A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy XIV (PlayStation 4)

A NOTE: Final Fantasy XIV Online, in its original form, no longer exists. Several projects – presumably run by masochists – are attempting to create a legacy server, but none are strictly viable. Given the state of the original game, this is probably for the best. Further, by its nature as an MMORPG, I can’t hope to give a comprehensive rundown of the game as a whole. This is as much an account of my personal experience as it is a standard review. With that said, on with the show.

2005 was a comparatively quiet year for Square Enix. Despite the development woes of Final Fantasy XII, the release of Dragon Quest VIII in Japan and the impending Kingdom Hearts II were poised to provide swift financial boons. Three years removed from the tumultuous merger – four years from The Spirits Within debacle – the company looked to be in good shape for a bright future of exploiting current franchises in a cost-efficient manner.

At E3 the same year, headlines bristled with the Final Fantasy VII Tech Demo, a PS3-powered re-imagining of FFVII‘s iconic opening, sparking rampant speculation of an upcoming remake. Amidst the fervour, another tech demo was quietly released for a then-untitled MMORPG, code-named Rapture. It was a tantalising glimpse of what the upcoming generation of hardware could achieve, prompting its own (considerably narrower) set of speculation: Was this to be the sequel to FFXI, the series’ wildly successful first foray into the online market?

In a sense, it was. This 40-second reel was, unofficially, the unveiling of Final Fantasy XIV to the world. The official reveal came at E3 2009, at which point it emerged that much of FFXI‘s team – chief among them, Nobuaki Komoto and Hiromichi Tanaka – would be spearheading the new project, accompanied by Nobuo Uematsu’s return to the series as the game’s primary composer. Powered by FFXIII‘s Crystal Tools engine and retaining cross-platform play, FFXIV was poised to be Square Enix’s killer online app prior to its 2010 release, reasserting Final Fantasy‘s place on the bleeding edge of the industry.

That did not happen.

Final Fantasy XIV (Online), in its original form (hereafter 1.0), was an unmitigated disaster. Litanies of miscommunication and resource mismanagement within the development team; a rebellious engine ill-equipped for real-time day/night cycles; a beleaguered beta; all resulted in a tedious, grind-heavy nightmare full of baffling design decisions, cryptic instructions and an indecipherable user interface. In the near-decade between FFXI‘s release and 1.0‘s, World of Warcraft and Guild Wars had revolutionised the genre. 1.0, by comparison, was a throwback; more importantly, it was a broken mess. As critics and players excoriated the title from top to bottom, Tanaka and his team responded with profuse apologies and a laundry list of patches. But the damage was done – 1.0 was a tainted product, and nothing short of a complete overhaul could salvage it.

Enter Naoki Yoshida. Previously tied to Dragon Quest spin-offs, Yoshida, a mere two months after 1.0‘s launch, was thrust into the director/producer role on a sinking ship in December 2010. His task was nothing less than to redeem a “greatly damaged brand”. A huge MMO enthusiast, the man affectionately known as Yoshi-P quickly identified what he perceived to be the three major problems in 1.0‘s design mentality: An unhealthy obsession with graphical quality; a lack of MMO know-how among the team, and the misguided belief that patches could fix a fundamentally broken experience.

His solution was a radical one: Build a new game from the ashes of the old one. Though support for the now-free-to-play 1.0 would continue during this period, Yoshida and his upended team laid groundwork for the prospective 2.0, implementing a streamlined development process and obsessively incorporating player feedback (conspicuous by its absence during 1.0‘s alpha and beta tests). 1.0, improved but still crippled, limped on until the servers closed in November of 2012, accompanied by a surreal in-game event where logged-in players gathered on the killing fields to watch the end of the world in real-time.

2012 would prove to be Square Enix’s annus horribilis. As 2.0 was in the works, the company filed an end-of-year report citing “extraordinary losses” numbering almost $150 million. High-profile releases for the western market, like Hitman: AbsolutionSleeping Dogs and the rebooted Tomb Raider, failed to meet absurd sales expectations. Company president, Yoichi Wada, stepped down after 12 years in charge. For Yoshida and his team, the pressure must have been astounding.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn – the promised 2.0 – released in 2013, achieving something unprecedented: in Yoshida’s own words, it was the first MMO to ever be rebuilt and relaunched. Five years later, A Realm Reborn is second-only to World of Warcraft in the subscription-based MMO landscape, with an estimated 14 million registered players and, as of October 2018, almost one million active players. The turnaround has been incredible, and it was into this febrile atmosphere that Dripcloud Ii – Au Ra Archer extraordinaire – plopped into being.

The first thing that struck me was how painless the login procedure was. Wisely shedding FFXI‘s abysmal PlayOnline client, all that A Realm Reborn required of me was a Square Enix account and a working memory. Armed with both, I was able to log in with my 30-day free trial (which ended up receiving a free-of-charge 15 day extension) and enter the world of Eorzea.

The second thing that struck me was how gorgeous the game is. Running at an impeccably smooth 60 frames-per-second in non-congested environments, the newly-minted Luminous Engine powers a shimmering world alive with colour and light. Entering New Gridania for the first time to find myself surrounded by hundreds of players, whether they were running around or gathered around Aetherytes (crystalline fast-travel hubs), was almost overwhelming, especially in comparison to the stifling loneliness of FFXI.

Overwhelmed is likely what most players will feel when presented with A Realm Reborn‘s onslaught of visual-auditory information. An average screenshot will invariably be awash with tabs and numbers and maps and quests and player names, but it was surprising how quickly I became accustomed to the deluge. It’s impressive how comfortable the array of scattered menus becomes once you’ve played the game long enough – in my case, it wasn’t long before I was able to confidently flit from one action or screen to another.

Compared to the cumbersome, sluggish interaction of FFXIA Realm Reborn is a masterclass of intuitive interface design. Critical to this – at least on the PS4 version – is the Cross Hotbar, which acts as a hub for macros and commands for the player. Somewhat akin to Lightning Returns‘ battle system, the player has the ability to link specific commands with the directional or face buttons, with two fully customisable hotbars activated by holding the L2 or R2 buttons respectively. This allows for a bevy of easily accessible commands, whether it be spell macros or mount-riding, ensuring that the player is in full control of their actions at all times.

The customisability extends to how much clutter accrues on your screen. This is, again, remediable through savvy menu navigation, cutting down on the sheer amount of HUD elements; it enabled me to give my full attention to navigation and combat, as opposed to grappling with a mounting assortment of logs. In fact, the only clunkiness I encountered on an interface level was the chatlog itself when ‘typing’ a message, and that’s due to the inherent inadequacy of a controller in comparison to keyboard.

This is all in service of navigation that feels simple and unobtrusive. Crossing Eorzea is a delight, especially when blazing through dappled forests on a Chocobo, but even on-foot it allows the player to be immersed in a living, breathing world. I found myself silently observing players battle low-level enemies, occasionally swooping in to help if I felt the tables were turning. Participating in FATEs (Full Active Time Events) – special, level-locked events that randomly trigger on every map – became a regular occurrence, even after I became hilariously over-equipped.

Though battle strategies and classes adhere to the standard DPS/Tank/Healer triptych, as decreed by MMO law, it’s pulled off with such aplomb that it never feels by-the-numbers. The brilliant sound design underscores each crunching hit or conflagration, adding an immense layer of satisfaction to frenetic battles, and there’s something oddly reassuring about watching the numbers erupt across the screen as total strangers hurl spells and blades at the latest glob of primordial evil.

Another way that tedium is circumvented comes in the form of the Armoury System. Traditional Final Fantasy classes (and, later, upgraded Jobs upon reaching Level 30 in any given Class) abound, but swapping between them is as simple as equipping their designated weapons; e.g., equip a Bow to class-change to Archer, or a spear for a Lancer, etc. Combined with the ability to set custom equipment load-outs, class-changing is mercifully painless and goes a long way toward freshening up game-play.

Moreover, experimentation with different classes/Jobs is facilitated with this system, and its tactility encourages players to swap around, particularly when applying for Duty Finder quests. The Duty Finder is an automated matching procedure for Raids and instanced dungeons, grouping players together in up to 24-strong parties (though most are limited to four or eight). While the queue for Duties can drag, especially as a DPS class, there’s nothing to stop the player from doing whatever they want in the meantime. As a result, in my experience, there was very little downtime where I was simply waiting for something to happen.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really extend to the main narrative. While the localisation effort is absolutely stellar throughout, with shades of FFXII‘s pseudo-Shakespearean syntax, the plot that drives A Realm Reborn – from what I managed to play – is far from spectacular. Its basic premise revolves around the mysteries left in the wake of Eorzea’s apparent destruction at the end of 1.0, where the three Grand Companies of the land are jostling for adventuring supremacy as the Garlean Empire musters in the distance, stirring up trouble among the Beastmen tribes and their respective Primals (traditional Final Fantasy summon monsters like Ifrit and Titan). The player is thrust into the centre of the conflict having been chosen by the Mother Crystal, Hydaelyn, as a prospective Warrior of Light.

Placing the player amidst this burgeoning political turmoil is, on paper, a fascinating way of telling an MMO narrative, again hearkening back to the imperial machinations of FFXII, but the characters the player meets – with scant exception – are monotone quest dispensers with bad voice acting. (Fortunately, most of the game proper is voiceless.) The sheer amount of pointless fetch quests wore me down, and even the appearance of an immortal apocalypse cult failed to draw me in. The lore of Eorzea is fascinating, but the execution of the plot itself is, frankly, un-engaging.

While it’s not entirely fair of me to lambast the narrative having been unable to finish it during my trial, I often felt little motivation to continue with it when I was having so much fun elsewhere. Yet, at the same time, as much as I delved into the side content, I’m quick to acknowledge that I barely scratched the surface of A Realm Reborn. The crafting mechanic – including the Materia Meld mechanic, which breaks down ‘bonded’ equipment into Materia in order to augment other equipment – went almost completely untouched in my run, as did the Frontlines and Wolves’ Den PVP arenas. I didn’t try out a Tank or Healer class; I never visited the shores of Ishgard; I never bought my own house; I never went fishing; I didn’t even come close to finishing the main questline…

But it’s this kind of emergent, multi-faceted game-play that makes A Realm Reborn so engaging. Moreover, it’s a thinly-disguised love letter to the Final Fantasy series as a whole, with references to each prior game cropping up somewhere or another. Riding into battle with a Couerl Kitten mewling by your side; noticing the Cloud Strife quotes in the chat filter menu; watching Magitek Armors emerge from behind a snow-capped ridge; catching a high-level player bounce past on a Fat Chocobo as a Wind-Up Kain Highwind trundles along after them; Triple Triad matches in the Gold Saucer; the Crystal Tower Raid that echoes FFIII; the surrealist architecture that screams Yoshitaka Amano; these are but a few examples of how A Realm Reborn honours and hallows the series it is, inexorably, a part of.

That’s the core difference between FFXI and FFXIV: the former feels hopelessly adrift of the series, while the latter brims with it. Happily, this warmth extends to the brilliant musical score. Composed primarily by Masayoshi Soken, it adds a considerable number of tunes to the already expansive, Uematsu-helmed soundtrack of 1.0. Longtime series veterans will hear remixes of FFII‘s battle theme and FFV‘s ‘Battle on the Big Bridge’, amidst the standard ‘Prelude’, ‘Victory Fanfare’ and ‘____ de Chocobo’ iterations (even Tactics Ogre cameos in some locations, if this reddit post is to be believed.)

And yet, after my 45 days with the game elapsed and the subscription fee needing to be renewed, I felt (and still feel) no compulsion to dive back into Eorzea. Having racked up a meagre 64 hours of playtime, I was content with what I had achieved with my Level 54 Bard, rocking my Ironworks Magitek Bow and swag-tastic equipment set. Yoshida and his team’s miraculous salvation of Final Fantasy XIV is nothing to be sniffed at – as impressive and staggeringly successful as it has been, with constant updates and two expansion packs already in the bag – but it simply isn’t enough for me to overcome my personal aversion to MMOs.

That said, I would urge any fan of Final Fantasy to give A Realm Reborn a try. The subscription fee is insubstantial compared to the sheer volume of content buried in every nook and cranny of the game; the community I encountered was more mature than I could have ever predicted, and the love and dedication for the series as a whole is immediate and obvious. Even if, like me, MMOs are far from your favourite genre, it’s worth letting the game surprise you with its depth, accessibility and, most importantly, how damn fun it is. Almost effortlessly, it captures the spirit of what makes Final Fantasy so dear to so many people, and that’s the highest praise I can give.

Naoki Yoshida is credited as the man who saved Final Fantasy XIV, but that’s to understate his impact. Far from merely salvaging a disastrous MMORPG, he almost single-handedly dragged Square Enix out of an abysmal slump and redeemed the brand as a whole. It may not be hyperbole to say that Yoshi-P, in all his casual, messy-haired glory, saved Final Fantasy. As the FFXIV juggernaut trucks on – after five years of sustained success – who knows what heights it will reach.

“But the world is ever changing… for the 15th coming.”

17 down, one to go. It all comes down to this. Join me next time – for the last time – when vaporware becomes reality in the world of the Versus epic: Final Fantasy XV.

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