This has been a difficult review to get together. For all the good that Patch 3.1 brought, there were two roadblocks in my time with Final Fantasy XIV between 3.0 and 3.1. When this long-awaited first major patch landed in early November, my days of adventuring were eventful, though said adventures slowed to a slightly more casual pace since 3.0’s June release. While five months isn’t a long wait for a huge content injection, Final Fantasy XIV players got spoiled, used to having about 3 months between patches, so those “extra” 2 months were definitely felt by October.
My other impasse was a static raid team that slowly fell apart. This isn’t unheard of in online gaming, nor was it my first time in the territory. Some group members moved elsewhere, and sadly, some left FFXIV entirely for the time being, with only three of our group of eight remaining. While the fallout meant I had plenty of time for Xenoblade Chronicles X, it all but killed my FFXIV spirit.
Thankfully, Patch 3.1 featured the usual laundry list of fun and exciting new content: Not only did we get the expected new dungeons, story content, and quality of life adjustments, but an all-new 24-man dungeon and two completely new gameplay elements were also introduced.
As Goes Light
Those dungeons are great additions: The Hard version of the Pharos Sirius lighthouse takes us on a new path wrought with goblins and bombs. Backed by an updated version of A Light in the Storm, the hauntingly gorgeous theme that replaced the standard dungeon music in regular ol’ Pharos, the dungeon offers both cool scenery, and nods to enemies from both Final Fantasy IV (Mom Bomb!), and Final Fantasy Tactics’ Worker 8.
The all-new dungeon, Saint Mocianne’s Arboretum, has players venture into an abandoned Sharlayan structure that has been completely taken over by plant life. This makes for some simply beautiful backdrops, and also serves to dictate the nature of the insectoid and botanical beasts inside. The final boss features more distinct battle mechanics than most non-raid bosses prior to this patch, so while experienced players won’t have trouble, he/she/it requires some amount of actual strategy, lest you wind up afflicted by a host of status effects. All the bosses in the Arboretum are fun, though nothing is nearly as amusing/deadly as the mega-sized Malboro’s “Extremely Bad Breath” attack, which spews constant purple gas at you.
Final Fantasy XIV’s 24-man content somehow manages to be both welcome and divisive, though how much of each depends on both your own mindset and the folks you play with. If you surround yourself with elitist raiders, the Crystal Tower trilogy from 2.x often elicits eyerolls, due to the content not being as difficult as the 8-man raids. Thankfully, not everything caters only to the elite, and the 24-man content gives players a larger scale dungeon that doesn’t require weeks of practice. In Heavensward, we get a fresh start in 24-man content, and this time around the theme is unique to FFXIV. While I loved the Final Fantasy III-themed raids (the World of Darkness is still amazing), I’m happy to see something truly new with the deathly-looking Void Ark airship.
The supporting cast of this new adventure — a fascinating and enjoyable band of sky pirates — are off to a great start. There’s certainly more to come with this group and the rival pirates in future updates, but right now, I get more than a few Skies of Arcadia feels by hanging out with them, and I’m more than okay with that. This is one of XIV’s strong suits: New dungeons don’t just appear on a series of menus you have to click through; rather there are entire stories and characters built around them. Everything has a reason for being.
Once aboard the Ark, we see a slightly different, and welcomed, take on large-scale battles: While some conflicts involve 24 people dealing damage to a big ugly beastie, the three 8-man groups get to split up and coordinate a bit more than in past content. While this can lead to frustration if a group isn’t pulling their weight, it’s more fun than not, and the final two bosses require everyone to really pull it together. Some people have wanted this 24-man content to echo FFVI’s Phoenix Cave, where each team is doing something completely different to allow all parties to progress. We’re not there yet on a large scale, but individual segments and bosses sometimes do this, so it would be neat to see this expanded upon in the future. Still, what’s here now is enjoyable, it’s gorgeous, it’s purple, and the final boss is all sorts of fun.
And while Void Ark caters to all players, 3.1 still brings something for the hardcore crowd, with the Extreme mode of Thordan, the final boss from the 3.0 storyline. Unfortunately for me, my team dissolved by the time this came about, so I’ve seen the fight more in videos than first-hand, but it’s an intense battle with more mechanics than you can even imagine. Some of the best players I know struggled with it for a while before clearing it, so the name of the game is practice, practice, get more gear, practice. I hope to corral people together during 3.2 and take it on myself, because even the normal version of the fight is amazing to witness.
So Goes New Content
Patch 3.1 introduced two things completely new to Final Fantasy XIV: exploratory missions and Lord of Verminion. Since 3.0, Free Companies have been able to build their own airships to send out for experience and unique items. Now, those same airships can be used to travel to a giant new area, The Diadem, with up to 24 players in three 8-man groups or one giant alliance to seek spoils and more. Like Void Ark, Diadem’s major pitfall stems simply from the fact that sometimes you get paired with less than enjoyable company. Push past that though, and you have a new area to explore with some unique creatures to battle and random, potentially great treasures to discover.
One of the most interesting things about these missions is your freedom of choice: Unlike other instanced content, you aren’t locked into your initial class. This means that you can switch at will from a tank, to healer, or damage-dealer. You can even break off from the group as a gathering class to procure materials that are either unique to Diadem or otherwise rare to further your own (or your Free Company’s) crafting efforts. Never before has there been content in which a Warrior and Botanist can venture forth together. As a completely new feature, exploratory missions have been tweaked a lot since their introduction, and will continue to be in future updates. I think there’s immense potential here though, and that’s why I look forward to seeing where Yoshi-P and team take this idea.
Lord of Verminion is an all-new attraction in the Manderville Gold Saucer. This strategic mini-game earned a whole new wing in the FFVII-themed gaming paradise, and has you building an army of your collected minions (essentially pets) to pit against other players. Every minion in the game has its own stats and abilities, and the adorable creatures are grouped into rock-paper-scissors-style types, where each type is strong against — and weak to — another type. As much as the Pokémon-like feeling of sending adorable creatures to their deaths sounds good to me, the tower defense genre isn’t one I typically gravitate towards. That said, the depth and potential strategy means that if you are a fan of tower defense games with a bit of Pokémon flavor, Lord of Verminion might be right up your alley. Though my friends who play with a game pad say LoV is not very controller-friendly, so enter with caution.
In each of A Realm Reborn’s major patches, there was a sizable portion of new story content. In comparison, 3.1’s story feels anemic. However, some key new characters are introduced, and some promising future developments are hinted at. So even if the story isn’t the star of 3.1, what’s here will prove to be an important stepping stone. The subsequent 3.15 patch added an interesting side story, which deals in part with the aftermath of 3.0’s ending. I won’t spoil the details, but while the day was saved, so began a rough transition for Ishgard’s people. The 3.15 content focuses on the students of Ishgard’s Scholasticate, and how various classes of the city’s citizens are dealing with the challenges to their long-held beliefs.
The various beast tribes of Eorzea fulfill Final Fantasy XIV’s MMO requirement of offering repeatable daily quests. But the missions for the bipedal birds known as the Vanu Vanu are a little different from what came before. Like our most recent beast tribe, the Ixal (also bipedal birds, hm…), progressing through the story of these quests will see the Vanu’s humble settlement grow and evolve over time, adding a sense of progression and satisfaction to your quests. More important is the key change in gameplay: Instead of having to gradually accept quests from different Vanu as your level increases, quest difficulty and rewards now scale with your level. Not only does this mean you have a greater variety of quests at any given time, it also means any objective can be completed at any level after 50. On top of that, the EXP rewards are sizable. As such, these quests are incredibly helpful in leveling your character. Both the variety and new objectives keep things fresher longer. Like Big Red gum.
Patch 3.1 brought with it the usual slew of quality of life adjustments, which are all varying degrees of helpful, but I’ll highlight my two favorites here: The search capabilities added to crafting and gathering logs have been a godsend, and with new materials and recipes being added all the time, this is only going to be more important in the future. For battle changes, I think the most helpful “small” change is a range indicator on the party list display, in which party members outside of your target range have dimmed nameplates, an immensely helpful change for healers.
Another interesting pair of updates are aimed at those of us who love taking interesting screenshots. The idling camera is best described in the patch notes, as “a fixed-point camera which cycles randomly through the vantage points of other characters and NPCs in the vicinity of the player character.” It essentially can turn your local area into a screensaver, cycling through various viewpoints, and with the added depth of field (in which background objects are blurred in the distance), the visuals are more cinematic as a result. The first screenshot in this review shows the idling camera in action. For those of us who want to take fun screens with friends, it’s long been common to try and synchronize typing “/pose” with one another to get a great shot. Now, the new “/grouppose” will auto-sync your poses with friends, making for the perfect photo op. Both of these features are expanded upon in Patch 3.2, signaling that they are not mere afterthoughts.
So Goes Darkness
I rarely attempt the quests to earn the class-specific, legendary relic weapon upgrades that accompany every other patch. At least, not when they’re new — I wait for future updates when the requirements are eased, because I value my free time. The Zodiac Weapon tier was one such quest that was too grindy for me, so I was glad that — since these weapons are no longer cutting edge (har har) — the more tedious portions of the quests are now easier to complete. The same easing applies to once top-of-the-line tools for crafters/gatherers, making it faster to work up to the new high-end stuff.
Meanwhile, an all-new tier of relic weapons has begun: Anima Weapons. While you can do a combination of different duties to get the materials you need, one look at the numbers/time involved in completing this stuff right now earns a hearty “eff that” from me, since I simply refuse to commit that much time to earning something that will only briefly be top of the line. I know it’s meant to be long-term (despite the efforts of some players I know), but purely casual efforts towards earning Anima Weapons seem to be in vain — the astronomical requirements mean you’d have to make at least somewhat of an effort if you plan to earn them before they’re outdated in three months.
Here’s to the Crazy Ones
If, like me, you were excited to purchase the Mac OS X client for Heavensward — released day-and-date with the PC, PS4, and PS3 versions — you know full well the pain that came with this choice. To say the initial release of the Mac version was simply “bad” is an understatement: A massive thread quickly filled with stories of horrible performance, even on high-end systems that ran the game perfectly under Windows (such as my own). The use of the TransGaming middleware wasn’t a surprise: Developing a fully-native OS X client for a comparatively-small market wouldn’t have made the most financial sense. But the shoddy result was a game that was so broken and unplayable, Mac sales were suspended as the development team offered explanations for the performance and promised future fixes.
I’m under no illusions that OS X is, or should be, as important a gaming platform as Windows. I know it’s not a platform most companies prioritize, but it is my general platform of choice, and I knew my hardware could handle it based on my Windows experience. At the very least, no company should pledge to expand to a new platform and deliver software so hilariously broken that it’s unplayable. Because unlike Blizzard’s single-license system, playing Final Fantasy XIV on multiple platforms requires a separate $60 purchase. Were it not for the fact that I had to pay for the honor of a useless client, my reaction would have been more like “well, that’s a shame, so I guess it’s back to Windows.” I never requested a refund despite it being offered — I didn’t want my money back anywhere near as much as I wanted a working client.
While it didn’t coincide with the 3.1 and 3.15 releases, a quiet Mac client update was released in early December. Between July and December, the once unplayable client was marginally improved: Game-breaking glitches slowly went away, and frame rates, while not on par with results under Windows, were at least bearable for “lighter” duties (though you wouldn’t have wanted to run any intense battles). This December update came out completely unnoticed by me, as I’d long since resigned myself to booting into Windows to play. I discovered it sometime in January, and the small five-point list of changes didn’t seem very extensive. The fine print contained the details, though: Most Mac users had to download and reinstall the client. A 23GB download was certainly one to start overnight or while watching a movie, but something told me it was worth the effort.
That seemingly innocuous note that read “[a]n issue wherein performance improvements were not being properly applied” didn’t specify the depth it was conveying. But the mere fact that I had to reinstall completely led me to believe there were some serious low-level problems with the previous software. Reading that note after the fact tells me that the Mac client was likely in a better state following some minor fall updates than I (or most Mac users) knew. But since the software wasn’t able to apply these updates, the game didn’t seem to function any better.
The tl;dr of all this? While my Mac misses being listed on the newly published minimum requirements by a single model year, I often now see performance that’s almost on par with running under Windows. In fact, on several occasions, I’ve seen even better performance than on Windows. I still get some stuttering in really crowded areas, but given that the game still runs via middleware, I didn’t expect 100% identical results to Windows. Still, it’s a near-180° turnaround from what we had in June, and I’m more than happy to be able to play without having to completely shut down all my other apps/work to boot into Windows. Once again, my endless fount of faith in Yoshi-P has paid off. There are plenty of hardworking people in the game industry, but not all of them are as intensely dedicated to making things right in the eyes of the players as he and his team are, and we’re all better off for it.
A Tribute to Vana’diel
I don’t usually discuss limited-time events in these journals, as fun as they tend to be. But there was one special event that played out through November and December that I’d be remiss not to mention: The Maiden’s Rhapsody crossover event with Final Fantasy XI. The story of Square Enix’s first MMORPG finally drew to a close this fall with the Rhapsodies of Vana’diel update, and the lead character of that story, Iroha, was the star of FFXIV’s special event. In it, we accompanied Iroha as she sought to determine how she ended up in Eorzea and how she could return home. The results were a heartfelt retrospective on FFXIV’s predecessor, and our own set of Iroha’s samurai-esque armor. Sadly, this content is no longer available, so if you missed it and want to see how Final Fantasy XIV honored FFXI’s fourteen-year run, I encourage you to watch the events yourself:
As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness came at an awkward time for me, when my interest in Final Fantasy XIV reached its first low point, though for reasons largely unrelated to the content itself. As I’m wrapping up this review after already having played Patch 3.2, I can definitely say that 3.1 was focused on getting the ball rolling on new content. New directions in both the main scenario and key side stories, new types of gameplay, and the reintroduction of ever more familiar faces to the cast tells me that 3.1 will be looked back on as the start of some really interesting things to come. There’s more to do in Eorzea than ever before, with new gameplay that caters to all types of players.
I just need to find myself some new team members to get back on the chocobo myself.