I Could Do This or This or This...
Final Fantasy V
Each game in the Final Fantasy series, at least through the NES and SNES era, feels like it's designed to show off something. The original game was a proof concept taking the ideas behind Dungeons & Dragons and (unofficially) bringing them to the NES. Final Fantasy II was designed to create a new system of play that wasn't beholden to the basic concepts of RPGs and, when that got weird, Final Fantasy III came along to say, "hey, ignore that last one... and also, JOBS!"
With the advents of the SNES, studio Square-EnixFormed from the unification of Squaresoft (home studio of Final Fantasy) and Enix (creators of Dragon Quest) this combined company is the largest game studios in the world. From action to adventure titles and, of course, JRPGs, Square Enix has become one of the biggest names in gaming. used Final Fantasy IV to push the series forward, to give one of the games a strong narrative while also letting it showcase the then-new hardware. That game felt like a revelation for gamers, especially in the U.S. where all we'd had was that first title and this game felt like that one but greatly expanded in every way. The series kept pushing and evolving, and while it took some concepts and reworked them it also always tried to reinvent and do something new.
In that regard, Final Fantasy V very much feels like an evolution of everything that came before. It takes the narrative momentum of the fourth title while evolving that job system again even further than when it was first implemented in the first game and refined in the third (and, like always, Final Fantasy II is ignored). This game very much feels like a proper sequel to the whole of the series, especially when you realize that after this everything was going to change.
The game opens with Bartz (Butz in the original Japanese game), a young adventurer who stumbles upon a quest when he comes near an asteroid crash site and befriends Lenna, daughter of King Tycoon and princess of the nearby kingdom. One of the four elemental crystals that guide the world, the Wind Crystal, was in danger and King Tycoon had rushed off to save it. Lenna, though, felt like she should do her part and ventured off on her own... only to get attacked by goblins and overwhelmed. Her rescue by Butz, and then their befriending first the wizened old man Galuf, and eventually the pirate Faris, sets the party of adventurers together on a quest to try and save each of the crystals of the world.
Of note, like the heroes in Final Fantasy IV who always seemed "just this late" to save the crystals before the villain of that game nabbed them, Butz and company have a similar fate: each time they get to a crystal, the villains (secret at first before eventually being revealed as Exdeath and his minion, and dude with amazing theme music, Gilgamesh) have already found some way to cause the crystal to shatter. Not to fear, though, as these crystal shards grant the heroes jobs they can perform, classes that can let them turn into any kind of warrior they so choose. As they collect these jobs, and explore two different worlds, the heroes have to find the power to defeat Exdeath and his cronies and save all of existence before it's wiped away.
When discussing Final Fantasy V, the key detail we have to discuss is the Job System. This is the big evolution from the game, taking the concept that was first evolved in Final Fantasy III and kicking it into overdrive. in that previous NES title, the heroes would gain new jobs from each crystal they saved, letting them become fighters and thieves, black mages and red mages, summoners and ninjas (and so on). That's still here, but the system has been rebalanced and expanded to make it all feel very different and much more interesting.
First and foremost, the redundancies of the job system in the NES title have been removed. There, you started with classes like Fighter, Black Mage, White Mage, and Monk, and then, at a certain point, you'd get evolved versions of the jobs that you'd change over to, ignoring the previous versions entirely. That made a certain amount of sense in that game as you had "job points" you could spend and if you wanted to change classes you had to have enough points saved up. Upgraded jobs were more expensive but very much worth the cost.
Those expendable points are gone, meaning jobs in this fifth game can be swapped on the fly (any time you aren't in battle). The redundancies are removed, too, because while Knights and Mystic Knights and Dragoons each seem to fill a similar hole in the party they also each provide their own benefits and reasons to use them (while classes that definitely were redundant, like Fighter, have been removed entirely). This way there's more reason to experiment with each class and find a combination of their abilities that work with your play style and will get your through the game.
Beyond that, though, each class has abilities that can be learned and carried over to other jobs. Berserkers, for instance, use axes and if you have a good axe you want to keep using you'll have to learn the !Use Axes ability. Once your character has that, though, they can swing that axes no matter what class their using, whether as a Knight or a Bard or a Black Mage. Some powers and abilities are so useful you end up keeping the associated classes rotating around each of your characters until everyone has learned it just so they all have that ability and can be even more ungodly in combat.
The game expects you to do this kind of experimentation, this mixing and matching of jobs and abilities, of using everything at your disposal just to get through the game. You can do well enough across the first world just using the basic jobs the Wind Shrine provides, relying on the basics of Knight and mages as if this was Final Fantasy I, but there will come a point where the bosses will throw a curve-ball at you and if you don't have the skills or abilities readily available to counter what the bosses are doing, or to get around their defenses, the game will mercilessly send you packing.
More than any other game in the series up to this point then, this makes Final Fantasy V kind of a puzzle-adventure title. Use, There were certain bosses in Final Fantasy IV that had certain weaknesses or attack patterns and knowing them made the bosses much easier. Even then, though, you could brute force your way through the battles. Don't expect to be able to do that here as, by the mid-game and beyond, the game will punish you if you can't learn the strategies for the bosses and know ways around them. It can be rewarding to figure out each of the bosses and know how to best them, but it can also be frustrating for a time as the game grinds your face in the dirt because you weren't on the same page.
And there are some jobs that just seem obtuse until you dive deep into guides and FAQs and find out just how important they can be. Some of them seem silly, like the Geomancer and the Dancer, but they you realize that they can summon special attacks or perform massive sword attacks and you realize their potential. Even more impressive is the Samurai, a character with the "Gil Toss" ability that literally throws money at the enemies to make them go away (through excessive damage). Or there's the Chemist who can combine two different potions from your inventory to create (often) very powerful buffs on the heroes. If you want a chance to defeat the final boss you very well could have to grind monsters for rare potion drops just so you can create these combinations and have an upper hand.
A lot of the game is there for you to explore and experiment with on your own, which is both liberating and kind of scary. More than any game in the series so far there's little hand-holding as to what you're supposed to do. Yes, there's a linear story but the game doesn't say, "while fighting this boss make sure you have two mages, a warrior, and a chemist." It expects you to know that, yes, but there's nothing in the game to tell you why you should or how that's the best combination this time around. That said, it really is so much fun to just be able to experiment like this and learn all about the party. You'll have to grind, and grind a lot, if you're going to make it through the two worlds of this game (and then then third, combined world) but it's really satisfying each time you find the right strategy, learn what you're supposed to do, and get that much closer to taking down Exdeath.
Part of me thinks it's an absolute pity this game didn't make it overseas when it was first released. Like with the second and third NES titles, Squaresoft made the decision to shelve this title after its Japanese release, in large part due to the quick development times between games and the fact that, in the West, Final Fantasy IV had only been out a short time (under the name Final Fantasy IV) before development already began on Final Fantasy VI. Instead of working to translate this game and its 22 different classes over for Western audiences, they instead re-branded Final Fantasy VI as Final Fantasy III and moved on with the franchise. It wasn't until much later, in the life cycle of the PlayStation, that the game came out in the West (packed with the sixth title) as Final Fantasy Anthology.
Weirdly for me, after the first game in the series this was the next title I actually got invested in. I didn't play the fourth title in the series until much later, but I really liked the creative combinations of this game and it struck a chord with me. This title had depth and a design that really was different from what had come before and I ended up spending hours on it trying to learn all its secrets. I wished it had come out on the SNES back in the day but sated myself quite thoroughly on it once I could get it on the PSO.
And yet I do have to agree that maybe this game wouldn't have done well with fans on the SNES in the West. It is tough, and it expects a lot of you, and it takes no prisoners. This is a game where you really want advice and assistance to parse it all, an Online community to discuss all the secrets the game offers. Now, with the Internet, this game has found a strong second life as fans Online discover it and play it together (and there are randomizers that extend its replay value even further). But back in the day, maybe this game would have been a little too obtuse for Western audiences -- we didn't have the spate of JRPGs on our systems like Japanese fans did, and that could have held this title back.
We have it now, though, and I'm glad it has become a winner for so many fans worldwide. It's more expansive than what came before but does still feel of-a-piece with the previous games. This is the last title in the series to carry on the basic aesthetic of the series, the last title of the main series the feel like a classic Final Fantasy game. After this, everything was going to change and the series was going to take off and become quite the phenomenon.