Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn – Fully realized at last

I have been with the Final Fantasy series since the beginning, and it has been with me throughout most of my life. The original got me hooked on RPGs. Final Fantasy IV and VI made it clear to me that video games could be emotional and tell great stories. And more recent Final Fantasy games have been designed with incredible production value and overall quality. Certainly there were games in the series that were better than others, as the passionate fan base has made clear all over the internet, but I could not say there was ever a bad game in the numbered Final Fantasy series until Final Fantasy XIV version 1.0.

Say what you will about Final Fantasy XIII and its spinoffs, moan about the voice acting in Final Fantasy X, nitpick the blocky hands and insignificant details of Final Fantasy VII if you must… but it won’t change the fact that the average quality of a Final Fantasy game is very good at the very least. When I was growing up, if a new Final Fantasy game was coming out, I did not have to worry. I knew it was going to be good; a 9/10 at the very least. And while I agree with many that Final Fantasy XIII missed the mark, its criticisms were nothing compared to the absolute disgrace that was Final Fantasy XIV version 1.0, which settled with a Metacritic score of 49/100. Ouch.

To me, a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series, it was actually painful to see such a fall from grace. I didn’t want to believe that Square Enix would release a Final Fantasy game of such abysmal quality. Apparently, Square Enix didn’t want to believe it either, and so they spent the next three years both improving the game they had already released for paying subscribers, and preparing a complete relaunch in the form of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Now that I’ve played it, I can’t even begin to describe how happy and relieved I am to say that Final Fantasy XIV is finally a game worthy of its name.

A simple and cliché metaphor makes it easy to describe the difference between Final Fantasy XIV version 1.0 and A Realm Reborn. One is (was) an empty cup, and the other is full. Everything that was sparse, bland, underdeveloped or just poorly designed has been reworked to make the game, fuller, better and generally more fun to play across the board. Though this article is not a review because I have not yet reached the level cap or experienced the end game content, consider this my assessment of the first 22 levels and of the underlying systems present throughout the game.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - Limsa Lominsa

A realm transformed

The most noticeable difference between Final Fantasy XIV version 1.0 and A Realm Reborn becomes obvious only minutes after creating a character. Once the introductory quest is completed and the training wheels come off, the player is removed from the solitude of the tutorial and placed into one of three starting cities that are bustling with life and energy, and where there is something interesting in nearly every direction. It’s a sharp contrast to the vast, empty starting areas of version 1.0, where quest givers, important NPCs, and even players were few and far between.

I remember when I participated in the beta of Final Fantasy XIV version 1.0 back in 2010. I created a character whose starting area was Limsa Lominsa and within minutes of starting the game, I was frustrated. The city was absolutely massive, but I could not find anything that I was looking for. It didn’t matter how beautiful the visuals were or how good the music was. I kept getting lost trying to find my way around, attempting to navigate the upper and lower decks of the maritime city. It became downright maddening when I finally arrived at my supposed destination only to find nothing of interest there or that, for some reason, I was not allowed to do whatever I was trying to do, be it learn a trade skill or merely buy an item. I would have asked for help, but there was no one around.

Now, three years later in A Realm Reborn, Limsa Lominsa has transformed completely. The size of the city is still large, but it is no longer an issue because the player is given a handy Sprint skill, and there are Aetheryte Shards scattered around the city which the player can use to quickly teleport from one spot to another. These really come in handy, because there is always something for the player to do around the city. For new players, there are quest givers that provide plenty of optional low-level quests that teach the basics of the game and eventually lead the player out into the world. If they need help, players can ask on the shout (general) channel and usually receive a reply fairly quickly. Players are everywhere, either running around doing quests, recruiting for their Free Companies (guilds), or working on their Disciples of the Hand (crafting) classes. The city is full of vendors, NPCs, services and pretty much everything you would hope to find in a major city of an MMORPG.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - Aetheryte

A realm traversed

The other starting cities, Gridania and Ul’dah, are much the same, and filled to the brim with content. Once the player gets far enough in the main storyline quest chain (usually around level 15), airship travel is unlocked. This allows players to move between the three starting cities for only a small amount of Gil (money). There’s also a teleport menu that costs considerably more Gil, but allows instantaneous travel between all of the major zones in the game, assuming the player has attuned to the local Aetheryte. It’s not quite as exhaustive as the system in Guild Wars 2 (which places several teleport points in every zone), but it certainly makes things convenient enough for a player in a hurry.

Players can also rent chocobos that function quite like the flight paths in World of Warcraft. For a small amount of Gil, a chocobo will automatically take the player to a previously visited destination. The player can’t control the chocobo, but can dismount at any time en route. Low level players can also rent chocobos and ride them freely for 10 minutes, but the chocobo will return to the stables as soon as the player dismounts. Real mounts are awarded later in the game. Needless to say, there are a ton of options for getting around Eorzea, and it’s a good thing too, because the land is vast, and the quests require quite a lot of legwork.

Chocobos are not the only reference to older Final Fantasy titles. While out in the world, players are sure to encounter many of the familiar monsters from the Final Fantasy universe, such as cactaurs, goblins and bombs, but the references don’t stop there. Nostalgic Final Fantasy fans like myself will be thrilled to see Magitek armor as a mount, Materia being used for improving gear and countless other classic references worth smiling approvingly at.

A realm explored

With A Realm Reborn, Square Enix has borrowed heavily from many of the most successful MMORPGs on the market. Considering how well World of Warcraft performed, it’s no wonder that Square Enix decided to use it for inspiration. It is widely believed that the success of World of Warcraft can be attributed to how accessible it is to new players, especially those who enjoy exploring the world by themselves. To be more specific, it is easy to level up solo in WoW, and so it is also in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, despite how difficult it was to level up in Final Fantasy XI Online.

The zones around Eorzea are peppered with quests and it is easy enough to level up by going through them all solo. You can complete the majority of the quests in a group if you want to, but considering how easy they are solo, there’s not much reason to. Besides, there is plenty of other content more appropriate for groups, and I’ll go into more detail about that later.

The quests that are not a part of the main storyline are fairly typical for the MMORPG genre. You know, kill X of these, fetch Y of those, use quest item(s) on quest object(s), etc. Then there are some oddities, like the ones that expect you to use emotes on a bunch of NPCs, including escort quests that make the player “beckon” the NPC in order to make it move. Each of these quests has several paragraphs of text based monologue recited by the quest giver, introducing the quests, adding additional objectives and concluding the quests. Occasionally the quests will correlate with the main story, but most of it is fairly empty filler. Still, I’m glad that there is such an abundance of questing content (at least for your first class) as such content was sorely missing from version 1.0.

The main story quests are a bit different. Though they start off a bit slow, these quests eventually lead into some interesting scenes with occasional voice acting and cinematics. Once in a while they force the player into “instanced” quest objectives that are one of the few parts of the game that must be completed solo. They usually involve main characters from the overall storyline and some relatively challenging combat. For veterans of version 1.0, there are recurring characters and plenty of references to the old game. For new players, there is a major scene that helps them catch on of the events of the past.

The main quest line eventually takes the player to all three major cities and the lands surrounding them. Exploring Eorzea while following the main quest is a lot of fun, and there are plenty of sights to see. But there was one sight that came as a surprise to me: a storyline quest that lead me into a dungeon, forcing me into a multiplayer party for the first time.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - Combat

A realm enqueued

Yes, it’s true. In order to complete the main storyline in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, the player must go into dungeons with other players. The quest chain will literally stop until the required dungeon has been successfully run. Depending on how sociable the player is, this could be a good or a bad thing. Personally, I think it’s a bad thing, not because of the mandatory multiplayer, but because the way things are now, the whole process of completing a dungeon is a bit too time consuming and interrupts the flow of the solo questing experience.

There are two ways to get into a dungeon. You can either manually form a party, or enter a queue. Neither method is quick. Forming a party could take ages if you can’t find the appropriate roles for the dungeon. Like in most MMORPGs, there is an overabundance of players controlling damage dealing classes and a shortage of tanks and healers. This also affects the queuing system, which is an easy way to find a dungeon group. If you plan on being a damage dealer, prepare to wait 30-60 minutes for a group.

The dungeons themselves are also fairly lengthy. The ones I’ve encountered so far took between 25 and 45 minutes each, and on top of the time it took to get the group together, it’s become clear that I need to block out at least 90 minutes of play time if I intend to attempt to run a dungeon. For some players that won’t be a big deal, but for players that can’t fit that much gaming time into their busy schedules, it could be an issue.

Getting through the dungeons is once again similar to many other MMORPGs on the market, particularly World of Warcraft. The damage/tank/healer trinity is alive and well in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and surviving a dungeon demands at least some level of competence from all members of the party in their respective roles. If a tank doesn’t maintain enmity (aggro) or if the damage dealers do too much burst damage, it’s quite possible the healer won’t be able to keep up with the damage being dealt to the party by the enemies. Though I have not yet experienced the higher levels of the game, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories already about people failing to properly play their roles. There’s even a storyline quest where a group of NPCs get into a big argument about the subject, a not so subtle attempt by the developers to remind the players to stick to their roles, else face the consequences of defeat.

Still, the dungeons can be a lot of fun. They are typically filled with frequent treasure chests (often tucked away in optional dead ends) which usually have loot that can be rolled on. There is a need/greed/pass system that again borrows from other games of the genre, limiting need rolls to active classes that actually can use the item. The objectives of the dungeons are typically made clear in the quest interface, so even first timers have an idea of what to do. There are also modern conveniences that keep things easy, like if a player quits early, a replacement can be found from the queue (though they do have to walk from the entrance of the dungeon).

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - Cactaur

A realm befriended

Aside from dungeons, there are plenty of other ways to play Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn with friends. Guildhests are like miniature dungeons that can be queued in the same way. Boss battles against Primals, such as the Ifrit encounter I played at E3, are also a lot of fun. You could also run around the world at random, slaying monsters just for the experience like in EverQuest.

There’s also an awesome feature that is not unlike the “events” from Guild Wars 2. While exploring the zones you may encounter (or actively search for) spontaneous group activities called FATES. More often than not FATES involve fighting a huge group of monsters or escorting an NPC, but it is fun to see such activity throughout the zones, whether or not you choose to participate.

FATES also give less social players an opportunity to get a taste of a multiplayer battle without having to bother with forming a party or without having any specific responsibility. Players are rewarded according to their participation, but in general the prizes are very good. It’s not unusual to see FATE groups forming through the shout channel while questing, and they are a great way to level up with friends.

There is also a feature that is similar to the “daily” quests from World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs. Most major quest hubs throughout Eorzea have an NPC that will first give a trial quest before providing an entire list of optional Levequests for the player (or party) to attempt. Each of these quests has a time limit, and can be initiated from the quest menu after the quest has been accepted. Because of the time limit it is recommend that the player(s) travel to the destination of the quest before initiating it. There is an option to increase the difficulty of the Levequests for better rewards, though in my experience, this has not made completing them much harder. The reason Levequests are similar to dailies is that you are only allocated so many attempts at these quests. A new character is given 16 attempts, and after that they receive an allowance of 3 more attempts every 12 hours of real time.

Each combat class also has a Hunting Log which lists off specific monster targets throughout Eorzea and awards the player for defeating a few of each of them. Though these objectives are usually completed solo, players sharing a class could certainly enjoy hunting together.

A realm embattled

Combat will feel familiar to anyone that has played an MMORPG before. There are hotbars along the bottom of the screen (by default) that will be filled with your character’s abilities. Activating most abilities will trigger a global cooldown of a second or two before another ability can be activated, though there are certain instant abilities that are not influenced by that cooldown. Soloing usually involves a pretty basic rotation of abilities, with each class having certain quirks. For example, as a Pugilist, my character has to activate abilities in a specific order according to what stances the abilities lead into. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. It’s as easy as one, two, three, one, two, three. The game also makes it even easier by putting a special effect over the skill(s) that can be used. In general, the lists of abilities for each class in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn are not as exhaustive, intimidating, or (dare I say) redundant as in World of Warcraft. There are typically a small group of essential skills that will get a lot of use.

Combat itself feels good, overall. There are tons of interface features that make it easy to understand what’s going on, at least in terms of the numbers. There are floating indicators that appear and scroll near your character and a different set of indicators that appear next to each enemy. You can also view a more traditional combat log in the chat interface if you want to. There are also plenty of visual effects to help guide the player, even when the screen gets crowded with special effects or too many characters and enemies. Arching lines appear briefly whenever an enemy changes its target to a different player, or in the case of soloing, the moment the player is spotted and engaged by the enemy. There’s also a circle that appears beneath each enemy with an arrow on it pointing in the direction the enemy is facing, which is very useful for classes that get bonuses for flanking attacks.

Perhaps the most useful of all the details of the interface are the warning indicators that appear on the ground where something bad is about to happen. For example, if an enemy is about to charge in a straight line, you will see a rectangular indicator that shows the path it will charge. Or if an enemy is going to use an nova-type ability, a circle will appear around the enemy indicating its range. These indicators always have the same color and general look, so it’s obvious whenever there’s a, “Don’t stand in the fire!” moment.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - HUD

The HUD also manages to provide a lot of information without being too overbearing. It is highly customizable; every component can be moved from its default position, and extra hotbars can be added or removed as needed. In a party, there are bars indicating the health (HP) and energy (MP, TP) of each member. Casting timers also appear, indicating what ability is being used and when it will be successfully cast.

A realm employed

Of course, once in a while, adventurers need to take a break from all that questing and killing. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn features an extensive crafting system that can first be accessed once a player gets their starting class to level 10. The Disciples of the Hand include Alchemist, Armorer, Blacksmith, Carpenter, Culinarian, Goldsmith, Leatherworker and Weaver. I tried my hand at Alchemist and found it to be a bit more involving than in most other MMORPGs. There is a minigame that takes place while crafting, and it uses abilities on the hotbar, just like the abilities a combat class might use. Depending on how well the “battle” goes, you might end up with a higher quality item, or earn extra experience points.

There are also gathering classes called the Disciples of the Land, including Fisher, Botanist and Miner. I found the first few levels of Miner to be very monotonous since I was basically hitting the same 4 or 5 nodes with my pickaxe for a half hour before moving into another group of 4 or 5 nodes. But it got a bit more interesting when I learned a stealth technique and had to start sneaking by monsters in order to get to my nodes. Again, there is a minigame that takes place every time you mine, and depending on your performance you may or may not get an item for all your hard work, and it has an effect on the item quality and experience for the miner.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - Black Mage

A realm undressed?

There really is a lot to do in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Beyond the huge list of trade and gathering classes, there are also 8 starting classes for combat. 5 of them are categorized as Disciples of War, including Archers, Gladiators, Lancers, Marauders and Pugilists, and 3 belong to Disciples of Magic, which are the Conjurers, Thaumaturges and Arcanists. As if that weren’t enough, there are also advanced classes called Jobs that can be unlocked by getting certain starting classes to specific levels. These include Bard, Black Mage, Dragoon, Monk, Paladin, Scholar, Summoner, Warrior and White Mage.

One of the interesting things about A Realm Reborn is the manner in which you change your character’s class. Once a class has been unlocked by completing a quest assigned by the guild master, changing classes is as simple as changing the weapon you are equipped with. I’ll never forget the first time I equipped my Alchemist’s alembic and found my character stripped down to small clothes. All classes start at level 1, and many of them use different types of gear, so I had to look through my armory and try to find appropriate garments for my new job.

Fortunately I had a collection of gear from my prior adventures, so my character wasn’t nearly naked for long. A Realm Reborn has somewhat unique method of helping the player get their gear organized. There are two separate inventories. The basic inventory can hold up to 100 items, and that’s where your consumables, crafting reagents and miscellaneous items go. You also have a separate armory, and that can store 25 of each type of equipment in the game. Depending on how many classes you decide to level up, you may end up with a need for many different sets of armor, so having all of this inventory space really is necessary. I still managed to run out of basic inventory space when I got involved in too many trade skills though.

Equipping all of this gear might have been a pain, but A Realm Reborn again borrows from other games by providing the player with the ability to save sets of gear. It’s as simple as opening up the inventory screen and clicking a button to save a new set. The set is automatically titled based on the level of the equipped weapon and can be manually renamed. And if you get a new piece of gear, updating the set is as simple as clicking a button.

Final Fantasty XIV: A Realm Reborn - Ability

A realm realized

With so many features in place to make leveling multiple classes easy and no restriction on the number of classes you can pursue, I would not be surprised to see a single character with every single class maxed out at some point. But what’s crazier than that is that the game is good enough to produce a player that might actually go through with such an incredible endeavor. Like a near-death character saved with an elixir, Final Fantasy XIV has been brought back from the brink, and this time, it has been fully realized.

In the weeks since it launched, I have played 32 hours of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and that is not nearly enough as far as I’m concerned. If I wasn’t so busy, I would have probably played 80 hours by now. As a fan of the series that was horribly disappointed by version 1.0, it is my pleasure to be able to recommend this game so highly. Though this is not a review since I have yet to experience the end game, I can at least say to anyone who values the journey over the destination that this particular journey is worth no less than a 9. With more content on the way and whispers of an expansion starting to surface, the sky is the limit.

A realm reborn, indeed.

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