RPGs that have you control more than one character as a group or “party” are fairly common for the genre. You decide what action each character is going to do, and then they follow your commands when their turn in battle arrive. What’s a little less common is when you are given team members that you can’t order around directly.
In a situation like this, you have control over the designated main character, but everyone else you can only give suggestions to. One of the few games that I’ve played extensively that has this restriction is Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 of the SMT Persona series.
In Persona 3 (in the original PS2 release and FES versions), you are given control of your main hero who you can fully tweak and customize the battle style of to fit the role you want to play. However, you can choose between a variety of around 8 other party members with their own fixed strengths and weaknesses and elemental affinities. With a maximum party of 4, including yourself, you can construct a very well rounded or focused group to kill the creatures known as Shadows as you climb Tartarus together.
It’s quite a few floors of exploring to reach the top, but as long as you play smart with your strategies, you can fight in just about any way in this game. But just like real people in a life threatening battle, you can’t just order your team members around and micromanage their exact moves every turn. Instead, Persona 3 gives you a Tactics menu.
The default tactic for every party member is Act Freely, and your AI friends will fight alongside you in whatever way they think is efficient. Sometimes they will heal the team or attack an enemy’s weak point without your guidance, but maybe you want them to do something more specific than “kill the shadows and try not to die in the process”. That’s when you open up the Tactics menu as you decide your actions for that turn. Changing tactics does not use up your attack for that round, so you can switch them around and take your time deciding what you need everyone to do. Be wary that you can’t mess with them once you take your action, and you’ll have to wait until it’s the main character’s turn again to change tactics once more.
You start out with a small list of Tactics, but as you defeat bosses, the trust between you and your team will rise, and they will learn new tactics to take advantage of. Persona 3’s AI system is actually more complicated than it looks, and your team members will even behave differently when you make an effort to scan shadows with your navigator’s ability, taking advantage of any revealed weaknesses if they can.
Here’s a basic list of Persona 3 Tactics that apply to all characters. There are a few more that are special to certain characters you can have in your party, but we can just stick with this list for simplicity.
- Act Freely: The AI is free to do what it wants. If there is an enemy that can be killed with a normal attack, it will use a normal attack against that enemy. If more than one ally is in bad health, it will use a party-healing spell. If they only have a single heal spell, it will use a single target healing/item on the one with lowest HP. If an ally is in bad health, it will use a healing spell. If low on SP to cast a spell, it will use a healing item instead. If there is an enemy weak to an element, it will cast that single-target spell to that enemy. If no enemies can be knocked down with weaknesses, it will proceed to do multi-target attacks if there is more than one enemy, or the most damaging attack if there’s only one left.
- Heal/Support: If more than one ally is in bad health, it will use a party-healing spell. If they only have a single heal spell, it will use a single target healing/item on the one with lowest HP. If an ally is in bad health, it will use a healing spell. If low on SP to cast a spell, it will use a healing item instead. If everybody is in good health and they can raise the party’s stats or lower the enemy’s, they will cycle through their available buff and debuff spells. After everyone is buffed or all debuffs are in effect, they will attack as if on Act Freely, except they will use a break skill if the enemy nullifies an element they want to use.
- Conserve SP: The AI will try not to use SP, so no magic spells will be used.
If an ally’s in bad health, they will just use healing items, and as long as the enemy doesn’t null physical attacks, the AI will use the strongest physical spell they have. If an enemy does null every attack, they will waste a turn by choosing to wait.
- Knock Down: In this Tactic, the AI is determined to put every enemy into ‘Down’ status. Doing this to all enemies in one round will allow a more powerful group All Out Attack.
If an enemy is weak to an element, it will use a single-target attack of that element.
If no enemies are weak to any attacks available, they’ll use a physical attack hoping to score a critical hit to knock them down. If the enemies null every attack available, even the physical attacks, and there is an ally in bad health, then the AI will try to heal with a spell or item, with the same priority as the Heal/Support Command. If nothing else is possible to do, they will wait.
Using this will ensure the The AI will never attack an enemy already knocked down (allowing them to get up again), use a spell that doesn’t knock the enemy down, use a multi-target attack or spell, or use buff/debuffs.
- Full Assault: In this Tactic, the AI will focus on dealing the highest possible damage.
It will act the same as in Act Freely if an enemy has a weakness they can exploit, but if no enemies are weak to elements available, then they will attempt to use spell combos and physical moves that will do the most damage. The AI will prioritize multi-target skills if there is more than a single enemy. If the enemies nulls everything, they will either use a spell to buff themselves, try to inflict a status effect, or do nothing.
- Same Target: This is Full Assault on the same target you are currently attacking.
- Assign Target: You select an enemy to focus on, and they will act on Full Assault rules until it dies, and then switch to a random target after that.
- Attack Fallen: This prioritizes killing enemies that are currently Down and unable to attack, acting on Full Assault for the most possible damage. If nothing is knocked down, they will act as if given Knock Down tactics until they have a target that fits the Attack Fallen parameters.
- Wait: This just tells them to skip their turn manually. It’s good for waiting out an enemy’s negative effect or protective shield, or timing attacks for a strategy.
Using these preset AI strategies, you can guide your team mates into doing what you think is best for a situation. Some players think this is a tedious way to create artificial challenge, and end up personally covering for their teammates by customizing their main hero to fit in any role, but I personally found this a really interesting system to use.
It makes the various characters you fight with feel more like other people instead of your minions to boss around, and it forces you to predict a little farther ahead in battles to figure out what the best tactic is. Instead of just using everyone as puppets, you have to have a sort of genuine teamwork going and trust that they will do the right thing. It made your party members appear more alive and aware, in my opinion. They had personalities and skills I had to take into account when using them, and that really adds to the RP part of an RPG game.
And if anything is focused on in Persona 3 and the sequel games as a recurring theme, it’s that you can’t be strong by yourself. You need the bonds you spent so much time cultivating between the people you met on your journey if you want to make it out alive… mostly. You’ll still probably die a lot, but it’ll be more fun if you make friends to soften the blow.