Impressions: Final Fantasy XIV (PC)

Final Fantasy XIV was relaunched recently to apparently unexpected success – judging by their server issues they’ve been having. But they’ve taken time, sorted those out, and now they’re ready to start selling it digitally again… so I figured this was the right time to talk about it since some of you out there might be curious – since digital sales have been disabled since almost immediately after launch.

A Pretty Sight

Final Fantasy XIV may not give competition to the graphical powerhouses of the world… but that doesn’t mean it’s not one hell of a beautiful game. I can think of numerous cases where I’ve watched the sky just for because it was that impressive. The weather effects are gorgeous and varied, and just the scenery in general never fails to impress.

Little touches that aren’t entirely graphical make the game feel more engaging from a visual perspective. Things like when you’re interacting with a character your head turns to look at them. Things like a variety of visual emotes that make the game feel more alive, including my personal favourite: /airquotes. You can actually do airquotes. But my favourite part of the presentation thus far is the character customization. A common complaint I have with a lot of ‘build your own avatar’ games is that the customization becomes an hour-long experience with so many options that you practically need to do research in order to create your character… and even then it ends up looking just the slightest bit wrong. It’s just unpleasant… but not so here.

Final Fantasy XIV strikes a perfect balance offering you control over your character’s appearance in enough meaningful ways that you can feel it’s YOUR character, but not so much that you ever feel overwhelmed. They pick just the right places to offer meaningful customization, and offer just enough of it – things like having each eye a different colour, or giving hair highlights – rather than offering the nitpick things that just make you spend hours on the character creation like making your chin an exact length or adjusting the distance between eyes. The silly trivial things are left out in favour of offering options that are actually recognizably different.

The armour also strikes a nice balance between the ridiculously oversexualized MMORPG armor you typically see and the overly ‘practical’ armor some modern RPGs attempt to do. It looks really good overall – with a few exceptions, and I’m particularly impressed by the high end lancer/dragoon gear. Which leads us into the next point…

Homage To The Past

They’ve taken so many touches from Final Fantasy games of the past, it is awesome. The first one is that armor I just mentioned… it’s modeled after Kain’s armour from Final Fantast IV. The chocobos and moogles are obvious, but you see things everywhere. I am constantly reminded of a childhood playing Squaresoft RPGs, and trust me… it’s fantastic. This isn’t to say anything against Square Enix’s offerings, I’ve enjoyed them, but Final Fantasy XIV’s respectful use of series classics is the first time in years I’ve been given the same feeling that those JRPG staples used to give. It’s a beautiful feeling to get from any RPG, and one I did not expect to get from an MMO.

But not a Slave to It

With every trope, homage, and reverent reference the game makes; you’d think it might try too hard to make the gameplay feel ‘Final Fantasy’ – fortunately that’s not the case. They do a fantastic job of taking the good aspects of the Traditional MMO gameplay that WoW has made iconic over these past 10 years while introducing enough subtle changes to keep it interesting. If you’re the type of person who liked WoW but just got tired of it like me… you’ll feel right at home in Eorzea. The introduction of a third resource that is used for ‘physical’ abilities and the addition of stances, combos, and a lot of secondary effects help to keep combat interesting.

By slowing down command entry through a longer global cooldown, they actually make the game feel more strategic. I haven’t had the chance to play around with enough classes to see this in action fully, but the synergistic effects present within the Lancer abilities are intriguing and I think will help to keep the end-game combat interesting. From what I’ve seen, all of the physical based classes feature some measure of this synergy, and the caster classes have their own mechanics to balance. It seems like they’ve struck a very good balance between innovation and familiarity thus far, but we’ll have to see as the end-game approaches.

In addition, they strive to make playing solo interesting and engaging by allowing everyone to have a trusty and customizable pet with them. Once you reach level 30 in one class, you can summon your trusty chocobo to battle by your side. There was a reason hunter was the most popular class in WoW for a long time… it’s fun to fight alongside a pet or animal companion. Having that be available to everyone is just good sense. And to help the bond build… you get to name your chocobo, and over time spec it to be the perfect animal companion for you, and you alone. There’s even barding you can get for it. It is a bit unfortunate that you can’t bring your chocobo with you into dungeons, but I can understand the logic… and they do have at least 1 pet class available which is nice.

With Class

On the subject of classes… Final Fantasy XIV’s class system looks to topple a common issue many collectors and achievement hunters often struggle with: the fear of losing all your progress if you have to switch classes. In Final Fantasy XIV, one character is all you need. You can switch classes at will, just by equipping a weapon from another class – as long as you’ve joined that class’s guild. The game even goes so far as to provide two forms of very strong encouragement to experiment with the class system. The first are Jobs, advanced classes that require you to reach level 30 in one class and 15 in another. Lancer, for example, can take on the role of a Dragoon at 30 if you have a level 15 Marauder.

The other encouragement comes in the form of cross-class abilities – skills and abilities that you can use in multiple different classes. Many of which unlock at fairly low levels, and can provide a pretty significant boost to your effectiveness on other classes. Of course, you can only equip so many of these cross-class abilities, so you have to really experiment and play around to find out what works best. But to make things even more complicated… if you activate a Job you limit the range of cross-class abilities accessible to you, opening the way for even more experimentation.

Professional

I won’t say that Final Fantasy XIV’s crafting system is completely unique and innovative… I’m sure things like it have been done before. But what I will say is that the way it is laid out actually fixes the vast majority of my crafting complaints from my previous MMO experience. The ‘Professions’ are actually classes in their own right, including both gathering and production classes that can be chosen once you hit level 10 in your main class. The crafting truly rewards you for the time you put in, as the experience you gain making an item is dependent upon the amount of steps you take in the crafting process. And those steps can allow you to create high quality items which are noticeably better than the base items and sell for more if you’ve got an eye for profit. But, if you’re not concerned about the quality and just want to cut the ‘tedium’ out of the process, you can perform a ‘quick synthesis’ which lets you craft as many of an item as you possess materials for reducing the experience awarded and the chance for high quality. It’s a very well balanced crafting system, and one I am enjoying thoroughly.

One of my biggest complaints with World of Warcraft, in particular, was that each profession was completely self-contained. Once in a blue moon you might need some gems or dust to make a weapon… but there was no real interplay between the professions. FFXIV has taken an eye to fixing this as well, and even as early as around level 15 crafting you start to need the items produced by other craftsmen to fuel your growth. It creates the potential for a very engaging and satisfying crafting system, and one I hope creates a thriving economy.

The part that really blew me away was that they managed to even make gathering interesting. When performing a gathering profession, you’re presented with a variety of items you can harvest from each point and a chance to successfully get each one. You have to choose what you’re aiming for, and you have certain abilities that allow you to increase the chance of harvesting, the quality of the harvested item, or even the yield. But you can’t use them all the time, so you have to think about when you want to use them as your gathering points won’t last forever. There are even quests you can use for both gathering and crafting to speed up the leveling process. They really have thought of just about everything.

My only real concern is the length of time the animations can take when crafting… it’s a minor thing, but the longer I spend crafting, the more frustrating watching that saw animation is going to get. Crafting is supposed to be a long process, but I think they went overboard on the ‘atmosphere’ elements there.

The Little Things

I really like that they let you pick last names for your characters, it reduces the fear of having your character name be taken since the chances of them having both the same first AND last name is pretty slim. I also am utterly thrilled that the game features an accessible fast-travel system that everyone can take advantage of. Fates, world events reminiscent of ‘Rifts’ from Trion’s MMO, offer a fun way to quickly level for players of all levels.

So far just about everything I’ve had to say has been positive… and really, that’s just the truth of the matter. Final Fantasy XIV is a truly well-made MMO that, now that they’ve sorted out their server issues, I expect to see some success. But it’s not all perfect… there are some shortfalls… but they’re a mixed bag.

First and foremost is that the game makes it incredibly difficult to play with a friend unless you start as classes in the same start zones and play together all the time. There are so few quests that aren’t a part of the story quest that if you’re playing with a friend who started late or even starting classes in different regions you’ll be stuck with one of you just tagging along with the other. It’s not a very good experience. Even worse are the instanced quests which not only are required to be completed solo(a baffling decision for an MMO game to be sure) but they actually force you to disband your group before the person can attempt them. This is probably the biggest mistake SquareEnix made on this one, and I cannot understand for the life of me why no changes were made to this over the course of the beta. Their choice of instance party size is kind of surprising as well. With only 4 players, that means much higher wait times as you need more healers and tanks than you would with a larger party size which could lead to some frustrations.

Another minor issue is that inventory management is an absolute pain. There’s no quick way to reorganize your bags, and while you can have near-infinite storage space… even utilizing that is a pain. To make matters worse, everything is a crafting material… so there isn’t even a significant quantity of vendor trash you can clear out. If the inventory management and marketboard were more friendly, this might not be such an issue, but sadly they aren’t.

Final Thoughts

I think that Final Fantasy XIV is doing a lot of things very right with “A Realm Reborn”. It has picked a perfect time to hit the market, it offers enough that will make most MMO players feel at home while still providing enough that is unique to alleviate the common feeling ‘well it’s just more of the same’ that people have when trying a new MMO. This is the first MMO in a long time that I think has a real chance of being a success even as a subscription based MMO. It has had a good start, selling so well that the servers were utterly overwhelmed, and now that they’re selling it again we’ll have to see how many people retained their interest over the week they couldn’t buy it.

But what will really tell the tale, just like any other MMO, will be how well they can do at maintaining a reasonable flow of end game content. They’ve committed to quite frequent patches, so there’s certainly hope… but we’ll have to see. I’m excited for it, that much I can say.

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