Along with the Vintage Game Club, I have recently been playing Chrono Trigger, a game widely hailed as one of the best console RPGs ever made. While the game has many attributes worth praising (not least the continuity of world and battle screens), I was particularly interested by its combination attacks. Almost any two characters that are in the combat party can combine their unique individual battle techniques into more powerful “Dual Techs”. For instance, Lucca can charge Crono’s sword with fire while he performs his “Cyclone” attack to create the “Fire Whirl” tech. Frog and Ayla can combine their weak individual healing skills into the “Slurp Kiss” that slightly heals the whole party. I think it odd that this approach has seen so little use subsequently, since it seems like modulating abilities based on party composition has great potential for infusing characterization into the combat mechanics.
Of course, most role-playing games, especially in the JRPG genre, give the player characters with complementary abilities or specialized roles, so that certain rosters are somewhat more effective than others. Having the characters explicitly combine their attacks is much less common, and is typically reserved for high-powered finishing moves, as in Kingdom Hearts II or Tales of Symphonia. Chrono Trigger differs from these games in that its combination techniques span a spectrum of opportunity costs (also, the animations are short). Some of them do require a significant investment of MP and can only be used sparingly, but others have a low enough cost that they can be used almost every turn. As a result, the shared abilities are almost as important as the individual abilities to the tactical evaluation of a particular party composition.
This had an interesting effect later in the game, after I managed to get Magus to join my party. Magus is a strong and versatile character with hard-hitting magic attacks of several different elements. Considering just his individual abilities he’s a good character to have in the party. Yet, I almost never used him because he didn’t have any dual techs at all. He couldn’t increase his effectiveness by teaming up with anyone, and rather than give up the tactical flexibility, I left him out. It felt mechanically like he just didn’t fit in with the party, an appropriate note because he is a major antagonist for much of the game. The mechanics of the game isolate him in battle just as the story suggests he would be isolated in the group.
This seems to me like the sort of thing that should be done more often. The enormous cast of many JRPGs means that most of the playable characters and their relationships never really get fleshed out, despite the hours of cutscenes. Why not use the combat system to do some of this work? Envision a set of party dynamics, and use the availability of combination attacks to illustrate those dynamics. If you imagine that Marle is jealous of Ayla and Lucca, creating friction in the group, express this by limiting their combos or making them less powerful. Then, when the player needs Lucca in the party for her fire attacks, the tactical limitations would encourage the player to respond by removing Marle from the combat group. The player’s choice of party members remains an act of play, but through the manipulation of the mechanics it becomes an act of narrative characterization as well.
We can push this further by making the available combos respond dynamically to narrative. Events in the story that bring two characters closer could make new combination attacks available to them. When the relationship between two characters changes, the set of shared techniques could be adjusted to reflect the difference. This need not be tied to the planned story: a relationship system like that of Tales of Symphonia could be used to guide the evolution of combination techniques.
I’ve seen a couple of excellent essays (from Jay Barnson and Nayan Ramachandran) recently trying to dissect what’s wrong with the JRPG and suggest ways that the genre could be revitalized. My own advice is to let the gameplay tell the story, too. Persona 4 and The World Ends With You both did this, in different ways, but you can still apply the lesson even if you aren’t so unconventional. Use the gameplay of party dynamics to reinforce the story of personal relationships. Make “these characters belong together” part of the player’s thinking in every phase of the game, and the stories of those characters may gain more resonance.