Revisiting Final Fantasy V (Part 3)

There is a dungeon about midway through the game that’s called the Great Forest (or something like that; there are so many translations of this game now that I can’t keep straight what the official name of anything is supposed to be).  I don’t know if everyone else playing Final Fantasy V has had this experience, but it’s my That One Level.

I hate this dungeon.

To understand why I hate this dungeon so vehemently, we need to break down a few factors that go into making it so frustrating.

First, there’s the problem of my own playstyle; I am inordinately stubborn when it comes to party composition in RPGs.  I don’t like making alterations to my party to bend to the whims of the dungeon at hand, so typically I stick to a general purpose setup that should be serviceable in most situations.  In Final Fantasy V, where you get four characters to your party, that means I use a party of two heavy hitters, one fast character, and a dedicated mage who’s always geared towards healing.  I like this setup because once I have it balanced right I don’t have to spend much time reworking it for most combat situations.  Getting really granular on character stats isn’t my bag when I’m gaming for relaxation.

Second, there’s the fact that I got to this dungeon in the same week that America’s had to deal with two highly publicized unjustified killings of Black men by police and a mass shooting at a Black Lives Matter protest where five police officers were killed and several more were injured (this second story’s details are still coming out while I’m writing this, but it’s apparent from early on that the protesters had nothing to do with the shooting).  This has been a really hard week for a lot of people, and I’ve been trying to cope by doing fun stuff like playing old video games.  I’m probably a little more sensitive to frustrating game design than normal because of the news.

Now, let’s talk about the design of this dungeon that explains why it’s so irritating.

There are four standard enemies that appear in the Great Forest in a variety of encounter combinations.  Only one of them isn’t designed to do something annoying to your party.

  • Mamon – A spooky tree enemy that occasionally hits a character kind of hard, but otherwise doesn’t do anything interesting.  Because it’s a tree, it’s weak to fire.
  • Imp – A decently sturdy monster that takes a few swings from stronger party members to kill.  It randomly confuses one of your party members, which requires spending a turn hitting them to get rid of the effect before they do worse damage to someone else.  Either way, when this effect lands you’re forced to take extra damage for the round and you lose two opportunities to attack.
  • Minimage – A weak enemy that will cast Mini, turning one of your party members tiny and ineffective.  Countering this requires the healer spending a turn dealing with the status effect, and if the turn order doesn’t work in your favor, also losing an opportunity to deal damage with a stronger unit.  Also, for extra fun, the Minimage occasionally steals MP from one of your party members; when they do this to the healer, it makes me very unhappy.
  • Galacjelly – These are the flimsiest enemies in the dungeon.  One hit from even the weakest offensive party member will kill one of these things.  The problem is that they have an inordinately high evasion rate, and they absorb all kinds of elemental damage.  While you’re busy trying to finally hit these things, they’ll occasionally use a special attack that starts draining your character’s HP, blinds them, and if they happen to be a magic user, seals all their magic abilities for the duration of the fight.  I hate these monsters.  I hate them so much.

There’s also a dragon-like enemy that you encounter occasionally in the first part of the dungeon, but it’s unremarkable aside from the fact that it hits hard.

Pretty much any combination of these monsters is bad, and while everything besides the Galacjellies can be reliably dispatched with a few sword whacks and a well-placed magic attack, it’s all designed to just drain your available resources while you’re trying to get through the dungeon.

This is from the iOS version of FFV, but it still demonstrates the multilayered aesthetic used in the level design. Note the spotlight around the player character and the limited visibility on the rest of the screen. (Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki)

The next part that’s frustrating about this place is the difficulty in traversing it.  Final Fantasy V is an old school JRPG, and that means that it has random battles.  It has random battles all the time.  I know that objectively there’s a formula in the game’s programming that calculates the likelihood of triggering a battle with every tile movement through a hostile area, and it’s not actually malevolent.  The actual feeling of being thrown into a battle every five steps that takes, on average, a minute and ten seconds (roughly estimated) to resolve is soul crushing and makes me think that the game hates me.  Combine the absurd encounter rate with the visual design of the dungeon itself; Final Fantasy V experiments a lot with using layered tile sets to give the illusion of depth in some areas.  To compensate for the reduced visibility these layers cause, there’s a designated area around the player character where only the base level of the dungeon (the one that actually determines where the player can move) is visible.  It’s not a very big spotlight, so a dungeon where you would normally have the entire screen to check for chests and open pathways becomes much more claustrophobic, requiring more steps, leading to more random battles.

Cap all of these deliberate design decisions off with the way the end of the dungeon plays out.  After reaching a save point which you may or may not spot, the game delivers a cut scene where X-Death sets the forest on fire.  Once this sequence begins, your path back to the save point is cut off, and you still have another fifteen minutes of slogging through the same annoying enemies to get to the boss fight.  The boss for this dungeon is a set of four crystals that, when their HP gets low enough, begin spamming high level elemental spells that hit your entire party.  Any strategy that involves damaging them all at the same time is sure to result in a slew of high damage party attacks that will wipe you out in no time flat.  The only alternative is to focus on one crystal at a time, whittling its HP down and ignoring the constant swats from the other crystals until it’s their turn to be eliminated.  If you fail (and I’ve done it twice today), then it’s game over, and you have to replay the second half of the dungeon all over, complete with all the unskippable cut scenes.

Objectively, I know how the game wants me to respond to the challenges of this dungeon.  You use a character like a Hunter with an unmissable physical attack to deal with the Galacjellies, and you play the boss fight conservatively without using anything really unpredictable like a Berserker (characters in this Job hit like a dump truck, but they can’t be directed in battle so you never know what enemy they’ll attack next).  I’ll probably make use of these strategies before I actually finish the dungeon, because I’m not replaying this game to be frustrated.

But I still hate the Great Forest.

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