Design Gold is a series of short blogs reflecting on an effective element of game design in a game that I am currently playing and how it works to better the overall play experience. Blogs may be updated in the future as my understanding of how that element works changes.
Treasure of the Rudras (Rudra no Hihou) is a 1996 JRPG by Square for the SNES that features a lot of interesting design decisions. Players take on the roles of three heroes (later united by a fourth) each on a quest to stop the end of the world in 15 days. Credited with its design is Akitoshi Kawazu who was also responsible for the design of the early Final Fantasy games and its much more experimental cousin the Romancing SaGa series. The DNA of the latter can be clearly felt in Treasure of the Rudras which has elements of non-linear storytelling and innovative systems. Treasure of the Rudras was never released outside of Japan, however, it can be played via ROM using a fan translation by the group Aeon Genesis (who were also responsible for the translations of Shin Megami Tensei ROMs).
Most discussions of the game center around its incredible Mantra system which has the player combining different words and phrases to build spells of different elements, effects, ranges and magnitudes. Even more incredible is the fact that a system that so heavily uses characters of the Japanese language was translated into English in more or less working form. However, this blog will focus on something much more granular: how Elemental Affinity of characters is handled with Equipment.
Elemental Affinity is a popular mechanic is a number of JRPGs. There are n Elements that make up damage types. If you use Elements of one kind on an enemy, you get a benefit. If you use Elements of another kind on enemy, you will get punished. You can think of it as a sort of color matching mini-game used to make combat feel less deterministic. Most may be familiar with how the Pokemon series handles it with Type Advantages (e.g. Water beats Fire, Fire beats Grass). It is an intuitive mechanic for most players as it offers an immediate First Order Optimal (FOO) strategy to get the players feeling skillful for their choice in-game.
Series in the Final Fantasy mold give this mechanic a bit of a nod to make gameplay for magic users more interesting by conferring a x1.5 - 2.0 damage multiplier if you hit an enemy of the opposite element (its vulnerability/weakness) and a x0.5 - 0.75 damage multiplier if you hit an enemy of the same element (its strength/resistance). The same rules will generally apply to your party making for some variation in Equipment (e.g. Weapons that make your normal attacks of a certain Element or Armor that makes you resistant to an Element). This mechanic is developed upon in the mid-late game where most enemies will nullify or absorb damage from certain elements, making players move onto Non-Elemental Damage spells. At that point, however, things get significantly less interesting as Elemental Affinity is ignored in favor of raw power, and in such games physical attackers generally scale better than magic users so why not just hit the 'Attack' button every turn (a problem worth discussing in another blog).
Treasure of the Rudras, while certainly in the Final Fantasy mold, does something interesting with its Elemental Affinity system. As a game with spell casting as a core feature using its Mantra system, the player is told very early on that enemies will have certain resistances and weaknesses so they should try to experiment with a variety of different spells. However, it is possible for both enemies and party members to have multiple resistances and weaknesses. There are six Elements in Treasure of the Rudras that are set in pairs opposite to each other : Fire vs Water, Thunder vs Wind, Light vs Dark. There are two additional elements Void and Earth which are not part of this pairing, working similarly to Non-Elemental Damage in other games.
So, if an enemy is using Fire spells and in the Thor Volcano area, the player will probably be able to defeat it easily with a Water spell, being its opposite in the pairing. When it comes to the party members things get more interesting. Let's say to get past an area with a lot of enemies throwing Fire spells, the player was to put on equipment that makes a party member resistant to Fire (e.g. Huey's Ring). By doing this, however, they have now made that party member vulnerable to Water. This can be devastating later in the game where enemies can mix up the Elements they are attacking with and so what was once useful has now become a liability. This applies to all three of the opposite pairings, so a player can make a character resistant to Fire, Wind and Dark but they are now vulnerable to Water, Thunder and Light attacks. The player can choose to not have any resistances (therefore no weaknesses), but they leave themselves open up to the raw power of the Elements which could be fatal if their Spirit attribute (what determines their Magic strength and defense) is low.
So, you might be thinking, that's pretty neat but does it warrant an entire Design Gold blog? There are certainly other games that have done Element Affinities in a much more interesting manner (don't fret, we'll get to Shin Megami Tensei and Divinity: Original Sin eventually) since the release of this decades-old game. And you would be right, but I think the implications created by this simple mechanical variation are worth exploring in significant detail.
On a single character basis, this makes determining their loadout an interesting puzzle. If the player knows the dominant Element of a dungeon area or boss battle, they could equip them with that same Element to reduce damage taken. However, this is not always simple as Elemental Affinities of various pieces of equipment can cancel each other out. For example, Logical Cap has a Wind Affinity and Thor Ring has a Thunder Affinity. If a character were to equip both, then those Affinities would cancel out leaving the character without a defense in either. By doing this, the mechanic subtly encourages the player towards certain Equipment sets over the course of the game rather than being explicit about what makes up a given set. The player could also opt to go counter the dominant Element being used (e.g. going for Wind when the dungeon has enemies that use Thunder). This is a much riskier setup but could pay off if the character has a high Speed attribute (what determines Turn order) and if the player has a Weapon that attacks in the same Element that they have a resistance to (if the two share Element Affinities, there is a significant damage bonus conferred). For characters that use ranged weapons (such as Legin, pictured above), it is possible for them to attack every enemy at once with Machine Guns/Crossbows and so for most of the game I had him with the counter Element Affinity so that he could go first and mow through mobs of random encounters. Once the player approaches late game, a constant question will come up on whether you equip a newly found piece of Equipment based on its stat benefits vs its Elemental Affinity. Players are rewarded for holding onto old pieces of Equipment because they will frequently run into an area where the highest stated items won't cut it and they need to change Affinities. All in all, there are 25 combinations of Element Affinities for each character so it allows for great flexibility on how players want to equip them.
On a party composition basis, this becomes an even more engaging puzzle as you are trying to find the best combination to go through a given area or Boss fight, but also having to balance those needs with what you buy from shops and how you distribute equipment among your party members. While there are some Bosses are of a single Element and only attack with that Element, most of them in the later stages of the game will vary their attacks and use party-wide attacks so it is difficult to plan for every inevitability (though I am certain there are speedrunners that have gotten it down to a science). In addition, equipment later on in the game confers better stats than those picked up earlier and for the player to hit certain damage breakpoints they will want to equip them for the loadout that gives them the best stats. To further add to the puzzle, different party members have roles in battles dictated by their stats. For example, Surlent being in a Healer/Magic-User role, Legin being in a DPS/Crowd-Control role, Sork being in a Tank/DPS role and so their Elemental Affinities will dictate both their effectiveness at their roles and their survivability in a given battle. For Surlent whose MP pool is large and has a high Spirit stat, the player may setup their Elemental Affinity to favor survivability as he'll be the one responsible for healing the party and reviving downed members. For Legin whose HP pool is low and Speed stat is high, the player may setup their Element Affinity to favor the maximum amount of damage dealt (matching the Affinity of both their weapons and armor, countering that of the Enemies') as he will be constantly going up and down in a fight. For Sork whose HP pool is high, the player may setup their Element Affinity to be neutral as they can just soak attacks through sheer strength of stats. It may seem simple as I am laying it all out here, but the choices in-game feel meaningful and give the player a lot of agency to determine how best they wish to approach the next problem.
On a design space basis, Element Affinity of armor is an engaging Rubik's cube in a game filled with many more systems to puzzle over. It must be said that the implications of Elemental Affinity apply across all three scenarios of the game, each of which has a completely different party, different areas (or at least different ordering of areas) and different Boss battles. The game is smart enough to not onboard the player with something so granular right away and slowly as they accrue new equipment let them figure out what they would require for the best combination. It also has some economy/inventory management implications as the player now has another layer to their choice of what Weapons and Armor to buy, who to give the old equipment to now that it has been freed up and what to sell back given that old equipment can still be useful at a later point in the game. Unfortunately, once the player reaches endgame (Day 16), a lot of these choices become simpler as endgame equipment clearly favors raw stats over the Element Affinity combinations. This can either be attributed to the limited development budget of the game or the fact that developers felt that as a minor system it didn't need as much in focus as other endgame content.
Elemental Affinity of Armor is just one of the many systems that makes Treasure of the Rudras such a unique game to experience. Playing it now, more than two decades after its release, it feels like a game absolutely bursting with ideas that were never fully realized due to the niche it fell into. Treasure of the Rudras was a game released at the tail-end of the SNES generation, created on a limited budget as a standalone overshadowed by its bigger mainstream cousin Final Fantasy and until the fan translations never exposed to the world outside of Japan.
I hope that by deep-diving into a single system I could show you the level of thought put into the design of the game and perhaps encourage you to check out the game for yourself. It is a delightful mess of puzzly game systems, smooth sprite-based animation with trippy spell visuals, and sincere JRPG meditations on humanity and our place on the planet. Each of the three scenarios has their charms and it is satisfying to see them weave together to create a sprawling role-playing experience. The allusions to Hindu and Buddhist mythology in the game are not lost on me either having been raised in both traditions, further adding to its uniqueness in the JRPG canon.
Treasure of the Rudras is still available to purchase in a variety of places. You can find the Aeon Genesis fanmade English translation here. The ROM is available on a few websites on the internet, however, until laws change you'll have to find it on your own (it's not hard).