Video Game Thoughts: Final Fantasy V

Final Fantasy V was a Japanese role-playing game by Square Enix. Originally released on the Super Nintendo in 1992, a remake by Matrix Software was released in 2013 and later ported to PC in 2015, the platform I played it on. Final Fantasy V (FF5) was focused more on gameplay than story, unlike its predecessor, Final Fantasy IV (FF4). Having never been released outside Japan, Final Fantasy V was a mysterious game for many years. It wasn’t until 1999 when the Final Fantasy Anthology for PlayStation was released that it became available in the West. Square’s explanation was that they thought FF5 would be too complex for Western players. This Final Fantasy did give a lot more options to the player possibly making it harder to succeed, but that also meant there was more fun to be had if the player figured out how everything worked.

The story in Final Fantasy V was about Bartz (a wanderer), Lenna (a princess), Galuf (an amnesiac king), and Faris (a pirate) coming together to save the world. The great evil, Exdeath, had been defeated and sealed away in the past. Somehow the seals had broken, allowing Exdeath to reappear. It was up to the heroes to defeat Exdeath and once again restore peace to the world. It was a pretty basic story, very similar to the earlier Final Fantasy games. There wasn’t a whole lot of character development. Each character did have a unique personality, but none of them got a lot of screen time. By the end, I did get a good sense for the four main characters’ personalities and motivations but very little for any of the side characters. This was quite a bit worse than Final Fantasy IV, but fortunately, Final Fantasy V delivered in the area of good gameplay.

Final Fantasy V took many elements from Final Fantasy III but improved them greatly. Just like that earlier game, the big feature was the Job system. In combat, the four characters were pretty much all blank slates. Their stats and strengths were almost completely determined by the job the player assigned to them. These jobs were not like the professions of today. Jobs were combat specializations. Some jobs focused on defending the group (Knight) while others focused on healing (White Mage). The most fun to me were the heavy hitter jobs like Black Mages, Summoners, Ninjas, and Mystic Knights.

In addition to the normal character levels, each character’s job had its own levels. Defeating enemies awarded both experience points (for character levels) and ability points (for job levels). As a job leveled up the character learned new abilities. Every job had at least one empty ability slot that could be filled with a previously learned ability, allowing players to mix and max abilities from multiple jobs. Many abilities were self-contained, but there were a few really powerful combinations. I had a lot of fun discovering these combinations. There was a lot of freedom. Even more freedom came from switching jobs.

Any character could learn any job and its abilities. Once I was tired with one job on a character, I could easily switch them to another job. Jobs could be switched any time outside of combat. This was great because many times I found the monsters or bosses in a dungeon were more susceptible to a certain job’s abilities. Then I could easily switch to more effective jobs. It was great how the developers changed up the monster tactics in every location. There was a real payoff for switching jobs and changing abilities around.

Many bosses required elaborate strategies to win. Of course, leveling-up my characters a lot could usually overcome any bad moves, but there was a real reward for using the right moves. A boss fight that was really hard one way became effortless with the right strategies. I felt like I was always getting to try out new abilities. Some of the enemies weren’t clear about what they were doing, making it hard to come up with a strategy, but most times it only took a few mistakes to find a solution. There were only two bad things about the job system.

One problem was that ability points were just too scarce early in the game. The characters unlocked new jobs several times in the game, but in order to make the new jobs useful, I always felt the need to spend time killing the same monsters over and over to learn a few abilities first. Getting new jobs was always bittersweet because I knew I had a boring grind ahead of me for a few hours before I got back to the fun. Very late in the game, in the final dungeon, monsters would provide lots of ability points, but by then, the game was almost over. I think the game would have been better if they sprinkled a few more ability points earlier in the game.

Another problem was how few open ability slots there were. All but two jobs had only one ability slot to fill by the player, the other slot automatically filled by an ability for the chosen job. This really limited the customization the player could make. The Freelancer job was available from the start with two open ability slots, but in this job, the character could not learn any new abilities. The Freelancer job was only good late game after I got all the abilities I wanted on a character. The Mime job wasn’t available until the last few hours of the game. Even then, there were a total of 88 abilities to learn but a max of 12 open slots at the end of the game. Late game I felt there were about 8 “must-have” abilities, leaving very few extra slots for experimentation. These “must-haves” were essential to survival in the later dungeons.

I think the lack of ability slots could have been improved by giving the player the ability to combine multiple abilities into one slot at some point. There could have been elaborate quests to add more ability slots or even an option to spend a large chunk of in-game money for each additional slot. Another option could have been having a couple ability slots exclusive to passive abilities. In general, passive abilities couldn’t compete with active abilities. Active abilities were almost always more powerful or provided more utility. Having a few dedicated slots for passive abilities would have given players a little more room to use “suboptimal” abilities. Then again, the lack of ability slots added a lot of replay value to the game. I could play again using the abilities I mostly skipped the first time. For example, I never touched the Mix or Combine skills which used inventory items to gain powerful effects in combat. Those effects may have rivaled the effects of the spell abilities I used.

Overall, the two problems in the Job system were very minor. Final Fantasy V really didn’t suffer that much from them. I think the game was 90% of the way to perfection. A little more refinement would make it a real classic. FF5 had other things going for it too, such as the item system. Unlike FF4, there were very few unique item drops with low drop rates. I spent hours in that game farming items. I appreciated their power but hated the grind. FF5 pretty much got rid of that. I only found one item with a low drop rate. It was pretty slow to get it, but at least there was only one item like this.

Almost all the rare items in Final Fantasy V now came from stealing with the Thief job. Some of these items did take a long time to get until I discovered the Return spell from the Time Mage job. This spell reset the battle to the beginning, allowing my Thief character another attempt to steal a rare item. With this spell, I could get any rare item within 15 minutes or so. That was a massive improvement to the several hours it took to get rare drop items in Final Fantasy IV. This was evident in the difference between my time spent finding rare items in the games. I spent around 50 hours farming rare items in FF4 while in FF5 it couldn’t have been more than 10 hours. This was a massive improvement.

Another improvement was how fast Final Fantasy V ran. Final Fantasy IV on the computer was the 3D remake of the game. It had nice animations and spell effects in combat, but they also slowed things down. FF5 battles felt much faster as a result of the simpler 2D graphics. Even outside of combat, FF5 was more responsive. Opening and closing the menu in FF4 had an annoying fade in and out. In FF5, the menu opened almost instantly. It just felt easier to tell the game what I wanted to do. The graphics were far from perfect though.

I don’t mind graphical quality much in games these days, but the PC version of Final Fantasy V suffered from a lot of blurry textures. This version was a port of the mobile game, so I think the graphics were drawn for a small screen. The developers that ported the game, probably noticed how pixelated the 2D graphics looked when blown up to full screen. Hoping for a quick fix, they applied some sort of texture smoothing to everything. This removed the pixelation but also added an ugly blur. I eventually got used to the look, but it looked pretty bad when compared to other recent 2D games. I can understand that the game was not made for a PC monitor, but I wish they had spent some money remastering the textures for an HD display.

Final Fantasy V was a really fun game to play. It wasn’t as good as an “experience” as Final Fantasy IV — FF5 didn’t bring out emotions in the player like FF4 did — but the gameplay was so fun, it just didn’t matter. When it comes to story vs. gameplay, games should always focus on gameplay. That said, a game with both great story AND gameplay is even better. FF4 had the better story; FF5 had the better gameplay. A combination of the two would be perfect. It is possible one of the later games has this perfect combination. I am interested in playing more of these games in the future. One of them might surprise me.

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