The Active Time Battle (ATB) system is still on the program, albeit with a little more refinement. Time bars indicate your four characters’ battle readiness, you select commands for them as their turn pops up, and they then proceed to execute them. The enemies can get their turns in the meantime, depending on their speed, but you can set the battle configuration to Active or Wait, if you don’t want to be bothered by the enemies while you’re browsing combat menus. Fleeing from battle can be achieved by holding down both shoulder buttons simultaneously, but with the added difficulty that each character has their own “run value” (basically, their chance of escaping), and the battle will continue until all characters are gone. Needless to say, this puts the less agile characters (namely Umaro, Strago and Cyan) at risk, but as long as at least one character makes it out alive, it’s not a big deal.
Another added novelty is the ability to switch between characters whose ATB bars are full. This is a very useful feature, ensuring more reactivity in emergency situations, as you can now pop a healing spell in extremis before selecting another character’s command. From the main combat menu, you can choose to change rows or defend by pressing the left or right directional button, and rows function just as they usually do, by reducing both physical damage dealt and received by characters and enemies in the back row (magic and ranged attacks remaining unaffected). Combat configurations, however, have gained variety, as they are no longer limited to preemptive strikes and back attacks (the party starting with their ATB gauges full and facing the enemies’ backs, for increased melee damage, or vice-versa, respectively). The party can now find itself in a side attack or pincer attack: the former consists of the party surrounding the enemies (two characters on each side of the screen), starting with their ATB gauges full. Targeting an enemy’s back will also deal more melee damage, with the added perk that the enemy will then turn, exposing their back to the other two party members. The pincer attack is the opposite situation: the party is surrounded on both sides, with their ATB gauges empty, and the enemies can target their backs. Neither of these formations allows the party to escape.
As the game’s storyline revolves heavily around magic and Espers, they also constitute one of the bases of combat. There are 27 different Espers in the game, but Raiden is an upgrade of Odin, thus technically reducing the number to 26 (30 in the GBA version). An Esper’s essence is contained in a shard of magicite, of which each character can equip one. Most magicite shards add stat bonuses upon level up, which is a handy way to either further boost a character’s proficiency in a certain domain, or to compensate for weaknesses. E.g. Tritoch/Valigarmanda boosts its user’s magic by two points each level, while Bismarck boosts strength by the same amount.
Each Esper can be summoned once per battle, performing a unique trademark attack which affects all enemies or all party members (or both, in Crusader’s case). Moreover, Espers are the only way for characters besides Terra and Celes to learn magic spells (apart from Strago’s Lores and Gau’s Rages), and even Terra and Celes cannot learn all spells on their own. The only exceptions are Umaro, who can’t be controlled at all, and Gogo, who will only be able to use whichever spells the rest of the party knows. Magic is very potent in this game – more so than melee –, and anyone can learn any spell, so it’s highly advisable to devote some time to it, at least for the characters who have good magic stats. There are three schools (Healing, Attack and Effect magic, designated by white, black and grey dots, respectively), but no restrictions as to who can use them. Each Esper can teach from one to five spells, at varying rates, which are used as multipliers for the Magic Points/Ability Points earned in battle. E.g. Kirin teaches Cure with a x4 rate, while Starlet/Lakshmi teaches the same spell with a x25 rate, thus making it much faster to learn. Of course, you get Kirin long before you get Starlet/Lakshmi, but should any party member not know Cure by the time you obtain her, it’s easy to remedy. Another Esper worth mentioning is Ragnarok, because you have the choice of turning it into a sword upon obtaining it. This sword can then be transformed into the game’s best weapon, and while the Esper does teach the Ultima spell, there is another (albeit more tedious) way of learning it, making the choice between sword and Esper an easy one.
The combat system also introduces a novelty which will become a staple of the series. When a character’s HP reach a critical level (less than 1/8 of their total), picking the Attack command has a 1/16 chance of triggering a special move with a flashy animation. These are Desperation Attacks, the ancestors of the later games’ Limit Breaks, Trances and Overdrives. The only characters who don’t have a DA are Gau and Umaro, because they don’t actually have access to the Attack command. They’re all heavily damaging single-target magic attacks, except Strago’s and Relm’s which are instant-death moves (and will therefore fail if the enemy in question is immune to instant death). Moreover, Shadow’s DA will keep sapping the enemy’s health after it hits, if it doesn’t kill it outright. This is all well and good, but the fact that the DAs are not 100% guaranteed to trigger is a distinct shame: if you’re careful with your party’s HP, you may very well go through the entire game without seeing a single one.
Finally, an important glitch worth noting: the Evade stat doesn’t actually do anything. Instead, evasion (both physical and magical) is determined by the MBlock stat. As a result, the Blind status, which traditionally decreases the target’s ability to hit an opponent, has no effect apart from preventing Strago from learning Lores (presumably because he can’t see them being performed). So you don’t even have to bother curing it most of the time and can pretend that whoever is afflicted by it is just having a CSI: Miami moment. Moreover, the Beads/Prayer Beads relic, which is supposed to raise the evasion rate by 25%, is rendered useless.