With all of the info that’s come out over the past week or so about the upcoming Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, it looks like Square Enix is sticking with the franchise. However, it looks like they’re making significant changes to the “Final Fantasy formula: Lightning being the only playable character, no more battle menus, free movement during combat, and more.
With this brand new game supposedly coming out next year, now’s a perfect time to reexamine how the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy fits in with the rest of the series from a gameplay mechanics perspective.
Despite being one of the more divisive Final Fantasy games out there, Final Fantasy XIII had one thing that reviewers appeared to agree on—the battle system. Joystiq said it was a “fast-paced and refreshing take on the turn-based battles of yore.” While GameSpot said “the battle system is fun and engaging once all of its elements fall into place.” Despite not liking the game (not just because it broke my PS3), I have to agree. Final Fantasy XIII has a great battle system, but it’s not as new as you might think. If you look closely you can see how it is a logical evolution based on the systems that came before it.
Let’s travel back to the 80s. You know what was big? Pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. So when RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest hit the market, it made sense that they would use a turn-based battle system. The original Final Fantasy game created the template that the rest of the series would use: your party of adventurers fights monsters in an orderly fashion by selecting to either attack with an equipped weapon or cast magic from a list of learned spells.
One of the features of the system was that you didn’t know the battle order. Characters had a speed stat, but for the most part you didn’t know if your character was going to be faster than the enemy or not. Also, taking inspiration from pen & paper RPGs, characters were defined by their class—fighter, mage, etc.
Jumping forward to Final Fantasy IV, Square shook things up by introducing the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Instead of taking turns in a predetermined order, characters had a time bar that allowed them to take an action once it was filled. Despite the changes to how battles would play out, with a move closer to real-time rather than turn-based, characters still had individual classes that the player wasn’t able to alter. The ATB system was a hit, and Square carried it over to the next five games in the series—including Final Fantasy VI (III in the States) and the juggernaut of Final Fantasy VII.
Because the ATB system was unchanged for Final Fantasy VII, some might be tempted to say that Square didn’t really change anything. Not true! By changing around the equipped materia, the player could turn a fighter into something more resembling a caster or healer. The materia system gave players a level of flexibility that several previous games lacked.
Let’s skip the rest of the PlayStation games and jump to Final Fantasy X, the first Final Fantasy game on the brand new PlayStation 2. Ignoring the story and voice acting, Square removed the ATB system and replaced it with a “Conditional Turn-Based” system. In this system, battles lack a real-time element, and players can see the turn order on the screen. Not only that, but they can also swap characters in and out of battle without losing a turn. Right before you confirm your next action, the turn order graphic shuffles and moves to show you the repercussions of your choice. This gives the game an incredible amount of tactical depth.
With the CTB system, you didn’t have to wait for bars to fill, hoping that the enemy wouldn’t wipe out your party before you could heal. Instead you’d know ahead of time how many turns the enemies would get if you used that special attack during your turn instead of topping off your party’s HP.
Final Fantasy X also gave the player added depth when it came to leveling up their characters. While the game did lock (temporarily) characters into certain roles on the Sphere Grid, savvy players found ways around that near the end of the game. For example, my Tidus finished his portion of the grid, and then I teleported him over to Auron’s section. That allowed Tidus to learn a lot of Auron’s heavy-hitting abilities.
Now let’s look at Final Fantasy XIII. At first glance, it seems like the game does something entirely new with its Paradigm system. You only control one character, and you can change “roles” mid-battle. The player’s roles are outlandish sounding things like “Commando,” “Ravager,” and “Sentinel.” The fast-paced battles and strange roles initially make Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system appear like a hot mess. Look deeper. Just like how Final Fantasy X combined the customization of VII and the turn-based nature of the original NES games, Final Fantasy XIII is evolved from previous games.
The Paradigm system with its mid-battle shifts is a real-time version of X’s character-swapping feature. Because of the way the leveling system works, each character is able to have multiple roles, similar to the materia system in VII.
Look closely at the roles. The Ravager is just a fancy magic-slinging mage. The Saboteur focuses on debuffing the enemy, while the Sentinel functions as the party’s tank. Despite the new names, the roles are all classic RPG tropes. What’s new is how quickly and fluidly you’re able to change your party’s composition to react to the changing landscape of battle. This system encourages the player to think about what roles work well together.
Final Fantasy XIII’s leveling system is also an evolved form of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Instead of each character having their own portion of the grid, you get to level up each character’s Paradigm roles. It’s almost like each character has the entire Sphere Grid at their disposal. If you want one character to emphasize the commando role, you can do that. When examined closely, there’s a surprising amount of freedom that’s given to the player when it comes to battle strategy and character development in a game that was largely criticized (rightly so) for having a “stiflingly constrained central path” for the first 20+ hours.
We don’t know for sure how Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is going to turn out. But, to some, Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 might be the black sheep of the whole franchise—games that doesn’t quite belong, especially with a battle system that appears out of left field with its nonsensical terms and flashy (possibly over-stimulating) visuals. In reality, it’s just an evolution—a reworking—of what came before it. For all its departures from traditional Final Fantasy tropes and laughable story, when it comes to battle systems, the Final Fantasy XIII series is clearly a member of the family.