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Imagine a dynamic action RPG, where you constantly need to use your reflex to avoid bullets and fight against hordes of enemies. What would be a best way to incorporate other team members? I can think of several ways but all have disadvantages:

  • Giving them orders manually is out of questions when there's so much going around that you need all your attention just to make sure your main is not hit by any incoming attack
  • Using a dynamic pause like in classic cRPG such as Baldur's Gate makes the game slower and interrupts action that ideally should be quick, dynamic and engaging
  • Making them autonomous is difficult to balance. If they're too weak or ineffective, then the player will constantly gets annoyed at them, that they can't get anything right and die constantly. If they are too efficient then they can ruin the game because player could just sit back and watch them defeat all the enemies. If they just pretend to engage the enemy to left the action to the player this can happen

Most action RPGs seem aware of these difficulties and prefer to have a single character for the player to run and control. This simplify things greatly but I don't want to lose the party, for plot related purposes, banters, interactions etc. What would be a good way to have the best of both words? How can I best include side characters in a fast and dynamic gameplay?

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At a high level, autonomous control for other party members seems like the best path forward to preserve the "action" aspect of an "action RPG."

You could consider a game where the NPCs don't engage in combat at all by default, leaving it entirely to the player-controlled character. That does seem like it might limit the types of characters you could write as followers, though, as well as making it a little odd, lore-wise, if you can actually swap which character is actively directly controlled -- but mainly only if all characters are on-screen at once. If you hide them with a character swap gameplay conceit, like in, say, Curse of the Moon it may not create such dissonance).

But building on that, you could look at a system where they do participate, but only if explicitly directed via the player, and in ways that are basically on-demand support attacks: for example, a system where the shoulder buttons of a controller correspond to the special moves done by the player-controlled and NPC character on-demand.

Or they could participate using an AI but also support allowing the player to tell them directly to use more powerful (possibly resource-expending) moves. This is sort of like what I'd imagine the control feel of Seiken Densetsu 3 / Trials of Mana might be like if that game did not pause the action when you issue follower commands.

Building on that, you could offer a way to grow or customize the on-demand abilities of the NPCs, giving the player a customization path for the characters that they can align with their play style or character builds.

And if you're feeling particularly adventurous you might continue that trend and create a mechanism to customize even the basic AI of the NPCs. Something ranging from a simple "prefer support / melee / ranged" toggle to something as complex as the "gambit system" used in Final Fantasy 12 to program character tactics.

The sweet spot you probably want to aim for is for the AI (if you choose to implement it) to be useful for "trash" fights, but for skill and eventually mastery of the player involvement systems to be needed for boss fights or fights where the player is otherwise out of their depth.

(Since most of my references were Square games, it occurs to me you may want to look into the combat system used in the Final Fantasy 7 remake, which looks to involve mainly direct control of one character at a time while the supporting characters do...something; it's hard because it's not out yet, but it may be worth some research.)

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You could look into finding a control scheme which allows the player to control the whole party as one single entity. One game which went this route was Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure. The player controls a party of four characters which move and fight in a close formation. When the player moves the thumbstick, the whole formation moves. When the player presses the attack button, they all attack. The player can switch between different formations as the situation requires. This particular game did it with characters which were mechanically identical, which kept the gameplay complexity rather low. But I could think of several interesting things you could do with this game mechanic with a more heterogeneous party.

You could also make the game play less like an action-adventure and more like a real-time strategy game where the player gives high-level commands to the characters which they then perform autonomously. One game which went that route was the single player campaign of Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2. It is usually promoted as a real-time strategy game and uses RTS user interface conventions. But it actually plays more like an action adventure due to the small army size of only 5 units, fast pacing, the focus on character progression and equipment and the frequent boss fights.

I am looking forward to playing your game.

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