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Game Design In Theory

Deltarune's Action Economy

☰ Table of Content

So I played a fuckton of Deltarune and didn’t get any sleep. Spoilers ahead.

Chapter 2 just came out, and people have already done things like found the secret boss, remixed the secret boss’s theme, found a bunch of absolute shitpost textboxes, and finally dealt with that one fucker (if you know, you know).

Everyone knows about the whole SPAREing thing, right? If you have an enemy who’s willing to surrender, you can SPARE them to end the fight without killing them. We’re on the same page? Good. Let’s talk about how Deltarune twists that into an action puzzle with its party members. Note that this contains spoilers for Deltarune’s mechanics in both chapters, as well as for a specific enemy type in chapter 2. It’s basically impossible to talk about these mechanics without talking about the enemies they interact with.

Chapter 1: Tired and Spared are two different things.

In Undertale, if you got an enemy to a low enough HP level, their name would turn yellow even if you hadn’t solved their little interaction puzzle. This is still difficult to take advantage of, because you deal increasing damage with each hit, and if you’re in the habit of equipping better weapons, you can very easily accidentally kill an enemy you were planning on SPAREing. In addition–spoilers!–some bosses will not surrender at low health, so you can’t rely on it for a true pacifist ending.

However, Deltarune throws a different spin on this. The main character can no longer SPARE a tired enemy on their own. Instead, they have to rely on Ralsei to do it, using Pacify. Further, both Ralsei and Kris can SPARE enemies, but only Kris can ACT in the first chapter.

This introduces a complication: If Ralsei is Pacifying a tired enemy, he can’t heal you. If Kris is SPAREing someone, they can’t ACT. In other words, you have to think carefully about who’s doing what, because your party members are specialists, and each one can only take one action before you’re thrown into another bullet hell section.

On top of that, if Kris Defends, the tension points from Defending are usable in the same turn. If you’re desperate during the later fights, you can have Kris and Susie Defend so that Ralsei will have enough TP to heal one of them. This adds yet another layer of action economy management: You can sacrifice some character’s actions to give others a chance to do something they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to do. But–this only works in one direction! Ralsei can’t Defend to give Susie enough TP for a Rude Buster, because Ralsei’s turn comes AFTER Susie’s.

Oh, and some ACTs require other party members. You’ll discover this pretty quickly if you try the X-Flatter ACT against a Hathy–which sacrificies Ralsei’s action that turn to immediately make all enemies SPAREable. This gets even better once Susie’s ready to play along, because then you have some ACTs which require Susie’s help and others that require Ralsei’s help. All of these are far more effective than Kris’s individual ACTs, but the same downsides apply–if you use an ACT which requires all three characters, that’s the only thing you’re doing that turn, so you’d better dodge like your lives depend on it.

This all combines to create a shocking amount of depth in a mechanic that, on the surface, looks simple. ACTing, at first glance–much like in Undertale–appears to be a simple game of learning the correct options for each enemy. But by the end of chapter 1, you’re having to juggle all three characters to maximize your effectiveness.

And then chapter 2 hits.

Chapter 2: Taking Initiative!

Chapter 2 starts with the same mechanics that chapter 1 had, but pretty soon, Susie points out that Kris is having all the fun with this ACTing thing, and decides that she can ACT too. At this point, all three characters become able to ACT–but Susie and Ralsei don’t get a full menu. Instead, they get a single context-sensitive ACT that varies in effectiveness based on who they’re interacting with.

This starts as an expansion of your action economy–now you can have Susie or Ralsei do something useful without Kris taking the lead, and in the fight that you get this ability, it immediately proves useful. However, I don’t think this mechanic becomes truly powerful until you run into the Swatchlings.

So, the Swatchlings come into battle with a random set of colors, right? And Kris has the ability to push those colors into warmer or cooler colors by talking about various things.

But–and this is the important part–Susie can only make colors warmer and Ralsei can only make colors cooler. It’s just part of their personality; Susie talks about explosions and Ralsei talks about spring rain.

This pushes the ACT system to a new level. Before these guys, Ralsei and Susie’s ACTs were just more or less useful–they didn’t ever ACT counterproductively. But against Swatchlings, if Ralsei and Susie both ACT on the same enemy, you get exactly the same result as if neither had ACTed on that enemy. And because you need to make the Swatchlings’ colors match to SPARE them, you have to think carefully about how Susie and Ralsei interact with them, so they don’t overshoot each other or push an enemy just slightly out of alignment.

Before fighting the Swatchlings, your action economy had been strictly improved by having Susie and Ralsei’s ACTs as an option. Now it’s complicated. Now there’s excellent reasons to have one or the other not ACT. And this stacks on top of the fact that Susie is mostly good at damage and Ralsei is mostly good at healing–if you’re trying to push the enemy colors in the colder direction, that means either Susie is sitting still and Ralsei is ACTing, or Kris is the only one ACTing, because Kris and Ralsei are the only ones who can ACT to make the Swatchlings more blue.

In Summary: Action Economy is very fun.

Deltarune’s ACT system feels even more like a puzzle than Undertale’s did, because Deltarune introduces new pieces to the playing field–pieces which can do certain things, but not necessarily the things you need at that moment. Pieces which force you to choose when to act, and also how to act, because some of those pieces can do either what you need to progress or what you need to survive, but only one of those things each turn. The situations created by these rules–the decisions you have to make in each encounter–are far more complex than Undertale’s, and that’s a strict improvement. The genocide run’s gonna be boring compared to this.

Update: 2021-09-21

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