The Evolution of Final Fantasy Battle Systems – Part 5: Continuous Change

Over twenty years following Final Fantasy’s original release in Japan, Square Co. (eventually Square Enix) released a dozen mainline Final Fantasy games and countless quality spinoffs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy X-2. The first three games followed a Traditional Turn-Based fighting system, the next six (spread across the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the PlayStation) adhered to the Active Time Battle system and the PlayStation 2 Final Fantasy games all had entirely different fighting systems. The rate of release for mainline Final Fantasy games slowed substantially after dropping the ATB system, but every game in the franchise became more unique and complex as a result. Final Fantasy XII was delayed four times over the course of its development, but that doesn’t compare to the development troubles that Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XV faced.

At E3 2006, three months after Final Fantasy XII was released in Japan and four months before it hit western shores, Square Enix unveiled Fabula Nova Crystallis, Latin for “New Tale of the Crystal” – a reference to the continued importance of crystals in Final Fantasy games. In this unveiling, Square announced three games: Final Fantasy XIII for the PlayStation 3 and (as was later announced) the Xbox 360, Final Fantasy Agito XIII (later named Final Fantasy Type-0) for mobile phones (but later switched development to the PSP), and Final Fantasy Versus XIII for the PlayStation 3. Each game was to exist in its own world, with its own story and cast of characters, but they were all going to loosely share a common mythology about crystals, gods and heroes chosen by those gods. Kazushige Nojima, who wrote the stories of Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy X, created a standard mythology that these, and subsequent Final Fantasy games, would adhere to. However, not everything went as planned.

Final Fantasy XIII originally began production in 2004 as a PlayStation 2 game, but was moved to the PlayStation 3 within a year. This shift jarred the development team, as everything but the story was completely changed in the process. The decision to bring it to the PS3 was spurred by Square’s creation of the Final Fantasy VII Technical Demo for the system, which many fans incorrectly took to mean they were remaking Final Fantasy VII (which wouldn’t actually happen for another decade). Square decided to make its own engine for Final Fantasy XIII called Crystal Tools, which added even more time onto their production schedule, and was also used to make its sequels, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. At its peak, Final Fantasy XIII was being worked on by well over 200 staff members, which proved to be unwieldy and ultimately led to various teams not being on the same page as to what the game’s focus was. The game wasn’t in a playable state when it was unveiled at E3 2006, and the various teams only unified properly after finishing a demo packaged with the CG movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete. All these issues, combined with Square’s parallel development of Agito XIII and Versus XIII, led to Final Fantasy XIII being an exceptionally linear game with a huge amount of cut content.

Final Fantasy Agito XIII was directed by Hajime Tabata, who had previously worked on portable games for Square Enix like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and The 3rd Birthday. In 2008, Square announced they were no longer developing the title for mobile phones and it was instead coming to the PSP, and in 2011 its name was officially changed to Final Fantasy Type-0, because it had shifted so far away from Final Fantasy XIII’s core themes. All-in-all, however, it had a steady development, and received positive reaction from fans and critics when it was released on the PSP, and the west enjoyed in when it came to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2015. Tabata’s role in Final Fantasy would grow substantially when he took over production of Final Fantasy Versus XIII.

At E3 2009, prior to the release of Final Fantasy XIII, an MMO follow up to Final Fantasy XI was announced for the PlayStation 3 and later other consoles and the PC – Final Fantasy XIV. Production began in 2005, but Square’s work on the game was derailed numerous times prior to its launch in 2010. The team attempted to adapt the game to the Crystal Tools engine that Final Fantasy XIII ran on, but it proved to be highly inflexible and almost impossible to run an MMO on. The team focused far more on graphical fidelity than gameplay, and it ultimately became the only mainline entry in the series that was met with outright scorn from critics and fans alike. However, Naoki Yoshida (previously known for his work with the Dragon Quest series) took the reigns of Final Fantasy XIV and completely rebuilt it from the ground up with his team in less than two years and successfully rereleased it as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. This version was met with widespread praise, and paved the way for the franchise going forward.

Final Fantasy Versus XIII, however, was still struggling with its development. Its director, Tetsuya Nomura, was stretched thin, working on character designs and story elements for the other games in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, the Kingdom Hearts series, for CG movies and more. Versus XIII’s production was touch-and-go ever since its announcement in 2006, and though progress eventually began to roll, the seventh generation of video game consoles was winding down, and Versus XIII needed to look towards the future. The Crystal Tools engine made for Final Fantasy XIII ultimately didn’t work with Versus XIII, and Square made a new engine for the game called Luminous Studio. Versus XIII was shown off from time to time over a seven-year period, but was re-announced as Final Fantasy XV at E3 2013 with a stunning (but ultimately fabricated) trailer. At the time Nomura was announced to be its director, but it was later revealed that Hajime Tabata had taken over, and its development had essentially been restarted from scratch. It was finally released in 2016, and has received numerous updates and DLC additions since.

Note: We’re only going in-depth into Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XV’s battle and leveling systems in this article, as Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning Returns and Type-0 aren’t mainline games, and Final Fantasy XIV’s MMO structure is in another genre entirely.

Final Fantasy XIII

Following its lengthy development period, Final Fantasy XIII was released in December 2009 and reached western shores in March 2010. It was directed by Motomu Toriyama, who had previously directed games like Final Fantasy X-2 and Revenant Wings. Longtime producer Yoshinori Kitase stepped in to once again fill this role and the story was co-written by Daisuke Watanabe. It was, in many ways, the antithesis of Final Fantasy XII – its characters and story took center stage and was largely linear in nature. It would prove to be a divisive entry in the series, but it took many strides to grow the franchise in various ways.

Final Fantasy XIII told the story of six l’Cie, humans chosen by the gods known as fal’Cie that were forced to complete specific tasks known as “Focuses,” otherwise they would transform into zombie-like creatures known as Cie’th. Even if they did exactly as they were instructed, l’Cie would transform into crystals, either to be awakened later to fulfill another Focus, or to never come back to life again. Lightning, a former member of the Guardian Corps in the floating moon-like world of Cocoon, inadvertently became marked as a l’Cie after finding out that her younger sister Serah had been branded before her. Snow was the leader of NORA, a resistance group in Cocoon, and attempted to save Serah, who was his fiancée, from her fate as a l’Cie. Vanille was an optimistic, but mysterious, l’Cie from Pulse, the natural world beneath Cocoon that was considered to be a feral wasteland. Fang was Vanille’s partner from Pulse, and was a fierce and formidable warrior. Sazh was a father desperate to save his son Dajh from being purged and sent to Pulse below after Dajh was accidentally marked as a l’Cie. Hope was a teenager set to be purged to Pulse who blames Snow for the death of his mother. This group of six would make up the party as controlled by the story over its thirteen chapters – sometimes only one or two would be available at a time for battle, but as the plot moved forward a full party of three could take on enemies, and once the full group came together, they could be chosen at will to make up the active party.

Final Fantasy XIII’s battles, dubbed Command Synergy Battles, were dynamic and actions took place in real time. This system borrowed heavily from past games, and even contained an Active Time Battle meter gauge that filled slowly as time progressed in the battle. The gauge was divided into sections, and characters gained more sections as the story reached certain plot points. There were no Magic Points, as all actions worked on ATB segments to operate. A basic attack would only take a single segment to fuel, but a more complex spell or technique would require multiple segments to pull off and therefore would take more time to unleash. Time management was integral to the CSB system, as enemies each had Chain Gauges, which would fill more quickly depending on which kind of attack they were hit with. Once full, the enemy would enter a Stagger Mode, where their defenses decreased substantially, and if characters had the proper attacks, could be launched into the air and juggled without concern for attacking back. Many enemies, and pretty much all bosses, essentially needed to be Staggered in order to be defeated. The Chain Gauge would slowly decrease if any given enemy wasn’t being actively attacked, and could empty if players weren’t careful to keep their chains going. The key to properly staggering enemies rested in the Paradigm system.

In the Paradigm system, each character could change their roles mid-battle. There was the role of Commando, which used physical attack and were designed to build up and sustain Chain’s throughout a battle. A Ravager acted as an offensive magic user, pelting enemies with harmful spells which built Chain Gauges quickly. A Sentinel shielded party members from enemy attacks, and were skilled at diverting attention their way. The Saboteur excelled at debuffing enemies with enfeebling spells like Poison or Curse. Synergists were the opposite role, and were useful at buffing allies with support spells like Protect and Veil. Medics acted as healers, and could not inflict damage on enemies in any way. Each character started the game with three roles available for them to shift between, and very near the end of the game the remaining three roles would open up for them as well.

Using Paradigm Shifts were absolutely necessary to succeed in battles: sometimes it would be useful to have a Commando and two Ravagers active to build up an enemy’s Chain Gauge efficiently and then switch to an all Commando line up to deal massive damage once the enemy was Staggered. Sometimes allies needed to be protected by a Sentinel while two characters became Medics to heal everyone as quickly as possible. Often times Saboteurs and Synergists were necessary to enfeeble the enemy and support allies simultaneously. It was a fast-paced system that required the full attention of the player. Battles were rated on a scale of zero to five stars after finishing and would grant players Technical Points accordingly. These TP could be used for summons and powerful spells like Quake and Dispelaga, and were shared by the entire party.

Party members received Crystogen Points instead of traditional Experience Points, and these CP could be spent on each member’s Crystarium, similar to the progression present in Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. The Crystarium allowed characters to spend CP on stat bonuses and new skills and spells, and each role would improve independently of the others for each character. Though flashier than the Sphere Grid, the Crystarium mostly gave an illusion of choice, as characters were consistently blocked from progressing until certain story points occurred. This helped force players to not become too powerful, and kept the challenge more consistent, but freedom to truly develop characters was lost as a result. After reaching a certain point in the game, characters could access all six roles, and the Crystariums for the three new roles for each character became available. Late in the game, each character could unlock a unique skill in their Crystarium that consumed a full ATB gauge, and dealt significant damage – these attacks, like Lightning’s Army of One or Sazh’s Cold Blood, are considered to be the closest thing in Final Fantasy XIII to traditional Limit Break attacks.

Summons were also revamped in Final Fantasy XIII, and were dubbed Eidolons, as they were in Final Fantasy IX. Each character received a single Eidolon at specific points in the story, and had to fight them one-on-one and defeat them in combat in order to summon them. Eidolons could be summoned by consuming Technical Points, and they replaced the two-party members in the battle who weren’t its summoner. Instead of typical Health Points, Eidolon’s would use up Summon Points slowly until the SP was depleted, at which point they would retreat from battle. As each Eidolon fought in battle, a Gestalt Gauge would begin to build, and once full the player could unleash this Eidolon’s Gestalt Mode. The Eidolons (Odin for Lightning, Alexander for Hope, Bahamut for Fang, Shiva for Snow, Hecatoncheir for Vanille and Brynhildr for Sazh) were mechanical in design, and could transform into different modes of transportation in Gestalt mode, allowing their summoners to ride them and deal damage with button prompts. For instance, Odin transformed into a horse, and Lightning would ride on its back while wielding its deadly blade Zantetsuken – this is the same name as his finishing attack, which could potentially automatically kill enemies under the right circumstances.

Characters could equip one weapon and anywhere between one to four accessories at a time, depending on how many additional accessory slots they had unlocked on their Crystarium. Every character had eight unique base weapons which could be leveled up by spending certain components on them. Once any given weapon hit a level ceiling, it could be transformed into an evolved version of the previous weapon, but would initially have lower stats. There were three component classes: biological, mechanical and monetary components. Biological components increased the experience bonus that subsequent components would yield but gave relatively few experience points themselves. Mechanical components yielded high experience points, but dragged this bonus down. Monetary components were better to sell than to actually use for development. These components could be found in treasure chests, dropped by enemies, and bought at shops at the Retail Network.

There were no traditional towns in Final Fantasy XIII, and were instead replaced by save points that gave players access to various shops on the Retail Network. These shops had specific themes: Unicorn Mart sold restorative items, Up in Arms sold weapons, and so on. Though it was useful to have access to a steadily increasing supply of weapons, items and more, fans sorely missed being able to wander around a traditional town and enter unique stores with specific items and weapons in stock. In fact, without towns, Final Fantasy XIII maintained a nearly constant linear design, up until things opened up in Chapter 11, when the party left Cocoon and entered Gran Pulse below.

The change of pace that Gran Pulse offered the game was massive. What was once a game that simply funneled the player forward as the story progressed became a nearly open-world experience, albeit on a relatively small scale when compared to Final Fantasy XV. Gran Pulse was filled with enemies, and optional missions became available for the party to undertake. Missions were much like Hunts in Final Fantasy XII, except they were given to the party by Cie’th Stones that had previously failed to complete their Focus – the missions themselves were typically to take down monsters the Cie’th weren’t able to in the past. Completing missions yielded rare components and items that were useful for taking down more difficult mission targets, or the more challenging final leg of the game. The freedom of Gran Pulse didn’t last forever, though, as Chapters 12 and 13 returned the player to a linear structure.

Final Fantasy XIII is a mixed bag. On one hand it’s gorgeous, has an extremely interesting overarching mythos and utilizes what is possibly the most dynamic battle system in the franchise with Command Synergy Battles. On the other hand, it’s extremely linear, its story is told in a haphazard and sporadic manner and it continues to force tutorials upon players, even a couple dozen hours into the game. It’s undeniable that Final Fantasy XIII is a unique entry in the series, and it was financially successful, selling nearly 7 million units since release. It received generally positive reviews, but wasn’t nearly as well regarded as most entries in the mainline franchise. Going forward, Square Enix knew they had to make their next Final Fantasy a much more open experience in order to keep fan’s interest.

Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV was released worldwide on November 29, 2016 – the first time a mainline game in the series came to the west the same date as it came to Japan. It had been over ten years since Final Fantasy Versus XIII was announced and anticipation was high. Much like the role Versus XIII was intended to play, Final Fantasy XV was the antitheses of Final Fantasy XIII. It introduced the first fully open-world into the franchise, included various towns and cities of numerous sizes and was the first mainline Final Fantasy game to focus on action RPG mechanics. Though Tetsuya Nomura wrote much of its plot, designed its characters and laid down the foundation for what Final Fantasy XV would become, Haijme Tabata was the game’s true director, and led it to completion over a four-year period.

Envisioned as a more realistic Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy XV included many things recognizable in the real world: gas-stations, firearms, metropolitan cities, suits and ties, Cup Noodles, fishing and more. It only had four primary party members and all were young men. Noctis, the protagonist and (initially) the only playable character, was the Prince of Lucis, and was destined to wed Lunafreya, the Princess of Tenebrae. Prompto was Noctis’ wise-cracking, high school best friend who wielded guns and had a penchant for photography. Ignis was Noctis’ royal advisor, adept with daggers and polearms and was an expert chef. Gladio was Noctis’ bodyguard and he muscled his way through enemies with great swords and shields, and had a knack for setting up camp. These four left Lucis on a road trip to Altissia, a city technically under the control of the Niflheim empire but which operated with its own government – this is where Noctis was set to wed Luna, further binding disparate kingdoms together under a banner of peace. Soon after leaving, King Lucius was to sign a peace treaty with Nifilheim, but was instead assassinated by Nifilheim, and the empire took over Lucis and its surrounding territories. The party learned of these events, and continued their road trip, visiting the royal tombs of Nocits’ ancestors to acquire their thirteen royal arms and ultimately stop the Nifilheim empire.

This road trip concept tied into Final Fantasy XV’s gameplay heavily. The party drove King Lucis’ prized car, the Regalia, between rest stops and cities. It initially stuck to roads and allowed the player to either drive manually, let Ignis take over and auto-pilot the vehicle or pay a little gil to teleport to previously visited locations. Between these locations, the party could set up camp at various sites across the world of Eos, where Ignis would cook for the crew using various materials gathered over the course of the game. Various new dishes could be learned, and almost all bestowed temporary status buffs to the party starting the next day. The party’s Experience Points could only be applied to characters and let them level up when they slept. However, sleeping at rest stops, motels or even expensive hotels in cities could multiply the amount of XP applied to the party. This system created a balancing act that players could utilize to their advantage: if the party was about to take on a dungeon, camping and receiving buffs might have been the best course of option, but if they had tackled multiple dungeons, taken down dozens of enemies and gained XP from various other means, it would be prudent to spend the extra gil and level up the party substantially in the process. Along with cooking, Prompto would take pictures throughout the game, often automatically, but sometimes at specific spots at the player’s discretion. Which pictures were saved was decided over eating a meal at the campsite. Fish could also be acquired in an active mini-game by Noctis, who was an expert fisherman.

Though Final Fantasy XV had traditional levels, there was also the Ascension system that gave players more control over the character’s development and technique acquisition. The Ascension system was fueled by Ability Points that players accrued during and outside of battle, and could be accessed at any point, not just when camping. There were nine separate branches that the party could ascend: Armiger, Magic, Recovery, Techniques, Combat, Teamwork, Stats, Exploration and Wait Mode. The Armiger was much like Noctis’ version of a Limit Break, where he wielded each royal arm acquired over the course of the game simultaneously, warped and attacked enemies with ease, gained temporary stat boosts and an Armiger Chain that could be activated, resulting in devastating blows and a massive final attack. Though Noctis’ progression was the focus of the Ascension system, the other three party members also gained massive benefits from it, like learning powerful Teamwork techniques that consumed segments of the Tech Bar that filled during each battle.

Final Fantasy XV’s battle system, dubbed the Active X Battle system, was dynamic, seamless and ran completely in real-time. Noctis was the only party member who could be controlled directly (until a recent DLC update) and was able to wield any weapon including swords, machinery, royal arms and more. Players could preset four different weapons to the D-pad and Noctis could actively swap between these with a single button press, allowing attack combos to continue even between weapon swaps. He was also capable of Warping, which he could do by throwing a weapon at an enemy and warping to it, phase to dodge enemy attacks with timed button presses and more. Warping consumed Magic Points, and if Noctis’ MP hit zero, he would enter Stasis and could barely move or fight until his Magic Points regenerated. Health Points could also automatically regenerate, but would reach temporary limits if not restored quickly enough. Characters could only return to full health with items or by sleeping. A Wait-Mode was incorporated into the game which stopped combat as the player decided their next move, though most players chose not to use it. A rarity in the franchise, FFXV included both easy and normal difficulty modes, which better allowed Square Enix to adhere to their “Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers” mantra.

Magic was utilized as an item, crafted using Elemancy. Fire, Thunder and Blizzard could be absorbed from stones across Eos, similar to the Draw system in Final Fantasy VIII. These were combined with other items to create a consumable, weaponized spell. Magic and weather often worked in tandem: Fire spells could char grass but was dampened by rain, Thunder spells were strengthened by the presence of water and could often chain enemies together in an attack, and Blizzard spells froze the surrounding area and stopped enemies in their tracks, especially when it was wet out. Arcane magic could be used by Noctis late in the game by equipping the Ring of the Lucii, and was capable of destroying enemies with a single attack. Summons were named “Astrals,” and could be obtained at a few points over the course of the game, but could only be reliably called upon when certain criteria were met. Titan was more likely to appear if Noctis and the party were heavily injured or in KO states, Ramuh could often show up if the battle stretched on for a long period of time, Shiva’s chances of appearing increase when both of these criteria were met, Leviathan could only appear near open water, Bahamut was only summoned during a specific battle in the game and Ifrit only appeared as a boss battle and couldn’t be summoned.

Noctis and his allies could equip weapons, a set of attire, and accessories – more of which could be equipped if unlocked in the Ascension system. There were three characters that temporarily joined the party, but unlike most Final Fantasy games, their inclusion didn’t force other party members to sit battles out. Restaurants sold food that could grant similar buffs to those obtained while camping. Various mini-games like chocobo racing, pinball and more kept the game’s variety going well into its dozens of hours of gameplay. Hunts could be obtained by picking up posters at towns and rest stops, or were given to the party by NPCs, and were invaluable in increasing the team’s XP and AP. Various firmware updates and pieces of paid DLC have been released in the year following FFXV’s initial release, and have included features like off-road driving, controlling the other three party members directly, new weapons and outfits, and the online multiplayer mode Comrades. Side-chapters for Prompto, Gladio and Ignis have been released separately and allowed the player to directly control each character with their own unique play styles during periods of the story that they temporarily left the party. More DLC is planned for Final Fantasy XV, but it will be wrapping up eventually for the team to move on to new projects.

Final Fantasy XV received a mild reaction from fans and critics, similar to Final Fantasy XIII, but was liked and disliked for almost the opposite reasons. Many fans lamented being unable to switch between party members, felt the campaign was a bit too unfocused, and they by-and-large disliked the story – or at least the way it was told. Much of the necessary backstory of the game exists in the horrible CG movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV and the actually pretty decent anime short series Brotherhood Final Fantasy XV, and the game begins expecting that the player has consumed all of this media. Many of its story beats fall flat, and parts of the story feel rushed and bizarrely inexplicable. Its ending is largely considered to be a high-point in its narrative, but it feels unearned with the rest of the lackluster story that came before. Final Fantasy XV was praised by many for its open world, dynamic gameplay, banter between party members, camping mechanics, presentation and more. Though many criticized the game for taking ten years to develop, it really only began production a few years before release. The fact that the team behind it has continually attempted to improve elements that fans and critics disliked is heartening, and hopefully Square Enix takes all of the lessons learned with Final Fantasy XV and make Final Fantasy XVI an even more incredible experience.

That’s it for our deep-dive into the evolution of Final Fantasy’s battling and leveling systems. From the simple yet effective Traditional Turn-Based system present in the NES Final Fantasy games, to the dynamic Active Time Battle system used in the six SNES and PlayStation Final Fantasy games, to the last handful of unique battle systems used since Final Fantasy X, the series has continuously morphed on a mechanical level for over thirty years. Some games leveled characters up with simple Experience Points, some used item or summoning pairings and some had elaborate systems like the Sphere Grid and License Board – even when games did use the same basic battle systems, they felt unique based on how characters progressed through the game. Time will tell if the future of Final Fantasy will continue this tradition of change and experimentation, but one thing’s for certain: its past has become legendary in the annals of video game history.