Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review: Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler

Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler

Publisher: Boss Fight books
176 pages, ISBN: 978-1-940535-18-0
Release date: October 24, 2017
Disclosure: I was provided a free digital version of this book for review purposes, with no grading or scoring requirement from the publisher.

I was really excited to get my hands on Chris Kohler's new book, simply titled Final Fantasy V, because Final Fantasy V had been somewhat of a mystery to me until very recently.

When I was 16, I got to borrow a SNES from a co-worker, mainly because I really wanted to play Super Mario World (this was 1998, when the only way to play a SNES game reliably was with an actual SNES machine). However, there was another game that David included with his SNES called Final Fantasy III (actually VI). I was no stranger to RPG games, having spent countless hours playing Shining Force on my Game Gear, so I gave Mario a rest and fell in love with Final Fantasy VI. From the gorgeous graphics and well-made gameplay, to the gripping story that felt like you were watching a movie, it's one of my 11 favorite games ever made, and the second-best 16-bit title ever made (Chrono Trigger takes that top spot).

So when the game was released on the PS1 as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology, it was a must-own. The other game in the set was Final Fantasy V, which looked like a lot of fun as well. I didn't get to play much of it, because shortly after getting the game, the charming yet nefarious Tony Lech borrowed it and to this day has yet to return it.

Thankfully, I've gotten a chance to play it in the past few years, as I repurchased Final Fantasy Anthology for the PS1 (for some unknown reason, you can get the physical disc for $10 on Amazon Prime). If I had never touched this game, Kohler's book would have sold me on it. The most striking thing about his book is that Kohler convinced me Final Fantasy V is the best game in the series even though I know it isn't.

If you've read my previous posts, you know that devoting time and attention to a book isn't the easiest thing for me to do. Yet I was able to breeze through the entire thing in a weekend. Kohler does an exceptional job of weaving his personal experiences with the game and the behind-the-scenes production saga that went into making Final Fantasy V. Even as someone who prides themselves on knowing a lot about video game history, there were plenty of educational experiences for me to consume.

One of my favorite parts of the book was learning about the friendly rivalry between Hironubi Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series and director of part V, and Yoshinori Kitase, who was the field planner, event planner, and scenario writer for Final Fantasy V. It was a joy to read about how they always tried to one-up each other, such as this passage about the team coming up with timed escapes from dungeons:

The ability to create intricate, strictly timed events was like lighter fluid on the fire of Sakaguchi and Kitase’s friendly creative rivalry. Sakaguchi would create an elaborate sequence and challenge Kitase to complete it in three minutes. Kitase would respond by creating a two-minute challenge for Sakaguchi.
Learning about these two spending their time creating challenges for each other humanized the game in a way that pixels and music could never do.

Kohler also gives plenty of strategies for completing this game in different ways. For instance, if you equip the Crown of Thorns on a Berserker, and counteract the item's HP drainage, it makes the Berserker the most powerful magic user in the game, due to the SNES not being able to handle negative numbers (it rolls the MP stat from 0 "backwards" to 255). And if you equip the Gaia Hammer, you can cast a very powerful quake spell on everyone.

This is a trick I probably never would have discovered on my own, even if you gave me a full day of web-browsing without any of my children around. And Kohler's book has plenty of strategic insight that makes it a decent strategy guide, along with a historical record of an underrated game.

Despite his belief that the PS1 version is not the best way to play it, it is the way I've been playing it in preparation for the book (on a real PlayStation 1, not a digital download on a newer system). The translation is really shoddy (saying "YESSSS!!!!!!" after every encounter is NOT what the original Japanese version says), and 5.9 seconds to load each random encounter (I timed it) might be too much for some folks to handle, but playing the game after reading his book is a brand new experience that I don't think I would have appreciated as much if Lech didn't "borrow" my copy of the game 18 years ago.

One of the things that makes the game great, Kohler contends, is being able to build and construct your own personalized Final Fantasy characters. And I agree with him 100 percent. Sure, the story is very simple (they make a good case for a simplified storyline that I won't spoil here), but being able to create a berserker with black magic skills, or a Knight with blue magic, is an amazing customization feature that I don't think we'll ever see in another Final Fantasy game. It's implemented so well that you have to regard FFV as the best of the series when it comes to gameplay mechanics.  The book reveals so many amazing combinations that you can complete the game with, so if you've already played the game once or twice, reading it may inspire that third playthrough.

In closing, this is a wonderful read for fans of any genre of gaming. The behind the scenes stuff and the walk down 90s memory lane is compelling literature. Most complaints I have are too minor to waste time writing about, but the main one was a lack of photos. It would have been really great to see photos of the production team, screenshots from the game, and maybe some childhood photos of Chris with the game.

I reached out to the publisher, and they did confirm that no photos would appear in the consumer version of the book. A missed opportunity for sure, but not a deal-breaker by any stretch.

I will also caution you that the book contains some pretty significant story-line spoilers for Final Fantasy V, so if you would like to play the game and experience the plot twists for yourself, you may want to hold off on reading until you complete most of the game.

Did Final Fantasy V become my favorite FF game after reading this? My apologies Mr. Kohler, but VI will always be the best  (and IX will always be the secret best). But after reading this book and playing the game side-by-side, I see why he finds the game so charming.

Now if you'll excuse me, my PlayStation and I have some lost time to make up.

Final score*:

* I am not giving this a letter grade or numerical score because I think those are invitations for people to skip the review and look at the grade, then argue on fan forums about the grade being too high or too low.

* * * 
From the publisher: When Final Fantasy V was released for the Japanese Super Famicom in 1992, the game was an instant hit, selling two million copies in the first two months alone. With a groundbreaking job system that combined the usual character classes like knights, thieves, and mages with offbeat classes such as chemists, dancers, and bards, the game appeared to be a shoo-in for North American distribution. But the game was dubbed "too hardcore" for a Western audience and was swapped out with Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, a simplistic new game tailor-made for Americans.
That didn't stop a teenage Chris Kohler from tracking down Final Fantasy V. The young RPG fan got a Japanese copy of the game, used it to teach himself Japanese, and with the help of some internet companions created the first-ever comprehensive English-language FAQ of the game. As the internet narrowed the cultural gap between the East and West more each year, the game was eventually translated into English for the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and iOS. 

Fans in the West finally got to learn what all the fuss was about. Now the acclaimed author of Power-Up and an editor at Kotaku, Kohler is revisiting the game that started his career in games journalism. Based on new, original interviews with Final Fantasy V's director, Hironobu Sakaguchi, as well as previously untranslated interviews with the rest of the development team, Kohler's book weaves history and criticism to examine one of the Final Fantasy series's greatest and most overlooked titles.

​Chris Kohler is the author of Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, and the founding editor of Game|Life, the Webby-nominated video game section of WIRED. He is currently Features Editor of Kotaku, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area


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