Early in this project, I played through The Dawn of Souls version of Final Fantasy II. I consider FFII the most important game in the series in terms of deciding what the series identity would be. However, “Most important” is very different from “My favorite.” Indeed, while I respect FFII for having grand visions and establishing Final Fantasy as “That RPG Series That Would Always Try New Things”, its actual execution of those visions left a lot to be desired, even with the Dawn of Souls re-balancing. This is not the case with Final Fantasy V.
Much like Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy V was not released in the US until well after its 1992 Japanese release. In this case, while the game received a fan translation in the late 90s (Noteworthy in that it was one of the first games to get such a translation), its first official US release was as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology collection in 1999. This version is famous for a couple things, namely a so-bad-it’s-good translation (according to Ted Woolsey, it was a first draft of one of his first translation projects that was never revised before release) and loading times. Fortunately, both these issues were fixed with the Game Boy Advance re-release.
Released in 2006 and published in the US by Nintendo, Final Fantasy V Advance updates the Super Famicom version with some new content and some updated graphics. The story begins in the kingdom of Tycoon, where King Tycoon senses the wind slowing. Sensing something is wrong with the Wind Crystal, he rides off on his Wind Drake, despite pleas from his daughter, Lenna, to take her with him. Meanwhile, a man crashes to Earth in a meteor (Yes, really), while an explorer, well, explores. These elements all come together in an adventure spanning two worlds.
Let’s be clear here. While this is a Final Fantasy game, it’s not one of the entries in the series that you play for the story. No, the standout here is the gameplay. As you progress through the game, you’ll acquire crystal shards. These shards unlock classes, like Knight, Monk, Ninja, Black Mage, and so on. The neat thing is how these interact. Besides the traditional levels in a typical RPG, there’s a second system of advancement, Job Levels, that are class-specific. As you advance in job level, you acquire new abilities, and you can set a single one of these learned abilities to each character, in addition to whatever bonuses they get from their chosen class. Want a Monk that can cast black magic? Or a dual-wielding Berserker? How about a Samurai that can move on the map at double-speed? You can do all that, and more. There’s also a “Freelancer” class that gets the bonuses of any mastered classes, and can select two skills instead of one. It’s the interplay of these classes that gives the game a lot of replay value.
The coolest thing about this system is its depth. There are a lot of possible combinations in terms of both an individual character, and how your characters’ abilities interact with each other. Early on, you’ll find some neat combinations to power up your characters (Red Mage interacts well with pretty much any magic caster due to its Doublecast, and Ranger and Ninja can combine to get 8 attacks on a character, albeit at reduced strength). These combinations are a lot of fun, and more than enough to get you through the game. When you do some research into the other classes, though, you’ll find a couple in particular that don’t seem very good at first class, but turn out to be some of the best in the game when you dig deeper.
The system is so versatile that it’s given rise to a specific type of playthrough for charity, The Four job Fiesta. Go there for the full explanation, but the short version is that, in its most basic form, you’re restricted to using four jobs of the over twenty in the game. It does an excellent job of illustrating how basically every combination of classes has some way to beat bosses and win the game, although it’s not always easy (The Fiesta has been successfully completed with 3 Berserkers. In other words, without having control over 3/4 of your party, and not a whole lot in the way of abilities either). But there’s a community around the Fiesta, who will help brainstorm ways to help you get past the sticking point. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend trying the Fiesta as a first playthrough, but plenty of people have not only done it, but had fun with it.
As I mentioned earlier, the story is not the game’s strong suit. If you’ve played Final Fantasy IV, you’ll notice that the game hits a lot of the same broad plot points. But whereas FFIV tried very hard to have a deep and engaging story, pretty much shouting “Please take me seriously!” throughout, Final Fantasy V, in particular this translation, is more self-parody. There are numerous points where the game does everything short of flat-out stating “I know I’m ridiculous, now are you in or are you out?” And I’m all-in on the game’s ridiculousness.
The game’s visuals can be best described as “functional”. While some of the graphics have been updated here, the game is still visually closer to Final Fantasy IV than to Final Fantasy VI, which represented a substantial leap forward in the sprites in particular. Like the story, though, the visuals aren’t what you play the game for. The music in the game, despite the inferior GBA hardware, is strong, as it is with most Final Fantasy games. I say “strong” because, while I like pretty much all the music, most of it doesn’t “stick” with me beyond the game, with the exception of “Battle on the Big Bridge”.
Final Fantasy V is a long game, even if you know everything in it. For a first playthrough, it will probably take in the neighborhood of 30-40 hours to get through. For a point of reference, my first Four Job Fiesta playthrough this year, with a party of White Mage/BERSERKER/Beastmaster/Chemist, took me a little over 20 hours of game time, which was probably closer to 25 hours of real time. It’s a substantial investment, and worth whatever you pay for it.
In all, while it’s not as popular in the US as the “Big Three” of Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII, in my mind, this game can go toe-to-toe with any of those–my favorite in the series flips between this and IV, depending on how much I feel like indulging the latter’s desperation to be taken seriously on a given day. If you’d like to play this, the GBA version was never re-released, but you can try the best-worst translation that is the Anthology version on the Playstation Network. Additionally, a mobile version was released a couple years ago that, I believe, uses this version’s translation. However you play it, though, you won’t regret it, as all the translations have their strong points (The SNES fan translation is the most faithful to the original Japanese from my understanding, the PS version has its charms, let’s say, and the GBA/mobile translation is my personal favorite from a tone standpoint), so go grab it somehow if you like JRPGs at all.