When it comes to the SNES era of Final Fantasy, I feel like V is one which sometimes gets left out of the discussion. There’s good reasons for that – in contrast to the wider releases of its predecessor and successor, V was alone in not getting an English release on its original console, needing instead to wait until at least the very end of the ‘90s to finally come out on the PlayStation to an English-speaking audience. That alone probably did wonders in stifling its reputation, although even subsequent re-releases of V tend to see it wind up largely seeming as a niche title in the minds of many, sandwiched as it is between the massively-influential, neatly-refined Final Fantasy IV, and the narrative juggernaut Final Fantasy VI. But I confess to holding a little candle for V; allow me to try and explain why.
Final Fantasy V (Android, GBA [reviewed], iOS, PC, PS1, SNES)
Released Dec 1992 | Developed / Published: Square
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 32.5 hours
The single most defining feature of Final Fantasy V, and the one thing that sets it apart from its contemporaries – not to mention the feature which it seems to (quite rightly) get unadulterated praise for – is the job system. V isn’t the first game in the franchise to utiliise a job system; it made its debut much earlier, in Final Fantasy III, but as I noted back in my review of that game, it suffered from some frustrating flaws that hampered an otherwise wonderful idea. However, the job system in V represents a vast overhaul and improvement on that original appearance, and the end result is one of the finest examples of a job system in any JRPG.
The idea is deceptively simple. As well as balancing each characters’ level, equipment, and stats, every member of your party can also be set up with jobs. These range from very typical Final Fantasy classes from as far back as the very first game, such as knights, thieves, and black mages, but V expands our roster to include a lot of more esoteric ones, such as necromancers, oracles, and mimes. Each job has a specific area of specialization; thieves can steal, for example, or black mages can cast offensive spells, and experimenting with jobs in order to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of them, as well as playing around with their unique abilities, is one of the core parts of any Final Fantasy V playthrough and a key aspect of mastering the game.
Battles give both regular experience points (to increase your characters’ overall levels) and job points (which are specific to increasing the individual levels of your equipped class), and each job has its own personal series of job levels to increase. The higher the job level of a given class, the more skills you can learn to improve the efficacy of that job, but it also gives you more abilities that can be retained and implemented when you change jobs. Although every job has a set ability, each one also has an empty slot for you to add in a learned ability. These can be active, such as equipping the signature ability of a different, mastered class to your current one, giving you access to an extremely free-form version of multi-classing; alternatively, you can equip passive abilities from other jobs, which can give you a significant advantage or form of support to shore up the weaknesses of your primary job.
Unlike Final Fantasy III, there are no dungeons which force you into maintaining specific classes because of stupid restrictions like having to be turned into a Toad or go Mini; instead the game recognises that the strength of utilising a job system lies in encouraging players to be creative and giving them the freedom to experiment. Some characters have personal stat growths which might signpost them towards certain broad class archetypes, and some enemies and bosses are definitely made to be fought by parties which lean more heavily one way or the other – a pair of late game dungeons, for example, each feature enemies which are only vulnerable to magic or physical attacks respectively, and so require you to set up your party accordingly. I found there was often a degree of trial-and-error involved in this kind of process; the game is well-translated and offers up a lot of information to help you in these instances, but occasionally I wound up taking a death and reloading due to a poorly-set party that wasn’t ready for the challenge at hand. Naturally, this resulted in a lot of grinding, and unfortunately I think that is simply a reality not just of JRPGs, but particularly of ones with job systems as you have to kind of “double grind”; even if your levels are ok, you do sometimes find that’s not sufficient and you’ll have to disappear for a bit and spend a few hours leveling up a job you need and that’s simply not a tenable idea to some folk.
If Final Fantasy V is praised on the internet, it tends to be for its job system, but one area I feel often gets overlooked is its writing. It is unfortunate for V that it came out in-between two games which are generally considered narratively strong entries in the franchise; IV benefited from being the first Final Fantasy to be released on a console capable of handling a lengthy, in-depth story built around a set of comparatively well-fleshed out characters, and VI remains to this day an entry cited as amongst the franchise’s finest examples of writing. When V’s writing is brought up, typically it is done so with the caveat of it not being as focused on its plot and characters as either of the other SNES games, and seems to be generally remembered as a less narratively weighty experience.
However, I’m not sure that’s entirely the case. V definitely approaches its story differently to its contemporaries, but I don’t think that makes it any less effective at telling it. Our story for this entry into the ever-expanding Final Fantasy franchise centres around a small band of heroes who find themselves drawn into a battle to stop the elemental crystals which power their world from shattering as an evil warlock named Exdeath plans the destruction of the planet. Fans of the series will recognise the classic setup for a Final Fantasy game, replete as it is with elementally-attuned crystals acting as load-bearing weights for the world, so, as with IV, the interesting thing here is what is done around that to advance and expand the story. V is less character-driven than IV, for example, but that doesn’t mean its cast isn’t developed. Main hero Bartz sometimes gets criticism for being an absolute moron (to be fair, he is as dense as a brick) but it’s often played for laughs, and it’s eventually balanced out by a strong heroic streak as he finds himself sinking more and more into his role as a saviour of the world. I think Bartz’s more vulnerable moments are often overlooked; a missable detour to his home village, for example, shows a quiet melancholy plagues him, which goes some way to explain his selfish attitude at the beginning of the game as he initially refuses to help the princess Lenna or the amnesiac old man Galuf on their quest.
Unlike in IV, each character’s development here actually takes place across the course of the game, showing that the writing team have learned from their previous attempts. Obviously the main party undergo the bulk of it, but V also features a plethora of side characters who undergo proper development, and you get a greater sense of being part of a world larger than just the party; they might be the catalyst around whom events revolve, but this time we actually have important NPCs who take an active role in the plot, such as the engineer Cid who constantly tinkers with your airships to keep them up-to-date in your fight against Exdeath, or kings and leaders of other cities who at least try and do something about the state of their crystals. Naturally it’s all up to the party to solve, but it’s nice to feel like the world is more alive, in contrast to the fairly static playmats across which we wander in the previous games. V is also not afraid to give its villains some exciting arcs, particularly with regards to the warrior Gilgamesh who makes a famous first appearance in this game. Like Bartz, he’s a bit of a figure of fun who carries a somewhat understated serious streak, but his personality evolves across a series of boss fights and the end result is one of Final Fantasy V’s most enduring characters.
I suspect the humour in Final Fantasy V’s writing is one of the big things that makes some people see it as a less quote-unquote “serious” game in the series. Because some of its core cast are, for want of a better word, goofy, and because its world is often quite light and early events are embedded in a playful sense of fantasy, it is easy to dismiss V. That’s especially true when approaching it from a patient gaming perspective; a modern audience might already be familiar with more famous titles in the franchise, like VI, VII, or even later entries like XIII and XV, which all feature far more poe-faced and broody storylines, and as a result V can quite possibly seem a bit lacking in drama. For anyone who sticks with it, however, V definitely does have its fair share of darker elements, and as the plot progresses it definitely starts to reach some seemingly hopeless places and although the cast never quite lose their quirkiness, they definitely get put through the wringer.
As with so many of these older Final Fantasy titles, there are myriad options for playing V, and despite its original limited Japan-only release, thankfully it’s now far more easily available to a wider audience. The PlayStation version was the first English-language release and that is still out there, knocking around the PS Store, but it’s hard to recommend it to anyone over the more recent editions; it is the version that is perhaps the closest to the Super Famicom, but like a lot of the PS1 releases of older Final Fantasy titles, it suffers from extended load times. I chose to play the Game Boy Advance version for this review, which is the one I remember from my childhood; it, like all 3 of the SNES titles, is a remaster of the original, featuring updated graphics, some of which are truly exceptional and far outstrips the visual performance of its immediate predecessor. It also has a stronger translation, not least of all taking the opportunity to rename the main character Bartz from the PS translation of Butz. Like the other GBA remasters, this version of V additionally chucks in some bonus content featuring bosses from other Final Fantasy games if you want an extra, post-game challenge. Like all of the older titles in the series, V has most recently gotten an entry in the Pixel Remaster release catalogue, which saw the game release on PC as well as getting another full audiovisual overhaul, including a fantastic arrangement of one of the best pieces of Final Fantasy music ever, Battle on the Big Bridge.
I can easily see why Final Fantasy V slipped under some people’s radar. Aside from the context of its release (or lack thereof), even today it stands out because of its sense of humour and tone, both of which would largely be abandoned as the series progressed in favour of broodier drama and more overtly grim themes, at least until IX and X started to inject a little more direct brevity into their stories and presentation. However, to avoid playing it because of that would be to deprive yourself of one of the most mechanically dense and satisfying mainline Final Fantasy entries. I am a sucker for a well-made job system in a JRPG, and for me Final Fantasy V sits all but untouched at the top for that; of the game’s I’ve played, perhaps only Bravely Default has left me nearly as satisfied with a job mechanic. I appreciate that the job system results in a game which requires a huge amount of grinding, particularly for first-timers or those not approaching the game with a strategy guide handy, but even its trickiest segments are eminently beatable. The joy of experimenting with the classes lives on in the annual Four Job Fiesta, a charity event revolving around a challenge run of the game in which players try and beat it with only four randomly assigned classes, but you don’t need to do something like this to find fun in V’s classes; even a regular play of the game can throw up some hitherto unexplored combination of jobs and abilities. While I accept that Final Fantasy V’s silly sense of humour isn’t for everyone, I still think it deserves a play, and easily sits amongst my more beloved entries in the franchise.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.