Review: Final Fantasy V Pixel Remaster

26 Nov 2021

Media preservation is a funny thing. Films, television and music have obviously been around a lot longer than video games have. Because of that, there’s a bit more reverence and concern for preserving the good and bad of everything for future generations to experience. Shift that focus to video games and that gets a little more technical, and can get complicated as a result. If we’re talking ports from more recent console generations, that isn’t always as straightforward as “improve the graphics and maybe do some quality of life updates.” Thankfully, that’s not the case with the Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster series.

Given that these games released on multiple platforms over their lifetimes and have been ported numerous times past that, it made sense to go for a unified style and undergo the insurmountable task of corralling six classic games under the same umbrella. Final Fantasy V sits in a weird place for some fans. While definitely an improvement on the classic JRPG formula in comparison to its forebears, it feels like it gets overshadowed over the likes of its two direct successors by an unfortunate country mile. That isn’t to say that V doesn’t have people in the overall FF fanbase that enjoy it and are excited to see this game along for the ride for the “classic, yet kind of modern” treatment.

I have personally found myself in the camp of the post VII crowd, though I’m definitely not a stranger to the classics. That said, I’ve always hoped that when any game (classic or otherwise) gets a new chance at redemption that the end product results in being the best that it can be. Which is easy to say with the entire Pixel Remaster project, as all of these titles are intended to be the definitive version of each game. Given our look at the first three games, it feels safe to say that we’re off to a solid start.

Developed and published by Square Enix, Final Fantasy V Pixel Remaster released on PC via Steam and mobile devices on November 10, 2021. The Steam version was played for this review.

A Pixelized Crystalline Tale

I always feel the need to preface bringing up any classic game with mentioning the landscape surrounding JRPGs like this. Game plots in the late 1980s and early 1990s were often restricted to extremely simplistic and straightforward affairs, as the gameplay was mainly the focus. Outside of JRPGs, this sort of thing was a rare occurrence then. Because of that, you naturally had to gravitate to the likes of games like this to get anything that’s rich in story. Yes, modern games can and have been much more involved in terms of story. But back in the ’90s? Final Fantasy games were a safe bet for a story rich experience and stood head and shoulders above most other games because of that very landscape.

The game opens upon a kingdom in turmoil over the potential destruction of an elemental crystal that directly affects their daily lives. Naturally, anything happening to it would be detrimental as a result. Though despite their best efforts (and a meteor crashing down in their general vicinity), their crystal shatters. This is where our main character Bartz comes into the fold. He goes to investigate the recent meteor impact on his trusty Chocobo, and ends up meeting the amnesiac older gentleman Galuf and the princess Lenna as a result. Along the way they meet up with the pirate captain Faris, and eventually fall into what you might think is the typical “rescue the remaining crystals to maintain peace in the world” kind of plot.

However, this game revels in lulling you into a false sense of security and throwing a twist at you at inopportune times. That’s not to say that they’re bad or anything, it’s just that those twists kind of hit you like a truck. Take, for instance, Galuf. When you meet him and the core party is formed, he’s stricken with amnesia. Though once he starts to regain his memories, it’s one of the first subversions you come across. Those crystals you’re trying to rescue? Yeah, there’s a bigger reason that they’re important to keep standing and you’ll figure out why soon enough.

Given the classic nature of the game, the story that unfolds does so in a way that does more with less. Par for the course, you’re going to be dealing with plenty of text throughout your playthrough. Though the writing does a great job of giving depth not typically seen in games that come from this era. Not only that, but one of the big strengths of this game is how comfortable it is with letting the player get comfortable with what they think is a typical JRPG plot and just saying “Nope! This is what it actually is” in a way that will definitely throw you through a loop.

Fans would also be quick to point out that the villains here are another high point in their playthrough. While unfortunately overshadowed by the likes of Kefka and Sephiroth these days, the big bads here are often referenced as the most entertaining parts of the game. Honestly, I tend to agree. This is at a point in games where extensive character depth wasn’t exactly a thing quite yet. But you know what? That’s fine. Sometimes you just want straightforward characterization that’s entertaining, and I feel like everyone here basically delivers on that. Especially when the plot starts to barrel forward.

The game can’t help that the plot may not be as intricate or as deep as that JRPGs that follow it, but that’s okay. The end goal with any piece of media is to basically just get some semblance of enjoyment out of it. The story in Final Fantasy V is absolutely a product of its time, but it’s a story that still digs its claws in and keeps you playing. Really, it’s a testament to how well it holds up. That’s got to count for something.

Getting the Job Done

Since the aim of the Pixel Remaster project ends up straddling between maintaining the original vision of the game while also bringing some modern conveniences to the table, it’s worth mentioning right off the bat that features that were seen earlier in the series make their way to V as well. Using auto battling is still here, but it can be a point of contention for series purists. For those fans, it should be noted that this is a feature that’s completely optional.

Nothing’s stopping you from engaging in the Active Time Battle system as originally intended. The thing that might rub new players the wrong way would be the amount of grinding involved to level up sometimes. In this regard, I can see this being a salve for those that find grinding to progress to be more of a chore than a delight.

Outside of that, it’s pretty apparent that they didn’t want to mess with the core gameplay all that much. Given the era it spawned from, this isn’t surprising. Gameplay-wise, it definitely takes quite a few cues from Final Fantasy III. Most notably, the Job system makes a return and is greatly expanded from what was originally an expansion of the base classes from the original Final Fantasy. Given the crystal-centric nature of both of these games, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After encountering each of the four elemental crystals, you end up gaining in between four to six new jobs after each encounter is finished. Not to be outdone, the additional four classes present in prior remakes are also present here as well.

This is often cited as the best part of the job-centric games, and has been present in some form or fashion in subsequent titles as well (Dresspheres, anyone?). The great thing about the breadth and depth of these available jobs is the versatility that comes with it. If you’re more of a physical fighter, there’s quite a bit of that. Did you want to have a solid healer? Plenty of options for that as well. So long as you’re not in the heat of battle, you can mix and match jobs for your party to your heart’s content.

I can see it being overwhelming or unnecessary for some. But for others, half the fun is messing around and seeing what sticks to progress the story. The balance between the two preferences seems to hold true as a result. Some want versatility, others just stick to one configuration from acquisition to the final encounter. Both are valid, naturally. But that sort of thing wasn’t a common occurrence when it originally released, so it was bound to stick out. Decades later, it’s still one of the highlights of gameplay.

Those wondering if the core gameplay has changed for the worse can rest easy. Aside from the aforementioned auto battle option, this is still the FFV you know and love. You’re still going to be gallivanting around the world map in various manner of transportation, acquiring summons, dungeon crawling, inventory optimizing, and engaging with the plot as you would have before. However, it’s worth mentioning that the game doesn’t exactly hold your hand to get from point to point. This is great for those who like to explore every nook and cranny to progress the plot, but new players may find themselves reaching for a guide.

I’m of two worlds of this, because many fans take pride in being as much of an active participant as possible. Others just want to enjoy the story without much fuss, though any attempt at a watered down experience may irk fans in the other camp. That said, this is not a watered down experience. Not by a long shot. Even with the semi-light extras presented here, it’s still worth experiencing.

Really, there’s something to be said about how well the overall gameplay holds up. It’s most definitely a classic JRPG from top to bottom, but you can tell how much it wants to enhance and improve on the gameplay it builds upon. Do I feel like this is the best way to play this game now? No question. It pulls down enough reverence for the source material while also making the slightest of concessions to better appeal to new players to seemingly satisfy both parties. Square Enix knows that rocking the boat too much might cause backlash, so going with what works isn’t much of a stretch when you think about it.

This is a remake that’s largely concerned with being an authentic experience with the occasional bone thrown in to appeal to a broader audience. Make no mistake, this game makes no effort to obscure the fact that this is a classic JRPG. Regardless, it’s great to see that what’s seen here is still solid and true to what it is.

Blending Classic With a Dash of Modern

The unified presentation with each title in the Pixel Remaster line seems to land upon somewhere in between the 16 and 32 bit era of games, which in the case of FFV isn’t much of a big deal given it released in the former era. Visually speaking, it looks and acts like a game from both eras. It’s unabashedly beautiful to look at while also firmly planting its feet in the past in a way that doesn’t feel particularly lazy at all.

The general gameplay flow on the visual side is largely in line with the original release. The overworld looks great; environments in general are about as detailed as you’d expect from games from this era. These aren’t games that try to straddle a 3D style with 2D elements like Triangle Strategy aims to do. These are 2D environments with subsequent sprites telling a story within those constraints.

Sure, some could say that they aren’t the most polished thing to look at in comparison to modern games. But the aim seemed to be more of “make it true to the original while also throwing in some visual updates” more than anything else. In that regard, they definitely succeeded. Little, if any, modern visual effects are added here. But the angle of the visual presentation is more of a way to not detract from the classic visual style they’re trying to retain. It doesn’t shy away from what it is, but it does make an effort to make enhancements where they make sense to do so. Yeah, the font for dialogue is weird, but it’s largely a nonissue for me. It’s something that they can patch in if enough people raise a fuss about it.

The big highlight, to the surprise of nobody, is the audio presentation. Namely the enhanced soundtrack. Overall sound design definitely screams “I’m a game from the ’90s,” and that’s not an insult. They don’t get in the way, nor is any of it particularly grating on the ears. It works within the original constraints, and it’s largely fine as presented.

It’s when you let the soundtrack play out where you see how hard they went with remixing these tracks. They aren’t ridiculously overcomplicated renditions or anything like that – you can tell what they are. Overseen by original composer Nobuo Uematsu, much like the aim of the overall game, it is absolutely the definitive version of the soundtrack. Every track here is an absolute joy to listen to (Yes, Battle on the Big Bridge goes about as hard as you’d expect), and is really a testament to why Uematsu is as highly regarded in the community as he is. He puts maximum effort into every soundtrack he composes, and these remixes are no different.

It feels safe to say that everything involved in the presentation succeeds at straddling the past and the present. This release doesn’t shy away from where it came from, but it makes improvements where they make sense. In between a visually competent product and a wonderfully composed remake, the proof of effort is apparent in every minute of gameplay. This shouldn’t surprise anyone given that this is a mainline Final Fantasy game, but it’s something worth celebrating anyway.

Classic Comfort

Saying that series fans are dedicated to this franchise is really a given at this point, especially those on the classic end of things. Given that everything past XII so far breaks away from the classic formula in ways that deviate from the classic gameplay, it’s nice to see that Square Enix still recognizes how important the first six games are to some of these folks. If anything, these remasters reinforce that acknowledgement in a way that can and should satisfy those fans.

FFV isn’t always the first thing classic fans may think of when the subject of the best of the classics come up, but that isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be held in the same regard as the usual suspects of “best of” conversations. It expands on prior gameplay elements in a fantastic manner, isn’t afraid to buck some tropes, and is an unsurprisingly solid game nearly 30 years later.

There are plenty of remakes and rereleases of the classic Final Fantasy titles within relatively easy reach, but it’s hard for me to sit here and say the most recent stab at improving these games were a bad attempt. It respects the source material enough to not make any drastic changes, improves the presentation in the best way it possibly can, and sticks the landing as the definitive way to experience a well-established classic. Even with the fan favorite VI finishing up this batch of remakes, this is a game that’s still well worth your time. They hold up for a damned good reason. If you’re on the fence about picking this one up, don’t be. You’re going to enjoy yourself.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by Square Enix for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Square Enix.