There are two difficulty levels to pick from at the beginning of the game: Normal and Hard. Keep in mind that Hard really does mean ‘hard’ here. Enemies’ stats will double or even triple, and they can have up to five times (!) the HP they would have on Normal. Only pick Hard if you want a hefty challenge, especially since there’s no advantage to doing so other than bragging rights.
This is an Action RPG, so the combat is more dynamic than in FFVII. Battles happen in real-time, and Zack can move freely around the enemies, as well as being able to dodge and block their attacks. He can also escape from random encounters by running against the edge of the battlefield, but keep in mind that any attack from the back (be it Zack attacking an enemy or vice-versa) deals critical damage. The combat menu is at the bottom right of the screen, and you can select between melee attacks, the various materia Zack has equipped (he starts out with four, then upgrades to six once promoted to 1st Class), or items by pressing the L and R shoulder buttons. However, keep in mind that this will not pause the battle, so you might end up in trouble if you take too long.
Zack has both Magic Point (MP) and Ability Point (AP) metres, the former being used to cast spells, and the latter for physical attacks performed with the help of materia. He also gains Soldier Points (SP) alongside EXP in battle. These are used for the Digital Mind Wave (DMW) and materia fusion: the two most important elements of combat in the game, but also the most frustrating.
The DMW is the bread-and-butter of combat in this game. It consists of a set of spinning reels at the top left of the screen depicting images and numbers, and a wave pattern indicating Zack’s overall state of mind (from ‘Low’ to ‘Heavenly’). The idea is that Zack’s combat abilities are influenced by his emotions and the people he knows, which is quite a novel approach to combat. The reels require Soldier Points (SP) to spin, but they do so continuously and without your input, as long as you have some SP left (each successful spin costs 10 SP). There are three sets of images: NPCs, and two types of summoned creatures. NPCs are associated with Limit Breaks, which are strong special attacks. The first type of summoned creatures includes some of the traditional summons of the FF series (Ifrit (in disturbingly tiny briefs), Bahamut, etc.), which all perform attacks and have very long summoning sequences. The second type of summoned creatures are lesser critters, which can either trigger a beneficial effect (Moogle, Cait Sith, Magic Pot) or an attack (Chocobo, Cactuar, Tonberry), and their ‘summoning’ sequences are much shorter.
The ‘default’ reels feature NPC portraits, which Zack will unlock naturally by progressing through the main storyline. If the images on the left and right reel match, a Modulating Phase will trigger; the wave pattern indicates the likelihood of that happening. If the image on the middle reel then matches the other two – and this is sometimes heralded by a short cutscene featuring that person –, Zack will experience a Power Surge and perform a Limit Break inspired by that character. Each character has a certain number of scenes associated with them (the ones you’ve seen are indicated by a percentage in the main menu), and Zack will get a reward whenever he’s seen all the scenes associated with a given character.
If Zack has at least one Summon materia in his inventory, the Summon Mode can be triggered instead, in which case, all the images will be replaced by Summon portraits, but the idea is the same: Modulating Phase if two pictures match (likelihood determined by the wave pattern), then Summoning sequence if the third one matches as well. If Zack clears certain optional Missions, opens a specific treasure chest or encounters a Magic Pot while on those Missions, he will unlock the critters for the Chocobo Mode. This can trigger instead of Summon Mode, but the mechanics are exactly the same.
The numbers appearing next to the images are completely independent and control level gains, as well as beneficial status effects. The latter happen whenever three identical numbers align, and whenever you get any combination with at least one 7 in it. If you get 777, Zack will gain a level. If you get two identical numbers other than 7 in any order, the materia in the corresponding slot will gain a level. For example, if you get 4-3-4, the materia in Zack’s fourth equipment slot will level up. If you get three identical numbers other than seven, the corresponding materia will gain two levels.
The main issue with the DMW system is that it’s randomised. You can’t control which Limit Break or Summoning sequence you will get at any given point or, indeed, whether you’ll get one at all. It’s particularly annoying to see, say, Bahamut Fury pop up when Zack is fighting some insignificant mook, because chances are that he would’ve been able to dispatch said enemy in less time than it takes for the system to even trigger the Modulating Phase, let alone the Summoning sequence itself. It’s a good thing the latter are skippable at least, because they’re all quite long.
It also means that levelling up is random as well. Accumulating enough EXP to actually level Zack up only means that you can get the coveted 777 combo, not that you will get it. In fact, it’s entirely possible to go ages without Zack levelling up at all, only for him to level up twice in a random battle, because he’s accumulated so much EXP. This is a rather puzzling approach, and I suppose that it balances out over time, but it also means that you have no way of controlling Zack’s level progression or the quality of his materia at any given time. The only thing you can control is the likelihood of getting a certain Limit Break, Summon or Chocobo Mode sequence (by equipping the appropriate materia), and even that is indirect.
The other issue with materia is the fusion system. For those who haven’t played FFVII, materia are crystallised orbs of the planet’s vital energy (Mako) that characters use to power up their attacks and cast magic. There’s magic materia (three shades of green), which covers basic offensive and curative spells; summon materia (red), which covers summonable creatures; command materia (two shades of yellow), which adds various attack or item-related commands; support materia (two shades of blue), which enhances the effects of other materia; and independent materia (two shades of purple), which grants various passive effects. Materia can be used as-is in combat – although blue materia can only be used in combination with another colour –, but two pieces of materia can also be fused, at the cost of some SP. The better the combination, the higher the cost, and the order in which you put the materia to be fused changes the result. The resulting materia will either be a completely new specimen, a higher level of one of the two component materia, one of the two component materia with higher stat boosts, or a combination of these. You can also further boost its stats with items (but beware, as that can make your SP cost skyrocket).
Materia fusion is a good idea on paper, as it gives materia a new purpose, opens up a lot of customisation options and is actually the key to beating the optional superboss. The problem is that there are hidden statistics which make the process much more confusing than it has to be. You see, each type of materia has a grade (not to be confused with its level), and while you may intuitively guess some of them (e.g. Fira will have a higher grade than Fire, as it’s a stronger fire spell), others are far less obvious. In fact, two pieces of the same type of materia can be two different grades. This grade determines the priority of the materia during the fusion process, and therefore the result you obtain. What’s more, if you’re using any items in the fusion, those also have a hidden grade. Therefore, unless you’re following a guide, it’s entirely possible that you will be wasting time and resources in trial and error, trying to get the materia you need.