A gem lost in its own time, Final Fantasy V is a stellar RPG.
In the three years between the release of Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI (known as Final Fantasy II and III in the US), Squaresoft made the decision not to release Final Fantasy V to North America. They felt that the gameplay was too complex and wasn’t accessible enough for the western world. This is a real shame, because the depth of FFV’s character customization is its greatest asset and keeps it from being just an also-ran in the franchise.
Some installments of the Final Fantasy series are revered for their great storytelling. This installment certainly isn’t. The main story uses the all-too-familiar plot involving powerful crystals, worlds colliding, and an ancient evil escaping his prison, with only your ragtag group of adventurers being capable of saving the world. Some of the better games in the series drop a lot of those cliches and at least attempt to be novel or compelling.
This isn't as damning as it sounds. Though the paint-by-numbers story is uninteresting, it provides enough of an impetus for you to traipse around the world map, battling hordes of enemies every three or four steps. Combat is based around the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, which mixes turn-based combat with the need for quick thinking and fast reflexes. During battle, each character has a bar that fills up every couple of seconds. Once full, you can select your attack. At the same time, the enemies lie in wait, their own ATB gauge creeping towards action. If you take too long to choose an action, they’ll pounce. Once you and your enemies attack, the cycle begins anew until your party, or all of the the monsters are dead. The system works very well, and keeps combat brisk despite the downtime of waiting for your characters’ gauges to fill. Why this is so rewarding? After battle, your characters gain the standard experience points and gil, but in this game they also gain a few “ABP.” These precious points are the key to unlocking your party’s true potential.
Previous Final Fantasies had little in the way of character customization. Your characters each had predefined classes, like paladins, white mages, and ninjas. You could only gain new abilities in those classes, and they were simply given to you as you leveled up. FFV, however, rethinks this philosophy by reusing the Job system introduced in FFIII. Rather than the game assigning a specific class to your characters, you can freely change your characters' classes, or "jobs" as they're called, whenever you want. There are pros and cons to each job, and finding the right mix is a challenge that you’ll face throughout the game. As you might expect, each job has its own abilities. While thieves have incredible agility, can steal items, and keep the party from being ambushed, monks attack twice per round, automatically counterattack when hit, and have an kick that hits all enemies. In most cases, you automatically gain a job's abilities when you equip it. There’s a twist, though, that provides a tremendous amount of depth to the job system. This is where ABP comes in.
Besides your current job’s innate abilities, you also have a spare ability slot that you can fill with any skill that you’ve already learned from any other job. By vanquishing your enemies and collecting ABP, your character learns the equipped job's abilities and can transfer them to his or her other jobs. If you want a white mage that can steal items, you simply equip the thief job, kill a bunch of monsters until you gain 50 ABP, switch to the white mage job, and then equip the "Steal" ability. Imagine how complex that system becomes after you master dozens of abilities. By the end of the game, all four characters are capable of attacking eight times per round while using weapons imbued with Flare. They’ll automatically counterattack when hit, have double their normal hit points, and be able to use any equipment in the game. Sure, they’re overpowered. But it hardly feels cheap. You'll have spent a lot of time to build up your characters, so there's a great sense of accomplishment when you can unleash your unstoppable wrecking crew.
The world is generally lush and green, and looks very pretty. Each character is animated nicely, and the enemy sprites are very detailed and are sufficiently scary-looking. You’ll travel through a nice variety of locales, including forests, mountains, caves, fields, deserts, underwater, and finally an alien-looking environment. There’s a variety of background music and sound effects, each of which are fine, but none of which are terribly memorable. The overall presentation is top-notch, true to Square's pedigree, and complements the battle and job systems nicely.
You might take for granted that a FF game is always worth the money you’ll spend on it. After all, these games usually last anywhere between 30 and 40 hours, with plenty of sidequests to beat, items to acquire, and secret places to visit. FFV doesn’t buck any of these trends, but you’ll spend proportionally more time leveling up than you might be used to. Again, this is time well spent as you master your 20-plus jobs. Additionally, the GBA port also includes a secret dungeon that you can complete after beating the game once, as well as four new jobs. The new jobs have some very interesting and unique abilities that you probably haven't seen before, and are definitely worth collecting. The optional dungeon adds quite a bit of content to the game and is worth checking out after beating the main quest.
Despite its relatively weak narrative, Final Fantasy V should have been released to North America during the SNES days. This installment is combat-heavy and focuses a lot of its attention on the job system. Fortunately, both elements are very well developed and provide enough incentive to see this game through to the end. Though this game is 15 years-old, you'll not only enjoy FFV, you'll appreciate how it influenced more recent Final Fantasy installments, like FF Tactics, FFXI, and FFX-2.