I’m feeling pretty good in this battle from Codename S.T.E.A.M.. I’ve cleared half the map and discovered two out of the three cogs—items which can be used to unlock new equipment between chapters. Enemies are still scattered about the map, but as long as I take my time I should be able to cautiously whittle them down and safely comb the map for that last cog.
Then two new aliens suddenly appear behind me. They weren’t there before. I had cleared that territory with extreme and patriotic prejudice. They creep through the trees and ruins towards my flank. There’s a silent promise that, even if I defeat them, more will be coming.
Looks like I’m going to have to hurry that search up.
Perhaps one of the reasons Final Fantasy Tactics continued to live on so positively in my memory was the lack of such surprises. Oh, there were conflicts that certainly changed partway through. The infamous fight with Wiegraf in the castle, for example, where you first had to survive a one-on-one confrontation before being subjected to some of the toughest foes in the entire game. Failure meant having to fight Wiegraf one-on-one again, essentially forcing the player to do their best to survive two difficult conflicts without a break
Operation Darkness relied heavily on surprise reinforcements, often transforming the shape of the fight not just once, but twice in a single conflict. Not just regular foot soldiers, either. Huge tanks that, if you didn’t know where they’d appear, could spawn right next to characters you thought were safe.
Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem: Fates frequently have such reinforcements as well, appearing at the edges of the map halfway through a fight. Sometimes they place reinforcements in specific grid-spaces, such as stairwells, to indicate certain kinds of spawn points. In these cases the player at least has some frame of warning, but it’s inconsistent. Sometimes these points are mere decoration, sometimes they’re constantly spewing forth more and more units.
I am reminded of my argument towards other Super Smash Bros. players in regards to random items while I was in College. “If you cannot adapt to the situation, are you truly any good?” It is a question worth asking. It is also worth asking if surprise reinforcements are just a cheap attempt to increase the challenge. Introducing fresh new enemy units to a player whose resources will be running low is essentially punishing the player for failing to take the unpredictable into account.
Note that I didn’t say “the unknown”. There’s always some element of surprise to these games, but it’s often a crapshoot whether the player will run into reinforcements or not, and acting with the assumption that reinforcements will appear could only hinder the player further. Even if the player is careful, there’s often no telling where these units will show up. It could be that a foe spawns in just the right position to take out a support unit that was intelligently kept at a supposedly safe distance. That’s the kind of unknown you simply cannot adequately prepare for. Not without an intense sense of paranoia.
Yet Steamworld Heist managed to avoid all of this frustration. Sure, there were elements of surprise to be had and there were levels I had to replay due to their difficulty. Yet I could always trace the cause back to my own decisions and mistakes.
One of the reasons is because Steamworld Heist gave the player fair warning of reinforcements. An alarm would sound, a single or multiple robo-skulls would indicate the threat level, and a countdown would begin until the reinforcements would become stronger.
This did not eliminate the possibility of surprise. Some levels would unexpectedly open up with the alarms already blaring. Doors and shafts could open up to let in new enemy forces in any room I entered. The countdown indicated a need to push forward a bit more hastily and aggressively. While I didn’t know what sort of units would appear or which door they’d show, I had enough information to more carefully choose my position and to know how much time I had until things got worse.
Let’s jump back to Final Fantasy Tactics for a bit. One of the things I loved about this game was the availability of information and how it allowed me to consider all of my options carefully. Was an enemy charging a spell that would take out my Monk in three turns? Let’s see what order the units are moving in, then see who might stand the best chance of defeating that Black Mage or Summoner before the spell could execute. Or perhaps I’d need to use a spell like Shell to reduce the impact of the spell. What? The charge time on Shell is too long? How about Silence?
Clear information does not reduce the challenge, nor does it empower the player to break the game. It instead provides the player with more options, and for a turn-based tactical combat game, options are what proper game design is all about. You want the player to approach the game as they would chess. The difference between a skilled and inexperienced player shouldn’t be their ability to “adapt”, though that’s certainly part of it. It should be their ability to read several moves ahead, an ability built into Final Fantasy Tactics directly.
While Steamworld Heist doesn’t include such a tool, it does allow the player to consider what’s going to happen several turns from the present. The countdown is at three? Then I’d better be efficient with these next turns, otherwise two or three nasty robots will be coming out of those doorways.
Perhaps enough familiarity with the Fire Emblem series, or even Codename S.T.E.A.M., could breed such familiarity that I’d be able to plan for these reinforcements. This requires surprise and failure until you’ve recognized a pattern. It’s not thinking on one’s feet, it’s counting on a system to be predictable. This is not the same as tactics or strategy, and is much less rewarding.
It is, ultimately, not challenging.
I have stuck around on a level in Steamworld Heist until the threat level had reached its maximum. The sheer number of soldiers that spawn every couple of turns is staggering. Through my own conceit I had boxed myself into a corner, unable to escape the ship. No one survived. I failed the mission. It was certainly a learning experience.
This meant that the countdown presented a very different challenge, however. It communicated to me how long until I was absolutely and thoroughly screwed. Now the challenge was in playing cautiously enough without dragging my feet. It was a challenge, but a fair and intellectual one that demanded I work intelligently and efficiently.
I would like to hope more games learn from the combination of Final Fantasy Tactics’ abundant information and Steamworld Heist’s clear communication. These design considerations have contributed to each of these games being two of my favorite in the genre, and perhaps unmatched in terms of design quality.