We’re back to a four-person party, but the Active Time Battle (ATB) system is still the order of the day and will be for the subsequent four games in the series. However, unlike FFIV, where ATB was first introduced, you now have the luxury of time bars, which monitor how soon a character’s turn will come up. Once that happens, you input a command for that character, s/he executes it, and you wait for the next character’s turn. Enemies can attack liberally in between, depending on their speed, but you can still set the battle configuration to Wait if you don’t want the party to be attacked while you’re browsing combat menus (or Active if you want some added challenge). Escaping can still be achieved by holding down both shoulder buttons simultaneously.
Unfortunately, just like in FFIV, you still can’t choose between two characters who are ready: it’s whoever got there first who must act first. Other than that, you can still choose to defend or change rows with the right or left directional buttons when a character’s turn comes up. Rows still function as they did before, in that characters and enemies at the front will take and deal full physical damage, while the ones in the back will see both of those halved. Magic or ranged attacks will deal full damage from the back row, however. The party can still get a preemptive strike against a group of enemies, which translates to all their time bars being full at the beginning of battle. The chance of this occurring can be raised with the Ninja’s Pre-Emptive/First Strike ability. Conversely, enemies can get a back attack on the party as well. This has the added disadvantage of reversing the party’s rows, but can be prevented by the Thief’s Caution/Vigilance ability.
As far as the job system is concerned, this is probably its best and most versatile implementation in the series. The characters can change jobs freely outside of combat, as they’re no longer limited by Capacity Points or a temporary fatigue period, like in FFIII. Every job except Normal/Freelancer and Mimic/Mime grants its own stat bonuses and penalties. Many also have one or more innate abilities that are constantly in effect, such as the Geomancer’s Damage Floor/Light Step. On top of those, every job (except Normal/Freelancer) also has a set of abilities–sometimes as many as seven, sometimes as few as one–that it learns by gaining Ability Battle Points (ABP) after each battle, alongside the usual experience points. Every job also has one free slot in its action menu that you can fill with any other ability from any other job the character in question has learned. For example, if they’ve learned Blue Magic from the Blue Mage, you can switch them to Black Mage and still use Blue Magic as its spare ability, to have a much larger spell arsenal.
Normal/Freelancer and Mimic/Mime are slightly different, in that they have two and three free slots respectively, and can thus use more abilities from other jobs. They also inherit the stat bonuses and innate abilities of all the jobs a character has mastered. For example, if they master Monk, they will inherit a massive boost in strength and defence, as well the ability to counterattack without actually having to use up an ability slot for Counter. Berserk is the only innate ability that doesn’t automatically get transferred, but that’s a good thing. Bottom line, mastering jobs really pays off. But even besides that, just being able to use any two or three abilities of your choice opens up an immense array of possibilities. Of course, you still have to take into account the characters’ natural limitations, such as Lenna’s crappy strength, or Galuf’s abysmal magic stat, but there’s still plenty of variety.
There are now five schools of magic, instead of just three. Black, White and Time Magic spells can either be purchased or found in treasure chests. Blue Magic, as has already been mentioned, is learned when a character is hit by certain enemy spells. To obtain new summonable creatures, the party will need to fight most of them (or rescue, as in the case of Golem). Bard songs can be obtained from examining certain objects, by talking to certain NPCs or by playing the piano in every inn the party visits (a callback to a joke sidequest in FFIII). Magic is also no longer ‘individual’: the party only needs to learn/purchase a spell once for every character to be able to use it, unlike FFIII. This is especially helpful for Blue Mages.