Final Fantasy XIV: Take Two.
Square Enix took the risk/reward approach to game design with the release of Final Fantasy XIV in 2010. The results were... not good, to put it lightly. I don't think I've ever encountered a person who truly liked the original Final Fantasy XIV, and the overwhelmingly negative reception has led us here to the release of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. In just a couple of weeks the largely retooled MMORPG has already passed the original in terms of acclaim and overall buzz, despite some maddening server issues in the first week or so (there's nothing I hate more than spamming the log in button for 30+ minutes to no avail). But those dark days are behind me, and I can say that Square Enix has successfully executed on its MMORPG rebirth.
A large part of the success hinges on the expansive and visually appealing world presented in A Realm Reborn. The continent Eorzea is home to all kinds of beautiful coastline views and vibrant grasslands, which makes exploring and traveling less of a chore and more of an enjoyable experience. The three starting locations—the forest town Gridania, the seaport Limsa Lominsa, and the wealthy city Ul'dah—stand out as particularly impressive due to their divergence in appearance and feel. My journey began in Limsa Lominsa, a seaside port with ships and water as far as the eye can see. I've spent plenty of time in the other two locations, but Limsa Lominsa remains my favorite of the hub worlds. The added benefit of the Final Fantasy brand means fans will enjoy things like Cactuar pets and endless chocobo rides. As someone who grew up on Final Fantasy games, it definitely hits a nostalgic nerve.
The impressive setting compensates for the convoluted and less-than-engaging narrative. The Garlean Empire and Eorzean Alliance battle each other, Bahamut wreaks havoc, Eorzea faces turmoil for five years, and then the player comes into the equation. Oh, and he/she has visions of a crystal... I'd go into more detail but that would spoil it. The guild quests prove far more interesting thanks to some charismatic characters and unexpected story beats. But let's be honest, most people don't come to MMORPGs for the riveting storyline.
The prospects of character creation are more enticing in a MMORPG, and A Realm Reborn delivers on this front. The game comes with five races to choose from, each with their own subdivisions to better serve particular skills. A myriad of customization options are presented to the more creative types out there, so anyone who wants to adjust things like ear size and jaw shape can absolutely do that. Then we arrive at the all-important decision: Which class should I pick? There are eight to choose from and they all fall into the warrior/mage/ranger archetypes expected from this genre. I went with an arcanist for my guy Octavel to have plenty of spells to help take down dangerous foes.
But one of the best things about A Realm Reborn is the class flexibility it offers players. Don't want to play as a particular class after 10 hours? Not a problem, just find the appropriate guild and change classes. It's as simple as switching out weapons—in this way, players can experiment or change their minds in just a few short seconds. Arcanist remains my primary class for Octavel, but he's also a level 20 weaver, level 10 goldsmith, and level 15 conjurer. In addition to classes are jobs, which provide even more customization options. For example, a level 30 arcanist and level 15 conjurer can become a scholar, which acts as a specialized healing class. This allows players to have different builds for group and/or solo purposes, which ends up being especially helpful after 30-40 hours.
Despite the upside of class flexibility, the mechanic also acts as a double-edged sword considering the quest structure in A Realm Reborn. Get ready to kill X number of monsters and fetch X number of items for quite a few hours. The cycle repeats after changing classes, though a helpful experience boost is provided based on the class with the highest level. Nevertheless, repetition kicks in and the grind becomes more and more of a problem. In many ways it's an inherent flaw of the genre, but that doesn't make it any less tedious. Even after 30+ hours I was faced with these kinds of fetch quests, and that was with my primary arcanist class.
Quests can be obtained by traditional methods, but there are also levemetes scattered throughout the world that carry levequests. Players must spend allowances to accept levequests, though allowances are only provided every three hours in real time. This essentially represents a daily quest mechanic so that players always have something to do in order to get more experience and level up. Levequests are often your standard monster-killing fare, though I feel compelled to single out the awful emoticon quests. What's more fun than escorting a NPC to safety? Using "/beckon" every few seconds so they don't get left behind! Trust me when I say it's annoying, and sadly there are quite a few levequests like that, like some that require you to "/soothe" angry dodos.
Fortunately, the group mechanics in the game don't follow the same tedious formula. Creating a party to tackle group quests or dungeons is where A Realm Reborn shines. Battles are tougher, more teamwork is required, and in the case of dungeons, there are always color-coded loot! Taking on huge bosses is also a highlight since teams have to deal with additional enemies that do their best to ruin strategies. These group quests—called duties—can also be done with a random collection of players thanks to the duty finder. I had a hard time finding a match as a DPS class, but once I got in there I had plenty of fun. Friends can also keep in touch with one another outside of parties with the help of linkshells, specialized lines of chat communication across a single server.
FATEs are another key group activity in A Realm Reborn. These events occur randomly across battlefields for a set amount of time, so players must race to a location on the map to take part in the large-scale encounters. At that point it's all about contribution since experience and money is rewarded based on individual performance. FATEs are loud, hectic, and often hard to follow, but that's what makes them so much fun. And if chat requests are any indication, they're a great way to earn experience in a short amount of time.
Ultimately, I've enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, though I can't deny its derivative quality. Much of what I've discussed regarding this game, good or bad, has been done by other games in the genre and some done better. But then we'll need to get into the merits of all MMOs, and that's a discussion for another day. As it stands now, A Realm Reborn vastly improves on its predecessor and delivers a wonderful fantasy world to spend countless hours in. It has its fair share of flaws, especially in regard to the quest structure, but I imagine fans of the genre will enjoy their time with the game regardless.
(Note: A feature on the end-game content will be posted in due time.)