Combat is very similar to Final Fantasy IV, in that you still have a five-character party and Active Time Battle, with gauges indicating each character’s readiness. You then input a command, and the character executes it, either immediately or after a charge time for spells and certain special abilities. You can also cycle between characters whose gauges are full with Triangle (or the + button in the Wii version), something which was not possible in the original FFIV. You can also still change rows, defend or escape, and combat configurations still include pre-emptive (party starts with full gauges and attacks first) and surprise attacks (enemies attack first). You can also set the battle configuration to ‘Wait’ to ensure that enemies don’t attack your party while you’re trawling through menus.
The effects of rows are still the same: characters at the front deal and receive normal physical damage, while both are halved for the characters at the back (this doesn’t affect ranged weapons or magic). Unfortunately, FFIV’s limitations on row configuration still apply: you can either have three characters at the front and two at the back or vice-versa. If your party isn’t full, it’s possible to manoeuvre around the empty slot(s) to have just one character at the front or at the back, but if your party is full, it’s impossible. This can be problematic if you have a mage-heavy setup.
Magic is identical to what it was in FFIV, with three main spell schools: White Magic, which covers curative and enhancing spells; Black Magic, which covers offensive and debilitating spells; and Summoning, which is mainly offensive, except for Asura and Sylph. You could argue that Blue Magic (i.e. magic cast by enemies) is also featured, due to Calca’s Jive, but you have no control over his spell selection or what he chooses to cast. White and Black spells are learned by levelling up, while Summons either need to be subdued (not killed!) in combat in the final Tales or learned from (very rare) enemy drops. Calca knows all of his repertoire from the get-go.
The After Years introduces two new elements to the combat system. The first one, as previously mentioned, is Bands: special attacks that a minimum of two and a maximum of five characters can perform together. If you’ve played Chrono Trigger before, you’ll feel right at home. Bands tend to be more powerful than a single attack or spell by either character (although this isn’t always the case) and can be either offensive or curative, depending on the characters involved. This is the only game in the Final Fantasy series to have such a feature, and it serves to compensate for the fact that Limit Breaks (or their equivalent) didn’t exist in FFIV. Some Bands are learned automatically from storyline events and can then simply be selected from the combat menu, but most of them need to be discovered by making each character involved perform a specific action. This is the game’s attempt at making players experiment with different party combinations. The issue is that there are just so many Bands and so many different characters (not all of which are worthwhile) that it can be more trouble than it’s worth, especially if the resulting Band turns out to be mediocre. So it’s an interesting gimmick, but not exactly something that makes or breaks the game: you could very well finish it without using a single Band.
The second new element is the influence of the moon. Each moon phase strengthens one battle command, while weakening another (respectively indicated by green and red arrows in the combat menu), repeating cyclically. New Moon strengthens Skills (e.g. Tenketsu or Big Throw), while weakening White Magic. Waxing Moon strengthens White Magic, while weakening Black Magic. Full Moon strengthens Black Magic, while weakening basic attacks. And Waning Moon strengthens basic attacks, while weakening Skills, thus coming full circle. In addition, each Moon Phase will make specific enemies appear in certain areas or dungeons, something which specific NPCs helpfully point out in each Tale.