Thankfully, the developers have realised that FFII’s combat and levelling system were a disaster and have, consequently, gone back to basic turn-based combat as seen in FFI, minus the super-cluttered combat menus. You input commands for all four of your characters, then watch them execute them in succession with the enemies. If the enemies are faster than your characters, they may get a turn in between theirs. There is, however, one significant difference: the characters have bought themselves brains. By that I mean that they will now switch targets once an enemy is defeated, unlike in the previous two games. This is a huge relief, as you no longer have to worry about wasting turns to hit thin air. All of this is retained in the DS version, which also further unclutters the combat menus, reducing them to the bare minimum. In the NES version, escaping from combat (the Run command in the menu) inflicts a defence penalty on the entire team while they are attempting their getaway, but can be avoided by using a Thief’s Escape ability. This is retained in the DS version, although escaping is no longer achieved by a menu command, but by holding down the L and R buttons simultaneously (and the Thief’s Flee now actually boosts defence).
Front and back rows also make a comeback, with party members in the front being able to deal and receive full melee damage. This means that you can move more fragile party members who either use ranged attacks or don’t use physical attacks at all to the back row to protect them. Rows also apply to the enemies: the ones at the front will take full damage, and the party will either need to eliminate them to properly damage the ones in the back, or use magic or ranged attacks.
One aspect of combat that doesn’t make a comeback, however, is the first strike formation, in which the party would get a full turn before the enemies. However, its opposite, the back attack, where it’s the enemies who get a full turn before the party, remains. On top of that, party rows are now reversed whenever a back attack occurs, thus temporarily placing back-row characters in danger and reducing the effectiveness of front-row characters.
Another unfortunate victim of scrapping is the MP system, meaning that mages have to deal with spell charges again. There are eight tiers of spells of increasing power in each of the three schools (White or Black Magic and Summoning) and each mage job is only allowed to cast a certain number of spells per tier (those are the charges), decreasing as the tiers go up. In effect, this amounts to severely restricted casting abilities, so make sure to keep an eye on your mages and don’t cast unless absolutely necessary. Surprisingly enough, this has been kept in the DS version as well.
A detail unique to this game is the fact that every single job has the ability to equip two weapons. Even mages. This means that a job that can equip shields will lose out on some defence, but it’s usually a negligible loss compared to the gain in attack power. Conversely, if the party is facing a particularly nasty opponent, there’s always the possibility to use a heavily armoured Knight with two shields and Cover to soak up the damage for the other party members. This technique is rendered even easier in the DS version, due to the Viking’s Provoke ability.
The main innovation of this game, however, as has already been mentioned, is the job system. The characters can theoretically change jobs at will outside of combat, but there’s a catch. You see, changing jobs isn’t free. In the NES version, as your party fights, it accumulates Capacity Points, up to a total of 225 per character. Whenever a character changes jobs, they use some CP. The amount varies depending on which job they change from and into: if they start as a mage and change into a melee job (or vice-versa), the cost is higher than between two mage jobs, for example. The cost is also higher if the second job is a higher level than the first one. It’s usually not a big deal, since CP are plentiful, but it’s still worth pointing out.
In the DS version, CP have been done away with, but have been replaced with a “fatigue” system. Whenever a character switches jobs, they have to adapt to their new job and therefore will not perform to their fullest capacity for a certain amount of battles, up to a maximum of 10. This is represented by an arrow pointing down next to their name and results in reduced stats and hit rates. The fatigue phase is also longer when switching between a melee and mage job, and from a lower level to a higher level job, much like in the NES version.
Each job has its own level, which is distinct from the characters’ levels. The more a character uses a job (specifically, the job’s abilities), the higher its level, quite obviously. And, as you may expect, said level influences hit rates, magic power, stat gains, stealing success rates, etc. Jobs are notably the only way to differentiate your characters’ stats. They originally start out completely identical, but if one chooses to level as a Monk, for example, they will gain more HP and strength with each level (character level, not job level) than if they chose to level as a White Mage. This creates limitations, as it means that it’s more advantageous for a given character to pursue all mage or all melee jobs, rather than switch between the two types.
A few more remarks about magic. When switching a character between a melee and a mage job, spell charges don’t automatically refill. Meaning that it’s completely pointless to do it in the middle of a dungeon, as you’ll then be left with a mage who can’t cast anything. On a more positive note, while mage jobs only have three slots per spell tier, spells behave much as any piece of equipment, which means that learning one isn’t irreversible. A mage character can therefore safely buy any spells they want and switch them up according to their needs. You can even store spells on other characters, even if they are a melee job, which is a very useful way to avoid cluttering the inventory with spells. However, this system also means that you need to purchase a separate copy of a spell for each character that may need it.