Game Review

by Dave Riley, May 1st 2014

Final Fantasy XIV

PS4

Description:
Final Fantasy XIV
Final Fantasy XIV, first released in 2010, went through a tumultuous release and rebranded itself as A Realm Reborn three years later. The PS4 version brings the console experience mostly inline with the PC play.
Review:

The Final Fantasy XIV that debuted in 2010 was so tragically bad Square Enix felt compelled to waive the subscription fee for over a year as an apology. The game relaunched as A Realm Reborn almost three years later and was praised by fans and critics alike for being an actual, playable game.

Final Fantasy XIV reinvented itself, but not the MMO. In many ways A Realm Reborn plays exactly how you'd expect. Classes are either DPS, healer, or tank. The melee ones have simple combo mechanics, the casters have simple cooldown balancing or meters to mind. The pet class summons an ethereal turquoise squirrel-thing, the Marauder tanks with a giant axe instead of a sword and shield, but otherwise it's business as usual. Kill boars, get pelts, level up, kill bigger boars, get bigger pelts.

The game's strengths lie in flexibility, not innovation. After a few levels in your chosen starting class you're allowed to branch out in whatever direction you desire. Any character can be any (or every) class, and changing between them is as simple as swapping weapons. By equipping a bow a mage can become an archer. There's also interplay between classes. Leveling up unlocks move slots to fill with abilities learned in other jobs, so you can put Protect on your Thaumaturge, or a defensive cooldown on your Gladiator. Certain class combinations open up advanced jobs--White and Black Mages, Paladins, other Final Fantasy iconics--that tweak the abilities of the basic classes without completely overwriting them.

And "leveling up" doesn't always mean swinging a sword or investigating evil deeds. Jobs like Leatherworker and Carpenter can also gain experience and advance, learning skills that help them balance completion versus quality during item creation. Every craft is a minigame that gives the player direct control over making superior items: +1 armors, higher quality food buffs. Being able to affect the quality of a finished product makes crafting more engaging than a button-click grind through stacks of cotton cloth or iron ingots, and guild masters reinforcing the importance of a proper cotton weave gives a tiny bit context to your toil.

All classes have their own storylines, which is a sharp turn from this game's predecessor, Final Fantasy XI, doling out its narrative through a minuscule grouping of extremely rare cutscenes. Every five levels Final Fantasy XIV gives your character a new quest that focuses on furthering their talents as a Armorsmith or Paladin. These quests are geared towards teaching you how to use new skills with a bent of reinforcing that you're a real natural at Armorsmithing/Fishing/Paladining, and, gosh, we've never seen anyone who can craft an ingot/bait a hook/taunt a monster quite like you can. You'd think they'd be over it by now, considering how often an NPC is bowled over or awestruck by your purple-haired catgirl's natural talent towards breaking boulders and weaving trousers. Effusive praise comes with such regularity that it's actually a delight to meet the few who make a show of being unimpressed, like the implacable Leatherworking guild master, who could pretty much take or leave your hide boots.

The main story has a laser focus on your character's divinely-ordained fate. After decades of Final Fantasy both online and off we've all gotten used to globetrotting after a bunch of elemental crystals while a disembodied voice reminds us of our unique destiny. We've heard it before. But I guess we should appreciate getting a story at all, given that most MMOs prefer to deliver narrative either through quest text, in raid dialogue you've muted in favor of your Ventrilo channel, or during events crowded by five hundred other fighting, chatting, and jumping players. Dialogue is voiced sometimes, but pretty rarely; rare enough that you'd wish they hadn't voiced any of it, because what you get is such a tease. Although maybe it's worth it just to hear the impassioned, Aragorn-style unity speech of Merlwyb Bloefhiswyn, nine-foot-tall, grey-skinned, super-butch admiral lady, whose Germanic-tinged name defies pronunciation, to say nothing of attempts at properly spelling it.

Straight from the JRPG playbook, the bad guys are a group of pseudo-Romans in robot mechs, bent on taking over and/or destroying the world for reasons unclear. Meanwhile the Primals--Titan, Ifrit, etc--are going berserk and riling up the beastmen tribes, also for reasons unclear. In the middle is you, Player Character, who is so fantastic that even the great and reclusive team of wizard detectives take notice and ask if you'd like to be a wizard detective too, and who could say no to a woman bold enough to wear a skirt with sixty-four belts and a butt viewport?

So it's Final Fantasy 101, really.

Load times and graphics on PS4 are about what a reasonably good PC can put out, which is a nice improvement from the thirty-second travel times and muddy look of the PS3 version. This is especially valuable during FATEs, the large-scale public quests that sometimes involve dozens of players at a time, and could bog the PS3 down to a standstill. XIV's art style is a bit more workmanlike than the intricate and overwhelming vistas of the budget-busting mainline games, but it still exudes charm and Final Fantasy panache in its ruffled chocobo feathers and conspicuous cleavage windows in otherwise very classy velveteen doublets. There's nothing really unique about this world's mishmash of medieval castles, alchemy laboratories, and poisonous swamps. Final Fantasy XIV's graphical strengths are in its craft and its texture. The world feels whole and consistent, even when you're hopping from a woodland elf city to a seaside resort. This is a game about moss-covered roofs and puffy shirtsleeves, and it looks like more thought went into any of these individual things than every spike on every oversized World of Warcraft shoulder pad put together.

Controller support is shockingly good. You have assignable palettes which you open with the shoulder buttons to use attacks and actions, and close to revert back to standard functions like jumping and moving through menus. The major clumsiness comes in targeting monsters in the heat of battle, which isn't so much imprecise as it requires you learn a strange finger dexterity if you plan on playing one of the tanking classes, since holding aggro on multiple targets requires a higher amount of finger fumbling and mental bandwidth. The system works, but it is complicated. Mouse and keyboard support is available for those who can't bear the thought of using anything else in an MMO, even on a console, but a controller's pretty good for pushing through stacks of craftable material. With any recipe just a few button pushes away long-term crafting sessions on the couch, or in bed using a Vita's remote play, take on a meditative appeal.

There's all the quality of life features you'd expect from a modern MMO: fast travel, ad-hoc public quests, and an automated party finder for dungeons and bosses. It may be almost unthinkable to question their inclusion in this age of player convenience, but Final Fantasy XI was hellbent on resisting every bit nicety introduced by games like World of Warcraft. This is a proper, current MMO. Its also puts its legacy to work, hard. This is absolutely a Final Fantasy game; not one with a concrete ending, or an unbearably melodramatic plot, or a crystalline web to level up in, but one where you get a chocobo bodyguard at level 30 that, after you've hung out with it for a while, you can decide whether you want it to be a butt-taunting murder fowl or a Choco Regen-casting healer bird. Despite the number in the title, this won't satisfy a craving for a mainline Final Fantasy, but it does have all the trappings of some really good fanservice.

There's a certain feeling of "just do whatever" to it, especially with public quests popping up and disappearing all over the landscape, some of which team you up with thirty or forty real-life players to kill some obnoxiously large crab, who chucks you a crab pet of your own to hang out with after you've beat him. But this is not an open-world game's "just do whatever," whose gameplay loops feel like a insecure fairy sitting on your shoulder, nervously and ceaselessly questioning if you're bored, checking if you'd like to search for some treasure chests, or pick up some feathers, or race to the top of that building, or upgrade your knives, but none of these things seem to have any real overwhelming purpose to doing them, and none of these things are all that fun in the doing of them, either.

Compared to the frequent drudgery of open-world games, Final Fantasy XIV's "do anything" ethos isn't some untold miracle of craft--repeatable quests are the genre's lifeblood, after all--it just actually bothers to inject some character into the doing of the thing. Maybe you want to craft iron frying pans, because this acorn-haired child-gnome-fairy named Bango Zango pays good money for them and he can't ever get enough. The game barely tells you why, it doesn't really care to. That this tiny pixie-man brokers trades for a (possibly) backalley kitchenware dealer is sufficiently unusual, and unusual frying pans are a better hook than Feather 37 (out of 100) Collected. There's rarely a light at the end of the tunnel, like if you gave Bango enough frying pans, like six dozen frying pans, there would be some achievement unlocked. Maybe there is an achievement unlocked, MMORPGs were about achievements before achievements before achievements were even invented, but if there is, the game does not go out of its way to mention it. It doesn't seem to feel the need to justify itself that way.

Bango Zango is a Lalafell, which isn't a random selection of letters, but an actual character race you can actually play. You can build one of these strange cherubs and turn it into a Dragoon, the armor-clad spear-thrusters you remember from Final Fantasies IV and Tactics. If you want, you can then forge his tiny plate mail all by yourself. If you want, you can dye it a royal purple, or canary yellow, or fuchsia, too. Final Fantasy XIV has an endless supply of things to show you, and maybe only really big difference between this game and the rigorously bland checklist of open world affairs is that Final Fantasy is a lot more open about its silliness, and a lot less self-serious, and that makes it fun. Final Fantasy XIV has checklists, but its checklists are infused with an endearing (but kind of foolish) whimsy. Like a holiday event where Lightning shows up and stabs monsters for no good reason; like trekking to a remote desert town to buy blue cheese so you can make alligator salad; like leveling up your weaving profession so you can make pants for your mining profession so you can get ore for your goldsmithing professional so you can make a better needle for weaving. You can do that, if you want. You can also just buy that needle off of the auction house if you don't feel like making an Excel spreadsheet to plan your sewing career.

Or just don't bother with weaving at all. Go into the random dungeon queue as tank instead, because a tank never has to wait for long, and killing bosses is probably probably more fun than sewing pants (but sewing pants is probably more fun in this than it has been in any other game). Final Fantasy XIV feels like a kinder online game. Doing dungeons with random players was never a chore. I can only speak to my experience, but mistakes in dungeons were met with encouragement and corrections, not insults. The audience seems more mature. There isn't a lot of mean spiritedness. Gold-seller spam is abundant to the point of unavoidable, as it is in probably all online games these days, but the actual community is engaged, helpful, nice.

Final Fantasy XIV is as MMO as MMOs come, but it supplements its mundane core with a quirkiness and verve. This early on there's no way of knowing if the endgame will pan out, but in the meantime they've got something to keep you busy, whether it be slightly askew Easter celebrations or Dragon Quest world invasions. This is a player-friendly game. Final Fantasy XIV trips into an MMO pitfall or two, but, for the most part, it does a pretty okay job of showing you a good time.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : B+
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : C+
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : B+

+ Reliable MMO gameplay stuffed with Final Fantasy fanservice.
A lot of been there-done that for old hat MMO players, and a lot of the usual MMO failings still apply.

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