Ladies and gentlemen, we have ATB. That’s “Active Time Battle”, which will be the staple of Final Fantasy combat for a good while. In practice, this means that you no longer need to input commands for every party member in one go. Instead, each character has his or her own speed stat, and the combat menu pops up in turn whenever one of them is ready. You then input a command for them, and they perform it right away. Later games make this process easier by introducing time bars, but those don’t exist as of yet. Not that it’s particularly handicapping. Another feature of the combat menu is that, whenever it pops up, you can press the left or right directional button to bring up the option to change rows or defend, respectively. Escaping is now achieved by simultaneously holding down both shoulder buttons, rather than through a menu command, although the party may lose some money (1/4 of the amount they would have received had they sucessfully completed the fight) every time they manage a successful getaway.
Unfortunately, you can’t cycle between characters if several are ready at the same time. Meaning that, if you really need healing, but, say, Edge’s turn comes up before Rosa’s, you still need to do something with him instead of healing first and continuing to fight. Another new feature related to ATB is the ability to pause the action while navigating the menu: by picking the Wait option in the configuration settings, you’ll ensure that the party cannot get attacked while you’re browsing combat menus. This is handy if you like to take your time to choose your next move. If not, pick the Active option, which won’t pause the action and ensure faster-paced combat.
The preemptive attack combat configuration has been brought back, after inexplicably being absent from FFIII, thus sometimes allowing your party to get the drop on enemies, which translates to every party member being ready to act at the beginning of battle. Similarly, though, the enemies can sometimes get a surprise attack on the party, with the added disadvantage that this reverses the row formation. Since enemies and allies in the front row deal and take full physical damage, while the ones in the back have it halved, this puts back-row characters in danger and makes front-row characters less effective. Magic and ranged attacks are unaffected by row placement, however.
The game introduces a further difficulty related to rows. You see, you can’t just have as many characters in the back row as you need. That would be too easy. There are two placement patterns: either three characters at the front and two at the back, or vice-versa. If you want one character at the front and everyone else in the back (which is a situation that you’ll encounter), you’ll have to manoeuvre them around the empty slots in the party formation in order to trick the system. The party leader is whoever is in the middle of the formation…but the game has an inbuilt bias towards Cecil and will try to switch over to him even though he’s not in the middle every once in a while. Not a big deal, admittedly, just that if you don’t want to see Cecil walking around on the screen, you’ll have to tweak your party settings.
The game is also unique in the fact that it lets you have a whopping five people in your party, something which only a few games in the series can top. And no, having five people is not superfluous: endgame battles can be pretty brutal.
There are still three spell schools (White or Black Magic and Summoning), but spells are no longer purchased. As you can see, there’s a fairly large selection of mages (none of whom have last names, for some reason…), and most of them, barring Tella/Tellah and FuSoYa/Fusoya, learn their spells as they level up. Which is a great money saver, let me tell you. Summons, however, are different. Rydia (as an adult) comes with most of the basic ones already learned, and the rest can be obtained by fighting them, as in FFIII. There is, however, a handful of exceptions: Imp/Goblin, Bomb, Mage/Mindflayer and Cockatrice. These are learned from items that the aforementioned enemies drop. The problem? All four drops are EXTREMELY rare…and the resulting summons are rather useless anyway, so unless you really want to see what they do, I wouldn’t fret if you never manage to get them.