When it comes to JRPGs, few defined the genre quite like the Final Fantasy series. Sure, its definition of the word “final” is shaky, but Square still turned linear stories into smash hits every single time. The appeal and charm of these games is so strong, Square Enix can re-release classic games on new systems and instantly find a new audience. The latest example is Final Fantasy V, a 1992 game which didn’t reach North America for six years and was re-released on PC last week.
That’s not to say all Final Fantasy games are equal – Final Fantasy V proved that as well. This sequel is an unusual fit compared to its Super Nintendo-era siblings. Its story and characters are incredibly one-dimensional. Pacing is all over the map. Few plots twists feel unique, impactful, or especially surprising. Yet just when you start thinking the game isn’t worth continuing, that classic JRPG gameplay starts pulling you back in. It’s a testament to Square’s design that Final Fantasy V can absorb our attention for hours, even twenty years later.
Final Fantasy V opens in a world where the elements – Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind – are powered by four crystals. Over the course of a millennium, human kingdoms built civilizations around them, mastering the elements and crafting steampunk technologies around their energies. But in the process, each crystal has become damaged and runs the risk of being destroyed from the strain. Not only will this make the planet uninhabitable, it would release Exdeath, an evil being trapped under their power. To prevent such an event, the crystals empower four adventurers to defend them from further harm, starting a journey across two worlds threatened by Exdeath’s malice.
Four main characters join your party within the first hour of the game. You start as Bartz, an archetypal hero with no parents and a craving for adventure straight out of The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Next is Leena, a princess who courageously follows her father into danger when the Wind Crystal is threatened. You’ll also meet Galuf, an old adventurer who lost his memories when the disaster began. Finally there’s Faris, a female pirate captain and rogue who initially captures the party, but changes her mind and joins them. Later in the game, Galuf’s granddaughter Krile also becomes a playable character, but you’ll never have more than four party members at any time.
From these descriptions alone, you can probably guess everything about the characters and their arcs. Bartz learns more details about his heroic father. Leena is expected to assume her father’s responsibilities, but is drawn to a quest outside her castle walls. Galuf has knowledge of the danger threatening the world, but can’t remember thanks to his amnesia. It’s adequate but incredibly basic, which is a real shame compared to the character arcs of Final Fantasy IV.
Faris is something of an exception here, quickly establishing herself with a well-rounded personality. She’s a charismatic pirate captain who dresses like a man to avoid advances from her crew. Her best friend is a sea monster. At one point, a bounty hunter knocks Faris off a cliff, and she just grabs the wall and climbs back up like nothing happened. Why aren’t there more games about this hero? I’ll admit most of her arc is still predictable, from the revelation that she’s a woman, to a family connection with another member of the party. That said, seeing this hardened pirate cry “Papa” mid-game absolutely tugs on the heartstrings.
Outside of characterization, the story can be a little quirky as well. The environmental message Final Fantasy V aims for is immediately undercut once Exdeath shows up like some comic book supervillain. Dramatic pacing is also a complete mess – remember how other Final Fantasy games let you explore the map, slowly earning ships to fast-travel new regions? This game is a long series of gaining fast-travel, only to immediately lose it and stumble upon something else. Losing a ship or animal companion can be thrilling once. Losing six in the first eight hours makes them seem meaningless.
Thankfully Final Fantasy V‘s real strength lies elsewhere – specifically gameplay and design. Square truly excelled in this department, presenting solid combat, dungeon layouts, and monster types from top to bottom. Environments range from grassy plains, to deserts, to castles, to flying air fortresses, to a Void between dimensions. There are over 300 different monsters to overcome, tracked in a bestiary for players seeking a completionist challenge. Even the menu system is intuitive to follow, given all the gameplay options and statistics it needs to keep track of. And I’d be remiss to ignore the musical score, which like most Final Fantasy games has an absorbing appeal.
Now that’s not to say the design was flawless. Unlike other Final Fantasy games, there’s little reflection that your characters are getting more powerful over time. The story already starts with the heroes as globe-trotting adventurers, not low-level figures grinding their way into something more powerful. Within a handful of hours, you’ll be criss-crossing the entire planet without ever feeling like you earned the right to do so. And from an aesthetic perspective, I really don’t like how Final Fantasy V‘s dialogue boxes present characters who look like their concept art. Maybe it would work if those designs looked anything like the finished sprites, but they absolutely do not and the disconnect is jarring.
Thankfully, individual dungeons make up for most of Final Fantasy V‘s flaws.. Each new location appropriately ramps up the difficulty, adding new challenges and puzzles which are so satisfying to solve. Whether navigating your way to an exit, finding a hidden switch, or figuring out which spell tears through a boss monster’s hit points, these encounters represent Final Fantasy V at its best.
Final Fantasy V even came up with unique innovations to the Job System. Sure, all Final Fantasy games have jobs (or classes, if you’d prefer) but here you can customize abilities to your heart’s content. When the game begins, all party members are Freelancers capable of using any weapon or armor set. But as you collect crystal shards,new jobs are unlocked which party members can switch between outside of battle. The PC version of Final Fantasy V has 26 in total, including Knight, White & Black Mage, Bard, Monk, Geomancer, and many more.
But there’s a twist – as each character levels within their job, those abilities are unlocked to use at any time. If one character develops a Summoner job, they could switch to Monk while still using Summoner spells. Thieves can spot hidden passageways by default, but eventually can continue doing so as a Beastmaster character. With 26 jobs to master, that’s a huge range of abilities to combine and experiment with. If you’re the type of RPG player who loves micromanaging skills, Final Fantasy V should keep you busy for multiple playthroughs.
JRPGs aren’t the Triple-A genre they once were, but I think we take for granted how good Square was at designing them. Today’s RPGs are filled with open worlds, branching choices, and multiple ending, but 16-bit Final Fantasy games could demand our attention using a straightforward, linear story. In Final Fantasy V‘s case, that story wasn’t even very good, but made up for it with refined gameplay and a Job System few other sequels could match.
Final Fantasy V might not reflect IV or VI in terms of overall quality. But whether looking at the Japanese original or today’s PC re-release, this is still one classic worth playing.
Good Old Reviews will return next week with a very different RPG classic – Piranha Bytes’ Gothic.