Final Fantasy V Retrospective: Knights Do it Two-Handed

After my time spent with Fire Emblem Sword of Seals (directly on the heels of a replay of Sacred Stones, which was only very recently preceded by a replay of Radiant Dawn), I instantly decided to boot up my copy of Genealogy of The Holy War (or Seisen no Keifu if you prefer your names to be confusing.) I found waiting for me a map roughly the size of a small country, the sight of which instantly extinguished my current interest in a new Fire Emblem until I can put all of my current (2 or 3) RPG’s in the bag and devote my full attention to it. First on my list was Final Fantasy 5, my interest in which had been rekindled due to the impending release of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story, and this excellent Iwata Asks interview with The Gooch himself.

I’ve always considered Final Fantasy 5 to be one of the most overlooked entries in the series (though it fares much better than Final Fantasy 3). This is likely because it did not receive a release outside of Japan in the influential days of the SNES. By the time it got around to being released in the U.S. the JRPG genre had moved on, and it didn’t have the benefit of a nostalgic legacy quite like IV and VI did. So for those of you who think of this as a forgotten fantasy, let’s explore what makes this game tick, and why it didn’t have as great an impact as it’s predecessor’s or descendants.

The story starts in yet another world full of crystals, where each one holds the powers of a specific element. When the winds die King Tycoon decides to check out the wind crystal in order to figure out what’s wrong, because without the winds trade has come to a standstill and ships can no longer sail the seas because no one in the world has ever heard of a goddamn oar. When he does not return his daughter Princess Lenna goes out in search of him and is very abruptly struck by a meteor! This very convenient meteor strike unites her with our young hero Bartz (hereafter referred to as Butz because HA), and a mysterious aged amnesiac by the name of Galuf. Soon after their meeting the three heroes decide to travel together because. On their way to the wind shrine, they find themselves baffled at how to cross a body of water without wind. When suddenly, they happen upon a ship that has discovered some dark art that allows them to cross a body of water without wind. Could it be an elongated flat piece of wood, swept through the current?

Oh nevermind, that makes way more sense.

The captain of this ship is a salt-mouthed purple haired pirate by the name of Faris, who decides to take you captive. After one night of keeping you in the brig he changes his mind and decides to travel with you because. Now that the four heroes are united they make their way to the wind shrine where upon the breaking of the crystal they discover that they are the four chosen ones known as the warriors of light. Apparently it is their duty to seek the other remaining crystals in order to protect them from breaking, for if they cannot it would mean the unsealing of a great evil.

Now if this sounds familiar to you, it’s because this is the plot of roughly 60 percent of the video games. Normally I would expect a bit more narrative moxie from Square, but honestly, I don’t really hold the simplistic plot against this game. Sometimes listening to two angst ridden heroes wax philosophically about their reason to fight is just exhausting. Every once in a while I just want to see a party of goofballs fight off a giant lobster monster, and while that may not be as emotionally charged, it can be every bit as entertaining, and what more could you ask for from a story? Besides what the plot lacks in depth, it certainly makes up for in terms of imagination. Meteors used as a vessel to travel a void between worlds, and a tree who has become twisted with hate by all of the evil spirits sealed within him are just a few examples. It even dives into some environmental themes with it’s plot about the exploitation of the crystals in order to enhance the lives of the people, and how that damages the world. Themes later explored to greater effect in Final Fantasy 7, but the elements of a greater fantasy story are here, they’re just buried under a lot of nonsense. Honestly between the quirky dialogue and the scattershot plot, it feels more like going through a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons run by Hironobu Sakaguchi then it feels like playing a Final Fantasy game. And who wouldn’t want the opportunity to play that?

Hey guys! I decided I want my pirate character to be a girl instead

While I won’t criticize the plot for it’s simplicity, the characters are a different story. They’re not only very shallow, but pretty stupid as well. None of them are ever given much justification for their actions, their backstories are about as minimal as they could be and their relationships never feel very real. They don’t give you much reason to care about these dudes, and that really cuts a lot of the tension and investment out of this game. With such a small cast the game was definitely capable of going a little deeper with these individuals, but instead of poignancy they went for chuckles at every opportunity, which makes taking any of these people seriously pretty difficult.

Some lines in this game really make you think

The shortcomings of the characters and simplicity of the plot might matter more if this were any other Final Fantasy game, however this entry in the series is unique as both of those elements actually take a backseat to the gameplay. Final Fantasy 5 is in my personal opinion the best example of the oft lauded job system to be found in the series. The idea behind the job system being that classes are not a one time choice, as they are in most games, but more like something you equip in order to learn the abilities of each specialty. This allows you to mix the jobs together in order to create a character who plays however you want them to. In theory this is a very interesting system, however I think that it takes far too long to pick up steam. Unless you’re on the default class you will be limited to equipping one ability from a different class, while the rest of the role is defined by your current class. This doesn’t give you a whole lot of variation right out the gate, and you’ll find you spend a lot of time grinding out a class you may not particularly like that may not even suit your character just to get a specific ability for the end game. It’s not until you’ve mastered multiple classes and switch to the Freelancer or Mime, that the role you’ve spent the game building feels realized. Annoyingly enough by the time you’ve done that you’ll have become so powerful that the fights are trivial. Spending all of those hours specializing the character just how you want them honestly feel pretty wasted once you realize you don’t even need very much firepower to burn through the late game. Though I will admit that it avoids power creep generally better than the rest of the series does, and there was a point about 75% of the way through the game where the fights were actually tough but fair, and even one or two of the bosses towards the end of the game who packed just as much of a punch as I did.

In my first adult playthrough of Final Fantasy 5, I found the game much as I remember it. A shallow but fun plot, which is kept interesting by the fun job system, and the battles that remain challenging for most of the game. It’s by no stretch of the imagination the best Final Fantasy, but it’s certainly not the worst either. It’s fun to look at this game and see the direction Final Fantasy may have gone if they had continued along the path of gameplay over story. Would it have been as successful a franchise if it had? What would those games have been like? How would the battle systems have evolved, and how would that have influenced the rest of the genre? Questions we will never know the answer to, but fun to ponder nevertheless. With The Last Story only a week away I’ll be interested in seeing how Sakaguchi’s next game compares to this one, and seeing how his vision has been influenced in the intervening decade.

Here’s where I found Final Fantasy 5 lying in comparison to the other games in the series after this playthrough: 6=7>8=9>10>4=5>13>1>12

32 Comments
32 Comments
Edited by Hunter5024

After my time spent with Fire Emblem Sword of Seals (directly on the heels of a replay of Sacred Stones, which was only very recently preceded by a replay of Radiant Dawn), I instantly decided to boot up my copy of Genealogy of The Holy War (or Seisen no Keifu if you prefer your names to be confusing.) I found waiting for me a map roughly the size of a small country, the sight of which instantly extinguished my current interest in a new Fire Emblem until I can put all of my current (2 or 3) RPG’s in the bag and devote my full attention to it. First on my list was Final Fantasy 5, my interest in which had been rekindled due to the impending release of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story, and this excellent Iwata Asks interview with The Gooch himself.

I’ve always considered Final Fantasy 5 to be one of the most overlooked entries in the series (though it fares much better than Final Fantasy 3). This is likely because it did not receive a release outside of Japan in the influential days of the SNES. By the time it got around to being released in the U.S. the JRPG genre had moved on, and it didn’t have the benefit of a nostalgic legacy quite like IV and VI did. So for those of you who think of this as a forgotten fantasy, let’s explore what makes this game tick, and why it didn’t have as great an impact as it’s predecessor’s or descendants.

The story starts in yet another world full of crystals, where each one holds the powers of a specific element. When the winds die King Tycoon decides to check out the wind crystal in order to figure out what’s wrong, because without the winds trade has come to a standstill and ships can no longer sail the seas because no one in the world has ever heard of a goddamn oar. When he does not return his daughter Princess Lenna goes out in search of him and is very abruptly struck by a meteor! This very convenient meteor strike unites her with our young hero Bartz (hereafter referred to as Butz because HA), and a mysterious aged amnesiac by the name of Galuf. Soon after their meeting the three heroes decide to travel together because. On their way to the wind shrine, they find themselves baffled at how to cross a body of water without wind. When suddenly, they happen upon a ship that has discovered some dark art that allows them to cross a body of water without wind. Could it be an elongated flat piece of wood, swept through the current?

Oh nevermind, that makes way more sense.

The captain of this ship is a salt-mouthed purple haired pirate by the name of Faris, who decides to take you captive. After one night of keeping you in the brig he changes his mind and decides to travel with you because. Now that the four heroes are united they make their way to the wind shrine where upon the breaking of the crystal they discover that they are the four chosen ones known as the warriors of light. Apparently it is their duty to seek the other remaining crystals in order to protect them from breaking, for if they cannot it would mean the unsealing of a great evil.

Now if this sounds familiar to you, it’s because this is the plot of roughly 60 percent of the video games. Normally I would expect a bit more narrative moxie from Square, but honestly, I don’t really hold the simplistic plot against this game. Sometimes listening to two angst ridden heroes wax philosophically about their reason to fight is just exhausting. Every once in a while I just want to see a party of goofballs fight off a giant lobster monster, and while that may not be as emotionally charged, it can be every bit as entertaining, and what more could you ask for from a story? Besides what the plot lacks in depth, it certainly makes up for in terms of imagination. Meteors used as a vessel to travel a void between worlds, and a tree who has become twisted with hate by all of the evil spirits sealed within him are just a few examples. It even dives into some environmental themes with it’s plot about the exploitation of the crystals in order to enhance the lives of the people, and how that damages the world. Themes later explored to greater effect in Final Fantasy 7, but the elements of a greater fantasy story are here, they’re just buried under a lot of nonsense. Honestly between the quirky dialogue and the scattershot plot, it feels more like going through a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons run by Hironobu Sakaguchi then it feels like playing a Final Fantasy game. And who wouldn’t want the opportunity to play that?

Hey guys! I decided I want my pirate character to be a girl instead

While I won’t criticize the plot for it’s simplicity, the characters are a different story. They’re not only very shallow, but pretty stupid as well. None of them are ever given much justification for their actions, their backstories are about as minimal as they could be and their relationships never feel very real. They don’t give you much reason to care about these dudes, and that really cuts a lot of the tension and investment out of this game. With such a small cast the game was definitely capable of going a little deeper with these individuals, but instead of poignancy they went for chuckles at every opportunity, which makes taking any of these people seriously pretty difficult.

Some lines in this game really make you think

The shortcomings of the characters and simplicity of the plot might matter more if this were any other Final Fantasy game, however this entry in the series is unique as both of those elements actually take a backseat to the gameplay. Final Fantasy 5 is in my personal opinion the best example of the oft lauded job system to be found in the series. The idea behind the job system being that classes are not a one time choice, as they are in most games, but more like something you equip in order to learn the abilities of each specialty. This allows you to mix the jobs together in order to create a character who plays however you want them to. In theory this is a very interesting system, however I think that it takes far too long to pick up steam. Unless you’re on the default class you will be limited to equipping one ability from a different class, while the rest of the role is defined by your current class. This doesn’t give you a whole lot of variation right out the gate, and you’ll find you spend a lot of time grinding out a class you may not particularly like that may not even suit your character just to get a specific ability for the end game. It’s not until you’ve mastered multiple classes and switch to the Freelancer or Mime, that the role you’ve spent the game building feels realized. Annoyingly enough by the time you’ve done that you’ll have become so powerful that the fights are trivial. Spending all of those hours specializing the character just how you want them honestly feel pretty wasted once you realize you don’t even need very much firepower to burn through the late game. Though I will admit that it avoids power creep generally better than the rest of the series does, and there was a point about 75% of the way through the game where the fights were actually tough but fair, and even one or two of the bosses towards the end of the game who packed just as much of a punch as I did.

In my first adult playthrough of Final Fantasy 5, I found the game much as I remember it. A shallow but fun plot, which is kept interesting by the fun job system, and the battles that remain challenging for most of the game. It’s by no stretch of the imagination the best Final Fantasy, but it’s certainly not the worst either. It’s fun to look at this game and see the direction Final Fantasy may have gone if they had continued along the path of gameplay over story. Would it have been as successful a franchise if it had? What would those games have been like? How would the battle systems have evolved, and how would that have influenced the rest of the genre? Questions we will never know the answer to, but fun to ponder nevertheless. With The Last Story only a week away I’ll be interested in seeing how Sakaguchi’s next game compares to this one, and seeing how his vision has been influenced in the intervening decade.

Here’s where I found Final Fantasy 5 lying in comparison to the other games in the series after this playthrough: 6=7>8=9>10>4=5>13>1>12

Posted by Video_Game_King

@Hunter5024 said:

When the winds die King Tycoon decides to check out the wind crystal in order to figure out what’s wrong, because without the winds trade has come to a standstill and ships can no longer sail the seas because no one in the world has ever heard of a goddamn oar.

Because cars can cross oceans?

Edited by Hunter5024

@Video_Game_King said:

@Hunter5024 said:

When the winds die King Tycoon decides to check out the wind crystal in order to figure out what’s wrong, because without the winds trade has come to a standstill and ships can no longer sail the seas because no one in the world has ever heard of a goddamn oar.

Because cars can cross oceans?

Well maybe you're just driving the wrong kind of car, but actually that says oar. Also known as paddles and sweeps.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

I've been a pretty vocal proponent of Final Fantasy V for a while. Sure, the plot and characters are entirely forgettable (at the very least, the GBA localization doesn't take itself seriously at all and is weirdly self-aware for a FF game), as you said, but it's got that totally rad job system and isn't horribly grindy and hateful the same way the DS version of FFIII is (Never finished it for a reason). Obviously, this comes from me not being a big fan of anything outside of the SNES releases (and X-2, which I enjoy for both ironic and unironic reasons) and I can probably understand why it's not a very popular game in the overall pantheon of the series.

That being said, good blog! I also read your Sword of Seals one and that was a similarly enjoyable read. Ironically, despite me recently playing through some of the more crazy SNES instalments of the series (with the utterly bizarre and kinda fascinating Fire Emblem Gaiden in progress), I never actually finished Fuuin no Tsurugi. Oh well. Knowing me, that will happen one of these days. Right after I finish all the other Fire Emblem games.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@ArbitraryWater said:

Knowing me, that will happen one of these days. Right after I finish all the other Fire Emblem games.

Including Tear Ring Saga?

You know you want to.
Posted by Hunter5024

@ArbitraryWater: Thanks! I had a little trouble writing this blog, because while I really love Final Fantasy 5, I actually find it hard to put my finger on and express why that is, whereas seeing why somebody wouldn't like it comes pretty easily to me for some reason. Speaking of X-2 I've been meaning to go back and play that now that there's some distance from the initial disappointment I had, especially since V's got me thinking about the whole gameplay vs story balance and how Final Fantasy has handled it before and since. Maybe a Final Fantasy X double feature, once the HD version is released. Can't wait to read about Gaiden, I've been using your blogs to help me determine which older Fire Emblems to play now, and that one seems very different.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

@Video_Game_King said:

@ArbitraryWater said:

Knowing me, that will happen one of these days. Right after I finish all the other Fire Emblem games.

Including Tear Ring Saga?

You know you want to.

Aw hell yeah.

Posted by Hunter5024

@Video_Game_King: So is Tear Ring Saga good enough to actually go to the trouble of playing a japanese ps1 game? Because if memory serves, psx emulators are complete shit, though this may have changed since the last time I looked into it.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@Hunter5024:

It's actually incredibly doable, now, and there's a pretty comprehensive (but by now means complete) translation patch available now. Of course, this has resulted in Tear Ring Saga on the Internet utterly exploding. Poseurs. I WAS PLAYING IT BEFORE IT WAS COOL!

Posted by Marino

@Hunter5024: Nice work. This is on the front page now.

Staff
Posted by tutuboy95

Nice job. I myself love FInal Fantasy V, if nothing for the Job System, which, in my opinion, is much better than other entries in the series, including spin-offs.

That and Gilgamesh. I love that guy.

Posted by ImHungry

I remember feeling incredibly worn down by grinding out my jobs and ended up never finishing V. In hindsight it's possible I was being too forward looking and grinding out the jobs too early so maybe I'll have to go back and try it again sometime.

Posted by Guided_By_Tigers

Yeah I loved the job system in FFV, its one of my favorites in the series.

Posted by GERALTITUDE

Thanks for the write up. Sweet to the see this game get some attention, even if it has always been the least interesting of the series to me. I enjoy the gameplay and it's flavour of job system (which is great, I agree) but the plot is really shallow and the characters are largely uninteresting. All in all V is a step back from IV. I enjoyed your comparison listing at the end of the post (never seen it done like that before) but I don't think I would compare 1, 2 or 3 with the rest of the series. They're just too simple.

Posted by Hunter5024

@ImHungry: If I were you I'd go back and play it sometime, as far as JRPG's go, it's about as breezy as it gets without becoming easy. A good weekend game.

@GERALTITUDE: I find I enjoy 4 less than other people seem to, which is why it's the next Final Fantasy I intend to play (not counting 1 and 3 which I haven't beaten yet). It certainly has a better plot, but I think V's gameplay makes up for that, which is why they're equal on my list. Also you're probably right about the first 3 not belonging on the list, I think 1 is so low as a result of it's simplicity, which isn't really fair, but I suppose it's better than someone making it their number 1 out of nostalgia.

Posted by tutuboy95

By the way, I'm just curious, but why is XII so low on your list? I always thought it to be one of the best Final Fantasies.

Posted by Hunter5024

@tutuboy95 said:

By the way, I'm just curious, but why is XII so low on your list? I always thought it to be one of the best Final Fantasies.

I think the characters, combat, and storyline are all really boring. Last year I went back and played it with a more open mind, because I felt like maybe I was being a little too harsh towards it considering when it first came out I was only 16 and it changed so much about the series. But after finishing it a second time I didn't find anything to like other than the environments. I'm glad you found something about it that you enjoyed though. Personally I hope they don't make another mainline Final Fantasy game like that, but I think it would be pretty cool if they made a sub series like that game, and evolved on the mechanics in a way that I could find more enjoyable.

Posted by MideonNViscera

I've made it about halfway through FFV twice. Maybe someday I'll beat it. Maybe.

Posted by thatpinguino

I think Penny Arcade RSPD 3 is a good example of where the Final Fantasy 5 job system could have gone if Square wanted to continue down the job system path. The game features a much more open job system, with a bit more pure characterization for the main characters. You should check that game out if you like the FF5 system.

Posted by makari

The best thing about FF5 is its amazing soundtrack.

Edited by Thoseposers

Having never played FFV the job system sounds kind of like FF the Four Heroes of Light where you equip jobs and each character can level up their jobs to access new abilities, does that sound about right? Cause if so i need to check this out cause i love the jobs system in that game.

On a side note, does anyone else find FF3 on the DS to be amazingly tough to get through and grindy?

EDIT: Wow, looking through the wiki the job system is almost exactly the same in both games, looks like i'll be adding this to my watch list

Posted by Slag

@Thoseposers said:

On a side note, does anyone else find FF3 on the DS to be amazingly tough to get through and grindy?

not really. I thought FF II and V were much harder than III fwiw. V for me was the toughest in the series, but that could have been because I didn't like the story so I tried to beat quickly and din't grind basically at all.

III was old school though in design, it wasn't abnormal in the NES era that you had to grind a fair amount endgame.

Posted by Hunter5024

@thatpinguino: It's waiting on my desktop for when the time is right.

@makari: Which reminds me that I wrote down my favorite tracks in the game as I was playing it, so that I could mention them in this, and still forgot too.

Bonus Feature Everybody! Home Sweet Home Intention of The Earth Battle on The Big Bridge Beyond The Deep Blue Sea Harvest Sealed Away Cursed Earth

There's a ton of notes on this page that I forgot to put in the blog... Did you guys know that Exdeath has more boobs than any other last boss in Final Fantasy history?

@Slag said:

@Thoseposers said:

On a side note, does anyone else find FF3 on the DS to be amazingly tough to get through and grindy?

not really. I thought FF II and V were much harder than III fwiw. V for me was the toughest in the series, but that could have been because I didn't like the story so I tried to beat quickly and din't grind basically at all.

III was old school though in design, it wasn't abnormal in the NES era that you had to grind a fair amount endgame.

I don't know dude if that studio's Final Fantasy 3 DS remake is anything like their remake of 4 then it might be harder than the NES version. I haven't played 3 yet, but I am almost certain they made IV harder than the SNES and GBA versions were.

Posted by Ravenlight

@Hunter5024 said:

(hereafter referred to as Butz because HA)

I did the same thing when I played FFV years ago. I still believe this joke approaches the pinnacle of human achievement.

Posted by Hunter5024

@Ravenlight said:

@Hunter5024 said:

(hereafter referred to as Butz because HA)

I did the same thing when I played FFV years ago. I still believe this joke approaches the pinnacle of human achievement.

In the original fan translation I played there was a lot of cursing, which led to funny lines like "Butz: SHIT!"

Posted by Ravenlight

@Hunter5024:

Pretty much any time a game lets me enter text is an opportunity to unleash my inner five-year-old.
Edited by mandude

@Hunter5024 said:

@Ravenlight said:

@Hunter5024 said:

(hereafter referred to as Butz because HA)

I did the same thing when I played FFV years ago. I still believe this joke approaches the pinnacle of human achievement.

In the original fan translation I played there was a lot of cursing, which led to funny lines like "Butz: SHIT!"

I played through this recently and the dialogue wasn't nearly what I remembered it as. I'm now wondering if I originally played the fan translation you speak of...

Posted by Slag

@Hunter5024 said:

I don't know dude if that studio's Final Fantasy 3 DS remake is anything like their remake of 4 then it might be harder than the NES version. I haven't played 3 yet, but I am almost certain they made IV harder than the SNES and GBA versions were.

sorry I didn't make this clear, but I have played the DS version. I didn't find it significantly tougher than the NES version. If anything because it explains the mechanics better, the beginning is a lot easier. Admittedly there was some areas I had to grind for at the end of the game. But other than that I wouldn't call it a tough game. Much prettier, with the story treated better though.

I still find V to be the toughest. But FF isn't a tough series in general, usually as long as you are willing to grind up you can always power through any of the titles.

Posted by JackSukeru

Cool, I was wondering what the deal with FFV was. It seems no one ever talks about it so it was good to finally get a sense of what it is like.

Posted by Levio

Like others, I felt compelled to max the jobs ASAP for their sweet abilities.

The problem was that my characters were then so powerleveled that the abilities didn't even matter! Kinda funny.

Posted by Hunter5024

@Levio: Yeah I found that after spending several hours learning Rapid Fire, that I often used a less powerful regular attack, just because it still got the job done, and watching a dual wielder use Rapid Fire feels like it takes forever.

Posted by streetninja

Final Fantasy V is definitely one of my favorite games in the series. I remember Berserker with Monk's counter being my go to combo back when I played a fan translation. 
 
I love RPGs that allow me to customize my characters.