Returning to Eorzea: How Has Final Fantasy XIV Evolved In The 9 Months Since Its Release?
Final Fantasy. The name alone carries a lot of weight. It’s the second best selling RPG franchise in the world after Pokemon and typically viewed as the de facto RPG franchise in gaming. A brand that has turned Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu into household names among gamers. A name that carries with it a long history and rich legacy. But more than anything, it’s a name associated with fantastic production values. While I’m sure everyone has their favorite entries in the series, or perhaps one or two they believe aren’t as good as the rest, as a whole, you won’t find a numbered Final Fantasy entry that hasn’t been extremely well received. That is, until Final Fantasy XIV.
There was a lot of buzz about FFXIV prior to it’s release. From its announcement as a PS3 “exclusive” at Sony’s E3 2009 conference, to the fact that it would be a spiritual successor to FFXI, fans seemed cautiously optimistic about the new entry. Unfortunately, what they would get would be far worse than even the most negative expectations. It’s fair to say that when FFXIV was released, it was a disaster. After a lackluster beta period where feedback was largely ignored by the development team, the game released in a near identical state with very few changes, still feeling broken and half finished.
Critics panned it; fans detested it. It was so poorly received, the lead producer resigned from his position and the entire development team was restructured. Square Enix president, Yoichi Wada, issued a public apology to fans and the company suspended the game’s subscription fee and PS3 release indefinitely until they could clean up their mess and improve the game’s quality. That brings us to today. Over the past 9 months, SE have been hard at work patching the game frequently, and they’re not done. FFXIV has, quite possibly, the biggest list up upcoming changes I’ve ever seen for a game.
One has to respect Square for their continued commitment and effort towards improving such a poorly received title instead of simply writing it off and moving forward, believing that the title deserves another shot. I, too, am a fan of second chances. All too often, potentially great games ship in a haphazard state. Even if they are improved post-release, the stigma of its initial reception makes people reluctant to try it out. Critics be damned!, I said. I decided to give FFXIV another shot; to see how the game has changed since it was released 9 months ago. I laced up my bracers and strapped on my quiver to enter the world of Eorzea once more. This is my experience.
Having not played since being invited to closed beta, I booted the game and went through a quick series of updates before setting up my old account. The process is still clunky, first requiring you to register your key code (the game itself) and then “purchasing” the requisite features–namely, character slots–which the monthly fee is attached to. (NOTE: The subscription fee is currently suspended.) If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. While it allows for better account management in that you have more control over how much you pay, it’s difficult to understand and is an unnecessary complication while the game is still free.
Once I made it through the cumbersome account setup process, I hopped in game where I was serenaded by the classic Final Fantasy Prelude before making my way to the character creator. Greeted by the reimagined races of FFXI, I went back and forth between the options for a number of hours. While XIV doesn’t have a character creator as deep as that of DCUO or Aion, it does offer a number of races–with 2 visually distinctive factions per race–as well as a large variety of options specific to each race/faction. In addition to this, you can also set up a number of vanity options such as your Nameday (birthday) and Guardian (zodiac) though, presently, they add no benefit to your character. After toying around with the creator, I finally settled on a Miqo’te, Seeker of the Sun: Calie Habanero (shorthand for Caliente). An archer hailing from the city of Ul’dah with a name as fiery as her appearance. With everything set up, I logged on to begin my adventure.
If there’s one thing you have to give FFXIV credit for, it’s that it looks phenomenal. As you’d expect of a game carrying the Final Fantasy banner, the graphics are stunning, and the game shows them off with a beautifully crafted cutscene the first time you enter the game on a new character. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the “PC friendly” specs you’ll find in most MMOs that look like they’re a generation behind current releases, though you’ll need a PC with quite a bit of horsepower to appreciate the details in all their glory. Once you’re done ogling the game’s graphics, you’re carried through a brief quest line to get you familiar with the game’s control scheme before the game sets you loose into the world.
This point in the game has typically been one of much confusion. FFXIV has been heavily criticized for being incredibly unfriendly to new players and Square Enix has taken great measures to be kinder to new adventurers. Regrettably, it’s still a game where you need to RTFM. While the game’s introductory quest line walks you through your starting city and familiarizes you with a lot of the game’s basics, you might not realize it’s there until long after the fact. Though most NPCs that serve a function will offer you a brief explanation on what it is they do, your real resource will be The Lodestone, FFXIV’s community site that is chock full of information sure to be of use to newbies. The game still lacks the friendliness of something like WoW, but for those who make an effort to learn the game, the appropriate resources are now available to help them out.
After the basics are in order, you’ll start leveling. While there are quests in the traditional sense (talk to an NPC and complete whatever task they assign you), most of your time will be spent doing guildleves. Similar to WoW’s daily quests, you select the type of leve you want based on the class you’re playing, at which point you’re given a random assortment of leves you can accept for various rewards every 36 hours. You can carry up to 8 leves in your inventory, but complete only 4 every reset. If it sounds awkward and limited, that’s because it is. And aside from the mechanics, the leves themselves are repetitive and vary wildly in difficulty.
While Square has done a lot to adjust them–lowering the reset cooldown from 48 hours, balancing out the wonky difficulty levels, and giving more accurate leve descriptions–it’s still not enough. At least, not while leves are a player’s primary source of leveling. If there was more content to supplement leves, this wouldn’t be such an important factor, but as it stands, the restrictions need to be lowered and variety needs to be increased dramatically for this to be a consistently viable method of leveling without growing stale.
Speaking of which, how about the experience while leveling? You may ask. A fine question. The game’s battle system is both a diamond in the rough and an exercise in frustration. Mechanically, it’s incredibly unique. There are no auto-attacks, with your attack pace dictated by a stamina gauge. (NOTE: Both these are being changed with the next patch in the coming month. Auto-attacks are being added and Stamina is being removed.) In addition, your attacks are also managed by both TP and MP; TP focusing on weapon skills and melee abilities with MP regulating your spells. This matters because unlike most games, your character will more than likely utilize both rather than one or the other.
In FFXIV, class abilities aren’t limited to the class that grants them. Nearly every ability gained by one class can be used by another, provided you have enough skill points to assign them. Think the Marauder’s Bloodbath ability, which converts damage done to HP, would be a good addition to your Gladiator’s arsenal? Well it can be. Most restrictions imposed on this system at launch have since been lifted, giving you free reign to mix and match class abilities to truly create whatever it is you desire, no matter how ridiculous. It also means that as a melee class, your mana bar isn’t entirely useless.
To add even more flexibility to the system, classes can be switched on the fly by equipping the appropriate weapon. A staff for Conjurers, bow for Archers, axe for Marauders, etc. Unfortunately, this is where the unique system starts to show it’s flaws. Lets start with the action bar. When swapping classes, as mentioned above, nearly every ability is wiped from your bar. This means every time you swap your class, you have to stop and set up your entire bar again. To make matters worse, it’s not a one time ordeal. If your Conjurer’s action bar is set up and you swap to Thaumaturge and then back to Conjurer, you’ll find your Conjurer’s bar empty again. Nothing is saved. It’s annoying, time consuming, and completely undermines the benefits of swapping on the fly; but I’ll get back to the UI in a moment.
Battling itself is both a mix of real time combat and turn based actions. It’s an odd combination, but it works well, as anyone who played FFXI will attest. There are some issues however. Enemies occasionally run around the battlefield for no apparent reason, making you chase after them while they bug out. You’re also unable to tag multiple groups of enemies. Meaning that, if you’ve engaged 5+ monsters, only a single one, or single group, can be “yours.” The rest will continue to attack you and you will be able to kill them, but you’ll receive no loot or experience for the kill. In addition to this, threat generation is all over the place – buffs especially. To give an example, you might use an ability to lessen the threat of your next attack, but the ability itself will generate more threat than your attack would have, effectively voiding the ability’s entire purpose. Finally, the stamina bar. While an interesting feature, it’s far too limiting. You might have the requisite TP or MP to initiate attack, but are unable to do so because you lack stamina. Thankfully, Square is planning to address nearly all of these complaints in the near future.
Returning to the UI before I move on: What a mess. It’s difficult to imagine how something so integral to the game can be so flawed. You’ve heard my complaints about the action bar, but that’s just the beginning. Most notably, the game is incredibly difficult to play with a mouse and keyboard. You can try if you’d like, but I’d recommend plugging in a gamepad for the sake of your sanity. With a KB/M, the targeting system is atrocious. It’s bound to the arrow keys, and the size of your character’s hitbox makes it damn near impossible to target with your mouse while your camera is locked on to something. With a gamepad, you’ll fare much better, especially with the new targeting system implemented a few patches ago. So depending on your control scheme, targeting can either be a breeze or your worst nightmare.
Though the UI was clearly designed for, and favors, a gamepad, there are still a number of issues that plague both control schemes. Do you like menus? I hope you do, because FFXIV has menus on top of menus on top of menus. When you die, you will not receive a message to release from your corpse. You must manually go into your main menu, select the “Return” option, and then confirm your selection. Likewise, the game alerts you with on screen prompts when you’re near an interactive object or something of importance. But rather than letting you select this prompt, you have to go into your menu and then select the appropriate action from a list. Why? While no one issue is particularly offensive, the combination of all of them together promise that you will be in a constant state of annoyance from dealing with it; especially if you’re a KB/M user. Everything feels like it takes ~5 steps more than it should and there’s no reason it has to be this way.
Despite their faults, the battle system and class structure are still strong enough to keep you ascending through the ranks and traveling the world . . . kind of. Regions in FFXIV are absolutely massive. So big, in fact, the game considers a single region to be a collection of zones as opposed to a singular entity. While this makes the world feel appropriately large, it opens up an entirely new can of worms. The notable thing missing from these massive landscapes are chocobos, or any form of navigation for that matter. There are no mounts, no flight paths; No chocobos nor airships. Make sure your auto-run key is bound close by, because you’ll be going everywhere on foot.
To make up for this, the game does feature a teleport system. This allows you to instantaneously navigate to any previously visited aetheryte–giant crystal-like devices that act as inns/home points–but it’s likely your destination will still be a long walk from the nearest teleport location. In addition, it’s use is limited by aether. Your character has a total of 100 aether and each teleport will cost you 2-6 points; costing more the further you are from your desired destination. To add insult to injury, aether regenerates at a snail’s pace of 1 point per 4 hours. While the resource is less precious than it used to be now that you no longer have to spend aether to be revived from death, you’ll still be reluctant to use this function outside of dire scenarios or lengthy travels that would otherwise be too time consuming to partake on foot.
Another thing to account for, given their size, is that a single region adequately covers Lv.1-50 (the current level cap). While this sounds neat on paper, it means you’re going to spend your entire time in a single region unless you actively make an effort to travel somewhere else. There is no natural progression across the world; no sense of exploration. This feeling is exacerbated even further by the lack of variety within the sub-zones. For instance, Thanalan (map above, pictured below) looks largely the same regardless of which sub-zone you’re in. Granted, it’s a beautifully crafted world filled with stunning visuals, but that does little to offset the fact that it all looks the same. Lastly, there are only 5 regions in the game. While there are 23 zones–26 if you include cities–within those 5 regions, you only have 5 distinct landscapes, making you feel as though you’ve already been to a given location even if you’re traveling somewhere entirely new.
But enough about the environment. Lets say you press on and make it to Lv.50. What sort of end game content can you expect? Well . . . not much. Since the game’s release, a number of Notorious Monsters (rare spawns) have been added to the game, most designed to challenge Lv.50 players. However, the majority of them can be taken down by a single skilled player without much trouble. These boss battles lack any amount of depth–both tactical and reactionary. No kiting, skillchains, positioning, or timing required. If you know how to incapacitate an enemy, then you have mastered the tactical depth of the game’s boss fights. Grand Companies (raids) and instanced dungeons are soon-to-be-added additions to the game, but currently, no such content is available.
Aside from battling and exploration, the game offers a wealth of gathering and crafting classes. They’re an entirely unique set of classes, separate from the disciples of war and magic (battle classes), equipped with their own skills and abilities and even unique guildleves specific to them. Needless to say, the message Square is trying to present is clear: crafting isn’t merely a supplemental profession for battle classes, but a role unto itself. This is made clearer by the lengths required to craft items at higher levels. Nothing is a simple craft unless you have the gil to purchase all your materials. Otherwise, you’ll scavenge the world to collect the items you require before you can proceed.
Like the stamina bar, this is a good idea in theory, but less so in practice. It tries to be a game within a game, but falls short. Crafting items is far too random and no matter what your profession or craft recipe, it all boils down to the same minigame. The tedium has been somewhat alleviated with the addition of recipe books, but as a whole, crafting is still far too cumbersome and time consuming for what it yields.
So what will you be crafting so hard to make? Gear. Similar to the flexible class system, items share a certain synergy. Any class of any level can wear any piece of gear. Want to wear Lv.50 chainmail on your Lv.1 Conjurer? Go for it. However, to counteract any balancing issues that may occur from this flexibility, each piece of gear has a selection of classes and a level range that it favors. By not meeting these optimal requirements, the stats you receive are lessened to some degree. Thus, a Lv.20 sword would be more appropriate for a Lv.20 Gladiator than a Lv.50 sword suffering from a stat penalty. It’s one of the few systems in FFXIV that’s both sound on paper and works well in it’s execution; Especially in conjunction with on-the-fly class swapping, keeping you from carrying around sets of armor for 20 different classes.
The armor itself, like the rest of the game, looks fantastic. While clearly fantasy inspired, it looks appropriately realistic for the world of Eorzea. Though the designs could use a bit of flare–something to make them feel more individually unique–there are no glowing staves or flaming skull pauldrons and the game is better for it. Aside from looks, the armor sounds great as well. Chainmail clanks, leather squeaks, and robes rustle. So not only will you see the difference, you’ll hear it too.
And that brings me to my final point: The game’s presentation. I’ve touched on some parts of it throughout this review, but FFXIV is a very beautiful game in all respects. Nobuo Uematsu has returned as the sole composer for the first time since FFIX and you can tell. The music is fantastic and appropriately sets the tone of your task or location. You may, at times, find yourself idling in a specific area for the sole purpose of listening to the BGM. Combined with the fantastic graphics, character and armor design, and beautiful environments–all of which I’ve previously highlighted–and you have one amazingly crafted world.
To top off the experience, the game has a strong narrative delivered through cutscenes that really lets you see what’s going on in the world around you; and it starts as soon as you enter the game, with each city having their own unique story. A far cry from other MMOs that have no cutscenes at all and deliver their stories entirely through quest logs. My only complaint would be that all the cutscenes are not fully voice acted. The important ones are, but the rest are old school with actions taking place on screen while text appears for you to read. It’s a bit archaic compared to gaming as a whole, but it’s still the best story delivery you’re going to find in an MMO until Bioware finally ships
To summarize, FFXIV is still not a good game and it pains me to say that. Over the last 9 months a lot has changed, and all of it for the better. Combat has been made faster, leveling is quicker, notorious monsters roam the landscape, and a search function has been added to the Market Wards (though, the fact that the Market Wards still exist instead of a traditional Action House is a tragedy). Many of the restrictions have also been lifted, or at least made more lenient, including the game’s ridiculous fatigue system. As a whole, the game is in a much better state now than it was 9 months ago. So for those of you put off initially, but still wish to return, know that you will be playing a better game than previously; But for many of you, it still won’t be enough.
There is a ray of hope though. The same light at the end of the tunnel that made me want to give FFXIV a second chance to begin with: Updates. Lots and lots of updates. Within the next 2 weeks, the combat system will be overhauled with the removal of stamina, as I mentioned previously, as well as instanced dungeons (which were just unveiled today). Soon afterwards, we can expect Grand Companies, advanced jobs for every class, the removal of physical levels, UI fixes, a crafting overhaul, and–if we’re lucky–the ability to jump (hah). Nearly every fault I’ve found in the game, every complaint I could muster, seems to be on Square’s to-do list. If we can take something good away from FFXIV’s abysmal release, it’s that it taught Square the value of community feedback.
All too often, games are never afforded a second chance, but Final Fantasy is one of the biggest names in the industry. If Square continues to deliver improvements and makes the game fun to play before the PS3 launch re-releases this entry in the series, FFXIV might just get another shot at life. For now, it hasn’t reached that point just yet. However, I will be here to keep you updated, and I will let you know when it’s time to pick up your swords and shields to return to Eorzea.