Trial by fire
Having played Final Fantasy XIV since the very first 1.0 E3 demo nearly a decade ago, it would take me ages to describe how much it’s evolved.
I’ve seen it go from a tepid little thing that was somehow a step down from XI in every way to a monstrous project that become one of my favorite MMOs of all time. It’s still amazing that director Yoshi-P and his crew were able to turn this franchise around, and that Square Enix footed the bill — it will go down as one of the biggest Cinderella stories in gaming.
That said, this A Realm Reborn incarnation has been playing it relatively safe since 2013. While the team has delivered on their promise to make it the most frequently updated MMO ever, the themepark-esque grind of the endgame has become a little too much for some.
On the upside the the newest expansion, Stormblood, breathes more life into this already beautiful game.
Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood (PC, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
MSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)
Released: June 16, 2017 (early access), June 20, 2017 (wide release)
Square Enix has somewhat learned from the disastrous 2.0 launch (which took weeks to fully fix) and another expansion has released relatively smoothly — if you count the ability to log in as smooth. Right on time (after downloading the patch last night) after a several minute login queue, I was in. So what’s relative? Well, instances (and thus part of the main story quest) were bugged heavily for several hours. I just used that time to check out the Red Mage and was on my way after a hotfix, but the issues are happening randomly now throughout the early access period and seem to have gotten worse as the day has progressed. It’s safe to say that if you’re waiting for the wide release you might be okay, but a lot of folks are still having problems. As a word of warning be wary of buying into this early access program — we’ll provide updates as we head closer into the full launch, but this is definitely a downgrade from 3.0 (Heavensward).
In an attempt to link the worlds of old and new, Ala Mhigo, the desert town, returns — but you’ll also make a few quick jaunts across familiar zones while you make your way through the story. Just like Heavensward I appreciate the link to legacy content, which is almost a misnomer for Final Fantasy XIV given how much work the team does to ensure that people are still exploring every square inch of Eorzea. Nothing ever truly feels antiquated.
Kugane, the new ancient Tokyo-themed town, brings in a welcome juxtaposition to the decidedly western fantasy feel of some of the other cities. Other zones such as The Fringes maintain a certain sense of dread while nailing the signature whimsical feel of FFXIV. The first dungeon, which is ghost pirate themed, nails this to a tee. It’s clear that by now, Square Enix has this down to a science with one of the most gifted art teams in the business. I’ve spent more time roaming around cities in XIV than I have with entire games, and Kugane is the latest in a string of adventures for me. Then the music hits and it just makes the entire thing. It’s magical.
I also appreciate the effort in terms of bringing the narrative front and center right away. There’s very little in the way of background machinations, as players are confronted with the crux of the conflict sooner than later, and given a formidable big bad to chase. So far it’s been par for the course (that’s good), as are the myriad flavor quests, like the continuation of the job saga that adds a bit of flair and personality to each of the game’s classes. Contextual quest actions like smoke bombs make it even more flavorful.
This isn’t even including all of the updates to the old world, including new Triple Triad cards and rewards for the Gold Saucer. I find myself getting sidetracked constantly by friends who want to go back and do old stuff while the new expansion stares us in the face — that’s good! I can see it getting formulaic, but I’m just glad it’s not overly indulgent in its attempt to obfuscate too much — something Square Enix is known to do.
So far my exploration experience has gone off without a hitch with one exception — water. Swimming is mostly fine as some wonderfully conceived zones are designed around them, but entire concept of diving is janky, like the team had to part the heavens to get it to even work. For me the chief problem is the transitory micro loading sequence — it’s not just a seamless movement from treading water to diving. Aquatic traversal is an evolution on paper and the next step in the flight concept from prior expansion Heavensward, but in practice it’s not nearly as fun — Until you happen across an underwater city with Japanese architecture. I’m of two minds sometimes with this expansion.
Stormblood also ships with two jobs (classes), and so far I’ve only played the Red Mage (I’ll get to the Samurai eventually). You can also still fly, which is a good stopgap if swimming ends up being a dud in the long term. As a mix of melee and ranged abilities the Red Mage is a fascinating combo, especially for more involved content like dungeons. Playing it is like mastering a little dance, as you Riposte into a combo to exsanguinate your foes, balance your black and white mana meters (most jobs have a new meter or mechanic actually) then cast spells of just about every element.
My main concern is that both of these are DPS jobs (yes, the Rage Mage can’t heal, though it does have a weak ass cure called Vercure, a Drain spell, and a DoT removal ability), as opposed to Heavensward which added a DPS, tank, and healer. Let’s just say my Paladin is going to enjoy some quick queues. And by the way, the team should really consider just letting new jobs start at the old cap and jump right into the new content — Blizzard does it with WoW and it works out just fine.
There’s still much to explore, so expect a full review within roughly a week’s time. I still need to try out the Samurai, finish the story, conquer the rest of the dungeons (though the first core raid is coming in two weeks), go on more hunts, test out the PS4 Pro enhancements (so far it is smoother, but not quite 60fps in its performance setting, possibly due to high server population — there’s also a lower fps 4K setting), and find all of those pesky Aether Currents. For now I’m satisfied, though I’m worried that the endgame grind hasn’t changed all that much from 2.0 and Square Enix might not be able to plug up all of the issues at launch. We’ll see!
[This review in progress is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]