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SummaryWhy should I be a thieving Geomancer with shurikens and blue magic? Because I can!
The GoodIn the old days, the Final Fantasy series really meant something in a world where Japanese RPGs cloned and copied themselves tirelessly - those were games that actually experimented with gameplay. Final Fantasy V is, in this respect, the highlight of the entire series. It is focused on the gameplay, offering the player diverse and meaningful options for character customization, subsequently enhancing the game's replay value - which, in my opinion, should be one of the chief concerns of a good RPG designer.
When I say "diverse", I mean more than choosing whether you want a black mage or a samurai in your party. The game's famed Job system is so complex that covering it in one playthrough would be impossible. Basically, the game has real party creation - a feature that all but disappeared from Eastern RPGs. The four characters you can use in the game are, essentially, blank states - they have no distinguishing characteristics, it is up to you to develop them in any way you see fit. Again, "any way" means more than make one character an axe-wielding tank, another a healer, etc. There is a very impressive amount of abilities and classes in the game - and, what's more, after you've learned an ability, you can actually try out a new class while still keeping the earlier skill.
Needless to say that very soon you'll be delving into esoteric calculations of damage and defense, becoming intensely devoted to the lofty goal of building a dual-weapon Hunter who can also cast time magic and protection spells on the party. The choices are far from being only cosmetic - while you can, theoretically, win the game with any combination of classes (why not try out four White Mages and see how it goes?), only careful balancing of skills can ensure a smooth victory. Many enemies in the game are resilient or immune to certain types of attack, so the old rule "don't cast fire on a fire-breathing monster" returns with a vengeance - you must experiment and see which setup works best against which type of enemy. This is fun, addictive, and leads to replays, which is exactly what I need from an RPG.
Furthermore, Final Fantasy V has a huge world, probably the largest of the entire series; it has, in fact, three worlds, and even features exploration of ocean depths with a submarine. Yes, the worlds have to be tackled in a particular order; but as the game advances, it opens up considerably, with the final (and probably largest) segment containing optional areas and dungeons, optional tough enemies, as well as the possibility of marching straight to the archenemy's lair and trying to face him with a low-level party.
Some say that the story of this game is less emotional and less dramatic than in other Final Fantasies. I dare say it is less sentimental and less melodramatic. There are emotional moments, sacrifices, and large-scale events in the game; it's just that they aren't presented as long non-interactive cutscenes and are not being dwelt upon in large chunks of badly written text afterwards.
The BadThe first couple of hours of Final Fantasy V are, frankly, rather terrible. You begin with generic characters following the tiresome scripted routine of a Japanese RPG - walk a few steps, watch a cutscene, continue on the prescribed path. In no way is this bland beginning indicative of the game's subsequent development. But I wish I were given the option of simply skipping that needless, lengthy prologue, and get to the meat and potatoes of the game.
The inherent linearity of the genre is present in this game as well, though it does open up in a much more noticeable fashion as it runs its course. But particularly the first half of the game still follows the simplified formula of going only where the designer wants you to go. It is easy to lose interest in the game before it shows you all its tricks.
The random encounter rate is - as it is usually the case with such games - irritatingly high. Granted, the excellent character-building system makes sure that you'll always be hungry for those ability points; but perhaps there could be another way of allowing the player to fight many monsters while also giving him a more valid possibility to avoid these battles.