What is your favorite Final Fantasy combat system?

Square Enix has invented so many ways to massacre goblins that Goblin Slayer keeps asking for a crossover

The Final Fantasy VII remake is a perfect example of Square Enix’s core design philosophy when it comes to combat systems — which is to say, there isn’t much of one. Sure, the series has its roots in “traditional” RPG battle systems, but this franchise has reinvented the foundation of its main gameplay challenges more times than any other JRPG. That’s at its most apparent looking with Final Fantasy VII, a turn-based game with a slight real-time twist, and its remake, a real-time action game with a slight turn-based twist.

This combat overhaul has reignited a mild debate among FF fans, whether the mainline games should have stuck to turn-based combat or not. Personally, I believe that as long as Square’s side teams continue to deliver solid new games that hit the same sweet spots as the Final Fantasy of old, it’s great that this franchise keeps experimenting with new ideas! It’s an accomplishment for a series to last over three decades and for its gameplay to never feel stale. It’s not always a hit (there’s a reason XIV fans don’t glorify 1.0), but it’s never stale.

This makes the Final Fantasy franchise an excellent case study of the countless ways games have reinvented the art of combat. Sure, there’s a lot to love about these games other than reveling in wanton violence. But combat is extremely common in games (especially RPGs) because it makes an excellent excuse for testing various skills and creating narrative conflict. This franchise is effectively a Swiss Army knife of combat systems, with an answer to every warrior of light’s very particular tastes for bloodlust.

It’s a very poorly kept secret that I prefer action RPGs over turn-based RPGs, and I especially love hack-and-slash combat. I love combat systems that reward aggressive, impulsive, and reactive gameplay, putting the flow of battle into the player’s hands. Out of all of Final Fantasy‘s games, nothing embodies that hack-and-slash ideology better than Kingdom Hearts III, despite Nomura’s best efforts to not make it an FF game. Even though my honeymoon period with KH III is long over and I’ve come to admit it’s a much more flawed game than I anticipated, as far as sheer combat mechanics go, it’s exactly what I love most.

More than any other Kingdom Hearts game, KH III is packed with mechanics that enable and reward aggressive and proactive playstyles. Sora’s moves are more robust than ever, allowing him to quickly dart around the field and sweep groups of enemies into quick, heavy-hitting combos. The more aggressively you fight, the more you are rewarded with additional firepower via Grand Magic and form changes. The ability to change weapons on the fly lets you switch between strengths to suit your whims. And his party members are far more interactive and helpful than any other action RPG AI I’ve fought alongside (which is a low bar, but credit where credit is due, teammate combo finishers are rad). I love this system for little reason other than shameless hack-and-slash power fantasy fulfillment, but these mechanics are fine-tuned for that fantasy.

My one main gripe with these battles is that KH III‘s enemies are so lacking that I never felt like this system gave me the chance to flex its muscles to the fullest. That’s more of a criticism I have against the difficulty curve than the battle system itself, hence why I’m still naming it my favorite system. That said, I still have yet to play the Critical Mode DLC which may or may not have amended that. I would have played it by now, but I’m an information addict who loves to explore new and unusual systems as much as binge on my favorite gameplay styles. Yet Kingdom Hearts‘ gameplay is a huge departure from everything else Final Fantasy has done, even against the likes of FFXV and the FFVII remake, so I asked the other guys on staff what they prefer…!

CJ Andriessen

The past several years of JRPGs have brought a lot of small innovations to the standard formulas developers have been working with for well over two decades. You’re likely to find bits and pieces of experiments in the combat systems of many RPGs as developers tried to spice up turn-based battles that could often be thought of as archaic. One of my favorite developments in the genre from the past decade came from Square Enix and its Bravely Default series. Those titles introduced the tactical-thinking titular bravely and default options. Go bravely and you could spend more brave points than you had available, setting yourself up for danger if you weren’t able to strike down your foes. Opt for default and you’ll cower away, storing up to three brave points to use should the encounter draw itself out.

It’s a great system that has its origins in a Final Fantasy game many people probably missed. Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light is the predecessor to the Bravely series, and one of the mechanics of the game is Boost System. Much like the default mechanic, Boost will grant a character an extra action point to use on their next turn, potentially allowing parties to unleash a hurricane of damage on their foes.

I know it’s a small innovation and pales in comparison to some of what Final Fantasy has produced over its many years, but that Boost System set the stage for one of the most rewarding battle systems found on the 3DS, and for that, The Four Heroes of Light holds a dear place in my heart.

Marcel Hoang

The easiest thing any Square game can do to suck the time right out of my veins is implement their infamous job system. Being able to designate a character’s power set regardless of their narrative intent is fun, like making the demure and petite girls in the party absolute damage dealers or big, bulky dudes agile rogues. But the hallmark of Final Fantasy‘s job system and probably any Square RPG that utilizes it is the ability to keep skills from one mastered job in order to use it in another. For example, in Bravely Second, one of my favorite combos was to combine the charioteer’s quad wielding skill with the ninja’s dual wield skill, effectively allowing four consecutive attacks without any loss in damage output. Another favorite was using the swordmaster’s free lunch skill to make all skills and spells used after it completely resource free, which was a boon for MP heavy jobs like black mages or wizards.

It doesn’t even need to be extremely flashy or frivolous combinations either. In Octopath Traveler, the merchant has access to the SP Saver skill, halving all SP usage as long as it’s equipped. Easily a must-have for any character who will be spending time as a caster type class such as the black mage.

Something in me has a real weakness for grinding for the sake of making the big number go up, as some people colloquially call it. Sometimes the game isn’t nearly as hard as to require you to grind out tons of experience for a job you’re not going to use, just to stick one of its signature abilities onto an entirely different class to optimize it slightly, but hey, sometimes people like me get a kick out of the grind.

Pixie The Fairy

Well, Strider spoke about the job system, though I prefer it in the context of X-2 and the MMOs more than other parts of the series. It’s just a good feeling to be able to switch roles on the fly between a handful of heroines or myself. Since Shadowbringers landed I’ve been leveling jobs like crazy again and Dark Knight and Samurai are at 80 with Machinist soon to follow. 

My other combat system choice is probably less popular. 

Meaning I like the Junction System from Final Fantasy VIII. 

I think it’s a grossly misunderstood system, as misunderstood as the game’s protagonist, Squall. Junctioning an introverted system that revolves around bonding with summons and reprogramming your stats by plugging spells into them as though they were items. Now, you could just sit there in every random battle and Draw spells out of your enemies like some jilted vampire, but the system doesn’t really want you walled up in random encounters doing that.

No, you have to get out of your shell, explore the world, do side quests. befriend Moombas, power-up your Guardian Forces, collect more Guardian Forces, and play Triple Triad with anyone that has a deck of cards. Triple Triad is the best minigame in the series, so good FFXIV has it. Tetra Master can go rot in a pissed-on grave. 

Then when your GFs are powered up enough to process cards and items and convert them into other items and spells, only then can you really program your party into world-killing badasses. Some folks say that’s a broken system, but look, I had to go out into the world and socialize. I should get something for that. 

My HR lady insisted I go to the company dinner this month all like “Nia, you don’t even have to stay long, just come eat with us.” I see enough of those people in the warehouse each week, now they want me to see them with alcohol. I should at least be fed for driving out to that on my free time.

I know some people get hung up on this Junctioning system really restricting you from summoning the GFs, but those summons take long enough for you to go to the bathroom and should really only be used if the doorbell rings or you need to get your Cup Noodles out of the microwave. Otherwise, those memory-leeching s GFs exist to give you power because you put spells in them. 

And yeah, Squall never really changes. Just because you had him go around the world and open up a little doesn’t mean he can’t throw up his walls again after he let a few people in. I mean, you can’t leave Zell alone with the hot dogs or take your eyes off Selphie if you’re near a train station. This is what he has to deal with now after he let people in. Lay off the guy.

Josh Tolentino

Is it a cheat if I cite the battle system that, of all the Final Fantasy battle systems, is the most arguably conventional? Final Fantasy XIV‘s system at its core is pretty similar to the one pioneered by major MMOs like Everquest and World of Warcraft, with its ability and class dynamics centered around the longstanding trinity of party roles.

Perhaps it’s recency bias talking, but I do enjoy combat systems that emphasize a somewhat rigid-seeming specialization, where different party members take on specific scopes in a given encounter. That might seem limiting at first, but combined with the numerous jobs available in Final Fantasy XIV and the various gimmicks that distinguish them, there’s a lot of room for variety within these carefully defined boundaries, making unique, “rule-breaking” departures stand out all the more. 

In a similar vein, I also greatly appreciate the way that Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age expanded from the original game’s license/job board. Where the original PS2 release gave everyone the same set of options, the boards were varied in the International (and later Zodiac Age edition). It felt like just the right imposition of structure that lets creativity and variance stand out, which is key when it comes to JRPGs.

Wes Tacos

I don’t know why people sleep on FF X. Tidus can be a bit of a shit, sure, but every lead in Final Fantasy is. But Auron is cool, Wakka is a dopey stereotype, Lulu has really big magics, and also there’s a lion. This game rules.

And the best part of the game is the battle system. The standout is definitely switching the game from the traditional ATB system to one that actually lays out the order in which everyone attacks. It’s great because it allows you to strategize, think ahead, and prioritize offense/defense depending on who’s coming up next. Adding to that, being able to switch party members in and out is one of my favorite features of the game. Not being stuck with the same three/four party members for each battle is great, not only for situational fighting but also for grinding it out and trying to farm some EXP.

And yo, the Sphere Grid allowing you to actively level up your characters was genius. Sure, it mostly amounts to you having to manually apply stat buffs the game would normally have, anyway, but it at least makes you feel like your EXP is going to something. Being able to hop into others’ upgrade tracks to learn their abilities is just icing on the cake. I really love this system.

And before any of y’all fools @ me, don’t even act like you don’t love the idea of playing J-Pop Dressup with Yuna, her slutty niece, and her lesbian aunt. FF X-2 is straight fucking fire with that, and I will fight anyone who tries to say otherwise.

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By Wes’s own admission, X-2 is inferior to X because the lion is excluded from playing J-Pop Dressup with everyone else. Checkmake, Summoners. What is your favorite combat system in a Final Fantasy game, just relating to raw combat mechanics? How do its mechanics complement each other or enable your favorite ways to play games?

Christopher Hovermale
I'm a former Contributor who goes by the screen name Cedi or CediFonei on most corners of the internet! Not quite obligatory disclosure; I backed Chris Niosi's TOME RPG on Kickstarter. I really wish that wasn't the first Kickstarter game I ever backed...