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.