I worked in a deli for about six months following my college graduation, and during my time as a meat-slinger I noticed an unusual phenomenon. A customer would approach our counter, look over the selections on display, and freeze. Our counter had both a hot and a cold section, each containing dozens of options for the customer to choose from: fresh fruits, cold cuts, fish, chicken, pork, beef, and enough desserts to rot your teeth at a glance. Any customer that didn’t come in prepared knowing exactly what they wanted would find themselves paralyzed by our offerings. After taking in all that we had to offer they inevitably approaching an employee to ask, with some hesitation, “What’s good?”
This phenomenon I came to call the “Tyranny of Choice:” when presented with too many options, one has immense difficulty making any choice at all. Even once a decision has been made an individual will often find themselves dissatisfied with their choice, solely because they can’t help but consider what could have been. Perhaps if they had chosen the bread pudding instead of the mango salad, their lives would have been changed forever. I’m not the first to have noticed this behavioral quirk: there are studies addressing this very issue which demonstrate that too many mutually-exclusive options leave us less happy than if we had no choice at all. That’s why you’re always happy when ordering from a place like Dick’s, where the offerings are limited: without room for choice there’s no room for doubt.
Final Fantasy V, with its job system, epitomizes the Tyranny of Choice. You are granted only five jobs at first, and these are straightforward enough in their roles (Knights are tough, Monks punch things, etc.) that you have no problem building a well-balanced party. They are simultaneously few enough in number (five jobs to four characters) that you don’t feel as though you’re missing out on anything if you neglect one or two. The limited number of initial jobs also encourages you to experiment with party composition, because investing time toward one role only to abandon it doesn’t feel like time wasted.
Those five offerings quickly expand into twenty before you've even finished the first half of the story (with a 21st job hidden in the last third of the game), and what started off as fun and freewheeling quickly shunts your brain into "What's good?" mode as you try to find the optimal party composition among a sea of offerings. I’m terrible at math, but with four characters in your party and 21 jobs available, there are either thousands of party compositions available to you, or millions. That isn’t taking into account all the different skills you can learn and assign to each class, which balloons the number of combinations even further beyond my computational ability. I do feel I can safely describe the number as “gigantic.”
This adds a wrinkle (or a thousand wrinkles) should you encounter a progression block in the form of a boss. More often than not in an RPG you would simply invest time in leveling up your party so as to better tackle the challenge, and while that’s an option here you also need to consider your party composition. Are you limiting yourself in any way? Perhaps you’re focusing too much on offense. Or not enough on offense. Or maybe your composition is fine, but you need to give each character a different complimentary ability. You could give your Knight !Mix and your Black Mage !Time to achieve greater flexibility of response from turn to turn, or you could make everyone Knights and assign each of them different magics to create a party of casters capable of surviving a harrowing physical assault. Or your party and ability composition is fine, but you simply need to strategize better. The rabbit hole goes deep.
To its credit, that complexity means you make your victory in FFV, whether through tactical genius or serendipitous incompetence. When I first played the game over 16 years ago I beat the boss of the Fire Ship in the least heroic manner possible. My party had been wiped out save for Faris, who was assigned the Monk job with !Chakra as her secondary ability. !Chakra allows for decent self healing, and I realized that by sticking Faris in the back row while guarding against physical attacks I could heal through the damage the boss was capable of inflicting through its own strikes. At the same time I could output damage of my own through the Monk’s innate counter-attack ability. That damage was minimal and infrequent, but enough that I would eventually emerge the victor. Thus for ten minutes my only actions were Defend and !Chakra while my counter attacks steadily chipped away at the boss, until it finally faded away to much fanfare.
I didn’t deserve that victory, but it was mine all the same.
The sense of paralysis that comes from choosing between 21 different jobs does fade eventually, as greater familiarity with the roles teaches you that some are simply better than others. Five can be skipped over entirely: Bard, Dancer, Geomancer, Beastmaster and Berserker provide options that are either too weak or too situational to be of much use. Of the sixteen remaining jobs, nine are what I could classify as Warrior or Utility, and choosing between them is largely a matter of selecting your favorite flavor of Beefy Swordsman or Skillful Huntsman. Only the casters provide you with a diversity appreciable enough that they all warrant pursuit. By the end of the game you will have boiled them down into a simple, if delicious, roux comprised of several key abilities mixed together with Freelancers or Mimes.
Whatever flaws the job system may have, it is striking in its ambition and provides a nearly unparalleled system of character customization with the Final Fantasy series which wouldn’t be seen again in a mainline game until Final Fantasy XI. In fact, "ambitious" is this game in a nutshell, as at every turn the designers are striving for something great but always fall just short of their mark. The story is larger than ever despite not possessing quite as much depth as future titles; my recording captured 90 individual segments, yet I could describe the story to you in thirty seconds. The writers still stumble in their depiction of women and gender roles, but they’re clearly making an effort to depict their female characters (and their non-binary character!) with greater depth and self-reliance. The difficulty curve is more balanced than before, but the bosses you face are overly reliant on gimmicks: this leads to gigantic, if brief, spikes in difficulty wherein you fail simply for lack of precognition. Everything comes this close to elevating the game to classic status, but none of it quite succeeds in that aspiration.
Everything except the music, anyway. The music is bitchin’ from start to finish. But complimenting a Final Fantasy for its music is like complimenting sugar for being sweet.
Where previous Final Fantasy entries can only be recommended with significant caveats, I feel confident in suggesting Final Fantasy V without any warnings at all. Beloved though IV may be, V pulls well ahead of its predecessor with its unique gameplay and memorable characters. If it had been released stateside I have no doubt that it would have been lauded over, and I suspect that even now it would be a forerunner in the debate over which game is the best in the series. A dark horse candidate perhaps, but one which would always be breathing down the necks of its competitors.
Though it never quite achieves its ambitions, Final Fantasy V is the first entry in this series that I can recommend without hesitation. The job system, though byzantine and at times arresting, sets it apart from anything before or since, and allows the player to remix the gameplay experience as much as they like. Do it for Boko. Do it for Cid and Mid. Do it for Gilgamesh.