...a collection of nice adjustments, but the advertised jewel of questing turned out to be a badly cut rhinestone."
Here we are, so close to the sixth month marker in the pivotal first year of FFXIV's existence, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the months since its initial release, the game has seen a new development team and a plucky producer who seemed well on their way to enriching the lives of adventurers in Eorzea. In this review update we'll take a look at their output in the form of the recent cluster of updates: 1.15a, 1.15b and 1.16, and weigh in on their capacity to enrich the experience.
Shortly after taking the helm, Yoshi-P promised us more frequent but smaller updates to the game – and we certainly got them. Patch 1.15a, which I lovingly dubbed "Phoenix Down," was a surprising list of welcome changes. Chief among them was a dramatic increase to the number of skill points obtainable from stronger enemies, which made grouping far more attractive. Behests were now major contributors to character building and fostered a real sense of community, as players were eager to band together for these hourly hunts. The love didn't end there, either. Crafting and gathering also saw a significant boost in skill point gain for more challenging synthesis and accrual. The developers were even gracious enough to speed up the gathering animations to reduce tedium. To put even more icing on the cake, they also boosted skill point gain for ranks 20-24 (previous patches saw a boost for 1-20) so new players would have a smoother leveling curve.
Patch 1.15a also saw the increase in stack size on all items from 12 to 99, which received cries of appreciation from players who dabbled in multiple Disciplines. They even saw fit to put a considerable polishing touch on the search feature of the Market Wards. Searching for an item now lists sellers, quantity and costs as well as ward location in an intuitive at-a-glance window. The argument for a stand-alone auction house seems like a moot point at this time.
System-wide changes in Patch 1.15a also made some cosmetic changes to the way damage is displayed on-screen for a clearer picture of the flow of battle, as well as an improvement in animation frame rate and loading, due to changes in how the client processes graphics.
Patch 1.15a contained a decent amount of worthwhile system changes and upgrades, but 1.15b landed a whole two weeks later, and was nothing short of a hot fix nerf to the best aspects of the previous patch. The developers set an arbitrary recommended party size and reduced the benefits for players over the new party size limit. Previously, a party could consist of up to 15 people, and parties were a staple of the new Behest renaissance. After 1.15b,with the recommended size reduced to 8 players, any additional players decrease the skill point and EXP value for everyone. Since Behests only allow 15 players total per quest, we now have a minimum of two groups competing for the same groups of mobs.
In terms of guildleve linking, this patch caused a massive reduction in potential SP, as it's not possible to obtain all leves in an area and receive the full link bonus for most of them with only 8 people. The developers even suggested that 4 player-parties are ideal for small group content – of which there is none.
The only major accomplishment of 1.15b was alienating FFXIV's already dwindling player base, as there was even less room for people in guildleve parties and Behests. At the release of patch 1.15a, players saw an explosion in character progression opportunities that got them genuinely excited to play FFXIV again. But when 1.15b was launched just two weeks later, its changes destroyed this potential without providing any new systems to support the new party sizes properly, which resulted in disenfranchisement of many players and a reduction in morale related to the game's future. I dub this patch "Throatstab," after the maligned Tonberry attack.
A Fool's Errand
After the mixed emotions evoked by patches 1.15a/b, players were told that Eorzea was finally getting the quests she so richly deserved with Patch 1.16. According to the results of the first survey, questing was the request made to the development team by the largest group of players. Unfortunately, Square Enix's definition of "quests" and the industry standard are vastly different, and so what arrived with 1.16 was too little, too late. First, these "Sidequests" offer no real connection to the main storyline, nor do they contribute in any significant way to the lore already established. They are fetch errands of the most simplistic design – kill a random number of specific mobs, rise and repeat. At the very least, guildleves keep track of your progress while you're on their tasks; for Sidequest progress, you have to rely on your chat log. Then there's the issue of reward. Sidequests offer neither SP or EXP from the mobs exterminated, nor from the completion of their tasks. The tangible reward that is to be had is equipment that is readily available from any Market Ward for little to no effort; many pieces of which are completely useless unless you dabble in multiple classes. Also of note is that this patch introduced less than two dozen quests, all of which can easily be completed in one weekend.
In defense of Sidequests, there are personal stories that are amusing. Some are quite touching, and all are very well written. They manage to take players off the beaten path, but some locations are so out of the way that the lack of any real in-game transportation rears its ugly head yet again. Sidequests could have been a more significant aspect of play had they been launched alongside the game last September and tweaked accordingly. However, as they currently stand, there is no incentive for established players to engage in them and very little reason for new players to become involved; the guildleve and behest systems offer much better rewards for their time and effort.
A Tailor's Fit
T he Sidequest content in 1.16 may be disappointing, but Square Enix continues to refine many of the established parts of FFXIV. The first major improvement is a dramatic streamlining of the local leve system. Previously arranged in a random order, players can finally choose local leves according to rank (a la battle leves), which allows more rank-appropriate commissions to be available. This revision also includes a re-evaluation of rank requirements needed to complete the item as well as reach the client in question. Previously, low ranked local leves could send players to locations that were too lethal to reach. This discrepancy has been addressed, and local leve clients are now found in rank-appropriate areas. The actual process of filling an order has also been streamlined dramatically. After crafting the first item for their client, a window pops up that allows players to resume crafting the same item without having to wade through several menus to resume the next synthesis. This change alone has cut 50% of the time from finishing a local leve.
There has also been a dramatic change in how equipment durability is determined. Players that meet either the rank or class recommendation for gear will find their degradation reduced. If both are met, degradation is reduced even further. Also of note is that an item's degree of durability has been reduced from 50% to 35% before its statistics are reduced, which should result in significantly less trips to the NPC repairman or local player craftsman.
Some other small changes of note are the addition of targeting modes that can be selected via keyboard or control pad to ease the long-standing problem of mistargeting, as well as a complete revision of the player Journal. The Journal now lists all manner of quests by type and flags them appropriately, which cuts down on many unnecessary windows. Last but certainly not least, the HP on everyone's favorite grinding mob, the Dolbyn, has been increased in an effort to save this endangered species from the brink of extinction.
Cosmetics Are Only Skin Deep
Also included in 1.16 is a bewildering change in monster sizes. In an effort to keep enemy appearances from becoming stale, many denizens of Eorzea have been given ample doses of growth hormone with somewhat whimsical effect. Watching a Spriggan the size of a cow chase a Lalafell back to the gates of Gridania is pure comedic gold. A nice touch to these cosmetic changes is the addition of icons that indicate whether an enemy is aggressive or not. Veterans might find this pointless, but for new players, this is definitely a boon. Also, the annoying migratory pattern of Dodos and other creatures who delighted in following players around endlessly, begging to be caught in area of effect attacks has been halted.
Beating around the Bush
Looking over these last few patches, I can't help but wonder if Final Fantasy XIV has any direction, much less a future. 1.15a and 1.15b prove that what Square Enix giveth, Square Enix can taketh away. The development team seems to be excelling at fixing broken toys, but can't seem to find the blueprints for a best-seller when there are plenty of successes on the market, even in their own backyard. This collection of mini-patches includes many noteworthy adjustments, but no significant additions. Putting the finishing touches on a much improved Market Ward, streamlining the waterfall of windows from local leves and decreasing the amount of time wasted during crafting and gathering are appreciated. Giving players actual targeting options in a simple and intuitive way is also a welcome addition. But streamlining and tweaking will not feed the faithful nor entice the curious. Enough is enough! Shaving one more window isn't going to resurrect Eorzea, nor is a handful of empty fetch quests.
Players crave real content with risk and reward. Patch 1.15a revitalized what limited large group content there was, but the decision to downsize parties in 1.15b destroyed that same gameplay with no replacement content designed for these groups. Patch 1.16 was a collection of nice adjustments, but the advertised jewel of questing turned out to be a badly cut rhinestone. We know they can do better! Even after all this time, those who have stuck with FFXIV from the beginning have nothing new or worthwhile to experience outside of guildleves, behests and a handful of NMs. It's time for Square Enix to man up or get out. They captivated players for almost a decade with FFXI, and have delivered more desirable content in Vana'diel in the last six months than Eorzea. I implore Yoshi-P and his already hard-working staff: eschew these bi-monthly appetizers and prepare a real meal. If it takes three months, or even six months, do it and do it right! Your remaining audience can only subsist on faith alone for so long before they decide to take their appetites and their money to another restaurant.
As these patches produced some moderate changes to the existing game, the score has been revised somewhat.
Graphics - 96%
Sound - 60%
Gameplay - 70% > 72%
Control - 65% > 70%
Story - 60% > 62%
Overall - 70% > 72%