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29 years on, has Final Fantasy broken the spell of Active Time Battle?

Final Fantasy was once a game in thrall to tradition; in the past 20 years, it has become an on-going revolution. Final Fantasy 9 was the last mainline instalment to make use of the Active Time Battle system, which had carried Square’s flagship series for no less than six games across two console generations. Since then, no numbered Final Fantasy has given us the same battle system twice. Each entry has been an experiment, obliged by changing audience expectations and company dynamics such as the promotion or loss of key staff. All have sought to stand apart, but much as Active Time Battle isn’t a clean departure from the turn-based systems that precede it, so most Final Fantasies circle back to ATB in some way, striving to rebottle the lightning.

We see this, of course, in the Final Fantasy 7 Remake, an exquisite but flawed attempt to blend the rhythms of the old FF7 battle system with the action movie choreography that has long hypnotised the likes of Motomu Toriyama, FF7R’s co-director. Where battle in Final Fantasy on PS1 resembles a quaint theatre production, with characters lining up against painted backdrops (FF9’s intro actually concludes with a brawl on-stage), battle in FF7R is a sprawling, hyperactive mess of flying limbs and blades, streaking projectiles and screen-whiting detonations.

A truly comprehensive overview of Final Fantasy’s battle systems would take several books. In this piece I explore a particular aspect – time. Among the things I neglect is the impact of systems and situations outside combat, such as the fatigue too often created by the old random battles. How characters improve obviously has a huge impact on how you handle them in the fray – in FF2, characters enhanced their skills by using appropriate weapons, while in FF8, you’d draw magic from enemies to power up character stats. I also don’t talk about the influence of Final Fantasy’s stablemates, notably Chrono Trigger, which offered its own interpretation of ATB, and Dragon Quest, which has undergone evolutions of its own, but generally cleaves closer to the systems and spirit of 90s RPGs.

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