Reborn out of fire, but with some crackling here and there.
Way-way-waaaaayyyyy back in the day, during the dial-up era, I had the absolute pleasure of reviewing Final Fantasy XI on the PlayStation 2. It was exciting for many reasons. First, it was my second MMO in my lifetime, the original being Habitat (or Club Caribbe) from Lucasfilm Games. Second, and most important, FFXI came in a huge box that included its very own IDE hard drive, specially ready for the PlayStation 2. The idea of installing a hard drive inside of the PS2 and adding a network modem, was more than just fascinating; it was incredible for that time period in consoles (yeah, yeah -- I know the Xbox did it, but no one used it).
Anyway, Final Fantasy XI was amazing to me. The quests, the cooperation, the market place to sell items and the general addictiveness that brought my appreciation to PC gaming, was second to none (well, possibly WoW and/or Ultima Online). Imagine my delight when I received a review copy of the game prior to launch day, and could relive the glory days of my Final Fantasy online experience. I was stoked.
Before we get into it, here's a bit of info on the side about what we were doing since launch.
Why this review is late...
The first and foremost reason why we're reviewing FInal Fantasy XIV late is that it takes a large amount of time to feel comfortable finding a jumping off point with an MMO. Having reviewed Trion's RIFT and Funcom's The Secret World, you must understand that finding that point a specific point in any MMO where new elements stop being introduced and the main storyline starts to take over the brunt of the game, is something that is random in every MMO. For The Secret World, it didn't take too long before I understood what it had to offer and found a point where it didn't introduce any new gameplay elements in the adventure, in the initial launch. RIFT took a bit longer, as Trion's baby definitely started out slow, but picked up and 2-3 weeks later reached that point where it was safe to make a firm judgement. For Final Fantasy XIV, it has been nearly a month since I began playing it. I have come to a stopping point where I haven't seen the entire storyline, but I know enough about this game to say what it is and what it isn't. There are plenty of things to talk about in both categories. So, in short, the review will focus mainly on all the elements I experienced and saw through my review days.
With that said, let me add one small disclaimer. I'm reviewing this through my character and class, which is a pugilist. There are more classes out there that offer deeper experiences in the game, such as a healers, but this is who I chose to be for my entire stay, and someone I will continue to be until my wife discovers my Square Enix monthly bill. I digress, it's possible that I have and will leave details out in this review, only because the time frame for covering the entire game makes it impossible for every stone to be turned over. If I tried out every character, in every possible way, I would be delivering this review to you sometime in November. However, I will continue to play this game and will frequently throw in new updates as they become available. My intentions are to eventually play new characters and new classes in the coming months.
Now, the other reason we are delivering this to you late is that there was a week where the game was virtually unplayable. Starting launch day, the times of 7:30a - 1a at (rough estimate) were times where the game was impossible to long into due to traffic. The Square Enix servers were severely overwhelmed, so much that some days it took 30 minutes to log onto Final Fantasy XIV, while other times it just plainly didn't work. The other issue is that once logged onto the server, a good majority of the time it would boot you off with an error 9000 within a half hour period of time. Everything around you would stop responding, your character would cease to move or interact with anyone and the inevitable boot would happen. The first week of Final Fantasy XIV was a bit of a disaster, only because of the server load issues, and thus was the reason why this review was late.
As nasty as that paragraph might have read, please understand that Square Enix did a fantastic job with communicating with the community as it looked to solve these problems. There were practically messages posted every day with the status of the servers, who was specifically affected and, most importantly, what Square Enix was doing to resolve these issues. Within a week, Square Enix bought, prepared and installed new servers for Final Fantasy XIV. Since last Wednesday, I've been booted from the game once. Logging into it has been nearly flawless and all above issues that they've had since the launch, have been resolved.
But, again, this is one of the reasons why we were late with this review.
With that out of the way, let's get this thing started, shall we?
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is different than its predecessors in so many ways. The looks of it, the depth of it , how involved the story is involved with the overall experience and the sheer girth of Eorzea, all of it captivating and engaging. There's a lot to this world that will keep you occupied for hours upon hours, but let me be right up front with you, it's a lot easier and less PC-based than what you will find with a World of Warcraft experience. You have more button mashing here than complicated strategy, which isn't a bad thing. I have heard grumblings from people playing who thought the gameplay might have a bit more depth to it than what is presented, but the main point of 'ease-of-use' isn't simply to cater to those who love WoW. You want to draw in a new audience and the simplicity of the controls during battle make this an easy game to play for anyone.
If the Wii has taught us anything it's that if you can cater to a wider audience then your audience will grow in size (which is logical). Final Fantasy XIV caters to a wider audience. It does have moments that will certainly satisfy the hardcore MMO fans, usually the dungeon raids, but it's also got a simplistic factor that caters to action/RPG type of gamers, specifically with regards to the button mashing. It was in that middle spot with FFXI and it's no different with FFXIV. Personally, I like that spot. I don't want a game that requires me to plan out dungeon raids for hours and execute them with a hitman like precision. I want an MMO that allows me to pick up my controller, call up a few friends and go score some XP in a Light Party raid. FFXIV allowed me to do this, and I did it quite often this past week.
So, if you're going into the game expecting some WoW killer then you're going to be disappointed. If you're going into it expecting a very solid experience that doesn't ask too much of your senses, then you'll find a nice little paradise to put your feet up and enjoy the moments.
Moving on, let's talk about the main storyline.
The main storyline of Final Fantasy XIV follows the leaders of various nations within Eorzea, gathering together people and resources to fight the hoard of primal looking to conquer the land and wipe out the impurities. Our main player must take part in this storyline to help destroy and send back the primal and their allies before it's too late. It's an incredibly rich storyline that certainly keeps you moving forward in Final Fantasy sort of style (and the opening movie to the game is absolutely epic, and explains it better than I just did -- plus it's much prettier than my words).
The main storyline in the game is vital for your happiness in this game. It is the driving point that will keep you going, and sometimes it's the 'thing' that feels like it's nudging the gamer to move on when the gamer doesn't want to move on. In short, it's a positive and a negative.
First, the positive. The storyline is captivating and well thought out. By the time you hit level 20 in the game, you've invested yourself into the storyline. You can feel that there is an impending war coming, and nothing is going to stop it. It's a bit overwhelming, and in some way unsettling in the overall scheme of things. I guess that is what makes it so darn brilliant, though. Anytime a story can be that engaging and engrossing that you feel like there's nothing you can do to stop what's about to happen (and it will be a while before you actually get to the point of the story where you go into battle -- I haven't even gotten to that point yet), then you more than likely have a winner. I felt concerned for the citizens residing in Eorzea, that's how much it stuck on me as I played this game. You simply cannot beat that sort of story inside of a video game, and quite frankly that is what makes the Final Fantasy games work so well over the years.
With that said, the story does get in the way of the gameplay when you're trying to level up. To put it bluntly, your XP acquisition is stymied by the story because without the story's progression in the game, XP goes down all around you, as you level up. The value of quests and Leves is affected directly by the lack of story progression, if the gamer chooses to do other things. For example, around level 17, I decided I wanted to get to at least level 20 before continuing with the storyline, if not only to acquire better weapons and what not before digging into Light Party raids. Because I wanted to just simply hang out and level up, the XP started getting smaller and smaller as I progressed, which is typical of an MMO leveling arch. The bad part of this is that all the side quests you do for villagers and merchants also become small in XP, even to the point where the game bluntly tells you that your level is too high and that you're XP earning is going to take a hit. So, if you were supposed to earn 2000 XP for a successful quest accomplishment, expect half of that at the end of the day. Considering that my character was earning 3900 - 4000 per quest prior to putting the brakes on the storyline, this was a bit jarring. It took longer and longer to level up in the game, which slowed things down considerably.
Now, you might say, what about Duty Finder (which is basically a dungeon raid selection that helps you level up)? That's a fair point, but it takes so long to accomplish some of the assigned Light Party events through Duty Finder (and sometimes you're waiting forever for people to form groups -- you're better off having your own at the ready) that it's almost worth it to do multiple smaller tasks for villagers than to jump into Duty Finder to take on huge missions. It's a tough balance and the most patient gamers will have to understand what's at stake when you stop the main storyline.
Once you're on the main storyline, big XP opportunities open up for individual gamers and parties. For me, being able to sit around and level up before going into battle is worth its weight in gold. It's what I do in MMOs and standard RPGs. Having to depend on the storyline to present new opportunities, and better XP, is maybe an inflexible decision that needs a bit of oil to loosen it up. What I found myself doing as the story progressed was that I would literally 'binge' on the missions that opened up for me. I would zip through a lot of non-raid, XP earning missions so quickly that I would felt disappointed when I used them all up. With that said, don't get me wrong, the new development team on this game made plenty of Leves for you to fall into and earn that XP, but getting from level to level can feel like such a chore if you don't follow the storyline to unlock level appropriate missions. I do understand why Square Enix would do this sort of stop/go gameplay in regards to the main storyline of the game, but if you're going to build an MMO, allow for gamers to have some flexibility when it comes to earning more XP and exploring the land a bit. By keeping gamers on the main body of the story through XP reward is almost linear in a sense. If you know anything about MMOs then you understand that 'linear' is not a word you want associated with one.
That issue aside (and I know some of you certainly won't agree with it -- but it's an issue), the game gives you plenty to do. Like I stated above, there are plenty of quests to go on to earn XP, which also opens up new lands and monsters to encounter. I did a lot of leveling through Battle Leves, which was something you could access through townsfolk in each town. You would have to actually unlock the Battle Leves by proving yourself worthy in each town, so it's not automatically given to you. Once unlocked, you're given a set of duties to accomplish, which are easy as pie generally and, more importantly, quick. The Leves were always built around the town you received them in, so you didn't have to go far to get things accomplished. They are easy ways to earn big XP really quickly, which is a huge plus. There are a variety of other Leves that you can unlock, but I stuck solely with the Battle Leves, which were more appropriate for my pugilist character.
Outside of Leves, you could also unlock Duty Finder in FFXIV, which opens things like Guildhests, trials and raids. Guildhests are particularly interesting because they're more of a tutorial for people who aren't use to playing in groups. They earn big XP for players and are a great way to shake things up a bit. They're incredibly short, much shorter than your typical dungeon raid, and usually involve about four people. The same rules apply to this as any other raiding scenario, as you're required to have a certain number of people in the group, with certain talents, to move forward in them. Again, these are much better than a straight up tutorial, and it really gets you right in there with the action. They're great to have starting out in the game.
Anyway, Duty Finder is a neat item in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, as you can access it from anywhere and anytime during the game. It's incredibly useful when you need a bit more to do while you wait for your character to level. It certainly helps kill the linear flavor that the main story brings to the game.
Shifting gears away from XP, duties and whatnot, let's talk about actual mechanics of the game. The button mashing fest that some gamers are griping about is an actual thing. I can't speak for other classes, but my pugilist cat wore down my R2 button during attacks. You have the opportunity to lay down timed attacks in the game that can be turned into two-button combos during battle. You basically press R2 (hold it down), select the type of attack you want to lay down on your enemy and then wait for the recharge of the attack. It's a weird real-time/turn-based attack system, if there was a mixture of both. There are times where you can actually combine two buttons into a vicious combination attack that takes out your enemy quicker, but in general the button mashing griping is legit.
…most people fail to mention that as you level up and gain more moves the strategy of attack becomes more of a 'what do I need to do first' rather than a 'let's mash this button!!!!' sort of deal. For example, when I achieved level 15, I acquired Touch of Death in my attack arsenal. Upon using it, I felt cheated for about an hour. Every single time I used it, my pugilist would deliver a huge punch that should have knocked out my opponent God Hand style. Sadly, I only noticed a tiny bit of life stricken from opponent's bar. I remember thinking, "Wow, that's so 'death-y'", which was as sarcastic as sarcastic could get. Then about an hour later, I noticed that it pretty much poisoned my opponent for 30 seconds, meaning it gradually took life away as I was doing other things. Now, it's a badass must-have move in my arsenal, no matter the fight.
This in itself proves that Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn isn't simply a button mashing fest that requires little thought. I was using my Touch of Death option every 30 seconds in a fight. Its usefulness helps out big time, even though the gradual digression of the enemies energy is a slow moving one. And that's really just a drop in the bucket for what's waiting for me beyond level 30. So, in short, those screaming there isn't strategy and there's just button mashing haven't played the game long enough to appreciate the subtle strategy built into the attack system, not to mention ease-of-use. I would rather have this type of game then something more complicated and burdensome. It is a video game, which means it should be at least 75% fun. I did homework in college, I don't want to pay $60 to do homework inside of a game (no offense, WoW folks -- you all are awesome and unique).
Sticking with attacks, the attack system, specifically targeting, has got to improve on the PlayStation 3 side. I spent a lot of time in Fates (battles that come up in the middle of nowhere randomly) trying to target enemies easily. I had a helluva time not targeting other players and finding the enemies. This was a problem during regular quests, dungeon raids and whatnot. I felt like the game should focus on the enemies when a Fate begins. It shouldn't give you an option, especially if you're not a healer, to target other players during battle. Standing around jumping from target to target was not a fun situation during the massive amount of chaos going on in front of me. Plus, what XP and coin you get from Fates is directly gauged on your involvement during them. If you're standing around trying to target something then you're not going to do well when everything is said and done. I could only imagine how many PC folks were laughing at us PS3 folks during this type of situation. Their stupid mouses and cockiness… grrr.
Another knock about the game, and it very well might be user error, is the mapping system. I remembered never having an issue of knowing where I was or where I was going in Final Fantasy XI. I understood the grid system quite well, so that never became an issue. With Final Fatnasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, that has changed a bit. For example, when I was trying to locate a specific point where I needed to go for a quest, say I'm trying to participate in a pugilist trial in Western Thanalan, the mission map would show me a general area where I needed to be. The specifics around that area or any towns or names couldn't be read without zooming into it. Sometimes zooming didn't help, so I had to pretty much guesstimate where I needed to be. That wasted quite a bit of time, and quite a bit of teleporting. What's even worse is when you are at the point where you need to be, sitting directly on the place you have to be and you can't find the person or thing because it's a multi-tiered location. Square Enix's team needs to go in and make some improvements with this part of the game. Either have it color coded where the player understands that the place they need to be at is up or down, or just make it gradually become transparent as the player gets closer. For the map system in general, there has to be a way to zoom into the location at all times, and read anything around said location without having to squint. I would say that this is a small complaint, but it's significant in regards to keeping the flow of the game going in the right direction. No one wants to play hide and seek with a mission… unless the mission is based on that (write that down SE! That would be cool).
Having said all this, there are still more things I'm learning about as I'm moving through the game. I'm just tapping into the trait system at the moment, so I don't have a healthy grasp of that just yet. I will be sure to update as I move deeper into the game in the coming months. I haven't been on all the missions yet or crafted anything, but I intend on making new characters and doing just that in the future. There's so much to do, so little time to do it in for this review, that this will have to be strung along as the coming months progress. I'm sure Square Enix will add more during those months, so buckle down for an ongoing review experience. In the meantime, I'm very satisfied with the gameplay in general. I think that Square Enix is probably going to improve some things that will make it a very great game. For what it is right now, it's a solid MMORPG that has gone through some basic growing pains that any great MMO runs into when it starts out. I think that it can and will keep the interest of a lot of people needing something different (and some similar things) that World of Warcraft can't offer up at the moment. Is it better than WoW right now? Not at all, but WoW has been out there a long time and has had plenty of time to find out what works and what doesn't. It could potentially compete against WoW in the future, and I hope it does because that might force Blizzard to drastically change WoW sometime this century.
Anyway, your MMORPG money will be well spent on this game, if not only to capture the very essence of the Final Fantasy franchise within an ever expanding world.