In the beginning there was Final Fantasy XIV, and it was not good. For most games, the story would’ve ended there. But Square Enix, perhaps feeling that its prized franchise’s name was in danger of becoming too literal, undertook a mammoth effort to keep Final Fantasy’s legacy from being marred by such a disaster. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is the resulting do-over, and it’s a huge success on both PC and PlayStation 3. Beautiful, fun, and only a bit uneven in the late game, this dramatic reinvention easily establishes itself as one of the most sincere and effective apologies in gaming history.
First there’s the continent of Eorzea itself, a stunning world of forests, deserts, and coasts that often delivers wallpaper-worthy moments, such as a the sight of watching the sun rise over the waters of the resort of Costa Del Sol. It’s filled with weather effects ranging from simple fog to torrential rainstorms and even humdrum overcast days. It’s even easy to get around in, thanks for aetheryte crystals that serve as teleportation locations at every major town, although the zones remain large enough that the immersion of walking or riding isn’t lost amid crowded portals. True to Final Fantasy tradition, Masayoshi Soken’s entirely new musical score is a constant pleasure, and it jumps smoothly from soothing tracks to heavy metal riffs on bosses like Titan. I also note that my character can sit down on most surfaces that looked as though they were made for sitting – a test I use to determine how much attention a world designer pays to detail. A Realm Reborn passes that test.
It seems counter-intuitive to praise a game for reducing its graphical quality from a previous version, but in this case it was a good move. A Realm Reborn’s toned-down approach lets it run smoothly on both mid-range PCs and PlayStation 3 while retaining much of the beauty. The detail even extends to the decent character generator, although as a proud owner of an epic beard, I was disappointed that my only beard options consisted of a scruffy, depressed-looking Hyur Highlander or the hulking Roegadyn. (Odd, too, since you see good beards on NPCs.) I went with the latter.
The main storyline is full of twists and struggles that give some meaning to the surrounding eye candy, even if at best it’s little more than another tale of good struggling to overcome evil. Still, it packs some surprises. Around level 35 a shift occurs that jumpstarts the narrative into hyperdrive, and it never really loses momentum until it ends at level 50 (and rewards you with a sweet magitek mount). A Realm Reborn makes smart use of cinematics along the way, although Square Enix only took the time to add voices to a handful of them. Most of the time you have to read the story, but it’s well-written enough that it’s not just click-through material. Luckily, you can actually get in to enjoy these sequences these days – the server issues that plagued A Realm Reborn’s first two weeks now seem to be a thing of the past.
Much of the great strength of A Realm Reborn’s class system lies in its versatility: simply switch out your weapon, and you’ll become whatever class is associated with that weapon. That was true of the 1.0 as well, but the transition here is smoother thanks to a tab for multiple gear sets that lets you swap between classes in seconds. All classes also advance into specialized classes called jobs, which requires leveling a dominant class to 30 and a secondary class to 15. (To achieve my endgame “Bard” job, for instance, my character needed to reach level 30 as an Archer and level 15 as a Pugilist. It had the unintended effect of making me wish I’d leveled a Pugilist instead.) Not only does this design add the huge replay value of letting you level every class with the same character, but because you can borrow a handful of abilities from your secondary classes, it allows for some unique character builds that arguably outclass traditional talent-based systems.
Likewise, you can become a crafting or gathering class simply by equipping the appropriate tool, and they level just like a combat class. It’s a great idea, and that’s why it’s such a shame that the actual products of crafting don’t outperform the gear from late-game dungeons. They’re still useful and necessary for enchantments and potions once you hit the raiding scene, but at this moment the endgame payoff doesn’t always match up to the effort needed to level a crafter. Even so, crafting is actually fun in A Realm Reborn, and the design is such that you could play as nothing other than a crafter if you wished. There are even some entertaining, cinematic-powered storylines that accompany each tradeskill every five levels, which means that professions such as fishing and botany possess a bit of the excitement you find while leveling a combat class.
Combat itself is drenched in MMO tradition, with some flashy animations that almost manage to mask the fact that it relies on the same system of tab-targeting and hotkeys that have defined the genre ever since EverQuest. Global cooldowns are here in abundance, and veterans from other MMORPGs that feature talent specs may shy away from realizing that most classes and jobs remain firmly rooted in a single role. A White Mage, for example, will always be a healer.
One of the best little touches of combat is that you can call your chocobo into battle with you, where it functions as a tank, healer, or damage dealer depending on how you spend your points. It’s especially useful for solo combat, although its effectiveness is hampered by the way it also functions as a party member. In other words, tough luck if you want to use it while waiting out a dungeon queue, because summoning it will cancel the Duty Finder. There are also some small hassles associated with handling a chocobo. To use it effectively as a tank, I had to teach myself to start off with a light attack and let it get aggro since there’s no direct way to control it. I also grew annoyed with the extra step needed to mount up again. First I’d have to dismiss the mount as a combat companion and then resummon it as a mount. Simply letting the mount hotkey trigger a desummoning of the combat counterpart would go a long way.
Initially, the reliance on traditional MMO combat seems like a disappointment, especially considering the advances in action combat made by games like TERA, but A Realm Reborn makes up for it by demanding heavy group coordination and lots of movement in dungeons. Indeed, one of the best things about A Realm Reborn is the way it eases you into these later challenges. The early dungeons start out easy enough, but by the mid-30s levels you’ll start seeing dungeons and boss-focused trials that demand full awareness of debuffs and your surroundings. Early dungeons like the Copperbell Mines and Sastasha seem almost too simple, for instance, but by the time you reach level 35′s Sunken Temple of Qarn, you’ll find yourself having to keep track of multiple threats at once – so much so that one random party I joined couldn’t progress beyond the first boss. Still, I loved encountering that degree of challenge.
But that’s where some of Final Fantasy XIV’s commitments to modernity start to worry me. Early on, I marveled at how willing everyone was to explain the increasingly difficult boss fights for new players, but I noticed that the friendly atmosphere waned a tad as a neared the level cap. By the mid-40s, experienced players were expressing annoyance at dungeon rookies who wanted to watch the accompanying cinematics for their class stories, even to the point of asking for a vote-kick feature so they wouldn’t have to wait. And as such, I’m against implementing one.
This shift in attitude, I fear, has more than a little to do with the “Duty Finder,” which functions similarly to the Dungeon Finder in World of Warcraft that matches you with other players. The blessed convenience of such a feature is usually marred by the comparative anonymity (in that you may never see these players again) the feature allows, which many players seem to use as an excuse to bring the hostile socialization familiar to games like League of Legends to a fantasy MMORPG. It’s more of a failing of the community than of the design – and fortunately, one that’s not widespread at the moment – but I’m concerned that I’ve already seen the seeds of the pettiness that so plagues World of Warcraft’s own Dungeon Finder.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to do in Eorzea itself, particularly in the early levels. Aside from the main storyline, A Realm Reborn also delivers a wealth of sidequests that ensure that you usually have another means of gaining XP. On the one hand, there’s guildhests that serve as group-based tutorials; elsewhere, you’ll find guildleves that function as daily quests of sorts, and even a hunting log where you earn seals for gear from each of the Grand Companies that players can represent. True, many follow the familiar “kill X of Y” and “FedEx” templates, but Square wisely kept the required body counts involved to a minimum.
And then we have FATEs, which are dynamic events similar to those found in Guild Wars 2 and Warhammer Online before it, and they do much to imbue Eorzea with a vibrancy that resembles a living world. In the early levels, they serve as a welcome alternative to the normal quests you stumble across in the world, and a level-matching requirement wisely keeps high-level players from griefing the events. They’re a bit too good for leveling, though, and by the late 30s, their effectiveness far outstrips any other means of gaining XP. As a consequence, it’s common to see high-level players ignoring quests and dungeons completely and hanging around the aetheryte crystals that generate rested XP while waiting on the next FATE to spawn.
It’s so severe that I stated in my review-in-progress that I had little trouble finding dungeon groups; by the time I reached the high levels, my waits had soared to around an hour and a half. Sometimes even beyond that. The reasoning seemed clear, just from looking around me: everyone else was too busy grinding FATES to worry about queueing for dungeons when they were so close to the level cap of 50. Until Square Enix reduces their effectiveness or increases the rewards for running dungeons, the latter might get a little lonely in the late game. There’s another downside to them: by the time you’re leveling your second class, most of the side quests are gone, leaving FATE grinding as the only efficient means of leveling.
As for the end game? So far, its ambitious mix of hard-mode dungeons and raids looks to justify its subscription plan, and the challenges I’ve seen in the existing dungeons seem potent enough to bring me back for future content. At the risk of hyperbole, during my time with Final Fantasy XIV I’ve felt the most involved in an MMORPG ever since the classic release of World of Warcraft, and I’m eager to see what Square Enix accomplishes with it over the coming months and years.
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