Final Fantasy XIV: Square Enix's Masterpiece?
Disclaimer: Despite being a HUGE Final Fantasy fan, I will make this as unbiased as possible and personal experiences come from closed Beta all the way to the current patch (2.4) on Zalera.
Ah, Final Fantasy XIV. What a game, and with quite a background to it too.
For those of you who don't know, heres a little background info. Final Fantasy XIV was scheduled to be Squares second foray into the MMO realm set in a brand new world called 'Eorzea' after the success of Final Fantasy XI (Which still has a strong active player base now), I'm sure they felt pretty confident. Unfortunately the initial release was a complete flop (still better than FF XIII though am I right?) with the game being pretty bad, selling bad and causing Square quite a few losses.
This is where my love for Square comes in. Instead of scrapping the project/covering it up or just letting it be, they instead decided to fire the original development team and COMPLETELY redo the ENTIRE game from the ground up, using the previous games story/lore as a base. Square made Naoki Yoshida (AKA Yoshi P, previously a director on the Dragon Quest series) the director for the games release as a new game, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
The way they transitioned from old to new was also extremely well done. Setting up the lore in Ver 1.0, that players could go and experience before they shut the service down, creating an epic story about Bahamut, an elder primal and destroyer of worlds. I won't go into full detail, but from a game design perspective I respect them for it and I highly recommend you check this cutscene out. It's okay, I'll wait.
"We had server troubles, technical troubles, a lack of international marketing and research, a lack of communication with gamers. There were many problems, but they were all caused by the general idea that 'we're okay, it's the [Final Fantasy] brand, we made [Final Fantasy XI] work."
- Yoshi P
Sleepy Miqo'te is sleepy...
Needless to say the re-release was a resounding success, gaining positive feedback from critics, fans and players alike. Square had transformed a disaster of a game into an addictive, fun MMO environment without going free to play, retaining its original playerbase and creating a player friendly world in which Final Fantasy and MMO fans, both old and new game interact.
Which leads me onto my first point. The community in FFXIV is one of (if not) the best I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of. The general majority of the players in game are friendly, helpful and willing to help if they can, offering advice to new players or if its their first time running a dungeon. 9/10 times everyone greets their party at the start of a dungeon run and half of the time you end up having nice little chats with players from completely different servers (which is almost disappointing when you realise you'll never have the chance to talk again, cross server communication maybe Square?) throughout your playthrough.
Of course you get the odd salty player crop up who just cares about themselves, but since FFXIV is very PvE based, focusing on teamwork over personal skill, they won't get far by themselves. I learnt this the hard way after being a solo player for alot of Beta, and it caused me to drastically alter my play style for the better. This hugely makes the game much more enjoyable when you have 2 members of your party helping you with a new boss fight instead of raging in the chat window that you suck, and everyone benefits from it.
Even when rage does materialise in players it tends to be very minimal, with a rage quit or a sentence or two criticizing your play instead of endless abuse you might receive from other games. I think this is because of the world Square have managed to create, it wants players to be successful in whatever they choose to follow while also providing a worthy challenge.
"Eorzea, a blighted realm." - Gaius Van Bealsar.
This isn't entirely down to the PvE based gameplay either, PvP was added to the game in a later patch and is very enjoyable experience with a massive battlefield populated with 72 players from the games three Grand Companies (basically head factions) in a 'capture and hold' type game mode, if you can stand the *(sometimes) long wait queues. There is also other PvP modes in which you are placed into an area and are pitted party, against party, coliseum style. While fun, I much prefer the epic battlefield, with an inspiring soundtrack. Victory or defeat in these modes still yields a fair amount of reward too, if your that kind of player who wants to show off that awesome PvP gear and prove your worth.
The game is rewarding straight from the start, but there are certain milestones you hit that slowly reveal the 'full game' to you which make it much more enjoyable. Unlocking things called 'Guildhests' at level 10 which is almost like practice for dungeons, which you unlock at level 15. This is a great way to introduce the player into their respective role in a party in a low risk situation. You gain airship privileges along the line of the main story scenario, allowing you to travel Eorzea at your will. Unlocking your specified job class at level 30 and creating a sub story explaining the jobs origins, some better laid out than others.
"We’ve seen the considerable changes made to the engine, HUD and combat system, transforming it into a far cry from the game that disappointed so many." - Destructoid on ARR.
You'll find MANY references in this game if you can understand them, which offer a small chuckle depending on your tastes. Some of my favourites include the guildhest titled 'You Cannot Kill The Metal', a solid Tenacious D reference. A level 50 quest titled 'Hail To The King, Kupo' (involving Moogles) is a great Evil Dead reference. And finally a Paladin skill called 'Spirits Within' named after the 2005 movie of the same name.
These are but a few, and the game has many classic Final Fantasy easter eggs and traits that are directly incorporated into the game such as Magitek Armour from Final Fantasy VI, 'The Sunken Temple of Quarn' dungeon is obviously inspired by the Stillshrine of Miriam from XII, theres even a hilariously comedic Clash on the Big Bridge with everyone's favourite multi-armed warrior and that hyped up battle theme. Classic bosses and enemies make regular appearances such as the Demon Wall, Marlboros, and Carbuncle, the latter a summonable pet. Right up to Costa Del Sol from VII being a paradise like location to enjoy right in Eorzea. Kefka references, Dragoon armour, the Tiny Bronco, the Blitzball salute, it's got it all!
Who doesn't love a good rooftop rave?
Seriously, I havent even scratched the surface here, there is so many juicy little bits to be enjoyed here, and if you havent already noticed, I'm a sucker for this stuff. It's like FFXIV is a mixbowl of all the previous entries and Yoshi P is cooking them to perfection with his team.
The game isnt just visually stunning either, with huge cliffs, recants of the battle with Bahamut from the previous game and clear night skies, the music is beautiful composed. With awesome cinematic scores for cutscenes, the Primal battles you'll face along the story each have their own unique theme that evolves and intensifies as the battle progresses. PvP is motivational and kicks in once combat within your party starts, adding to the whole atmosphere. The main city states themes gloriously signify where you are within Eorzea and are almost patriotic to their respective Grand Companies.
My one complaint with the audio is that I wish there was more voice acting! The dialogue between NPC's and major characters is extremely well written and when you do hear these characters with a voice, it solidifies them in the world, improving immersion. The little voice acting you do hear however is fairly well done, with certain non important characters sounding a bit, well...Cheap sometimes. Animation could also further improve the cutscenes as it's limited to mainly the in game emotes that all players use. This is hidden quite well and given surprisingly good effect when the camera movement is used and clever positioning make you forget about it more often than not.
Apart from Hildibrand Manderville, but that's for another article.
He is quite the gentleman inspector don't you think?
As far as gameplay is concerned I'm afraid I can't speak for PC as I play on console. I beta tested the PS3 version and can happily say that its a solid platform to play on, with controls being specifically designed for the controller which work well with the flow of gameplay. The targeting system can be a bit annoying at times if your camera isn't quite right, either targeting something slightly off screen rarely, or being unable to scroll to the target you want if a bunch of other targetable things are bunched together.
What I love most is that its really the only 'true' console MMORPG. Things like DC Universe Online or Warframe are good MMO material to a point but FFXIV offers that true MMORPG experience found on the likes of World of Warcraft all on the comfort and stability of a console. Framerate stays high more often than not and the graphics are a very high standard on character models, enemies and locations.
A beautiful sunset in the region of Limsa Lominsa.
Certain textures can look a little low res in certain places, things such as grass and bushes, but you won't notice them as your galloping around on your fully functioning suit of Magitek Armour, unless you really look for it like I enjoy doing so. Random disconnects are rare and happen alot less than you'd think with connection to the servers being stable more often than not. I play on an NA server and I'm British, which further proves my point. Of course PS4 offers even more graphical quality and stability over PS3 and I feel the Dualshock 4's touchpad works better as a HUD selector over the Duelshock 3's select button, The curved triggers are also a bonus over the 3's flatter triggers as you'll be using them all the time in combat to activate your hotbars.
At the end of the day I just feel like Final Fantasy XIV really hits the nail on the head on how a game should be, in terms of game design and also from a player point of view. It is easy to pick up yet deep enough to take dedication to master, allowing brand new players (even those who have never player an MMO or Final Fantasy before) to experience maybe not a classic Final Fantasy or even a classic MMO, but something truly unique. There is ALWAYS something to do, even if its not directly in the game! Hell, I've hosted chocobo races, naked dungeon runs and nothing beats a good game of hide and seek if you turn your HUD off.
Maybe it was the fact that Ver 1.0 was a disaster and the new dev teams determination and willingness to listen to their fans made it so much better? Maybe I'm being biased after all? Who knows? But what I can say with certainty is that if this game has all this to offer after only one year (Oh I didn't mention it's only in its first year?) of being released, imagine how much content will be there in say, another 4 years. The first expansion 'Heavensward' is due to release in Spring 2015 and promises a ton of new content already.
It may not be a classic now, but I say give it time. Eorzea still has much more to show us.
Final Fantasy XIV: Lodestone (Official Site)