In the year 1987, a game developer called Square released a fantasy RPG titled Final Fantasy. According to legend, the game was so titled because this was Square’s last hurrah before going out of business entirely. The popularity of the four heroes of light and their journey to save the world singlehandedly brought Square back from the brink, and this was the beginning of a series which would last for fifteen numbered installations as well as a huge variety of direct sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and alternative media like films and manga.
In celebration of Final Fantasy and everything amazing the series has accomplished over the years, bloggers The Well-Red Mage and Overthinker Y have organized a retrospective, a mass looking-back where a number of bloggers dive into the series and share their nostalgia for specific titles. This grand event is called the Crystal Compendium! I have chosen to discuss my personal favorite of the (numbered) series, Final Fantasy V. So let’s dive right in and explore this rather quirky entry into the franchise!
Final Fantasy V is definitely an odd duck in the series. It falls between two of the most celebrated titles in the franchise, games which are often mentioned in arguments about which FF games are the best. Final Fantasy IV redefined what the series could do with storytelling and characterization, and Final Fantasy VI perfected that formula with its ensemble cast and grand scale. The fifth entry in the series, by contrast, seems a bit more lighthearted and goofy. It does not take itself nearly as seriously as its predecessor and successor.
I first played Final Fantasy V when it was released in the US on the GBA around 2006. The game was originally released only in Japan in 1992, with a Playstation port available in the US around 99. Of course, at that time I didn’t have a Playstation, so the GBA version was the first time that I personally was ever able to experience this particularly entry into the franchise. The game was nearly fifteen years old at that point, but hey, so was I – I gladly dove in, as I enjoyed other games in the Final Fantasy series and wanted to check this one out as well.
Final Fantasy V tells the story of a traveling warrior named Bartz and his trusty chocobo companion Boko. Through a series of coincidences Bartz meets Lenna, a compassionate princess; Galuf, a mysterious older fellow from space; and Faris, a gruff pirate. At the temple of the wind crystal, the four of them see the crystal shattered before their eyes and learn that the other elemental crystals are in danger. As each one breaks, the element associated with it will weaken and fail, slowly tearing the world apart. And if all four are shattered, a terrible evil will resurface after a long slumber. Taking up the shards left behind and absorbing their powers, the heroes set off to save the crystals and save the world.
If this sounds pretty standard…well, it is. As I said, Final Fantasy V didn’t set out to redefine the series like Final Fantasy IV before it. At least, it didn’t do so in the storytelling sense. What this entry lacked in brilliant narrative, it made up for in excellent new game mechanics. The job system incorporated by Final Fantasy V would go in to influence other titles in the series, and we have this game to thank for the basic skeleton of the job system in Bravely Default and Bravely Second.
Here’s how it works. Every time a crystal inevitably breaks, you obtain the shards of that crystal, which enable you to change your job. Each job has different qualities. Stats vary from job-to-job, as well as weapon and armor proficiency and unique abilities. Black mages, for example, are physically weak but very intelligent and have access to destructive magic. Meanwhile, warriors are powerhouses with a lot of weapon and armor options and helpful defensive abilities for their allies. Any character can take any job they want, and the jobs each have multiple levels of mastery. The more levels you master, the more of the job’s abilities you learn. And any learned abilities can be taken over to other jobs that you use, although each one has a main ability that you must have equipped at all times.
This mixing and maxing of job features allows for some serious character customization. Want a magician who excels not only at healing but also destruction? Get some levels in white mage and then change to black mage, carrying both types of spells on the same character. Want your wild and powerful berserker to carry two axes into battle? Train as a ninja first and master the ability to dual wield. The different combinations are limited only by your current job, as you must always have the main ability of a particular job equipped at any given time. This is where the freelancer comes in.
The freelancer job is the default job of all of your characters at the beginning of the game. You can equip any gear but you have no special abilities to speak of, and pretty lousy stats. However, as you master other jobs, the freelancer gets stronger. The freelancer automatically assumes the highest stat from every mastered job. So while it may start out slow, weak, and dull, by mastering the berserker, ninja, and sage, you’ll have a character with incredible stats across the board by the end of the game. And since the freelancer doesn’t have a main ability, you can equip any two job abilities that you have collected throughout the game. The freelancer job allows for the ultimate character customization, giving you the ability to combine the best features from your two favorite jobs while also giving you a massive boost to your stats and weapon skills. This structure rewards experimentation and investment in the game’s different jobs, encouraging you to explore to find the best job for each character.
When it comes to characters in the game, I always found Bartz and Lenna to be somewhat boring and standard. Much more interesting were Galuf and Faris. Galuf is a mysterious fellow, emerging from within a meteor and boasting a bit of amnesia (trope alert). Despite this, he was exceedingly powerful and driven to save the crystals. Faris, a mighty pirate captain, is first introduced to the party as a male but is later revealed to be a woman and the sister of Lenna. Faris’s journey to accept her identity as a princess despite her self-perceived lack of femininity is the most interesting character arc in the game. Even as a young man, the idea of a tough, scrappy female character who didn’t take trash from anyone really appealed to me. Although I would say that Square rarely pushes the envelope when it comes to female characters (I’m looking at you, Cindy. But not in a creepy way. Oh dear. This bit, it’s not stopping. This should have stopped by now. Someone save me), Faris is a great example of trying something a little different with the franchise.
One of my favorite characters in Final Fantasy V is a villain that would become a recurring character throughout the series: Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a servant of the sorcerer Exdeath for part of the game, but he really has his own agenda. This warrior is searching for the holy sword Excalibur, the most powerful blade in the world. If he could hold such a weapon in his grasp, he would be unstoppable. The heroes encounter him many times in their quest and he does find what he believes to be the holy blade. However, in an epic battle against the heroes, he discovers that he has actually stumbled upon a fake blade called Excalipur, so weak it can never deal more than 1 damage. Gilgamesh makes more appearances throughout the Final Fantasy series, and he is often in search of Excalibur. Just as often, he discovers Excalipur instead by mistake. He makes up for his bumbling nature with a really sweet theme song.
Honestly, looking back at Final Fantasy V, the music sticks out to me perhaps more than any other feature outside of the job system. My favorite is probably Gilgamesh’s theme Clash at the Big Bridge; while the original is certainly catchy, I love the more orchestrated versions that have been used in later titles. The final battle theme for the game, Decisive Battle, is also rather catchy, at parts slow and menacing while driving you to action as the song goes on. Of course, I actually prefer his usual theme The Evil Lord Exdeath, which is a bit more terrifying and really conveys that something powerful and terrible is approaching. There’s a song literally called What? which plays whenever someone is up to some mischief. It’s simple but fun and I can hear it in my head sometimes when weird stuff is happening.
Final Fantasy V may not have been the greatest game in the series from a critical standpoint, but for me the things that make it less of a “work of art” compared to the other entries are what truly make the game shine. I love that this game can laugh at itself and it doesn’t take any of the characters too seriously. I love that you have a turtle that eats pizza in his weird magic cave, a villain who mistakes a replica sword for the most powerful weapon in the world, an old man who always gets his comeuppance when he starts acting like a creep. These elements of the game made it endearing to me, particularly in a series where I tend to find the storytelling is working so hard to be grand that it actually becomes obtuse.
Maybe Bartz is a boring blank slate instead of a complicated antihero haunted by his past. Maybe Exdeath is as generic of a sorcerer-trying-to-take-over-the-world villain as you can find in the series. Maybe you can see all of the “big twists” coming from a mile away. That’s okay. Sometimes a guy just needs a game that’s simple fun, with solid mechanics and a few cool tunes. The fact that Final Fantasy V isn’t trying to make some huge statement or become the next masterpiece is what makes the game palatable for me, and to this day it is the only main series Final Fantasy in which I have finished the end of the game.
What about you, adventurers? Have you played Final Fantasy V? What are your memories with the game? Let me know in the comments below, and if you’re interested in reminiscing about other Final Fantasy titles, be sure to check out this hub article where you can find every piece for the Final Fantasy: Crystal Compendium. Thanks for reading, adventurers!