Review: Final Fantasy V (*****)

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The replay demonstrates the strength of a game’s inherent mechanics. How many times can you play the game again, from start to finish, without reaching that horrible point of boredom? You know what I mean – boredom’s the nostalgia-killer, and a number of older games suffer from that effect in the modern era. Well, with other people it does, not so much myself. As I become increasingly less interested in the newest release, the media mill, the latest and the greatest, I return to older games to see what went wrong. How did we reach this point of endless cutscenes and the cusp of the uncanny valley touching my brain again and again? Where do all the games with that character of aere perennius find themselves?

Simply put, at the bottom of the pile, waiting for someone to unearth their brilliance after a decade or more of time. Almost like gaming archaeology, the Internet’s emulators and rom scene let obscure games flourish. Final Fantasy V, for its part, arrived far too late on American shores to avoid comparison with its Playstation brethren. Once you play Final Fantasy VII or VIII, almost no person on earth would characterize Final Fantasy within the limits of “gameplay first”  merely by its brothers in the series (note: I put the word “gameplay” in quotes because I also enjoy good bookread and sportswatch. You dig?). The game’s release at that time, with its flimsy characterization (for 1999 standards), horrible translation (honestly, it made me stop playing it after a while), and rather primitive graphics style, threw it straight to “dark horse status” without passing Go or collecting two hundred dollars (also not a real Monopoly rule).

So, what do we make of the red-headed stepchild? Final Fantasy V usurps expectations; if released in 1992 within the Western World, we would talk of its classic job system, its challenge, and its ability to provide resources for unorthodox methods of beating bosses. Perhaps we’d praise its subtle refinements of the Active Time Battle system, or maybe the insane number of customization options available to players. We might even see Exdeath considered proper villain in the vein of older Final Fantasy; heck, the guy’s got as much depth as Zemus/Zeromus, if not a little more, and at least a bare motivation exists for his actions. Unfortunately, we see nothing of that; we find, again, complaints about “the story” and “the narrative”.

Most reviewers, then, miss the nods Final Fantasy V makes to its predecessors, specifically Final Fantasy I and III. Let’s just say that, with the standard plot MacGuffin of “the crystals”, you should not expect something in the vein of emo-Squall or Zidane who become fairly depressed as the story progresses. Rather, like the original game in the series, you make you own story through playing the game – hence the term “RPG”. The original allowed a party of four, and you renamed them as you wished. Six job classes – the standard Fighter, Black Belt, Thief, White Mage, Red Mage, and Black Mage – each presented different options for a playthrough, providing quite a lot of hidden depth and replayability for those looking to plumb its multifarious dungeons. In addition, the “role-playing” part of the RPG monkier came into play – what would you name them? How would their story turn out?

Furthermore, Final Fantasy I was HARD. It required grinding, or at least some out-of-the-box thinking to both survive dungeons with limited resources and defeat the bosses at the end. More than two thirds of the game consists of an open exploration scenario, with the party allowed to find treasures and kill bosses as they wished up to the final confrontation with Chaos. You determined how long the game took, and in that sense developed the characters.

I think, like many people, you grow attached to the charaters you build, regardless of whether they regale you with their tales of woe or not. There’s a sense of ownership and pride in leveling a character to their full potential, outfitting them with the strongest equipment, and watched them lay the smack down on some monsters. More’s the satisfaction when your ragtag team of heroes destroy a boss through good planning and strategy, obtaining further treasures to aid in the quest. Even after beating the game, different class combinations meant a different game, a new challenge, and a new story. The foundation, then, were set.

Final Fantasy V offers a bit more in the way of characterization (at least in its Game Boy Advance translation) by fleshing out the characters, but they never intrude fully onto the narrative. Most times, you’ll find Bartz and co. merely provide comic relief plus the conceptual information required to understand and justify all the crazy things that happen. Unlike its predecessor, it forces a sort of linearity up to a point, but then opens up (once again) as the game nears its conclusion with a host of optional content. Much of that linearity forces you to understand the refined Job System, the hallmark of Final Fantasy V.

This makes me wonder: why do we not mention Final Fantasy III and the Job System in the same breath? In fact, that game introduces the job class system to the series! The second games took a more subtle approach to specialization by forcing you to do actions related to level up, but that found easy abuse from the player base. The third game, on the other hand, allowed players to customize their characters through jobs. Each one provided a different set of abilities, and a player could switch jobs freely as long as they retained enough capacity points. Capacity points let you switch jobs at will, and these could only drop off monsters. Leveling in a job opened up further specialization in that class, with expanded ability sets and a lower capacity point cost. Each class, of course, hit those standard archetypes of the Final Fantasy franchise, along with a few more strange ones like the Viking and the Magic Knight (the Dragoon and Ninja later popped up in both IV and V, because dragons are cool and you are dumb if you don’t like dragons and ninjas).

Final Fantasy IV lacked this customization in service of a simple yet endearing story, which worked wonders as an experience. It suffers in the ability to replay the game infinitely, however, with fixed party makeups and classes; this doesn’t make it any less a classic, but it’s a different game from its predecessors. Yet, in the back of my mind, I must give credit to Final Fantasy V for taking its roots to the next level. For the first time, you could cross specialize in jobs through the Job Level system. Level it up with action battle points, and you could freely put certain abilities for use with any class type. Imagine the possibilities – a Summoner with White Magic, maybe a Knight with eight attacks, or even a White Mage double-casting Holy. Scary stuff! You could play around with the vast job system and still find new fun. Maybe capturing monsters and releasing them sounds more your thing? Honestly, each class provides a variety of tools.

Due to the twenty two (twenty six in the GBA version) character classes (unlocked over time), how do you design a game that takes advantage of this system? You force the player to use it! Both regular enemies and bosses deserve careful strategies and job combinations; desperate circumstances require both ingenuity and knowledge of the game system to survive. Each and every enemy allows a job class and its signature ability to shine if you examine the game closely enough, and it gives the whole experience a unique charm.  Of course, you could grind past all challenges, but it’s extremely difficult to do so without (again) the system knowledge required to grind without wasting untold amounts of time. Unlike many Final Fantasy games, knowing weaknesses and the system actually works to your advantage.

In fact, maybe too much to your advantage. There’s many different “cheese tactics” – easy ways to kill enemies and bosses without any real effort – and the game’s seemingly designed with these elements in mind for the purpose of replay. It may reward experimentation, but once the game exists for nearly two decade, the accumulated knowledge will make the game into a cakewalk. Some people, however, just can’t let a game go. Let me introduce the greater challenges of the game: variant runs with arbitrary restrictions.

Without modification of any kind, people take to performing some of the game’s greatest challenges: beating the game with a single character using a single job class. Does Final Fantasy V present enough options to make this a viable reality? Can any class overcome the game’s myriad challenges? Hiroyuki Ito’s battle system appears ripe for it, and plenty of people did it with great aplomb and vigor. It’s coming close, but it really does look like beating the game with any class in a solo run is a distinct possibility; heck, they even use other full-team variant runs to raise money for charity. A system that lasts this long and lets the player create their own experience, their own personal story, certainly deserves a nod.

Yet, I imagine, the mainstream press and popular opinion will never let Final Fantasy V ascend to that level. We’re too concerned with the developer’s story, and not how we as players react to the challenges and trials set before us. So many narrative-heavy games exist now, with no room for the player in the midst of it. That’s truly a shame when RPGs don’t force the player into incredible extenuating circumstances. Players actually provide their own challenges in response!

As for me? I’m content with playing a full party, thanks. That doesn’t matter, though, as the game’s initial design remains fun and fresh enough after each playthrough to go at it again. One time you try for all the Blue Mage spells, and the next you may even use a Berzerker for some reason – each class shines somewhere, and that’s more than could be said for Cid in Final Fantasy IV (still worthless, doesn’t matter if I can use you in the final dungeon with all these remakes!).

As I said, replayability shows us the true hallmark of a great game – can its system stand up to the test of repeated strain? I think of the Bible in this sense too; as Christians are “People of the Book”, we re-read the same exact library of texts over and over again. Each time, we find fresh meaning within it – it is certainly NOT a dead text, but a living one. God speaks through His Word with each additional reading, and we find a new sense to the text. As of now, I am in the latter half of 2 Samuel, and I am finding it highly informative. I had not realized how the story of David and Bathsheba actually affected the rest of the book. But, the story isn’t a simple tale of adultery and temptation – David’s actions after that transgression sealed his fate. He abuses his power to murder her husband so he can take her as his wife. It does explain God’s reaction to it in chapter 12:

7 Nathan then said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight?You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. 10 Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ 11 Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes and give them to your companion, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. 12 Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.’”

And so it did: Absalom, David’s own son for crying out loud, slept with all his wives in broad daylight. That’s a punishment worse than death, if not just the death of a son you conceived as well! God made a covenant with David, and David violated it through sin; that’s the primary factor here, not the traditional “adultery” narrative. The details make the story much richer and full, certainly revealing the primary point.

Like the Bible, then, Final Fantasy V reveals more layers the more times you play it. Replayability’s a factor in many things, it seems.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Roberto Armando Iraheta

    Totally agree with you. It’s a shame more people don’t like this game just because it doesn’t have the silly cinematic style of later games. Great review as usual.

    • Zachery Oliver

      Thanks for the feedback!

      I just really like FFV a lot. Certainly it doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. I imagine I may play it again soon, we’ll see.