Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has had a troubled past. While the game only officially launched on August 27th, from the start of the Early Access afforded to players who pre-ordered started running into frustrating problems logging in or even the ability to create a character on their server of choice.
But Final Fantasy XIV’s problems started much before this. A Realm Reborn is actually Square Enix’s second try at their latest Final Fantasy MMO. Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 launched in September of 2010 for PC with a PS3 version still “in development”. With an incredibly bad aggregate Metacritic score of 49 (and an average user rating of 3.8!), Square Enix hit the pause button and charged a new team with rebuilding the game, essentially from scratch. Less than two years later, Final Fantasy XIV once again opened its doors to players.
Well, “opened its doors” is a bit misleading. Technically, they opened their doors to a few people, slammed the doors shut, told the people outside to try another door, sent them back to the first door when they got there, and if you got lucky you made it inside SOME door. But when you made it in… wow.
For the most part, A Realm Reborn is just another MMO in a long line of MMOs. Kill this monster, talk to this NPC, fetch this random object and so forth. But once you start to dig into the game, its depth becomes more apparent. The main quest itself will last you longer than many AAA games out there. I have been playing quite a bit more than I’d care to admit and I have maybe made it halfway through the main story. This is partly because I can’t see an exclamation point over an NPC’s head and NOT talk to them. But the biggest problem is that I found the crafting system.
This is another difference in A Realm Reborn. In many games, if you choose to play as a warrior or a wizard or what have you, you’re stuck with your choice at least for a good deal of time, if not forever. A Realm Reborn solves this with a very clever class system. To play the game as a new class, all that you have to do is equip a weapon from that class. If I’m tired of punching monsters as a Pugilist, I can grab my sword and shield and play as a Gladiator. Hate the Gladiator? Pick your Pugilist weapon back up and you’re a Pugilist again. I just like saying Pugilist… Later on, you will be able to take skills that you have learned in one class and use them with your second class. Tired of dying? Unlock the Conjurer’s healing and raise spells and you can moonlight as a field medic while you’re punching things. Before you can start a new class you will have to talk to that class’s Guild and run through a short introductory quest, but subsequent class changes between classes you have already unlocked are as simple as changing your weapon to the weapon for that class.
In addition to the combat classes, there are a large number of non-combat classes available. Every army needs an even bigger army of support staff. As with the combat classes, just go talk to the guild of the class you are interested in and you will get that class’s starter tool and start its quest line. The gathering and crafting systems are actually oddly soothing. I lost an entire weekend trying out and ranking up several of the classes. I had only planned on spending a little bit of time with them, but it was nice to just kick back and tinker.
There is an interesting synergy that goes on between the gatherers and the crafters and the warriors. Crafters need raw material to be able to craft new equipment. You can also just switch over to whichever gathering class you need new materials from, like a Miner to gather some Silver Ore for your Goldsmith to craft with, but it is also just as easy to take a short walk over to the Market and search for Silver Ore… As you rank up a combat class, you will find that keeping yourself in the higher level equipment can get incredibly expensive. But you can often find some pretty good deals on the same equipment in the Market.
What is this Market? Well, like many other games, A Realm Reborn has an in-game trading system. The Market allows you to put items you have obtained up for sale for in-game currency. The seller gets to determine the price. If you think someone is going to be willing to pay 5000 Gil for that broken down helmet you found, you just might find a buyer. But if you have plenty of inventory you need to get rid of, you can be the Wal-Mart of adventurers and roll back those prices. Of course, if you don’t mind spending the time to gather your raw materials yourself, you can DIY yourself into some great equipment. Not to be left out, most monsters also drop items that are used by crafters so the combat classes can make some extra coin selling their spoils.
Another way of cooperating with your other fellow adventurers is A Realm Reborn’s Free Company system, the Final Fantasy take on guilds or clans. Once you have reached a certain point in the main story’s quest line you have the ability to start your own Free Company with your fellow adventurers. There is no requirement to join a Free Company, but it is a good way of getting together with a good core group of players that you enjoy playing with. You can get some in-game benefits as well via Free Company Actions like XP bonuses, cheaper Teleporting, etc. There may also be future benefits to Free Company membership as the game evolves over time.
Another cool feature is the FATE system. FATEs are random quests that will pop up on your area map. FATEs are visible to all players in the area, and are designed to be done together with a bunch of different players. They range from tasks like killing a set number of certain monsters that spawn within the boundaries of the FATE, collecting items and returning them to a particular NPC in the area, protecting an NPC from one point to another, etc. FATEs are a great way to rank up and earn extra money for equipment, especially once you start ranking up additional classes.
A video game review would not be complete without talking about the visuals. The PS3 version doesn’t come close to stealing the graphics crown from a game like The Last of Us, but that is due to the huge scope of the game. I have seen the PC version and it of course has much more impressive visuals. I expect the PS4 version that will go into Beta in late February 2014 will be much closer to the PC version in terms of graphics. Not to say that the game is bad looking, it is still impressive that Square Enix has gotten the quality they have out of such a huge MMO on a console. Console development is a zero sum game. There is a limited performance budget that the hardware is capable of, and to be able to play with as many as 5000 to (at last count from Square Enix) over 7500 different players on the same server, many of which may be being rendered to your screen at once, along with all of the other myriad stuff happening, you just have to make some compromises. If you want better graphics, the PC version looks gorgeous. The PS4 version will likely be just as gorgeous, and Square Enix has announced that players will be able to upgrade from the PS3 version to the PS4 version for free once it is available.
Now, all is not wonderful in Eorzea. Luckily for Square Enix, and us, most of it is fixable. In busy areas with a lot of players, the game can get a little laggy. This is worst in cases like trying to do a FATE in a busy area where there are hundreds of other players there too. At its worst, you will see FATE monsters you’re supposed to be killing pop up and die before you can get a hit in on them. This is mainly a server congestion problem, so hopefully as Square Enix continues to improve their infrastructure this will get better. On PS3 the targeting system leaves a lot to be desired. Given that all we have is a DualShock 3 to work with, we don’t have the luxury of being able to just click on something, so the game does its best to figure out what you’re trying to choose, and then you can cycle through targets with your D-Pad. This is configurable to allow you to choose what different targets to consider. By default you will be cycling through pretty much everything, so if there are a bunch of players around you might be aiming for a monster and target another player instead. But, you can tell the game to ignore PCs entirely when targeting, or ignore them when you have your weapon unsheathed, etc.
Oddly, the only communication mechanism that A Realm Reborn provides in-game is text chat. It is pretty configurable, so you can filter out things you don’t care about, and there are different tabs that you can organize stuff into. If all you’re interested in is party chat or Free Company chat, you can pretty easily filter everything else out. It would be nice to have the option of in-game voice chat, but of course you can always work around this on your own. Grab your Vita or your tablet, open up Skype and there you go. Of course, PC players have a lot of other options as well.
Just a few weeks into the game, and Gil sellers are already rampant. This isn’t a problem specific to A Realm Reborn, but it is still annoying. Part of the problem is players with weak passwords that get hacked and become in-game Gil shills. Like some other games, Square Enix has some additional security available like one-time passwords and mobile apps for managing the one-time passwords.
What is both impressive and sad is that A Realm Reborn is VERY GOOD! With so many disappointing games that just end up in the discount bin, it is really refreshing for a game developer to both admit their earlier failures and then to turn a disappointing game into something worthy of the Final Fantasy name. The sad part of the equation is that the technical difficulties during launch may very well turn off a good number of players from what is really a very good MMO. Time will tell how well Square Enix continues to support the game, but at launch there is already plenty of fun to be had.