I’ve been heading back into single-player games for the last half a year or so, after a multi-year period where I spent a lot of time playing mostly competitive team-based games. The transition has been refreshing, considering the fact that I spent the vast majority of those as a much-maligned support player in games like Overwatch and League of Legends, who are frequently blamed for such completely avoidable circumstances like being 1000 feet and through a wall without healing, or for leaving clearly dead, reckless, teammates.
Most of what I’ve been playing is a genre I grew up loving as a nerdy kid who liked to spend his time indoors – JRPGs. The rise of PC ports means that some of the Japanese-only releases of JRPG classics are now on platforms like Steam, allowing me to re-live my early days as a kid who spent endless hours finishing and re-finishing the latest and greatest JRPGs. I got one such opportunity with Final Fantasy V.
While I thought the game was decent, I think I understand why the game ultimately didn’t make it over to the States. The Final Fantasies that border it, IV and VI (II and III in the original US releases for the SNES), have characters with rich stories, an epic, unifying story with unique elements and a fair amount of twists and turns. V sort of feels like they needed something to fill the time between the IV and VI releases and dropped out a game to try to whet the FF fan appetite in its initial, ravenous heyday.
If I had to pick out one thing that kind of bugged me about FF V, it would have to be the fact that the job system, touted as a means for customizing and creating your own party filled with job classes of your choosing, ended up sort of creating the opposite. It’s pretty clear that some jobs were made for the cool factor of having been in other Final Fantasy games (but were otherwise ineffective – I’m looking at you, Dragoon) while others are essential to party survival. Let’s not forget that mastering such job classes and learning all their skills required you to basically stay as the class and grind out points through winning battles – perhaps the equivalent of wearing the same clothes for weeks at a time and somehow having the resulting smell of them somehow rub off on you. And woe to the person who somehow was training up one of the characters as a physically weak White Mage, only to have to go through a story plot point where that character is now solo fighting baddies with a wooden stick instead of a sword.
Even with these criticisms, the worst of what the job system has to offer isn’t any of those, but one which I feel kind of makes the whole thing feel bland – the fact that the ability to change jobs robs the party of character and uniqueness. I got into Final Fantasy partially because of the fact that its various characters were unique and filled certain roles in the party, adding to their dimension – Rydia from Final Fantasy IV is a fledgling summoner. Locke from Final Fantasy VI is the quick-witted thief. Tidus from Final Fantasy X is the annoying boy-band lookalike protagonist swordsman. You get the idea. V sort of looked like it took a step back to the generic characters of the first two Final Fantasy games, with little individuality beyond your own assignment of roles. This is made even more puzzling by the fact that not having a Job assigned, essentially being Jobless/Freelancer, allowed you to have a wider selection of skills and equipment. Sure, that was the result of grinding your face into the ground getting 1000 points to master Red Mage or Samurai, but it was still odd.
The unfortunate consequence is that the job system’s need to say that any of the characters can do anything sort of means the unique character that is the cast of Final Fantasy V’s heroes never really gets off the ground aside from some obvious pixel art differences and paper thin background. Bartz never gets past the plain old vanilla hero archetype, you have to seek out dialogue from villagers to find out how Faris got separated from her royal roots and became a pirate, Krile’s self-doubt about whether she can fill her legendary grandfather’s shoes never manifests itself into a journey of discovery, Lenna never grows out of a generic princess mold, and Galuf only gets character development because he’s the Doomed Old Guy Mentor in RPG trope-land. There’s never any flesh-out and having creaky old Galuf somehow be able to be a quick and fast Ninja or the normally sword-wielding Bartz become a Dancer ballerina type just busts up the character immersion even more.
Luckily, it seems that at least in subsequent titles (certainly in the G.O.A.T. FF in my opinion, Final Fantasy VI) Square learned its lesson, ad likely chalked up Final Fantasy V to something that might not make it terribly far in the West. They’d likely be right – but I’d hoped the PC re-release might help fix up and add to some of that backstory as well as update the pixel art. At the very least, it’s a stark reminder to me that at least for my point of view, substance and depth to characters is a lot more important to my enjoyment of JRPGs than having the flexibility to sling fireballs as well as sword swipes.