Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn – 12. Review Journal Book XII

 

Review by · May 31, 2015

Well, here we are. As we stand ready for a new chapter in Final Fantasy XIV’s storied history, so too do the people of its world of Eorzea stand on a precipice of major change. The final major content patch of the reimagined Final Fantasy XIV, A Realm Reborn, brought about several refinements to the gameplay, new areas, battles, dungeons, higher than ever goals for crafter and gatherer classes to strive for, and most importantly, more plot and character developments than I was ready for. For me, the story was the star of the show when it comes to Patch 2.5, which is something I never expected to say when describing an MMORPG. But before we get to that, let’s talk about new content. The FFXIV development team wanted to put so much into A Realm Reborn’s final patch that it was released in three pieces. January started the ball rolling with Patch 2.5 – Before the Fall, Part I. The biggest of the three parts, it laid the groundwork for what was to come, and set a bittersweet tone that things were about to drastically change for our heroes.

The 24-player Crystal Tower raids began in December 2013 with the Labyrinth of the Ancients. Just like the game this dungeon was inspired by (Final Fantasy III), we traversed this labyrinth of boss battles before we could even access the tower itself. The tower – Syrcus Tower, it was named – came our way in July of 2014. As visually interesting as the labyrinth was, the crystalline tower was a sight to behold. ST pitted us against several key bosses of FFIII including Emperor Xande himself, in a grand (if pretty easy) battle atop the spire. Fast forward to January 2015, and we follow our heroes through the dark portal that remained in Xande’s wake that certainly does not at all look like a body part you wouldn’t be able to see in a PG-13 movie (I’d love to know if this was intentional or not by the artists). Er, but anyway, the long-running “Crystal Tower” arc comes to a close here, in The World of Darkness. Story-wise, WoD gave us a satisfying (if surprisingly somber) close to this side story that starred Cid, the mysterious G’raha Tia, and FFIII cameo characters Unei and Doga. The dungeon itself is simply gorgeous: It’s so very different from what’s come before, and is a fascinating combination of pure darkness accented by highly-saturated color. I adore all of XIV’s design and art direction, but these these raids are second only to The Binding Coil(s) of Bahamut in terms of the amount of times I want to stop and take a screen shot. The bosses are straight from FFIII’s ending sequence, although their designs here are far more interesting and ornate. The music, FFIII tunes with new arrangements, is just wonderful. The final boss in particular features a stunning arrangement of the Cloud of Darkness battle theme, managing to be a rousing battle anthem while remaining sinister in tone.

The most interesting part of The World of Darkness is the challenge. Now, if you’re a hardcore raider, don’t laugh, and hear me out. The challenge of WoD is nowhere near Coil difficulty. But there’s no doubt the developers greatly ramped up the requirements from the first two tiers of the saga. The first boss in here – the flashy and freakish Ahriman, Angra Mainyu – is a sign of what’s to come, by offering more complex mechanics than casual players were used to. It’s not that these mechanics are hard to grasp, it’s that if a sizable portion of your 24-player base don’t understand them, you’re going to fail. It means that people who want to clear the dungeon can’t coast like they’re used to in the previous Tower raids. The result is a series of battles that are fun and keep you on your toes, and offer enough new battle mechanics to feel different from what’s come before. That the rewards are high-level equipment featuring some of the coolest armor designs yet just makes it all the better.

Other battle content includes our usual dungeon trio – two new “Hard Mode” dungeons and one that’s all-new. When A Realm Reborn was launched and started this new era of a functional FFXIV, there were a couple endgame challenges, and a scant two dungeons built for level 50 players (there are now 17, for those keeping track). That we would close the 2.x series with Hard Mode versions of Wanderer’s Palace and Amdapor Keep just seems fitting. As usual, both dungeons are enjoyable – even if certain bosses seem to take too long to die – and thankfully offer very different scenery for those of us who used to play through the originals ad nauseum.

The Keeper of the Lake is where things get fun, though. If you’ve played through enough of the main story, you know there’s a flashback scene showing the Garlean Empire losing its massive Agrias airship to dragon Midgardsormr. In a lake in Mor Dhona, the dragon’s carcass remains entwined in the wreckage of the airship. Now, with the Dravanian army making a move against Ishgard and the people of Eorzea, we learn that Midgardsormr has not been dead all this time, but really, really lazy. Or hibernating. Whatever. This wrecked ship becomes the latest dungeon, filled with dragons and Garlean soldiers that really need to move on with their lives. The end of the dungeon features a battle with this dragon king, who offers up some surprising revelations about his role, and how it’s key to what’s going on in Eorzea as a whole. Most any lover of fantasy likely has some fascination with dragons, I think. For me, while battling a deadly dragon is fun, making this larger-than-life creature an actual, speaking character in the story with a vital role to play is infinitely more fascinating.

This invasion scenario came to a head in Before the Fall, Part II, aka Patch 2.55, in late March. As the story leads us to the snowy lands of Ishgard, our Warriors of Light are tasked with preventing a subset of the Dravanian army from marching right into the front doors of the city-state. This, of course, means an 8-player Trial, The Steps of Faith. Similar to The World of Darkness, and Patch 2.5’s Chrysalis battle, this challenge requires a bit more coordination than many past battles. This seems to be a theme across 2.5 – giving players slightly more challenging content to hone their skills.

There is one drawback to this story-based event, in that you’re likely to see new players in the fight versus those with experience, as there’s no actual reward beyond advancing the story. I’m not one who thinks every event in a game needs to offer a reward, but I feel offering some kind of incentive would encourage people to play it more than once. This would help the growing player base in learning the battle, by giving them a higher chance to be grouped with someone who knows the fight. Both Chrysalis and Steps of Faith are interesting trials, pitting us against unique opposition in unique arenas. That’s the other reason I wish there was reason to replay them, as they deserve to be seen more than once.

Speaking of things we’ve seen more than once, Patch 2.5’s primal battle pits the player against Odin. Odin has shared an interesting distinction with Behemoth since ARR launched in 2013, as the only two real-world FATE boss events. Each only appears every 72 hours or so, and they offer tokens for buying themed equipment, along with unique achievements for defeating such legendary creatures. All throughout A Realm Reborn, we’ve been dealing with primals – creatures that, with one exception, are summoned by those who worship them. The bird-like Ixals pray to the wind primal, Garuda, the desert-dwelling Amal’jaa summon fiery Irfit, and so on. Odin has always been unique in being called a primal, yet one that seemingly appears at will, not at the whims of any worshippers. Finally, in Before the Fall, we get answers as to why that is, along with a new version of Odin to battle. This time Odin is fought like other primals, in a unique arena with special mechanics, requiring eight players to work together to earn victory. Not that there’s anything wrong with the FATE version in which success is earned in throwing countless bodies into the fray, but I prefer this new strategic version. The Odin-themed armor rewards are also an answer to a long- and oft-requested fan request to offer pieces of gear for all classes.

In other parts of Eorzea, the side quests in which the Moogle Mail Postmoogle pawns all his work off on us asks us to help deliver letters continue. These tales always vary in scope and highlight some of the smaller side characters of the world. We have sibling merchants who haven’t spoken in years that we get to reconcile. There’s a businessman in over his head, who might learn there’s more to life than money. And in my favorite of this series, we learn of a dark backstory to Wymond – notable for being the very first person new adventurers meet in Ul’dah.

I mention these quests in most reviews, because I’m really glad they exist. I love that, in a world in which dragons are mounting an invasion, an evil Empire ever looms, and summoned beasts threaten to raze the land, there’s still time for the normal folk to have lives and stories. It makes this world that much richer and intricate, knowing all of these non-playable characters we pass by actually have personalities, lives, and surprising back stories. I don’t know that these will continue in Heavensward, but I really hope they do in some capacity.

The Crystal Tower wasn’t the only thing wrapped up in Patch 2.5, as the ongoing investigations of Hildibrand, self-proclaimed investigator extraordinaire, finally come to a head. For over a year, with each major patch, we’ve seen a new chapter in the bumbling Hildibrand’s investigation as he follows a mysterious thief. Some of these stories have been more interesting than others, and I’d probably argue pretty strongly that the chapter that introduced Gilgamesh was one of the best (and not just because I love Battle on the Big Bridge, but I really do love that song). This final (?) leg of the journey introduces us to some interesting new characters, along with cameo appearances by all of the Hildibrand supporting cast. Not everyone I know is a fan of the guy, and while in general I respect the opinions of others, and my friends, in this case they’re wrong. It’s the same case I make for the importance of the Moogle Delivery stuff: There’s already enough dramatic and serious things going on in Eorzea – death, betrayals of epic proportions, loss, grief – and I feel strongly that these light-hearted elements are needed for balance. A good mix of drama and humor is why I’m so drawn to Joss Whedon’s work on Buffy, Firefly, The Avengers, and so on. Not that I’d put the writing or interactions of Hildibrand on that level – indeed, he’s the Inspector Gadget of Eorzea – but I think there’s both room and a necessity for his light-hearted antics. I think the developers did a great job here in wrapping the story up nicely, and providing a needed reprieve from the battles we so often engage in.

I mean, yes, the story did end with a cool new battle against Gilgamesh, so there is that. But he also offers a tiny green chicken minion as a battle reward, so there’s still some level of silliness at play.

Producer Naoki Yoshida recently discussed his goals for crafting and gathering classes in Heavensward, and a driving force behind progressing in those classes is basically “make the process less obnoxious.” In the past few patches, new tiers have been added to all of these disciples, and especially for crafters, sometimes getting to that next tier is way harder than it needs to be. Each time, there’s new recipes, but you have zero chance of being able to craft those recipes without a new tool, or gear, which then needs to be outfitted with expensive materia to have any hope of progression. The developers’ future plans are notable, as Patch 2.5 introduced a new tier of main hand tools for all crafters and gatherers that don’t require anywhere near the frustration level as previous tiers to obtain, and I think it’s a step in the right direction. They take a bit of effort, expertise, and time, but I’d much rather these rewards be based on challenge and skill than frustration and luck. That these tools share a name with Final Fantasy XV’s Kingdom of Lucis, keepers of the world’s only remaining crystal, and home of protagonist Noctis might mean nothing at all. Maybe it’s just a subtle nod towards FFXV, but it’s an interesting nod.

Between the two “main” parts of Patch 2.5 came Patch 2.51, aka The Manderville Gold Saucer patch. Featuring a new Masayoshi Soken arrangement of FFVII’s Gold Saucer theme, similarly-named “Squares,” and a chocobo racing area, it’s nothing shy of a love letter to Final Fantasy VII. The glitzy attraction is even nestled in the hills of the deserts of Thanalan (though there’s no Ruby Weapon roaming around this time). The Gold Saucer has a host of quick little carnival-style games, random group events, and more to participate in. Every activity rewards a special currency called Manderville Gold Saucer Points (MGP), used to purchase goods only available here, such as unique weapons and a gear set modeled after Final Fantasy VI’s gambler, Setzer. The random GATE events vary in their goals – one GATE has you attempting to scale a tiny mountain without falling, while another tasks you with a Simon-like game in which you mimic a series of emotes from bunny-clad Gold Saucer workers. There are also two kinds of lotteries called Cactpots: One daily, that’s akin to a lottery scratcher you’d buy at 7-11, and one weekly that offers a massive reward. And just like in real life, you’ll never win big, but keep dreaming!

The real stars of the show here are Chocobo Racing and Triple Triad. Chocobo Racing has been a long-requested feature from fans, and FFXIV’s version is at least as in-depth as FFVII’s. Once you get yourself a racing chocobo, you enter races to win MGP and level up your feathered friend. Eventually, you can breed chocobos to produce even stronger offspring, and compete in ever-higher tiers of races. The racing is enjoyable, and while your chocobo initially doesn’t respond right away to your input, he’s at least less of a spaz than the nightmarish chocobo event in Final Fantasy X. I haven’t put a ton of time into racing yet, simply because there’s so much else to do, but there seems to be enough depth to keep things interesting.

The Manderville Gold Saucer will also introduce you to Triple Triad, the card battle game from Final Fantasy VIII. Like in its PSone inspiration, you battle NPCs for prizes and a chance to win cards for your deck. Along with challenging several Gold Saucer attendants, several key NPCs around the world will accept your card battle challenge, each with their own play style, card deck, and rewards. And, this being an MMO, you can of course challenge other players. It’s an addicting game, and will certainly continue to be when more and more cards are added in upcoming updates. Certain NPCs play with certain rules in place that alter factors like win conditions, the cards you’re allowed to play, and more. Mastering each rule and having a deck of cards suited to specific opponents is key to victory. It’s just a fun thing to do if you’re standing around with your friends, and I need more challengers so I can get MGP and buy my Blood Sword, so come play with me!

As always, there is a massive amount of smaller ‘Quality of Life’ changes in these patches. These aren’t headlining features, but little touches like being able to hit “wait” on a dungeon queue if you need a moment to prepare is the kind of thing that just improves the day-to-day experience. Being able to instantly send a retainer right back out to repeat a mission has saved me a ton of unneeded clicking, enemy signs displaying on the enmity list is invaluable for large dungeon pulls and raids, and even the fact that dyed gear now displays the dye color is helpful when you’re trying to make your character look just the way you want. And Masayoshi Soken’s arrangement of Terra’s Theme that now plays when you ride a Magitek mount? Magical. On top of these “nice to have” improvements in general, a few accessibility-focused features made their way in too, that make the cursor easier to find by adjusting its size, or by using the “mouse sonar” feature that highlights its position. The point is, there’s something here that will make some aspect(s) of the game just a little better for everyone, and it’s nice that this stuff never gets overlooked for the “headline” content.

Everything I talked about up until now has been great new content, big and small. It’s a typical FFXIV patch in that sense: Several new dungeons, a new raid, adjustments to content, new things for crafters/gatherers, tons of little changes, and more. What makes Patch 2.5 feel like the end of an era though, is the story. There have been several major plot lines introduced since the defeat of the Garlean Empire in 2.0. There’s major political unrest in Ul’dah, there’s the ever-looming threat of the seemingly-immortal Ascians, there’s the dubious financial backings of Alphinaud’s Crystal Braves, there’s Lady Iceheart’s history with Dravania and lingering presence, and more recently, there’s been more and more need for the reclusive nation of Ishgard to finally open its gates and be a part of Eorzea once again. These are events that have been unfolding in varying degrees for over a year across every patch. Now, I won’t claim to have played anywhere near most of the MMORPGs out there. But generally speaking, their storytelling follows a certain tradition, and it’s usually not the tradition of single-player RPGs, with a host of characters and full cutscenes. This is one of the key differentiators in FFXIV for me, and one of the things that keeps me engaged with the game after all this time. The Scions of the Seventh Dawn that our characters associate with have become our closest allies in Eorzea, and over time, some of the only people that can truly be trusted. The Scions respect us for the countless times we’ve laid our lives on the line for the betterment of the world. Even the leaders of the nations of Eorzea acknowledge this, and don’t fall into that video game cliche of treating you like some newbie adventurer after you’ve saved the world countless times. There’s a very strong and deliberate narrative at work. At this point in the story, your character is known realm-wide. Even if someone does have a silly request for you, they’re aware who they’re asking, often apologizing for having you run an errand. My point is that in an MMORPG, content is king, and it needs to be. For people want to pay monthly and continue playing, you need an extraordinary amount of content. Without the backing of the story and the cast, however, none of it would mean anything. Any dungeon could be reduced to “hey, this monster exists and might do something bad, so go in this cave and kill it.” Learning the origins of a nation, or the motivations behind a character’s actions aren’t window dressing, but things that enrich the world. It’s why there’s a main scenario that has continued beyond the original game, and why each playable class has its own story that gives you additional insight into the world. In the real world, there was a need for some great event to happen in Eorzea to explain the transition from the failed FFXIV 1.0 to A Realm Reborn. This resulted in Bahamut scorching the face of the planet, and the Warriors of Light starting anew five years later. There’s a ton of story behind this, though – there are reasons why Bahmut did this, how it happened, and the aftermath. That the reboot of the game is actually a key story event within the world is one of the most fascinating parts of A Realm Reborn to me.

Ishgard has been another area of heavy interest to every FFXIV player, as entry into this fourth nation has been a long time in coming: the city-state was closed off at the launch of Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 in 2010, yet visible in the distance. The plan was to eventually open the land, but Square Enix got sidetracked with the slight inconvenience that their game was no fun to play. With all energies devoted to fixing (and eventually scrapping and rebooting) the game, Ishgard was never seen. Here in 2.0, Ishgard again sat just outside of reach: Seen, but not touched. Everyone knows there’s an expansion coming, and it will open up new lands. The easy route is to offer up a quest quickly explaining that “hey, there’s some trouble, so hop on this airship and go help out.” The hard way is what Yoshi-P and team did instead: Laying the groundwork for why this nation would even allow us to enter, nine months in advance, and let the story unfold naturally. By now, we have contacts from Ishgard who have learned that us “outsiders” aren’t so bad, and that maybe there is something to be gained from an alliance. It makes the concept of an entire nation reversing a massive political stance much more believable, and it took some intense planning far ahead of time to achieve.

The way the events unfold across the two main parts of Before the Fall was more than a little shocking to me. I won’t go into spoilers, but there is some serious sh… stuff that happens. Several of the ongoing plots come to a head, and some story decisions were made that I wasn’t at all ready for. I’m all for a good plot twist, and I was not disappointed in that regard. I thought I knew what was going to happen, and the end result of why our characters would be heading to Ishgard, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Again, no spoilers, but if you’re a fan of TV shows like Lost, that had no problems completely upending their narrative and leaving you wondering what just happened, this is the story for you. The events that transpire change some major relationships in Eorzea, including several regarding your character. And this is where I was reminded of the extents the FFXIV developers go to. After these events, I started talking to random NPCs across the world who would know of what happened. After all, it was some major stuff, so it would be neat if their dialogue with you changed to reflect this. An unrealistic expectation to be sure – who’s even going to run over there and talk to that random guy for no reason after watching the end credits? Sure enough, several characters I interacted with have all-new dialogue following these events. It’s a completely unnecessary thing to do that shows just how committed these people are to building a damn good game.

Just keep taking my money, Square Enix. Take it all, and bring on Heavensward.


Pros

Fantastic art direction, better balance in key content, new content for both casual and hardcore players, the most engaging story yet seen in FFXIV.

Cons

No good reason to replay certain battles means most players are stuck only challenging them with similarly new players.

Bottom Line

Patch 2.5 was built to be both an ending of one era and the beginning of another, and it wholly succeeds in its objectives.

Graphics
N/A
Sound
N/A
Gameplay
N/A
Control
N/A
Story
N/A
Overall Score ~
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Mike Salbato

Mike Salbato

Mike has been with RPGFan nearly since its inception, and in that time has worn a surprising number of hats for someone who doesn't own a hatstand. Today he attempts to balance his Creative Director role with his Editor-in-Chief status. Despite the amount of coffee in his veins, he bleeds emerald green.