The early Final Fantasy series varies back and forth between gameplay- and plot-focused entries, and Final Fantasy V is no exception. While the game does have an entertaining story, the focus is squarely on the revised and improved Job system that was last seen in Final Fantasy III.
The plot of Final Fantasy V exists largely to serve its gameplay structure. The game is divided into three distinct acts. You spend the first gathering up the various Jobs, and the third collecting levels, gear, and abilities, while the middle third does the heavy lifting for the story. Your core group of four members are adventuring across worlds to fight an ancient evil, as is typical for the series to this point. The specifics of FFV’s story can get a bit silly as the game bends over backwards to justify the next hunt for whatever item or power you need. This isn’t high drama, but it serves its purpose and keeps things moving.
The job system is similar to its previous incarnation with one major upgrade: instead of your character being entirely defined by their current job, they can now assign an ability from another job they’ve leveled in addition to their primary skills. This gives the system much-needed room to breathe, and allows for every job to remain relevant throughout the game. Gone are the upgraded versions of earlier jobs. Instead of having two different black or white mage jobs, FFV introduces new ideas like the Time Mage and Blue Mage. There are a variety of effective support jobs, but if you prefer a more straightforward style of combat, you can largely do without them. You’re free to go wild with customization, because there are no restrictions on changing your job setup.
One particular system of note introduced here is Blue Magic, which consists of “spells” cast by enemies that you can learn by being hit with them. Many of these spells are a bit underwhelming, but going out of your way to learn the best ones is well worth it. Indeed, the existence of the Blue Mage results in a sort of meta-element to the game. Do you keep a Blue Mage (or someone with their Learning ability assigned) in the party to try to learn as many spells as possible, or go out and hunt for spells periodically? The system does essentially require a guide to be used to its fullest, but there’s a lot of potential enjoyment to be had regardless.
As fantastic as the Job system is, what really makes Final Fantasy V shine is the combat that puts those jobs to use. It’s almost hard to describe why combat in this game is so much fun. It’s fast, impeccably balanced, and you have a near-limitless array of options to attack any problem with. The game mixes up tough enemies with low offensive potential, easily killed enemies that are dangerous if left alone, the occasional random encounter that plays like a miniboss encounter, and everything in between. Taking advantage of elemental weaknesses is, as always, an important part of Final Fantasy combat, but the tuning in FFV is such that every aspect of combat becomes important. Enemy mix, turn order, physical vs. magical, and buffs all need to be considered.
For a long time I thought FFV was a bit overrated due to its status as an unreleased game in the west. I’ve come around, though. If you love games like FFIV and FFVI for the story, you probably won’t feel that same love for FFV. But when it comes to Final Fantasy gameplay, this is as good as it gets. It’s the game that truly introduced min-maxing to the series, and possibly the best implementation of it so far.