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Games You Forgot to Play: #1 Final Fantasy V

These days, games are released in overwhelming waves of high-profile anticipation. It's hard to keep up, and even harder to remember all the titles you intended to play but never got around to. My new recurring series, "Games You Forgot to Play," will look at severely worthwhile titles you might have missed out on--by no fault of your own.

First up: Final Fantasy V.

Why you forgot:
The saga of Final Fantasy V's localization spans six years and numerous failed attempts at bringing the title to North American audiences. The title was initially supposed to be what we received as "Final Fantasy III," but when translation efforts fell through three separate times, the game was abandoned and Final Fantasy VI was ported under that name. Rumors that Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest replaced Final Fantasy V are untrue: MQ was released in America three months before FFV was released in Japan. Their only relation in this matter lies in the belief that American audiences would not entertain a "hardcore" RPG--where Mystic Quest was intended to offer an easy transition for non-RPG gamers to the genre, Final Fantasy V was dubbed "inaccessible" to the "average gamer," making an abandonment of its NA translation easier to go through with.

When Final Fantasy V finally did make it to North American shores in 1998, six years after its initial debut, it was in the disappointing Final Fantasy Anthology PSX port. Load times, translational errors, and a multitude of glitches left gamers with an inferior title which did not seem to deserve Sakaguchi's favor.

Finally, in 2006, an acceptable version of Final Fantasy V was released on the Game Boy Advance during the great SNES porting of 2004-2007. A significant number of previously unavailable, or difficult to find, RPGs were released on the handheld system--including Final Fantasies IV, V, and VI in 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively. Unfortunately, by this point it was a basically a matter of "too little, too late." Most gamers who had wanted to play these scarce titles had found other means to do so long ago, or had forgotten they were ever interested in them at all. By the time these titles were ported yet again, we knew that Final Fantasy IV would be remade on the DS, totaling its 'official' system availability at four. In the hubbub of all the ports, remakes, and general "old game money-grubbing," the excitement of getting to play a remarkable version of the 14 year-old Final Fantasy V was lost.

Why you're being reminded to play it:
When I remembered Final Fantasy V, I was extremely hesitant to play it. I knew that 1) it was a heavily job-based system and 2) I hated Final Fantasy Tactics. At the time, all job system-specific experiences I had were in FFTactics, and that did not bode well for this mysterious title from the past.

Of course, the games are nothing alike. FFV is strictly a console-style RPG reminiscent of its SNES siblings, while Tactics is an atrociously slow turn-based Strategy game. It obviously has its audience, though--that just doesn't include me.

FFV has a particular audience, as well. Any character development, plot, depth, and general storypoints you enjoyed and admired in other Final Fantasy titles are nonexistent here. For Ted Woolsey to have called the game "not accessible enough to the average gamer" is absurd: that's like saying Tetris is not accessible to the average gamer. It's entirely gameplay-centric. I can barely remember the five--yes, there are only five--characters' names, they were so inconsequential as relatable people. The 14 names of Final Fantasy VI are second-nature at this point. Of course, those characters' stories had a place and purpose in their game. Bartz / Butz, Galuf, Faris--and the other two--are merely husks which I can fill with job abilities and battle talents.

And that's the true joy of Final Fantasy V. The Job System is an absolute treat, offering a constant reward and customization in a series which often demands grinding and long spans of blind faith that your invested time will meet some sort of return. Though subsequent titles in the series utilize an adapted Job System, none are as pure and comprehensively designed as Final Fantasy V's.

In Final Fantasy VI, each character essentially represents one of the Job classes---Locke is a thief, Strago a blue mage, Sabin a monk, etc. Despite this, all the characters still end up being generally interchangeable, thanks to always-available magic and directly controllable stats (via leveling up with Espers). In Final Fantasy V, you have to sacrifice specific abilities to utilize others. A character who has mastered all of the different types of magic--white, black, time, blue, summon--will still only be able to take three varieties into battle. The next game in the series to require such specific customization choices was Final Fantasy VIII.
"But I look so good in white."

This doesn't mean your characters are underpowered. Freelancers develop all the innate characteristics of the jobs they have mastered and can equip any in-battle support actions. Innate job talents include the ability to equip certain weapons and armor, the ability to sprint and see secret passageways, and maintenance of stat bonuses. When not using a Freelancer, (which will be most of the game while you level up jobs and gain new talents), characters have to equip these learned abilities specifically if they are not playing the specific class. So, if you're about to enter an area heavily populated by winged enemies, you probably want some characters to use bow and arrows. They'll need to be at level 3 in the Ranger class to do so, if they are not playing as Rangers specifically.

Another great aspect of FFV is that its "bonus" abilities are extremely useful, unlike many talents in Final Fantasy VI. Things like "Sketch" and "Dance" in FFVI were interesting to watch, but ultimately useless in battle. But the Dancer class in FFV is a heavy-hitter, with regular insta-kills and the opportunity for characters to equip essential items, such as the much-beloved Ribbon. Selecting your battle line-up later in the game is challenging because there are so many worthwhile actions clamoring for a spot.
Like this. Setzer was apparently throwing chocolate coins, because the real things hurt like hell.

The grahpics are an expected between-state of FFIV and FFVI. The character sprites are the same as FFIV, small and lacking detail, while the backgrounds and environments are stepped up, more closely resembling the lush world we experience in FFVI. The true aesthetic joy, though, lies in the music. Final Fantasy V boasts some of the most enchanting and memorable songs to grace the series. Gilagmesh's theme ("Clash on the Big Bridge") is probably the catchiest and most adrenaline-pumping FF song to date. "Pirates Ahoy!" sets the theme for a grand adventure, and has string sections that offer a reminder of the whimsical Secret of Mana. "Cursed Earth" is one of the songs reprised for a role in Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon and it deserves this prominence. It's foreboding yet bizarre, highlighting the terrifying yet unexplainable events that are destroying the heroes' world. "Dear Friends" was the track adapted as the theme of Uematsu's orchestral Final Fantasy concert, and yes, it is from Final Fantasy V.

Of course, a number of the tracks are nothing special or are reiterations of work we've already experienced. As a whole, the OST is not the series' best, but it will keep you entertained and occasionally dabbing your eyes while enjoying what is the game's true masterpiece: its battle system and gameplay.

If you play the Final Fantasy series and other RPGs for their characters, plot, and depth, you shouldn't worry about your Final Fantasy V amnesia. It's a game best left forgotten.

But all gamers who want to experience a severely polished battle system, enjoy leveling and building characters, and look forward to their next good fight should take their ginkgo biloba and find a copy of Final Fantasy V. And really, gameplay is the difference between an interactive movie and a game: this doesn't make a very good story, but it is an amazing video game.


  1. Blogger Joey | March 3, 2010 at 11:20 PM |  

    I think America's high unemployment might give this title a chance for a resurgence.

    I know I don't have a job, and the idea of being able to have multiple jobs is super appealing.

    Then again...no job means no munnies. That resurgence might not happen afterall

  2. Blogger Jillian | March 4, 2010 at 8:04 AM |  

    You don't think it would cause undue hostility towards the characters, though?

    "Oh, you're a Black Mage, Red Mage, AND Time Mage? You think you're better than me? I'm just not going to hit A for awhile and watch you get pummeled."

  3. Anonymous Anonymous | August 22, 2010 at 8:32 AM |  

    I struggled with FFV. I picked it up for the GBA a few years ago but it never really pushed my buttons. 6 on the other hand..! Is that too obvious of me to say?