate engaging gameplay

Play through any RPG, especially the more grindy Japanese variety, and you'll undoubtedly stick more with those that have a more dynamic and interesting level up system. And that's what the job system does so well; it avoids giving characters generic proscribed development paths; the player has to choose how their characters progress. 

Let's do a comparison. Take a look at Final Fantasy X, this is ideal given that its sequel actually shifted to the job system. I'd argue that Final Fantasy X has one of the most underwhelming character development mechanics in a core Final Fantasy game. Despite the complex appearance of the sphere grid, development of your characters is predetermined; Lulu will become a black mage and be specifically good at that one thing, Yuna will be a white mage and be good at that one thing, Auron will be only good at taking hits and smacking things with his sword. The game is essentially on auto-pilot when it comes to what your characters are good at.

There's no moment where you can experiment, creating interesting elements of cross-party synergy. Every character has a very rigid, strict class that dictates how they play. The only moment where some vague options come into play is way, way down the line when special spheres can teach characters other skills learned by their companions. Now Lulu can also cast white magic, hurray. 
That's the level of character customizability. 

Ironically, the one character who is given more freedom in regard to how you develop him is Kimhari, who starts out as a jack of all trades and is positioned in such a way on the sphere grid that he can progress in multiple ways. This only further establishes my point though, given that he's undoubtedly the worst character in the game and, at best, will spend most of his time playing like a watered down version of one of your other party members. Final Fantasy X's entire progression system fundamentally prevents experimentation, since it's built around each character having a very clear and defined role. It's incredibly static and almost seems to punish creativity. 

If you spend the mind-numbing amount of time it takes to max out each characters sphere grid progress, which isn't necessary during regular gameplay but is mandatory for the optional super bosses, they'll all play exactly the same with the only major difference being their limit break abilities. Essentially giving you a party of seven that are in touching distance of being carbon copies of each other. 

Now I don't want to sound like I'm throwing Final Fantasy X under the bus, that isn't the point of this post. There's plenty of elements of Final Fantasy X that I think try and compensate for the stilted progression system, that I'll be sure to write about some other time. Rather I wanted to point out how a dull, uninteresting level up system is typically a result of not giving the person playing enough options when it comes to how they develop their characters.

By contrast the job system allows the player to think about what they want from each character, with support abilities and class synergy requiring them to think about how each character develops, as well as how well they work in the wider context of your entire party. 

Final Fantasy Tactics has a host of off-beat combos and cute synergies that mean you have to think about what skills a character learns and how they interact with one another. An old favourite was combining Mana Walk, enabling a character to regenerate MP on movement, with Mana Shield, which means damage is first deducted from that character's MP pool instead of their health. But the final trick was sticking those on a combat character who had no need for his or her MP reserves, almost doubling their HP. The best part was that both of those skills were from magic-based classes, but the combo worked incredibly well, possibly even better, on close combat characters, who had no need for their MP reserves.

In other words, you had to work to see the best ways of expanding your party member's capabilities, and think outside the box. The job system, when done right, scratches the same itch that deck-building games do; they're about noticing synergies and the enjoyment that comes from creating interesting combos. 

Bravely Second expands on this idea with its abundance of different jobs and support abilities that can combined to make the perfect kind of character you want. It's far from flawless, but its execution of the job system is easily its biggest highlight. Playing Bravely Second on the 3DS isn't where I get the biggest amount of satisfaction. It's when I'm perusing the game's wiki page,  looking to see what new weird job I've acquired fits with my current skill set, drafting up new ideas to try out and see how far I can push each weird skill to breaking point. 

It almost breaks down into a meta-game at some point. The actual fun doesn't come from playing the game itself but from theory crafting, messing around with combinations and basically going “what if” when you read the description of a new ability. 

The job system rewards both creativity and experimentation, putting more control into the player's hands, demanding more of them in some cases but also opening up the strategy and depth that's potentially there. It's certainly not the only way to handle progression in an RPG, but as a game mechanic, it's arguably one of the best that Square Enix have used over the years. 

Games should provide interesting questions to the player and, most of all, give them options to make leave their own mark on the mechanics. The job system does that and then some, and it's why it remains one of the best game mechanics to ever grace Japanese RPGs. 


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