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In Search of the Perfect Survival Horror Tactical RPG

Nilson begins his descent into madness: he attempts to merge two unlikely game genres, survival horror and TRPG (not the dating sim/horizontal shooter combo we've been hoping for).

Here I go again, disgruntled about this and feigning innovation there. I've had this idea for a few weeks, though was shot down immediately when I brought it up to Rob. 

"Just no."

Now, it'd be so easy to make a tactical RPG that was horror themed. And I think that would be pretty cool just like that. This idea came to me while playing Resident Evil (the first one); I love that mansion. Great level design, really. But what about if it was constructed with isometric grids and all the character models where downsized to cute little sprites (because all TRPGs look like FFT, Disgaea, Tactics Ogre). That seems like a great idea to me.

But what about the survival part? The whole point to horror survival (before say, Resident Evil 4) is to be under equipped and poor controls, right? You're not allowed to have time to think about your strategy when you're being mauled by Silent Hill dogs. And that's what makes it scary, right? 

"Crap. I have one shotgun shell left and I'm far from a save point and I know there's tons of zombies around here... some where... AGHHH!!!!!11!!!11! NO NO NO RUN RUN NO NOT THAT WAY CHANGE WEAPONS CHANGE WEAPONS NOOOO HERB HERB HERB CRAP GET OUT THE DOOR!!!!!!"

In a perfect horror survival situation, the player would be like that, hands sweating, body shaking. Why, I just got done playing Dead Space Extraction (which is a great game for a side story Wii title), and my heart was pounding. And that game's on rails!

Now, I'm going to try to make a connection here and I hope you can follow: so I'm playing Fire Emblem. I've been at this one battle for a good while (it's one of the later stages, doesn't really matter which Fire Emblem) and it's almost over. It's foggy, though, but I'm about to get into my last fight... AND BOOM! Hidden units come out of nowhere. My turn isn't over yet, but there's nothing I can do. For the next few moments, my heart is racing and I'm praying to my PC deity, though my chances aren't good.

And it's all eerily similar to what I was experiencing in whatever horror survival; I'm scared and there's really nothing I can do about it. Although it's the AI that I'm scared of instead of tank controls (people beat Resident Evil all the time without getting hit once), it's similar, and I think there's something to be said about that.

Maybe one reader here has heard of Koudelka, a sleepy PSOne title that actually is a horror survival tactical RPG; it's not very good, gameplay wise, but it exists, and the atmosphere is cool. And it was actually created by the composer from Secret of Mana. Go figure. 

But Koudelka, at least in my eyes, is not a true tactical RPG. If you don't know this game, maybe you know Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure (no? no? anyone?). Both games feature turn-based battles on grids, but are essentially still just slightly adjusted JRPGs. Both games have random encounters. Once an encounter starts, the screens switch to a very small grid and the battles play out. These games are unlike most TRPGs, which feature large, drawn out battles, and most TRPGs rarely allow their players to explore areas outside of battles. Because of this, I would put Koudelka in with Sweet Home, a horror survival RPG.

So, can we have a game that is entirely on a turn-based grid and still be a horror survival game at the same time? I think so, but it's tough. Some thoughts:

1. Enemies should not be visible from a distance. It's REALLY dark in this mansion.

2. Limited ammo. You have your normal attack, that stupid knife, and you have your different guns, which are actually useful. You find ammo in some rooms, but don't waste it!

3. De-emphasized combat. How do you de-emphasize something that defines what the entire game is like (battling on a grid)? Let's say there's a room with four zombies, a table in the middle, and an exit in the back. Anyone who has played a tactical RPG knows how to maneuver around this table in a way to trick the zombies to go the wrong way, allowing the player to get to the exit. BUT, says the naysayers, YOU WERE ABLE TO STOP AND THINK ABOUT YOUR STRATEGY. THAT'S NOT REAL HORROR SURVIVAL. Is it? I was still afraid of the zombies getting me, and, if there was a mistake in my plans, I would have had to use my precious ammo to save my face from the zombies. I'm comfortable calling that horror survival.

This also brings attention to leveling up, a staple to all forms of the RPG. Should enemies reward players with experience points, or just be a hindrance? I could see that going either way. Players must ask themselves if their ammo is worth ten experience points for an HP upgrade or if they're going to need it to fight the boss.

4. Exploration. All horror survival games require to find some keys, some red and blue rubies, decipher seemingly random Biblical passages and Shakespeare quotes (well, all the great ones anyway). You're going to be running around a lot, going back and forth through the same rooms again and again. A horror survival tactical RPG cannot be like Fire Emblem, where the player just goes from battle to battle, but instead plays out like a normal horror survival game, where the player explores each room as they go. Should the enemies respawn in random locations, or should the player be able to just go through the exit if the room was already cleared out? Decisions, decisions.

I think it can work. I think it should work. And I think it will be awesome when it does.

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