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Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Review - PAGE 1Rory Young - Wednesday, November 20th, 2013 Like Share
If there's a place in the modern spectrum of Final Fantasy titles that most closely resembles the franchise's humble origins, it's in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Where as single-player Final Fantasy titles stubbornly pursue a modernized, fashionable action experience filled with leather, lace and the prettiest gentlemen you'll ever lay eyes on, A Realm Reborn harkens back to a time of conflicted choices over jobs, item hunting and yes, an extent of level grinding. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of pretty gentlemen here too (looking at you, Miqo'te cat people), but considering Final Fantasy these days even small victories make a difference.
Just thinking about Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn requires a bit of rewiring. See, the game is advertised as an MMO, but the fact of the matter is that a majority of the experience prior to end-game feels rather like a single-player title, in spirit if not in practice. From the robust main story-line to the rather slow-paced and nonmoving combat, a majority of the multiplayer aspects of the game are only truly realized in the social features -- seeing and chatting with the players around the player. It's this embrace of single-player design that's both A Realm Reborn's greatest strength and ultimately it worst flaw.
As a Japanese MMO that's been, quite literally, destroyed and rebuilt to meet western ideals for online title, it only makes sense that A Realm Reborn's a bit, well, dichotic. However, it works, and it's working because there are great things to behold in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. It only took a complete overhaul to let those things shine through. A Realm Reborn indeed.
Rediscovering the Fantasy
It'd be unfair to review Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn with addressing the game's initial release and failure. Plagued by severe server issues, a user interface that made even Final Fantasy XI grimace, and a learning gap at level one that claimed and killed the short attention spans of a large majority of early western investors, Final Fantasy XIV was doomed to fail. Square Enix was faced with either writing the huge development budget of the game off entirely or reinventing the game. Thus was born Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, a cyborg construct featuring a modern, western facade and the heart and memories of the disastrous MMO that proceeded it.
That's right, much of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is inherited from it predecessor, only tuned and presented in appetizing bite-sized morsels as opposed to pushing a cow into the room and asking players to dig in. Perhaps the most significant changes was the entire user interface being redone, with obvious influence from other popular MMOs. Don't reinvent the wheel, I suppose. Additionally, quest and story bread crumb trails, as well as a tapered introduction to gameplay mechanics were both introduced. Square Enix spent a majority of their remake budget simply making Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn welcoming, or perhaps consumable is more appropriate.
The differences between the two MMOs is dramatic. If it were not for the reused visual assets I doubt many would recognize the MMOs were so closely tied. That, by itself, may have been Square Enix's greatest victory with A Realm Reborn. They were successfully able to remove the association between the two MMOs, allowing players to fully enjoy A Realm Reborn without the the baggage of the past weighing down their experience.
As soon as players step into Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, they'll be swept up in the game's epic story. Yes, for all intents and purposes, the backbone of this MMO is a quest-line that is almost entirely single-player. That includes dozens of cut-scenes, extensive dialogue with NPCs and wallet-emptying travel across the world via airship. It's such a classic Final Fantasy game in this regard that constantly suffered from flashbacks to gaming youth.
And it's so good, too. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn's story is simple enough to be digestible and work with a huge MMO setting, but is filled with epic world-ending drama and heroic darings do. When the screen fades to black and a giant crystal-god speaks into the protagonist's mind, it's Final Fantasy at its finest. To be fair, there's the other side of the Final Fantasy story coin too. That is to say there's plenty of over the top and annoying dialogue as the main characters grandiosely proclaim the majesty of friendship and unity. Someone tell The Maelstrom's Chief Admiral not to talk anymore, please.
In large part the success of A Realm Reborn's story is due to the well-realized world of Eorzea. Criticism first: the over-world of the game is heavily instanced and that does greatly affect that feeling of the world being a single, cohesive place. Individual zones, however, are composed of wide-open, serene landscapes with pockets of civilization brimming with activity. It's not that A Realm Reborn does anything new compared to other MMOs. It's a simply a matter of modeling and animations – they're all outstandingly well-crafted. In terms of moving pieces, A Realm Reborn looks as good or better than any other MMO on the market.
Well, that is if Japanese anime fits your fancy stylistically. Doe-eyed children teddy bears, cat-people that roll their r's and several other races that each look like genderless Japanese supermodels fill the land. It's not for everyone, but luckily A Realm Reborn makes up for it by having some of the best looking, classic Final Fantasy-inspired armor and weaponry I've had the opportunity to don in an MMO. That there isn't enough of it is an issue, but every time I see a Black Mage or White Mage in their iconic robes or a Dragoon dressed as Kain, I can't help but smile.
If only my nostalgic awe extended past my eyes and ears and was found in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn's various gameplay systems as well. Combat, leveling, dungeon crawling, crafting and end-game, it's all serves its purpose satisfactorily. That is to say, at no point will I make the claim that any portion of A Realm Reborn's gameplay is outright bad. Not even disappointing, really, and certainly never bad. At the same time, it's difficult to note any continuously exciting and fun aspects of the game, either. At worst, I'd say a majority of the game's gameplay is repetitious and non-emergent -- there's no room for improvisation.
For the most part, a player can level from 1 to max level, 50, simply by completing the linear quest-lines that are stringed throughout the entire game. As previously discussed the main, epic storyline is great, but side-quests are typical MMO fare. The writing and dialogue may be better than the norm, mature and creative, but otherwise it's fetch this and kill this many of this and then return for a reward you're unlikely to need. Questing quickly becomes a mire, as in every MMO, and leveling becomes quite the grind – especially towards 50.
There are options for players to mix up gameplay while leveling. FATEs, which are randomly spawning events in the open-world, are commonly used as grinding spots and faster than questing. Dungeons drop the game's finest look and offer some challenge. There's also leves, which are rather like a mixture of quests and dynamic open-world events, but players can only accept a finite amount of those each day and they're less productive than FATES anyway. No matter the form, however, whether it be FATE, level or question, the experience feels the same and ultimately quite boring.
Let me linger a moment on dungeons. Perhaps the one aspect of gameplay that's constantly interesting are A Realm Reborn's dungeon bossfights, including the individual primal fights against summoned creatures like Titan, Ifrit and Garuda. These fights encourage parties of players to work together, constantly move, and learn through experience (including failure). Square Enix has done a great job of mixing theme, atmosphere and exciting mechanics to create fights that aren't just fun to play, but worth anticipating too. Even dungeons are in the long run, have their flaws. All dungeons, not just a few, are packed full of tedious and time-wasting trash monsters to clear. Of course you anticipate the bosses when trash are mind-numbingly boring. Finally, it's a great disservice to your own game when dungeons from 1-45 get played once and then ignored, and then everything 45-50 must be played dozens of times to progress.
At the core of it all is a very simple and straight-forward combat core. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn employs an old-fashioned class-based combat system with the trinity of roles. That is: tanks, DPS and healers. While leveling, learning a role is interesting, but gradually the realization hits that every single fight, from level 1 to level 50, end up boiling down to almost the exact same rotation of skills. Sure, sometimes fights get messy and cooldowns have to spent, but for an MMO in 2013 more should be expected. The slow, almost turn-based pacing and complementary classes fit the setting and history of Final Fantasy though, and perhaps that's enough to pass as acceptable. I certainly felt comfortable in the system. Combat simply wasn't enough to drive the experience by itself.
If end-game grinding of instances doesn't sound exciting, luckily there's the alternative of either crafting or leveling up a different combat role. See, every character can play every single class and switching is as simple as swapping out armor with the press of a button. With almost a dozen crafting classes, there's hours of gameplay to behold. Just don't expect it to be anything other than monotonous. As with crafting in most MMOs, however, half the fun is in being able to create something just for a friend, or corning a market in the economy and making it rich. Those sorts of experiences are there to find if players go looking.
What I love about Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is tied innately to my love of the franchise in its early years. A Realm Reborn does just as its name implies, it gives birth to a fresh, living world brimming with activity and detail. It's startling how much the experience, which historically has been tied to a single-player wandering alone in a large, unfamiliar world, is not just captured but accented by a massively-multiplayer environment. Cities, taverns especially, are filled with wildly diverse players -- adventurers! -- crafting or going about their routines. Outer areas of the world are wide-open, quiet outside of battle, but consistently beautiful to behold. Where battle is met in the various corners of each area, adventurers congregate briefly for battle before returning to their own, personal quests. Perhaps best of all is the main story-line, which requires each player to travel to all corners of Eorzea. Ensuring players see every corner of the world is A Realm Reborn's gift to its players.
At its heart, however, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a two-headed beast. One head is an old friend, embodying a single-player Final Fantasy experience that rekindled my love of the franchise and my hope for its future. The other head is an unremarkable core MMO experience grounded in uninspired MMO tropes. Battling this beast can at times be extraordinary and at other times unforgivably dull. Yet one head does not come without the other, and so it stands as many MMOS do: a game with moments of brilliance intermingled with a near constant tedium and dullness. This comes to a head at end-game, where the main story-line finishes and standard MMO gear-grind takes over. It wasn't long after I reached 50 that I decided my time with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was over, but I wouldn't given up 1-49 for the world. Well, most of it.
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