ATB, FMV, WTF?

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Over the years, the Final Fantasy series has found a way to make almost all the main-series games feel a bit different from the one before it. Be it a Materia system in FFVII for character-customization and development, or perhaps being able to switch characters in and out of battle in FFX to take advantage of their strengths towards certain adversaries. Whatever it is, the FF series has always pushed to build on the formula.

With that comes great innovation. A series dating back to the NES days can’t rely on it’s original gameplay for this long (unless that series is Dragon Quest…), so it’s no surprise that the FF games have evolved with the times. But the series is known for certain things that brought it from basic turn-based RPG to a more respected series.

And that’s where this blog comes in. Two of the biggest concepts the FF series has come to be known for. It’s ATB system and it’s cutting-edge FMVs.

What is the “ATB System”?

The ATB, or Active Time Battle, system made it’s debut on the series’ first SNES outing, Final Fantasy IV. Designed by Hiroyuki Itō, the system adds a layer of pacing to the traditional turn-based battle formula. The ATB system is nothing more than a simple gauge which is usually seen next to the HP/MP and Characters names in the bottom corner of the screen.

ATB Gauge in the Bottom Right in FFVI

So What Does It Do?

The ATB system fills up as your characters stand by. Once the gauge fills, your characters can select their commands and attack. While this sounds like a traditional turn-based system with a fancy gauge attached, the kicker comes from the fact that your enemies can continue to attack every time their own invisible ATB gauge fills. What does this mean? It means that if you sit there staring at your menu for too long, your enemy can attack you repeatedly. So, instead of the usual sit-and-wait approach to turn-based battles, you are actually expected to make your decisions a bit quicker.

Haste in FFX

Essentially, every time your gauge fills, you an attack. Which of course means that if your gauge is filling FASTER you can attack more. That’s where the spells Haste and Slow come into play. These play a large roll in a lot of the FF games when it comes to strategy. Haste allows your ATB gauge to fill up faster, making it so you can pull off more attacks in less time. And the Slow status causes it to fill up slower, meaning if you cast it on your enemy, they can’t attack as quick. So, if you cast Slow on your enemy and Haste on yourself, you can end up getting multiple attacks off before they can even get off one.

The ATB Gauge Made It’s Debut in FFIV

Another concept that the more hardcore player will use, is the fact you can put your character’s on “Stand By”. Most of the FF games allow you to switch between the characters who’s gauge is filled with the push of a button. Basically, you can “skip” your turn and select for other characters first. What this means is you can leave a character with a full gauge ready for an emergency. Let’s say you keep your White Mage sitting with a full gauge so it can cast Cure if a sudden unexpected attack hits, and it can do it immediately instead of having to wait for the gauge to fill up and hope that it hits full before another attack hits.

How It’s Been Used Recently?

The ATB gauge has taken a different roll in FFXIII. It fills up with the multiple attack commands and if timed right, can even be stopped half-way for some smaller, shorter bursts of attacks. Haste and Slow still fill the gauge the same way, but the gauge has a slightly more strategic feel, even having certain attacks that take up more space on the new ATB bar. The gauge still lends itself to a more active battle system, but it has been updated to fit the new battle system in FFXIII.

Vanille’s Death Spell Takes The Whole Gauge

One of the weirdest complaints I’ve ever heard thrown at recent FF games is how “FFXII is radically different and doesn’t play like the other FF games”. When in truth, it’s still the same battle system. Sure, you can run around and engage enemies on the field instead of in separate random encounters, but the ATB gauge still acts the same way. The ATB gauge makes it so you can’t just hack-and-slash like an MMO and still have to utilize turn-based ATB strategy while moving around. It took the ATB turn-based system and made it look a bit better and feel a bit less aged.

The ATB Gauge In FFXII

Next up, I shall discuss the FMVs in FF game history.

What Is An “FMV”?

The FMV, or Full Motion Video, are cut scenes that play out with much more polished graphics and character models. A lot of games use these, but the FF series is known for pushing the limit of this technology. Starting in FFVII (they’ve since been worked into the remakes of the previous 6 games as well in newer ports and releases), the FMV became a way of telling the more action-packed, important moments in a far more visually compelling way.

This are usually used at the beginning and end of the game, as well as key moments in the plot. Character introductions, large-scale action sequences, more action-oriented and less dialogue-heavy events.

My personal favorite use of the FMV style is in FFVIII, where the FMVs are worked more seamlessly into the story. Instead of cutting away, the FMVs blend into the normal game play. For instance, you could be walking down a hallway into an event, and the camera will pan out while you’re walking and immediately flow into the FMV scene. This is done by using the same graphic engine for FMVs on the backgrounds of the environments in the game. Another interesting difference in FFVIII is the many shorter, FMV-quality scenes that take place as you’re running around, allowing your normal-looking characters to still be seen and controlled as small FMV sequences are taking place, allowing for them to have a more immersive (albeit a bit silly looking at times) quality to them.

Are They Still Used?

Even though graphically FFXIII is pretty much better looking than any of the PS1/PS2 FMVs, the concept is still used. FFXIII had some longer cut scenes done in a FMV-style way.

Sazh and his baby Chocobo in an FMV in FFXIII

So, as you can see, the FF series has always pushed for a unique feel of gameplay and a well-developed cinematic story-telling experience. These are just two of the many concepts that have set it apart from other JRPGs.

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