Square-Enix has not been at the top of its game lately. They’ve been losing market share in the RPG space to the likes of BioWare, their flagship franchise Final Fantasy has been losing its way, and the launch of Final Fantasy XIV was a complete disaster. The game was so broken that Squenix, via new producer Naoki Yoshida, took the game back, completely revamped it, and rereleased it with an apology to the fans. It’s an unprecedented move for an MMO—or any game for that matter—to try for round 2, but FFXIV has done it. And amazingly, it was the best thing that could happen to this game.
Rising From The Ashes
At this point, it’s common knowledge amongst most of the gaming community that “something” happened with FFXIV that caused it to retreat back into production. It’s an unprecedented story of a company valuing a brand so much that when an inferior product was released, they refused to let it die, and brought it back into the workshop to fix and re-release. That’s the business story behind Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. The story in the game follows similar lines. The world and continuity of FFXIV (version 1) is kept intact, with a story of a narrowly averted cataclysm that “resets” the world. Into the realm of Eorzea comes you, “the adventurer,” seeking fame and fortune before a larger storyline involving conspiracies and rival evil kingdoms dominates the plot. It’s much simpler fare compared to the meandering, philosophical/existential angst of FFXIII, and it’s all the better for it.
The simpler story of a hero on the rise takes centre stage in the numerous cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game, and provides a constant thread for players to refer to despite the huge, nonlinear nature of an MMO. The fact that it hearkens back to older Squenix RPG plots both in simplicity and in callbacks to past titles (Magitek armor from FFVI, for example, figures prominently) is both deliberate and probably more welcome to FF fans than the drastic reinvention the series has undergone in the current console generation. There’s a certain Call of Duty-esque need for the familiar in the Final Fantasy fan base, and they have been poorly served by Squenix until now. But then, with a catastrophically bad initial debut and a skeptical audience, perhaps Squenix decided to take no chances with FFXIV: ARR and just give the audience what they wanted.
Technically, the game is an impressive demonstration of software engineering on the PS3, not because it runs beautifully, but because it runs at all. The game on more recently built PCs can confidently handle sharp textures, 1080p resolution and 60 fps. The PS3, running on seven year old tech, with only 512 MB of RAM, should have collapsed under the demands of this game, but it doesn’t. It’s about equivalent to a PC running the game on mid-range settings, and in some cases, it shows very obviously. Textures are a bit muddier, the frame rate mostly stays at 30 but dips noticeably during busy, effects heavy combat and the PS3 is far less capable of rendering numerous players on screen, meaning that while a PC player may see dozens of players crowding out a common hub area, or hectic public fight, a PS3 player may see half that, with serious performance hits. Even in non-combat situations, just running through a city area too fast can cause a delayed response in the game as it struggles to load in NPCs (even quest related ones) that should be standing right in front of you. This is a game that is clearly struggling on the PS3, but despite that, it still manages to function reasonably enough. The art direction is another matter entirely, borrowing from numerous past games, but most prominently borrowing from none other than Yoshitaka Amano himself, the man most responsible for the early look of the FF series. The Magitek armor and spiky accents of Dragoon armor are now rendered in full 3D, and for long time fans of the series, there’s a lot of wish fulfillment going on here.
The same can be said of the sound. Once again, Squenix played it safe banking on the nostalgia of fans and appealing to another favorite name, Nobuo Uematsu, traditional composer for the series. Things are a bit muddled here as Uematsu was commissioned to score the entirety of FFXIV but for FFXIV: ARR, his only new composition is the main theme, while new musician Masayoshi Soken takes up the bulk of scoring duties. Soken, however, knows how iconic Uematsu’s music is to the series, and is careful to reference a lot of it, so classic themes such as the victory theme, Chocobo theme, and crystal theme are still on hand to elicit a manipulative, nostalgic tear from fans. Newer compositions though, are surprisingly strong, and the best compliment that can be paid to them is that they don’t outstay their welcome even dozens of hours into the game. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the voice acting, which was absent even in the recent betas, but makes an unwelcome, surprise appearance in the final release. Although voice acting is usually considered a premium sign of quality, the actors chosen for FFXIV: ARR and their stilted delivery, recall the bad dubbing jobs of the 90s. It’s still not in the same gutter as Capcom’s English voice acting from Resident Evil, but compared even to FFXIII, the acting here is of a noticeably lower quality. It’s not the fault of the writing, which is actually decently scripted; it’s the flat and/or unconvincing delivery that disappoints. Audio effects fare much better, which a wide variety of effects that range from cute, 8-bit style digital audio to heavy explosions that take advantage of a decent subwoofer.
A Game Reborn
The original FFXIV was failed attempt at disruption; trying to create a beautiful game that broke most PCs with its demanding engine, and advance new types of mechanics that just didn’t work. FFXIV: ARR erases most of the original version, excepting its lore, and presents a new game that—and this is the running theme for the game—simply gives players what they want, rather than try to break any ground. Essentially, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is just an impressively polished, traditional MMO in a world designed to please FF fans.
Those familiar with older MMOs such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft will feel right at home here. Combat is familiar, using traditional cool downs and combat roles such as the tank, DPS and healer. Crafting also borrows much from past games such as EverQuest II and Vanguard, with a complex, dedicated mini-game. Raid dungeons abound, initially calling for solo instances that gradually require four, then eight member parties. Finally, a traditional XP/leveling system has been tied into a gear-based class system, thus allowing any player to play any class. However, just because all of these mechanics are familiar, it doesn’t mean that Square-Enix didn’t tweak the execution of these fundamentals.
Combat, for example, is probably the most untouched mechanic, but even here, players benefit from small adjustments like a percentage chance that an attack, when executed, will instantly “refill” allowing a free attack that takes no time or points to use. The crafting mini-game, while seen in other games, is very comprehensive, turning the creation of a shirt or sword into a “battle” between the crafter and the components, and allows crafters to use skills from other crafting disciplines to slowly expand their arsenal of techniques. Even the simple roles of classes have gotten a new twist since changing class is as simple as equipping gear relevant to that class. XP, levels and most skills are locked to that particular class, though, like crafting, some skills are cross compatible. So a Thaumaturge, who deals primarily in damage, can pick up some Conjurer skills like healing and even raising. Even dungeon raiding has gotten an interesting new twist with the “Duty Finder,” a system that allows players to queue up for a dungeon and then sit back and wait as the game looks for players on every single server that is also attempting the same quest, so as to minimize the wait times for the roster to be filled. There’s even something known as a “Full Active Time Event” or “FATE” that is a spontaneous, public event that anyone can join. FATEs, randomly pop up in common areas and are a good, fast way to get XP for leveling, with some events set to be rare, showcase appearances such as Behemoth or Odin that require huge masses of players to take down.
All of this is grafted in a system that is mostly easy to learn and very forgiving to players new to MMOs, though there are still some occasional blunders in design that seem like huge lapses in thought. The good news is the game introduces basic MMO mechanics in a thoughtful, enjoyable way for the many first time players who are lured in by the sheen of FF-ness sprinkled over everything in the game. Players will learn basic combat, combat roles, and even combat tactics thanks to the way FFXIV ladles out tutorials as main quests, before eventually handing off tutorials to optional Duties, which players can sign up for. Then Square-Enix drops the ball by ignoring the basics of MMO communication with other players, leaving newbies to fend for themselves in deciphering the communication systems of the game.
Then there is the end game, which is both fulfilling and disappointing equal measure. The story FFXIV tells may be simple, but it still manages to evoke some emotional investment in the player. Much of that is ruined by the bizarre decision to make the last two story quests repeatable for farming advanced, endgame currency used to buy endgame weapons and armor. As a result, people who are just trying to enjoy the conclusion for the first time are often ignored or even antagonized by endgame players trying to speed run the final dungeons repeatedly. My own personal experience with the conclusion was pretty sour, as half the team was locked out of final boss fights while the other half—composed of endgame players—taunted everyone else for being “noobs.” It’s a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise entertaining—if pedestrian—fantasy story, and I’m baffled as to why Square thought it would be a good idea to potentially team up fresh, first timers with obsessive hardcore players and expect them all to get along.
That strange mishmash of good and ill-conceived sums up FFXIV: ARR. For the most part, there are many good things about the game that make it compelling, engaging and fun to play. But then there are blemishes that take some of the sheen off, though it’s never enough to outweigh the good. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a game that’s worth playing. The question then becomes, is it a game worth subscribing to? Dedicated, daily play even for the not-so-hardcore can probably lead to completion of the game within the free, 30 day trial. The endgame content after that is slowly being rolled out, with PvP, player housing and a new FFIII-based dungeon on the horizon. Right now, endgame players are simply grinding away to get better gear, which will keep some busy for a few weeks as there are caps on how much endgame currency can be collected in a week. But beyond that, the missions dry up. Ultimately, whether you choose to subscribe hinges on your faith in Square’s new team to come up with new content. So far, their “rescue” of the troubled game is nothing short of astonishing. Though far from perfect, it’s a fun game that rewards fans with the fan service that the last few flagship games have denied them.