The debut of Final Fantasy IV on Nintendo’s sophomore home console in 1991 provided far more than just a graphical update to their familiar gameplay; it marked a significant turning point. Suddenly, complex, dynamic protagonists became the standard, and artists began putting more care and attention into their storylines. Before this point, the idea of a video game having such an intricate plot was largely unheard of, and its success both domestically and overseas under the name Final Fantasy II proved how important a strong writing staff could be for the medium’s growth.
This success prompted Hironobu Sakaguchi and the rest of Squaresoft to create a sequel. Developed over the course of a single year, Final Fantasy V debuted in Japan in 1992. Unfortunately, the series’ newfound North American audience didn’t get a chance to play it on the SNES. Plans for localization were made shortly after its Japanese release, and it was to be named Final Fantasy III, owing to the real second and third installments having been passed up for localization. The plans shifted slightly when Square announced that because of its different tone and increased difficulty, it was to be released as a standalone game with a title yet to be determined, but they were ultimately scrapped. Square translator Ted Woolsey claimed in a 1994 interview that “[Final Fantasy V is] just not accessible enough to the average gamer”.
Rumors then circulated that Final Fantasy V was to see a Western release under the tentative title Final Fantasy Extreme, but these plans fell through as well. A third attempt was made in 1997 to localize the game for Microsoft Windows-based personal computers by a studio named Top Dog. Though they made significant progress, numerous communication problems between the two entities sounded the project’s death knell. Later that year, a temporary solution appeared. A group of people under the internet alias RPGe released a patch for the game’s ROM image, translating it into English. It was a notable achievement for being one of the first completed fan translations in history. Finally, in 1999, Square found their opportunity to bring Final Fantasy V to Western audiences in the form of the Final Fantasy Anthology compilation for the PlayStation. By this time, the franchise had broken into the mainstream with its universally lauded seventh installment, and any lingering doubts about the theoretical reception of Final Fantasy V were assuaged. Was this game worth a seven-year wait?
Playing the Game
The wind has been behaving strangely as of late. King Tycoon departs on a drake for the Wind Shrine, ordering his daughter, Lenna, to watch over the kingdom in his absence. As soon as the king arrives, the Crystal of Wind shatters, and the air becomes entirely stagnant all across the world. Shortly after this happens, a meteorite appears in the sky, crashing near Tycoon Castle. The space object is spotted by Bartz Klauser. He has been wandering the world for some time along with his chocobo, Boko.
When he investigates the impact site, he finds Princess Lenna under attack by a group of monsters. Fending them off, he learns from Lenna that she was heading for the Wind Shrine, as her father had yet to return. Through examining the crash site, Bartz and Lenna find an old man named Galuf. Though an amnesiac, Galuf deems it important to journey to the Wind Shrine after Lenna mentions it. The three of them quickly depart to the northwest. At a cove there, they discover a pirate ship seemingly able to move without a sail. They attempt to steal the ship, but are caught in the act by Captain Faris, who strangely carries an identical pendant to Lenna’s. The trio is briefly imprisoned, though Faris reconsiders and joins their cause.
They fight off a powerful monster when they reach the Wind Shrine. After triumphing over it, the shattered remains of the Crystal of Wind grant them its power. The King of Tycoon appears, dubbing Bartz, Lenna, Galuf, and Faris the Warriors of Light. It is now their mission to seek out the evil behind the crystal’s destruction, hopefully preventing the remaining three from meeting the same fate.
Superficially, Final Fantasy V is a typical JRPG of its time, meaning that there is much importance placed on conversing with NPCs in various settlements and exploring vast dungeons in search of treasure or simply to advance the plot. As per usual, any step in a hostile region has a chance of triggering a random encounter with a horde of monsters. Combat functions mostly the same as it did in Final Fantasy IV, as the Active Time Battle (ATB) system makes a comeback. As such, you select actions for each of your characters individually. The order and frequency of which each character can act depends on their speed stat. Keep in mind that conflicts unfold in real time, so you don’t want to take too long selecting actions if you can help it.
Going into the Wind Shrine, one would be forgiven for declaring Final Fantasy V a rather dull JRPG. The characters, despite having slightly different stats, are all fighters incapable of using magic. As a result, during battles, they can only attack with their equipped weapons, defend, flee, or use items. Fortunately, defeating the Wind Shrine’s boss and collecting the crystal fragments introduces the mechanic around which the game primarily revolves.
Specifically, the job system from Final Fantasy III also returns after having been absent for one game. In its original incarnation, the job system was a novel idea marred by a decidedly subpar execution. Chief among its problems was the fact that the classes lacked any kind of meaningful balance. The two jobs obtained in the very last dungeon were unequivocally better than the ones given to you at the beginning of the game, indeed, any class introduced in the interim. What’s worse was that many later classes were superior versions of older ones, yet you nonetheless had to fight many battles in order to increase a character’s proficiency with a job every single time. On a similar note, many classes had exactly one practical use, and once you passed the point in the game that required them, they became obsolete immediately. This all succeeded in turning the process of grinding levels more noticeably more tedious than in a game with a more straightforward system such as Final Fantasy IV.
Fortunately, Final Fantasy V doesn’t have any of those problems. This is primarily because the job system, though fundamentally similar, has received a complete overhaul. While each character has their own levels that increase whenever they accumulate a sufficient number of experience points, they also possess a separate level for the job you assign them. The latter is increased by collecting ability points, which are sometimes awarded along with experience points and gil (money) upon achieving victory in battle. When a character has received enough ability points, the job’s level will increase. Each job has its own maximum level, and the status screen informs you when a character masters one. For every level obtained, a new ability will be conferred to the character.
There are two varieties of abilities a character can receive: Commands and Supports. Command abilities are utilized in battle through the window that appears when it’s a character’s turn to act. They can allow a character to perform a specific action such as throwing inventory items at the enemy. Alternatively, they could utilize a repertoire of abilities they have collected throughout their journey as is the case with most mage classes. Supports, on the other hand, are passive bonuses that benefit the characters without having to be actively selected by the player. For example, the Knight can learn the Doublehand ability, which permits them to wield a single weapon without a shield in exchange for inflicting increased damage with it.
Support abilities are normally active after a character has been assigned the corresponding job. However, they along with Command abilities must be reassigned if the character should ever switch jobs. This is how the job system transcends its former trappings and turns into one of my favorite mechanics to feature in a JRPG. As astute readers may have noticed, there is nothing stopping characters from carrying over abilities from older jobs whenever the player decides to switch them around. As a result, your characters will become very versatile, being able to cover multiple fields at once. Among other things, you could have a knight that knows healing magic or a hand-to-hand brawler capable of summoning deities. This is a welcome improvement over Final Fantasy III wherein characters were strictly limited to using the abilities of their current job, necessitating a change whenever the situation demanded it, thus wasting capacity points in the process.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that the default Freelancer class retains a majority of the Support abilities characters master from other jobs. Combined with the ability to equip any weapon, this makes it the ideal job to use once your characters have learned all they can from their professions. From a thematic standpoint, it’s a nice way to bookend the game. In the beginning, it’s a worthless class with no special abilities that you should abandon as soon as you get the chance. When approaching the endgame, it is by a significant margin the best class where the sheer scope of its power is only limited by your imagination.
A minor touch I appreciate is how magic is acquired in this game. Magic shops exist once again, but you no longer have to buy spells for each character. Instead, simply purchasing a spell once will allow every character to use it – provided they’ve been assigned the appropriate Command ability, naturally. This eliminates the annoying micromanagement that the magic system entailed in older games, for you no longer have to worry about removing spells once characters switch jobs. On a similar note, removing equipment now occurs automatically when changing jobs. Even better is that the process also gives the character the optimal equipment for the new class right away.
I could also tell when playing that a bit more effort went into designing dungeons than in Final Fantasy IV. Though most of them are still basic mazes, some will have gimmicks, adding a little more variety to the proceedings. One is entirely underwater, forcing you to go through it quickly before your characters run out of oxygen while another has tunnels that transport the party to different rooms, forcing players to take note of which ones lead where.
All in all, I feel the gameplay of Final Fantasy V has more to offer than any other installment in the series thus far. The only real issue I have with it the job mechanic is that it can be easy to exploit. With certain job combinations, you can render the entire game trivial. At that point, finishing the game would merely be a formality as any and all notions of challenge dissipates. To be fair, it takes quite a lot of effort to render the game in such a state – far more than what is required to complete it normally. In either event, it doesn’t detract from the game at all, which has a consistent sense of quality throughout regardless of how you choose to go about completing it.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section will contain unmarked spoilers.
When it comes to assessing the story of Final Fantasy V, it should be noted that many fans are quick to point out how much of a step down it is from its direct predecessor. I would agree with this consensus insofar that Final Fantasy V is certainly not the game changer Final Fantasy IV was. However, by that same token, I believe ignoring the story of Final Fantasy V simply because it may not have had as much to offer would be a gigantic disservice to the game, for there are plenty of interesting story beats to be found if one were to give it the time of day.
The best place to begin would be with the game’s four leads. For those fresh off of Final Fantasy IV, the laid-back, yet passionate Bartz is quite a contrast from the deeply conflicted, solemn Cecil. While his predecessor was notable for being one of the first console-game protagonists motivated by a desire to atone for his sins, Bartz lacks most forms of emotional baggage aside from having the obligatory deceased father. In fact, he’s the kind of protagonist who wouldn’t seem out of place in a contemporary shounen anime – that is, one geared towards a young male audience.
This contrast extends to how the party interacts as well. The cast of Final Fantasy IV changed frequently and Cecil’s interactions with his closest allies constituted a lot of the game’s dramatic tension. Meanwhile, the four Warriors of Light in Final Fantasy V are rarely separated for long and tend to bicker with one another frequently, albeit in a good-natured, friendly fashion that demonstrates an enjoyable dynamic. The writing of this particular scenario was a collaborative effort between series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yoshinori Kitase. The latter opted to lend a humorous tone in order to lighten up the relatively serious story. Though the story is arguably less ambitious as a tangential result, I enjoyed the change of pace, as it showcases just how much versatility the team possessed.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects about the game’s story is how it handles a basic three-act structure. By this point in the series, most people would go into a Final Fantasy game expecting there to be multiple world maps. Final Fantasy V delivers on that front, and in doing so, it plays with the expectations one would have after experiencing Final Fantasy III. While in the third installment, the quest to find the four crystals comprised a majority of the game, in Final Fantasy V, finding them all signifies the end of the first act. In fact, despite trying their hardest, the Warriors of Light are unable to prevent the crystals from shattering. Then again, it is something of a foregone conclusion when one considers that the Wind Crystal’s destruction is what provided them with their first set of jobs. It would stand to reason that the remaining classes are obtained through fragments of the other three as well.
After failing to save the crystals, it’s revealed that they were sealing an evil being named Exdeath. He departs to another world, and Galuf, having regained his memories, realizes the warlock’s destination is his own homeland. The four warriors eventually make their way to Galuf’s world, and the resolution of the plots in this realm signifies the end of the second act. Among other revelations, the warriors learn that both worlds used to be one, and after fighting Exdeath, the two of them fuse.
This merged world is where the final act takes place, and in a clever twist, the game from this point onward becomes much less linear. The party is temporarily scattered, but once they reform, a large variety of sidequests becomes available, the rewards of which will aid you in the final battle. Many JRPGs are linear to the point where exploration and discovering things on your own is either impossible or possible to a very limited extent. This is typically done so the game can have a strong, character-driven narrative, but the way it’s handled in Final Fantasy V strikes a good balance by laying out all of the important plot points before allowing the player to decide how to go about completing the final act.
Having said that, I have to admit one of my least favorite aspects about the game is how it relies too heavily on the protagonists’ collective failures to advance to plot. Though they manage to do many good deeds throughout their adventure, not only are they unsuccessful in their original mission, they make things even worse in Galuf’s world when they destroy the seals protecting that realm’s crystals – something Exdeath himself couldn’t accomplish, yet was a necessary step in his machinations. After defeating Exdeath, he proceeds to push the resulting merged world to the brink of destruction. It’s only in the final act that the heroes manage to succeed in any substantial way. Though it’s true that several stories are structured this way, authors usually aren’t this blatant about it.
Even with its relatively lighthearted tone and slight missteps, Final Fantasy V has a moment that manages to outshine Final Fantasy IV in terms of drama. After inadvertently destroying the seals, Exdeath turns the crystals’ power against the heroes, immobilizing Bartz, Lenna, Faris, and Galuf’s granddaughter, Krile. Galuf breaks free and fights Exdeath, managing to seriously wound the evil warlock, causing him to retreat. Tragically, the valiant attempt cost the warrior his life. What I particularly admire about this sequence is how well it’s represented in gameplay. Galuf continues to fight Exdeath long after his HP reaches zero, and once he collapses from exhaustion, his comrades actually try to use every healing spell and curative item at their disposal to revive him. Alas, the efforts are in vain, and he passes away. Krile then inherits Galuf’s abilities for herself so she may fight in his stead.
This is why I can say the fans who dismiss the story of Final Fantasy V as whimsical and silly fail to give it enough credit. On paper, it would appear to be a retread of Final Fantasy III only with more talkative characters, and yet in practice, it’s somewhat subversive. The heroes fail to protect the crystals, and the final sequences consequently deal with a scenario that would have been unfathomable in any of the Famicom installments, which relied on the protagonists’, and by extension, the player’s, continued, uncontested success. Moreover, the job system allowing players to plan out each character’s specialization over a long period of time can trick a savvy person into believing that they will retain the original four-person roster for the entire game. Galuf’s death openly challenges this premise shortly before completely obliterating it.
One last facet of Final Fantasy V I find interesting is that it’s one of the first JRPGs to feature more female playable characters than male ones. When the Warriors of Light fully assemble for the first time, you’re led to believe that the party consists of three men and a single woman. However, the party quickly discovers that Faris is actually a woman who dresses like a man due to having been raised by pirates. It is much later when Krile joins the party that the initial perceived gender ratio has been fully inverted. The approach Mr. Sakaguchi and his team took to achieve this was fascinating in that it didn’t involve radically changing the lineup; they merely played with the conventions they themselves had a hand in laying out to a great effect.
Drawing a Conclusion
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how creators can, and often do, take a stance on their own canon that flies in the face of the public’s own consensus. Kurt Cobain never thought much of his band’s signature song or the era-defining album from which it spawned, feeling it sounded too polished. Douglas Adam’s favorite work of his was Last Chance to See, which doesn’t have a following or level of acclaim anywhere near that of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Even video games, works that exist on a medium that arguably possesses more objectivity than any other, aren’t immune from this dissonance. This can be seen in how the creators of Mega Man were unsatisfied with the original series’ third installment despite being one of the NES’s most celebrated titles.
How does this relate back to Final Fantasy V? Though its direct predecessor helped change the course of gaming history, Mr. Sakaguchi, once the project was finished, declared this installment his personal favorite. This is a case where I find I’m in complete agreement when it comes to sharing the creator’s enthusiasm. Mr. Woolsey’s skepticism was an ill-founded claim, for I believe what makes Final Fantasy V such a great JRPG is how it features a complex character-building mechanic that wouldn’t be overwhelming to a newcomer, allowing it to serve as a good, if challenging, introduction.
In the West, Final Fantasy V is woefully underrated, owing to a seven-year gap between its domestic release and its official export. Even then, the translation featured in the Final Fantasy Anthology was decidedly subpar, being bland at the best of times and utterly incomprehensible at its worst. If you’re interested in playing this game, I would recommend the Game Boy Advance remake, which boasts a far more lively translation that does the colorful cast justice. Then again, you really couldn’t go wrong with any of the subsequent versions either. All in all, Final Fantasy V is a classic JRPG from the genre’s heyday that deserves to be played by any enthusiast.
Final Score: 8/10