There is a formula at work in every MMOG. This is usually thought of from the developer’s perspective: the systems and structures a game uses to funnel a large number of people into a large amount of content and keep them there. The player’s side of the equation is subtler: what type of person do you need to be to settle on one MMOG as opposed to another? Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is one part traditional fantasy MMOG, one part Final Fantasy game. One part console, one part PC. To fit into its formula, you’ll need to fit that pattern as well.
The original Final Fantasy XIV was a crippling disappointment for Square Enix, released unfinished on PC in 2010 and juddering to a halt in 2012. The game’s producer resigned in shame and much of the development team was changed. A Realm Reborn, then, is a sequel as much as it is a relaunch: none of the game’s systems has been left untouched, and all of its areas have been redeveloped. Square Enix took the failure of the game’s initial iteration as an opportunity to bring the world of Eorzea to an apocalyptic and suitably melodramatic close: A Realm Reborn is set five years later, as Eorzea pieces itself back together with the help of a mysterious new wave of adventurers. It’s probably the first time that the developer has turned out an ‘amnesiac protagonist’ storyline because it genuinely wants the player to forget the past.
At character creation you select a race and an initial class, and this determines the city-state that you belong to. In addition, a number of smaller decisions flesh out your character’s backstory and demonstrate the game’s commitment to roleplay, such as your birthday and patron deity. Your race determines some base stats that will be significant to min-maxers, and your city affiliation establishes certain aspects of the main narrative; beyond that – and to the game’s credit – many of these choices can be tinkered with later on.
Switching classes is as simple as swapping out the weapon in your main hand, and after reaching level ten you can pick up as many classes as you wish. You have a distinct level for each and this acts as a way of keeping lower-level content relevant as you progress: over time, you’ll likely play through each of the three starting zones with a different profession. At lower levels, a limited mixing and matching of skills provides a degree of role customisation – the sword-and-board-wielding Guardian, for example, might pick up a healing spell from the Conjuror class. Later, these combinations develop into full-blown advanced classes: a Guardian plus a Conjuror is a Paladin; a Thaumaturge plus an Archer is a Black Mage. There is a basic satisfaction in having this many boxes to tick, and so much freedom to change playstyles on the fly.
Control with a gamepad is fiddly but viable and provides A Realm Reborn with a novel tactility, particularly on PC. Levelling with a pad changes the tone of the game: it feels fresher than its rote content would otherwise suggest. Mission design rarely strays beyond kill lists and fetch quests, but is lifted by the fluidity with which the player is given things to do. When you log in, you’re presented with a list of things you might wish to try in your local area, and in addition to regular quests there are Fates (open-world public quests), Levemetes (timed singleplayer challenges with scaling rewards), Guildhests (instanced group versions of the same) and a decent selection of dungeons.
It’s a beautifully designed world, despite a few rough-textured interior environments. Landscapes stand out in particular, their pushed-back draw distances creating a deceptive sense of scale. Striking environmental lighting elevates FFXIV above what we’ve come to expect from an MMOG, and the inclusion of series music and sound effects will raise a smile from a particularly devoted sector of the target audience.
A Realm Reborn adroitly checks the other boxes you might expect: Chocobo mounts, an involved crafting system, pets. The first major update to the game, due within three months of release, will add housing. The game’s launch has not been entirely smooth, however: maxed-out servers required the suspension of digital sales, and the queues for logging in can make the game unplayable at peak times. Given the need for this game to succeed out of the blocks, it’s disappointing that Square Enix hasn’t ensured sufficient server capacity to support the predictable rush of interest at launch.
Final Fantasy XIV’s shine wears off as your level increases. The responsibility that comes with group play makes pad control – which for MMOG players will always play second fiddle to mouse and keyboard – less viable, and this is likely to cause a divide in the community between PlayStation 3 and PC players. The way Square Enix has improved the presentation and accessibility of levelling content doesn’t prevent Final Fantasy XIV from being a fundamentally conservative game at its core, and as such, its subscription fee (which limits you to a single character per server at the lowest level) is of questionable value when games like Guild Wars 2 offer, on PC at least, a more substantial experience with no monthly payment. A lot of players will get everything that they’re going to get out of Final Fantasy XIV in the course of their initial free month.
They won’t account for everybody, however. There will always be people for whom levelling a White Mage means more than levelling a wizard, for whom the Prelude arpeggio isn’t just main menu music. If that’s you, and you like what the MMOG genre brings to the table, then Final Fantasy XIV promises to last much longer. After all, you fit the formula.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is out now on PC and PS3.