Combat with the goblins and trolls of the invisible world of The Spiderwick Chronicles for DS took place in a turn-based battle mode. During combat the player would take turns selecting moves for their party to perform. Once they were done they would have to defend against incoming attacks during the enemies' turns.
Many of our mechanics were based on classic RPG designs like the older Final Fantasy games, but some of what we did was a little more unique.
The touchscreen is used for selecting items off of the combat menu, blocking attacks, and inputting attack gestures. These touchscreen elements keep the combat feeling much more active than most turn-based fare.
These controls were conceived of in order to keep the battles being something that have to be actively played. Turn-based combat like the type we used in this game can easily devolve into players selecting a single attack over and over again and then healing when they are weak. For better or worse, in Spiderwick, the players have to keep paying attention to even the simplest fights throughout the game. The outcome of a battle where they blocked every incoming attack and got every damage bonus will be a great deal different from one where they simply selected their moves and watched them play out.
Special abilities and sprite effects
Beyond the basic attacks are special abilities and sprite effects. Special abilities are governed by a 5 point meter that is shared by all party members, and sprite effects use sprites collected on the adventure map to attack enemies, heal allies, and perform a number of other effects.
Special ability meter
The two ideas of having the "magic" component of the battle mode be built around using a limited supply of collectables, and the leaving the purchasing of special abilities at the player's discretion, was a trickier thing to balance that I initially believed it would be. In fact, if the player does all the "wrong" things, there are points in the game where they can get permanently stuck.
What I learned from this is that I couldn't just trust the testers to find these issues on their own. Especially on a game with this many variables, and one that is as tightly balanced as this is (where brute force level grinding is not an option), I needed to provide them with a plan for testing the game using many different play styles. On this project I did not.
During each character's turn the player can choose to move them into the front row or back row. This decision affects which moves the character can use during their turn, whether or not they receive a defensive bonus if attacked during the enemies' turn, whether or not they participate in a counterattack, and, indirectly, the combat decisions of the enemy characters.
A character in the front row:
A character in the back row:
A lot of the strategic depth of the game comes from these mechanics. Players can lure enemies into counterattack traps, by using items that force the enemy to target them on their next turn. They can get special ability points on their first turn by attacking protected enemies and blocking their party's counterattacks. Characters in the back row aren't just more protected from damage, they are also less likely to be attacked in the first place. But a character in the back row can only attack by expending scarce resources.
Enemies are programmed to choose from several basic attack behaviors (such as: attack front row character, or attack lowest health character) depending on the current circumstances of the battle.
We used this system to give personalities to our different enemies. With a more intelligent enemy, the more characters that are in countering position, and the lower the enemy's health, the more cautious the behavior they use (like, explicitly avoiding back row attacks). But some enemies were made to be stupidly aggressive and always attacked the character with the lowest health regardless of counter-attacks, making them easier to defeat if the player recognized the behavior.
Ultimately The Spiderwick Chronicles is a pretty simple game, and if we never mixed things up then over the long term it could potentially get monotonous. One way I tried to keep things interesting in combat was by giving some of the enemies abilities that would force the player to change how they played or try new tactics. Others are only support characters and flee if the other enemies are all killed.
These goblins don't attack, but sprite effects do not work while a fisher goblin is in the battle. If the player uses a sprite effect the fisher will "eat" their sprites, negating the effect. They flee if alone in battle.
These goblins eat random sprites out of the player's inventory when they attack.
The goblin elites only found in the area around the ogre's lair. They block all incoming attacks, reducing the damage done to them to 1. Players must stun them to break through their defense.
The larger trolls grab one of the player characters and hold them for a turn before biting them and reducing their remaining hitpoints by half. If they are attacked while holding one of the characters the damage from the attack is split between the troll and the held character.
These tinkerers do not attack. Every turn they repair damage done to their mechanical attack dogs. They flee if alone in battle.
Dangerous but not malicious. When held against their will by goblins these creatures confuse the player characters causing them to attack their own party. They flee if alone in battle.