After a 2010 launch experience plagued by slim content, low subscribers, and a horrendous UI, Square Enix took Final Fantasy XIV back to the drawing board with a new staff, better motives, and PlayStation 3 cross-platform gaming. Now, in 2013, Square hopes to convince gamers that, in a modern realm of free-to-play online games, the old subscription ways can still be as rewarding as they used to be. An order has never been taller, considering the market base is borderline reluctant to spend monthly cash on a game. What always kept me going, even after realizing that I was spending $180 dollars a year to play a game like World of Warcraft, was the fact I was entertained each month for only $15. Considering that a fast food meal costs about half that and it’s gone in an instant, what’s $15 across 30 days? I’m not here to argue food prices, though; the industry has constructed a wall between quality gaming and consumer cost, and Square Enix is pushing to regenerate the value of online gaming with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
The real miracle here is that a full-fledged MMO is playable on both PC and PS3. Then again, Final Fantasy XIV isn’t the first, given DC Universe Online’s cross-platform compatibility, but few would attempt to compare the superhero MMO to the likes of World of Warcraft, which has been the genre’s global standard for nearly a decade. Even with Square’s perpetual Final Fantasy XI still attracting a sizable fanbase, World of Warcraft struck gold with a universal formula that compelled millions of players with incredibly addictive properties, including robust worlds, almost countless instances, and an end-game that keeps on giving.
Based in the world of Hydaelyn, players navigate the realm of Eorzea five years after the fall of Hydaelyn’s lesser moon, Dalamud. The fall of Dalamud was caused by the Garlean Empire, which is the main antagonist group, in order to wipe out Eorzea. However, unbeknownst to the inhabitants of Eorzea, Dalamud contained the dragon Bahamut, and the protagonist Grand Companies sought out scholar Archon Louisoix to attempt resealing Bahamut. He failed, so he instead extinguished his last remaining energy to send the survivors into the ether, where they then waited until the world was safe for inhabiting once again. In terms of plot, this is how Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 ended, and the events in A Realm Reborn come after the survivors leave the ether and return to the world. In fact, right after creating your character, you find yourself floating in nothingness and you are summoned to a higher cause, where you then fly into a giant Aethercrystal and enter Eorzea.
Unfortunately, the Garlean Empire has resurfaced in A Realm Reborn, and the narrative that you, the player, experience is how the Garlean Empire is dealt with again. Official Square Enix embargoes allow me to cover story-related content to a certain point, but I’d much rather leave the plot to your disgression. What I can promise you is that the story ebbs and flows with the essence of Final Fantasy, from the character designs to the plot directions and the story arcs, and the main quest chain is the same for every class. Regarding classes, each one has its own story that starts at their respective guild, and the story is told through quests that appear in the guild quarters as your character progresses.
From this point on, everything about World of Warcraft described in this review will be borne of my personal opinion. As I see it, some of the amazing aspects of Final Fantasy XIV cannot truly be conveyed without a proper source of comparison.
The original World of Warcraft release and Burning Crusade expansion were genre benchmarks and the only consistently good times in World of Warcraft. With Wrath of the Lich King and subsequent content, I was bummed by simplicity and easy access that simply fed subscribers with instant reward and no substance; the cash cow has gotten worse ever since. In contrast, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has built upon the success of Final Fantasy XI with more accessibility while still demanding time and effort and, all the while, remaining thoroughly entertaining.
For example, A Realm Reborn features now-standard quest tracking, so you can find where your quests need you to go. Each quest has a button to track objectives, which shows you where your next task is located, but, every once in a while, your objectives lie outside the main map and you have to really dig into the quest text to figure out where you need to go.
Job System – Classes and Professions
The Job system has seen equal retooling. My first MMO was World of Warcraft, so I was made jealous by my Final Fantasy XI-playing friends’ talk of playing any class with a single character; Final Fantasy XIV takes XI’s Job system and tunes for accessibility while still maintaining feelings of effort and satisfaction. With the switch of a weapon, your character can change from a Lancer to a Culinarian, to a Botanist, to a Goldsmith, or to whichever Job–from crafting professions to combat classes–you wish to represent.
That’s all well and good, but what about equipment switches? Well, when you change your weapon, your equipment that you were wearing comes off, since most classes cannot wear the same clothes. This could have been frustrating, but—remember the World of Warcraft add-on Outfitter?—Final Fantasy XIV has a wardrobe feature that can be set and updated right from the character menu, and, to top it all off, each new wardrobe is labeled according to the weapon that’s equipped, so there’s no need to label them; a wardrobe generated with a Pugilist fist weapon is automatically called Pugilist for easy organization, and more wardrobe slots unlock as you unlock more Jobs. The only negative is that updating your wardrobe sets has to be done manually; a choice between manual and automatic organization would have been appreciated, given the pros and cons of each. And you can’t find all of the Job-granting masters in your starting main city, don’t fret: they’re scattered across the three main cities and they’re clearly labeled on the map.
Now, each beginner class–including Pugilist, Gladiator, Archer, Thaumaturge, Conjurer, Arcanist, Marauder, and Lancer–is the progression base to deeper specializations: the Jobs. For example, a Paladin is a Gladiator with specialization in tanking, a Black Mage is a Thaumaturge with heavy offensive magic, etc. You’ll reach class-specific quests when your given class (for me, Pugilist) hits level 30, and you can choose to specialize in one Job or another by utilizing a Soul Crystal. I didn’t have near enough time to carefully scrutinize every class, but, if the rest of them are like the Pugilist class, you’ll know what your options will mean by the time you reach level 30. Don’t think that you’re stuck as that specific Job, either, because you can also recede back to your original class (in my case, the Pugilist) and specialize in the other available Job. The best part is that your specialized Job and your starter class will level together, so you don’t have to grind out the rest of your class levels first. You’ll still have to grind out any other Job that you want to level on the side, but because associated Jobs and classes level alongside each other no matter what, the workload isn’t as massive as it could be. The stagnant grind of leveling other combat Jobs is varied with the Hunting Log, which lists monsters that you can kill in order to gain experience; and each combat Job has its own list, so don’t hold back.
The crafting Jobs, a separate set of Jobs entirely, is something that other MMOs could emulate. One particular MMO that stood out in this aspect is Guild Wars 2, in that as you craft more new items, the pace of crafting increases dramatically. In World of Warcraft, bulk items could be created with bulk materials, but unlike both World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV slows down the pace and makes the effort more invigorating. The harvesting Jobs (Botanist and Miner, for instance) use their tools to find nodes, and each harvest nodes gives you a list of items to attempt to gather. As a Botanist, for example, you can choose between harvesting Maple Wood, Maple Sap, colored Crystals, or Maple Branch, and each one has a level that indicates its harvesting difficulty and an automatically calculated and displayed percentage of success that’s based on equipment stats and overall Job level; the higher both of the latter are, the better your chance of obtaining the items you want or need. The Job leveling experience as a whole is also made less tedious by the abilities you automatically learn; these increase success rates and make the crafting and gathering processes quicker and more efficient.
MMOs and DualShock 3: a combination that I’ve been trying to emulate for years. I managed to make it work for World of Warcraft with an Xbox 360 controller and some haphazard software, but the experience only worked for early-game leveling, since the large amount of required commands and small amount of input buttons didn’t mesh well, even with complicated button combinations and internal setting changes. My lack of patience didn’t help either, considering how frustrating it can be to program that stuff. In prime showing, Square Enix has created an experience that almost favors the controller over a PC keyboard. Whenever a menu pops up, the cursor automatically moves to it, for instance, so navigating even complicated menu switches are easily done by merely pressing the X button. But the crème de la crème of this experience is how the action bars are used. Two sets of four buttons are bound and laid out according to the eight controller face buttons: the D-Pad directionals and the shape buttons. These sets are accessed by holding the L2 or R2 triggers, respectively, so you might cast Blizzard by holding R2 and pressing Circle, or cast a party buff with L2 and Down. You can also swap between eight such layouts on-the-fly, so every single command is always within reach. This becomes a learning experience, since many commands will take a bit more time and input to reach, so gameplay can initially feel cumbersome and unintuitive. After a very short time, however, these controls that not so long ago felt atrocious soon feel natural and fluid, and, as situations become more complicated and require more abilities, using the triggers feels almost second nature.
Of course, MMO aficionados may be disheartened to hear that attack animations in Final Fantasy XIV are based on stationary positions. Now, this doesn’t mean that moving in combat is impossible (at least, not for melee attacks), but it’s not quite as favored. Moving and attacking at the same time looks awkward, as a standing-still animation will play regardless. This isn’t a major negative, but, when watching your character naturally gain momentum when running and rotating with exact footing, it’s jarring to look at something like sliding across the ground in combat. Regardless, attacking in motion feels natural from a control standpoint, even if it doesn’t look equally so.
Where Rift has rifting and Guild Wars 2 has dynamic world events, Final Fantasy XIV has FATEs, or Full Active Time Events, which are epic side quests that randomly appear all over the vast map. Players can jump in and take part in clearing out massive amounts of enemies, or one particularly impressive enemy, which is a great way to level up your less-used combat Jobs. Simply joining a FATE isn’t good enough, either: meaningful participation is required to reap meaningful reward. Participation is ranked on a traditional bronze, silver, and gold system, and your personal rewards of XP and Gil reflect those ranks. Really, earning a gold rating isn’t hard; all you have to do is hit your targets, or turn in several dropped items to the NPC in need, and you’re golden. If your level is above the FATE’s level, you can sync to it, bringing your stats down to appropriate numbers while allowing you to take part and receive compensation. As expected, XP and Gil rewards will decrease, but it’s an appropriate price for easier-than-normal FATEs.
In a nod to past series installments, Final Fantasy XIV revolves around crystals, but it does so in a way beyond story association: crystal serve as transportation. Alongside an airship that goes between the three major cities and the option to ride Chocobos wherever you go, you can also spend a little Gil and teleport to and from Aethereytes to which you’ve attuned yourself. After you acclimate to the teleportation system, you may never want to look at another game’s Hearthstone equivalent again.
Materia offer another nostalgic turn. These elements, while utilized in the much-maligned Version 1.0, have a special place in A Realm Reborn with a very interesting customization angle. Materia can be equipped to your gear to increase stats, much like socketing in World of Warcraft, but the best part about materia is that they’re created by using your gear in battle. That’s right; your old gear now has a purpose outside of resale or vending. As indicated in the character stat menu, a bar next to each piece of equipped gear indicates how in-tune with that gear your character is. When the bar fills from extended use, you can turn your gear into materia. The ability to do this comes from a quest outside of the main story chain, but, if you’re like me and you can’t let a quest go untouched, you won’t have any trouble finding it. The quest isn’t too far off the beaten story path, either, so most everyone will discover this interesting and nostalgic twist to gear upgrades in short order.
Meanwhile, Levequests are Final Fantasy XIV’s equivalent to repeatable quests, an MMO staple: pick up the quest, run to the quest area, and start the familiar action. When you initiate them from the quest menu, mobs and events related to Levequests will appear and stay in place until you complete the quest or die. What’s different from most MMOs in regards to repeatable quests is that Levequests can have customizable difficulty on a scale of zero to four. Generally, if the Levequest is the same level as your Job, having the difficulty at 1 makes the quest pretty challenging. So, you can complete Levequests with a lower level than your Job level and increase their difficulty for Gil and XP bonuses that matter, or you can take on higher-level Levequests and decrease their difficulty.
Gameplay (Dungeons and Raids)
Finally, instancing is a highly sought-after undertaking in MMOs, and Final Fantasy XIV has at least one instance for every four or five character levels. Granted, most boss fights and instances aren’t very challenging, but many bosses along the way, even at early levels, require more strategy than simply “tanking and spanking.” One boss in particular didn’t even require tanking, since doing damage to it required blowing it into smaller, defeatable pieces; I won’t spoil the whole fight, but the array of experiences, even early on, have enough diversity to make grinding instances entertaining. The different player counts make for interesting experiences, too, with up to four, eight, or 24 players supported, depending on the dungeon or raid. That said, I wasn’t used to the idea that so many instances were at my disposal, and the main quest chain generally leads to all of these instances; if it doesn’t, even an incomplete map will show icons where instances are, so finding each one is simply a matter of getting there.
Instancing is all well and good, but what makes a difference is that with which all Final Fantasy fans are familiar with: Limit Breaks. In A Realm Reborn, Limit Breaks can only be accessed in parties, and the size of the party influences the strength of the Limit Break. Meanwhile, Limit Break bars can only be activated by the character who possesses it, so communication is a must, lest these wonderful abilities be wasted on monsters that don’t really need it. Damage-dealing Jobs can execute a devastating attack while tanking Jobs reinforce the party and healing Jobs unleash divine heals and buffs. Ultimately, Limit Breaks don’t much of a risk-reward tradeoff, since there are almost no disadvantages and the reward is high if they’re used properly. All you have to do to build up this bar is hit things. I call that a win-win.
Final Fantasy XIV’s version of the industry-standard Instance Finder is called Duty Finder, which automatically groups players together to run instances. I haven’t played a major MMO in a long time, but, from my limited past exposure to World of Warcraft and Rift, instance matchmaking systems tend to figure it out in the background and then notify you when a position is found. In contrast, the Duty Finder makes available exactly who’s in your Duty Finder session before the party even starts, so you can find out what you’re missing and ask around to speed up the process. As is the case in most MMOs, queuing up alone as a damage dealer means you’ll be waiting a long time, while healers and tanks tend to wait for substantially shorter durations. All in all, it’s essentially the same as you’ve (likely) seen before: go into the Duty Finder menu, join a queue for your desired instance, and then go about your business until the Duty Finder pops up, so you don’t have to stand outside the instance like the olden days and wait for people to show up. You can go back to questing, FATE grinding, or Levequesting, and you will be sent right into the instance once the Duty Finder queue tells you to commence the instance–convenient, appreciated, but pretty standard stuff.
Graphics and Sound
Aesthetically, Square Enix has worked wonders with PS3’s seven-year-old hardware. It’s astonishing that A Realm Reborn even runs on a machine with so little RAM. Graphics may initially look mediocre, but the game in motion more than makes up for its technical shortcomings. Animations are robust and vivid, and sounds are equally significant, creating a memorable ambiance that’s hard to turn away from. Only when the screen is filled to the brim do the game’s limitations show, where non-player characters in major cities don’t load right away or major world battles don’t load when too many people are around; it’s as rare as it is odd to see a bunch of skill animations without any casters or targets. In addition, sometimes character animations don’t trigger, so an attack will happen without a character moving in kind, but that issue usually only happens in the first battle or two after entering (or re-entering) the game.
If you don’t have a surround sound system, now is the time to do yourself a service. Literally, the only audibly weak aspects to this game are the few and far between voiced cut scenes, but that’s a testament to how great everything else is. Voice acting comes across rather static much like how Final Fantasy XII was, but without the enjoyable archaic English dialogue. Combat booms with action in combat and the world serenades with a soundtrack that I can’t get out of my head. Influences seem abundantly clear, with tracks ranging from Western styles to ones much more melodic, and even one particular track is reminiscent of The Shire from Lord of the Rings beautifully and another conveys a piano focus that triggers nostalgia of Melodies of Life from Final Fantasy IX. Each track dances on audible memory in a way that I cannot compare, especially if soundtracks are your main focus, and, normally, I always enjoy a decent soundtrack merely as effective background noise, but that of FFXIV takes the foreground just as much as the gaming experience does.
PlayStation 3 vs. PC
Really, I’m surprised to even be making this comparison, since the hardware that PS3 is packing can’t compare to what most computers–especially of the hardcore gaming variety–deliver now. However, Final Fantasy XIV’s console interface is a triumph, as menu navigation is easily executed through button presses and following the predictive cursor. Instead of moving the mouse around to click on quest confirmations or navigate the clumsily organized crafting menus, just press X when the cursor moves there. You use the right analog stick to control the camera instead of moving it with a mouse. You get the idea.
Indeed, the only two things that PC players will have over their PS3 counterparts is better visuals and a keyboard, but the PS3 has ease of access and streamlined controls unseen in other MMOs. The beauty of this situation is how Square Enix designed A Realm Reborn to bridge the gap between gamers from two different worlds. PC players and PS3 players can play together without hindrance or limitation, which makes Final Fantasy XIV that much more worth your time and investment. I may sound like I’m trying to sell this to you, but I have wanted a controller-based MMO for a very long time, and it’s finally here to the degree for which I’ve yearned since my days of wishing for Thunderfury on my Rogue.
The game’s most recent patch eliminated that wretched Error 1017 monster that plagued early players during launch week, and new, incoming servers should bring to bear Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn’s full potential. Framed by the context of Final Fantasy XI’s ongoing success, it’s easy to see that A Realm Reborn–a remarkably better game than Final Fantasy XIV’s Version 1.0 release–is here to stay. And considering that Sony always pushes for ten-year console lifecycles, we could still be playing this game when rumors of PlayStation 5 start creeping around the internet.
And the future of Final Fantasy XIV looks bright. Player-versus-player combat is on its way, though its associated patch, 2.1, isn’t set to land until next year. Major expansions are planned, and the first of these is already written. Content updates–including the nostalgic Golden Saucer–will come fast and frequent under Square’s three-month plan.
After really looking at this game, the comparison between the two versions shouldn’t be a competition at all. FFXIV works wonderfully on both pieces of hardware, and, with the vast array of content at your disposal already, the only way that this game wouldn’t be worth your monthly $15 payments is if you only play first-person games-, wait, that’s still not right, because this game can be played entirely in first person by pressing L3. Okay, if you only play sports games or your bank is constantly deleted by someone of known or unknown association, then this game wouldn’t strike your fancy. There’s always the group of people that play MMOs, but, if you’ve made it this far, you’re likely, to some degree, interested in playing Final Fantasy XIV. With a free month available right off the bat, the barrier to entry is low, especially given the game’s retail price of $40. From utterly compelling content to the accessibly flexible Job system, from an outstanding console interface to technical prowess and impressive production values, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is the game that Square Enix wanted to make 2010. Three long years later, it’s here, and it’s worth every penny. It’s an MMO experience unmatched since vanilla World of Warcraft, and the convenience of playing from your couch on an HDTV cannot be overstated.
Final Fantasy XIV on PS3 is worth every penny, and if Square’s online opus doesn’t open your wallet to subscription-quality gaming, nothing will.
Tim Nunes, US Executive Editor, would like to thank Ben Shillabeer-Hall (Chille) for aiding him throughout a major chunk of content he wouldn’t have otherwise seen; and he would also like to thank the crew at XIVDB.com for providing a well-presented and convenient service. He wouldn’t have been able to experience as much content as he did without their help.