Review by Jonaco

Reviewed: 01/21/05

A forgotten gem

It's been said that the middle sibling has it the hardest. Familial attention is constantly being bypassed to the youngest (who is perpetually adored as "the baby," no matter how old they get) while respect and admiration are reserved for the life accomplishments and milestones of the oldest. Thus, the unfortunate middling, being born to that most forgettable caste of clan hierarchy, slips between the cracks into a lonely chasm of quiet neglect.

I'm not sure whether this is true of all families, but it is the case with Final Fantasy 5, the "lost sibling" of the SNES series. The game was not originally released in North America and perhaps might never have reached U.S. shores at all had it not been repackaged into "Final Fantasy Anthologies" for Playstation--a gesture designed to woo back Squaresoft fans following the company's defection to Sony. Since then, the game has garnered somewhat of a cult following from Final Fantasy fans and die-hards of the 16-bit era (which as far as game manufacturers are concerned, might as well be the cretaceous).

So after four more "Final" Fantasies crafted to accompany trends emphasizing enhanced graphics and live-action game-play, the distributors finally throw the old-schoolers a dino bone--but is it any good?

Why, yes. Yes it is. Not everyone will love it, but any RPG fan will appreciate that this game is, indeed, an overlooked classic. I can't help but feel a bit cheated that I could never appreciate FFV in its glory days, but at the same time the delayed release makes for a breath of fresh air in an age when RPGers are patronized with hollow imitators like Golden Sun, which try to "manufacture" a sense of nostalgia.

Now having said this, I'll admit that had I been working at Square when it was instructed by Nintendo to trim the fat of the Final Fantasy series to maximize sales in a potentially volatile U.S. market, I probably would have made the same decision they did a decade ago. Not that Five is somehow an embarrassment to the franchise (this is no Mystic Quest), but truth be told, the game truly is dwarfed by its sister projects. Final Fantasy 4 will always be remembered as the classic gaming experience of its time, a prototype that influenced all subsequent games of the genre, while FFVI is regarded by many, along with Chrono Trigger, as a magnum opus, the chef-d'oeuvre of the RPG renaissance in the mid-1990's.

Oh well.

Final Fantasy 5 begins as a formula save-the-crystals quest (thankfully the last time we're sold this cliché) and evolves into an epic struggle to stop the evil sorcerer Exdeath from destroying the world/enslaving the world/laughing maniacally at world (take your pick). Our party is a Charlie's Angels line-up of three pixelated princesses led by a wandering adventurer whose name in the original version was "Butz" (changed to what I guess they assumed was a much more American sounding "Bartz" for the second release).

I can't say the plot is phenomenal but it does have a kind of simple grace to it. As the game progresses, the player is slowly drawn into the developing storyline, with plenty of character back-story and thematic elements to explore. We learn of Lenna, the impassioned animal lover, torn by her attempt to kill a family pet in order to save her dying mother; and Faris, the gruff pirate, who hides her gender to earn the respect of her comrades. A good number of characters die in this game, and I would argue that on at least a few occasions the emotional struggle does permeate just past the 16-bit surface level.

Final Fantasy 5 is a very linear game, but it doesn't feel constrained in its play. The sub-quests are generally short and the game progresses quickly. It also has one of the most diverse array of "vehicles" I've encountered in an RPG. Besides your standard chocobo (and black chocobo), the game features a few hiryuu (a kind of flying dragon), a pirate ship, steamship, sailing ship, submarine and your mandatory airship, which converts into all three. The map is extremely versatile in crafting a false sense of a freedom. You acquire a ship, for instance, very early in the game, but you're confined to a sort of lagoon, with only a finite number of areas to explore.

There is precisely one innovation in this game worthy of note, and that's the resurrection of the Job System. Unlike most RPGs, each character in FFV is a "tabula rasa" (to quote John Locke), a blank palette with no innate abilities or unique strengths. Rather, you assign each one a "job", such as a "knight", "monk", "mage", etc, from which they learn various techniques and can equip certain weapons. What's really neat about this system is that you can combine abilities acquired from different jobs to customize the fighting power of your party. There are over 20 jobs in all, but the game is careful not to overwhelm the player with so many options all at once; rather, you acquire clusters of jobs incrementally throughout the game and can thus gradually learn effective combinations.

The score, which is classic Nobuo Uematsu, generally gets no complaints from me, with the glaring exception of Exdeath's theme, a ridiculous song that completely betrays the character's presence. Each time Exdeath appeared and that series of descending power chords played, absurdly, on a synth guitar, blared out from the speakers, I felt like I was confronting a Monty Python villain.

Overall, Final Fantasy 5 is a fairly balanced and even engaging RPG that falls just short of greatness. The game is an unripe fruit, unable to shed the tired plot conventions and formula gameplay of its predecessors; it is an experiment without taking much risk outside of a few nicely polished bells and whistles worthy of its modesty worn bronze medal. Still, put in perspective, this is a very solid game that I would recommend to anyone who is a fan of the genre.

We should all be able find some shelf room for this old classic. After all, it is still part of the family.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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