• When Dawn breaks, a new Light shall fill the Void.

    When I studied psychology in college, my class discussed family dynamics among siblings, middle children were always the more interesting ones to discuss because more than the other children, they have to work harder with differentiating themselves from their fellow siblings. This concept couldn’t be better illustrated by the middle child of the 16-bit era, Final Fantasy V. Like FFIII before it, FFV has a very different reputation within Japan than it does in the West, largely due to the game being released years later abroad than in its home country. Yet, I feel it should say something to the sheer craftsmanship of the game’s overall design that unlike FFIII, which will always be relegated as a relic entry of the series along with its other 8-bit brethren, FFV has actually managed to find its own footing among the fanbase just as a middle child will also find their own identity to separate themselves from their siblings.

    FFV begins an interesting and powerful transformative time for Square. This is the last Final Fantasy game Hironobu Sakaguchi personally directed before he moved into the executive producer role for the series. Hiroyuki Ito returned as the battle planner and designer but afterwards would be pushed into the director’s chair, while Nobuo Uematsu remained as the main composer but was already busy cultivating a few young talents within the office. Yet this was also the game several prominent future staffers of the Golden Age of Square really cut their teeth on. Yoshinori Kitase had worked on a few smaller projects before he was given co-writing position on FFV. Tetsuya Nomura started his career as a monster and sprite designer for this game. Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono fame was a sound effects artist, and both Kaori Tanaka (Soraya Saga) and Tetsuya Takahashi of the Xeno franchises worked as graphic artists. In many ways, FFV was the first entry to really bring in the next generation Square who would take the series into some groundbreaking directions for the rest of the 90s.

    FFV would begin an odd transition from these older staffers to the new younger ones that would run its course over the next few FF installments, and perhaps the staff could sense this. While the concept of a “main concept theme” for each FF was more prominent and well known with the PSX generation, there is a real strong undertone within FFV’s narrative about the generational passing of the torch. While players are still playing as the destined Light Warriors, they are also introduced to an older generation of warriors who held the role known as the Dawn Warriors. Likewise, FFV is one of the rare entries in the series where every playable character has a relative that is actually seen within the story, and the final four party members are left with the task of fulfilling their fathers and grandfather’s desire to save the world. It may all be coincidental at the time, but eerily prophetic in hindsight, as gamers and the studio see as many of these upcoming designers would go one to shape the coming generations of the gaming industry.

    On the other hand, FFV also has its feet deeply planted on the games that came before it. I’ve always felt that the first five entries of FF that Sakaguchi directed had certain cohesiveness that wasn’t too dissimilar to Dragon Quest. The feel of the settings were never too different from each other if that makes any sense. This is helped of course by the recurring elements like the four elemental crystals which had appeared in all but one of the first five games before Square decided to put the concept into the background as a legacy element, besides a throwback entry here and there. FFV borrows so much narratively from its predecessors that often summaries of the game’s plot are almost the exact same as the ones for FFIII. Four warriors are tasked by the crystals to save the world from void and they use Job classes granted by the crystals to accomplish this. Hell, FFV has several homages to FFIII such as the Chocobo ride around the whole world side quest, the return of moogles, the return of the submarine vehicle, and the gimmick of the starting class being both the weakest and strongest class in the game. That’s not to say FFV doesn’t retain other series legacy elements. Since his introduction within the series, Odin once again is hiding out in the basement of a castle. Once again, the party must undertake a quest to unlock some forbidden magic spells though it subverts it since no one dies trying to get/use it.

    FFV does some interesting things narratively that we really don’t see too often within the series or even the genre for that matter. RPGs are always rife with stories of coming of age but that’s really not the case here. I’ve asked people before about why they feel that FFV’s narrative seems to always be overlooked and often the simplest answer is that the game’s lot is light and it’s sandwiched between two of the most melodramatic games of the 16-bit era. Yet, replaying it, I feel I’ve come to a different conclusion that likely leads into the above answer. FFV’s heroes are not coming of age, they don’t really have a growth arc, because they are all pretty well established figures from the onset. It was interesting to note how so many of the characters poignant growth moments within the story are told in flashbacks instead of being a journey we witness hand in hand. Bartz is an optimistic fellow with a tragic past, but his past is never something he’s trying to overcome, because he has already made peace with it before the story began. Likewise, Lenna Tycoon is most well known for her compassion and selfless sacrifice, but how she became that way is told once again through flashbacks instead of being something we watch her grow into. This isn’t like Cecil or Edward from IV who have to make changes in themselves to resolve the conflicts in their lives. No the cast of FFV already began with the tools needed to start the journey and in this way they probably have more in common with the faceless Onion Knights or Light Warriors from the NES era. The two characters who somewhat circumvent this is Faris and Galuf, as Faris comes to grips with who she really is and reunites with a family she longed to have, while Galuf is trying to atone for the mistakes he and the other Dawn Warriors made, but in both cases, the story never stays too heavy handed on the darker aspects of these characters as Faris tomboy attitude is often played for laughs and Galuf’s more solemn personality is a rare sight compared to the goofy and witty old man we see for most of the game.

    In truth, while a lot of tragedy and misfortune happen to both the party and the world, FFV is probably best known for being one of the most lighthearted entries within the series. Perhaps the soap opera melodrama of FFIV’s tale was a bit too much and so Sakaguchi chose to fill this game with more of the charm and comedy of a title like FFIII in order to make this game feel like a palette cleanser from its predecessor, but regardless, future translation of the games into English and other languages have latched onto this aspect of the game making playing through it without smiling or even laughing out loud pretty difficult. There is always some fun little quirk in the game whether it’s Bartz breaking the fourth wall to dance in a bar, playing famous classical music pieces as he learns to play the piano, getting smacked around by sheep, or learning a toad spell by waking frogs up; FFV is simply filled with funny little moments that entertain, which is why it is a bit sad to see the game get overlooked so much within its narrative.

    Likewise, bringing this back to the unofficial theme of inheritance and legacy, FFV’s more daring and thought provoking aspects come into play here as the player witnesses a story whose main conflict is brought on by environmental damage caused by people abusing the power of nature for personal gain. The world Tycoon hails from is a world of prosperity granted by the power of the elemental crystals that control the world. Cid of this world discovered a loss technology by the ancients to amplify the crystals power for greater gain for the nations sworn to protect the crystals. This amplifier leads to the crystals shattering and the unsealing of a great evil. In two of the cases where the party tries to warn the rulers who protect their crystals, they are simply scoffed at and refuted until disaster finally falls and only after it becomes too late do people begin to see the error of their ways. By the end of the first act, though the player is more focused on the arrival of the game’s big bad, it’s hard to forget that the world is now on its way to a slow death as the four elemental powers fade away with the crystals. This is brought back up again when the worlds merge together and the player speaks to certain NPCs who talk about sea voyage being impossible, vegetation is dying, and the world is getting colder. Yet striking enough, after the Earth crystal is shattered and Galuf resolves himself to return to his own world to stop ExDeath, Bartz doesn’t blame ExDeath’s intervention for the destruction of his world’s crystals, instead he apologizes to Galuf that his own world’s misuse of the crystals will now doom both of their worlds. This scene is easy to forget since the player is reeling with the tragic end of the King of Tycoon story and is getting prepared for the jump into the game’s powerful second act, but I feel this moment is one of the game’s more brilliant moments that is both subtle and even tempered, never feeling too preachy but still being rather poignant. In truth, I feel FFV is where Sakaguchi began to try to speak to the player about some of the concerns he has about the environment, which becomes a recurring theme for many of his later works most famously in the seventh installment of the series but we can also see this in game’s like Chrono Trigger, The Last Story, and Terra Battle as well.

    This theme of the past leaving its problems for the future is also exemplified in the form of the game’s main villain ExDeath. Most players may snicker at the idea of ExDeath since his true form is revealed to be a sentient tree and his personality is a very bombastic and almost cartoonish evil presence that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a 80s era cartoon series. Yet thematically, ExDeath is a much more interesting villain than I feel fans and detractors give him. ExDeath’ origins begin in the sacred forest of Moore, a holy place with cleansing properties, many warriors and sages knew of the forests powers for purifying and trapping evil that it eventually became a place where many of the great evils of Galuf’s world were sealed. Demons, monsters, and malevolent magic were sealed within the trees of these woods to be contained until they either faded away or future generations could come up with a means to dispose of it properly. Instead, all of this evil converged and twisted one of its prisons into a body to use so that it may enact its destructive nature on the world that tried to seal it away. To say ExDeath is an “evil tree” is kind of missing the point here. He’s the evils of the world that no one wanted to face now given form and wreaking havoc. He is a reflection of humanity itself more than most other villains within the series. Yes, ExDeath is evil for the sake of it, but unlike other FF villains who are either extremist or narcissists, ExDeath is a being made of evil itself. In many ways, ExDeath serves as an allegory for a lot of problems we see even today, as the generation in power often leaves the problems they don’t want to solve because it’s either too difficult or often would require some sacrifice on their part to resolve, and instead they leave it for future generations to sort out. But as history often shows, when humanity leaves these problems unresolved, it often grows so big that it becomes a conflict that causes untold social, political, and ecological disaster that generations later will know through hindsight that the whole issue could have been resolved had the earlier generations stepped in and solved the issue when it was an inconvenience. ExDeath is this concept personified. In some translations, his name is known as Exodus, and the Biblical story of Exodus largely revolves around a conflict that could have had a tough but easier solution, but instead was spread out to twelve plagues and the painful deaths of a lot of people.

    In many ways, FFV details a tale of people, of how one generation creates problems for their descendants. But instead of wallowing in the blame game, FFV gives the player a hopeful message about how the future generations will eventually learn from their ancestor’s mistakes and have a chance to set things right. The crystals chose the four heroes to stop the evil of ExDeath and the Void, and in doing so, their journey and spirits nurture new crystals to restore the world. In fact FFV might have one of the happiest endings in the series, not just up to this point but even future installments tend to leave their stories in more ambiguous circumstances.

    Now to address the elephant in the room, I’ve spent a good amount of time talking about the plot, but every FF fan regardless of whether you’ve actually played FFV or not know that the real reason anyone bothers with this game is due to the gameplay. FFV is where the Golden Age of FF ATB truly began. Yes IV introduced it, but FFV refined it and made it more accessible, so much so that with only a few more minor changes over time, it remained the version of the system for the next five installments and even a few non-FF games. It’s the longest running incarnation of the system within the series. So what did FFV do exactly?

    FFV’s ATB added in a few neat features, removed a few of the more annoying aspects of IV’s version, but overall Ito worked to streamline the entire system to make it more user-friendly. Do you want to know how I know if you played the original FFIV or not? I ask if you remember the ATB bar. If you do, you played one of the ports/remakes because the original game never had an ATB bar, which was introduced in this entry. It may seem inconceivable, but originally, the system didn’t actually tell you what your turn order was going to be, and considering how buggy the system was back then,. It was possible that even knowing how the speed stat would factor in, it was possible for the game algorithm to screw up and give you very different results like certain characters getting extra turns or enemies having their turns accidentally restarted. It made planning a strategy difficult sometimes as you never knew if that healing spell would hit in time or whether that new party member was going to get their turn before the boss did. With the advent of the ATB, players now could plan out better tactics for battles since they could at least see their own turn order. The other big change was the removal of Charge times for magic and abilities. Mages more often got a bit of the shaft in FFIV because most of their spells had charge times which made them a bit more inconvenient to use sometimes compared to warrior characters. This also made some players use certain spells over others due to finding out they had shorter charge times like Bio being more useful than elemental spells, or Flare and Bahamut being more useful than the eponymous Meteor spell. To even the playing field, FFV pretty much drops charge times which subsequently gave the game the added benefit of having faster battle times compare to FFIV which was further helped by dropping the party size from five back to the series traditional four.

    One of the new aspects added into FFV is a heavier emphasis on manipulating the battle speed of the game. While FFIV had introduced the idea of Haste and Slow as spells that affect turn order as opposed to the NES era where they affected damage output, FFV takes the concept further by introducing both the Time Mage class and creating boss battles that completely hinge on whether the player makes use of this classes abilities to affect turn order. Despite what some people believe, the Battle Speed option in the SNES/Super Famicom era FFs do not affect how fast the ATB charges, this is something that started with the PS1 generation, which I’ll elaborate on then. Instead, Battle Speed affects how fast the enemies get their turns. At the lowest speeds, the battle system is almost like an old turn based game where players feel like they have all the time in the world, at the highest speed, you need to know what your overall battle plan before the battle starts sometimes if you hope to survive. As I said, battles like the Soul Gunner and Atmos are infamously difficult if you don’t use the tools the new Time Mage class gives you. One of the other unsung contributions FFV brings to the table is the introduction of a proper bag of holding, with the item menu now capable of displaying one of every item in the game and multiples of said items as well. No longer did players have to deal with the more annoying aspects of item management from the earlier FFs though it did see the removal of the hilarious Fat Chocobo as a consequence outside of the rare Chocobo summon.

    If FFV’s greatest claim to fame was re-introducing the series to the awesome job system, but more importantly implementing the ground breaking sub-job mechanic which has become a mainstay for the job system ever since. Unlike FFIII, a character could don the abilities of one job but sub the abilities of another job to give them the perks of two jobs and open the door to a treasure trove of possibilities. The concept was hardly new, the job system in DQIII made it possible to make warriors and fighters that could use spells, but the concept was much more limited there, and Ito took how FFIII’s job system expanded the various jobs with special abilities to make a system that was incredibly fun and groundbreaking for its time. Classes in this game were re-balanced to allow the player to use any combination to win as opposed to the class systems of earlier games that worked more like a tier system with early classes becoming obsolete over time. Classes were given expanded abilities that made it fun to mix and match their strengths and weaknesses like giving heavy armor to a mage, or teaching a dragoon how to steal. This allowed the game to have enormous replay value for fans. Likewise, the core mechanics were also rebalanced in some clever ways. The core five characters are given basic stats and modified by the Job classes which raised or lowered stats depending. Combined with a refined scaling mechanic with weapons, and the fact that sub-job abilities can also raise stats; FFV hits a peak level of balance that will never really be seen again in the series proper. Of anything, FFV’s core system exemplifies what may be the best type of development systems. There are so many mechanical elements to the game that min/max can be a real treat for die hard gamers who enjoy that stuff, but the game never actually explains it to you and instead presents it in a really easy to understand method. You don’t need to know that Black Magic Lv. 4 will modify a characters magic stat to utilize it effectively, or how weapon equips not only allow a character to use say weapons, but also give them the Class Strength bonuses with it. That’s what makes the system so damn perfect, a min-max has a enough mechanics to have a field day building effective builds, but the system is so easy that a regular player who couldn’t care less can still play just as effectively. It doesn’t quite bog you down with numbers, but they are there if one pays attention. That is easily one of the most effective systems and its combined with a game balance curve that is incredibly effective in its challenge to the player. As mentioned earlier, bosses are designed around the player learning how to use this new system effectively, but unlike previous bosses in the series where there may be only one effective means to beat them, FFV has the bosses balanced in ways to allow for multiple strategies to work which goes back to the designers rebalancing the classes to make any of them effective. If I must say anything truly negative about FFV’s Job System, it is that it was too good for its own good, with many of the games afterwards trying to emulate what made it work without trying to re-use it. Even the games that point blank used it and tried to expand it only showed how really well designed this system really was.

    I will also give Ito and his team props for a slight shout-out to FFIII in how both titles’ starting classes are secretly the games ultimate class. The difference being that FFIII hid this fact with the Onion Knight through the game’s basic level system, whereas FFV hides it behind mastering job classes. It was a neat nod to the game FFV is so heavily inspired from. Likewise, FFV has more ot offer in the game than just a fancy and refined battle system, there is honestly just more to do in this game which also hearkens back to FFIII. The game has a massive roster of summons that players will need to scrounge the world to find and win over. Bard’s have new abilities that can only be won from talking to the right NPCs or finding pianos to play, the Blue Mage class is designed to make every battle an opportunity to become stronger. What’s unique about FFV’s core game design is that everything feeds back into itself and not thing is wasted here. You’re encouraged to explore, to talk to NPCs, and to even drag out battles for that token item to steal of Blue Mage magic to learn. The game isn’t just about beating up the bad guys and talking to one or two token NPCs to trigger the event flag for the next story portion. FFV allows for more early exploration than other FF titles and it adds enough elements to make it worth your while to stop the plot and just look around. Even for players who don’t care about gameplay mechanics, there are hidden story scenes rewarded for backtracking to places or checking out new towns. FFV was not designed to be a game you rush through to the end, but rather a fine wine that needs to be savored.

    In the area of graphics and music, FFV is equally impressive and step up from its predecessors. IV was visually impressive and did some clever things with the new Mode 7 effects, but FFV combines these tricks with intricately detailed sprite work, and the sheer bulk of party sprites used for the job system. FFV is easily twice the game IV was in sheer volume of content and the graphics art team made this a visually impressive title with things like the Meteor landings, ExDeath’s revival, the Ronkan Ruins dungeon, and the Forest of Moore. Nobuo Uematsu also really came into his own with this games score. FFIV has a very powerful soundtrack, but in comparison to FFV, it feels like the equivalent of Uematus dipping his toes into the water of the new sound file systems he was working with. There are some great tracks, but FFV experiments more, makes the MIDI files do things not quite thought possible in FFIV, and he experiments more with the type of music to play in dungeons and story locations. “Legend of the Deep Forest” is played in a part of the game involving a spooky forest of Moore that ExDeath is born from and the place where Galuf’s world crystals are hidden. You would think the theme of this place would be either villainous or possibly heroic, but instead Uematsu gives a hauntingly beautiful track that embodies mystery and a softness that feels more fitting for what is really a holy place. Likewise, Bartz’s hometown doesn’t use the normal town theme but instead has the quiet and gorgeous “Home Sweet Home” theme that adds a lovely bitterness to the place as the player explores it and uncovers more of Bartz not-so-happy childhood. Even the ending theme bucks the series trend of more heroic triumphant fair for the somber piece of “Dear Friends” which again feels more bittersweet as the player and characters alike feel the happy but mournful moment of knowing an adventure is over. These pieces all use some better sound byte quality that could only come from Nobuo really digging down and making this system work the way he wants to and make the most of his limitations. This isn’t to say all of FFV’s OST like the awful map theme of the first world, but there are more good tracks in this score than weak ones.

    Overall, FFV in some ways feels like the end of an era, but also feels a bit like a new beginning. It feels more like the four games that proceeded it than it will for the next four games after, yet it also introduces so many things that are more well known for in those four later titles such as a deep and enjoyable customization, more things to do within the game world, and strong musical scores. It will be the last game Sakaguchi will direct until 2011’s The Last Story but we’re also now entering the era of promising young staff like Kitase and Nomura coming to the forefront of the series. FFV may be the middle child of the 16-bit era, but it eventually grew to be one of the few entries where the fanbase has a pretty solid opinion of that is not uplifted by rose-tinted nostalgia nor hammered down by silly popularity wars based on biases. It may not have been perfect, but what it did well has allowed the game to stand out among a series that has some seriously great highs, and depressing lows. Perhaps that is why fans still fondly remember this game so fondly.

    This article was originally published in forum thread: When Dawn breaks, a new Light shall fill the Void. started by Wolf Kanno View original post
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