Review by emister

Reviewed: 01/09/04 | Updated: 01/17/04

Naked pictures of Exdeath inside!

I’ll do anything to attract a few readers.

Final Fantasy is a series that has come a long way. Spanning, as it has, four generations of consoles over sixteen years, we have seen some major changes in its presentation. Beginning with FF 7 for the PSX, there began a tradition of presenting each new release in the series with a bold and breathtaking visual style all its very own. Final Fantasy 7 began the trend of making these games something truly beautiful to behold in the visual sense.

Up until 1997 however, Square had been selling millions of copies of each Final Fantasy title without the use of the Play Station’s impressive graphical capabilities. They had succeeded in putting out 3 hits first for the Famicom, and later, 3 more for the Super Famicom. While steady improvements in the appearance of these games were made, by today’s standards, they all looked the same: squat little characters moved around on grid maps, roaming a flat world of cookie cutter mountain ranges and town icons, and fighting armies of motionless, palette-swapped enemies. The point of such a long sentence is that these games didn’t sell because they each had their own unique looks. They sold because of constantly changing gameplay mechanics and really interesting stories populated by great characters. It could perhaps be argued (somewhere else) that their rudimentary nature encouraged the player to (gasp!) use their imagination.

As the world waits for the 12th release in this massive franchise—a game sure to pack hours and hours of sexy, sexy cinematic cut scenes right next to 10 minute long (and tear-inducingly beautiful) summon animations—we take a look back to the one that exemplifies those simpler, pre-polygon days: 1992’s classic, Final Fantasy 5.
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Unlike its console siblings 4 and 6, FF 5 eschews a lofty story for an exceptional system of gameplay (not to say the other 2 aren’t fun to play!). The story is by no means bad, it just takes a detour that leads a little closer to predictable-ville and typical-town than the other two. The heroes of the tale are charged with the generic Final Fantasy hero-type task of being Light Warriors, and of protecting 4 crystals (ever the source of the Earth’s power) from being destroyed. They fail at first, but eventually succeed. Someone dies along the way, and it’s pretty sad. We’ve got some Cid, some airships, and a couple of memorable chocobos. There are some funny parts, some castles, a dragon or two, but all in all we have seen a lot of this before. The main difference between these Light Warriors, and their counterparts in 1987’s “Final Fantasy,” is all in the personality. Now, instead of, “Knight,” “White Mage” etc. from the avatar bargain bin, we have “battle hardened veteran from another planet,” “long lost princess turned pirate captain” and so on. The personality of the characters does much to add the flare of originality to what would otherwise be a rather standard plotline. And while I stick by calling the plot “standard,” I don’t at all mean bad. There are plenty of plot twists and dramatic moments, they just don’t warrant their own special, widdle section. FF 5’s story gets the job done like a veteran actor in the adult film industry: it’s just another day’s work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.

Along with storyline are the Siamese twins of the game’s utilitarian audio and video. We have Uematsu Nobuo on music again, and again, he doesn’t disappoint. No, FF 5’s score doesn’t compare to the “every color of the rainbow and then some” style of mastery we can find in Final Fantasy 6, but this is suitable. The story is not trying to be something it isn’t, and it would be strange for the music to shine above everything else. Instead we have a reliable core of tunes that stand up well for the game’s duration: a theme for melancholy situations, one for tense moments where speed is a must. These tunes do an adequate job of conveying the atmosphere dictated by the game’s events. But again, other than the rousing “Airship theme” and the series’ signature track of inspiration and victory (used very appropriately this outing during a time of great desperation), you won’t be singing these tunes in public six months after having beaten the game. Except for that airship music, hot damn!

FF 5’s graphics only support the idea that the meat of this game lies in its fantastic gameplay. As I mentioned above, the recent installments for more powerful hardware have become veritable all you can eat buffets for those starving from eye candy deficiency syndrome. In the days of the Famicom and Super Famicom, such displays were out of the question, and so even more focus went to providing an excellent story, complex characters, and an enjoyable play interface. When FF 4 hit in Japan, it sold almost one and a half million copies partially because it was the first game on new hardware, but it ALSO had significant graphical improvements over its predecessors. The amazing thing about FF 5 (and really a comment on the different nature of video games in America and Japan) is that it sold 1 million copies MORE than 4, but has nearly identical graphics.* This kind of phenomenon has never existed in the American gaming community. It is a love affair with familiarity and tradition in RPGs that occasionally borders on the manic. Dragon Quest’s (Japan’s most popular RPG series) most recent incarnation on the Play Station disappointed many American RPG fans with its far from ambitious graphics, but became one of Japan’s most top-selling games of all time precisely because it looked, sounded, and played like those before it and was HUGE to boot. Note that DQ 7 came out a year and a half after Final Fantasy 8 and around the same time as 9. Both of these FF games feature the newer style of “cutting edge” visuals: unique characters with high polygon counts, polished and intricately detailed fully-rendered backgrounds, lengthy and plentiful high quality CG sequences. DQ 7’s graphics, although allowing for a movable camera, are almost shockingly primitive for the year it was released (2000). They have often been compared to the quality of graphics used in RPGs from the early 90s. Nonetheless, Dragon Quest 7 not only sold more than either Final Fantasy 8 or 9, but went on to sell more copies than any other RPG in the Play Station’s history. Final Fantasy 5 is of the school of game that helped establish such a lasting trend in Japan. Character sprites, graphics on the overworld map, and battle animations, imitate FF 4 almost exactly. As such I won’t spend a lot of time describing them here. Needless to say, they are pragmatic, just like the game’s music, and its story. The most impressive graphical work can be found as may be expected during boss fights and spell animations: a tradition that continues in Square’s games to this day. Uniquely enough, each of the game’s five characters has 20 different “in battle” sprites depending on what job they have equipped. This amounts to a total of 100 unique character sprites, an impressive number that provides added variety and customization in battle.

So far though, this sounds like a pretty mediocre RPG, right? Well pull up your pantyhose, and get out the peanut butter. We are about to get into FF 5’s raison d’ etre: its fantabulously deep and scrumtubulously nummy system of gameplay. I will draw an analogy. The element of gameplay in this title is to its story, music, and graphics as a burly, sweating, whip-holding, madman is to the 3 terrified horses pulling his chariot. Take it for what you will, I just like analogies. The following bit gets a little technical. Deal.

So the game offers a job system. There are 4 characters in your party at one time, just like in the original Final Fantasy. Also like that game, you get to decide what job (but out of 20 this time, not 6) these characters will be. Unlike that game however, as I said before, each of FF 5’s four characters has a personality. This presents an interesting dynamic. In FF 4 and 6 you control a more elaborate cast whose members also have very clearly defined personalities. You cannot choose jobs for them though. Like it or not FF 4’s protagonist, Cecil, is a black knight. Locke, in FF 6 can’t help his thieving ways. FF 5 tried (and succeeded) to introduce the best of both systems: characters you care about because of their personalities that are ALSO basically blank slates to be developed with jobs as the player sees fit. The four characters are brought together in the game’s opening stages through a series of events. After that, in their quest to stop the four crystals from breaking, they receive jobs in sets of 4 or 5 at a time. Ironically, the jobs are acquired each time they arrive too late and the crystal shatters: the “essence” contained in each crystal shard passes on the “spirit” of each new job. (see, story’s kind of hokey)

Many people (including me) name this game as one of their favorite RPGs ever. The reason for this is in the brilliance of the Job system’s design. It is at once simple to understand, yet allows for near complete player customization, and also rewards experimentation. All of the characters can be any of the jobs (once they become available). Each job makes the character capable of different abilities in and out of battle and also influences their stats to a great degree. I remember thinking how cool it was when I figured out that if I gave a character in FF 7 a mastered “counter” materia, a mastered “cover” materia, and the “4X cut” materia, they would block attacks meant for other characters, attacking 4 times for each attack they countered, and also attack on their own turn, the result being abusively sick damage. Final Fantasy 5 is full of this kind of thing. The way it works is thus: each character has four command slots that allow actions in battle. Two of these slots will always be filled by “FIGHT” and “ITEM.” One of the remaining two slots will be filled by the “inherent skill” of whatever job the character has equipped. For example, the characters using the “Knight” job will always have the “Protect” skill as one of their four slots. This can be great if the job’s inherent skill is useful, but a pain if its not. The fourth slot is open. The player decides what other skill to throw in there, based on those they’ve already learned from other jobs, and this provides for the customization.

At the end of each battle, characters get the usual gold and regular old exp., but in FF 5 they also receive ABP (ability points). These points will cause them to progress in learning whatever job they have equipped with a final goal of job mastery. As characters gain points they go up in job levels, and just like regular exp. levels, higher levels take many more ABP to achieve. Skills particular to each job are achieved at certain levels with the more juicy skills naturally being doled out when the job is mastered. Once a character learns a skill, they are free to change jobs and keep that skill even without mastering the former job. So for example, a character could stick with the Knight job until level 3 at which point they will learn “2 hands” (a nifty skill allowing characters to hold a weapon with both hands and inflict double damage) and then become a Geomancer or whatever else. This brings us to an important point. Not all skills learned in all the jobs are equally useful. I found the above “2 hands” much more suitable to my style of play (which tends towards whooping ass) than say, the Ninja’s level 1 skill “Smoke Bomb.” It’s up to each player to determine which skills work best for them.

Another interesting side-effect of this system that can’t be overlooked is the way that characters become “burly.” In most RPGs, characters buff up as they gain levels: increases in strength and defense stats for the fighters and ditto for intelligence and magic defense for the mages. Not so in FF 5. The only numbers affected by gaining regular experience levels here are base HP and MP. Instead, when a character equips a job it gets statistical bonuses (and losses) unique to that job.* So someone switching over from Knight to Black Mage is going to notice a big drop in strength and max HP, but a boost to other more magish stats. In line with this, each job can only equip armor and weapons their job can use, to make sure the Black Mages have to keep wearing their cotton robes and feathered caps and what not. This all makes sense though. It is up to the player what jobs to assign, these stat effects and equipment limitations just make thoughtful strategizing a must in building a balanced party.

In fact, making a balanced party and learning how to use the system freely are all but demanded by the game’s fairly steep difficulty curve. As in the other two Final Fantasy titles for the Super Famicom, battling can be done using either the “active” or “wait” format. In active battle, the characters can act when a time gauge by their name fills up and they become “ready,” with the enemies attacking freely, (which means as often as possible). Thus, the tempo of active battle is fast-paced, fluid, and challenging. In the “wait” format, enemies will NOT attack until each of the player characters have taken their turn. The main point here is that during difficult battles, the player can take all the time in the world to plan their strategy, make a sandwich, or whatever. It should be noted that, the purest way to play this game is in active mode with the battle speed on its fastest setting. Hold on tight.

If the job system is the multi-hued palette from which the player paints, then the game’s many boss battles are the canvas on which the art of party-building is expressed. Compared to the bosses of either FF 4 or 6 (which, admittedly were not always a cake walk), the bosses of 5 can be a downright nightmare. The craft of the developers can be further enjoyed here, for in the game’s second half, it becomes painfully clear that if you haven’t put your time in learning the job system, you won’t be going very far. Early on, boss battles are standard, “massive-damage=victory” affairs. Soon however, confusing, multi-layered engagements appear. Main boss enemies are supported by multiple smaller “support” enemies that plague the party while protecting the boss. One boss fight has the player pitted against three monsters that have constantly rotating weak points. If one of them is hit with a spell they aren’t weak to, the three automatically counter with an especially devastating attack. This theme of punishing the player for using a faulty strategy is like the strict teacher who smacks poor students on the wrists with a ruler until they produce the right answer. In FF 5 there is destined to be a lot of wrist smacking.

Having salivated over pics of the first Final Fantasy in Nintendo Power prior to its release, I consider myself a bit of a series veteran. Nonetheless, in FF 5, my party was annihilated MANY times on my way to beating the game. Certain bosses wiped me out 5 or 6 times before I could proceed. This could be a secondary reason FF 5 didn’t originally make it to the states. It’s freaking hard. I would argue that this is another difference between certain games in America and Japan. Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Japanese version) has identical graphics and play mechanics to Super Mario Bros., but is obscenely difficult. The Japanese gamers wanted something like this, but it would have most likely discouraged American fans of the day. Similarly, FF 5 challenges the player to fully exploit the job system or pay the consequences. Many times it is more advantageous to switch the jobs of all characters before a battle, only for the purpose of exploiting a boss’s weaknesses and surviving its attacks. Also in typical Square style, the game’s most severe challenges come not from Exdeath, its “end boss,” but from two optional boss fights. Like the Emerald and Ruby weapons of FF 7, surviving an encounter with either “Shinryu” or “Omega” at the end of FF 5 will require crazy amounts of preparation, forethought, strategizing, and not a little luck.

The benefits of learning the ins and outs of this system though, are reaped horn of plenty-style somewhere near the end of the game. You see, the last couple elements of the job system, job mastery, and the existence of a “bare” or “no-job” class, put the icing on this most delicious of cakes. When characters master the jobs they are equipped with, not only do they have all the skills of that job to choose from in filling that crucial fourth command slot, but they permanently receive whatever stat or HP bonuses the job gave them. This then is where the “burly” lies. There is a job class known as “bare,” available to all the characters at any point in the quest, indeed it is the only choice available until they begin learning other jobs. The bonuses of choosing this bare class near the end of the game are overwhelming. Different from all the other jobs, the bare class has NO inherent skill and thus allows the player to choose TWO skills instead of the usual ONE. The bare class can also equip ANY weapon, armor, or accessory in the game. This makes such memorable characters as the double axe wielding Black Mage, or the combat ready Ninja/Dancer capable of powerful healing spells. After a number of jobs have been mastered, the stats are raised to the point where choosing the bare class is the obvious choice. The logical conclusion to such a system is that having a character master ALL the jobs (and not getting them to Level 99) will give them the biggest dose of “burly.”

This is one series that prides itself on the uniqueness of each of its titles. Unlike Dragon Quest, which up until now has been a best seller BECAUSE it has stayed the same, each FF title strives to present something previously unknown. FF 5 took this tradition of uniqueness and ran with it. Players get to explore a carefully made RPG world, maneuvering a cast of characters along all the tried and true paths of a classic plot. At the same time though, and this doesn’t happen so often, we get to slowly unravel a system of gameplay built with such obvious care and attention to detail, that when fully understood, is just as beautiful as the graphical masterpieces of today.

* sales figures for FF 4 and 5 taken from http://mypage.naver.co.jp/cecht/sq-to.htm

** refer to DConnoy’s excellent In-Depth “Job System FAQ” for a more detailed description (and strategies) related to this.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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