(Spoiler disclaimer, etc.)
Nostalgia is unfair. Our fondness for the things of our past often leads to the overlooking of faults and the elevation of mediocrities while worthier art languishes. And that dynamic has affected the western reception of Final Fantasy V, since, unlike its siblings on either side, vanishingly few westerners can claim it as an object of nostalgia.
This isn’t to say that IV and VI are bad games – far from it – but rather that their continuing clout rests on the fact that there are a substantial amount of people who have fond memories of playing them in the early-to-mid 90s. V lacks this for the simple fact that, although initially released in 1992, it never had an official western release until 1999. And by that point, the era of 16 bit, 2D gaming was long past, making the game seem more like an outmoded curiosity than anything else. That this release, as part of the Playstation’s Final Fantasy Anthology, also suffered from a hack translation job and crippling loading times didn’t help matters any. Although future re-releases have improved on both these fronts, it’s all too little, too late to have any real impact.
Which is a shame. Because for me, V is one of the highlights of the series, taking second place behind IX.
But it’s also one of the fluffiest entries in the series, sporting a lightweight story that doesn’t offer much to chew on. It is, as I have often described it, a Saturday morning cartoon, and that judgment even carries over to the art-style, which favors bright colours. While this does mean that V lacks a lot of the histrionics and pretentiousness that Final Fantasy is known for, it did make me wonder whether I could even write a blog post more substantial than, “it’s fun; I like it.” Nevertheless, I will make the attempt.
Final Fantasy V takes place in a world which is maintained by four magic crystals representing the four classical elements – wind, fire, water, earth. When the wind crystal suddenly goes kaput, a meteorite falls from the sky, attracting the attention of Bartz/Butz (depending on the translation), an itinerant adventurer. At the crash site, he meets a pink haired princess called Lenna and an old amnesiac called Galuf. It so happens that they both have reason to pay the wind crystal a visit, and Bartz decides to tag along. Shortly thereafter they cross paths with a purple haired pirate called Faris, who also joins in on the adventure.
Eventually it turns out that the crystal shenanigans are the result of one Darth Vader lookalike by the name of ExDeath, who needs the crystals destroyed for his own nefarious purposes. You see, there was this tree in a magical forest which was used to imprison evil souls or something, and eventually the concentration of evil became so great that the tree became a guy called ExDeath who likes being evil for evil’s sake, and who comes with a theme song complete with Psycho-style strings.
It’s not the most sophisticated villainous backstory ever, but our heroes don’t fare much better:
Bartz – Turns out to be the son of a legendary warrior who fought Exdeath in the past.
Lenna – Has a dead father whose ghost shows up to say cryptic things. Is a princess. Likes animals.
Galuf – Turns out to be another legendary warrior who fought Exdeath in the past. Heroically sacrifices himself to make way for the new generation.
Faris – Turns out to be Lenna’s long lost tomboy sister. Doesn’t like the idea of being a princess.
Krile/Cara – Galuf’s granddaughter and eleventh hour replacement. Also a princess. Likes animals.
(This is indeed a very princess oriented story, rivaling My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for the amount of princesses you get for your dollars)
But although the story and characters are trite, V does do one thing a lot better than most RPGs do, and that is establishing a sense of comradeship between the party characters. Often the main characters of an RPG can feel a bit like fellow employees who otherwise wouldn’t hang around with each other. But V’s plucky heroes convincingly work as a circle of friends, which gives some of the more cheesy moments a bit of emotional oomph that wouldn’t be present otherwise.
And that makes for a good segway into talking about V’s most iconic character: ExDeath’s right hand man, Gilgamesh. For if ExDeath is a humanoid shaped tin can of concentrated evil, Gilgamesh is more like the internet troll who winds up becoming your frenemy. His character is a weird mashup of over-the-top braggadocio and childlike glee, a master swordsman who is simultaneously an incompetent villain. Gilgamesh is, when you get down to it, more interested in having cool fights with you than he is in fulfilling any of ExDeath’s villainous plots. By the end of the game, he’s fond enough of Bartz et al. that he switches sides and pulls off a heroic sacrifice, complete with a long-winded attempt at an epic farewell speech.
Gilgamesh is never given any sort of explanation or backstory, and future games have only compounded the mystery: an easter egg in VIII reveals that Gilgamesh spends his time hopping through different dimensions (re: different Final Fantasy games) collecting swords and challenging people to fights.
But, of course, whenever people talk about why this game is good, the first words aren’t “Gilgamesh” or “plot” but rather “job system.” So I should probably explain what that’s all about.
The job system originates from III (another lost FF for westerners), and the premise behind it is quite simple: you can change your characters’ classes if you want. If you’re tired of your Knight, you can make him into a Black Mage. V, however, does two ingenious things with this idea. Firstly, it enables your characters to class change any time and with no cost. And secondly, it allows you to mix and match your character’s current class abilities with those from previous classes. Want to make Bartz into a katana-wielding dancer? You can. Want Faris to be a dragoon with time mage abilities? You can.
The job system hits the right balance between accessibility and depth, encouraging the player to experiment and engage those lateral thinking skills. Although some classes are more useful than others, the system is balanced enough that virtually any configuration is playable. Final Fantasy would go on to make many more essays in non-linear character development, but the job system remains its crowning achievement.
Which is fitting, because V as a whole is really just a more sophisticated take on what the original Final Fantasy offered, where you created four characters, chose their classes and went on a world-spanning adventure involving four crystal MacGuffins. Notably, this was the last game to feature series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi at the helm. VI would shortly afterwards succeed in reinventing the series, and VII would make its new mold into a commercial juggernaut. With the exception of the deliberately old school IX, things would, for both good and ill, never be the same again.
(Images courtesy of FF Wiki)