Monday, November 13, 2006

FFXII: Combat

When the FFXII demo came packaged with Dragon Quest 8 earler this year, my biggest concern was the change in FF's combat system. Gone was the combat "event," replaced with "real time" action and attacks. It was weird. I hoped I could get past it to enjoy the rest of the game, but combat is a huge, huge part of an RPG. Now that I'm a couple weeks into FFXII, I have new opinions on the system.

I love it. I can't get enough of it. I seek it out, getting caught up in combat chains so long I forget where I needed to go to trigger the next story event. What I'm saying is, I can't believe how much fun it is compared to every FF game that has come before.

In prior FF games, as in most traditional RPGs, one walks the overworld and randomly "encounters" combat. A new screen is brought up where your players face an enemy or enemies, and each of your characters takes turn issuing commands to fight, spellcast, heal, etc. Coupled with the turns of the enemies, combat is played out and you win or lose the round. Experience points are gained, treasure is acquired. It's been like this for a long, long time. There is a very specific-- very pure-- strategy involved in this type of combat, one I relish in my ability to command. When to attack, when to heal, when to bring out the spells... How much damage can one character do to one enemy, will another's turn be wasted if they attack the same foe... Is it best to concentrate on the big guy who can kill me in a couple blows, or his partner who will poison me first round and slowly drain my entire party... I live for this stuff. RPG combat strategy can be used to tackle real world problems, you can choose to believe me or not, it's called "strategy" for a reason.

The combat event is gone in FFXII's "Active Dimension Battle" system, but not necessarily replaced. Monsters roam freely in the overworld, you can see them, run from them, or engage them. On one hand, this is a huge advantage if you want to avoid or seek out a certain type of monster, something that was completely random in previous games. But when you actually engage a creature, there is no less strategy than before, it's just a different kind. I think the underlying reasoning behind this has to do with the newfound popularity with MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, another world environment where you can see your enemies in advance and attack in real time. Except, like WoW, it's not really "real time," it's all still dice rolls, people. And in FFXII, combat is still halted when you need to make a critical menu selection-- something that happens alot in my case. Change weapons, change spells, change party members... it's all still there but now it a strong sense of immediacy. Once you've made that selection, that monster is still there, waiting to wail on your ass, and is also calling over a few of his buddies. FFXII combat is frantic and urgent, and small strategic decisions can be a bounty... or fatal.

Boss combat has always represented the ultimate in strategy management, sometimes ridiculously so in turn-based systems. This is no less true in FFXII, and I've found myself tweaking details for bosses I don't usually need to.

For a more extreme experience, you can even turn off the selection pause, meaning combat actions will never stop even if you're making a menu selection. I don't really need to do that, I'm managing just fine as it is. Saddled to combat are a quartet of MAJOR factors, Quikenings, Espers, Gambits, and Licensing. Quickenings are your character super moves, replete with jaw-dropping special effects and massive damage rewards. Espers are the massive leviathan summonings you call in to wreak havok on the world and bring the pain. Gambits and Licensing? Well, they get their own post.

Adding the awesome monster designs and crazy-beautiful overworld environments, FFXII combat is easy to get lost in. There is always a stage in RPGs where you have to buckle down and "level up," and to me was a tedious necessity that at times prevented me from accomplishing the meatier goals. I have no problem with this in FFXII, in fact my last play session was dedicated to just that, gleefully. I still love the traditional combat system and I'm sure it won't go away anytime soon, or maybe it will-- While WoW-type combat seems catered to PCs, its stramlined cousin in FFXII is a powerful argument for the console RPG.

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