The original plan for this series was supposed to be that I’d play the game a couple hours, then write up my thoughts on what’s going on in the story. I thought it was a decent strategy for organizing my previous gaming series, but I forgot that all of the other retro games I’ve played are from the latter part of the ’90s and were originally designed for the original Playstation (Chrono Trigger notwithstanding). Those games were all developed in a period where expansive stories were part of the bread and butter of making popular games, especially RPGs. Final Fantasy V was originally released on the Super Famicom in 1992, and it’s nestled firmly in a period when RPG plots rarely got more complex than roughly sketched out fetch quests.
All that’s to say that I’m ten hours into the game at this point, and the major plot developments go like this: Faris is a woman and Reina’s long-lost older sister; Galuf is slowly regaining his memories and now knows that he was sent from another planet to try to protect the Crystals in order to stop the resurrection of the evil sorcerer X-Death; Bartz’s father appears to have a connection to Galuf somehow; three of the four Crystals have shattered; and our heroes have an airship.
I’ve been playing the game for ten hours, and I just summarized the important plot points in less than thirty seconds. This is an extremely thin story.
There are a few characterization things that are worth noting, like the detail of Faris’s hiding her identity as a woman. The accepted explanation is that because she was adopted by pirates from a young age, she thought she’d be better respected if she pretended to be male; considering this is a fantasy setting where aliens travel through space by hitching rides inside meteors, I think the writers could have done a bit more than lean on sexist tropes about sailors and Faris’s inner femininity (before the reveal that Faris is female, there’s an optional scene in a town where she’s gotten her own room separate from the rest of the party, and Galuf and Bartz, who drop in to check on her while she’s asleep, become aroused at the sight of the sleeping Faris, prompting all kinds of confused feelings for the men), but perhaps I’m asking too much from a game that was written twenty-five years ago in Japan.
Of course, Faris’s characterization simply stands out as the most problematic by more modern storytelling standards, but in terms of attention she’s not treated significantly differently from the rest of the cast. All four of the heroes have incredibly bare personalities with only one or two motivations put in place (Bartz wants to see the world, Reina wants to find her father, Galuf wants to get back his memory) and the smallest smattering of details (Galuf gets the most attention, probably because his concept of the amnesiac, tough, old guy offers the most opportunity for comedy in the game’s limited storytelling engine).
Despite the limitations of the storytelling, the game continues to be enjoyable, largely because of its ambitious Job system. I’ve always liked Final Fantasy‘s Job framework, and where Final Fantasy V shines is in its early attempt at making a character customization system with some depth. Job classes have been a staple of the series since its first installment, but Final Fantasy V is the first entry where the system was designed around letting characters take on whatever class the player wanted. At major story points, the party acquires crystal shards that enable them to equip different job classes, beginning with the traditional Knight, Monk, Thief, Black Mage, and White Mage, and spinning out into various esoteric jobs like Geomancer, Hunter, and Berserker. Any character can be any Job, and as a character gains experience in that Job, they learn abilities that can be equipped independently of the current job for further customization (in my opinion, this system saw its apex of refinement with Final Fantasy Tactics, but the basic structure is first explored here). It’s a fun way to allow the player control over party composition, since there’s minimal variation in each character’s base stats restricting what Jobs they would be better suited for, and at the same time it avoids the problem of the series’s previous installment, Final Fantasy IV, where party composition and individual combat roles are dictated by the story.
I’m going to keep going with Final Fantasy V, and we’ll see where it goes from here.