News, Views, and Reviews
Somebody put some JRPG in my MMO. Final Fantasy games have a special place in video game history. The first Final Fantasy debuted all the way back on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987. Since then, there have been 35 games in the franchise, including the main installments, I through XIV, and numerous sequels and spin-offs. Most of the older titles have been remade or re-released on multiple platforms. Unless it is a direct sequel, such as FFXII and FFXII-2, the main installments are not directly related to one another. Instead, games share common themes, characters with similar names, similar classes or “jobs” like White Mage, Thief, Lancer, Monk, and so on, and similar creatures and monsters like the iconic Bahamut dragon or the Chocobo mounts. FFXI was a departure from the main installments in that it didn’t feature a set of main characters and story line, as it is an MMO. It is also one of the few MMOs to appear on PC, the PS2, and the Xbox 360. Also known as FFXI Online, the MMO was released in 2002 and, with five expansions, has kept a modest following. Game developer Square (now Square Enix) says that FFXI is its most profitable game in the series to date. Following FFXI, the next main installments, FFXII and FFXIII and their sequels, returned to “traditional” RPG formats. In September of 2010, Square released FFXIV Online, another MMO. But it flopped. Hard.
Square Enix reorganized the development team and began completely remaking the game from the ground up. In October of 2011, they announced that they would relaunch the game as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. This do-over remarkably carries over the story and events from FFXIV, but it incorporates a new client, graphics engine, server and data structures, a revamped interface, redesigned maps, more gameplay variations and additional story content. FFXIV: ARR simultaneously launches on PC and PS3 on August 27th, 2013.
A Realm Reborn. I tried the original version of FFXIV back in 2010, and like most people, thought it was terrible. So I’ll admit that I don’t know too much about the story. The new CGI introduction movie presents some details. Two warring factions are engaged in a massive battle, and in classic FF style, we see a mixture of medieval and science fiction armor and weapons being used, as well as the signature Chocobo mounts. One of the sides brings a huge floating fortress into the battle, and it starts raining destruction down below. Throughout the conflict, we see a small moon-sized sphere slowly “crack” open – whether this is caused by one of the two factions, a third faction, or an unintentional side effect of the conflict itself is not clear. Eventually, the small moon explodes open, releasing a really, really big dragon. That dragon then proceeds to destroy pretty much everything. I mean EVERYTHING. Around the doomed world, several different people begin giving off a powerful energy that swirls around the planet and attempts to re-contain the dragon. When it looks like this effort will fail, one of these glowing individuals focuses his power to save some nearby heroes, and then everything vanishes in a flash of light. A moment later, these heroes find themselves in a lush forest, as if nothing happened. Did that old man transport them to another dimension or realm? Or is it the same realm, but in a different time? I guess we’ll have to play the game to find out!
After creating a character, players arrive as a new adventurer at one of the starting cities. Here, NPCs will explain that there was the great Calamity some five years prior, yet nobody seems to be able to remember exactly what happened. They also remember that some brave heroes sacrificed themselves to save everyone else, but they can’t even remember who they were or even what they looked like. Further, if they try to remember their appearance, they can only imagine them as silhouettes in front of a bright light, which led the people to refer to them as “The Warriors of Light.” Could you be one of these heroes? You don’t remember where you came from, either…
Beyond that, this is an MMO, so I expect most missions and quests will have next to nothing to do with this main story. Perhaps over time, main quests will lead to discovering more and more about the story. Already, I find it fascinating that the developers tied the demise of the first iteration of the game into the main story. They literally wiped it all out and started over, and made that part of the story!
Controller or Keyboard and Mouse. FFXIV allows both control inputs, and they can be swapped on the fly. As primarily a KB/M player, I’m more comfortable with that format, but the controller does work. With a few exceptions. Moving your character and the camera are handled with the thumb sticks, and the d-pad and face buttons present eight “default” buttons like jump, talk to NPCs, interact with objects and so on. These functions are always displayed at the bottom of the screen, where the keyboard “hotkeys” normally would be displayed. Holding down the left trigger switches those eight buttons to another set of functions that the player can “hot key” or choose themselves, and holding down the right trigger switches to yet another eight functions. That’s a total of 24 different actions, 16 of which can be customized as the player desires. The right bumper switches those eight functions to regular menu functions like inventory, character info, friends lists, and so on. These main menu functions can also be navigated by interacting with a different interface that appears by pressing the start button. The select button toggles a little icon between the map, chat window, quest log, and mini-map, in that order. The left bumper toggles auto-run on and off.
I should point out that one of FFXIV’s unique features is that you start as a class, but as you level up, you’ll have the option to learn any – or EVERY – other class that you want. These classes are swapped simply by switching your weapon, and a really slick “armory” feature that lets you store an unbelievable number of weapon and armor items, save individual collections as a “set” and then swap to those sets as desired. Each class has a finite number of moves they can preform, so really, the first group of 16 customized hot keys are more than enough. (I said “first group” because instead of tapping the right bumper to swap between regular hot keys and main menu hot keys, you can hold the button down and pick up to EIGHT MORE SETS of customized hot keys. Personally, I think that’s overkill, but I suppose people could make their own macros and map 64 different actions to these sets!)
Regular console action or RPG players might get used to the controller, and I found that even the more complicated combinations started feeling more natural the more I used them. Still, nothing quite beats the benefit of an actual keyboard or a mouse that can freely navigate everything on your screen. The main issue I have with using the controller is targeting enemies. By default, pressing left or right on the d-pad cycles through everything you can interact with in front of you – everything. NPCs, quest objectives, friendly players, enemies, everything. You can also press the “A” button (X button on PS3) to immediately select something directly in front of you, and if that’s not what you wanted, you can de-select it by pressing the “B” button (O on PS3). This works when you’re in town talking to NPCs or doing quests that require you to pick up or interact with different objects. It also works when you are attacking one monster at a time. But it does not work when you are surrounded by many monsters and other players (and their pets) at the same time. The big difference here is that keyboard users simply press the “Tab” key to “tab target” enemies – emphasis on enemies. Tab targeting ignores everything but enemies, cycling through targets with the d-pad does not. So, in frantic combat situations, the controller practically does not work. I did find separate “target next monster” and “target previous monster” action icons that I mapped to my controller hot keys, I just hope those two slots won’t be needed for other actions later on.
A Beautiful Realm. I can’t vouch for the PS3 version, but on PC, FFXIV looks very pretty. The characters especially have a high level of detail and some very believable animations. The environments seem vast and varied, although they suffer from the same lack of interaction that most MMOs have. For example, walking through brushes or grass doesn’t really effect them. Some of the larger set pieces seem shiny but flat with not a lot of detail. As pretty as it is, I’m mostly concerned with the longevity of any MMO that attempts a “realistic” presentation instead of a more stylized artistic approach. Most “realistic” MMOs that I’ve played tend to not age well. As of today, though, it looks pretty, and the monsters can be very impressive looking. Some of the “regular” creatures are quite large and have a lot of detail, and “boss” type monsters are quite jaw-dropping. Did I mention that I like the animations? The User Interface is also pretty slick, and the way monsters are highlighted is really helpful.
The Good. It would take an entire wiki to explain the ins and outs of FFXIV: ARR. For what its worth, it attempts to stand out in the crowded MMO genre, and some of its quirkiness adds to its charm – or its frustration. I really like that one character can literally do everything in this game. Learning each of the classes will take some time, but I normally create several “alt” characters when I play MMOs, so we’ll see if this approach is better. Picking different functions like mining or blacksmithing are actually classes themselves, and have to be leveled individually. When you pick up the mining class, for example, you start as a level 1 miner, and have to do nothing but mining missions. Most MMOs let you pick the different crafting skills as secondary abilities, and you simply mine resource nodes during your regular adventures. This could lead to some tedious game play or it could be really fun and refreshing. When you have a certain combination of higher level classes, you can unlock “Job” or elite classes that further specialize your character. This also seems to reward the curious that would cross-class play instead of sticking with one class the whole time. Other features I like are the strange “Levequests” and “Guildhests” that now serve as optional leveling missions instead of THE missions you did in the original version of the game. It’s funny how these quirky quests now seem fun and inventive now that they’re optional and separate to “regular” story and mission quests. Players can queue for “Guildhest” missions which are essentially 4-player mini-dungeons. Every class has a set of “Personal Logs” like a hunting log that tracks all the different types of enemies you’ve killed or a crafting log to track your inventions. For the hunting logs, the required monsters will display a marker over their heads that disappears as soon as you’ve defeated the required number. It’s a nice touch, and gives a little more incentive to explore and perform quests as different classes.
The Bad. I suppose it’s all subjective, and some may have higher or lower tolerances for the quirkiness of this game. Some might like the randomly occurring “FATE” or massive co-op events appearing on the maps, and others might hate them. Something that one person can overlook might be a deal breaker to someone else. For me, the near-deal-breaker is the ridiculous map system. In short, the “world” map that should show you how each smaller zone fits in relation to other zones doesn’t help. At all. While questing in a small zone, and quest objectives appear on your local map, the game is intuitive and fun to play. You can get into a nice rhythm of collecting quests, fighting monsters, finishing your hunting logs, and collecting more quests. As you explore, you’ll “attune” yourselves to “Aether” stones that allow you to teleport between major cities you’ve already discovered, or you can ride Chocobos as sort of a taxi service. Inside the major cities, which consist of several smaller zones themselves, you can attune yourself to smaller Aether shards that allow you to teleport around inside that city. This sounds convenient, but these smaller zones don’t really seem to match up in any logical fashion. When you inevitably get a quest objective beyond the zone you are in, or even a zone you’ve already visited, it can be really frustrating to figure out HOW to get there. To make it even more confusing, some of the areas have different names. So the quest will say one thing, but the next map/zone over might be called something else entirely. Believe it or not, this is the IMPROVED map. The longer I play and learn the different areas, its become slightly less frustrating, but I’ll still run into problems identifying where to go next. Even more perplexing is the design choice to start every new character in one of three different major cities (decided by your starting class) which are probably the most difficult areas to navigate in the game so far. Why not start characters in smaller zones and let them get the hang of the game, including combat, before introducing them to these multi-zoned cities? Why can’t they just use a NORMAL map that makes sense?
Express Yourself. If anything screams “This is a Final Fantasy Game” its the sound. From the recognizable FF theme music, and the high quality orchestration used throughout, to the iconic “qweh” noises the Chocobo make, it’s all well represented. The sound effects are maybe a little TOO loud, but can be turned down in the main menu. Most quests are given to you in text balloons, but some key story quests are acted out in little cut scenes. These have voice acting from the NPCs, but you do not. It’s a little strange. The only way you can express yourself is with a big list of “emotes” like cry, cheer, dance, and so on. During character creation, there is a step that lets you pick the tone of your “voice” for these emotes. In spite of your character never actually speaking, the rest of the game has impressive sound quality.
A Review in Progress. I can’t decide if I can recommend this game yet. Some of the features are pretty neat, and Final Fantasy fans should enjoy the source material. Leveling up many or even all of the classes with one character really appeals to me. But the word I keep coming back to that describes FFXIV is “quirky” and some of that quirkiness could be a deal breaker to some people. I consider myself some what of an MMO “veteran” having played countless MMOs over the years, and even I have a hard time understanding some aspects of this game. I can’t imagine what a newcomer might think. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it’s a very well made game that suffers from a few bad design choices. Since it’s a “Pay 2 Play” game, it’s hard to recommend people just “try it” and see if they like it. It’s growing on me, and it’s definitely a lot better than the original version. I’ll return to this review in a few days or weeks and give a final verdict.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn launches for PC and PS3 on August 27th, requires a monthly subscription fee, and is rate ‘T’ for Language, Mild Blood, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol, and Violence.