The Active Time Battle (ATB) system is still on the menu: time bars indicate the characters’ readiness; when they’re full, you select their actions, and they are performed immediately. You can also press O to switch between characters with full bars, which is handy for emergency healing or changing strategies on the fly. It’s a three-person party, just like in FFVII–except that all three characters now appear onscreen in towns and dungeons–, but combat formations have been simplified. There’s no front or back row anymore, and Defend becomes a learned ability. Preemptive attacks (the party faces the enemies’ backs for increased damage and starts the battle with their time bars full) and back attacks (the reverse) still exist, but the pincer and side attacks that appeared in FFVI and FFVII have been done away with for good. Pressing R1 and L1 simultaneously will make the party attempt to flee any non-boss encounter, but it may not always succeed right away.
Limit Breaks have become a constant of the series at this point, and every main character has a different way of learning theirs. Squall’s selection of finishers depends on the weapon he has equipped. Quistis learns her spells from enemy item drops. The availability of Selphie’s moves depends on her level, Irvine’s on the type of ammo the party has in stock. Both Rinoa and Zell have some default moves already learned, but can learn new ones from Pet Pals and Combat King magazines, respectively, although Rinoa also needs to take a certain number of steps (the game describes this as her walking her dog so it can practice them), as indicated by a progress bar. Limit Breaks are normally triggered by a character dropping into critical (yellow) HP, at which point, an arrow may appear in their combat menu next to the “Attack” command, allowing you to use the Limit Break. If the arrow doesn’t appear, rapidly pressing the O button will do the trick and may even work when the character is not in critical HP, even though it will take longer. Alternatively, the Aura spell will trigger Limit Breaks on every turn for a limited amount of time. The problem is that it’s quite rare and can be valuable for junctioning.
The Junction mechanic is the blood and bones of the game’s combat system and is based on summoned creatures, or Guardian Forces. This is the most involved use of summons in the entire series and the first instance of them becoming more than just glorified spells. There are 20 GFs in the game, 16 of which can be junctioned at will (i.e. assigning one to a character is not irreversible). You can even name the latter when you receive them. Two are obtained automatically at the beginning of the game by…downloading them from a computer (Shiva and Quezacotl…I know they didn’t have enough room to spell ‘Quetzalcoatl’, but I still find it jarring). One needs to be constructed from items and clues found in the Occult Fan magazines (Doomtrain), and the others are either obtained from bosses or fought.
Junctioning GFs has two purposes. First of all, they can be summoned in combat. The attack takes some time to charge, during which the GF serves as a shield: it has its own HP and will take any damage aimed at its master, sometimes being KO’ed in the process, which cancels its attack and makes it unavailable until revived. GF-specific curative and reviving items are sold in Pet Shops, alongside other GF-related swag. The more a character summons a GF or casts its preferred spell type (if it has one), the more their compatibility with it rises. This can also be achieved with certain items and shortens the summoning time, which also minimises the risk of the GF taking damage. The problem is that some GFs are elementally opposed, such as Shiva and Ifrit, or Alexander and Doomtrain (or, far less obviously, Siren and Carbuncle). This affects their compatibility with their respective masters: whoever has Shiva will see their compatibility with Ifrit drop as hers rises. And junctioning both Shiva and Ifrit to the same character is just an exercise in futility.
Secondly, each GF enhances its master’s combat performance. They earn Experience and Ability Points, and the latter go into learning a set of 22 abilities specific to each GF, some of which are sequential (i.e need to be learned in a given order). These GF abilities can be divided into three categories.
The first category benefits the GF’s master. Simply put, GFs are the reason characters are able to do anything combat-related. They grant them stat boosts, action or support abilities, such as Defend (Brothers) or Initiative (Cactuar, Tonberry, Pandemona) or, more importantly, allow them to junction magic to enhance their stats (again, not irreversible). With the exception of Quistis’ Blue Magic, every other spell in the game can be extracted or created. There’s no MP; instead, spells come in consumable units. Each character can carry 32 different spells, up to 100 units of each. Outside of combat, spells can be extracted from Draw Points, which are a sort of magic spring containing up to 15 units of a specific spell and actually serve as a replacement for treasure chests. In cities and dungeons, they appear like a bunch of floating confetti, pink when full and blue when empty. On the World Map, however, they are invisible, so you need a lot of luck or an online map to find them. Some Draw Points are one-time only, while others will refill over time. The longer you wait between draws, the more magic they’ll contain.
A faster way of stocking up on spells is drawing magic from enemies. Each enemy carries between one and four spells, and each new spell will appear as ‘????” at first, so you need to draw it to identify it. Some bosses also carry GFs for drawing. Not all spells are useful, and since there are more than 32 types, you don’t need to stock up on every single one. Another difficulty is that you will be swapping teams quite frequently at the beginning of the game, and each character has their own individual spell stock. Fortunately, the game allows you to freely redistribute magic between characters, even ones you aren’t currently using.
Each of a character’s stats can be junctioned to a spell, which will boost it by a varying amount. You can also junction spells to Elemental Attack, Status Attack, Elemental Defence and Status Defence. The former two determine a character’s ability to inflict elemental and status damage, respectively. So, for example, if you junction Fire to a character’s Elem-Atk, their melee attacks will become fire-elemental. If you junction Blind to their St-Atk, they’ll have a chance of inflicting Blindness with each melee attack. Similarly, junctioning elemental or status spells to Elem-Def and St-Def will protect the character from elemental or status attacks, respectively, up to four of each. In every case, the potency of the effect depends on the quantity and type of spell the character is carrying. Figuring out which spell best fits which stats could be a major doozy, but, fortunately, the game lets you auto-junction spells depending on whether you want to prioritise Attack, Defence or Magic (protip: Attack is usually the best way to go). Of course, you can also manually junction things, if needed. E.g. Fire may be the most potent spell from your inventory to junction to Elem-Atk, but it won’t work against Fire-elemental enemies.
The problem with this system is readily apparent: magic is for hoarding, rather than using, especially once you’ve junctioned a spell, because its effect on the associated stat will drop with every five units used. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that offensive spells are actually not all that powerful, but it does mean that you’re mostly stuck using GFs if you need a magic attack, which can become tedious, due to the time that summoning sequences take.
Drawing magic from enemies is also tedious. Since the maximum amount a character can draw in one go is nine spell units, you need a minimum of 12 draws per character to max out their stock of a given spell. This is, of course, assuming the character can consistently draw nine units a pop. This depends on their Magic stat and the potency of the spell: more powerful ones are more difficult to draw. So boosting your team’s Magic ASAP may ease the pain. However you slice it, though, this is a pretty annoying mechanic. Luckily, if you’re diligent about drawing at the beginning of the game, the tedium diminishes once you have most of the spells you need.
Moreover, GFs can help you out here. The second category of abilities they can learn benefits the entire party. This includes creating spells from items or other spells, and can save you some drawing time. Other abilities include preventing random encounters (Diablos), or accessing any shop in the world from the menu and obtaining a discount on purchases (Tonberry).
The third category of GF abilities benefits the GFs themselves, either by raising their HP or increasing their damage. Once Boost is learned, a prompt will appear during the summoning sequence, indicating when to repeatedly press Square to raise the damage of the attack. The counter starts at 75% and can go up to anywhere from 180% for the shortest sequences (Shiva, Ifrit, Quezacotl) to 250% for the longest (Eden). You need to be careful, though, as pressing Square at the wrong moment drops the counter back to 75. Also, not all GFs learn Boost: Carbuncle and Cerberus don’t inflict damage, while Diablos and Cactuar have set damage formulas.
Since most GFs know all the basic abilities such as Attack or Item, you can make them forget some of these redundant abilities with Amnesia Greens and teach them better ones. The necessary items can either be bought at Pet Shops or created. The long and short of it is that you need to work out an optimal GF distribution among your characters to cover as many stat junctions and useful abilities as you can. And while it’s impossible to cover every stat for every character without making their GFs learn things, there are several ways to minimise the hassle. I usually have one set of GFs for Squall, as he’s mandatory most of the time (when he’s not, I use Quistis to fill for him), one set for the other two guys and one set for the other two girls. Then, when the storyline doesn’t require the party to split up anymore, I just keep the characters I like to use and ignore the others. This can cause minor annoyances during the final boss fight, but nothing insurmountable.