Lone wolves, the one-man squad, the masterless ronin; all pertinent descriptions of my MMO play style that could just as easily be described as being a grumpy, anti-social bastard. A spate in Azeroth taught me the fundamentals of grinding and the eerily similar Neverwinter showed how it could all be done for free – albeit with a little spare change for pesky microtransactions. Time with JRPGs revealed the intricacies inherent in grinding – balancing high-level quests against the appropriately stocked equipment sack – along with the puzzle-piece plotlines from which almost all JRPGs derive their stories. Raids had been conducted but either the feeling of intruding into a closed enclave or the shadow of inadequacy did little to break the mesmerising spell of solitary exploration. There comes a point in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn when raids become mandatory and that feeling you felt on the first day of school – of entering a playground with no familiar faces – rose up again. The lone wolf had to join a pack… but that’s jumping ahead.
Firstly, there’s the embarrassingly terrible confession that my only previous involvement with Final Fantasy was a spell on the legendary VII, not yet advancing to the second disc thanks to the glut of new releases. It’s a chocobo-sized gap in my gaming history that will hopefully be rectified with the forthcoming HD remakes of X and X-II combined with a revisit to VII courtesy of its PSOne ported Vita counterpart. Going into the fourteenth (at least!) title in a franchise was a daunting prospect, drowning under the lore not only of an established franchise but a first version of the very same game. Final Fantasy XIV first released in 2010 to a critical reception ranging from underwhelming to outright hatred, angering the fanbase so much that time was called on the MMO and Square issued an apology for the disastrous mistake. Cut to 2013 and launch woes almost spelled disaster again, apologies from the game’s producer doing little to allay server issues. However, patches were downloaded and the world of Eorzea became accessible before the ire of the Internet could write the game off for good.
This isn’t the Eorzea that players of the first iteration will remember, however. Instead of writing off the first version as a doomed failure, Square has instead kept its events as canonical lore. Your character returns to Hydaelyn five years since a catastrophic event occurred, killing off most of the population and inducing amnesia in those who survived. NPCs know that something bad happened and that there were warriors who came to save the world, but they can only remember their actions and not their identities. It’s a neat way of recognising players’ role in the world of a closed MMO without reducing their actions to meaningless data, wiped out when a server is turned off. After all, MMOs are probably a prime candidate for pointless mundanity if ever there was one – writing off two years of play would engender a lot of hatred from Square’s biggest supporters.
So your adventurer makes their way to Eorzea, a destiny already set in motion with only one hundred and eighty or so main quests between you and completion. Not to mention the jobs, guilds, side-quests, raids, FATEs and more to keep you occupied forever. Before all of that goodness arrives, however, there are the usual MMO hoops to jump through – first, intrepid adventurer, you must install the client to your PS3 or PC, wait for the requisite patches to download, set up or link an account and make sure you don’t mess any part of this up for fear of losing previous progress. It’s not helped by the unintuitive presentation on the PS3 or the confusing business of dealing with a Square Enix account. Persist through and it becomes less of a hurdle and more of a gateway to a genuinely remarkable world.
The first main step (that isn’t admin) sees you create a character from a range of classes and modifiers. FFXIV doesn’t mess with any established MMO rules so everything essentially boils down to tanks, healers and damage dealers. While it’s not the most exhaustive character creation tool – it’s fairly difficult to make anything ugly, for example – there’s enough scope to design a unique identity from the various races, facial features and Tokyo host bar hairstyles. After that there’s a stunning CGI cutscene recapping events of Final Fantasy XIV the First, launching you into one of three main cities depending on character choice. There’s the Naboo-esque Ul’dah, the port city of Limsa Lominsa and the verdant Gridania, all comparatively huge and packed with characters, quests and plenty of charm.
From that moment onwards it’s the usual cycle of quests, dungeons and boss battles, staying close to the formula that has worked for games like World of Warcraft. Alongside the standard fetch-this, kill-that quests are FATEs – large group battles that anyone can join, similar to the dynamic events in shooter-MMO Defiance. Guildleves are daily quests with strict requirements that offer up XP and gil, Eorzea’s currency, while guildhefts require more than one person to complete. Hit a main story mission and you might bear witness to a fully-voiced cutscene, leading into an intricate, engrossing quest that edges the overarching storyline steadily onwards. With nearly two hundred main story quests Square has packed Eorzea with things to do and see, even for almost exclusively solo players.
Final Fantasy XIV has an absolutely fantastic solution for solo MMO play, even if that is a contradiction in terms. It was with a certain amount of reluctance that the game does force you to complete raids during the campaign – a dread that soon evaporated when FFXIV’s Duty Finder came into effect. The option is there to team up with known players to form a party, but solo explorers can opt in to the raid and the game will find the right balance of teammates to complete the dungeon. In the meantime you can go about as normal, with the game prompting you once the party is ready. It’s a brilliant tool for matchmaking that blends raids into the campaign in a seamless and unobtrusive fashion.
Graphically, A Realm Reborn is a huge step up from the lacklustre drabness of its first iteration – character models are now recognisably Final Fantasy-esque and don’t resemble the chunkier style of Phantasy Star as much. In fact, the graphical quality is superb all round, from the spectacular cities to the creatures themselves. One major story beat sees your character free to travel anywhere in the world and it is a moment on par with the reveal of Mass Effect’s Citadel – a true moment where anything is possible in the unexplored expanse set before you. It is this beauty that leads to some of the game’s more surreal quirks. When you have a world populated by real people there are bound to be strange occurrences, but the traditional poise and grace inherent in Final Fantasy acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the usual MMO craziness. Case in point: a chap called Arthur Voldemort running about the place in little but his Y-fronts, pausing to flex his lithe body unnervingly at bystanders. Just another day in this brilliant world. The surreal benign nature of the community permeates all aspects of the MMO experience; beyond goldspammers hijacking the chatbox, there was also little to be found in the way of griefing. In fact, other players met were gracious, helpful and co-operative – how long this good behaviour lasts is another matter, but for now the community is one of the best out there.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn plays it safe, never straying far from the MMO formula. Reaffirming the art direction in a style more suited to the franchise has made it both more attractive to newcomers and pleased long-term fans of the series, while the soundtrack also hits all the right notes without becoming repetitive. A steady stream of quests, XP, skills and equipment will give any statistician plenty to compare, though tutorials explain every facet of the game in easy-to-understand bite sized portions. While this doesn’t make it an MMO for everyone, it’s an MMO that stands out from the latest wave vying for the WoW crown. It may not succeed but is a triumph compared to the first version, besting itself and some of its peers. Brand recognition helps but the gameplay mechanics are strong enough without chocobos and Aetheryte (although running a chocobo over the plains is undeniably awesome). Square has had their second chance and, barring some launch speedbumps, they have listened to the fans and released a worthy addition to the series. Does it herald a Final Fantasy renaissance? Perhaps not, but it’s convinced this reviewer to pick up XIII and XIII-2 out of sheer curiosity. And anyway, who cares when there’s so much to see and do in Hydaelyn?