"It cannot be stressed enough that A Realm Reborn is an utterly new game, and I would urge even the most jaded 1.0 players to withhold judgment."
In the previous volume of our ongoing review journal, Editor/Paladin Mike Salbato discussed the circumstances surrounding the creation and launch of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. He also went into detail on his feelings about the game's world, class system, and combat. I'll be supplementing his entry by recounting my own experience in the world of Eorzea, both before and after the fall of Dalamud.
I'm a pretty huge fan of Final Fantasy. I have always been enamored with the series and its constantly-evolving mythology, and despite the polarizing nature of more recent titles, I have found enjoyment in every single numbered Final Fantasy game (some more than others, naturally). Even when the original version of Final Fantasy XIV loomed on the horizon, and its Beta test revealed a startlingly questionable level of quality, I remained cautiously optimistic. Picking up the game at launch, my optimism quickly faded as I encountered a lifeless world, uninteresting combat, and one of the worst user interfaces I have ever attempted to manipulate. Despite my staunch devotion to the brand, I just couldn't find anything to like about Final Fantasy XIV, and it hurt to see a beloved series sink into a seemingly inescapable quagmire of ambivalent design and shoddy programming. It wasn't until months later, when Square Enix offered a formal apology and took a vow to rebuild the game, that I resolved to see how Eorzea might develop into a realm worthy of its legacy.
I watched new director Yoshi-P and his team struggle to wrest life from the original Final Fantasy XIV, but no matter how much the combat system and storyline were revised, it did nothing to allay my frustration with the user interface. Ugly, unresponsive, and poorly constructed, the menus made every activity a chore, an issue exacerbated by content that was by and large unapologetically mundane. Even so, I spent time in Eorzea, my excitement for the game growing with every patch (feelings that were most fascinatingly archived on the old Lodestone
), but my enthusiasm reached fever pitch when Version 2.0 was announced a year after launch. As the months rolled by, I returned every so often to participate in new content and advance the storyline, culminating in my battle against the White Raven, Nael van Darnus, just before the servers shut down for good. The following year was almost agonizing. I voraciously consumed any new media related to the new version of the game, and once the Beta test began for A Realm Reborn, any lingering doubts I had were swept away. This was going to be the Final Fantasy XIV I hoped for three years prior.
I am elated to see Yoshi-P's vision of Final Fantasy XIV brought to fruition at last. This brave new Eorzea is not only one of the most stunningly detailed and visually impressive worlds I've ever seen, but it is — more importantly — built on a foundation of passion. My time spent playing this new game has been nothing but exhilarating, a stark contrast to the mixed feelings I held for its predecessor. While it sticks to standard MMORPG structure in terms of questing and overall combat flow, every last detail of A Realm Reborn is so polished that it's hard to believe the game was built in only two years' time. So what, in particular, makes the game worth playing? Everything, really.
It cannot be stressed enough that A Realm Reborn is an utterly new game, and I would urge even the most jaded 1.0 players to withhold judgment. Those horrendous cut-and-paste zones have been replaced by meticulously-designed areas with unique landmarks. The interface is modern, convenient, and beautiful. Every class has been rebuilt, combat is much speedier, and the music — oh, Twelve above, the music! I'll make a bold statement and admit that I vastly prefer Masayoshi Soken's new compositions to Nobuo Uematsu's original work. These aural delights are so lengthy and complex that they're often broken up and sprinkled throughout a single area, coupling sight and sound together in splendid harmony. Soken is brilliant at playing with motifs, both those of his own creation and from past games in the series (like the Final Fantasy II battle theme and the classic "Prelude," for instance). I often find myself awestruck by how gorgeous and varied the music is. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it is easily in my top three soundtracks of the year, and I will not hesitate to pick it up as soon as it is officially released.
Remarkably, unlike Final Fantasy XI, A Realm Reborn launched with a fully fleshed-out story that players can already see through to its conclusion. There are three sub-plots that weave together into a single tale: the sinister Garlean Empire's invasion of Eorzea, the advent of the Primals (classic Final Fantasy summons worshipped by beastman races), and the rejuvenation of the Mothercrystal, Eorzea's life force. Progression through the main scenario unlocks new dungeons and challenging battles, as well as rewards like cosmetic pets and the Final Fantasy VI-inspired Magitek Armor mount. Because this is a Final Fantasy title, the emphasis on story is great; pivotal cutscenes feature dynamic animations and full voice acting in four languages. I've currently made it about 3/4 of the way through the narrative, and while I wouldn't call it "revolutionary," the writing is surprisingly sharp — there's an adult sensibility and a keen understanding of language in the prose that impresses me greatly. I have yet to reach the story's climax, and I am anxiously awaiting the next day I can challenge another of Eorzea's threats alongside my Emerald Shield compatriots. The notion that our adventures will continue into expansions for years to come makes me positively gleeful.
As I mentioned, dungeons are a key part of A Realm Reborn. Some are tied to the main story, while others are optional, but all have interesting lore and conclude with a strategic boss battle. These excursions are typically 90 minutes in length, and couldn't be easier to enter thanks to the Duty Finder tool. World of Warcraft veterans will be immediately familiar with this grouping mechanism, which allows players to register for content (be it a dungeon or instanced battle scenario) and continue about their business until a balanced party is automatically formed. Players are pulled from a pool of several servers, and matching is generally quite speedy, although DPS classes tend to be faced with a longer wait due to their abundance. As someone who spent countless hours shouting for parties in Final Fantasy XI, often giving up on clearing content after fruitless attempts to secure help for the most menial tasks, I can't understate how convenient the Duty Finder is. It reduces the stress of grouping with other players by allowing everyone to focus on the most important element of a PvE multiplayer game: teamwork. There is something to be said about a game so conscious of its players' time constraints, and quite frankly, the alternative would be unacceptable by today's standards.
While Paladin Mike Salbato has been defending me from danger on the front lines, I've been decimating my foes from afar as a Summoner. Magic classes in A Realm Reborn differ from melee classes in that they don't utilize the combo system, but there are abilities that can only be activated under certain conditions. For instance, the Arcanist class (which branches into the destructive Summoner or curative Scholar) has an ability called Aetherflow, which restores 20% MP and bestows an effect called Aetherdam. This effect is something like a charge, and can be unleashed in several different ways, giving the player several strategic options. Wounded and surrounded by foes, a player might have to decide: should I keep myself healthy with a revitalizing Energy Drain, or should I try to kill my enemies quickly with a contagion-spreading Bane? Further strategy comes into play as a Summoner, as there are three different types of pets (magical, physical, defender) with their own abilities to manage. In terms of lore, these pets are actually distilled essences of Primals like Ifrit and Titan, a distinction that goes a long way toward bolstering the fearsome presence of these enemies based on their appearances in the main scenario. This is a minor example of the complementary relationship between narrative and gameplay in A Realm Reborn, a result of the intelligent design that permeates every aspect of the game.
I could go on and on, because even between two journal entries, we haven't written about everything there is to see and do in A Realm Reborn. Based on our coverage up to this point, you can probably infer that we're having a blast with the game. (It wasn't too obvious, was it?) I knew that the game was shaping up to be considerably better than Final Fantasy XIV 1.0, but I had no idea that I would be so utterly engrossed in this world after such a short time. A Realm Reborn has effortlessly become not only my favorite MMORPG of all time, but one of the best Final Fantasy titles in recent memory. Congratulations, Yoshi-P. You did it.