Probably the game’s weakest point, as I’ve already mentioned. The main issue is that we’re dealing with ‘true’ turn-based combat: you have to select your entire party’s actions before each round and, more importantly, before seeing what the enemies do. So if there’s something you need to react to – such as healing before a strong attack –, you might have to cancel a character’s planned move and queue up something else, making them lose valuable turn time. The order of actions within a turn is indicated at the bottom left of the screen.
Each spell has a set casting time, indicated in the combat menu by a number and a letter underneath the selection window. If the number is 1, the spell will take one turn to cast; if it’s 2, two turns, etc. The longest spells (the two strongest Black spells) take four turns to cast. The letter indicates the spell’s order within a given turn. So if someone casts a spell which has a 1-B value, and someone else casts a spell with a 1-D value, the B spell will go off first. Annoyingly, taking a strong hit may delay casting, so, since you can distribute your characters between a front and back row, it’s crucial to always keep your casters in the back.
This is further reinforced by a feature called Guard Condition or GC, indicated by a gauge at the top right of the battle screen. Simply put, this indicates the strength of the front row. The beefier the front-row characters are physically, the stronger the protection the back-row characters receive. Each hit the front row takes reduces the gauge by a certain amount, and, when it’s depleted, the back row will take the same amount of damage as if they were in the front row. This is obviously A Bad Thing™. Fortunately, Mack has a few Skills which allow you to restore GC.
One of the positives of combat, though, is that it’s possible to change your party’s formation and their equipment in the middle of a battle without making a character lose their turn, so you can micromanage difficult fights that way. Oddly enough, there’s no armour in the game, only weapons, rings and accessories. And while it’s customary enough to see a character’s weapon model change depending on what they’re wielding nowadays, what’s less customary is seeing their accessories displayed, both in and out of combat. This can lead to chuckle-worthy situations, such as characters appearing with yellow cat ears in serious cutscenes, or male characters wearing fabulous dangly earrings (although, given how blingy Tolten’s outfit is, he can sorta pull it off). But I digress.
There are two fundamental differences between the mortal and immortal characters. First of all, if a mortal is K.O.’ed in combat, they will need to be revived via an item or a spell. If an immortal goes down, they will get up on their own after three turns (but you can also revive them with an item or spell to speed up the process). More importantly, mortal characters learn specific Skills as they level up. These can be Command Skills, Passive Skills or Spell Levels. The immortals, on the other hand, are more or less blank slates who can learn any and all of these Skills from the mortals by using the Skill Link ability, regardless of whether they are a mage or a melee character. Some further Passive Skills, as well as Status and Elemental Defence Skills are only available via accessories, with the difference that the immortals can learn these Skills permanently, while the mortal characters must have the requisite accessory equipped in order to benefit from them. The immortals have a limited number of Skill Slots available, but this can be expanded by using Slot Seeds and accessories, up to a maximum of 30 Slots each.
The end result is, unsurprisingly, four highly versatile and powerful characters who will be permanent fixtures in your active party, and five characters who can’t even hope to compete. It makes sense, since the immortals are, after all, the focus of the story, but it can be a bit frustrating if you like the mortal characters as well. As you are allowed a party of five, you can still sneak in one mortal in there, but chances are it’ll be either Jansen or Sed, due to their abilities, which are significantly better than those of the other three mortals.
Unsurprisingly for a game with such a big focus on magic, spells are very potent in combat, and there are actually more mages than melee characters in the full party. Magic is subdivided into four categories: Black, White, Spirit and Composite. Black and White Magic cover offensive and defensive spells, respectively, although the ‘elemental wheel’ (i.e. which element is stronger against which) is somewhat counterintuitive: it goes wind > earth > water (because earth absorbs water?) > fire > wind (because fire heats air?). Spirit Magic – like Mack, who is the party’s token Spirit Mage – is a bit of a mixed bag: it mostly covers status-enhancing or debilitating spells, but also includes some healing and non-elemental attack spells. Composite Magic is a different and more complex beast.
Spells are grouped by Levels of increasing power. Black, White and Spirit Magic have eight Levels of four spells each, while Composite Magic only has four Levels. Composite Magic spells are also more unevenly distributed, with nine spells in the first Level, 15 in the second one, 16 in the third and 10 in the fourth. In terms of mechanics, characters learn spell Levels, rather than individual spells. This usually means that they automatically learn all spells up to a given Level. So if a character learns Level 4 Spirit Magic or equips an accessory with that Skill, they will be able to cast all Spirit spells up to and including Level 4. So, in theory, you could speed things up for your immortals by only having them learn the highest spell Level you have available. There are, however, a few notable exceptions: some spells, including the strongest spells in each category, are not learned automatically and have to be found.
Composite Magic, as the name implies, involves combining two existing spells into one. Composite Magic Levels can only be learned/used from accessories. On top of that, the character in question also needs to know both ‘component’ spells to be able to cast the corresponding Composite spell. So, let’s say Ming learns Level 2 Composite Magic. She still won’t be able to cast, say, Generata unless she also knows Refresha (Level 5 Spirit Magic) and Heala (Level 4 White Magic). The consequence of this is that only the immortals, Jansen and Sed can use Composite Magic. Mortal mages need to be able to equip two accessories to cast (some) Composite Magic, and only Jansen can do that. Mortal non-mages need three accessories, and only Sed can do that. This only serves to further reduce Cooke’s, Mack’s and Tolten’s usefulness.
Composite Magic is mostly multi-target and is notably the only way to cast multi-target elemental spells. For example, Poison-Cure will heal a whole row of party members and remove Poison, while All-Wind will damage all enemies. Due to how powerful these spells are, they have a longer average casting time, so they’re best left to the specialists (i.e. Ming and Sarah) to minimise the hassle.
Last but not least, we have the Aim Ring system, which is the game’s valiant attempt at making turn-based combat more exciting. On top of regular accessories, each character can equip a ring to enhance their weapon’s melee attacks. Rings can either be found or crafted from components, either by yourself from the menu or by visiting ring makers in cities. Rings that you can craft yourself will only have a single attribute, while ring-maker rings will have two or three. This can range from elemental or status attacks, to a higher rate of critical hits, to dealing more damage to certain enemy types.
Whenever you select Attack from the combat menu, a dual targeting ring appears on the screen as the character runs in to strike. If you hold down the Right Trigger, the outer ring quickly zooms in on the inner one. You need to release the Trigger when the two rings align. If you’ve played Final Fantasy VIII before, this is somewhat similar to attacking with Squall. If the rings align perfectly, you’ll get a Perfect rating, and the ring’s enhancement will activate at full power. If they’re not aligned, but close enough, you’ll get a Good rating: the enhancement will still activate but will be less potent. And if you miss completely, you’ll get a Bad rating, and the enhancement will not activate. Rings with an “Ultra” in their name widen the Good rating area, thus making it easier to get an enhanced attack.