Final Fantasy V
Based on: Saluting the noble past while bravely facing up to the inevitable future; the ancient rivalry between trees and turtles
Final Fantasy V is the quintessence of Final Fantasy. Or, at the very least, it's the keystone that bridges the divide between the series' formative years and the cinematic behemoth it's become. This seems wholly fitting, given that it was the last chapter directly supervised by series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi; FFV brings together his classically-grounded perspective on what RPGs should be with the flashy mania of the modern entries.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that FFV was also the last entry in the series (barring the self-consciously backward-facing Final Fantasy IX) whose plot was centered around the elemental crystals that served as the MacGuffin for its predecessors. Nor a coincidence that midway through the game, those crystals are shattered, giving way to the sort of reality-spanning adventure gamers tend to expect from anything bearing the name Final Fantasy. Whether deliberate or not, this plot twist was awfully prescient in retrospect: a farewell to Sakaguchi's take on western-style RPGs ushering in all the excesses of the Kitase/Nomura era.
(Oh, yes. It's probably worth noting that FFV was also the first game to which Nomura made a significant creative contribution, upgraded from a lowly QA lackey on Final Fantasy IV to a monster designer here.)
At the heart of all of this is FFV's most remarkable and influential feature, the Job system. Of course, Jobs got their start in Final Fantasy III, but it was only in FFV that they began to take on the shape for which subsequent Final Fantasy game mechanics would become known. That is to say, extremely flexible, and unbelievably vulnerable to exploitation. Perhaps "vulnerable" is the wrong word, though. The developers seemed well aware of the abuses to which players can submit the Job system and answered in kind, offering the series its first true optional superbosses. Sure, FFIV had its Land of Summoned Monsters and the dread Ogopogo, but even those were feasible conquests in the normal course of gameplay -- by necessity, since the only exploits possible through FFIV's fixed, character-specific leveling and classes was sheer level-grinding. Not so for FFV's true final bosses, which thoroughly eclipse the encounter that wraps up the story in terms of ferocity and brutality. Neo-Exdeath is just a big, dumb tree that can be pummeled into submission by a samurai with a pocketful of loose change and a few level-ups under his belt, but Shinryuu and Omega require more than mere stats. They demand special equipment, special skill setups and careful manipulation of character builds. They are, in effect, an open invitation from the game designers to do your worst.
Therein lies the quiet genius of FFV's Job system. It's a natural evolution of FFIII's system, which in turn simply expanded on the dozen restrictive classes seen in the original Final Fantasy. Those in turn were more or less cribbed together through surreptitious glances at a D&D manual while the teacher wasn't looking. FFV's new class additions are even largely derived from D&D: Rangers, Beastmasters, Samurai. Any of the game's four (well, five, but functionally four) party members can switch between Jobs at any time as they could in FFIII, but without the temporary combat penalties and other requirements of the earlier game. Each Job grants the characters an innate, passive skill along with a number of other abilities which are mastered as experience is earned while battling in that particular Job. Any character can set a skill he or she has mastered as one of a few active abilities regardless of their job, which allows for more flexibility than FFIII's fairly basic system.
Still, the real secret of FFV's forward-thinking, twink-friendly design only becomes clear toward the game's end. By that point, the player has begun to fully master different Jobs, and when an experienced warrior reverts to the basic Freelance Job (which at the beginning of the game is essentially worthless), he or she is potentially transformed into a furious bundle of death. The Freelancers' lack of class-specific traits, which initially seems a liability before they've learned any Job skills, transforms them into a blank slate upon which can be inscribed a near-infinite array of formulas for ass-whupping. Freelancers can equip any ability and wield any equipment; more importantly, the passive skills from any fully-mastered Job carry over for a Freelancer. The result is a party of tiny moppets capable of mopping the floor with any enemy...save, of course, those ultimate bosses.
The series wasted no time taking this concept of twinked-out warrior savants to ridiculous lengths as early as the next game; it's no trouble at all to wipe out Final Fantasy VI's godlike final boss, Kefka, with the first character in your roster before anyone else even has a chance to act. And the lengths to which Final Fantasy VIII's skill system can be exploited doubtlessly makes lifelong D&D devotees shudder with disgust. In FFV, though, this was all something new, and perhaps due to its newness never goes too far. Realistically, most players (read: not insane people who feel the need to max every stat by toiling tediously for hours on end) will only master a handful of jobs with each party member, giving a sense of purpose to the whole thing. Played normally, an end-game party will consist of four specialized character with radically different stats and skills, each complementing the others. In fact, the game itself nudges players in this direction. Somewhere around the midpoint of the adventure, the party is forced to split in two to tackle a pair of towers; one can only be conquered with magic, the other with physical skills. This is FFV's way of saying, "Hey, guys. Play smarter, not harder."
FFV works in large part because its excellent Job system is matched by challenges worthy of the flexibility it offers. While its encounters aren't always as memorable as those its predecessor's, that has more to do with the fact that there's a greater sense of segregation between story and gameplay than in FFIV. In terms of game mechanics, though, FFV features some of the finest encounters in the series. Its random battles require plenty of tactical variety without employing quite so many of the "screw you" tactics prevalent in its predecessors. You'll still come up against foes capable of dealing horrible setbacks, but your party is also far more capable of forearming itself against things like stoning and instant death than previous Final Fantasy heroes. The bosses are surprisingly challenging without resorting to the gimmicks they employed in FFIV, which is no mean feat. They manage to put up a fight regardless of your party build, but can generally be taken down with a wide range of tactics, meaning both sensibly-trained teams and min-maxed specialists alike have a fighting chance.
Unfortunately, that story-gameplay segregation is a major drawback for many players, who got a taste of being led about by the nose as Cecil Harvey was swept from one overwrought cutscene to the next and decided that what role-playing is really about is watching some other dude have a glorious adventure. FFV takes a deliberate step back from the direction of its predecessor, which likely didn't feel too terribly out of place in 1992, when most RPGs offered paper-thin excuses to go kill things. But of course Americans didn't get their filthy fat hands on the game until many years later, by which point "Final Fantasy" had become synonymous with "story-driven cinematic excess." In that light, its reduced emphasis on narrative makes it seem weirdly atavistic, a false step on the road to evolution.
That being said, FFV's story isn't that bad. In fact, it has some wonderfully memorable moments, and the dialogue is often so over-the-top that it almost verges upon parody. If FFIV is a fanfiction built around FFIII's character classes, FFV is a satire of FFIV's soppy melodrama. All the previous game's big twists are ludicrously skewered: the hero learns he doesn't simply have unexpected ties to the main plot, but in fact his dad was a magical warrior from outer space! The villain, Exdeath, looks a lot like Golbez, but takes the maniacal posturing to preposterous levels. ("Would you like a side of scenery with your ham, sir?") A seasoned warrior dies nobly, but his loss is even more pointless than Tellah's given that he's instantly replaced by a little girl with identical battle acuity. Oh, and of course the hero becomes a king at the end of the story, and all the secondary party members end up princesses -- yeah, even the one that everyone thought was a guy at first.
The more you play, the more FFV seems to be making fun of its predecessor's heavy-handed narrative. And just in case you were confused about whether or not to take the story seriously, the game's obligatory recurring foe is a hilariously inept henchman who spends more time puffing up his chest and conniving schemes to acquire awesome weapons than he does actually being a threat. Answer: no.
In other words, FFV's story is basically just a hook on which to hang its game mechanics -- an excuse to play with the toys Square built into the game. A regression in some ways, perhaps, but not necessarily for the worse. It's easy to imagine Sakaguchi (who has mentioned FFV as his favorite entry in the series) treating this project as a last determined effort to steer his creation back in his ideal direction, where gameplay is king and plot is something that exists strictly to tell you what to kill next. Then again, his own creations via Mistwalker have been pretty much boilerplate latter-day Final Fantasy knock-offs, so maybe FFV's emphasis on perfectly-tuned mechanics was simply the soul of the franchise attempting to assert itself before wheezing in despair and letting its new overseers have their way with it.
The spirit of FFV did manage to live on in the form of Final Fantasy Tactics?, of course. But its sequels have gone so horribly far off the rails that it's probably better to forget they ever existed. Hey, that's Square Enix for you: two steps forward, one step back, followed by a swift knife right to the heart of its biggest fans.