Final Fantasy V Retrospective: Knights Do it Two-Handed

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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.
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
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
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

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