When it comes to fighting within a game, I seem to love classes. There’s something so satisfying about choosing a specific “job” and then levelling up until you’re the best. This has recently kicked into gear for me because I’m damn sure I’m going to become the best apothecary in the entirety of Skyrim, resurfacing the vague OCD that leads me to obsessively grinding this ability and joy-gasming every time I level up.
On this note may I direct your attention to the Final Fantasy franchise?
The Final Fantasy series had moved away from the pure class base system a long time before I started playing them. Most characters had abilities that were inherently linked to their personas or they could flat-out learn everything from the word go. Either the crux of their strength was already locked or everyone came into the playing field reasonably equal (think of FF8, was there much one character could learn that another could not?).
FFX2 was a ballsy, hot mess of a game, made entirely for young girls in a brash array of colours that was transparently inspired by how popular Yuna had been in Final Fantasy X. The world map was too linear, the dialogue poor and the overall story (Final Fantasy’s usual ace in the hole) was just…. stupid. But none of that mattered to me because I fell in love with the embarrassingly named fighting system: the dress spheres.
Dress spheres were a kind of class system within FFX2, involving spheres that would change the outfit of the three female protagonists and thus grant them new abilities and powers. This was often done with a cut scene within the fight fight itself (kinda like the summons of FFX). Now, I don’t really think my love of this set-up was based in my genes but let’s assume that my two X chromosomes did give me an immediate leaning towards pretty outfits and girls looking nice. The outfits are very impressive, with each class getting something completely distinct. This was helpful as FFX2 was actually the first Final Fantasy to try out turn based combat where the enemies didn’t wait for their turn. If you take forever making a choice, you gonna get bit. Not only that but instead of the two forces lining up against one another and remaining stationary, a character lunging forward to attack might well end up placed amongst the fray and take their next turn from there. This lead to much faster paced fighting and the great differences in appearance made it easier to note which characters were friendlies and enemies.
Then there were the classes themselves. You could level up each outfit, which ranged from “Songstress” (buff-creator extraordinare) to “Warrior” (does what it says on the tin), “Alchemist” (utilising items and such to great effect) and, of course, the “White Mage” (you really need me to tell you what she does?). Picking up the outfits along the way, you could change into them mid-battle at the drop of a hat and there were even dress spheres that were unique to characters, not just the typical “Ultimate” variant but also the “Trainer”, where each girl had an animal to attack with and “Mascot”, where the girls were dressed as mascot versions of popular FF creatures and their powers were reflected in the choice. You also levelled up to learn more abilities faster by using the specific abilities that the outfit unlocked. If you were a thief then you levelled up the outfit faster by, you know, stealing than just hitting stuff with your blade. I became whole heartedly addicted to FFX2 in this regard, obsessively levelling up each dress sphere until I had every power I could. It was like the unbelievably delicious centre of the most mediocre sweet I’d ever had.
For a while, I thought FFXIII would be a return to this class base system. I knew that extensive cut scenes and cutesy outfits would be out the window but I had my own hopes. After all, the game made me run down corridors for hours with nothing to do but press A a lot. That was my fighting style, I pressed A and Lightning got to it. I couldn’t even control the other characters and they got up to whatever they wanted. It was even faster paced than FFX2 but so fast that I couldn’t even play. Characters auto selected what would be best to use, I just pressed A to confirm. This continued even when the paradigm system finally opened up to me. This involves giving characters a class to work by, which can easily be changed mid battle but you have to set all three of your teammates into a class to create a paradigm. This means that if I’ve not set a paradigm that includes a healer, attacker and buffer then GUESS WHAT? I can’t play that way. It actually works pretty well in a kind of tying your shoe laces together and restricting how much you’re allowed to even get involved kind of way. Paradigm shifting becomes the only way the gamer can play tactically with other characters, because that’s the only way we can encourage them to attack or defend in a certain way. You can also level up these classes individually, along a straight line that doesn’t diverge at any point. Well done Final Fantasy 13, you’ve offered me the most boring battle system to date.
So why do I prefer dress spheres to paradigms? Both are relatively shallow in their take on class systems, comparatively straightforward and both also play a lot with the insane showy-ness that has become endemic to the Final Fantasy franchise. Most of my issues come down to control, I like being tactical with all of my characters and dictating exactly what I want them to do is simply easier than saying “I want you to behave like this for a while”. I also liked having choice to how I upgraded, though to be fair I think the difference between the upgrade system in both is sort of moot because they’re both restrictive and relatively uninventive. There is also the problem that FFX2 is so obviously playing to a certain market and I’d welcome something similar to dress spheres that sounded less girly and… silly. They’re both flawed systems at the end of the day, one that doesn’t particularly want to involve the gamer and the other than perhaps took a little too much of its time on extensive cutscenes and costume design. But which of the two of those flaws sounds more important to game play? That’s all I want to know.
Perhaps I’m wrong in my preference though, which do you prefer?