Final Fantasy XIV had a single but imposing task when it debuted in 2010: translate the atmosphere and lore of Final Fantasy to the MMORPG genre on PC. It’s a job that required an understanding of the MMOG – its intricate systems and reasons for its appeal – combined with a keen eye for what makes Square Enix’s rich fantasy worlds feel unique and, despite their canonical disparity, universal.
Nine months, a critical drubbing and a revolted, revolting fanbase later, FFXIV had failed. The interfaces were cluttered and confusing, and much of the limited, charmless gameworld felt like placeholder. Combat, at odds with the characters’ dynamic movement, was sluggish and laborious. It felt unfinished, a work in progress undeserving of a brand name built on polish. And while the MMORPG is a genre frequently iterated upon, rebalanced and expanded through patches and content updates, Square Enix opted to do something entirely different: it shut it down. In the time since the blackout, it has remixed the development team – the resignation of its original director making way for company veteran Naoki Yoshida – and incubated the game behind closed doors in a bid to right the manifold wrongs of its first attempt.
Opening the doors again for public beta testing must have been a nervous moment for the team, but news that FFXIV has had over a million sign-ups is encouraging. It’s also unsurprising: the game has become a legend of game development hell, known as a titanic misfire in a series for which failure – in terms of sales and popularity, if not always critical response – has never been an option. Many of FFXIV’s newest recruits are perhaps only there to see what all the fuss was about. The wealth of early sign-ups will also be down to Square Enix finally targeting two platforms, with PC and PS3 players sharing the same servers and in-game space (so troubled was the game’s original launch that a promised PS3 beta never saw the light of day). With the added challenge of delivering an experience that can cater to two different audiences, it would be hard to dispute the ambition and determination of this second attempt.
On the evidence of our first few hours in the refreshed world of Eorzea, it looks like the new creative team has got the job done. Many of the major core complaints about FFXIV have been addressed. The world feels richer and more identifiably a part of the Final Fantasy mythology (complete with rentable Chocobos), the combat is quicker and more lively thanks to some stellar character models and animation (the engine has been massively overhauled), and the world map has been expanded to encompass a greater spread of locales packed with quests, characters and opportunity.
There’s actually a little too much opportunity at first, as you naively amass a quest log too big to tackle – which also draws attention to the game’s current major failing, its map system. Although the combat, item and inventory menus are simple and easy to use (crucial for players who are wielding a DualShock), navigating the map can be a tricky business as you memorise key areas, head for quest objectives and get sidetracked by Fate events – random, area-specific activities that pop up to encourage you to rack up some quick and easy XP by, for example, slaying a marauding magician. There’s a minimap displaying a range of local objectives and a main map intended to help you find your way to towns. However, the two maps feel detached from each other, and you’ll fumble around a great deal trying to figure out which way you should be sprinting to make your next rendezvous or slay your next pack of rogue Anole raptor-things.
It ties in to the more general issue – particularly for MMORPG virgins – of the steep learning curve. Following an expectedly gorgeous CGI intro and brief expository cutscene, you’re dropped straight into Eorzea a little too coldly. There are a few early tutorial-style fetch quests to teach you the ropes of emotes and inventory management, but it’s a world that may have taken its openness a little too literally for newcomers. With the servers bursting at the seams, it can be even more difficult to find a comfort zone as you explore, taking in the game’s vast assortment of ideas and activities, from crafting systems to markets.
Square Enix seems to have corrected the fundamental mistakes of FFXIV’s first disastrous strike, but it won’t be an easy ride for a publisher known for setting high (and perhaps unrealistic) sales targets for core IPs like Tomb Raider and Sleeping Dogs. The MMORPG can take a long time to prove successful, popular and fruitful. It’s a genre that’s made by its community as much as its creative direction, and with Square Enix uniting two separate audiences – each versed to different degrees in this niche genre – it’s uncertain whether the experiment will prove to be a hotbed of positive social gaming or a conflicted, hostile world of two tribes: the keyboard-haves and the have-nots.