Review by Flashman85

Reviewed: 07/15/08

Lots of problems, but enjoyable enough to play through.

Final Fantasy V was released in Japan back in 1992, but wouldn’t be seen on a Nintendo system in the U.S. until 2006, in the form of Final Fantasy V Advance. FFVA features a graphical update, a new translation of the game, a bonus dungeon and boss battle gauntlet available after its completion, four new jobs, a quick save function, and various other additions and changes. Now, I never played the original. However, I have played other Final Fantasy games, and I can tell you that, while it may be different from its Super Famicom predecessor, FFVA is often too similar to other games in the series for its own good.

First off is the premise: Crystals. Crystals that control the elements of earth, fire, wind, and water (sorry, no “heart”) and are keeping a big, evil bad guy locked away. Crystals that, if they shatter, will release the bad guy and toss the world into chaos. A band of four people, called the Light Warriors, fights to keep the bad guy from returning and achieving world domination. Sound familiar yet?

At least it’s not totally unoriginal. There are meteors and heroes of old thrown in to make the plot a little more unique, but there are several elements that you’ve probably seen before, especially if you’ve played FFII (IV) or FFIII (VI). There’s the “surprise” discovery that one of the characters is related to another one of the characters, and there’s a mini-boss who keeps coming back to fight you. Some of the enemies are taken from previous Final Fantasy games with little or no alteration. There’s the obligatory assortment of Chocobos, Moogles, legendary weapons (such as Excalibur and Masamune), airships, familiar summons (Shiva, Ramuh, etc.), and guys named Cid (well, just one guy named Cid, but anyhow…). One the one hand, there’s the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality about these elements, and they are, after all, hallmarks of the Final Fantasy series. On the other hand, too often these elements feel forced or feel like they were implemented because the designers were too lazy to think up anything original.

Let me clarify that sometimes these familiar elements do work well and that there are a good number of cleverly designed enemies and bosses, but my lasting impression of the game is that it’s some sort of melange of bits and pieces from other Final Fantasy games, leaving relatively little that seems genuinely unique. Of course, FFIII (VI) did come after FFV, so I can’t criticize FFV for stealing anything from FFVI on. If anything, I could criticize more recent games for reusing stuff from FFV. Still, play enough Final Fantasy games and you’re bound to feel this way about at least one of them. For my part, I played FFIV and FFVI first, saw them as two very different games with only a few similarities, and expected FFVA to be equally as different, rather than a very logical progression of how FFIV led to FFVI (through a bunch of reused ideas with enough new ones that eventually made it into the next game).

What does make this game different is its job system. Each character can be assigned a job (perhaps better known as a “class”) that affects his or her stats and abilities. More and more jobs are unlocked over the course of the game, allowing you to choose from the basic jobs found in the original Final Fantasy (Thief, White Mage, Black Mage, etc.) as well as jobs used by characters in other Final Fantasy games, such as Summoner (Rydia from FFIV) and Ninja (Shadow from FFVI). Jobs may be changed from the menu screen at any time, so you can constantly customize your party. So, you could have a team of all Red Mages for one battle and a team with a Knight, a Dragoon, a Bard, and a Gladiator for the next.

You gain Ability Points (ABP) from battles; when a character gains enough ABP, a new ability is unlocked. These abilities, which range from finding secret passages to occasionally counterattacking when hit, can be used with any job after you’ve learned them. So, you might have a brawny fighter who can use healing magic or a sword-toting mage. The job system with its interchangeable abilities allows for an enormously customizable RPG experience, and the fact that there are 26 jobs and 118 abilities to unlock means that there’ll be more than enough leveling and adjusting to keep you busy.

Of course, the job system isn’t perfect. It’s great, and I happen to think it’s the game’s strongest feature, but it’s flawed. For starters, several of the jobs are terrible. There’s a Berserker class that causes you to lose control of your character so that he or she does nothing but attack random targets (taking longer to attack than usual, I might add), with no benefit other than that the damage dealt is a little higher than normal. Some jobs are clearly more useful than others, and some jobs are totally worthless except for the abilities they grant, but some of the abilities are pretty lousy (such as the Berserk ability gained from the Berserker job). Some of the jobs had a lot of promise but never lived up to what I thought was their potential, such as the Bard, who sings songs to affect the enemy or boost the party in some way, but whose songs as often as not require you to give up control of the character for the effects to work.

The other problem with the job system is that it’s all too easy to be caught totally unprepared when facing a boss fight. Now, I fancy myself a seasoned RPG player and something of an excellent battle strategist, and I take great pride in the fact that there are few RPGs that require the use of more than two or three fingers to count the number of times my entire party was wiped out.

FFVA is an ugly, ugly spot on my permanent record.

One of the worst aspects of FFVA is that you can enter a battle with a party that you think is perfectly balanced or incredibly strong, only to find that you don’t have the abilities or the equipment you need to win, or at least run away. There are many factors that contribute to this problem. First, from a statistical point of view, the sheer number of different jobs and abilities available makes it unlikely that you’re always going to have an effective party against any given enemy, especially when you’re using one of the lame jobs because you want the cool ability it grants or because you just don’t know any better.

Second, there is seldom any indication of what any given battle will entail: One unassuming treasure chest in the final dungeon holds a monster that unleashes a devastating water attack in the first round that will assassinate your entire party unless you have an item equipped that absorbs water damage. No warning about this, just surprise death. Sure, one can always go back and try again, but if I wanted to continually die while trying to figure out the specific technique required to beat each new boss, I would have played Mega Man instead.

Third, there are some serious issues with running away from battles: sometimes you can run away almost immediately, and sometimes you’ll be attempting to run for several rounds with no idea of if it’s even possible to run away. There’s a Flee ability that guarantees a retreat from battle, but why waste a precious ability slot on that when there’s a normal Run command that presumably works?

Here’s a prime example of this: I’m exploring a peaceful castle and I talk to a person who warns me of a dangerous creature called a Jackanapes. I also talk to someone who tells me that the water in the castle keeps monsters away. So, imagine my surprise when I enter the castle basement--which is filled with water--and encounter a Jackanapes, which is really too powerful for any wise party to consider fighting at this point. Long story short, I run into one, manage to run away from it with minimal casualties, spend several rounds attempting to run from another Jackanapes I encounter on the way back to the exit, and die because I somehow can’t escape this time. Not cool.

I have numerous complaints about the rest of the game, many of which stem from what seems to be poor planning. In the later part of the game especially, those battles which are impossible (not exaggerating) without the proper jobs, abilities, and equipment are excessively easy when you come in prepared. This is due in part to a few abilities that are grossly overpowered, most notably one called Rapid Fire, which allows you to make four attacks in one round.

That on its own is powerful enough, but when you consider that the Monk and Ninja classes grant you the ability to attack twice per round (with two fists or two weapons, respectively), all of a sudden that Rapid Fire ability allows you to attack EIGHT times in one round. Add to that weapons that are extra-effective against the kind of monster you’re fighting, and you can deal something like 10,000 to almost 80,000 damage to a single target in one round. And that’s just for ONE of your party members. Knowing the trick and the abilities/equipment necessary to defeat any given boss is still key, but when you consider that the most powerful enemies in the game have between 50,000 and 65,000 HP, the challenge all but disappears when you know what you’re doing.

My problems with the game don’t end there. Many of the names just sound silly. Bartz, Galuf, two of the heroes. Say them out loud. Exdeath, the villain. Sounds like an Eddie Izzard joke. (“Yes, he’s an Executive Deathvestite.”) The characters lack character, despite whatever background they may have been given: the main character is generic main character fodder, the pirate captain starts off interesting but loses most of her personality by the end of the game, the princess is either reckless or foolish but mostly bland, the old man who’s actually entertaining isn’t in your party the entire time, and the little girl is… well, she’s a little girl. There's nothing special about the villain; he's trying to take over the world, and he takes every opportunity he can get to do his evil laugh. The supporting characters aren’t much help either, but do sometimes manage to coax out mild interest because of their quirks.

When important characters talk, their portrait appears next to their dialogue, except the pictures don’t always match the sprites. Oh, well. Still, I will give credit to the way their dialogue is written. Even if the characters aren’t always interesting, they do usually have a distinct voice; for instance, the pirate captain does indeed sound like a pirate. There’s even a surprising amount of humor, and I laughed out loud more than once at things that were said.

However, there are times where even well-written dialogue can’t disguise the fact that the plot is weak, driven by a string of “go here, do that, bring this back” quests that fail to create a sense of urgency in saving the world, and that make each location feel more like just another destination than a part of an interconnected world. Much of what happens along the way seems unnecessary or borderline absurd; for instance, I clearly remember a certain creature dying in a cutscene and characters mourning over it, yet it apparently survives and you encounter it later. And let’s not forget about the inexplicable talking turtle.

Then, there’s the music. With the exception of only a few songs (which, I might add, are pretty super), everything sounds like the leftovers from FFIV that weren’t quite good enough to make the cut. The music isn’t bad, but like most of the characters, it’s not memorable. The sound effects are decent and only started to wear on me at the very end of the game after hearing them so many times, but the sound quality is noticeably better and less grating on a Game Boy Player.

The game is also disappointing to explore. Dungeon layouts are very good, but most of the towns and castles look alike, and many of them aren't even set apart by new shopping opportunities. Furthermore, every time you’ve explored an area as much as you can, a new mode of transportation or a new route is opened to you. Suddenly, you have an airship and can visit all of those places you could never visit! …All two of them. Some clever and intriguing things happen to the overworld map, which is great, but the thrill of exploration is dampened by the fact that there’s seldom anything new to explore.

New monsters are typically encountered while exploring, but I can cite several occasions where you get new weapons that actually heal one or more of the enemies you face directly afterwards. It’s fine from time to time to have an enemy that absorbs fire damage from your fire sword, but it’s not fair to buy lightning swords for your sea voyage, only to find that the monsters you keep encountering absorb lightning damage! It’s annoying to get a brand-new weapon and be unable to use it without totally changing around your battle tactics, and it happens more than it should.

Simply dealing with any equipment can be a pain. There's a ribbon that protects you from status ailments, but its defensive power is much lower than some of the helmets available. Most of the later weapons affect more than just how much damage you can deal, so do you go for the sword that boosts your magic power or the sword that occasionally blocks physical attacks? You need to reequip every time you change jobs, and because there are very few clear-cut "best" equipable items, a lot of valuable adventuring time gets spent deliberating over equipment.

On a technical level, there’s something wonky with the timing of battles, where everything will come to a complete halt from time to time and then suddenly resume. It's minor, but it's vexing. Also, the battle options aren’t quite customizable enough to make Active battle mode (where enemies don’t wait for you to take your turn to attack) feasible at higher battle speeds when trying to manage a big list of spells or special attacks, but that’s more minor.

And, on the subject of battles, the random battle rate is excruciatingly high. This can be downright obnoxious when exploring a large dungeon, especially if you get a little lost, but it’s excusable because random battles mean Ability Points, and Ability Points mean (hopefully) exciting new abilities. However, after mastering every class (and that takes a lot of doing), battles become tedious to the point of boredom, and the bonus dungeon that appears after beating the game becomes an ordeal that almost does not seem worth the time.

The tasks you must perform to proceed in the bonus dungeon are reasonably clever, but the recycled backgrounds and prevalence of forced or accidental backtracking leads me to believe that only enough effort was put into the bonus dungeon to grant the illusion of there being any substance to it. After the bonus dungeon, all that’s left is an area with one boss battle after another with bosses you’ve already conquered, and by that point in the game you should be more than powerful enough to trounce all of them without breaking a sweat. It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t add much value. Strangely, the final job becomes available after beating the bonus dungeon, but what’s the point in mastering it (for non-completionists) for a series of easy battles that should take around 15-30 minutes? Just more filler to pad the bonus material, I guess.

FFVA is far from perfect, but there is enough there to make it worth playing. As I mentioned before, some of the battles are creative, and some of the elements (quick save, summons, the neat stuff they do with airships, etc.) work well and are good fun. The dialogue is amusing (but it might be a little too fluffy or silly for some people). The backgrounds and the battle animations look very good, and the monsters and some of the character designs are done well, though I question the dorky costume choices for some of the jobs. Though flawed, the job system is engaging and rewarding enough to forgive or at least alleviate problems affiliated with the frequency of random battles and a weak plot. The music is underwhelming but unobtrusive, and a few of the tracks are gems. The jobs contribute most to the replayability factor, but completionists will appreciate the hidden/rare items and bestiary. It’s portable and will probably take you 30-60 hours to complete, depending on the circumstances, and that's not too shabby.

I was so often unimpressed or frustrated with FFVA that I’m inclined to give it a lower score, but the fact remains that it was agreeable enough to warrant playing through the entire thing, bonus material and all. Its faults don’t ruin the game as much as prevent it from being so much better, and the issues I have with its similarities might be immaterial. In the end, FFVA is worth playing; it’s a good choice if you’re on the go and need something to keep you entertained for a long while. But, if you’re just looking for an RPG, you might wish to consider something else first.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: Final Fantasy V Advance (US, 11/06/06)

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