Issue the Summons! – Summoning Magic in Role Playing Games

I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XV lately – it’s a fun game. Probably the most fun I have had playing Final Fantasy in a long time. And while playing the game, I have encountered a feature that is a common game mechanic in not only Final Fantasy games but in the RPG genre in general: summoning. In FFXV, through story events you gain the ability to call upon Divine powers. These gods bring their might to bear when you are in distressing situations and deliver a devastating blow to the enemy.

ramuh
Lightning doesn’t strike twice because the first strike freaking murders everything.

It’s a cool idea to be sure, but there’s one big thing I don’t like about it: the mechanic is a literal “deus ex machina.” A god showing up out of nowhere to save your tush when the battle drags on too long or whatever definitely makes the victory feel a bit less satisfying, less like you really earned it. It cheapens the experience a bit.

Thinking about the pros and cons of summoning in FFXV has gotten me thinking about summoning in general. A lot of RPGs incorporate summoning as a mechanic, and honestly I can’t think of a single title where I feel like the game really nailed it. Still, some are certainly better than others, and I thought it would be fun to talk about summoning in a few different games I have played to address the ideas that I really like and the ones I really don’t. So let’s get started, adventurers!

FINAL FANTASY XV

Final Fantasy XV.jpg
Gotta love these dorks!

May as well start with the game I’ve already touched on, right? I’ve already talked a bit about how these summons work. You have a powerful god at your disposal, but only in situations where the going is tough. I definitely don’t like the deux ex machina feel that these summons have, but there are definitely some good things about this system.

First of all, while the timing of the summons can feel a bit like the game holding your hand, it doesn’t always. I’ve had Ramuh pop up on two occasions where I was taking a VERY long time to defeat bosses. In both of these situations, I didn’t really have the ideal equipment for the battle and I was really struggling to stay in the game. So while it would’ve been “cooler” for me to make an epic recovery and win the day without the gods, when that summon button appeared on the screen you’d better believe I was happy. I’ve also had some tough battles where no summons offered to help me, so it’s not like the game is forcing them upon me to keep things moving.

Second of all, I really appreciate that summons are a separate mechanic from magic in general. One of my biggest summoning pet-peeves is when summoning is just a more expensive, more time consuming version of regular spells. “Instead of spending 10 MP to cast Fira, I’ll spend 45 MP to summon Ifrit and watch a five minute cut scene!” No thanks. Because the summons are only available to you as effectively a last resort, you can’t just spam them whenever. And they aren’t “spells” you have to create for your magic flasks, or armaments to fill up your weapon slots. FFXV summons do still have the cutscene thing, but again, they aren’t constant, so you’re not watching those cutscenes nearly as often as you would in another Final Fantasy game when you unload Knights of the Round once per turn or whatever.

GOLDEN SUN
Golden Sun.png
If you missed out on Golden Sun back in the GameBoy Advance era, you missed out on something special. These games were great entries into the world of RPGs, and it’s been far too long since Camelot made one. The cool thing about Golden Sun was the “djinn” system. Djinn are magical creatures affiliated with a specific element: Mercury (water/ice), Venus (earth/plants), Mars (fire/lava), or Jupiter (wind/lightning). Djinn can be “set” to wielders of the magical power of Psynergy known as adepts. Note: Because I cannot remember for the life of me when it appropriate to use “djinn” versus when it is appropriate to use “djinni,” I am going to just say djinn over and over again and be wrong half the time, instead of potentially getting them backwards and being wrong all the time.

When an adept sets a djinn, their stats increase. Multiple djinn can lead to a class change, either making the adept a more powerful version of their base class (through setting djinn of the same element) or a new class entirely (through setting djinn from other elements). However, djinn don’t just increase an adept’s power – they also have useful one-off abilities that you can unleash in order to accomplish things like dealing extra damage, healing without using MP, powering up stats, or even reviving party members. Once a djinn is unleashed, it goes into a state called “standby,” and THIS is where the summoning comes in.

When djinn are on standby, they can be used to summon powerful elemental entities. The more djinn of the same element you have on standby, the more powerful of a spirit you can summon. There are also special tablets scattered throughout the world that allow you to combine djinn of different elements into particularly powerful summons. Once a djinn is used to summon, it needs to rest for a bit (a few turns in combat, or a bit of walking in the overworld) to be set again. So the idea is that you are always going through this cycle of Set, Unleash, Summon.

Djinn.jpg
Djinn! Or djinni! Ugh, I’m hopeless.

You probably already know that I enjoy the fact that summoning in this game doesn’t cost the same resource as the game’s Psynergy. However, what it does cost is another valuable resource, one I am actually even more unwilling to part with: stats. As you unleash your djinn, their “set” status is changing to “standby.” This is causing the adept they are set to to have lower stats, and possibly to demote classes (which can even cause loss of spells!). After you’ve unleashed a couple of djinn, your character is starting to get a bit weak, unable to deal as much damage or to take as much punishment. Even after using the summon, it still takes a couple of turns to set those djinn again. Often I find that I would rather just rely on Psynergy spells over trying to get an awesome summon and potentially getting my squishy party knocked out as a result.

Still, I do enjoy the summoning mechanics in Golden Sun. The cutscenes, while long, can be fast-forwarded so you don’t have to wait particularly long for the summon to complete. The summons are also worth what you put into them – one djinn isn’t gonna give you earth-shattering power. BUT if you play risky and smart and manage to get a bunch of djinn together for a powerful summon, it can make a difference. This prevents the whole “deux ex machina” effect and really makes you feel like you earned the mighty summon that helps you take down that frustrating boss.

TALES OF SYMPHONIA VERSUS TALES OF PHANTASIA
sheena            Klaus.jpg

IT’S A SUMMONER BATTLE! Since these two games are in the same series and have very different summoning mechanics, I figured the best way to discuss them would be a direct comparison.

First up, there’s Sheena Fujibayashi from Tales of Symphonia. She’s a summoner in training from a ninja village, and she travels with the main party to discover new summons to add to her repertoire. How does she summon, you might ask? Well, summoning is not part of Sheena’s usual suite of abilities. She can only unleash summons when she is in Over Limit. This is a state where you’ve taken a pretty heavy beating so you become effectively impervious for a bit, pushing yourself to succeed. Once Over Limit activates, she can spend a crud ton of MP (is it TP in Tales? I get all these abbreviations confused) to summon a powerful elemental entity. Each summon is equal in cost and roughly equal in power (though there are ones more dedicated to damage, of course), and each one has some kind of beneficial side effect like a status boost or healing effect.

Then there’s Klaus Lester from Tales of Phantasia. He’s a human being who wants to use magic, but humans can’t cast spells – only elves. So instead, he makes pacts with spirits in order to summon them. Klaus casts summons the way a more traditional magical character would cast spells. He chants for a bit and then unleashes his summoning power in a short cutscene, dealing elemental damage based on the spirit that he summoned. The TP cost depends on the overall power of the spirit being summoned. Because different spirits have different levels of power, some elemental spells are inherently better than others.

So who summons better? Both use the same resource that is used for other abilities, but here’s the thing: while Sheena does have uses for TP outside of summoning, summoning is Klaus’s sole focus. So whereas in my earlier Final Fantasy example, the MP cost of summons is rather steep compared to its other uses, with Klaus all of his resources are dedicated to summoning. Plus, Sheena has to drop a whopping 100 TP on any of her summons, and she can only use them when she’s in the Over Limit state – and trust me when I say that her other abilities don’t quite hit the spot like a good summon spirit.

Where Sheena does have the advantage is in power. Because her summons are tied to a rare and powerful mechanic, they are rare and powerful events. By contrast, Klaus is always summoning things, so his summons are more like traditional spells when it comes to hitting power. Additionally, Klaus’s summons have different levels of power, so the idea of taking advantage of elemental strengths and weaknesses is kind of lost with him. Why use the “super effective” Wind summon that deals 20 damage when you can bust out the “ineffective” Earth summon that deals 300 damage? Even if you double the former and half the latter, the more powerful summon is gonna win every time. This makes some elements inherently better than others, which means you may need to cough up more TP to get the kind of damage output you really want. Sheena, by contrast, always spends the same amount across the board.

Ultimately, I prefer Klaus to Sheena, as he can always reliably summon spirits while she needs to be in a very specific and rare situation with the energy to spare. And keeping her otherwise lackluster self in battle just for those rare moments of glory is really not worth the effort.

FINAL FANTASY X

Yuna.jpg
Yuna from FFX. And ONLY FFX. She is in no other games. Just this one.

I can’t very well reference this game in the featured image and then not have it on the list, right? Final Fantasy X’s summon system is unique in that summons aren’t glorified one-off spells you drop onto the enemy and then it goes away. The Aeons, as they are called, stand on the battlefield like a party member and you control them.

Each Aeon has different stats and different special abilities, and when you summon them your whole party steps back so they can do their thing. This is cool because the Aeon kind of serves as an expendable party member for you. You send it out, have it dole out some damage with its big moves, and let it take damage from the enemy’s attacks. While your party doesn’t recover or anything during this time, the Aeon serves as a useful buffer between you and the enemy, giving you the chance to weaken the opponent before your party steps back in and continues the fight.

This is certainly very different from any of the other summons we’ve examined so far. Rather than being an overpowered spell or a game-changing display of divine wrath, an Aeon instead is a new partner on the battlefield. While an individual Aeon’s abilities are greater than those of any one party member, they aren’t unbeatable and they cannot be relied on to do all of your dirty work for you. However, the presence of an Aeon in battle can give you a clear advantage, taking hits and dealing the extra damage you need so the party can finish off the enemy.
Ni no Kuni Familiar.jpg
There are plenty of other games that utilize summoning as a mechanic (one of my favorites is pictured directly above: Ni no Kuni!), but in general summoning seems to work in one of three ways. It serves as either an improvement/alternative to basic magic, a game-changing final blow, or a way to incorporate new members into your party. Is there such a thing as a perfect summoning system? Nah. Because there are as many reasons to summon as there are summoners, each game will always have pros and cons when it comes to bringing outside powers to your aid. All we can do is play the games and judge the summons in each one by their own merits.

Now I turn the conversation to you, adventurers! What game has your favorite summoning mechanic? Do you disagree with any of my opinions on the ones discussed here today? Feel free to comment and discuss the concept of summoning to your heart’s content!


WEEKLY UPDATE
NEXT POST: Planning to write a Tabletop Tuesday, not sure on what yet
UPCOMING EVENTS: *see the paragraph below for details!*
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Adventure Rules Monthly Update: What Was and What Will Be
Tabletop Tuesday: In Search of the Epic Final Boss

Hey there, adventurers! This week I am tentatively planning to begin a schedule change here on the blog. My goal is to begin the two posts a week process. Each week we’ll have a Tabletop Tuesday post, and then a video game post on Friday. Now the reason I say “tentatively” is because this week is pretty much the worst week for me to try and pull off this sort of thing. I am on-call at work from 1 PM to 9 PM each day, so if I end up getting called in during the evening, it’s going to seriously cut into my writing time (and gaming time, and family time, and any time that I actually WANT to have). So if the stars align and I am able to get two posts done while also being on-call for the week, then great. If the stars don’t align and I’m busy from 5-9 every night, we’ll have to hold off on that until next week. Thanks for your support, adventurers, and thanks so much for reading!

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