Review by NT220

Reviewed: 04/04/02 | Updated: 01/25/03

The game that shattered my dislike for Final Fantasy

Before Final Fantasy Anthology was released for the PlayStation, Final Fantasy 5 was mythical among those who know of it in the West. It's not too surprising: not only was it announced and cancelled no less than three times for a US release, FF5's translation was also one of the first famous translation patches in the emulation world. Those who have played it via emulator ceaselessly taunted the law-abiding gamers with endless praise and breathless superlatives for the ''most addictive Final Fantasy''.

But when a legitimate Western version finally came along, seven years after the Japanese release, Final Fantasy 5's legendary status was rudely brought down. In a series most famous for epic plotlines and memorable characters, Final Fantasy 5 has you play as a team of inch-tall sprites which embark on a quest to stop Mr. Big Evil Villain from taking all the crystals. But wait - Final Fantasy 4, still regarded as having one of the best plotlines in video game history, contains a similar premise. A simple generalization can't indicate quality. Allow us to examine the game as you will experience it, right from the beginning.

The game begins with a series of seemingly random cutscenes. You'll see Lenna, princess of the Kingdom of Tycoon, saying good-bye to her father as he leaves the castle. You'll see Faris, leader of a band of pirates, remarking that the wind has stopped blowing. You'll see a badly pixilated meteor crashing down on earth (thanks to the SNES's ''amazing'' mode 7 effects!) and an old man standing by the meteor, named Galuf, also commenting on the wind stopping.

Finally you'll see Butz, hero of Final Fantasy V. Butz is a lonely traveler wandering around on his chocobo (an ostrich-like bird that is featured in almost every Final Fantasy game in existence). Butz had just happened to be near the meteor site, and he investigates out of curiosity... just in time to fight a battle with two goblins attacking Lenna, who was also near the meteor when it crashed.

Final Fantasy 5 uses the same battle system as both its successor and predecessor. When a battle begins, each character has an ''active time bar'' that will fill up at a speed determined by the character's agility stat. When a character's bar is full, you can then have the character fight, use an item, or perform some other action. Meanwhile, the enemies are doing the same; you must be quick with commands, or enemies will attack you relentlessly while you waste time on indecision. Luckily, you have the option to freeze time when you're in an item or magic menu, sparing you from endless beatings when you're desperately trying to find one of your items in your inventory.

To be honest, though, the first hour or so of Final Fantasy 5 is nothing but sheer tedium. In battle, you furiously mash the A button and watch your characters perform regular attacks - Fight and Item are the only two commands available to you. Out of battle, you watch mind-numbing plot sequences that lack any originality or insight. Things finally pick up, though, when you reach the top of the Wind Shrine and the Wind Crystal shatters.

The crystal is shattered, but the pieces lends the heroes its powers. Each shard you pick up will give the party a ''job'' they can use. Jobs are equipped to party members, changing their abilities, strengths and even appearance. For instance, if you equip Butz with the Knight job, he will be able to use swords, shields and heavy armor. His physical strength will receive a major boost and his magical prowess will suffer a big hit. In battles, he will take on the appearance of a knight and be able to use the ''Guard'' ability, which will make him take no damage from physical attacks. Change him to a Black Mage, and he will only be able to equip rods, knives, and robes. He will lose physical strength and gain magical power. He will be able to use all black magic you have bought, and in battle he will appear as your typical Final Fantasy black mage, with the pointed hat and obscured face.

The job system does not merely allow a character to use only the abilities a job grants him. After each battle, you will gain Ability Points or ABP; gaining enough ABP will make you gain a job level, learning one of the abilities a job has to offer. You can then use the ability regardless of job. For instance, if Lenna equips the White Mage job and gains a skill level, she will learn the ability ''White L1'' which will allow her to use any level 1 white magic you have bought (each level of magic includes three spells). Other abilities will allow you to equip powerful armor, walk around towns and dungeons at twice the speed, and cast two magic spells in one turn. But of course you can never use every ability you learn in the same battle: all jobs have one ''innate'' ability that you're stuck with until you change jobs, leaving only one empty slot for a custom ability.

The scores of combinations you can make with jobs and abilities give you a degree of freedom rarely. Final Fantasy 5 multitudes of different strategies for playing through (No two FAQs give the same boss strategies) thanks to the hordes of different abilities to try out. You have everything from the typical black and white magic to more exotic attacks such as the Trainer's ability to catch monsters and release them, making them do one attack for the party just like a summon spell. The best abilities are often found in the most unlikely of jobs: bards are the laughingstock of RPG warriors, but it turns out that their Love Song is one of the cheapest attacks in the game, paralyzing all enemies at once. Trial and error is the only way to know what a monster released by a Trainer will do - but nothing beats the surprise of seeing that your captured monster just preformed a spell that you're not supposed to learn until late in the game.

While the gameplay picks up, though, Final Fantasy 5's plot never does. The story is not something that will keep people awake at night trying to figure it out. Ex-Death, who fills the role of Mr. Big Evil Villain, shows that evilhood can be boring. Never will you feel any sympathy towards him, but never will you find yourself hating him, either. While a fair amount of backstory is unraveled through a multitude of flashbacks, it's difficult to summon the energy to care. Butz's past, if properly executed, rivals that of any other Final Fantasy hero, but in the end his story is simply a distant memory of no bearing. In fact, the entire game's story carries little weight; events occur, imminent destruction threatens the world, and the threat is inevitably banished.

But it's not all bad. In Final Fantasy 5, you will never lose all interest in the game due to an especially unappealing plot twist, or stare at the screen in mortification as the game kills off a favorite character and sticks you with a despicable one. Melodrama is kept to a minimum, and no cringe-inducing lines are ever uttered. Characters you play as are always lovable (if shallow), and you will never be given any reason for mercy towards the ones you must kill. Like it or not, FF5's story never becomes the game's fun; it's there merely to give a purpose (however weak) to the enjoyable time you'll have.

And trust me, the gameplay is more than enough to provide an enjoyable time. I used to scoff at the idea that an ability system could make a game interesting, but this game proves me wrong. The dungeons are fairly long, and the encounter rate is on the high side, but I'm glad for this - with so many skills to learn and so many jobs to master, how can I ever complain about getting into a battle? It seems silly, but when I finally learned X-Magic, an incredible ability that nevertheless requires you to gain 1159 ability points with a rather subpar job equipped, I actually felt a wave of gratification - along with relief, since I won't have to bear with that terrible Red Mage job any more. Thanks to the scores of options, replayability is through the roof - there's no way you're going to use every ability to its fullest potential in just one play through

The battles are also reasonably quick and hassle-free, and the learning curve is perfect. Doubtlessly those who lack imagination in making ability combinations will find Final Fantasy 5 an incredibly frustrating experience; however, once one learns to switch jobs and experiment often, it turns out that the enemies actually strengthen at a gentle pace. This approach also extends to the dungeons; while they will never rival that of a Lufia II or even a Zelda, they are not totally brainless and linear affairs either. You'll surely get lost a few times, but never do things seem hopeless. At each dead end comes a memory of a branching path you've never tried, or a secret passage you've ignored.

Unfortunately, the aesthetic aspects of FF5 can stand quite some improving. The graphics look a lot cleaner than FF4, but the quality of the sprites has not made much improvement. Towns and battle backgrounds retain the drab, variety-less look for the most part, and enemies are only slightly improved upon. Each character does have a different battle sprite for every job, though, and the variety is quite refreshing. The music in the beginning is thoroughly forgettable, but it picks up towards the middle of the game and delivers some decent songs. Still, though, you should not come into this game expecting anything more than functional graphics and sound.

But screw the aesthetics. Final Fantasy 5 is a game to play. Recognize that, and ceaseless fun will follow. With decent length (my first playthrough was 35 hours) and excellent replay value, it is more than enough to justify a purchase (along with Final Fantasy VI) of Final Fantasy Anthology for the PlayStation. Or you may prefer to use an emulator and a patched ROM, losing the feel of playing on a real television but gaining the advantage of no load times. Either way, prepare yourself for an endlessly enjoyable and straightforward quest - not an astounding display of cinematic quality.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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