After the runaway success of Final Fantasy IV, Square decided to go back to the drawing board for the popular RPG’s fifth installment. By this point in the series, each main entry was well known for its own main gimmick. The first entry was a straightforward adventure where you choose your party of four, the second had a bizarre progression system and was the series’ first attempt at telling a fully fleshed out story, the third was a riff on the first game, but instead you could switch your party’s jobs on the fly, and the fourth set the template that all future JRPGs would follow by having party members with specific roles in a story filled with twists and turns. A pattern has emerged at this point. The odd numbered entries tend to be more straightforward games with an ever-changing job system, while the even numbered ones take more risks with their stories. So, with Final Fantasy V, Square once again—you guessed it— delivered another traditional adventure. Except this time, they perfected the job system in a way that almost makes the first and third entries obsolete from gameplay standpoints.
It was quite a while before overseas audiences were able to get their hands on an official copy of the game, and as such there are numerous versions of it out there. In the interest of full disclosure, my experience with the title comes from Final Fantasy V Advance, a handheld port for the GameBoy Advance that expanded the main game with several new jobs and a tough new post-game dungeon to take on.
Anyways, Final Fantasy V sees players initially controlling Bartz, a young adventurer who eventually gets swept up in an adventure with Princess Lenna, pirate captain Faris, old man Galuf, and (later on) a young girl named Krile. Once again, the elements are out of control for reasons that are initially unclear, apart from the fact that the world’s elemental crystals have had their power drained from them or they’ve been taken or something. Look, the story is as basic as these things get, without a whole lot of characterization or huge twists, apart from one mid- game scene that was rather effective. It’s not quite as bare bones as the first or third entries, but neither is it as ambitious as the second game’s or as well executed and involved as the fourth’s. The game’s antagonist, Exdeath, is decent enough, particularly his bizarre final form where he becomes an evil tree, but he mostly feels like a prototype for the next entry’s unforgettable big bad.
Despite how standard the main story is, the backstory is surprisingly complicated. During my time scouring the internet to remind myself of the finer points of the game’s plot, I was reminded that there are alternate dimensions at play here, which kind of hearkens back to the weirdly convoluted time travel of the first game’s villain Chaos. It’s very strange, but it’s enjoyable enough despite lacking a lot of what makes the more highly regarded games in the series so memorable. The most notable aspect of the story is that, after a certain point in the game, there are three females and one male in the party, making this the first entry in the franchise to have a primarily female main group. The only other notable part is that the script is more humorous than past entries. For instance, the recurring character Gilgamesh is a total goofball warrior type, and acts as a recurring boss fight that comes to respect your four heroes the more he loses.
The story isn’t what makes the game so good and ultimately worth playing. Square took the next natural step for the third entry’s job system and delivered one of the most flexible, customizable, in depth, and just down right fun party-building systems in the entirety of the 16-bit era. The idea of being able to switch up your party’s jobs on the fly in 3 was a neat one, although it was ultimately hampered by how basic its implementation was. Aside from the fact that a person that switches jobs is punished by having lowered stats until a certain number of battles have gone by, there weren’t a whole lot of reasons to switch things up if you had a party that was working well for you. For instance, once you unlocked the Ninja job, there wasn’t any real reason to switch that character to another melee role since the Ninja was such an absolute powerhouse. No skills carried over between jobs, either. So basically, you wanted two Ninjas, maybe a Black Belt or a Magus, and have your last person dedicated to healing.
All of that was fixed in Final Fantasy V. Apart from changing your character’s appearance (this game has some of the most downright adorable Dark Knights in all of gaming), each job had a set number of levels to attain, and each level permanently unlocked a different skill that could be mixed and matched with any other job. So, say you fully level up your Summoner so they can use any level of Summoning magic, then decide that it was time for them to become a Samurai, who specializes in using money to perform different actions. You could apply that Summoning magic you learned from the previous job and BAM you got yourself a Samurai that can Summon Bahamut, king of the dragons. Cue the metal music.
With a staggering 26 jobs at your disposal (which includes the four cool new ones the GameBoy Advance version added), the customization options are virtually limitless. Building your ultimate party is a blast, and the steady stream of rewards and abilities means that grinding pretty much always feels rewarding. The game is the usual 25 or so hours, but you could theoretically spend much, much longer than that fine tuning your party and giving different skill and job combinations a whirl. To top it all off, the Freelancer job (and later on the Mime job, an optional vocation that requires beating a humorous boss) actually becomes extremely useful. Once you master a job, you gain that job’s innate ability, which is usually a stat buff of some sort, and switching to either Freelancer or Mime instantly gives the characters all of those skills. Then you can mix and match other skills from the jobs you’ve mastered as well to create your ultimate Light Warrior.
I don’t think I can overstate exactly how enjoyable of a progression system all of this is. It was so good, that 2012’s Bravely Default lifted it entirely almost verbatim, changing only how the fighting itself works. You can very easily use one job to overcome another’s weaknesses. For instance, the Dark Knight is all about sacrificing their own HP to deal potentially huge damage. But if you take the time and master the Mystic Knight, which is all about applying magic to regular attacks, you could apply the Black Magic spell Drain to your Dark Knight and gain some of the health back from your powerful abilities. There are loads of such combinations in Final Fantasy V, and the game is all the better for it.
I will say that with all this flexibility comes some frustrating elements, namely in bosses that are only really beatable with specific abilities and skills. It can be frustrating to have a team you think you’ve perfected, only to run into a boss that is seemingly immune to whatever play style you’ve adopted. And, like the third entry before it, certain jobs are absolutely better than others, although I do think the balancing is slightly better in this fifth game since it’s so malleable. This is offset by a fantastic end game, where you’re able to roam the world and get a whole bunch of bonus abilities, weapons, summons, and more before taking on the final dungeon. It’s a wonderful buildup that would go on to be perfected in the following entry.
There’s not a whole lot more to say about the fifth entry in the Final Fantasy franchise. Its story is as basic as they come, with only a few attempts to make it stand apart, and even though its enjoyable enough, the main selling point of the game is its fantastic and wickedly flexible job system. To me, this is the best of the series from a gameplay perspective. It puts players in control of how they build their party, rewarding their diligence and planning with potent skill combinations and plenty of worthwhile abilities to mix and match. It’s pure RPG perfection, and anyone that considers themselves a fan of the series, but have yet to check this entry out, owe it to themselves to give it a chance.