The lines between RPG games and virtually every other genre are gradually eroding in recent years.
With developers looking to add more depth and personalization to their creations, RPG elements have started to appear in places we usually wouldn’t expect to see them.
Deep narratives, leveling and multi-layered characters are now popping up in a variety of genres, even some you wouldn’t have to expect them to.
Essentially, we’re living in a post-RPG world where hybrids are the norm.
One area where RPG features have made a move in recent years is strategy games.
Aiming to elevate the genre beyond its slightly cold and calculated roots, RPG strategy games such as the Fire Emblem franchise bring tactics and immersive environments together as one.
One of the most popular games in the series, Fire Emblem Awakening is marked by a dominant storyline that follows an epic battle across entire continents. In typical RPG fashion, all characters can be customized in various ways to suit the terrain and bring some extra depth to the action.
However, unlike your typical RPG, players can’t just hack-and-slash their way through the game. They must employ a wide array of strategies and tactics, and learn how to best utilize each character's strengths to overcome the game’s many challenges.
Fire Emblem Awakening is what is known as a tactical RPG.
Strategy RPG, also known as Tactical Role-playing games, can be traced all the way back to traditional tabletop role-playing games such as classic Dungeons & Dragons.
“Cool” as it may be, we’re more interested in the video game variation. Like so many others, the subgenre originated in Japan in the 1980s. Games like The Dragon and Princess and Bokosuka Wars were among the first to lay the foundations for the new genre, called "simulation RPG" back then.
However, it wasn’t until 1988 that this hybrid of strategy and RPG started to take form.
Many point to the strategy RPG Silver Ghost as one of the first fully-formed strategy RPGs. Players were able to use point-and-click controls in a real-time environment to manage and control multiple characters/units. If that sounds like an RTS game to you, you aren’t wrong - that is exactly how it paved the way for the RTS/RPG hybrid.
Following the legacy of Silver Ghost, First Queen took strategy RPGs another step further with a unique take on the subgenre. The game sees players explore an interactive world filled with different characters, upgrades, and unique scenery - all standard RPG elements.
Where this game tipped the balance towards strategy was its battles. A large part of First Queen sees players recruit soldiers and then controlling them in large-scale battles. Combined with the option to pause the real-time combat, this function allowed the player to consider precise, tactical moves to defeat AI-controlled armies.
These hybrids showed that it was possible to create immersive RPG worlds and successfully incorporate tactical elements. The Fire Emblem series then brought the concept to mainstream audiences in 1990, and many of its features have been used ever since.
Throughout the nineties, games like Arc the Lad II, the Farland Story series, Front Mission and more all help developed the strategy RPG genre.
As we move into the new millennium, mobile titles introduce themselves into the mix. As the likes of Valkyria Chronicles and Fire Emblem continued to dominate consoles, brands such as Banner Saga were making mobile strategy RPGs into serious contenders.
What we’ve seen over the years is a coming together of strategy and RPG games to form a new genre. Essentially, for those that enjoy making critical decisions but want a more personal experience then that of a detached general overlooking a battlefield, strategy RPGs are the perfect tonic.
From our look at the history of strategy RPGs, we can already start to see what makes the genre tick.
Rather than resorting to reflexes or real-time button mashing, the essence of a strategy game is to pick the best moves for the situation at hand or face dire consequences. Strategy RPG doesn't lose this aspect. The combination of storylines, expansive worlds, and customizable characters have only made these games more immersive.
When you examine the dynamics a little closer, you get to see an interplay between strategy and tactics. As a general rule, strategy refers to an overarching goal, the bigger picture moves that will help you achieve victory. In contrast, tactics relate to the minutiae of a fight, the specific steps you make in a situation such as “use X weapon to target Y with unit Z.”
When a game requires you to focus on an overall strategy, for instance crossing a map using the most efficient course, it leans towards being a strategy game. When you’re required to think about the weapons you’ve got and how to use them in individual battles, this is much more like an RPG. Therefore, when you combine these two elements into a single game, you have a strategy RPG.
Of course, certain games will lean more to one side of the spectrum of the other. What’s more, you should also look out for the following attributes to know if you’re dealing with a strategy RPG:
Team player: If RPGs typically put players in the role of a single character or a small party, and strategy games put you in control over entire armies - strategy RPGs offer a combination of both dynamics.
For example, in Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel, you control a unit of soldiers. Here you have a situation where you can play on the individual strengths of your characters but do so in the context of the team as a whole. You always have to consider a character’s role within the squad and make sure all individual member can support and complement each other’s abilities.
This dynamic is something that’s often lacking in both RPG and strategy games but blends together nicely in the hybrid genre.
You only die once: In most RPGs, once your main character dies, it’s game over. Load your save file and try again. That’s not the case in Strategy games, where you have almost limitless units at your disposal.
Once again, Strategy RPG games offer a sort of hybrid of the two paradigms. Your main character must survive the battle, but the same isn’t necessarily true for the rest of your party.
This can challenge both strategy and RPG players. Strategy players aren’t used to having to protect a single unit - to them the base, or the bigger picture is all that matters. RPG players, on the other hands, aren’t always comfortable with the idea of “permadeath” - losing a character forever.
The tactical approach: Unlike a standard RPG where the action is up close and personal, games in this hybrid genre typically take a step back to look at the action from a more tactical angle. Some strategy RPGs shift to a top-down or isometric perspective when it’s time to fight.
This shift between the character’s perspective and an overhead view might break the immersion a bit, but it helps highlight the strategy elements of the game.
On the other hand, strategy games often lack mainstream appeal because they don’t offer the level of immersion the average gamer arguably enjoys. That is why strategy RPGs present a more personal perspective when it comes to the story. When a story revolves around a pivotal character - the one the player just so happen to control - the change in camera angles doesn’t harm the player’s investment in the game.
Would you prefer staring at a map and practicing your long-term decision-making skills, or do you want upfront action that stimulates the senses? These are the options you’re generally faced with when you choose between strategy games and RPGs.
But with Strategy RPG you don’t really have to choose. This unique subgenre offers the best of both worlds.
In many ways, fusing RPG elements and strategy games together has been a success. For example, Project X Zone was a huge hit, and not just because it combined some of leading characters from Sega, Bandai Namco, and Capcom. Because the 2D brawler dynamic offered a familiar setting for casual gamers, Project X Zone was able to introduce tactical battles with relative ease.
True, it depends on each game. Some lean more heavily towards role-playing games, earning the definition of “tactical RPGs”, while others go for a more traditional RTS experience, but with RPG elements thrown into the mix.
But it only goes to show that fans of both genres will always find something to entertain and challenge them when it comes to Strategy RPG.