A princess cannot help but worry as the wind suddenly falls silent atop her castle tower. Below her, on the ocean, a beautiful buccaneer also stands befuddled as the sails of her ship cease to flap. And further off, across the green plains of the world map, a young adventurer finds shade underneath a tree, but he, too, takes notice of the tapering breeze. Something is amiss, an omen soon followed by a meteor that smacks into the earth. The three strangers meet at the impact site and find one more traveler — a man suffering from a frustrating case of amnesia. Together they agree to investigate the odd occurrences, heading off to check on the source of the world’s wind that resides within a famed magical crystal.
They find it shattered, but in its fragments there is still hope, the pieces containing the beginnings of an adventure that spans multiple worlds. Its spilled magic grants access to the legendary skill sets of warriors past, an unrestricted ‘Job’ system that will drive the game forward at an addicting pace. A random encounter based dungeon crawler, this may be Final Fantasy V’s answer to the frustration inherent with a genre of unwelcome battle transitioning, providing a new outlet for grind happy and combat weary players alike.
Jobs are simply traditional class roles, the few you start with looking most familiar: Knight, Thief, White Mage, Black Mage. At the battle screen, those work like you’d expect. A Knight can guard physical attacks, the mages can cast their respective offensive and defensive magic, and the thief may choose to Steal when his turn comes around during the time active battles. What’s exciting, though, is that these four heroes aren’t limited to any one kind of Job. They could very well all be Thieves, donned in green tunics and daggers. Or perhaps three Knights garnishing broadswords and shields in the front row, with one healer in the back. All linen capped wizards? The possibilities are already overwhelming, but the decision needn’t be stressful. A quick flip through the menus in between battles and you can switch between their identities on the fly without penalty.
It’s a liberating concept where the vanilla cast and ‘defeat-the-mega-villain’ structure of the game make for an inviting canvas for customization and intimacy on the interactive level. The statistical difference between the four heroes is negligible, and so they can take up any Job as effectively as their peers. The princess can take up the sword of the Samurai, the old man can be a seductive Dancer, the pirate a Bard, and so on. The tale is yours to weave from the very start, and with the pool of Jobs doubling and soon tripling throughout the game, Final Fantasy V’s emphasis on experimentation never loses its allure.
With so many oddball Jobs to choose from there’s proper concern for balance and viability. Some Jobs are certainly stronger picks than others. However, the hook of the system is the way it allocates the points you work for, making any Job development a contribution to a greater good. EXP and Ability Points (ABP) are won from battles, each corresponding to your party members’ traditional character levels and Job levels, respectively. Progressing through the tiers of each Job grants that character a new skill to his or her skill bank. Once it’s there, the ability is fair game to use elsewhere, cross class.
That means when your princess becomes a first level Ninja, she’ll earn a spell called ‘Smoke’. This is a nifty tool, allowing your party to escape from battles when dungeons are getting rough. Now in her skill bank, she can switch back to being a White Mage, for example, and you may then use the Smoke ability freely. Or, just reverse it, and give healing magic to the shinobi. Boom — Ninja Priest hybrid! Skills often serve this kind of battle utility, while others can be used to form deadly offensive combos. Some are just convenient, like the Thief’s Dash that lets you run around towns faster. From a design standpoint, tickling an RPG gamer’s fancy with this kind of variety doesn’t seem all that complicated, though it could be Final Fantasy V just makes it look easy.
As those Job levels climb, creating an efficient party becomes more like running a machine, a task that will demand all of your interest and attention as you constantly look for better party compositions and skill combinations. It is such a joyful endeavor that when Final Fantasy V’s lightly driven nature and comic relief quickly fade into the rigor of serious drama, it feels interruptive with its unwelcome cutscenes and a script entirely made of repetitive, exclamatory remarks. It has a habit of testing your patience more than any of its creatively cruel boss battles can compete for. Even the sound work becomes fairly one dimensional as you fall into the routine of the same disaster music, followed by the usual heroic cheese.
It’s also painful to admit that Final Fantasy V is flatly difficult to advance through and for very backwards reasons. More often than not, it’s just a matter of the game forgetting to tell you where to go between plot events. Sometimes that’s natural, like having to talk with some townspeople and learn that the NPC you’re searching for is on the second floor of the local inn. But other times you’re just left at the world map with a wide selection of destinations, the last cutscene providing forgettable hints. If you don’t play for a day or two, it’s easy to come back lost.
Mastering this progression is possible and encouraged, however, as replay value is so prevalent within the varied Jobs. Final Fantasy V is an experience to constantly revisit, and even when memorized, it still offers nothing but an unspoiled selection of playstyles, clean sprite work, and memorable encounters. When these possibilities seem endless, the design is completely on point. From pirate hideouts filled with musical themes of hearty stupor, to dungeons with all kinds of switches and pitfalls, to haunted libraries with shifting bookcases, you’ll constantly run into reasons to return to the menus and try new approaches. A new axe for your Berserker, new beasts for your Summoner, and new magic for for your mages, along with a slew of harrowing secret challenges and an end boss that is completely vile — these aspects all contribute to a desire to experiment. Each encounter a test to your ever changing hypothesis.