Sunday, July 27, 2014

Final Fantasy V (1992, Playstation)

For my latest Final Fantasy post, I decided to do something different.  As you may have gathered, I've been playing through the series with my wife, Clare.  In honor of the first FF to allow for 2 players, we've decided to do a "2-player blog post".  Hope you enjoy!  (We may decide to make this a tradition here at TPINS.)

Ben:  So...Final Fantasy V.  Sandwiched between the much more famous IV and VI, FFV is perhaps the most controversial game in the series.  Some people think it's a blemish on the series, and some think it's a hidden classic.  But whatever people think about the game and its strange job system, everyone seems to agree that its plot is not much to speak of, so how about we start there?
FFIV's big innovation was the large cast of characters, each with well-defined personalities that played off their fixed class in some way.  FFV, like earlier entries, has just four(-ish) characters that can be anything from healers to bad-ass ninjas to...flamenco dancers.  Unlike those previous games, however, these characters actually have somewhat fleshed-out backstories.  I actually found the occasional flashbacks to be surprisingly touching.  For instance, when Bartz, pretending to be asleep, overhears his parents arguing about his father leaving home to go on another dangerous adventure.  How do you think these characters compare with those from FFIV?

Clare:  I found myself much more invested in FFV's characters than FFIV's, because they stuck around for so much longer. After it became apparent that some of FFIV's characters were going to drop out more or less permanently, it became much more frustrating to deal with the remaining team members...were they going to disappear into some sickroom somewhere too? I also think FFV allowed for a nice mix of scripted character arcs and player input in the form of which job(s) each character was going to level up. For example, Faris is a pirate captain. Having her level up as a fighter makes a lot of sense with her scripted plot. On the other hand, the plot seemed to want Reina to be the healer -- she is the "kind" one, the princess, but there was nothing stopping us from subverting this trope and making Bartz our healer instead. Somehow, this lends more richness to the plot than there otherwise would be. Reina isn't just the kind, sweet princess out healing the team. Instead, she has a meta-narrative of trying to figure out which of the many jobs are going to work for her...for us, it turned out that alchemy and archery were really her thing. Furthermore, Bartz is sort of scripted as our lead guy. He is the first character we control, and seems to fit the wandering hero trope. But instead, he winds up being the support character to the much more physically powerful female warriors. Speaking of which, even if Bartz is one of the fighters, the game has as many female characters as male ones. It's not possible to have the girls be the token female healer -- there are just too many of them.. So what did you think of the largely female cast? Do you think it represents a real shift in gender dynamics in the Final Fantasy series?

Ben:  I was hoping you'd bring that up!  The Final Fantasy series, perhaps more than any other, is responsible for the stereotypes that pervade depictions of females in JRPGs.  FFV, despite being dominated by women at the end, is no exception.  Reina is the "kind healer", Faris is the "unrepentant tomboy", and Krile is...well, I suppose she's more of a cipher, although some have suggested that she's supposed to be the "lolita".  But one of the great things about the job system is that you're free to subvert those expectations.  And except for a couple cutscenes where Bartz shows off his ninja prowess, the story lets you have it your way.

But while we enjoyed having fun with these characters, their story was hard to take seriously.  This is a game, after all, where the greatest threat to all existence comes from an ex-tree named X-Death.  If I may go on a tangent, though, there is some sense to be made of this.  The informative Final Fantasy Wikia tells us that this is actually a portmanteau of Exodus and Death.  This brings to mind the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, responsible for the exodus of Adam and Eve.  Really, recasting the villain from that story as the tree as opposed to the serpent is an interesting interpretation - I wonder if the Gnostics had something similar in mind.  Probably not something Sakaguchi was thinking about, I guess.

...Anyways, another thing about this game that nobody seems to talk about is how great the monster designs are.  Seriously, this game goes off the deep end, giving us cats wearing wings...

 ...ballerina goblins doing handstands...

 and...again, X-Death is an evil tree.
 I would argue that with RPGs pre-FFVI, the monster designs, and not the story, are the real "content" of the game.  Would you agree?

Clare:  I think one of the surprising things about pre-FFVI Final Fantasies is that they seem to have complicated and weird stories that aren't really all that different from later RPGs, but they are delivered in a much clumsier and less coherent fashion. In FFV, we have an evil tree trying to destroy the universe, yes. But there is also the fact that the world was split in two (I don't remember if it is clear why that happened), and you can travel between these worlds via meteor. There is also a strong theme of fathers passing on the torch to a younger generation, who has to step up and take their place as heroes. There's sort of a lot in there. Not as much as FFVI or ChronoTrigger, but it's still a fairly complex set of elements. On the other hand, the storytelling aspect of the games is still a little clumsy, and the individual elements don't really gel perfectly into a whole. It's much better than FFI, where everything was delivered in one near-incomprehensible infodump at the end, but they still haven't quite figured it out all the way by FFV. FFVI seems like such a huge leap forward because it knows how to tell a complicated and strange story. It has a better set up, a better reveal of the true enemy, a more solid story arc over all, and the stakes just feel much higher. So, to take a long time to answer the question, I think the story "content" of FFV is not really that different from later games, but the delivery is still clutzy enough that the really enjoyment of the game comes from things like the monster designs. And those designs are great! I loved the handstand demons. Also, this guy:
looks a lot like one of the monsters from Mother 3:
So, there's that.
There's also the fact that, unlike in previous Final Fantasies, I really felt like we hadn't fully completed this game. There were a lot of optional bosses that we didn't beat, a lot of summons we didn't acquire. We didn't level up all the jobs, or try all the alchemy combinations, or learn all the songs. It seems like there is just much more to do than ever before, and unless you are really devoted, and probably have a manual at hand, you won't really get to do or see everything. What are your thoughts on that? Do you see this as being a good direction for the series? I'm a little torn. On the one hand, it lets you decide more what you want to do (and potentially adds replay value), but on the other hand, it puts a kind of pressure to put more time into the game than you might really want to. When we encountered a lot of the optional bosses, it was pretty obvious that we were nowhere near being able to beat them, but if you let the story move on, then the opportunity to do so disappears. Is it reasonable to expect players to spend another several hours leveling up just to get a new summon?

Ben:  If Final Fantasy V gets talked about today, it's usually because it's great for "Let's Play's" - the replayability of the game, with its myriad job combinations and various collectathons (summons, blue magic, songs, etc), surpasses anything that came before it.  As a rule, the only games that I enjoy replaying are the ones, like adventure games, that play exactly the same way a second time.  And yet I enjoyed Final Fantasy V despite this, because there's so much fun experimentation that you can do in a single playthrough.  And moreover, this experimentation feels necessary.  The boring fighters that you can get away with in earlier games just don't cut it in FFV - you need to add a ninja skill like 2-swords (which allows dual wielding) or forgo a shield and use 2-handed to double the attack power, or else you're not going to be useful.  Also, the traditional elemental black magic is relatively useless against later bosses - much more useful is time magic, like Haste2.  The magic spell that allows you to restart the battle should be in every JRPG ever.

There is plenty in the game that we missed, but we did most of the optional sidequests - at least all of the obvious ones - and randomly discovered an extremely cool hidden town.  I think there's a healthy attitude to take, somewhere between speeding from cutscene to cutscene and being an absolute completionist.  I too wish that we could have beaten Omega or Shinyuu, but I think the game tried to make it clear that those battles were for masochists.  Certainly, it was annoying to stumble into them after hours without a savepoint, but I do like the idea that there are beings out there that can crush the greatest of heroes.  If Shinyuu wanted to take over the universe, we'd all be doomed.  It is true that Final Fantasies would soon pander more and more to perfectionists.  I remember the Playstation-era games containing many sidequests that seemed impossible to 13-year-old Ben without a walkthrough.  I'm very curious to see if that will still be the case.
Overall, I would agree with placing FFV in the "under-rated classic" department.  Certainly, Square's decision not to release it in America for several years seems increasingly baffling.  One final question:  what do you think modern JRPGs could learn from FFV?

Clare:  I guess all games have to walk the line between showing you too much and not showing you enough. If you want players to have a feeling of discovery -- that "Oh my god, there's a hidden town here!" feeling -- then you have to also risk that some things are going to remain hidden. And overall, I think that's a good thing. And if there is going to be some challenge to a game, then you have to risk having some bosses who are too hard to beat. I guess "hard" isn't really quite the right word. I don't think anyone is really "bad" or "good" at this style of turn-based RPG. It's more a matter of being persistent or not. In fact, I think that's where a lot of the fun comes in. The most fun thing in this game is seeing Faris deliver 9999 HP of damage with a sorcery attack, but that's only fun because before that were hours and hours and hours where a really good attack was probably only worth 200, or 500, or 2000 HP. The thrill of beating Shinyuu is probably similar. It's fun mostly because you were totally unable to do it before, and it took hours and hours of grinding to get up to a level where you could even have some kind of strategy.

So what can modern RPGs learn from FFV? I guess the biggest lesson is that there is a balance between having characters who can do everything and having characters who are too limited by their class. If all your characters are good at everything, there isn't much strategy, everyone is just an equal badass. But I hate being punished for making bad decisions in choosing classes early on, or for experimenting with different strategies later. In FFV, you can only be good at 2 things at a time, but you can learn new things and change your mind up until the end of the game. We didn't make Reina an archer until the near the end, but it was easy to switch her, and she wound up really powerful. Each character has his/her own role, but those roles can be switched up easily to allow for more, well, more play with the mechanics. The other lesson that sadly hasn't been implemented much, is that RPGs are super fun with a partner. FFV allows a second player to control half the characters in battle, and that makes it so much more fun. It is an easy thing to implement in a turn based game, and it sort of makes me sad that we can't do that in all upcoming games. But not too sad, because FFVI has the same mechanic. I call Celes!

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