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SummaryWhy would I be a Hunter-Geomancer with Ninja skills? Because I can!..
The GoodFinal Fantasy V, one of the lesser-known installments in the famous series due to its belated release in the West, is in many ways opposed to its predecessor in design philosophy and interpretation of the genre. The fourth game relied on scripted drama, which is why its characters were tailored according to sharply defined roles that were reflected in gameplay mechanics as well. The fifth takes a different approach: it lets you do whatever you want with its rather vaguely defined characters. Thus, it may be less effective as a gripping tale, but in terms of gameplay it surpasses all other Final Fantasies in flexibility and customization.
Final Fantasy V is a game that offers exploration and encourages experimenting - and if that is not the most superb trait of role-playing game design, then I don't know what is. First of all, the game world itself is vast. There are three worlds to explore, each complete with towns, seas, castles, caves, and secret locations. Second, there are many optional areas, some of which help to enhance the story and even explain its unclear parts. There is an abundance of vehicles, from a simple ship to the black chocobo, including a really cool one - submarine. There are optional bosses and plenty of hidden spells and summons. The last part of the game, in particular, is completely non-linear - you can go straight to the final dungeon or you can take your time and unseal all the legendary weapons, get mighty spells, visit a hidden town, say hello to Bahamut and Phoenix, and so on.
The coolest aspect of Final Fantasy V is its fantastic job system. It is similar to the one used in the third game, but it's much more complex and interesting. Each job has a number of abilities you can learn by gaining corresponding points from battles. Once you've mastered a certain ability, you can change your class, but the learned ability will still be available, and you can equip it. Which means, essentially, that you can create your own classes. Want a knight with a bit of black magic? Make him learn some, and then equip the ability while turning him back into a knight. Fancy a crazy hybrid like blue mage-ninja-hunter? You can turn a ninja into a blue mage, make him learn spells from enemies, then learn some of the hunter's coolest abilities (like Sshot), and then make the character a ninja again, equipped with two weapons, powered with some useful spells, and able to unleash four attacks in one turn.
There is no end to this experimenting. You finish the game and you immediately want immediately to try again, this time with totally different classes. How cool is it to be a trainer and coach monsters? Did you control all the enemies while being a blue mage? Can a geomancer really access areas in dungeon that were so hard to get to? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of a berserker? What is the perfect balance between your four party members? In short - the game is a treasure chest that can hardly ever be emptied.
Aside from the gameplay, there are other things to like. The music is beautiful as always (the intro, in particular, sounds almost symphonic despite being synthesized), and even though the story is somewhat of a letdown, there are plenty of typical Final Fantasy-ish dramatic situations and touching moments scattered around. You'll easily recognize familiar motives such as sacrifice, mind-controlling, love, and so on. And don't forget the humorous moments, such as lamenting the absence of Playboy from the castle library.
The BadEvery game needs gameplay above all, but Japanese RPGs also strive to convey emotional connection with their worlds and their stories. It is in that respect that Final Fantasy V comes across as mildly disappointing. Whether it is crucial or not depends on your preferences. Personally, I value gameplay much more, but it can't be denied that some of the series' magic was lost in this installment.
The main story is a far cry from the Star Wars-like intensity of the previous game and returns to the roots with its corny crystals and impersonal villains. Only five characters can be part of your team for the duration of the entire game, and none of them is particularly interesting. I know that Final Fantasy games took a lot of beating for excessive dialogue, but the fifth game is almost uncomfortably laconic. Dramatic events are rarely discussed, and the characters don't seem to develop much chemistry between each other.