Final Fantasy V spent a great deal of time in limbo, unreleased to the west whilst the series leap-frogged over it between FFIV and FFVI (renumbered as 1 and 2). This is a shame because although it doesn’t feature the strongest plot it certainly brought a lot of what we now consider to be classic Final Fantasy tropes to the table.
I first played a fan-translated version of this title before buying it on launch when it was released as a Playstation classic. Currently it sits on my PS3’s internal storage after release on Playstation Network. I don’t have it in for FF5, but I do feel that it has one of the weakest stories that the series has to offer. Characters are forgettable and the villain is often laughable, but the games job system makes it massively replayable. Final Fantasy III introduced a job mechanic but FFV streamlined it into a master class in building characters to suit the player.
Graphically it’s only a small step up from Final Fantasy 4 on the SNES, using a similar art style and menu system. There is generally a better use of the colour palette available on the SNES, with more middle-shades to fill out textures, and some more complicated sprite animations are used, but otherwise graphically there is very little difference. The breadth of character skins used when jobs are equipped between the games cast of characters is extremely broad however, with every character taking on a specific look for each of the games 22 different jobs (including default character status). This layer of detail gives the game an extremely polished feel and helps build the notion of collecting, mastering and trying out jobs as a necessity rather than padding. In-battle animations are once again larger more detailed sprite work and locations visited show more variation than using standardised ‘cave’ or ‘dungeon’ location sets.
Musically the game has a couple of memorable tracks but largely gets forgotten due to not living up to the truly outstanding soundtracks of other series titles. That said a few standouts such as ‘Ahead on our Way’ and ‘Four Valiant Hearts’ manage to set the games tone very well. Tonally this instalment has a lighter and breezier atmosphere than the heavier instalments the series sometimes offers up. A sense of fun penetrates the entire soundtrack that always makes session lively and uplifting. Sound is largely carried over from Final Fantasy IV with some additional audio recording thrown into the mix. Of these a dragon’s cry stands out as the most memorable (especially when coupled with the ambitious dragon riding sprite work) although the plot pivotal crystals themselves make a nice clear sound that sets the standard going forward.
The story on offer in Final Fantasy V is certainly a strange one. It opens with the central character Bartz camping out alone with his noble steed (a Chocobo named Boco) and witnessing a meteor fall to earth. Realising that it has landed close by he goes to investigate and discovers the amnesiac Galf as well as rescuing the local princess Lenna from a pack of goblins. Lenna’s father the king went to check on the Wind Crystal after the winds mysteriously died and arrived in time to see it shatter before vanishing himself. She’s looking for him. Throw an accidental incident with a pirate crew into the mix and Feris, their captain also joins the motley team of miss-matched heroes. Ultimately events spiral out of control and a number of plot twists occur that I won’t spoil here, but the group discovers that they can assume the roles of different job classes using the remnants of shattered crystals and set out to defend the remaining elemental crystals from a villain known as Exdeath . . . who is also a tree. As I said before things take on an anime-like insanity on occasion in Final Fantasy V that doesn’t get seen again until the more recent entries or sequels to them. It’s constantly engaging thanks to likable characters and humorous writing that balances out bouts of melodrama the likes of which are pretty impressive to behold. Quirky and fun, the characters occasionally feel like they lose out to the sheer number of interesting jobs they can take on, but do benefit from each having a backstory we discover through play and character growth before the end.
Gameplay is certainly the high point of this title, with characters able to assume up to 22 different jobs (with more included in subsequent re-releases) and learn hundreds of different skills. I include the base non-job character in this total because I found myself taking advantage of their ability to equip almost anything in the game as a clever way to maximise power on some tricky bosses. For the rest there’s the Mimic class, which is also extremely handy. It works in a simple manner, once the plot reaches a certain point you’re handed a packet of 4 to 5 job classes to play with. Equipping one on a character turns them into a Black mage, White Mage, etc and partaking in combat as one slowly levels both your character and that job class. Switching between jobs freezes experience at that point for that job on that character, meaning that you can mix and match as you go or max out a job then move on to another, incorporating some of the last job’s skills into your new class from a growing bag of tricks. It works very well and is near addictive on a mobile version of the game (or in Final Fantasy Dimensions, which cribs the concept from this title). Battles are turn based and use the ATB system as it was laid down in Final Fantasy IV. Exploration is also pretty standard but the total amount of hidden extras such as jobs, skills, items and summons to find has been exponentially increased on this title’s predecessor to make scouring the world map a treat. Running around the whole map on a Chocobo? Gain a reward. Play on every piano in the game? Learn skills for your Bard. The opportunities are wildly varied. Grinding is heavy in this title due to the nature of maximising jobs, but you always feel like the next reward is just around the corner and trying a boss you failed to beat using one party build with a new line up instead of grinding another five levels and trying again can be rewarding in/of itself.
In total Final Fantasy V does a lot of things right but doesn’t have the narrative punch of the titles it’s sandwiched between. The characters are less memorable and the plot is downright barmy at times, but it does have a combat and background system that’s extremely deep and encourages endless tinkering. It’s a comedy entry delivered as a sequel to one of the more serious and dour entries in the series and shows that Squaresoft was experimenting to find the perfect balance for the series at the time that they’d hit on and stick with after Final Fantasy VI. Even if the plot doesn’t appeal to you, the gameplay speaks for itself and some scenes will stay with you as talking points long after the game has been completed.