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Editorial: Were Limit Breaks a Bad Idea?

by January 25, 2016 1 comment

One of the timeless joys of the original Final Fantasy was the level of customization it afforded players. While the NES version had some problems, the remastered Origins version (and subsequent Dawn of Souls version) delivered an experience which, while simplistic, is still fun to play to this day. It requires strategy and serious forethought before you begin your adventure. Do you want a magic-heavy party that will struggle in the beginning but become nigh unstoppable in the end? Do you prefer the balance of the Warrior/Thief/White Mage/Black Mage party? Do you want to just be four warriors and absolutely dominate?

Strategy and planning have always been a core component of RPGs, and Final Fantasy takes this very seriously. Even in the earliest games, knowing enemy mechanics, elemental weaknesses, and your odds of landing a debuff or status effect can be crucial to victory. But when Final Fantasy VII came out, something drastically changed which would alter the course of Final Fantasy combat forever: the innovation of the Limit Break.

True, we’d seen something similar to the modern Limit Break in Final Fantasy VI with the rare “desperation” attacks. Until we saw one for ourselves the only hint we had of their existence was a piece of dialogue that advised us to try using the “Fight” command when on our last leg. However it was completely possible to complete the game without ever seeing a desperation move. In Final Fantasy VII, however, it was almost impossible not to see your first Limit Break in the very first boss fight.

The idea was simple: Take enough damage and you will gain access to a super attack which can help you change the tide of battle. These attacks started out innocent enough, with skills like Braver and Healing Wind just seeming like fun bonuses to help you out of a tight spot. But as they evolved, they got stronger, and while it took a bit more bite to summon up the energy for one of these higher level Limit Breaks, the payoff was devastating.

In a game that featured the revolutionary Materia system, where true developmental control was ours, from the skills and spells we learned to direct and indirect methods of affecting our stats and stat growth, the Limit Break turned into a sort of rallying standard in our battle strategy. Yes, there were curve balls like Seal Evil, which was really only handy in one boss fight, but for the most part when we heard that chime sound and saw those glowing Technicolor letters replacing the word “Attack” with the word “Limit”, our heart skipped a beat and we knew it was time to wreak havoc on this enemy.

Before long we began adapting our strategy around the Limit Break. Powerful spells and skills like Ultima, Magic Breath, Comet2 and Flare became secondary concerns. We would actually save our limit break to unleash upon the next boss, even if that next boss was an entire dungeon away. We were conditioned to pick characters not on who had the best stats, but who had the most useful Limit Breaks. And I have to wonder… did Limit Breaks break the battle system?

Omnipotent Rage – Final Fantasy VII’s Powerhouse Moves

One of the great early secrets and most coveted rewards of those who undertook the Chocobo Raising side quests of Final Fantasy VII was the “Knights of the Round” Summon Materia. We hold this up as a legendary repeatable spectacle of insanely chaotic damage. Depending on your Magic stat, each of the spell’s 13 hits can deal around 4,000-5,000 damage a piece, meaning this thing is capable of dealing around 65,000 points in damage. If you really bump up your Magic stat it is possible for this summon to one-shot the final boss.

But this isn’t a Limit Break, so why do I mention it? Well for all our glorious wonderment at the impressive power of this supposedly ultimate attack, two character’s final limit breaks deal more damage. To be fair, they can’t be repeated, but with the damage they deal, they generally wouldn’t need to be.

Omnislash, Cloud’s ultimate Limit Break, hits 15 times, and it is possible to get each of these strikes to deal max damage with enough strength training. Cid’s ultimate Limit, Highwind, hits 18 times, though at 11/16 of normal damage, so they’re on more or less the same footing damage-wise. Now, I want you to think of the hardest bosses you had fought in the first six Final Fantasy games. Remember how satisfying it felt, after multiple attempts, to finally figure out a good strategy, which you could use to gradually crush your enemies. Well, in Final Fantasy VII, it’s possible to go into a boss fight with fully loaded Limit Breaks, unleash your payload, and then emerge from the other side virtually pain free.

But, for what it’s worth, that doesn’t happen too much. Since learning the highest level Limit Breaks requires not only mastering all other Limits first, but then obtaining the tome that teaches it (a task that ranges from as easy as finding it hidden somewhere to as challenging as obtaining high marks in the Battle Arena), the power is controlled. I feel that Final Fantasy VII handles Limit Breaks about as well as they could possibly be handled. They are end-game catharsis for early struggles. No, Limit Breaks didn’t truly get broken until Final Fantasy VIII.

Better Battles Through Suffering – Final Fantasy VIII

I love Final Fantasy VIII, but Square made some really poor decisions with its battle system. The removal of MP in favor of the Draw system and the complaints about Junctioning are well known arguments, but the hack job they did on the summoning mechanics for Guardian Forces was a particular treat. They had two ideas that could have worked very well:

  1. Instead of using MP, your Guardian Forces can die while being summoned, allowing enemies to stop the attack.
  2. To improve your casting time, you can increase your Compatibility with your summoned monsters.

They then threw both of those ideas together and a perfectly good battle system was brought to its knees. While it is possible to start seeing your GF die in combat, raising Compatibility is as simple as using easily-obtained items or just summoning them a lot. So long as you don’t stack opposite elements on the same character (Shiva and Ifrit don’t get along) you’ll be fine. And for the short time they are being summoned, you’ll have a damage body double. How did Square think this was a good idea?

But what really kills Final Fantasy VIII’s battle system is its Limit Breaks. Rather than having a Limit bar which must be filled up, you are able to use Limit Breaks (with a certain probability) if your HP is sufficiently low. If that’s not enough for you, you can eventually draw the spell Aura, which lets you use Limit Breaks as much as you like as long as it’s in effect. And the Limit moves themselves? Even more overpowered, if you can believe that. Almost everybody has an attack capable of hitting multiple times. While the damage done on average does tend to be less than the numbers we saw in Final Fantasy VII, the repeatability more than makes up for it. And then you have Squall’s ultimate move, Lionheart, which basically gives a balanced encounter the middle finger. While Lionheart itself appears only when certain parameters are met, it comes after a use of his Renzokuken which itself can hit anywhere from 4 – 8 times. Stack on some Strength+ abilities and it is absurdly easy to deal 9,999 damage per hit. And did I mention that, while difficult, it is theoretically possible to obtain Squall’s Lionheart on the first disc?

All this would be bad enough, but everything really came together nicely in a crapsack battle system on this game. Because of the Junction system, in which your spells dictate your stats, the one thing that might dissuade you from relying solely upon GFs and Limit Breaks gets locked up in the stats. So you have to choose between using a spell that won’t be as good as the other two options or keeping your stats the way they are.

But surely this was just a horrible aberration; maybe the next game would handle it better?

What Limit Breaks? – Final Fantasy IX

Well, Final Fantasy IX was a mixed bag.

On the plus side, the new Trance mode in Final Fantasy IX was more of an enhancement than a special attack (with the exception of Zidane, who got access to a new menu of skills). Steiner would hit harder and his defense was buffed. Vivi could Doublecast. But they felt like buffs instead of game-breakers. So what was the downside? Well, you had zero control over that buff.

The limit bar returned from VII, but rather than filling it up and being able to hold it for a boss fight, the second you earned a Trance mode, it activated right away, which could be particularly infuriating when it happened during a normal enemy encounter. Perhaps Square were afraid of leaving these out altogether but still wanted the game to rely more on a traditional combat structure. Or else they saw how poorly VIII handled and were overcompensating. But taking away player choice is rarely the solution.

Those who were reliant upon the Limit Break style were now finding themselves playing a balancing act – trying to get their Trance bar just high enough without completely filling it until they entered a boss fight. Those who didn’t care would still get annoyed to see Vivi go into Trance mode literally moments before he cast Firaga to polish off the last bit of a Whale Zombie’s HP. It wasn’t a bad system, but an ungraceful system that felt more like a tacked on extra than something that could be substantially relied upon – again, calling back to the Desperation Moves from Final Fantasy VI, perhaps.

But we gamers had adapted to the way things were now – Limit Breaks would always exist in some form and we would learn the new mechanics and exploits to control them.

Conclusion – Limit Breaks Grow Up

Final Fantasy X briefly redeemed Limit Breaks, bringing back players ability to control exactly when they are used and having the Overdrive abilities deal proportional damage. It also added the nice feature of being able to control how your Overdrive gauge filled, from the standard damage-taking to dealing damage, killing enemies, winning battles or even just taking turns. It was a nice system and probably the most balanced Limit Breaks had ever been since their initial introduction in Final Fantasy VII

Practically every game since VII has incorporated this element – from Final Fantasy XII’s Mist abilities, to Final Fantasy XIV’s Limits which were basically battle finishing moves (at least when used by a proper damage dealer at the right time). While the focus on Limits has been slowly shifting, they remain a facet of our Final Fantasy experience and something we equate with the “easy button” for boss fights.

But for all this, do Limit Breaks worsen the gaming experience?

Well, it’s difficult to say one way or the other, because everybody games differently. Maybe you used Limit Breaks sparingly, didn’t care about Trance popping up when it did, and preferred to play a balanced GF game in VIII. Even if you chose to rely heavily upon Limit Breaks, it’s difficult to say for certain that it ruined the experience of the games for you. Over-utilization of Limit Breaks can effectively shatter the challenge and balance of some bosses – that much is true. I can’t speak authoritatively on whether or not it actually makes for a worse gaming experience. However, despite what I’ve written up to this point, I don’t think that it does.

I think the developers added it as a tool for your combat repertoire. And, like any tool, players found ways to utilize it to its full potential. It’s not like we weren’t discovering glitches in Final Fantasy VI (look up the Vanish / X-Zone trick) before the introduction of Limit Breaks, and it’s not like we didn’t figure out which parties fared much better than others in the original (again, four warriors).

We will always find new tricks, cheap abilities and tools to exploit our enemies – but unless you use a walkthrough every time, you won’t know these abilities on the first go around. You’ll learn an easy way to defeat a boss and then, on a second play-through, come back and absolutely demolish them. So whether or not we choose to utilize (or over-utilize) Limit Breaks is really a subjective matter. We each develop our own play style, and as long as we’re having fun, that’s all that matters.

1 comment

  1. Sammy
    #1 Sammy 10 February, 2016, 13:54

    I’m playing Final Fantasy from it’s first release. I must say, this is a very good article! Thank you!

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