Review by steamliner88

"Crystals, bless the world with a masterpiece! No? Guess I'll have to settle for a solid Final Fantasy then."

The release of Final Fantasy III for the Nintendo DS a few years ago was a bit of a milestone since it was the last core Final Fantasy title to receive an official English translation, thus losing its status as the “lost” Final Fantasy that only emulator-using pirates and Japanese-speaking ubergamers got to enjoy. Still, it wasn't a big deal compared to the hype that Final Fantasy V for the SNES enjoyed during the rpg-boom in the mid- to late nineties. While the release of Final Fantasy VII is often (and incorrectly) cited as the starting point for the jrpg's rise from hardcore titles to mainstream affairs, their popularity began back in the SNES-era with titles like Secret of Man, the confusingly named Final Fantasy II and III and Chrono Trigger capturing the imagination of gamers world wide and, due to being mostly US-exclusive titles, boosting the unofficial importing scene to such heights that Nintendo of Europe asked European magazines to wait for the official release before reviewing Secret of Mana out of fear of losing sales to the importers.

When looking at the games from the 16-bit heyday, one title is strangely absent. Final Fantasy V, despite being scheduled to be translated twice, first under the Final Fantasy III name that was later used for FF VI and then as Final Fantasy Extreme, didn't make it to the US until the somewhat flawed PlayStation-port was translated as part of Final Fantasy Anthology around the end of the millennium. Being “lost” for so many years certainly did wonders for its reputation, but with the benefit of hindsight, is FFV really the forgotten gem it was made out to be?

For those unfamiliar with the FF games for the SNES, it should be noted that FFV is a 2D 16-bit jrpg with a fantasy setting that includes a few science fiction touches. It uses Square's (as they were still known back then) active time battle system that fans of later games should be familiar with and at it's heart plays pretty much like later 3D-instalments in the franchise. This makes the game very easy to get into for experienced FF-fans and while beginners might struggle a bit at first, it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get to grips with the basics. If you are new to the series (what are the odds that a newcomer would read this?) you'll be pleased to know that the interface and battle system are bot intuitive and accessible.

For those who have played one or both of the other FF-games on the SNES, contrary to what you might have heard FFV is considerably weaker than its more widely-released siblings. It's still a good game, but it's simply not in the same league as the other two. Where FF IV had some of the most memorable characters in the entire franchise in Rosa, Cecil and Kain and FF VI offered a huge cast of diverse and reasonably fleshed-out heroes, FFV have neither. With a few exceptions that I can't elaborate on without spoiling parts of the story, you are stuck using the same four heroes through the game without much character development taking place. Also, the story about an evil wizard who has been sealed using the powers of the crystals of water, fire, wind and earth and your battle to protect said crystals from destruction is very linear and feels a bit uninspired compared to most top-notch rpgs. The few twists found are mostly predictable and you'll likely never care about the characters in the same way that most of us did in the other two games. Aside from the mysterious Galuf and his witty puns and we've-seen-it-before-but-hey-it-works-this-time-too case of amnesia, your party is almost completely devoid of character. The main protagonist, the traveling adventurer Bartz, is no Cecil and the main villain is simply evil without any real motif or interesting characteristics. There are no morally ambiguous situations, no soul-searching and not even a shade of gray in the black and white conflict of Final Fantasy V. What there are though, are rock solid gameplay with only a few minor niggles, lovely music and enough content to keep you busy for the better part of 50 hours if you plan to completely master the game.

Like most Final Fantasies (with a name like that, how can there be a sequel in the first place?), FFV has a unique play mechanic in its flexible job system that allows you to customize each of the characters in (almost) any way you could ever want. After the first hour or so, you'll receive the first of several sets of jobs to chose from. Aside from the fact that each job has it's own specific abilities, stat benefits and penalties and grants you the ability to equip certain items, you can also train in each job to gain abilities that you can use to customize other job classes. By fighting battles as, say, a knight, you'll eventually gain the abilities to equip armor and wield your weapon two-handed, thus making it possible to have a white mage with armor instead of a mere robe. Fancy a black mage with the ability to steal from enemies or a ninja with access to white magic? Just train in the thief and white mage jobs respectively and the long fingered mage and healing ninja are yours to play with until you come up with a better idea. Perhaps a beastmaster that can fight with his bare hands like a monk? Not sure if it's very useful, but it's no problem to create one. With twenty-seven different jobs including the starting freelancer gig and the four GBA-exclusive professions and well over 100 different abilities of which each jobclass can equip between one and three at a time, there's no shortage of options. While some combinations work far better than others, there is still a lot of room to create your own unique party and play the game the way you want it. To the surprise of nobody, there are some more elaborate combos that are so hideously broken that they make most of the game a breeze. Also, by grinding a bit, you'll soon be so ridiculously overpowered that only a few cheap bosses can pose any real threat to you. Then again, the same can be said of many rpgs and nobody forces you to use a set-up that turns the game into a dragged-out massacre of the various generic fantasy-themed cannon fodder at hand. However, the flip side of all this customization is that the individual characters are virtually interchangeable in their roles, thus making them feel more like rpg mannequins than unique personalities.

Job system aside, the core gameplay in FFV is very similar to the other two 16-bit FF games. You've got a huge overworld with towns to visit, dungeons to explore, lots of enemies to slay and treasures to find and use in your quest to save the crystals. The quasi-turn-based battles work just like in any modern rpg with a constantly running timer deciding when a character can perform an action, thus forcing you to make swift decisions or risk getting pummeled by the enemy while contemplating your next move. It works like a charm, adding a much needed dimension of stress to what would otherwise run the very real risk of being slow and uninteresting system. With simple menus that are cleverly designed and easy to navigate, FFV's interface is about as good as it gets in a jrpg. Also, unless you decide to grind your way to success, the game offers a fair challenge even for experienced adventurers. With a few inexcusable exceptions, all bosses and dungeons can be defeated with proper planning and some light trail and error. Unfortunately, Square, perhaps feeling a bit too loved during the period, decided that it was a good idea to add two optional bosses that are literally impossible to beat unless you have prepared specifically for the them. While the first one appears right after a save point and is easily spotted and, after you have realized that you don't need to fight the cheap (insert profanity of your choice) to advance, avoided, the other is not so generous. Hiding in a treasure chest in the last area before the final boss, the wretched creature will outright murder you on its first turn unless you have equipped accessories that allows you to absorb water attacks. Since the item in question is virtually useless for the rest of the dungeon, chances are that you won't have the essential coral rings handy and will simply be annihilated and sent back to the title screen before you knew what hit you. Did I mention that it's quite a trek from the last save point before you get to the boss? While the concept of “super bosses” is one I usually appreciate, I prefer to have an idea of what I'm getting into beforehand so I can at least prepare for the battle rather than seeing my party slaughtered without being able to do anything about it. It must be said that after the initial chock and title screen-induced tantrums both bosses prove to be fun challenges, but the way you are completely blindsided by them the first time is not challenging, just cheap and annoying.

Like in any good jrpg, there are a good number of very profitable side quests to embark on and lots of loot to be hauled from the deep caves and magic towers that litter the map. While not quite on a level with FF VI, FFV soundly trounces FFIV when it comes to sheer content. In fact, much of the game's appeal comes from exploring the world and experimenting with the job system rather than advancing the ho-hum story. That said, the dungeons, while numerous and long enough to pose decent challenges while short enough to steer well clear of the ocean of tedium that have drowned more than one rpg, are occasionally marred by far too frequent random encounters and some lazy and/or generic design. It never gets as bad as in Phantasy Star II (a potentially awesome rpg drowned in said ocean of endless generic dungeons and more random encounters than most sane people could stomach), but after the first few hours you will have learned to hate the battle theme with a passion. There are also some poorly designed puzzles with one noteworthy example being an occasion where you have to active and then deactivate a spike trap to create holes in the floor that you are supposed to fall into to get to the right part of the basement level of the dungeon. With similar but useless holes all over the place, no map and no clues whatsoever, solving that counter-intuitive puzzle is more a case of blind luck than actual thinking. The above issues aside, when it's at its best, the versatile customization and wealth of tactical options makes FFVA one of the most interesting and addictive hand held rpgs that I've ever played, but those bits aren't enough to really lift the game above the crowd of rock-solid but unspectacular rpgs available for the Game Boy Advance.

Graphically, FFVA shows its roots as an old SNES game from back when memory constraints forced developers to decide between nice graphics and a huge game world. The overworld and out of battle graphics are tiny, repetitive and devoid of detail and while the enemy design is a superb example of vintage Final Fantasy at its best, the complete lack of in-battle animation turns the scraps into slideshow viewing sessions. While it would be a lie to say anything other than that they are well drawn, intriguing and tasteful, the battles are still nothing more than slideshows that occasionally flicker when an enemy makes a move.

The music, on the other hand, is excellent. While initially a bit more upbeat than most other Final Fantasies, the dramatic flair we have gotten used to from composer Nobuo Uematsu soon makes its presence felt. The main antagonist's theme has all the bombastic qualities and menacing sense of evil that the character itself lacks while the Dawn Warriors' theme sounds as noble and heroic as the heroes from yesteryear are hindered from coming across as thanks to the sloppy script. Recurring favorites like the Mambo de Chocobo are as iconic (and repetitive) as ever while tunes like To the North Mountain, the folkish Harvest and the swashbuckling Pirates Ahoy makes the unlockable music player a very welcome addition. Even the oft-repeated battle theme starts off as a solid piece before a tedious one-random-encounter-every-three-steps trek through one of the more broken caves transforms it from “suitably hectic number” to “Chinese water torture”. Unfortunately, the GBA's tinny speaker doesn't do the compositions justice, but that is an issue with the system rather than the game itself. Playing the game on a DS or using a set of headphones solves part of the problem, but there's no denying that the quality of the audio holds down an otherwise marvelous score.

As far as the quality of the port is concerned, FFVA gets top marks as it's clearly the best version of the game despite the somewhat tinny sound and some rare slowdown during battles. The translation is much better than the initial one used in FF Anthology and those annoying loading times that dragged down the PlayStation version are nothing but a bad memory. There are also some minor graphical updates from the original SNES version, but unless you look for them, you won't notice. The bonus dungeon, while a nice touch, is unfortunately a rather dire affair. While it's nice to see that it (unlike the obviously tacked on bonus content in Final Fantasy VI Advance) ties nicely into the story and feels like it truly belongs in the game, the insane random encounter rate and tedious fetch quest based puzzles feel more like pay cuts than bonuses. The rest of the extra content is much better with four new genuinely interesting jobs, a completist-obessing bestiary, the very welcome music player and an unneeded, uninspired boss rush rounding out the package.

Overall, Final Fantasy V Advance is far from the masterpiece it was rumored to be when Square decided against releasing it outside of Japan. It's a very solid jrpg and the job system is a nice touch, but compared to its two 16-bit siblings, it falls short. However, despite its shortcomings, it's still a very good game and a must for FF-addicts while general fans of the genre will find a lot to like about it. More casual gamers are unlikely to get much out of it, but then again, they have truckloads of licensed shovel-ware to enjoy. With a stronger cast of characters, a villain with some personality and a better told and more involving story Final Fantasy V Advance would have been truly great, but a strong seven is not a score to sneer at.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 07/14/11

Game Release: Final Fantasy V Advance (EU, 04/13/07)

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