As the Final Fantasy XIV alpha test chugs along, we have seen news steadily trickling in to give those of us outside the loop some idea of how Eorzea is shaping up. Along with general stability issues and basic controls, it has been reported that a main focus of the testing is on the battle system. This time around, Square Enix is taking a departure from the automated attacks of Final Fantasy XI and giving players a more hands-on control of the flow of combat.
Is Square Enix adapting the Active Time Battle system for FFXIV?
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The Final Fantasy series began with a simple turn-based system, similar to the Western table-top RPGs from which the series initially drew inspiration. The heroes select their commands and said commands are executed. The enemy then retaliates, and the battle goes back and forth until a victor emerges. Each unit takes their turn, and the flow of battle is paused while each action is selected.
This turn-based style fell out of use by the fourth installment, but has proved successful in strategy games like the Final Fantasy Tactics series. The Dragon Quest series has also retained this style up through its latest incarnation on the DS.
From the information we have available so far, we know FFXIV will not utilize a turn-based battle system. Let's move up a generation to something that might work for the upcoming MMO.
Final Fantasy IV brought the series to the Super Nintendo, and also introduced fans to the brand new Active Time Battle system. While players and enemies still took turns, they were no longer in a fixed order. A character's speed would now determine when they could attack, and the flow of battle would continue while selecting a command. Square Enix's ATB system made battles more realistic and action-packed. It proved so successful that it has been in almost every numbered title in the series in some shape or form.
In games with the ATB system, an Active/Wait option is also sometimes available that would pause the flow of battle during the player's turn to retain some of the turn-based feel and give players more time to choose their actions. For those who wanted a little help (or a greater challenge), the Battle Speed is also adjustable.
Essentially, each character has a speed value that determines how fast their action bar fills up. Once the character's bar is full, the player can select their action. The selected action then executes after a set period of time. For example, generally speaking, melee attacks and item usage is near instant, while special abilities and magic spells take time to charge.
Already, this is sounding similar to what we know about FFXIV's battle system so far. Interviews have revealed that characters have an Action Gauge that fills over time. Once the Action Gauge is full, the character can execute a command. One tweak to the system is that players can now queue a command for their character before the Action Gauge is full, and it will be executed automatically once it fills. FFXI was like this in some respects -- casting magic would take a certain amount of time depending on the spell and recast timers determined how long a player must wait before using a spell or ability again. FFXIV now adds this concept to everything, including physical attacks.
FFXIV's ATB variant also has an additional bar: the Effect Gauge. Separated into 3 levels, the Effect Gauge can be stored up to enhance your actions in various ways. This may again sound familiar to fans of the earlier series, as a similar system was used for Cyan, loyal samurai of the kingdom of Doma, in Final Fantasy VI.
In said title, Cyan could select Attack like any other character, or use his Sword Techniques. Opening the Sword Technique menu would show a bar that slowly filled from 1 to 8. The 8 sections corresponded to 8 different attacks with different strengths and abilities. Generally, the longer you waited, the stronger attack you could pull off, though some were admittedly not as useful as others. Still, this concept of sacrificing time for strength seems to be what the Effect Gauge is all about. With Producer Hiromichi Tanaka presenting FFVI as the title having most influence on FFXIV, this may not be an unreasonable assumption.
With speed and initiative playing a big role in ATB, Final Fantasy fans were also introduced to Back Attacks and Preemptive Strikes. These are two elements that have been confirmed for FFXIV. Developers have stated that a player in Active Mode can get a Preemptive Strike on an unsuspecting monster in Passive Mode. Conversely, a monster in Active Mode attacking a player in Passive Mode will effectively surprise the player as well. However, the benefits (or penalties) in either case have not been made clear.
Another element that FFVI brought to the table was Pincer Attacks. Could these make their way into FFXIV as well? Certainly, we know positioning is a huge part of combat strategy in FFXIV. With the addition of party vs. party combat, it's likely there will be situations where player parties find themselves surrounded by foes. The combination of these elements could lead to Pincer Attacks, though like Preemptive Strikes and the like, we don't have enough information to know whether there will be real bonuses and penalties, or if it will simply be an inconvenience.
Is Square Enix adapting the ATB system for FFXIV? It certainly feels like it, and interviews would also appear to confirm that fact. Besides the influence of FFVI, the developers have said that with this current generation of technology, FFXIV is their chance to create "Final Fantasy" as they have always imagined it.
So, how is it working out so far? Here's what we can glean from current reports in the Japanese media:
Benefits: More control, deeper strategy
The methodical progression of battle will give players more control over their actions. People who find meleeing in FFXI a little tedious should be excited at being able to select each ability and attack. The focus on positioning also keeps players on their toes, constantly moving to get an edge over the enemy. This, along with the increased number of dials and gauges deepens the strategy of battle and allows for more clearly defined roles. One job could speed up Effect Gauges, another could remove penalties for receiving attacks from the back or side, and another job could affect elemental affinities. A more complicated system should be able to handle more jobs without having their roles overlap, inevitably rendering one role redundant.
Drawbacks: Slow, confusing
Most of the complaints that have been voiced mention the slow pace or confusing nature of battles. There's a gauge for attacks, a gauge for TP, a gauge for bonus effects, a line of abilities... it can be a little overwhelming. Not to mention, since battles don't progress automatically, you essentially have to scramble to set up each and every sword strike or nock every arrow. However, these concerns may clear up as 1) players get used to the system through testing and 2) Square Enix improves and tweaks the system during the alpha and beta test phases.
Those were my minor assessments based on alpha reports, but what do you think? Does the FFXIV battle system remind you of something else from the series? Do you feel that this system is appropriate for an MMO?
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