[Editor's Note: Before you immediately scroll down to the bottom and wonder where the score is, know that this is a scoreless review.]
When approaching a game like Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, you really need to ask yourself what you want from an MMO in 2013. If you want to ride the free-to-play wave, head elsewhere since ARR has a monthly subscription fee. If you want an MMO that breaks the mold and revolutionizes the genre, you won't find it here either.
What you will find, however, is one of the most polished, satisfying, welcoming, and beautiful MMOs out there.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC [reviewed], PS3)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
MSRP: $29.99, $12.99 per month
Release Date: August 27, 2013
With launch problems a thing of the past, I've now had plenty of time to actually enjoy Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (henceforth referred to as ARR). I haven't rushed through it and I'm not at max level quite yet. I haven't sat back and soaked in an MMO in quite some time -- probably since my all-time favorite, City of Heroes. Here's a breakdown of the important factors in any MMO and how they hold up in ARR.
Battles in ARR are very fast and fluid. Certain roles, like Monk, rely on positioning and are constantly moving around the battlefield in order to maximize damage output. My main character class is a Bard, a ranged Damage Per Second (DPS) class that doesn't rely on positioning. When not in an intense fight (i.e. against random field enemies) combat tends to feel a bit simple, essentially tapping the 2 key until that thing I'm targeting dies.
However, in the bigger fights combat is lively and intense. Movement is almost always necessary for each class, as enemies will use large Area of Effect (AoE) attacks that you do NOT want to be caught standing in. It's also important to manage your Enmity, or "aggro," as most know it as. Whether you're a healer, DPS, or the tank, you'll want to monitor how much Enmity you're generating, which is conveniently displayed to the player on-screen.
There are also many fights that spice things up a bit and help break any sort of monotony that would normally set in. For example, there's a battle in one of the dungeons that requires players to aggro Bombs and then draw them close to the enemy, forcing them to explode and damage the enemy. It may not be the most intricate battle in a videogame ever, but it's an excellent change of pace that happens quite often in dungeons.
Yes, A Realm Reborn does have multiple “Kill X of Y” and other uninspired quest designs. In fact, it’s got an entire system dedicated to these quests! You can get quests a few different ways: from the story, from random NPCs, from Levemetes, or FATEs (more on these later). The Levemetes are the uninspired ones, mostly used for leveling up alternate classes and crafts. If at all possible, I’d recommend avoiding combat Levequests at all costs, lest you scrape your eyes out of their sockets due to sheer boredom.
Story quests, however, are much better. You will do the occasional “go here, come back” quests, or “kill 10 Cactuar please,” but the quests at the opposite end of the design spectrum more than make up for them. When quest design is at its best during dungeons and key story events, the dialogue and quest objectives often combine to create a really great experience. Without spoiling anything, there’s a moment before the second summon encounter involving ROCKS that put a huge smile on my face as I burst out in laughter, mid-objective.
For the dull quests, it helps that the combat is fast-paced and pretty to look at, since they do tend to drag on the psyche.
Unlike Final Fantasy XI, FFXIV: ARR is extremely solo-friendly. Any class can solo, though clearly certain classes will obviously excel at going it alone when compared to others. Most of the difficult story quests provide NPC aid so you’ll never be overwhelmed. Levequest difficulty is even adjustable, allowing the player to make them as difficult or easy as they wish, with the amount of reward also being affected.
The only time you must party is during dungeons. There is a party-finding system, though if you’re a DPS class you can expect to wait some time to find a full party. The end-game is also filled with quests that require parties, but that’s rather expected at this point.
FATEs are a special kind of quests. They’re these world events that occur on the various maps without warning. At one point you may be talking to an NPC in a town when a bunch of jerk Imps invade and it’s up to you and (hopefully) those around you to shoo them away! Or else...well there’s no real consequence to not completing a FATE, which can take away from the impact they have in an in-game sense.
There are various types of FATEs: giant monsters spawning, many monsters spawning, guiding an NPC through an area (with many monsters spawning), defending a town entrance (from many monsters spawning), or collecting items and delivering them to a nearby NPC (while many monsters spawn). Depending on your contribution, you're awarded a certain amount of experience points at the end of the event. It quickly becomes evident that doing these FATEs is the best way to gain experience in ARR.
FATE grinding has already become the popular thing in most areas. Certain areas contain waaaay better FATEs than others, and so that’s where people congregate. It’s gotten to the point that if you're not in a FATE-grinding party in one of these areas, you will get a pittance of EXP and it will no longer be worth your time.
However, joining such a party, while it may sound like a bore, is easily one of my favorite things to do so far. There’s often a strong sense of community in each party, and it’s pretty relaxing to sit back and chat about random topics while going from FATE to FATE. OH! And I truly love when one FATE ends, and everyone calls their mounts and goes rushing off to the new FATE that just spawned. It really feels like we're a brigade of badass heroes going from threat to threat in order to save the zone. It brought back memories of hanging around Valkurm Dunes back in Final Fantasy XI, except it's much easier.
That being said, it is a bit lame to consistently see the same FATE over and over again. “Oh, the giant plant is back? Alright let’s go pummel him for about a minute and move on. Okay, now the oversized Aurochs are back.” In a party, it’s amazing EXP, so it’s hard to argue against, but it’s good to take a break every now and again and maybe work on a craft. Speaking of which…
Pretty much every MMO I've ever played has had me praying for a swift death as I take up a craft. They're often tedious, boring, and uninteresting. There are many options for crafts in ARR, but the one I have the most experience in is Alchemy. You know, making potions and wands and junk. While it isn't exactly suicide-inducing, this does feel like quite the chore. After a bit of leveling, you do unlock a sort of auto-craft, which will take significantly less time and no effort, but has a chance of failing and will rarely produce High Quality (HQ) goods or net the player as much experience.
It’s really up to the player to measure their personal opportunity cost in this situation. Despite not enjoying the crafting “gameplay,” I couldn't bring myself to auto-craft. I knew that even when I mindlessly crafted, my chance of failure was zero, and my chance of a HQ item was ever-so-slightly higher. Plus, more experience!
You can certainly make a lot of in-game gold if you dedicate yourself to your craft. So it’s kind of like real life in a way. It isn't too essential to pick up a craft, but crafting does lead to better equipment and a more stable income, so if you're thinking about end-game content, pick up a craft and master it!
That being said, there was a lot of dedication to these non-combat classes than most MMOs would even think about. They're all separate classes and they can really feel like different classes at times, instead of the same old thing repeating with only the products created being different.
Leveling in ARR is swift, even when playing solo. Some say it’s too fast, others say it’s just right. It just depends on what kind of Goldilocks you are. No, this game is not as hardcore as Final Fantasy XI. In fact, it’s not even close. A solid hour of FATE grinding or other experience-friendly ventures will almost always net you at least one level, regardless of how far you are into the game.
Despite that, I haven't hit the maximum level just yet. I've spent a lot of my time switching between classes and finding out what each has to offer (including crafts). It’s usually a good sign when I take a leisurely pace to leveling in an MMO. I'm purposefully taking my time and soaking it all in, at my own pace.
The plot of ARR won't blow anyone away, but it is one of the better stories in the genre. The game does a decent enough job of justifying the need to send you all around the freaking world for their various needs. Luckily, traveling is painless after the first trip thanks to the ability to teleport to most cities for a gil cost.
There are a whole bunch of cutscenes, but they are at least well done and usually engaging -- though I did turn the voice acting to Japanese after a while. The English voice actors are...not the best. Lines often feel flat, as if they're being read out of context, which can be off-putting.
These cutscenes and story missions really do make the game feel like a Final Fantasy game, something that I definitely wasn't expecting after the recent change of direction the series as a whole has taken. Granted, the plot is only a small contributor to this feel, but it contributes nonetheless.
OH MAN IS THIS GAME BEAUTIFUL! Everything from the player and enemy models to the environments and music is just so freaking wonderful. It doesn't matter if you're in a pre-rendered cutscene, an in-game cutscene, or actual gameplay: this is one of the best looking MMOs games that I've ever played.
More than just a technical achievement, ARR is an all-around aesthetic treat. Character animations ooze personality (aided by the wide variety of /emotes) and spell effects are dazzling, though they can get a bit overwhelming in large FATE battles.
There really is a unique feeling that only comes with leveling up and hearing that classic Final Fantasy jingle play in celebration. And it doesn't just feel like a Final Fantasy coat of paint over a "blah" MMO. I got sucked in to Star Wars: The Old Republic because of the title, but quickly left after...actually playing the game. ARR feels like the real deal and a beautiful coat of paint on top.
While Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn may not be the revolutionary genre-bending game that people want in a modern MMO, it is easily one of the most polished MMOs in the genre. Quest design ranges from fantastic to downright dull, but the rapid pace of the combat and character progression does a great job of making the player feel accomplished, no matter what they're actually doing.
If you're not a Final Fantasy franchise fan, ARR will lose a lot of its appeal, and I'm not sure you'd be hooked in the same way I am. A lot of what keeps me playing is the fact that I’m playing a Final Fantasy game, and a damn good one at that. With a community as helpful and friendly as ARR’s, even things like FATE grinding can feel refreshing.
Players are treated with respect by the developers, largely due to the game's pay-to-play nature. You're not a second-class citizen and everyone is on an even playing field. For fans of the franchise, ARR is absolutely worth its monthly fee, especially with the slew of new content that is already planned to hit in the coming months and years.