Who can pass up a free download from Playstation Plus? This is actually my second time through Final Fantasy V. I initially worked my way through this back during the original rerelease in 2000. To say back then it was a rerelease leaves a bit of backstory out though. Initially Final Fantasy V was not released in the U.S., and at the time I picked up the Final Fantasy Anthology (a Playstation 1 two-disc set with Final Fantasy IV and V on it), I couldn’t fathom why this never hit the market over here. A few hours into the game I had figured it out, as I did again on my second play through. Final Fantasy V feels like a timewarp, and looks hopelessly dated in comparison to either the games in the series that both followed and preceded it. The game attempts to resurrect the Nintendo Final Fantasy 3 (also not released in the U.S.), which featured a variable “Job Class” system, and does so successfully. Unfortunately that leaves a lot to be desired. The ultimate verdict is that this game obviously lacks much of the 90’s charm the SquareSoft boys were always able to inject into its pixelly creations. Sorry for the spoilers alerts as well.
The real story as far as art design and direction here should be the lack of it. FFV intentionally omits the finer touches of creating lush environments, an expansive world, and interesting characters. The lack of detail is staggering when compared to even Final Fantasy IV. Even the music feels like a poor facsimile or remix of familiar tunes.
Case in point, gone are the menu character portraits, which previously were the only way of tying together high level character artwork into an otherwise low-graphic format. The character portraits in Final Fantasy IV and VI serve to explain that the little dwarf-sized fighters traipsing about the world map and swing a sword in a random battle were just representations of something deeper. The artwork in those games gives the characters personality, and added some gravity to the otherwise deformed and cartoony 16-bit sprites. Just think of what these little portraits do in Final Fantasy VI. Think about the portraits of Sabin and Edgar and how they serve to contrast that both party members, although cut from the same cloth, are different. One a zealous optimist, the other a savvy pragmatist. These personality traits also affect the decisions they make in the main game. It explains why Sabin jumps into the Serpent Trench in pursuit of Ultros, and why Edgar is always willing to wager on the outcome of a coin-toss. The portraits help bring life to the pixels, life that simply isn’t evident in FFV.
The character development in Final Fantasy V are equally as dismal. Although there is a fair amount of dialogue throughout the game between the party members and their interaction with the story elements, the characters are who they are. The protagonist Bartz (who for some reason is the only character you can name) is a wanderer who by chance finds he is destined to save the world. Reina is a princess, Galuf is an old veteran, and Faris is a pirate. These archetypes never really develop into anything else. A chance encounter with some magic and they willingly accept their fate. There is no moment when you feel that the party might fracture, or the interests of its members might not be aligned. Although the loss of a major character threatens to disrupt the dynamic mid-way through the game, a quick entry of a new character who miraculously picks up previous one’s stats is sudden. The death of Galuf means nothing if you simply pick up a clone of him with a different hair color. In Final Fantasy IV, a central plot point is the main character’s, Cecil’s, battle with his own darkside. He ultimately transforms into the Paladin, a physical representation of his rejection of darkness. Characters transform in Final Fantasy V by changing your job class in the menu and selecting a different outfit; most of which are very goofy (bunny ears on the White Mage, a Berserker uniform that looks more like pajamas than tribal war gear). Changing a warrior to a mage seems more like dressing up a doll. These goofy pixels, and the sheer number of comedic cut scenes give this game a noticeably lighter feel from Final Fantasy IV, but clearly a serious tone on the actual dramatic story elements would not have detracted from that vein.
As far as the environments go, it seems that pieces have been taken from Final Fantasy IV and reused. Some of the coloring is carefully textured and tweeked to look natural, whereas the characters themselves have rough looking edges and generally contrast the ground they are walking on. A lot of the environments look the same. There isn’t a consistent style artistic style to the lore in the game. What’s up with the Ronka ruins? Where did the people who built them go? Why did they go? Why does the outside of their airship look like a wooden boat but the inside looks like a gold-brick clock tower?
Finally, the story lacks anything more than the setup of a Kill the Foozle. Long story short, there is this guy, Ex Death, and he’s a dick for some reason. That’s it. The main protagonist we know was a tree at one point, craved more power, and then eventually becomes stronger by breaking a long-standing magic seal that throws the world into chaos. Presumably we don’t know more because we don’t need to know anything else. This is theme that repeats in FFVI, but with a variation that cleans up some of these questions. The lust for power of Kefka in FFVI is at least explained through his insanity, which was thought to be brought on by a failed experiment. The resulting change to the world as a result of that character’s actions doesn’t just layer two world maps on top of each other, it poisons the waters and causes a literal cataclysm. Is there a cautionary tale here? Not really. Whereas the power sought by Vector and its Emporor Gesthal turns out to be ironically be own undoing, we have no similar element of irony here.
This is a menu based JRPG. A friend of mine once said he didn’t like this kind of game because he was bothered by your party just standing there and getting hit. A valid criticism, it’s always been a mystery to me why there are no defense phase commands that could be added to make the combat system seem more engaging (choice of block/counter/evade maybe???). Sure this is a criticism, but you could say the same thing about chess or checkers. The gameplay is similar to FFIV or FFVI, with the difference being the sheer volume of choices you can make with respect to Job Classes. At any time and place you are able to completely change the abilities and stats of your party by their job classes. There are over 20. You generally have two choices in making a game; open-ended or single-stream. One the player is immersed with choices, but possibly at the expense of quality. The other might be quality, but risks disengaging the audience from engaging in a system that serves more to reinforce certain outcomes and turn an interactive experience into a film or passive medium. Here the emphasis is clearly on choice.
The problem with the choice here is that of all the Job Classes that have been presented, only half are really useful. Although you can only select Job Classes you like, you might be left without options later in dealing with certain enemies. And for most of the game, Job Classes confer little lasting benefits. Changing your Samurai to a White Mage necessarily means giving a lot of the progress you made in strengthening the former up. I felt a tension between investing for the future, and having strong characters in the present that made selecting Job Classes frustrating. Further, the difficulty seems to have been reduced, I suspect as a result of the fact that certain Jobs are simply irredeemably terrible and ineffective.
The core of the game is still that familiar battling, a hybrid of ATB action and D&D-type statistical outcomes. The number of enemies, and diversity of equipment and abilities makes later synergies enjoyable. As much as I can complain about this installment, I did actually finish it. In all it should not take more than 30 hours to beat this game. It’s a solid 5 out of ten, and probably wasn’t good enough to risk manufacturing a lot SNES cartridges and letting them sit on store shelves. Fortunately for FFV we live in a world of cheap burnable CDs and free downloads.