Final Fantasy V's Job System is Amazing, But its Story and Worldbuilding are its Soul
It’s been a while since I’ve shared any progress with my Final Fantasy marathon – my task with playing every numbered entry in the series before XVI’s release. I’ve got thoughts to share on Final Fantasy II-IV, for sure, but something about Final Fantasy V, in particular, clicked with me. It’s not just thanks to the excellent Job System, either.
Final Fantasy V’s story and world-building aren’t really brought up when people talk about Final Fantasy, I’ve found. I suppose it makes sense – it’s sandwiched between two games that undoubtedly placed a much larger emphasis on their characters and story. My qualms with Final Fantasy IV aside, there’s a reason that fans remember it for its story beats and dialogue, and less so for its gameplay. If you’re at all familiar with Final Fantasy VI, I’d say that it more than speaks for itself as well – and, rest assured, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on what makes FFVI’s story a masterpiece down the line.
The point is - when you see praise towards Final Fantasy V, it’s usually about its Job System. That’s more than fair, and FFV more than makes up for the lackluster introduction of the concept in Final Fantasy III. Job Levels are less frustrating to grind, each level unlocks additional traits for the job in question, and being able to cross-equip traits between Jobs means you can have absurdly broken combos like the iconic Dual Wield+Spellsword+Rapid Fire combination. Players are given full reign to break the game, and you really are rewarded for taking the time to jump around and explore different Jobs for each of your party members.
So Final Fantasy V’s crowning achievement is the Job System, right? Well, I think that sells the story and characters short. FFV’s story feels like the culmination of what Square had been trying to do with Final Fantasy storytelling from the very beginning – encompassing the warmth, the feeling of hope that lies at the heart and soul of a Final Fantasy story.
Compared to the Final Fantasy stories that came before it – namely II and IV – V exudes an entirely different aura. There’s a Tenderness in the Air, if you can pardon the pun. There is no immediate threat, no obvious world-ending calamity when you start Final Fantasy V. Bartz, Lenna, Galuf, and Faris don’t just set out on their journey because the world needs them to. No, what drives the party forward are all purely personal reasons, even if they do quickly take up arms in the name of saving the world. They grow into their role as heroes, but from the onset each and every character is given a personal reason to care about the journey.
Lenna wants to find her father after he had gone missing on the way to the Wind Crystal. Bartz had already decided on wandering around on a journey, and pledged his sword to her cause after both her and Galuf ran into problems on their way to the Wind Crystal. Galuf, without his memories, tags along from a desire to regain his lost knowledge – and all he can recall is that there was a reason for him to check on the crystals.
This isn’t entirely something that Final Fantasy V pioneered in the series – after all, Final Fantasy IV offered much of the same nuance nearly two years prior. The difference here is that when IV’s characters had a personal reason to join the fight, it always came down to a personal tragedy. Many party members from IV join the fight in the name of either revenge, or to avenge a loved one. Tella, after the death of his daughter – and Edward, for much the same reason. Edge for his parents, and Yang for his country.
You’d think that with a lighter tone, that V’s story might not be able to hit the same emotional beats as IV did, but instead it’s the opposite. From almost start to finish you’re controlling the same party. Nobody dies; but you’re afforded the opportunity to learn more about your party members naturally, through small scenes like in the Ship Graveyard, Lenna’s hometown of Tycoon, and more. Many of the most memorable scenes in V are even completely missable – you never have to step foot in Bartz’s hometown, but if you do you’ll be subject to a truly touching scene that helps explain the reason for his journey.
Final Fantasy V takes its story and characters at a briskly controlled pace, compared to Final Fantasy stories of the past. There’s a restraint here that was entirely absent from the series’ storytelling until this point. Players are allowed to breathe, and so the moments where the game decides to take itself seriously hit all the harder. Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII may be the most iconic death in the series history, but I’d wager that Galuf’s sacrifice might’ve taken the throne if the west had been granted the opportunity to play Final Fantasy V back on the SNES. I genuinely hurt for Bartz when I saw his reactions to his hometown getting sucked into the void; I dreaded for Lenna when Castle Tycoon suffered the same fate, especially after all of the suffering that she had faced prior to that point.
Lenna, perhaps more than every other member of the party, symbolizes all of what I love about Final Fantasy V’s story and characters the most. From the earliest moments of the narrative, we’re shown her iron will, her propensity to self-sacrifice when she endangered herself to save the last remaining Wind Drake. Throughout the story Lenna was always the first to willingly put herself in harm's way – it wasn’t Bartz that took it upon himself to start the journey, but rather Lenna’s own desire to search for her father, despite the obvious dangers. When the other shoe dropped at the Phoenix Tower, and I witnessed the reason for those values – it was all I could manage to barely hold back my tears.
Though not to the same degree, we’re given a similar moment for each and every member of the party to shine – for us to learn what truly drives them to fight. For Galuf, it’s for his granddaughter Krile. For Bartz, it’s in memory of his parents, and for the world they sought to protect. For Faris – the friends and family she had found, and the sister she had regained. They’re the heart at the core of the story, and despite all of the despair that they might face, it's because of those connections that they’re able to move forward. I’d be remiss if I talked about Final Fantasy V without uttering a word of praise for our favorite dimension-hopping swordsmen, Gilgamesh – despite being one of the game’s consistent villains, at the end of the day he leaves the player as friends, perhaps even hopping in to help you during the final dungeon.
Final Fantasy as a series has always been about the hope that can lie even at the greatest despair, and Final Fantasy V represents that tenet stronger than any of the games that had come before it. For every dark and serious moment, we’re greeted with something thoughtful, something heartwarming, or even just something straight up goofy – if given the chance. No matter how tough life’s challenges might get, there’s always a glimmer of hope; sparked by the light of the crystals...