"FFXIV is a mountain of untapped potential buried beneath a desert of inconsistent design choices and bad ideas."
Something is afoot in Eorzea. A long shadow has been cast over the birth of a new world and only an army of heroes can save her. A month into service, the latest MMORPG from Square Enix is under fire from critics and fans alike. There was tremendous anticipation for the launch of Final Fantasy XIV. Even after a rocky beta test and news that a simultaneous PS3/PC release was no longer possible, the excitement was still palpable. Players could even spend extra to get exclusive items and a seven day head start with the Collector's Edition.
What happened on pre-release, and again on release date was typical of a highly anticipated MMO launch. Overcrowding, server queues, lag, crashes and elbow-to-elbow players. New servers were added and as the congestion eased, it became apparent that this was a game in crisis. The volumes worth of feedback given during the beta test were never fully addressed and chaos ensued. Within two weeks the majority of the overeager fan base stopped logging in. When the gaming press started to publish their scathingly negative reviews, the domino effect began. Square Enix extended the free trial period for another month in an attempt to salvage Final Fantasy XIV but players still continued to leave. So what exactly happened? Let's assemble the pieces of the puzzle.
Of Invasions and Divinity
In the world of Hydaelyn, on the continent of Eorzea, a new threat is brewing in the North; the Garlean Empire is on the move. Having conquered countless other nations on their march toward Eorzea, the Empire's massive army had gone dormant since their invasion and occupation of the once proud city-state of Ala Mhigo thirty years ago. Now, the rumblings of their advanced war machines are rumored to have been heard on the borders of the remaining free states of Eorzea. The nations of Ul'dah, Limsa Lominsa and Gridania have long maintained a tenuous trust, having to mind their own problems within their lands. Now with the threat of invasion on the horizon, these city-states must find common ground if they are to weather the oncoming storm. To make matters worse, it seems even the heavens are in a calamity. The pantheon of deities known as The Twelve has watched over Eorzea and all her children since time immemorial. For some unknown reason they have taken a profound interest in these events. They have gifted a chosen few with a mysterious power. Can these awakened souls uncover the mysteries surrounding the Garlean Empire? Can they bridge the gap of mistrust between the free states of Eorzea and the beastmen in time to prevent a calamity? What are the Empire's designs, and why the sudden interest in Eorzea after so much time? Could the rumors of the increasing violent nature of the beastmen tribes and their gods, the Primals, have something to do with it? Only those brave enough to take up the calling of The Twelve will unravel these secrets.
Final Fantasy XIV begins with a storyline that seems to live up to its prestigious lineage, but fails to impress in many areas. The introduction to each city-state is dramatic, with each subsequent cut-scene building on the newly established lore and feeding the audience bits and pieces of a much larger picture. The story is interesting without giving away too many details to the player, and keeps you riveted for the next major event. Unfortunately, the glacial pace of increasing your later ranks leaves major cliffhangers unresolved for weeks on end until your avatar has progressed enough to begin the next chapter. While there are missions for each player class that serve as adjuncts to the main story, they are even fewer and farther between. To compound this issue is the fact that the majority of the major plot events are little more than cinematic cutscenes that require long trips of running between disparate areas. There are an extremely limited number of fights in the missions currently available, but from what has been experienced thus far, they can all be completed solo with little to no difficulty. I can appreciate having the option to solo these missions after having weathered the torture chamber of FFXI's Chains of Promathia, but players need more activity than hour-long treks across repetitive scenery to watch a cinema when embarking on such important adventures.
Let's be completely honest. Anyone who has played FFXI to any extent will find many of FFXIV's storyline premises and execution to be an unabashed cut and paste. A collection of lengthy un-interactive cutscenes that tell a story that is so broken up by long stretches of travel and level grinding that most players forget where they left off is a Vana'diel trademark. Three nations coexisting within a tenuous relationship harangued by three separate beastmen tribes banding together to fight a greater evil? Haven't we been here before? Is Shadowlord sitting on the throne in Garlemand? Let's also take into consideration the fact that the character races presented in FFXIV are exactly the same as those indigenous to FFXI. Sure, they've got two different tribes now, but the publicized excuse of duplicating these races for the sake of player nostalgia reeks of "too conveniently lazy." You're never going to attract any new players to Eorzea if you're playing the same old tune to a doddering audience. 2003 is over, time to move on. Square Enix has shown they have the capacity to innovate as well as weave a good tale, but it seems their recent trend of "reboot, reuse and recycle" with their other franchises has finally bled into Final Fantasy. The tale itself isn't poor by any stretch of the imagination, it's just a journey many of us have already made; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
It's Only Skin Deep
Final Fantasy XIV is without question the most visually advanced MMORPG on the market. The world of Eorzea and its denizens are artfully depicted thanks to Square Enix's proprietary graphics engine Crystal Tools. Character models were motion-captured for realism and the bestiary were 3D sculpted prior to being rendered via the engine for arresting attention to detail. The night and day cycles are convincingly realistic with shadows that extend as the sun sets and a nightfall that is truly dark. The weather transitions are even more impressive due to their effects on the environment. Sadly, this visual prowess comes with a tremendous cost. The recommended system specs to run the game are very high; this is one of the publicized reasons why the PS3 development was delayed. Even the minimum required specs were demanding and performance was questionable. Many gamers spent thousands of dollars on new PCs to run FFXIV in all her glory, which made the game's other deficits all the more painful.
The Road Less Traveled
FFXIV succeeds in terms of visual acumen but Eorzea herself falls a little flat in environmental variety. The three city-states present in-game are well represented in size, scope and design. Ul'dah is a massive walled fortress that evokes an image of ancient Persia seated in the great wasteland of Thanalan. Limsa Lominsa is a pirate city built out of bridges over the ocean on the coast of the archipelago of La Noscea, and Gridania is a hidden forest hideaway nestled deep in the woodlands of The Black Shroud. Unfortunately, in the scope of the game's current gameplay, the landscape surrounding each city becomes repetitive quickly.
Touted as a seamless world, Eorzea is actually built up of multiple zones that interconnect without noticeable transition until you change regions. This is accompanied by long load times and a complete lack of environmental transition. To go from a desert to a thriving rain forest with naught but a black screen and a loading icon is disheartening. This lends to an impression that the game is comprised of only five zones: two of which are underutilized entirely. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that all three nations are connected by a single road and the majority of player activities seldom venture from this beaten path. There is even evidence of massive cutting and pasting of terrain. A complete lack of transportation in addition to these elements lend to a very repetitive visual world experience for most players.
With some exploration I've found that the truth of the matter is stranger than the fiction of first impressions. Eorzea is massive, diverse and woefully neglected. Each seamless region is the size of 4-5 typical MMO zones in addition to a handful of smaller towns and dungeons. These regions are also multi-layered, as evidenced by The Black Shroud's overhead canopy, Thanalan's lush sinkholes and buttes, and La Noscea's network of caves and beachheads. Even though the regions of Coerthas and Mor'Dhona have yet to be significantly incorporated into gameplay, they are visually stunning. Sadly, these areas are extremely hazardous to even max level players, so they aren't even in the equation for the typical player. Realistically only 1/10th of the landscape in-game is utilized with current content, which only worsens the impression of an empty repetitive world.
Oh No Nobuo
For the first time in years, Nobuo Uematsu has his hands on the entirety of a Final Fantasy with FFXIV's score. For the most part, the music in Eorzea is quite good at first. The haunting theme song "Answers" sung by the talented Susan Calloway is amazing, but is sampled throughout so many of the game's cut scenes that it quickly becomes tiresome. The combat and region music is nicely varied but wears out its welcome after several hours of exposure. Perhaps it's the nature of the MMORPG that eventually most music becomes forgettable, but no aspect of the score of FFXIV is truly memorable. The storyline cinematics are well-orchestrated but are lacking in the depth and power that made so many of the major events from previous Final Fantasy titles so unforgettable. Hopefully as new content is added, Uematsu will find some inspiration to bridge our connection to Eorzea and her story.
Interestingly enough, there's a smattering of voice acting present in FFXIV, though much of it is a complete enigma. I never understood the rationale that every fantasy setting needs faux European accents, but FFXIV is something of a melting pot mess. You have characters who were born and raised in the same location but sport British, Australian and American accents? At the very least the pirate-speak in the Limsa Lominsa storyline is consistent, even if it's a bit heavy handed. The acting is solid, though the ham-fisted accents are completely unnecessary. Either be consistent or leave them out entirely.
Broken Toys for Girls and Boys
Eorzea may be a big beautiful world brimming with potential, but nothing can sour a new adventurer's experience than wrestling with their controls. Sadly, Final Fantasy XIV suffers from a plethora of gameplay issues. The interface is the antithesis of user-friendly. Designed primarily for a control pad, the UI is based around a seemingly endless array of menus that are also marred by needlessly long load times as the game client needs to communicate with the server for every ... single ... menu. Crafting is the most virulent example of this, as there are several windows that need to be navigated in succession even before you can begin the actual process. FFXIV allows the use of a mouse and keyboard for play, but their integration is so cumbersome that it is apparent they were added as an afterthought. Even key-binding is nearly non-existent. While we understand that the game was also designed with consoles in-mind, and the game functions quite well with a controller, there is no excuse for a modern MMORPG to launch on PC and eschew the platform's intrinsic control design.
If this wasn't enough, combat is also needlessly complicated. Players must unsheathe their weapons before they begin any kind of combat actions. Likewise, they need to put away their armaments before they can engage in other activity. This is called toggling Active/Passive mode. In theory this doesn't seem problematic, but it is quite painful in practice. For example, when trying to flee combat, your movement is significantly reduced while your weapon is drawn. In the event you'd like to put away your weapon to restore running speed, your character will stop, frozen in place for a few seconds during this transition. This has resulted in more than one needless death. Even something as mundane as casting buffs requires an outstretched weapon.
The general theory behind these dubious design choices is muddled. Building the UI around a controller setup when every console in this generation is USB device compatible makes no sense. The waterfall of menu navigation is a byproduct of this choice, but the lack of submenu streamlining creates tedium for the player attempting basic actions. Final Fantasy XI showed that Square Enix is capable of building a fast, streamlined UI for a console controller, but somewhere along the way those lessons have been forgotten.
An Empty Playground
No matter how interesting the tale, or how pretty the scenery, a lack of accessible content will destroy an MMO's user base. In the past several years, games like World of Warcraft have shown you need a steady diet of player-oriented activities to keep the subscribers paying. Final Fantasy XIV's focus seems to be on keeping players away from the game instead of diving in feet first. The first offender is the guildleve system. This is a quest generator of the simplest design. Players go to an NPC-run counter in any city to select up to sixteen quests (eight combat/gathering and eight crafting). These are intended to be the primary means of leveling up the numerous classes available within the game.
Early on, the guildleve system is a speedy way to gain new ranks, but it doesn't engage the player in any activities more interesting than "kill X number of monsters" or "gather Y number of drops" before the timer expires. There is no meaningful connection to the game's world or storyline, but all of a combat guildleve's objectives are instanced, so overcrowding has no impact on your ability to complete your objectives. The crafting-oriented local leves are a bit more interactive, having players hunt down specific NPC clients to acquire materials to make contracted items for delivery. After a few ranks' worth of guildleve questing, you start to realize just how tedious the activity is, but there's even more annoyance tied to it. You may only obtain these quests every 36 hours, and if for some reason you disconnect during a leve, it is automatically failed. If you want to retry the leve you have to wait for the next cool down, and even then you will have to give up a precious guildleve slot to renew the lost quest. Playing solo, most players can blow through the combat leves within an hour or two. Playing in a group, you can share in their quests. This extends the playtime and potency of the guildleve system, but the lack of variety causes boredom to set in even more quickly. Local leves suffer from a nonsensical randomization of crafting level requirements that makes finding rank-appropriate contracts very difficult, even with perusing all three adventurer's guilds.
Behest is another player activity that exists as an adjunct to the guildleve system. Every hour on-the-hour, an NPC will spawn at every Camp location in Eorzea that will offer a single guildleve for up to 15 players to help clear enemies encroaching on the land. Unlike regular guildleves, Behest is a community quest. Players who accept the Behest do not need to be in the same party, but all who participate will contribute to the quest objectives. Once all the designated monsters have been slain, a boss-type creature will spawn that will require teamwork. Successfully completing a behest will award all participants with a cash reward.
Sadly, the rewards for guildleves and behests are a mess. Unlike every other modern MMO on the market, completing leves does not offer you a lump sum reward of EXP or SP. What you gain from defeating monsters within the leve is where that reward lies. Make no mistake, guildleve monsters award you with an increased amount of skill gain. Unfortunately, the quality and quantity of these mobs ranges widely among leves within the same rank category. This feast or famine theme only worsens as you progress through higher rank leves with most of them being a complete waste of a slot for character progression. The only tangible reward for completing leves is cash, but even that is horribly unbalanced with lower level leves rewarding pocket change and moderate to high level leves offering a king's ransom. This coupled with the fact that high level crafters are required to make most of the low-level equipment leaves impoverished new players without a leg to stand on. To be fair, guildleves can randomly reward players with equipment, and occasionally treasure chests may appear with additional gear within, but these incidents are not only extremely rare, their contents are completely random. It's almost a commercial parody of poor game design:
"Been leveling up with that splintered bow and arrow in tattered undies for a fortnight?
Here's a stave!
*pause for effect*
Now you can wield awesome powers of magic thanks to our custom built quest reward system! Bask in your newfound power, benevolently bestowed upon you by the almighty RNG (random number generator)!
It's totally not because you obviously fail at archery!
We'll even make it not one rank, not even two ranks higher!
Nay, we'll make it TEN ranks higher than your seldom touched caster class so your gain is minimal!
Wait, there's more....
Such awesomeness will cost you an arm and a leg to repair!
You're a Woodworker you say!? Inconceivable!
That won't help either because the item is made of silver!
Billy Mays, eat your heart out.
Next on the chopping block is the oft-publicized and universally despised Fatigue system. This mechanic limits how much skill and experience points a player can accrue after a set period of time. As players enter fatigue they will earn a reduced amount of SP/EXP that will continue to degrade until they reach zero. Fatigue resets once a week and can be slowly drained by leveling a different class or not playing for stretches of time. Remember what I said earlier about the game being designed to keep you from playing? Here's the prime offender. Now we can all agree that MMORPGs are generally designed to be addictive, that's their function. Players who aren't emotionally invested in their avatars or the game stop playing, and that's the kiss of death for a subscription-based service. Of course, there have been well-publicized instances of players putting their game ahead of their families, friends, jobs and in some rare instances, their own health. Limiting a player's playtime might seem like an ethically responsible action for an MMO designer, not to mention it forces players to explore the other classes and perhaps discover other avenues of play, but the principle itself is insulting. Players don't like being parented in their hobbies; most MMORPG players are old enough to be responsible for their actions; and if they are minors, they should have parents who care enough to monitor their gaming. Playing big-brother is always a negative in terms of a paid pastime. Semantics aside, the Fatigue system doesn't seem to affect gameplay for most players until after rank 20, and is gentle enough to be a non-issue. For the ranks afterward, players can hit fatigue within two hours of play if engaging in progression-rich activities such as guildleves or large group mob grinding. Since skill points (the basis of class progression) are awarded randomly in combat, fatigue is exceptionally painful when it sets in. Many players report being in semi-permanent fatigue from rank 35 all the way up to rank 50. That's enough to kill most player's desire to even continue.
Despite the randomized nature of the guildleve system and the malignant fatigue mechanic, the crafting and gathering gameplay is actually well-done, despite minor issues. Crafting in FFXIV (more commonly known as Synthesis) is a complex affair that requires diligence and wits. Players will have to balance an item's degree of completion with dwindling durability. Unfortunately, there are many other variables that come into play when crafting, such as having elemental instability which can cause you to lose massive amounts of durability well before an item is completed. If unchecked, your item can explode, costing you all of your hard-earned materials. Each successful synthesis earns you skill points in your craft, but is also affected by fatigue. As players increase their ranks in the various crafting classes they will learn new skills that will aid in preserving the integrity and improving the quality of their items. Gifted crafters can even create improved versions of their wares by successfully "touching up" the finished product.
Gathering, performed by the Discipline of the Land classes, are various forms of the game Hot & Cold, which require players to be observant as well as precise in their actions. Like synthesis, gathering is well-designed and is so much more than a simple rote button press. Players have various skills and equipment they can acquire to improve their success rate and increase their yields. Sadly, like any other MMORPG, these systems can become tedious after a time, and aren't for everyone. Thankfully they are supported in the guildleve system, so progressing a crafting or gathering class isn't very difficult, up to a point. They can be a serious time-sink due to the overflow of menus involved in performing even the simplest of gathering and crafting functions. Aside from making items, craftsmen in FFXIV are the major force behind keeping the battle classes combat ready. All player equipment has durability that can be lost with use. When that durability is lost, players lose a significant amount of the statistical value of said item. While adventurers can go to an NPC to repair items, it comes at a cost and will only restore an item to 75% of its original strength. Therefore, craftsmen are always needed for repairs, and gatherers are always needed for the repair materials. This is an actual economic cycle in-game that works well.
Sadly, the major hub of the economy in Eorzea is a broken mess. FFXIV's designers decided that having an auction house was unnecessary. Instead we have the Market Wards: a multi-level instance of player-owned "Retainers" standing around in hopes of selling items via their bazaars. To say it's a window-shopping nightmare is an understatement. Originally, there was no designation of where items were and no search feature for any product. Players were forced to systematically wade through hundreds of NPCs in hopes of finding their item in a disappointing game of Needle-in-the-Haystack. Thanks to a patch in mid-October, the Wards are now designated for specific groups of items by floor, but players still continue to ignore this new organization. It's also frustrating for players hoping to sell their wares as the Wards randomly crash, removing all retainers from its halls at any given time.
Now, despite the obvious missteps outlined above, there are some gems to be found in FFXIV. The Armory system is the shining jewel of the game. By simply changing a weapon or tool, a player can change their class to any of the game's eighteen classes. These are divided into Disciplines of War, Magic, Hand and Land. Each class comes with its own complement of abilities that can be equipped interchangeably, giving the player an unprecedented level of customization. Of course, not every skill or ability is cross-compatible, but the variety of skills to choose from is staggering. Players who take the time to dabble in all of the Disciplines will have a formidable array of talents to choose from. It's obvious that one of the main goals of the fatigue system was to force players to dive into multi-classing, but the benefits are so obvious that being heavy-handed is pointless.
The combat system works well also. When your weapon is drawn, a stamina bar begins to fill. Each attack consumes a portion of that bar, which allows you to use successive attacks without much delay. Since stamina refills slowly over time, being overzealous with its use can leave you unable to take action. Successful attacks fill your TP gauge, which is used in tandem with stamina to launch weapon skills. Mages can cast spells by consuming MP as well as stamina for casting. There are even a smattering of abilities that use HP as their fuel. The only critique worth making about the stamina system is this: the bar refills too slowly and is susceptible to lag, which can make some attacks seem stuck.
Within the combat system lies Battle Regimens, FFXIV's version of FFXI's skill chains. Battle Regimens allow players to queue special attacks and spells together in an ordered stack. The order and type of attack used can result in a spectrum of disabling effects and boosted damage against their target. Unlike skill chains, the abilities needed don't need to be specific and can be stacked up to 15 at a time (15 being the maximum party size) and there is no extra elemental damage effect. The major drawback to the system is that while you are in the Battle Regimen queue, you are locked out of using any abilities until the stack is executed. In a well organized party, this is a non-issue, but between execution bugs and players taking too much time selecting their attacks, it can lead to a lot of downtime, making the system inefficient.
The only major flaw I found with the combat system, outside of lag-related issues, was the lack of mobility. Any kind of actions made against a target require you to stand still until the animation is completed. With some of the more elaborate weapon skills taking upward of four seconds to execute, you feel rooted to one spot for much of combat.
A Final Fantasy
I had high hopes for the new adventure in Eorzea after enjoying so many years of play in Vana'diel. Sadly, the experience itself has been melancholy. The graphics and storyline are within the high standards of the Final Fantasy brand, though not without some glaring faults. The musical score is average at best, with the majority of the music being completely unmemorable. Judging from the main theme song, I know Uematsu is capable of great work, but in its current state, the score is merely passable. Eorzea herself is massive, though her size and variety is masked by the repetitive scenery centered on very limited player content. It's a bold world: give us a reason to get off the beaten path and explore it!
The gameplay design left me scratching my head with its contrast of quality. The Armory system is a solid successor to the Job system that was pioneered in FFXI and takes it one step further with massive cross-class ability customization. The crafting and gathering is well designed, with enough depth to warrant specific classes for these roles. Combat is well-designed, but between the static nature of battle movement and wildly variable lag, the experience could be so much more. Then there are the major limitations and inconsistencies with the guildleve system and the fatigue mechanic that have player progression moving in fits and starts. The Market Ward is a neat idea on paper, but is massively flawed in execution. Had it been designed as an adjunct to an auction house, it may have served a better role. As the center of economic trade, it's a devastating step backward for merchant players.
Tying together this menagerie of the good, the bad and the ugly is probably the largest offender of them all, the user interface: needlessly complex, unintuitive and unoptimized for the platform it was designed for. I can think of no greater barrier of entry for players than the UI. Had Square Enix included a USB controller with every copy of FFXIV, things might be different, but players shouldn't have to fork over money for a peripheral just to make a modern MMORPG playable.
At this point in time, FFXIV is a mountain of untapped potential buried beneath a desert of inconsistent design choices and bad ideas. It's even more disappointing in comparison to its nearly decade-old predecessor. The game was obviously rushed to retail and the fallout afterward was certainly deserved. The question now is, how long can Eorzea hold out until the necessary changes are made to make the experience worthwhile. The MMORPG market is an unforgiving playground, and you never get a second chance to make a first impression. As of the date of this writing, a month after the service began, I cannot recommend FFXIV to even the most die-hard fan. Eorzea is empty, save for the wailing of her heartbroken few who wait impatiently for the second coming. May The Twelve have mercy upon her shores.
A special thanks go out to all of my LS mates in Firm Conviction of Trabia server for helping making this review and subsequent updates possible. You guys rock!
This review was completed in regards to content released up until 10/30/10 with details added as needed. Played to Rank 48 on one Disciple of War class, played all classes to 20 minimum, including crafting classes and completed all introductory class missions. Experienced the entirety of Ul'dah's storyline currently accessible in-game.
Graphics - 94%
Sound - 56%
Gameplay - 40%
Control - 38%
Story - 70%
Overall - 50%