Revisiting Final Fantasy V (Part 5)

This is the last post I’m planning to write for this series.  I finished Final Fantasy V this morning after two failed runs at the final boss.  There are technically still the two optional superbosses that I haven’t fought, but I’ve always thought of those as bonus challenges rather than an integral part of the game experience (it’s perfectly fair to expect any casual player of a Final Fantasy game to consider themselves done once they’ve beaten the last boss; superbosses are tough, and in my experience not necessarily a lot of fun to fight).

The final battle in Final Fantasy V comes after the party treks through a strange time-and-space displaced dimension known as the N-Zone (or something similar; my final thoughts on the translation of the Playstation port are that it’s adequate for conveying plot points, but otherwise incredibly clunky).  This is the place from which the Void, the source of power that X-Death craves, emanates.  It’s a mishmash of various locales around the world that have been swallowed up, filled with enemies that all qualify as mini boss fights on top of a series of scripted encounters with actual minibosses.

After I finished with the last mandatory dungeon, I stumbled into the N-Zone by accident and made it all the way to the first miniboss before I realized that I had made a major error.  The end of the game features about five optional dungeons that can be traversed to pick up powerful magic spells and grant access to the game’s ultimate weapons, which provide a massive boost to the party’s damage output.  I realized these things were all going to be necessary when I found myself stuck in an endless boss fight with the first miniboss who just continued to debilitate my party’s offense while constantly healing and buffing itself.  The fight became unwinnable, and I had to self destruct.

SNES/PS

The final boss is a tree, so there’s that too. (Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki)

This ultimately ended up being a good thing, as the set of dungeons that you can explore in the endgame before going to the N-Zone all have some interesting gimmicks and are generally fun and challenging (there are still the occasional moments of absurd cheapness that hail from a design philosophy of “throw something completely new at the player that kills them before they can adapt, and let them deal with it after reloading the game”).  There were also a few moments scattered throughout that helped flesh out the party’s characters a little bit, though like I already said, they’re all relatively barebones moments with the clunky translation.

The big thrill of the endgame with Final Fantasy V is the rapidity with which you start mastering Jobs for your characters.  By the time I reached the last save point, each of my party members had at least five Jobs mastered, which carries with it bonuses that only become apparent when you get ready for the final battle.

The thing about a final boss in most RPGs is that it’s the moment where you can use all of your available resources with reckless abandon, because the game will be over afterwards.  It’s also a fight that carries no mechanical reward, meaning it’s useless for purposes of training your party members any further (one of the weird quirks of RPGs is the obsession with character improvement that tends to overshadow other kinds of incentives; you fight monsters to get gold and experience points so you can purchase better gear and earn levels, all with the ultimate goal of becoming strong enough to finish the game and give up all your progress).  This means that unlike every other fight in the game, which offers a reward that will make your characters stronger (and thus motivating the player to always be trying out unmastered Jobs), the final fight with X-Death is best undertaken with no Jobs equipped at all.

Final Fantasy V doesn’t explain this anywhere in the game, but the “Bare” Job class that party members default to at the game’s start is a special amalgam class.  It can equip any piece of gear in the game, and it has two empty ability slots instead of one to allow for extra customization of battle capabilities, which is all nice but unappealing since you don’t earn experience towards other Jobs while you have this Job equipped.  The other characteristic of Bare is that every time a character masters another Job, their Bare class takes on most of the passive abilities of that Job and pulls its stat block from the best available stats of all mastered Jobs.  Bare characters effectively become superhuman as you get closer to the end of the game.  In my playthrough Bartz and Krile, whom I used as my heavy hitters, had most of the heavily armored, high physical attack Jobs mastered, so they had exceptionally high HP along with passive abilities that granted them extra evasion.  Faris, who focused on fast and support-style Jobs, was able to naturally dual wield weapons and take extra turns quickly so that she could switch effectively between offense and defense as needed.  Reina, my mage character, had relatively poor HP since she only ever mastered magically inclined Jobs, but had exceptional magic power, making her an ideal healer.

All of this adds up to a boss fight that was fun because my party went from relatively strong to remarkably strong, and even then it was challenging.  My first attempt was doomed by a bit of poor planning on my part, and my second failed because of some bad luck with getting buffs in place.  Third time was the charm though.

As for the game’s ending, well, eh.  There’s some interesting meta-world building in play here, as the context of the Final Fantasy series as a whole suggests that the Void we see in this game is actually the connective tissue between all the different worlds depicted in the series.  That idea has had all kinds of things glommed onto it over the years, and its current incarnation is kind of an overbearing teen-pop mess, but the simple concept of a place where elemental forces constantly assemble to create new worlds from nothing has some poetry to it.  I’m glad I pulled this old game out (and finally finished it), and now I’m wondering what I should look at next.

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Revisiting Final Fantasy V (Part 4)

To contrast with last week’s post about a dungeon that I absolutely hated (and which ended with Galuf’s death, which I suppose explains why it’s meant to be so frustrating; make the player angry at the mechanics of the game then hit them with a sad plot point to up the emotional resonance), I reached a dungeon today that was actually really pleasant to play through.  It was also strangely Egyptian themed, which makes no sense at all, but sometimes you just have to roll with this stuff in a kitchen sink style fantasy game.

The setup is this: after finally getting through the Great Forest, the party discovers that they’ve found the place where the four Crystals of Galuf’s world are located, and X-Death tricks them into breaking the seal on these Crystals.  Galuf dies saving his granddaughter Krile, who shows up to distract X-Death at just the right moment, but one of the Crystals is still destroyed in the process.  After storming X-Death’s stronghold, the party learns that X-Death has been working to break the Crystals so he can merge the two worlds into one, like they originally were a thousand years ago.  X-Death succeeds despite the party’s best efforts, and the two worlds recombine, unlocking the power of the Void, which is what X-Death has been after this whole time.  Everyone wakes up back in Reina’s home of Tycoon Castle, and she and Faris stay behind there to rule after learning that their father has died.  Bartz and Krile (Krile gets all of Galuf’s learned abilities after his death, so she’s basically the same character with a few minor stat tweaks) leave to try to stop X-Death on their own.  After being reunited with Faris following an encounter with an antlion (Final Fantasy games love antlions), the now trio run across the turtle sage Gill, who explains some stuff about seals and glyphs and a whole bunch of other macguffin type stuff that’s just meant to give the player a reason to go do stuff around the world.  The first mandatory stop is a pyramid (!) in the middle of a big desert.

FFRK Pyramid JP FFV.png

There is no reason for that sarcophagus to be there, but it is. Also, it’s a door. In this dungeon, it’s always a door. (Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki)

What I like most about this dungeon is the fact that while it does have some tricky monster fights, they entire location is designed like a series of puzzles.  There are terrain traps to navigate, and lots of loot to seek out, but nothing feels especially malicious towards the player (the closest you get to this feeling is a series of encounters with enemies called Mechheads which operate like minibosses, but are easy enough to handle if you just set up a Lancer in your party and have them Jump every round; the Mechheads waste their turn using an attack that just cancels the Jump without doing any damage, leaving the rest of your party free to beat them up at leisure).  Most of the puzzles are also located in rooms that omit random encounters so that you don’t spend extra time fighting off monsters when you’re trying to concentrate; this is a small thing, but it’s an incredible relief in comparison with other dungeons.  This is also the only dungeon that has to be completed with only three characters, so perhaps the difficulty is eased back a little bit to make up for the lack of a fourth party member.

The Egyptian theme is a little bewildering; several traps involve rooms filling with Asps to attack you while you stumble around looking for the switch to open the exit, and there’s more than one sarcophagus doorway that requires your party to fight through a horde of mummies; no explanation is given for why these mummies are here, or what any of this has to do with the story at hand.  This area also doubles as the requisite undead dungeon (most of the enemies found inside are damaged by healing magic), which is usually a fun area to traverse, though a little thematically boring (it’s usually built around the idea of a graveyard or some haunted locale).  I’m guessing that setting the dungeon in a pyramid was originally intended as just a way to have a change of pace from the usual undead theme.  Still, it’s a really odd choice, and I can’t help feeling like it’s very out of place with the flavor of the rest of the game world.

Nonetheless, the pyramid was a remarkably good contrast with the Great Forest.  It’s too bad that once I finished it the game shifts into its ending stage where everything is open for exploration and you can stumble into the final dungeon by accident.

Which I did.

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.

Revisiting Final Fantasy V (Part 2)

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.

FFV Amano art.jpg

This promotional artwork tells you about as much about the main characters as the actual game. (Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki)

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.

Revisiting Final Fantasy V (Part 1)

It’s that time of the year again when I get an itch to go back through my old game library and pull something out to play.  My catalogue’s mostly old Squaresoft games, and I was fully immersed in the RPG bandwagon during the ’90s and ’00s, so these replays tend to be pretty long and drawn out.  In the past I’ve done series on Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Chrono Cross with smaller sets looking at less time intensive games like Chrono Trigger and Breath of Fire III.  The thing these games all have in common is they’re games that I had a special fascination with in my childhood, and which I played through multiple times before.  The game I’ve picked for this round is a little different.

Final Fantasy V has the distinction of being the Final Fantasy game that didn’t get localized originally because the developers thought it would be too difficult for Western players to understand the game’s job system (yeah, seriously).  For years the only way to play Final Fantasy V in the West was by way of a fan translation played on an emulator.  Sometime in the early ’00s, Squaresoft realized that people who grew up playing Final Fantasy games would be willing to pay for updated versions of the same games on more current consoles, so they started releasing “remastered” versions of their back catalog on the Playstation One.  This series included the original Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II collected as Final Fantasy Origins with an updated combat system and 16-bit style retexturing of the games.  There was also Final Fantasy Chronicles, which included Final Fantasy IV (previously released in the West as II) and Chrono Trigger with a few extras included like FMV movies and bestiaries, and the first collection that started the trend, Final Fantasy Anthology, which had Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI.

Anthology was the first official western release of Final Fantasy V, and it didn’t come with any extras the way Final Fantasy VI did; it was just a port of the original Super Famicom game with a brand new translation.  I bought Anthology because I wanted to replay Final Fantasy VI (unfortunately, it’s a pretty bad port of the game, with absurdly long load times just to open up the menu screen), but I got into playing Final Fantasy V in college because it was a gap in my knowledge of the series.  I never finished the game then, mostly because it was pretty grindy and because I lost interest in the story somewhere in the middle.  I don’t have a strong nostalgic attachment to this game the way I do to others that I’ve replayed in the last couple years.

Final Fantasy V logo. (Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki)

So, let’s get into it and see if I can finish the game this time.

Final Fantasy V focuses on a group of four heroes who are destined to try to save the world in the wake of the destruction of the four elemental Crystals.  They meet shortly after a big meteor falls from the sky and they all find themselves drawn towards the Wind Shrine.  The four heroes are Bartz, a lone wanderer who’s traveling the world according to his parents’ last wishes; Reina, the princess of the kingdom of Tycoon, who’s trying to find out what happened to her father after he went by himself to the Wind Shrine; Galuf, an old man who appeared near the meteor crash site without any memory of his past; and Farris, a pirate captain who agrees to help the others reach the Wind Shrine after spying a pendant that Reina has.

The four heroes reach the top of the Wind Shrine just in time to see the Wind Crystal shatter, and to see an apparition of Reina’s father explain that they need to find and protect the other elemental Crystals.  The implication is that if all the Crystals break, then the world will die; the Wind Crystal’s destruction is marked with the cessation of all winds, making travel by ship extremely difficult.  Only Farris’s ship is capable of travel at this point, since it’s pulled by a giant sea monster named Hydra.  From the Wind Shrine, the heroes go to the coast town of Tule to get the key to the gate to the canal that connects the inner and outer seas.  On their way through the canal, the ship gets attacked by a monster in a whirlpool, separating the heroes from Hydra and leaving them stranded in a haunted ship graveyard.

All that happens in the first hour of playtime.

The storytelling in this game is (obviously) relatively barebones in comparison to later RPGs.  Most characters have only a roughly sketched personality, and large portions of the narrative are left for the player to fill in.  Because I’m playing the PS port of the game, I’m working from a very specific (and much maligned) translation.  Being on a Playstation disc meant that there was a lot more space for the game’s script, but that extra breathing room isn’t always put to very good use.  Since this was the first time Final Fantasy V was ported to the West, and it was on a system with much more lax censorship, many of the sex jokes and bits of crude language are preserved (Galuf at one point says Bartz is full of crap because he doesn’t want to admit he “has the hots” for Reina and uses the exclamation “for chrissakes [sic]”) presumably because the localization team figured there needed to be something edgy in an old game from 1992.  Besides that, there’s also the matter of Faris’s dialect, which is a persistent pirate snarl throughout the entire game; it’s not a good choice.  Besides all of that, there will also be some discrepancy with names; later official translations romanize certain character names in different ways (particularly Reina, who’s name is more often romanized as Lenna).