Picture the scene, your party is exploring the depths of a dungeon far from the overworld or the safety of the nearest town when suddenly the screen flashes and everything goes dark. A second later the pulsing sound of a battle theme begins to play before the combat screen fades into view and gives you the first real look at the monsters you’ll be facing. They’re a threat to your completion of this dungeon, but more than that they offer precious experience, items and currency at a point in the game where you’re in sore need of such things. The timer full, your first character presents a plethora of options to you from a host of special actions you’ve spent the game training to your party. The question is, with so many other options available to you would you notice if one of them weren’t there? Would you morn the lack of a Defend option?
‘Defend’ (sometimes called Guard) is a common element in nearly every JRPG and is usually tucked away just beneath the ‘Attack’ command. It’s given a spot of supreme importance on the screen but very few players ever actively use this option, preferring to get in an extra attack and hope to mitigate damage done to the party through the use of healing spells or items later. Action RPGs tend to take a more aggressive stance on Defending, with games such as the ‘Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening’ giving you a shield before you even have a sword and titles like ‘Dark Souls’ and its kin making a good defence as important as a good offence. More recently ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’ took a bold move in doing away with a healer class altogether and limiting the player’s stock of available potions to a small group-distributed pool that could quickly be depleted, placing a massive amount of emphasis on the player’s ability to guard and buff instead. JRPGs have always offered the ability to Defend, giving a distinct and separate tactical option to the player but most fail to make use of it outside of presenting a temporary, small amount of damage reduction.
This isn’t always the case however, as there are some good examples in the JRPG genre of ways in which the Defend command can be put to good use. ‘Breath of Fire IV’ for example allows characters to learn enemy skills if they are hit with one whilst in the guard position, making the point of some battles simply to demolish the monsters you’ve already harvested and then guard and guard again until that elusive attack has been collected. You can happily play the whole game without ever using this ability, but it’s a layer of depth and an additional reward that other games lack and makes skipping a turns worth of damage dealing a more inviting prospect. That’s where the problem lies. Players want to be dealing damage to the enemy and when you’re defending you’re not dealing any damage.
The Final Fantasy series has made use of the same trick on multiple outings, usually in an early boss encounter where the enemy simply stops attacking but takes on a defensive stance. Dealing any kind of damage to the boss in this period is met with an immediate and more powerful counter attack that could flatten an unsuspecting party, and so the player is forced to defend or heal up and buff over the course of this period until the stance is dropped. This makes for an interesting concept in theory, but ultimately is further damages the idea of defending as a real tactical option in a standard battle, because what it’s telling the players is that defending is wasting a turn while you wait for something to happen. It’s a skip function. ‘Final Fantasy V’ features a battle against a mimic who does whatever you do and will always win if you try to fight him head on, making the only option to choose Defend and wait him out. It’s a clever trick because it’s done so late in the game and a timer is ticking down until everyone automatically dies so you’ll have to think about it before getting it right away, but ‘do nothing’ is what the game is telling you. Defending is doing nothing. Later Final Fantasy games have gone as far as to have tucked the Defend option away off of the main menu, accessible by pressing left when making your choices but otherwise hidden. Clearly the developers have decided nobody’s using this option as well.
In ‘Legend of Legaia’ the player could choose to use the Defend option to reduce damage from a powerful attack and gained additional moves in their next turn, giving an incentive to pay close attention to boss patterns and think of defending as a viable tactic. In the Shin Megami series every encounter is potentially your last, with even generic battles posing a threat. Defending on the part of those party members with the wrong elemental alignment to tackle certain enemies is the only real choice in these matters if you hope to survive the encounter. Dragon Quest, perhaps the premiere JRPG series does nothing with the defend option, preferring to leave it as a standard option. The battle system of the Dragon Quest series has been a steadfast showing of how a basic turn-based build can remain fun and engaging without evolving to a significant degree, and the Defend command feels like a piece of history here that they’re unwilling to assess or let go of.
The Grandia series has one of the best battle systems in any JRPG and ‘Grandia II’ adds a simple trick to the Defend option that makes it more useful. It allows a character to regain a small amount of health and skill points when he or she blocks an attack. This is especially useful when coupled with a well-timed enemy attack because it wastes their turn and speeds up your next round’s move. Lower level characters waiting to be useful but required to survive a battle in order to gain experience can more easily survive to level up in this manner. Similarly the Tales series features a battle system that plays out in real-time and encourages you to gauge when a monster will attack and block accordingly, preventing being knocked into the air or off your feet to the ground, leaving you vulnerable. In both cases these two series telegraph enemy moves visually in order to allow the player a chance to decide if they want to block or not, something some ATB systems simply don’t allow for. The Paper Mario series provides a similar function, enabling a well-timed button press to allow the player to mitigate damage to almost zero, although this can be almost game breaking in the way it has been implemented.
In the world of Tactical RPGs, defending is sometimes seen as a dirty world. You CAN defend, but really when every other action provides a slight experience reward where’s the incentive? You’re better off casting a healing or buffing spell that has no effect and reaping the benefits of a slight experience boost, especially if you fall into the trap of a tactics game were Healers don’t get experience points for restorative skills. The ‘Disgaea’ series as a whole is particularly bad for this, with choosing to defend giving only a slight damage reduction and actually reducing that character’s ability to counterattack. The Shining Force series ignores the option entirely, preferring to simply have an option to ‘Wait’ that skips the turn.
As a player of a wide range of RPGs I have mixed feelings about the Defend option, especially when it is encountered in a JRPG. In most games I tend to ignore it outright unless the battle dictates that a character in my party needs to be protected, in which case I put them into defence every round and cast additional regenerative and buffing spells on them as needed, or if the game does something out of the ordinary with the command. I do test the usefulness of the command nine times out of ten at the games outset in order to best gauge if it will be a part of my arsenal or simply dead-weight on the menu. In this day and age when in-game tutorial missions seem to have permanently replaced the packaged manuals of old, I find that this is regularly a skipped over subject. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised to discover that a game has found a way to utilize the function in a new manner, mostly however I sigh and relegate it to the ‘only if I have to’ bin along with running away or those moves that enjoy sacrificing a character to restore others. It’s safe to say that no matter how you look at it, the Defend option isn’t getting the love it deserves.