Meet Glorbo Isulb. He's a male Roegadyn and is in the relative infancy of his adventuring career, which should be apparent due to his mismatched armor of assorted colors. Don't underestimate him, however, as Glorbo can carry his own weight, as plentiful as it is. He's rescued royalty, defeated mages, squashed corruption and served as an ambassador to multiple nations. And did you see that moustache? Glorbo's fate is more than likely intertwined with that of the world. To me, though, he's just one of the best MMO characters I've had the privilege of creating in my many years of gaming.
Final Fantasy XIV begins with a cart ride, and just as in Skyrim it serves as a great method of introduction to the setting and atmosphere in the game. A calm merchant-cart ride, pleasant conversation, mysterious passengers and a brief violent interruption later, you're suddenly standing out front of a bustling tavern with a single quest marker ahead of you. Down the rabbit hole we fall.
That first quest NPC is hugely surprising for a couple of reasons. Not only is she written extremely well, but she has a personality and depth that is rare in MMOs. She's just the first in a line of NPCs that are actually interesting; NPCs that will make you want to return just to ask how their day was, even after their questline is over. Not that they'll respond, being NPCs and all, but their depth make the world that much richer. You'll still find one-off sidequest NPCs, but even they are interesting as a result of the writing that goes to great lengths to tie into the setting. It's that main campaign line that shines, however, by pushing the player onward constantly.
Onward we go, leveling from 1 to 20 over the course of a few short beta weekends. Levels 1 through 15 will focus mainly on the story of the player's origin city, as well as the player's growth as an adventurer. This involves main campaign quests, which delve into the player's mysterious powers, class quests that help convey the goals and themes of each class, and sidequests taken from various NPCs that flesh out the game's setting and story. None of it is overly complex but remains very immersive and endearing.
Along the way there are various other tasks for player to keep busy with, or even just passively participate in as they progress along the main story. The hunting book gives the player specifi monsters to kill for bonus experience, dynamic events (FATES) that pop up in the wilderness, and leves -- which are small contextless quests players can do for extra experience, gold and loot a limited number of times day. I rarely actively sought out any of these features, but each of them found their way into playthrough naturally in one way or another.
Finally, you also have the ability to just swap to a different job after passing a level restriction (around level 10, if I recall correctly). Crafting requires swapping to a field worker job, and while that means no crafting on the player's main job, switching between classes is ridiculously fast and painless. All classes even have inventory space for storing armor, separate from bag space. While the game doesn't have Final Fantasy XI-esque sub-classes, the ability to have every job leveled on a single character is a rather attractive idea.
At level 15, players begin participating heavily in group content, which means talking about combat. Perhaps the most controversial portion of Final Fantasy XIV will be its combat. A Realm Reborn's classes have relatively few active skills, even up to the max level I reached. While I'm wary of calling it slow -- it isn't when compared to Final Fantasy XI or the original Final Fantasy XIV -- A Realm Reborn is paced very deliberately. I love this sort of system because every skill cast becomes significant, and a single mistake could give enemies the upper hand.
What this sort of combat does is fit classes into very specific roles. I played as a tank, which mean that solo combat from 1-15 wasn't necessarily as fast as I would have liked, but my survivability was outstanding. Post-15, when I grouped for instances, my role became a huge priority, however, as monster aggro-management is hugely significant for parties.
Final Fantasy XIV isn't some simple tank and spank-style MMO, though. Virtually every enemy has multiple area-of-effect skills that urge constant movement, and at least in the few instances I ran, boss fights and groups of enemies would require some creative gameplay that kept the encounter unique and fun. Pro-tip: stay away from bombs when they explode.
I'd prefer to call combat in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn heavily tactical. Even at 20, knowledge of one's role and the importance of various inter-party interactions were growing significant. By max level, I expect a high level of challenge for most players. Hell, I don't just expect it -- I demand it. This isn't for everyone, especially with the current MMO shift towards extremely dynamic combat systems and hybrid classes that don't fit into conventional roles. I find Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn a healthy combination of both old and new. I love that feeling of trust you must have in party members with a role-based combat system. Final Fantasy XI did it oustandingly, and I think A Realm Reborn captures that feeling as well.
Combat isn't the only place where Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn will lose players, however; whether it's the anime-esque character designa and style (Catgirls/catboys, anyone?), the rather rudimentary character customization system deeply limits variety and defining features, or the random coloring on armor before dyes are introduced around level 15. A Realm Reborn is still developed in Japan and thus very foreign in some regards. While they ape many of World of Warcraft systems like UI, party finder, quest log and other ease-of-use features, some things will grate at players' willingness to make concessions.
One of the other elements that bother me especially is the heavy use of instancing. Using an airship to go from one city to another spans at least three quick loading screens, and each city is broken up into a least two, with four wilderness zones spread around them. Leveling secondary classes are quite clearly going to be grindy, which is made excessive because leves are limited in quantity each day. Run out of quests in a city? Do leves. Run out of leves? Tough, or grind monsters. I'm also worried that post-20 things will become too grindy, but that's a rather baseless statement.
That all said, I think the good and the great handily outweigh my worries and bothers.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn isn't a flawless creation, but considering the buggy, laggy, awkwardly designed mess that was the original game's release, A Realm Reborn is outrageously better. The two may not even be worth comparing. I'm 20 levels in and I haven't felt as invested in an MMO since Lord of the Rings: Online, which is saying something considering how much I loved that game.
Unlike many modern MMOS, there is no one aspect of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn that I hold above the others. It's the simple yet elegant combat, the tranquil yet weighty atmosphere, the depth and nuance to class and character customization, and the extent to which the game goes to introduce and welcome the player to its grand cast and setting. Square Enix has created something wonderful with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and I'm excited to further explore the unique and beautiful world they've created.