Turn-Based or Real Time With Pause (RTwP)? Another Opinion
"You got this coming!"
Baldur's Gate III has revealed its turn-based gameplay in what I can only call a relieving revelation. Not necessarily because I prefer turn-based combat in roleplaying games, but because there's no more reason for heated debates on official channels about which is better - that, or real-time with pause (RTwP) combat.
The game is being developed by Larian Studios, a Belgian studio known mostly for its continued commitment to developing solely their Divinity IP. Their popularity soared with the successful Kickstarter campaign for Divinity: Original Sin II, and have only improved their reputation with free content updates and ports to systems outside of PCs.
This is very much unlike the original Baldur's Gate, its sequel and their respective expansions, developed by BioWare. These titans in Western RPGs featured real-time with pause combat based on the then current Dungeons & Dragon ruleset of AD&D 2nd Edition. The move from that to 5th Edition rules as well as turn-based gameplay in a game that appears as though most of its assets come from Larian's last game has had people worried, and when you let a fanbase mature (fester?) like it has, such worries can become volatile.
I do not hold the opinion that turn-based gameplay is "outdated" because video games are capable of allowing multiple actions happen at once, and allow for ease of tracking them all. I think that, like any design choice made by a developer, it is a tool drawn from a vast array when it is needed to do what is to be done. And I don't adhere to the school of thought that the tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is turn-based, and therefore all games made around the property should be as well. To use a similar example, Warhammer 40,000 is a turn-based tabletop war-game, but its most critically and commercially successful games are those in real-time such as the Dawn of War franchise or the single Space Marine game.
Turn-based gameplay should be used when it is appropriate. Because its combat is typically longer due to the interfacing, there should naturally be either fewer and more meaningful, or easier trash fights. Trash fights are, like the combat system, not a requirement. I'd go as far as to say they possess very limited artistic merit to a game's storytelling as they mostly exist to give players something to do, the exception being when the trash itself is a major part of the story (see wave-survival games such as Left 4 Dead's infected, or Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide's skaven hordes). Combat in games such as The Age of Decadence, where the odds are massively stacked against you, is minimal due to how serious it wants resorting to murder, mugging and other violence is in such a harsh world. It isn't something you should want to get into. In Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, not being able to change the combat mode in the middle of a playthrough adds insult to injury, as mob density is no different to a playthrough with RTwP. If any game goes to show that combat should be a last resort, and that you can find other clever ways to give players something to do, it would be Divinity: Original Sin II.
Where TB combat gives players the opportunity to break down every aspect of combat and manipulate it at each fundamental stage, real-time with pause sets outs to make combat as sleek as possible, giving players however much agency as they like. As combat plays out, they can - or have the game - pause at certain points such as upon being attacked, upon nearing death, or upon an enemy casting a hostile spell effect, for example. Until you act outside of whatever AI "behaviours" you set for your squadmates, the game plays itself as naturally as it can.
While one can technically play an RTwP game in a turn-based fashion with as many automatic pauses as possible, this isn't always preferable due to things such as positioning, attacks of opportunity, as well as the general feel of the game. It's noticeably not turn-based despite developers' best intentions, especially if it adheres to the idea of D&D's idea of everyone in the combat taking about six seconds to perform their one or two actions per round.
I won't blame real-time with pause for a lot of games' unnecessary combats, the fault lies entirely with developers who can't design maps and activities to put in their zones to make it more interesting. Though I can't necessarily blame them when the two demographics and their playstyles are so at odds with one-another.
Whatever my opinion on this, I think there's an important fundamental piece of information to keep in mind: they are both two sides of the combat coin. Tactical, strategic, cooldown based, energy based, initiative or static, no system is necessarily bad on its own. What's bad is when there's too many or too few fights. I hold the belief that real time with pause doesn't make a game better, it just makes it faster. The same with turn-based combat: though it may be my preference, it stops being that when the means of interfacing is clunky, and the enemy density is too great.
Returning specifically to Baldur's Gate III , I can't unsee Divinity's influence. The assets, art style, perspective and animations - all subject to change - show Larian are proud to use their engine which excels in turn-based gameplay. But I must concur with concerns that fans of BG including the retroactive addition of the Siege of Dragonspear expansion, that perhaps Larian are wearing their influences too keenly on their sleeves. As much as I admire a developer having total control over their own artistic vision, we'll see how closely this resembles a third Original Sin game in due time.