As we discussed last time, the Final Fantasy series is one that has rarely stood still or grown complacent.
Each new installment has represented a reinvention of the basic formula to one degree or another, with some offering a more radical new take than others.
Latest installment Final Fantasy XV is arguably the most significant and noticeable reinvention of the series since X abandoned the Active Time Battle mechanic the series had used between its fourth and ninth installments. And it’s an effective new approach that offers a blend of spectacular real-time action and the strategy of more traditional, conventional role-playing games.
Let’s delve into Final Fantasy XV’s battle mechanics in depth.
Final Fantasy XV’s battle system is known as the Active Cross Battle system, because it wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game without an overly grandiose term for its core mechanics. It’s not quite a pure action game in the same way as Square Enix stablemate Kingdom Hearts — a game which people often erroneously compare FFXV — but neither is it a game based around auto-attacks and carefully timed abilities in the way that XI, XII and XIV are to varying degrees. Rather, Final Fantasy XV’s battles largely focus on a combination of three things: weapon choice, stance and positioning.
Playable character Noctis is able to equip a wide variety of different weapons over the course of the story, with each having their own strengths and drawbacks. One-handed swords, for instance, are quick to attack but less powerful than some other weapons, while spears have a long range (and, in true Final Fantasy tradition, the ability to perform jumping attacks) but a slower speed and less of an area of effect than a sword. Different enemies have strengths and weaknesses; attacking an enemy with a weapon they are strong against causes purple damage numbers to pop up, while attacking an enemy with a weapon they are weak against causes orange damage numbers to pop up, making it abundantly clear when you’re making the right choices.
As with most previous Final Fantasy games, many enemies also have elemental strengths weaknesses that can either be exploited through magic spells — more on that a little later — or through weapons that add an elemental effect to their attacks. Because many weapons have elemental affinities attached to them, in some cases you can effectively counteract an enemy’s strength against a particular weapon type if said weapon happens to be of an element they are weak against. Conversely, if you attempt to attack an enemy with a weapon type that they are strong against that also has an elemental affinity they are strong against, you’ll do practically no damage.
As a result of all this, Noctis’ loadout of weapons is extremely important to consider at all times. He can equip up to four items at once, and these can be freely switched in the middle of combat using the directional pad. They can even be switched in mid-combo, allowing you to stagger an enemy with quick strikes from a sword before smacking them down with something stronger.
Switching stance between attack and defense is one of the most important things you do as part of Final Fantasy XV’s combat. Holding down one button causes Noctis to attack for as long as the button is held — if he’s not close to an enemy when the button is pressed, he will approach the targeted enemy automatically rather than flailing at the air — while another puts him into a defensive stance which allows him to “phase” through enemy attacks for as long as he has magic points remaining. Watching enemy animations carefully to determine the best times to switch between attack and defense is key, and can become quite challenging if surrounded by enemies.
The defense button has another important purpose: parrying attacks. Many enemy attacks are telegraphed ahead of time with a prominent “Block” button prompt in the middle of the screen. When this appears, if Noctis enters his defensive stance before the attack lands, he will block the attack and the game will temporarily enter slow motion while presenting an opportunity to counter. In the case of boss-level enemies, these counters often have unique animations that see Noctis interacting with the enemy in some unique way — one encounter with a dragon, for example, sees Noctis parrying a vicious bite before leaping atop the dragon’s head and holding on for dear life before inflicting an angry wound of his own.
The block and parry system has hints of Final Fantasy XIV’s system of prominent attack telegraphs about it, albeit without the prominent area of effect markers and cast bars. The basic function is the same, however: it’s early warning that something bad is about to happen, and presenting the player with the opportunity to do something about it, whether it’s simply moving out of the way (which is an option) or attempting to counter it.
Positioning particularly comes into play when Noctis’ three companions Prompto, Ignis and Gladio are taken into consideration. Noctis does increased damage when attacking an enemy from behind — a mechanic known as “Blindside” — but more importantly, if one of his companions is nearby when he performs a Blindside, they will team up with him for a “Blindside Link”, an attack with a unique animation where both characters cooperate for a team-up attack that usually does considerably more damage than them both attacking individually. As a result, finding ways to flank enemies is of key importance in the heat of combat, and the game provides a few ways to help manage where enemies are directing their attention at any given moment, though once again, not to the same degree as MMO installments Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, both of which have dedicated aggro-management abilities.
Positioning is also worth taking into account when blocking and parrying, since a successful parry performed near a companion will trigger a Link Attack, which has a similar function to a Blindside Link — a unique animation between the two characters, and considerably increased damage over normal attacks.
The other manner in which positioning is important is when Prompto, Ignis’ and Gladio’s special abilities — known as “Techniques” — are used. Each unlocks access to several different Techniques over the course of the game, and each has its own specific area of effect. Prompto’s starting Technique Piercer, for example, attacks enemies in a straight line, while Gladio’s Cyclone that he can unlock later sees him slam a shield down to stun enemies around him before holding his sword up for Noctis to Point-Warp to and swing himself around to damage the stunned enemies.
Related to positioning, Noctis’ Warp ability is of key importance to combat, for two main reasons. Firstly, Noctis’ ability to Point-Warp to high ground allows him to disengage from the main melee, restore his HP and MP, and survey the situation from above before re-entering the fray. Secondly, performing a Warp Strike attack allows Noctis to attack from range with any weapon, with the amount of damage this attack performs increasing the further the distance he was from the enemy.
All of these mechanics initially seem rather frantic and a lot to take in when first starting to play Final Fantasy XV, but after a while it becomes clear that the combat is actually a lot less “action” than it initially appears to be, particularly if you take advantage of the option “Wait Mode”, in which time freezes when you’re standing still. Enemy attacks can be clearly anticipated by watching their animations, affording you ample time to switch into a defensive stance. Positioning yourself behind a foe for a Blindside or Blindside Link is considerably more effective than simply hacking away and hoping for the best. And sometimes it’s even advantageous to play as defensively as possible, waiting for opportunities to block, parry and counterattack for heavy damage. The pleasing thing about Final Fantasy XV’s combat is that it never really feels like it’s doing things without any thought; different enemies act in markedly different ways, and what works for one type of foe won’t necessarily be effective on another.
Final Fantasy XV also makes some interesting changes to the conventions of not just the Final Fantasy series, but RPGs in general. Of particular note is its handling of hit points — the numerical assessment of how much punishment a character can take. In most RPGs, HP have a maximum level that increases as the character levels up, and a current level that rises and falls as the character heals and takes damage. Usually, when the current level reaches 0, the character is killed or knocked out — more commonly the latter in Japanese role-playing games, since there are usually items and abilities that allow characters to be healed from this state and re-enter the fray immediately.
In Final Fantasy XV, reaching 0 HP doesn’t knock out a character; instead it puts them into “Danger” status, where they can still move around — albeit at a slower speed — and get themselves out of trouble, but not attack. All the time the character is in Danger status, their maximum HP is slowly draining, and can be knocked further down by taking additional damage while in Danger. Once their HP are increased above 0 — either by an ally rescuing them or by using an item — they can re-enter combat immediately, though their maximum HP will remain crippled until they either rest at a campsite or inn, or use an item such as an Elixir that is specifically designed to restore maximum HP.
This mechanic is interesting as it’s a way of illustrating the way that fatigue and wounds can build up and have a lasting impact on a character, particularly during a lengthy and dangerous dungeon delve — an approximate equivalent in tabletop role-playing being the “Bloodied” mechanic in later editions of Dungeons and Dragons. However, it’s not implemented in such a way that it becomes impossible to progress or particularly obtrusive; the Elixir and Hi-Elixir items that restore a character’s maximum HP are easy enough to come by, though experienced players will doubtless wish to save their money for items other than curatives if they can avoid taking this kind of fatigue damage.
Another interesting twist on the usual formula that Final Fantasy XV provides is its magic system. Rather than characters being able to freely learn and cast magic spells, Noctis has to craft spells using a combination of fire, ice and thunder energy, and optional “catalyst” items such as medicines, foodstuffs and monster drops. Crafting a spell using only energy produces a simple elemental effect with stronger potency the more energy that is put into it. Adding catalysts, however, adds a variety of secondary effects ranging from multiple casts of the same spell to added status ailments such as poison or a reduction in the enemies’ attack.
Once crafted, spells are placed in magic flasks and thrown like grenades in combat. Since they have a long cooldown before they can be used again, they’re best used at the start of combat — particularly as friendly fire is in full effect, and the spells can easily impact Noctis and his friends as well as their foes if carelessly aimed! They also have an impact on the surrounding environment that can cause ongoing damage or other effects to enemies: casting a powerful Thunder spell on an area will electrify the ground temporarily, for example, causing anyone wandering through it to take additional damage.
Later in the story, Noctis also gains access to three spells through a magic ring, each of which are iconic Final Fantasy abilities. Firstly, the Death spell drains the life out of an enemy — actually making their character model shrivel up and become skeletal in the process — and heals Noctis after they expire. Alterna acts similarly to the Warp/X-Zone spells from old Final Fantasy games, banishing enemies to the void. And Holy emits a burst of holy light whenever Noctis defends against an attack, so long as he has MP remaining.
Final Fantasy XV’s combat may initially seem like straightforward, rather simplistic hack and slash, but it becomes clear over the course of the whole game that there’s a considerable amount going on, and the simplicity of the basics of combat — switching between attack and defense stances — is so that the other options can be layered atop this strong, straightforward foundation.
Over the course of the game, these mechanics are used in a variety of interesting ways, making for some exciting and challenging encounters with both regular enemies and spectacular bosses. And if you want to demonstrate true mastery over the game — not strictly necessary if you just want to complete the story, but absolutely essential if you want to complete all the sidequests and the considerable post-game content — you’ll need to understand and be able to leverage every mechanic that the game offers you.
Next time, we’ll talk more about how Final Fantasy XV is an inversion of the typical JRPG formula, and how its non-combat mechanics fit together to create a coherent experience.
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