I love dragoons.
I just need to get that out first. So much of my interest in this game stems from my love of the design of dragoons. As long as I’ve been into RPGs, Final Fantasy V has forever been “That game where I could have a party of FOUR Dragoons.” And yet I never sat down to play it until now.
I was a huge fan of Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) as a teen. As someone who dove into the genre during the late PS1 and PS2 era, Final Fantasy was a legendary name. It was the gold standard of JRPGs. Final Fantasy VII was my gateway into the genre. Final Fantasy VI was, for a while, my favorite game of all time. Vivi in Final Fantasy IX was one of my all-time favorite characters across any media. Even now, despite not playing a new Final Fantasy game since X-2, the franchise still keeps that status in my mind. It’s hard to shake that teenage wonder and awe in those stories.
So for me, when I talk about Final Fantasy V, it’s impossible to separate that from what the franchise means to me. I cannot discuss it without considering how it measures up to the worldbuilding, character work, and music that made the series such a hallmark of gaming. If you are also a Final Fantasy fan I hope this approach resonates with you. If you haven’t played any Final Fantasy game at all, I hope you can still appreciate this lens.
Note: Some light spoilers for the game will follow. I try not to ruin big twists, but there are some things I feel like I need to mention when discussing the game.
What I Played:
Final Fantasy V was first released in Japan for the Super Nintendo in 1992. However, it would not make its way over to America until much later. The series has an odd history in America. Developer Squaresoft skipped over bringing the SNES version to America (as they had done with Final Fantasy II and III for the NES). What was Final Fantasy IV in Japan was released in America as Final Fantasy II, and Final Fantasy VI became Final Fantasy III. Even today there can still be some confusion over what game is being referred to when someone talks about Final Fantasies II or III.
It was not until Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation that the series would once again unify its American and Japanese numbering. The resulting JRPG boom that FFVII launched would encourage Squaresoft to begin bringing over the “lost” Final Fantasy games to America, and so a Playstation 1 port of Final Fantasy V finally got an official translation in 1999. That, however, is not the version I played. The PS1 port was plagued by long loading times and an awkward translation. FFV would later see a 2006 rerelease on the Game Boy Advance with a new translation as well as a few new dungeons and jobs. On the recommendation from some fine folks from the Avocado Games Thread, I opted for the GBA version. (If you’re interested in checking out the game yourself, you have additional options: A fan translation of the SNES original, and ports to mobile phone and Steam with a… controversial graphical overhaul).
Final Fantasy V begins with a wanderer name Bartz seeing a meteor fall. Along with his trusty chocobo pal Boco, he goes to investigate and winds up on a thrilling adventure, joined by the amnesiac Galuf, princess Lenna, and pirate Faris (and, later, an additional party member: a young girl named Krile). This group is entrusted with the task of protecting four crystals around the world.
The story progresses from there, but compared to the intense drama (and sometimes melodrama) of later Final Fantasy games, the story never shines. As you find and fail to save the crystals, the party discovers that they act as a seal to an evil… sorcerer? tree (don’t think too hard about it)? known as Exdeath. Upon his release, he retreats to another world, leading to an entire second map. There, the player learns more about the history of Exdeath, the crystals, and the seal, eventually culminating in a grand final battle with him.
Crystals, and the protection thereof, are a major theme in the early Final Fantasies. So this fits into that same mold of feeling like a fairly boilerplate fantasy game plot. The previous game, Final Fantasy IV had stepped up the chasing-and-protecting crystals plot by cutting in some sophisticated (for its time) character drama, with the love triangle between the conflicted Dark Knight Cecil, his best friend and Dragoon(!!) Kain, and the kind White Mage Rosa.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy V does not have the same interpersonal drama or standout characters that made FFIV so beloved. The most interesting character of the bunch is Faris, who felt the need to disguise her gender in order to fit in with a band of pirates and hides further secrets. However, none of the characters get a lot in the way of development. Bartz starts and ends the game as an adventurer who just goes with the wind, acting as the player’s window into the world. Galuf is an amnesiac, but his recovered memories don’t do anything interesting or surprising. Lenna is probably the second most interesting of the lot, having a bit of conflict between her duty as princess and a duty to save the world. Each of these characters have some potentially interesting aspects to mine, but none of them ever get enough depth to pop, which was really disappointing.
The other standout character from the game is Gilgamesh, who would reappear in future games in the series. Gilgamesh serves as one of Exdeath’s generals, but is mostly a ham of a villain with some sense of honor. The party’s repeated interactions with him are a highlight of the game, helped by his incredible battle theme.
The game’s translation makes it difficult to determine the tone the developers were going for. Although the PS1 translation was clunky, the GBA translation is loaded with random jokes and colloquialisms. I don’t know enough about the game’s script to know how much of that humor is genuine and how much was invented by localizers. It seems clear that the game was meant to be relatively lighthearted (as opposed to the drama of FFII, IV, VI, and beyond), but there are some lines that threw me out of the moment. The GBA localizations of FFIV and FFVI had similar problems, although they are overall much more faithful than their earlier translations.
The Job System
So if the plot and characters are fairly boilerplate, what makes Final Fantasy V stand out? Without a doubt, the main draw of the game is the job system. This builds upon something that was introduced earlier in the series. Final Fantasy I had the player pick jobs for each of its four party members (more or less corresponding to major D&D classes: you have your fighter, your wizard, your healer, etc.), although once selected, they could not be changed. Final Fantasy III built upon that further, giving the player the ability to freely change the jobs of its characters. That ability returns in FFV, and while I’ve never played FFIII to compare the two, the job system in FFV is the highlight of the game.
Character progression becomes addicting, and occasionally a fun puzzle, as you unlock more jobs over the course of the game and begin to have an endless number of options for how you approach battles and bosses:
Fighters can use swords and shields to tank damage as well as they can dish it out!
Blue Mages can learn the abilities that monsters use!
Mystic Knights enchant their swords with spells to cast powerful magic with each strike!
Dragoons can jump.
Chemists can mix and match items into deadly combinations!
Beastmasters can catch and control monsters and create a pseudo-Pokemon game, four years before we’d ever hear of Pikachu!
Furthermore, as you level up the jobs, you unlock abilities that you can then use with other jobs. Do you want your Monk to be able to cast Black Magic? You can! Do you want your Thief to also know Geomancy? Go for it!
It’s a really, really fun system. I do not have nearly the patience for random battles and RPG combat that I did when I was 14, but the job system genuinely made battles in FFV *fun*. I welcomed and enjoyed battles a lot more than I might otherwise have. It’s a shame that Final Fantasy hasn’t really implemented a job system in a similar fashion since, although Final Fantasy Tactics does incorporate it, along with the MMOs Final Fantasy XI and XIV. Spiritual successors such as Bravely Default have kept the idea alive as well.
The implementation isn’t perfect, (though this may be more of a reveal of how not clever I am as a player). I felt obligated to always have mages at the ready, and the slow pace of leveling jobs means if you want to unlock the most useful abilities, you’re going to be using the same jobs for large chunks of the game anyway. At its best, a boss would wreck me and I would be forced to carefully evaluate my jobs to find the perfect combination to get through. At its worse, I’d really want to try out the Ranger job, but feel bound by needing to keep Galuf as a White Mage. And because different jobs require use different equipment, I never felt like I had enough money to keep a wide variety of jobs properly geared.
Also, my beloved Dragoon job? Pretty terrible, actually. I quickly abandoned my 4 Dragoon dream for a more viable party setup.
The other place Final Fantasy V shines is its music. The soundtracks of the Final Fantasy games are highly acclaimed, and composer Nobuo Uematsu brings some great tracks to FFV.
The most famous track from the game is Clash on the Big Bridge, which would be revived and remixed many times in succeeding games. Played during fights with Gilgamesh and a few other big battle scenes, it lent energy to those intense moments:
Another famous track making its debut here is Mambo de Chocobo, a theme for the series’ bird companions:
Other standout tracks for me include To the North Mountain:
The Dragon Spreads Its Wings is a great track for flying around the world on a dragon:
And the fairly comfy Home, Sweet Home:
Playing Final Fantasy V in 2021
Final Fantasy V is a weird game. The characters and story that I love so much about Final Fantasy aren’t particularly compelling here. I’m already forgetting details of the plot and some of the character beats. It’s probably not a game I will ever feel the need to revisit.
But as someone who even in my JRPG heyday didn’t love random battles or the grind, Final Fantasy V was fun to play. To be fair, I also made use of a speedup function on an emulator to help if I needed some extra cash or experience points, but even so, I loved the job system. Battles became fun because I could try out different things, see what different abilities did, and try to find ways to break the game (the Samurai coin toss ability is REALLY good if you wind up with copious amounts of money late game). So I had more fun playing it than I did many other Final Fantasy games. On the flipside, I had less fun experiencing the game due to the relatively dull characters and plot compared to other entries in the series.
That said, it’s also fascinating to see the building blocks of what would come later. FFV gives you three world maps, and the final map in particular is fairly open and flexible in how you approach things, a clear presage to the open ended World of Ruin in Final Fantasy VI. Although the job system wouldn’t make a proper return in a single player Final Fantasy, the character customization would clearly influence later installments in the series, which typically give you a lot of freedom in how you build out your characters.
I’m not the fan of Final Fantasy I was half my life ago. Every time I think about revisiting games in the series, I reflexively recoil at the thought of sinking 40+ hours into them, much of that spent grinding out levels or abilities or items. And yet despite that, Final Fantasy V was still a delight to play. It didn’t do everything I wanted from a Final Fantasy game, but it still pulled me in and made me remember bygone days using video games as an escape from the real world and teenage angst, barreling through JRPGs late into the night, creating Final Fantasy fanfiction and inspired stories with my friends, and being immediately interested in any game that had the name “Squaresoft” attached to it. Though I was late to the party, Final Fantasy V still kept a seat at the table open for me.
But couldn’t it have made Dragoons at least somewhat useful?