The Evolution of Final Fantasy Battle Systems – Part 4: PS2 Experimentation

After six successful Final Fantasy games based on the Active Time Battle System, Square Co. decided its foray into the sixth generation of video game consoles needed some changes. Ultimately, the PlayStation 2 ended up with four Final Fantasy RPGs: the highly structured Final Fantasy X, the first ever direct sequel in the series Final Fantasy X-2, the exceptionally successful MMO Final Fantasy XI and the wide-open Final Fantasy XII. For the first time in the main series, each of these games would run on completely different battle systems.

Because the time spent creating each game would increase significantly from past installments, multiple teams worked on these titles: Final Fantasy X’s team began work as Final Fantasy VIII was starting to wrap up production in 1999, Final Fantasy X-2 was made by about a third of the team left over from FFX in around half the time, Final Fantasy XI was developed by a team entirely separate from FF  and Final Fantasy XII’s staff was made up of people who worked on Final Fantasy IX, X and X-2, and was rife with production hiccups and delays.

Development on these PS2 games took longer than most past titles in the franchise (which you can read about in the first, second and third parts of this series), with the exception of X-2 and its incorporation of previously developed assets. These extended production periods are largely due to how radically different each game was from one another: FFX’s battle system was deliberate and methodical, X-2’s was hectic and fast-paced, XI’s melded together aspects of older Final Fantasy battle systems and traditional MMO systems, and XII almost felt like an amalgamation of all of these mechanics. From the start of the PS2 era onwards, no mainline Final Fantasy games would have the same basic battle system as another – for better or for worse. The diversity these games exhibit is a testament to the Final Fantasy brand, and the series would only grow more diverse in the future.

Note: We’re only going in-depth into Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII’s battle and leveling systems, as Final Fantasy X-2 is not a mainline game and Final Fantasy XI’s MMO structure is literally in another genre entirely.

Final Fantasy X

Released in Japan in July of 2001 and in America later that December, Final Fantasy X brought a deluge of changes to the franchise. It was the first game in the main series to feature fully rendered, 3D landscapes, as the previous three had used pre-rendered backgrounds. It incorporated voice acting in both in-game and CG cut scenes, along with detailed facial animations. It stripped away the world map that fans had become accustomed to and streamlined the game into a much more outright linear experience than ever before – though the world map of past games mostly offered an illusion of a more open world than they actually had. Lastly, it was the first game in the series in eleven years not use the Active Time Battle system.

The cast of Final Fantasy X was limited to seven unique characters, none of which were optionally obtained. The protagonist, Tidus, was a world-famous Blitzball player who was seemingly teleported to another world by a giant monster called Sin. Yuna was a Summoner in the world of Spira, who set off on a pilgrimage to gain summoned creatures called Aeons and defeat Sin. Wakka was a highly spiritual and laidback Blitzball player, but became one of Yuna’s many guardians, sworn to protect her at all costs during her pilgrimage. Lulu was a Black Mage who had known Yuna since birth, and was the most devoted of all her guardians. Kimhari was a hornless Ronso capable of learning attacks used by fiends, who coincidentally befriended Yuna as a child and too became one of her guardians. Auron was a former warrior monk of the religion Yevon who helped Yuna’s father defeat Sin ten years prior – alongside Tidus’ father Jecht. Lastly there was Rikku, Yuna’s cousin, who was a thief and an Al Bhed – a marginalized race in Spira that embraced technology when Yevon’s teachings largely forbade it. Tidus, Auron and Rikku later became Yuna’s guardians, and this motley crew of seven set off on a pilgrimage across Spira, desperate to defeat Sin and bring a Calm back to the world.

Final Fantasy X’s battle system, dubbed the Conditional Turn-Based system, deliberately removed the quicker pace offered by the ATB system and instead opted for battles that were more thoughtful and strategic than ever before. In the CTB system, which was designed by Toshirō Tsuchida, each character on screen was represented by a letter or picture in a turn window on the upper right-hand corner of the screen. This window gave the player an exact representation of which party member or enemy would attack next. For instance, if Rikku’s turn was up, her picture would be at the top of the window, and if it were followed by monster A and Auron’s picture, then that enemy would attack after her, and Auron after it. This line-up could be actively augmented, however: characters with high agility stats like Tidus and Rikku would get turns more often, and utilizing techniques like Quick-Hit or administering a healing item could allow that same character to have another turn just before monster A attacked, or perhaps go between monster A and Auron’s turns, depending on the situation. Some attacks, like a particularly powerful spell, could cause the caster’s next turn to be pushed back significantly, and such drawbacks needed to be assessed alongside any given move’s usefulness.

This system encouraged players to experiment with different actions during battles, as simply hovering over a command would affect the tentative turn window, showing exactly how this command would ultimately play out in the battle if it were chosen. Though the battle line-up was brought back down to three party members, players could now actively switch out the battling characters with the four waiting in the reserves – without wasting a turn, no less. This encouraged players to utilize every member of their party. This became more important than ever before, considering enemy types were specifically susceptible to attacks from certain characters. Tidus was best at striking quick enemies like wolves, Wakka was great at taking down flying creatures, Auron excelled at piercing beasts with hard-shelled defenses, Rikku could dismantle mechanical enemies by stealing from them, Lulu’s black magic was often necessary to eliminate elemental fiends, and Yuna’s white magic and Aeons were paramount to the team’s success. The only character that didn’t hold a unique advantage was Kimhari, whose central position on the Sphere Grid made him more flexible than any other character.

Instead of simply leveling up characters with traditional Experience Points, Final Fantasy X introduced a much more elaborate and evolved method in the Sphere Grid system. In it, all seven characters started on separate points on the grid, each corresponding with his or her general class. Tidus’ section of the grid largely included time-based attacks and magic for him to learn, Lulu picked up more advanced black magic as she progressed and Wakka’s portion of the grid was littered with status-inflicting abilities. Characters could move from node to node with each Sphere Level gained, which replaced traditional levels in the game. Sphere levels were consumed with each movement, characters would have to gain more if they wanted to progress further, and could only gain them by participating in battles. Some nodes were empty, some held stat bonuses, and some offered helpful abilities.

Each filled node needed to be unlocked by a corresponding sphere that could be obtained in battle, treasure chests, or during the story. For instance, red spheres were used to unlock most nodes, so a red skill sphere was required to unlock abilities like Magic Break or spells like Thundaga, a red power sphere could unlock Strength, Defense and HP nodes, and red fortune spheres activated luck nodes. There were lock nodes scattered across the Sphere Grid that ran from levels 1-4, and needed a corresponding leveled key sphere to unlock them. Once these were out of the way, characters could access particularly powerful abilities, or could even begin to encroach upon other character’s sections of the Sphere grid and learn their abilities and gain their types of stat bonuses as well.

There were also four special classes of spheres: purple, yellow, blue and clear spheres. Purple spheres transformed empty notes into stat nodes like MP or Accuracy. Yellow spheres allowed characters to activate any node for themselves that another character had already unlocked – so if Wakka’s Tripple Foul attack had been activated, Kimhari could use a yellow skill sphere to unlock it, regardless of where he was on the Sphere Grid. Blue spheres allowed characters to teleport their active position around the Sphere Grid, like the friend sphere that could move Rikku to Yuna’s position, or the warp sphere that let them move literally anywhere on the grid. Clear spheres could simply wipe away any stat node that had previously been activated by a character. These types of spheres were much more difficult to come by than regular red spheres. The Sphere Grid as a whole operated like a sort of meta-game instead of a traditional leveling system, and allowed players to customize each character to their heart’s content.

Similar to Limit Breaks in past Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy X had unique Overdrives for each character. Overdrive meters filled depending on each character’s set Overdrive Mode: if Tidus had Warrior set, his Overdrive meter would fill each time he attacked an enemy, or if Yuna were using Healer, hers would go up each time she healed an ally. New Overdrive Modes could be unlocked for each character throughout the game by fulfilling its corresponding requirement – so Yuna could unlock Healer if she had been casting a lot of healing magic throughout the game. Once filled, players could unleash this character’s Overdrive at their time of choosing – the meter did not deplete after each battle. Tidus’ Overdrive set, Swordplay, eventually had four different Overdrive attacks that could be used, from his starting Spiral Cut to the devastating Blitz Ace. His Overdrive attacks became more powerful if the player pressed X at just the right time along a moving meter – his more powerful Overdrives had a smaller window of opportunity for this to happen. If an Overdrive, or any attack for that matter, defeated an enemy by far more HP than necessary, the character would receive an Overkill bonus and gain more experience. Yuna’s Aeons had their own Overdrive meters as well, and could unleash extremely powerful attacks when full. Her own Overdrive was Grand Summon, which automatically gave any Aeon she summoned their own full meter upon entering the battle.

Throughout the story, Yuna gained five Aeons to summon by praying at various Yevon temples across Spira: Valefor the flying beast, Ifrit the hellish fire monster, Ixion the lightning horse, Shiva the ice goddess, and Bahamut the dragon king. Three more Aeons could be obtained optionally: Anima the tortured soul, Yojimbo the samurai for hire, and the three Magus Sisters Cindy, Sandy and Mindi. Once summoned by Yuna, each of these Aeons replaced the other two characters in battle, and they could be controlled as if they were any other character, and the player could input commands like attack, use spells the Aeon knows, and unleash their Overdrive once full. If the Aeon ran out of HP in a fight, it fainted and the other party members returned to battle. The player could teach each Aeon new abilities and increase their stats by using certain items gained throughout the course of the game.

Final Fantasy X only had two equipment slots per character: one weapon and one armor slot. This appeared restrictive at first, but after Rikku joined the party she could use items to augment weapons and armor, infusing elemental attacks and defenses or grant additional stat bonuses in the process. Even weaker weapons and armor could become exceptionally useful once she got her hands on them. FFX also introduced Trigger Commands, which mostly came about during boss battles. With these commands, characters could choose to interact with objects on the battlefield, like an industrial crane that could pick up and drop enemies for extra damage. Trigger Commands could also come in the form of “talking” to the enemy, temporarily boosting character stats in the process. The game also included five separate mini-games, like the water polo meets rugby fictional sport of Blitzball, or chocobo racing.

Fan opinion remains split on Final Fantasy X. It introduced Spira, a beautiful, tropical world with East Asian influences that stood in stark contrast to the European and sometimes futuristic settings of past games. It did away with the Active Time Battle system and introduced a much slower paced, but more dynamic, Conditional Turn-Based system. Its English voice acting has been heavily criticized, but its story remains one of the most unique and involved in the series. It brought unique takes to the Limit Break, summoning, and equipment systems. It completely changed the way characters could level up and progress. All-in-all, Final Fantasy X accomplished what it set out to do: it introduced Final Fantasy to a new generation, with a heightened level of storytelling, all while changing many of the series’ sacred tentpoles in the process. Final Fantasy X and its sequel went on to sell more than 14 million copies since release, and it became one of the highest rated entries in the franchise.


Final Fantasy XII

Just before releasing the highly profitable (but somewhat divisive) MMO Final Fantasy XI, Square Co. merged with their longtime rival Enix, best known for their work on the Dragon Quest series, and the resulting company became Square Enix in 2003. Bigger and more resourceful than ever before, Square Enix continued the work that started on Final Fantasy XII in 2000, but progress was not going well. It was originally headed by Hiroyuki Ito (known for directing Final Fantasy VI and IX) and Yasumi Matsuno (who directed the highly acclaimed Final Fantasy Tactics for the PlayStation), however, Matsuno fell ill and was replaced by Hiroshi Minagawa, who worked as an Art Director on Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story.

These two games, as well as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Game Boy Advance, took place in a world called Ivalice – the same world that Final Fantasy XII would be set in. Before leaving the project, Matsuno created the plot of the game and worked out many of the general concepts that FFXII would encompass, but its release was ultimately delayed until 2006 – over two years after it had been originally scheduled for release. This long development period wasn’t simply because of staff shake-ups: Final Fantasy XII was the most ambitious, and complex, Final Fantasy to date.

Much like Final Fantasy VI before it, Final Fantasy XII didn’t have a single protagonist. Vaan was an orphan and a dreamer who much of the promotional materials for FFXII revolved around. His friend Penelo was a fellow orphan, with a light heart and a cheery disposition. Balthier was a dashing sky pirate who cared far more about Ivalice than he let on. His partner Fran was a viera – a magical bunny/human race that typically secluded themselves in forests. Ashe was a princess of the kingdom Dalmasca, though she faked her own death prior to the events of FFXII. Lastly there was Basch, a knight framed for the murder of Ashe’s father in law, the king of Dalmasca. The world of Ivalice seemed to be the main character more so than this cast of six, teaming with life and creativity from the Nam-Yensa Sandsea to the Skycity of Bhujerba.

Though Ivalice had been in prior Final Fantasy spinoffs, Final Fantasy XII introduced more new elements to the series than perhaps any other entry. It was the first game in the franchise to remove random encounters, allowing the party to find enemies in their natural habitats. No longer would a separate battle screen disrupt the flow of the game – once an enemy engaged in combat, the battle would begin right then and there. Some enemies would initiate combat, others were docile unless provoked, and the ensuing battles took place entirely in real time. Weather effects were introduced into the over-world – weather would often appear randomly and some weather types, like rain, affected combat by lowering the accuracy of ranged weapons, boosting electricity’s efficiency and diminishing fire’s power.

The new combat system, dubbed the Active Dimension Battle system, allowed players to control one character directly at a time, issuing traditional commands like attack, defend or use various magic spells. The camera was now completely in the player’s control, and could be pushed, pulled and panned about at the player’s leisure. Once combat was initiated, red lines connected the enemy with whichever character they were currently targeting, and blue lines represented which enemy or party member any given character was aiming their attacks, abilities or spells at. Because the player could only control one character at a time, the Gambit system was introduced to micromanage the entire party. In this system, a series of “if, then” scenarios were filled out by the player in order to program each character into doing what they wanted in any given scenario. For instance, Penelo could be given the gambit pairing of casting Cure when an ally’s HP dropped below 30%, letting the player not worry too much about keeping the health of the party taken care of at all times, because they knew Penelo would do just that. This could be used in conjunction with enemy variables, different skills and even for guest characters. The Gambit System could get complicated, with the player constantly changing these set ups for each character, but once things got rolling, Final Fantasy XII had the fastest paced battle system in the series to date.

Characters had no classes laid out for them, and their development was entirely left up to the player and the License Board. This leveling system was far more freeform than the Sphere Grid, allowing all six characters to buy squares on the board with License Points that they earned in battle. Each square unlocked a set of abilities, armor, weapons or stat boost for characters to choose from – though unlocking these wasn’t the end, players also had to obtain the corresponding items, spells or otherwise as well. In the original game, each character utilized the same blank License Board, potentially allowing every character to become the nearly exact same build if the player chose to do so. This system was deemed a bit too freeing by some, and in subsequent re-releases of the game like the international edition and the recently released Zodiac Age HD remaster, specific boards correlating to classes like Archer or White Mage were chosen by each character, and they could then grow into that job accordingly. In addition to the License Board, characters also earned traditional XP and grew levels as they did in most Final Fantasy games.

Summons in Final Fantasy XII were called Espers, and there were thirteen available throughout the game: twelve corresponded with the signs of the zodiac, and the thirteenth was the dark abomination Zodiark. None of the traditional Final Fantasy summons like Ifrit or Shiva returned as Espers, and instead became the names of various airships throughout the game. Each Esper needed to be defeated in combat in order to be obtained, and only one character could unlock any given Esper on their License Boards once defeated. After they’re summoned, the Esper took the place of two other party members in battle, and fought in their steed. Though they could not be directly controlled in the original release, players could command Espers in subsequent releases of the game. Some Espers were more powerful than others, and required multiple Mist charges to summon. Mist charges could be gained by each character when they unlocked Quickenings on their License Board – Final Fantasy XII’s version of Limit Breaks. Quickenings were flashy and over the top, but if other party members had Quickenings unlocked as well, the player could chain them together, ranging in power based on Mist charges. A particularly long chain of Quickenings could result in a Concurrence, a final attack even more powerful than the chain of Quickenings itself. This system was somewhat unwieldy, and relied on fast reflexes and luck in order to pull off, though it could be mastered by patient players.

Final Fantasy XII also introduced Battle Chains, which built up as the party defeated the same enemy type in succession. After certain amounts of the same enemy had been defeated, they would drop rarer and more valuable items as the Battle Chain grew. Side quests called Hunts were introduced, and allowed players to gain additional XP, gil and items as they tracked down and defeated powerful optional enemies. Traditional set treasure chests were replaced by semi-randomly generated loot, and previously opened treasure chests could yield additional items upon subsequent encounters. There were also traps littered across the over-world and in dungeons that could hurt the party, inflict status effects, or even heal characters if stepped on. They were automatically invisible, but if any character in the active party had Libra cast on them by a spell or granted from an accessory, traps could be revealed. Similar to Final Fantasy IV, characters could equip a weapon in one hand, a shield in another, or a two-handed weapon in both, along with a helmet, some body armor, and an accessory.

Final Fantasy XII was critically acclaimed upon release and has been recognized as a great Final Fantasy game by fans more and more as time goes on and as enhanced ports are released. It ultimately feels like a game that was pulled in multiple directions and designed by a committee after Matsuno left the project, but it still became one of the most open and freeform Final Fantasy games in history. In many ways, Final Fantasy XII feels like a reaction to Final Fantasy X: where X was linear, XII became open; where X was character focused, XII’s world and politics took center stage; where X’s battle system was slow and methodical, XII’s was quick and often hard to manage. This series of diametric oppositions would only be amplified in the next installment of the series, which would take Square Enix another three years to complete and release on the next generation of video game consoles.

That wraps up our look into the mainline Final Fantasy entries on the PlayStation 2!  Stay tuned for the fifth part of this feature, which will tackle the two most recent mainline entries in the franchise, Final Fantasy XIII and the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Final Fantasy XV.