In my last piece about Final Fantasy X, I wrote about its biggest draw: its world, its story, and the way the two interact. What makes FFX a good game, not just a good worldbuilding exercise, is the second thing it does well: combat.
The principles behind the combat system are straightforward, but implemented well:
1. It’s turn-based, with turn order depending on speed – zippy characters move more often than slower ones.
2. The active party comprises three characters (out of a total of seven playable), and in one of FFX’s most distinctive features, you can freely switch characters during battle.
3. Each character begins with a distinct role and a unique progression upon level-up (they can eventually mix and match, while an alternate game mode allows customisation from the outset).
The net effect is the best battle system I can remember in a numbered Final Fantasy. Battles are fast to play (which is important, given how frequent they are) and not very difficult – I think the only game over screen I’ve seen was the result of a boss fight. At the same time, they require the player to do more than simply mash “attack”, an area where all too many JRPGs fall down. At its simplest, this is due to the need to target the right enemy with the right character (compare Persona). For instance, veteran swordsman Auron hits hard but has difficulty connecting against flying enemies, so I use him against armoured, ground-bound enemies instead. If the only enemies left are fliers, or resist physical attacks, then out goes Auron and in comes the black mage. In a more complex fight, I might open by using a support character to buff the party, swap him out in favour of a debuff specialist (1), and finally swap in the damage dealers.
Perhaps the most interesting role belongs to Yuna, the game’s female lead. By default she is the party’s healer, but she can also summon vast, powerful beasts such as Valefor in the above screenshot – a mechanic that’s both clever and spectacular. The key is that summoning is an interesting decision, not an “I win” button: Valefor and her kin can inflict terrifying damage (especially once their special attacks charge up), but they’re also vulnerable to being swarmed, tricky to heal, and if KO’d, will be unavailable until the next save point. When is the right time to call in your glass cannons? And once they are on the field, should you charge up their specials more quickly, at the cost of weakening their defence?
The summons look incredibly cool, by the way. Here are Valefor’s summon animation (thankfully, there is an option to shorten these (2)) and special attacks:
Amidst my general praise, I do have two caveats. The first is that FFX still uses the traditional, outdated JRPG system of random encounters, although this is not as bad as it could be. The battles are enjoyable for once, and paradoxically, I suspect that the game’s linearity helps – with less scope to run around and explore, being interrupted by random battles becomes less irritating. My second caveat is that characters don’t level up unless they participate in battle, and this drags out fights as I call in unneeded party members – it would have been better to grant experience to every character, regardless of participation.
Still, these flaws are relatively minor compared to what FFX does right. Square Enix delivered a system that was both simple and satisfying – battles are a happy rhythm filling the space between plot sequences, not the “tax” I have to pay before I find out what happens next. I look forward to playing through many more before I finish.
(1) For once, status effects are useful. For instance, poison is effective against high-HP monsters (and high-HP party members!), while darkness counters powerful melee monsters.
(2) An option Final Fantasy VIII really could have used.