Welcome to the first entry of RPGFan’s Review Journal series for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Titled “Tales of The Emerald Shield” after our editors’ in-game Free Company, several of us will write entries exploring our thoughts on the game. Because of this, each entry won’t paint a fully detailed portrait of the game, but rather a fragment of it. For the first entry, I’m going to get into a bit of history behind what is really the unprecedented re-launch of an MMO, and I’ll talk at length about how the game works, the classes, progression, and more. Future entries will delve further into aspects of the game I’m not covering here. As is typical with MMORPGs, the first several entries will not feature numerical scores, as none of them cover everything FFXIV has to offer. So grab a venti iced coffee with soy milk and vanilla… er, or whatever your drink of choice is… and let’s get started!
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn took me completely by surprise. The failure of FFXIV 1.0 is well-known in the RPG world: A bland setting, broken gameplay systems, and the list goes ever on. I knew that A Realm Reborn (aka 2.0) was a huge overhaul, but since all things FFXIV in my head reminded me of the original game, I didn’t pay the game any mind between 2011 and June 2013. I knew it was nice to look at, with environments that seemed interesting and lively, but a nice coat of paint doesn’t make a game good, so I didn’t take the time to dig into the details of what made the game itself better.
Because of this, A Realm Reborn was off my radar until E3 2013 in June. Square Enix held an event in their booth, tasking would-be heroes with downing the primal Ifrit within a set time limit. I didn’t play, but it was clear Square was giving FFXIV special attention, since most gameplay demos at the show are typical “wait in line to play by yourself” affairs. A few RPGFan editors decided they wanted to try the beta version of the game the following month, and I jumped in as well. What we experienced was so polished and devoid of issues (login problems aside), we didn’t even feel it was beta-quality. And now, with the game released and each of us having sunk a ridiculous amount of time into it, I have thoughts. Many of them.
I originally had a longer paragraph here detailing the game’s login issues at launch, but I removed it as these were largely — not entirely, but largely — squashed following the addition of new servers and expanded capacity a week after launch. The short version, just for reference, is that interest in the game far exceeded expectations, and the servers just weren’t prepared for it. Producer Naoki Yoshida has been surprisingly candid and open about the situation (as he is with everything), and his team is working tirelessly to keep things in order. MMORPG launches are notoriously less than smooth, and things could have been much worse.
I realize I’m over 300 words into this thing and I haven’t discussed much about the game itself yet… and I have one more topic to address before I do: the developers behind A Realm Reborn. Naoki Yoshida, or Yoshi-P for short, is the figurehead here, and the main source of interaction between fans and the development team. The amount of time he spends talking to the community, explaining what’s going on, and being both grateful for the attention the game is getting and apologetic over the issues are quite remarkable. His behavior is not at all typical of most game studios, and it’s even more noteworthy considering he’s part of a Japanese developer. Ask any English-speaking player of Phantasy Star Online or Final Fantasy XI how much interaction they had with the developers and you’ll likely be told they felt like second-class citizens. Yoshi-P’s candor is a breath of fresh air, not only because it means we know what’s going on when we have issues, but because this man and his team are immensely passionate about what they’re doing. When he posts about the game, you don’t receive the typical generic company reply such as “We are aware some players are encountering issues and are looking into it” or “We cannot talk about future planned content.” Instead, he plainly lays out what’s going on, with more detail than I’d expect to be privy to. When people ask if a certain class like ninja or red mage is planned for the game, he openly admits they’re looking at those things and they’re in the cards for the future. Combine all this with the fact that he actually plays MMORPGs and knows what works and what doesn’t means you have an intensely passionate development team that strives to build nothing but the best. It’s a passion that comes through in his posts, his launch day speech, and, most importantly, in the game itself.
So let’s talk about that game, shall we?
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a game that shouldn’t exist. It’s easy to throw out the term “unprecedented” when discussing the game, but it’s an apt description. One of our editors — reviewer and Rhythm Encounter co-host Derek Heemsbergen — has referred to this new take on Eorzea as “unrecognizable” compared to the bland landscapes and gameplay of the original game. The world is bursting with personality at every turn. It’s gorgeous, which goes without saying. The art style and graphical fidelity combine to deliver one of the most stunningly beautiful games I’ve ever seen. It’s not simply a matter of looking nice, but the sheer amount of things to see still surprises me. The rate at which I simply stop and stare at something is incredible. The telescope and books scattered about a hidden-away cabin in the mountains tell a story of the person that lives (lived?) there, even though there’s nobody to talk to. The little waterfall oasis I didn’t expect around that corner. The faceted reflective surface of each town’s aetheryte crystals. The fact that, like reality, and unlike virtually every movie and fictional rendition of stormy weather, you hear thunder after you see lightning, as light and sound travel at different speeds. There are so many examples of this incredible attention to detail, I could write an entire journal entry about these things. The point is, these people worked incredibly hard to build a world you would be interested in simply exploring, and details like this help them succeed.
While I’m not going to get in-depth (because I know of two people who will write future entries and love talking music), one thing I will comment on is the music: It’s stellar. It’s so wonderful I really have to stop myself from gushing for paragraphs. The main town music is unique to each city-state, and these are some of the most lovely tracks in the game. The main battle theme is consistent across the game, but each main zone has its own variation. Some of the boss and FATE music tracks are simply epic. And I use “epic” in the real sense of the word, not the way you kids abuse it by using it as a replacement for “cool.” Anyway, whenever A Realm Reborn sees a soundtrack release that one can purchase, I will be all over that, and you should be too.
Of course, even a richly detailed world wouldn’t keep you coming back if there weren’t plenty of things to do. Thankfully, the developers covered their bases here too. Unlike what you may expect, progression in A Realm Reborn is not the quest-dungeon-quest-dungeon format of a typical MMORPG. Yes, there are plenty of quests, but there’s much more as well. There are four main types of quests, or duties, as they’re called: Story quests, side quests, class/job quests, and leves. Characters offering story quests have a distinct marker above their heads to make it clear that doing these quests progresses the story. Side quests are what you expect: Optional duties that offer additional EXP, gil, and other rewards. Class-based questlines differ depending on your character class (imagine that). Each class has its own guild and guildmaster, and they provide training in the form of specialized quests, each of which has its own storyline and progression. Rewards range from equipment tailored to that class to new abilities you’ll only learn by succeeding in your mission.
Leves are, in essence, repeatable duties to level up your character. Different quests are offered every 5 levels with increased rewards, and can be repeated as long as you have allowances to undertake more. You earn additional allowances just by playing, at a rate of 3 per 12 hours. Leves come in three varieties. Battlecraft leves are combat-centric and task you with defeating certain enemies (sometimes under special conditions) within a set time limit. Battlecraft leves, of course, must be completed on a combat class. Tradecraft leves are tasks for Disciples of the Hand, or crafting classes, such as goldsmith, weaver, and carpenter. These leves forgo a time limit and ask you to craft specific items. Fieldcraft leves, meanwhile, are built for the gathering classes and require you to deliver a set number of gathered flora, minerals, or fish. Finally, there are guildhests, which are similar to battlecraft leves, but must be completed by a party of four.
What all of these quest types mean is that, even under the “questing” banner, there are several ways to progress and level up, and dabbling in them all keeps things from feeling stale. But there’s one especially accessible experience earner, and it’s my personal favorite: FATEs.
The FATE system — short for Full Active Time Event — surprised me with how fun it is. Live battle events that appear at various locations in the world, FATEs allow anyone in the area — without the prerequisites of building a party or having a specific quest — to jump in and participate. They can be as simple as defeating a single powerful enemy, or as intimidating as facing a horde of dozens. Sometimes you must protect an NPC from one point to another. Some of the best are the episodic FATEs that, upon successful completion, lead directly into multiple tiers of battle, each with its own goal, battle music, and progressively-better rewards. Generally, the rewards are EXP, gil, and, later, Company Seals, although some FATEs present you with items such as minions (pets). Along with being a ton of fun, many FATEs offer exceedingly great EXP upon completion, so when you see an active FATE on the map, it’s in your best interest to partake. I believe Guild Wars 2 and Defiance have similar systems, so while the concept may have started elsewhere, I’m glad it exists in FFXIV, as it makes the world much more dynamic and interesting to traverse.
The idea of borrowing ideas from other games is an important one when discussing A Realm Reborn. You know that game you and your friends create in your collective minds? Whether it was when you were young, or you still do it now, it’s the same idea: You hash out the details of your ideal game. You say, “If someone could combine this element from Game X, this one from Game Y, and this system from Game Z, it would be the best game ever.” It’s too early to give A Realm Reborn with a Best Game Ever award, but it’s apparent that this is the method the developers used. It’s also why there are so many references to previous Final Fantasy games. There are music cues from Final Fantasy II, and the villainous Empire and its Magitek technology makes the FFVI fan inside of me sing. While it differs visually, the beach resort in La Noscea is named Costa Del Sol, and there’s talk of a Gold Saucer-like area coming in the future. It’s the best kind of fan service: Enough that it brings a smile to your face, but not so much that it feels like the whole game is built around it. Even the materia system doesn’t shy away from being an FFVII reference, but it fits perfectly in this world, so it doesn’t come across as obnoxious.
Now that you have an idea of how to progress your character, let’s discuss what kind of character that can be. As an online game, it’s important to have plenty of options to customize your character’s appearance, and FFXIV is no slouch in this area. There’s a wealth of expected options, though I especially appreciate detailed choices like choosing both a main and highlight color for your hair, or the option to have two different eye colors. Yes, you can model your Eorzean explorer after Yuna. The ability to preview your character in multiple armor styles, poses, and against various backgrounds are nice touches as well.
All of these stylistic options vary depending on your character’s race, although race has no bearing on the story or class availability. There are five to choose from, and bear more than a resemblance to those of Final Fantasy XI: Regular humans are now known as Hyur versus Humes. Prefer Elvaans? Now you have Elezen. The tiny and adorable Tarutaru make way for the equally tiny but more adorable Lalafell. Where XI’s cat-like Mithra had to be a female, XIV’s Miqo’te can be male or female. Finally, the bulky Roegadyn are XIV’s Galka race.
So what can you be? There are 19 different character classes, although your starting class falls under either the Disciple of War or Disciple of Magic banner. Disciples of War are the sword-wielding Gladiator, hand-to-hand specialist Puglist, the vicious Marauder, spear expert Lancer, and Archer. I’ll let you guess their weapon of choice. Fans of magic can start as a Conjurer, who focuses on healing magic and nature-based attack spells, or the Thaumaturge, who wields purely offensive magic such as fire and ice. An Arcanist has more support-like and AOE magic, both offensive and defensive, and can summon a Carbuncle companion in battle. All of these classes branch off — depending on which ones you level — into “jobs,” which is where the familiar FF jobs such as White Mage, Dragoon, and Paladin come in. To train your character in one of these jobs, you must level two specific classes to a certain point. For example, as the Paladin has high defensive and protective capabilities, you would level your tank-like Gladiator to 30 and cure-wielding Conjurer to 15. Because FFXIV allows you to change classes in literally a few clicks — your active class is based on your equipped weapon — it’s easy to switch between them and try new things to find out what you enjoy most. In the future, more classes will be added to the mix, so the possibilities are endless. If FFXI’s addition of classes is any indication, there’s a lot to look forward to.
Then there are the crafting and gathering classes. Crafting is covered by eight classes, or Disciples of the Hand: Carpenter, Goldsmith, Blacksmith, Weaver, Leatherworker, Culinarian, Alchemist, and Armorer. Crafting classes play differently from core classes, but still level up and learn new abilities to craft ever-better items and equipment. Using materials gathered either by a gathering class, purchased in stores, or dropped from enemies, each of these classes produces things that actually matter, be it weapons for your comrades, or even objects used by other crafters. So if you’re playing with a group of people, it’s to everyone’s benefit if your group practices a diverse range of classes. As you gain experience, crafters are also integral to one other game system: Materia.
Similar to FFVII’s support-based materia, the better equipment in FFXIV features slots for these enhancing gems. At a certain point, anyone can convert equipment into materia, but only crafters can install the gems into gear. Benefits and abilities enhanced vary depending on the materia type used. This allows for highly customizable gear based on your character class, such as increasing magic power for a Black Mage, or increasing your parry ability as a Paladin. I haven’t reached the point where I’m slotting materia yet, but leveling both Carpenter and Goldsmith has proven enjoyable. All of us in The Emerald Shield frequently discuss how crafting is way more fun than it has any right to be. After being accustomed to crafting existing as a completely optional and limited activity in other games, I’m quite impressed with how fleshed out these classes are. The depth, progression, and sense of accomplishment involved means it can actually be enjoyable to mill 20 pieces of lumber. And it shouldn’t be. It just shouldn’t. But somehow, like everything else in this game, crafting defies expectations by being both addictive and fun.
Gathering is covered by a smaller subset of classes: Botanist, Miner, and Fisher. The first two collect material used by many of the crafting classes, while the Fisher mostly benefits the Culinarian. Again, each of these classes has levels to gain and skills to learn, and more care put into them than I expected. Fisher is especially impressive, featuring a full fishing log, complete with maps of discovered fishing locations, fishing records, and a journal listing every type of fish caught. Being accustomed to the fishing of World of Warcraft, I wasn’t expecting to actually have fun fishing, or to be as engrossed with it as I am so far.
Combat is one of the last things I’ll mention. My goal to play a Paladin means most of my time in Eorzea has been spent on my Gladiator, so I’ll talk a bit about melee combat and leave the magic discussion to other editors. You probably have an idea of how MMO combat works: Target your enemy to initiate standard auto-attacks and add special attacks and abilities into the mix as needed. The Gladiator, and all melee classes to my knowledge, features a combo system with these abilities. Your first ability is Fast Blade, a quick attack more potent than auto-attacks. Abilities have cooldowns, however, so you must time their use wisely. As you progress and learn new abilities, some of them tie into earlier ones. At level 4, Gladiator learns Savage Blade, an attack which is less powerful than Fast Blade, unless used in succession. Landing the lower-level ability highlights the next step in a combo, signifying that its power will be enhanced if used next. In the case of Gladiator, Savage Blade is twice as strong when used this way. Not only that, but as you progress, further combo-enhanced abilities even have bonus affects that only occur when used this way. The level 26 Rage of Halone, for instance, is 2.6x as powerful in a combo, and also reduces your enemy’s strength by 5% for 20 seconds. Learning to properly execute combos makes you a much more effective party member. Combat itself is fluid, stylish, quick, and the most fun I’ve had with any MMO combat thus far.
So ends my first entry. I know there’s quite a bit I didn’t cover, such as the story, dungeons, chocobo battle companions, music, and more, but that’s what further entries are for. So far, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has exceeded or shattered all of my expectations, and I simply could not be happier with it as a result. And this is only the beginning.