Final Fantasy XIV is the Best Final Fantasy Gameby Callum May,
If you have a friend who plays Final Fantasy XIV, give them a (social-distance) hug. For Warriors of Light around the world, myself included, the year since the Shadowbringers expansion has been an emotional rollercoaster.
From the outside, this can be difficult to understand. When it first started, Final Fantasy XIV was considered one of the worst numbered Final Fantasy entries. After it was critically panned, the development team regrouped to address fans' many complaints, brought on director Naoki Yoshida, and in 2012, summoned Bahamut to burn everything.
A year later, we returned to Eorzea to find the realm reborn into an MMORPG that had fixed its bugs, improved its combat, expanded its world, and revamped its UI. A review from GameTrailers acclaimed, “From top-to-bottom, A Realm Reborn addresses nearly every single major issue that plagued 1.0.”
But the merits of A Realm Reborn alone aren't the reason why Final Fantasy XIV is the best Final Fantasy game. Each subsequent expansion has earned an increasing amount of praise and awards, culminating in Shadowbringers being one of the Top 5 highest scored games on Metacritic in 2019.
When we hear about MMORPGs, we're often hearing about player-made narratives, like EVE Online's incredibly expensive battles and the Corrupted Blood plague of World of Warcraft. And while Final Fantasy XIV has its own fair share of player stories (they literally made a TV show out of one), it is the story of the Scions and the Warrior of Light that still attracts the most attention and discussion. It's the first and only time I've been recommended an MMORPG purely on the strength of its writing.
A Decade of Final Fantasy XIV
The initial story of 2010's Final Fantasy XIV is lost to time and only a handful of references exist within the current version of the game. A Realm Reborn instead focuses on a new story concerning the existence of primals, creatures summoned and sustained by the wishes of a downtrodden group. As the player, you must work to keep the peace, defend Eorzea from an evil empire, and form alliances between the city-states. But if it ended there, I wouldn't be lauding it as the best Final Fantasy game, even with the streamlining implemented in the 5.3 update. Since then, three more expansions have been released, and between each major expansion is a five-part story that reflects on prior events while foreshadowing the next expansion. In the case of the updates following A Realm Reborn, we are introduced to the politics and colonialism that confront us with our own actions and treatment of the beast tribes. In fact, one of the greatest merits of Final Fantasy XIV is that it constantly has the player questioning their actions and allegiances. It's only a few months after being named the “Defender of Eorzea” that you are taught to doubt and second-guess your quest-givers. These updates also introduced the beast tribe quests, allowing us to build new bonds of trust with these groups (and earn cool rewards).
Eventually, we get to the expansion content, each featuring its own self-contained story. Heavensward has us travel to the reclusive Ishgard, ruled by the Archbishop and the Ishgardian Orthodox Church. Although the initial trailer had us believing we'd be spending our time flying through the sky and fighting dragons, we are instead introduced to a tense historical mystery where we have to pitch peace agreements to characters that want anything but peace. Stormblood keeps up the political storytelling as well, meditating upon the oppression and cultural erasure that comes with imperialism. This expansion marks our first steps outside of Eorzea and we find ourselves trying to build a hopeless revolution in an unfamiliar land.
But there are few stories that hit harder than Shadowbringers. This time, we travel a dying world and attempt to bring hope to those who have every reason to reject it. Contrary to its predecessors, this isn't a political narrative where you're made to doubt others, but rather one where you're forced to doubt yourself. This is only possible in a constantly evolving game like Final Fantasy XIV. As Shadowbringers writer Natsuko Ishikawa explains (spoilers in the link), “Part of why we're comfortable doing the flipside of these motifs is that Final Fantasy 14's narrative is ongoing. The story dates back for years now – there's a lot of material to work with and juxtapose.”
With a decade of narrative development, the writers of Final Fantasy XIV have created something that feels better described as an epic than merely a story. We've spent so long getting familiar with this cast of characters that I'm fairly sure I'll end up crying when it all finally comes to an end.
A Never-Ending Story
One of the main criticisms levelled at 2016's Final Fantasy XV was that the story felt incomplete in more ways than one. To get an idea of the backstory, you need to watch the film Kingsglaive and the anime series Brotherhood. To find out where all your companions kept disappearing to, you need to purchase the DLC. And to find out crucial details about other members of the game's cast, you need to read the book Final Fantasy XV: Dawn of the Future. If you missed out on any of these, you have not yet experienced the full story of a game that released four years ago.
But Final Fantasy XIV has never felt the need to expand its narrative outwards (there are short “Side Stories” uploaded online, but these are supplemental, rather than essential). While the main quest takes us on adventures throughout its world, meeting characters on the way, side quests give us the opportunity to learn more about Eorzea and its many conflicts. For example, our first introduction to Alisaie (a main story quest character from Heavensward onwards) occurs in an optional series of raids, which also explain the truth behind the premise of A Realm Reborn. Similarly, five years after the main story introduced us to Ishgard, a city torn apart by a long-standing war with dragons, we are summoned back for a collaborative crafting event where players work together to rebuild the city.
Final Fantasy XIV also allows players to change between 18 fighting jobs and 11 gathering and crafting classes at will. Each of these has its own series of quests attached which take you through each of the expansion regions as you level up. These quests, especially the non- combative ones, help flesh out the world even further in surprising ways. When the main storyline has you facing down Leviathan, it can be humbling to receive an urgent quest asking you to catch a big fish.
The general rule of Final Fantasy XIV is that there's always something to do, and always more to find out about the world. I've spent a couple months helping out the Namazu, a tribe of silly fish-like creatures who believe a festival is their only chance of halting their own destruction. Every single day, I'd log on, do a couple of quests, gain reputation points, and log off. But through these quests, I'd learn more about the Azim Steppe, an area based on the real-life plains of Mongolia, and the festivals of the Japanese-inspired Kugane. Side quests aren't only for the purpose of revisiting old areas, though. Thus far, they've invited two guest writers to create multi-part raid quests that further expand the world. The first is Return to Ivalice by Yasumi Matsumo, the writer of Final Fantasy XII and Tactics. This storyline firmly places iconic locations from those games into the world of Final Fantasy XIV. As a part of Shadowbringers, Yoko Taro has been writing the YorHA: Dark Apocalypse questline which gets away with putting NieR: Automata's alien robots and mechanical factories into the fantasy world of Norvrandt.
An Artistic Accomplishment
Part of the reason both Ivalice and NieR are able to fit so neatly into the world of Final Fantasy XIV is that all of these franchises share the same character designer: Akihiko Yoshida. While Yoshida was mainly involved in designing the main cast of Final Fantasy XIV and some early concept art, his influence is present throughout the game, including your very own Warrior of Light. But Yoshida's work is just the base upon which the rest of the art design was built. And by embracing inspirations from outside of the Final Fantasy series, the world and characters start to feel real.
Concept character artist Ayumi Namae understands this, and so she spends her time attending fashion shows and watching movies to find inspiration from innovative designers across the world. For example, the Blue Mage job outfit was based on the costumes from the film The Greatest Showman. And for Shadowbringers, one of her jobs involved creating new striking outfits for Y'shtola (pictured below, left) and Urianger (pictured below, right), which would be revealed in the expansion trailer. These designs appear simple, but Namae's research in fashion design paid off in the textures and details that make these main characters stand out. Having a broad set of inspirations is something essential to creating the thousands of costume items available in the game. And to keep track of what sort of costumes players enjoy wearing, Namae visits Final Fantasy XIV fashion websites every day.
One of the most popular English-speaking websites is Eorzea Collection, a website that not only compiles images of some of the best outfit combinations, but also details the individual items that make up each outfit. For many, fashion isn't just a part of the MMORPG, but rather, the main reason they're playing. Eorzea Collection's catchphrase “Welcome to the true endgame” sums this up. While the game initially began with just fantasy outfits to choose from, the team have steadily been introducing more modern inspirations that give this community more styles to work with.
We spend far more time in Eorzea than in any other Final Fantasy world. And although the worlds of Final Fantasy X's Spira and Final Fantasy XIII's Cocoon are stunning, Final Fantasy XIV requires an insane amount of variety to keep players with thousands of hours of play-time interested. And due to the fact that this is an open-world game, they needed to include a high level of detail. This prompts the level design team to travel the real world in search of inspirations. From the deserts of Saudi Arabia to the white cliffs of the UK, wonders of the real world are made ever more wondrous within Final Fantasy.
As any fan of the studio can tell you, Square Enix boasts some of the best 2D and 3D artists in the industry. Even new hires are able to quickly improve their skills by working alongside the legendary artists who now serve as art directors. But despite all this experience and talent, the job of being a background artist on Final Fantasy XIV is particularly demanding. While the worlds require a lot of static detail, designing dungeons is more akin to creating the sets for a film. As more expansions are added, writers have gotten more involved in creating cinematic experiences for players as they adventure through dynamic areas. Their instructions might occasionally seem ridiculous, but it's up to the art team to realize their ambitious cinematic visions.
These dungeons serve as a showpiece for the exceptional animation work, background art and music of Final Fantasy XIV. I've definitely died a couple of times while admiring the eccentric animation of boss enemies, or jamming out to the music of composer Masayoshi Soken (who now boasts the record for creating the largest soundtrack in a video game). In fact, I'm terrible at dungeon raids in general and frequently let my party down. But I can't stop myself from constantly revisiting my favourites, not because I enjoy being a burden to the healers, but because these are the places where Final Fantasy XIV puts up the best displays of its storytelling and artistic prowess.
The Best Final Fantasy
It almost feels like cheating to put Final Fantasy XIV up against every other game in its series. None of the single player games ever had the opportunity to expand and improve on themselves. Even Final Fantasy VII: Remake is currently opting to exist more as a response to the original title than be an improved version. In this article, I've intentionally neglected to mention the multiplayer aspects of Final Fantasy XIV, and that's for one reason: I never bothered to plug a keyboard into my PS4. I have spent hundreds of hours in this game and never spoken to a single person. But I still don't feel like I'm missing out on anything. As I've attempted to prove, Final Fantasy XIV can be played and enjoyed in the same way as any other RPG.
But unlike other RPGs, there's an unbeatable breadth to what you can spend time with. Some players barely fight anymore, instead choosing to invest fully in the economics of crafting and gathering. Others grind dungeons, but just to get their hands on rare apparel for the in-game fashion reports. And then there's me, who only subscribes a few times a year for each new patch.
In the past, Final Fantasy XIV, as a subscription MMO, used to be a hard-sell. But with the new trial that lets players experience all of the A Realm Reborn and Heavensward content for free, there's no reason not to give what is, in my opinion, the best Final Fantasy game a shot. Unless you value your free time, that is.
In 2019, Square Enix consolidated its teams into three main “Creative Business Units”. Final Fantasy XIV producer Naoki Yoshida would head his team at Creative Business Unit III, which would mainly focus on continuing to create MMORPG expansions, with the next Final Fantasy XIV expansion expected to be released in late 2021.
At least, that was the expectation. When he was first brought on to direct and produce Final Fantasy XIV, Naoki Yoshida was an unfamiliar name to both fans and those at the studio. But he managed to build up so much trust with both groups that he now serves as producer on the latest single-player entry, Final Fantasy XVI along with his team at Creative Business Unit III. While they've managed to introduce compelling narratives and worlds, they've often mentioned the old engine (a modified version of Luminous Engine) as a hindrance to overcome.
Directed by Hiroshi Takai, director of The Last Remnant and assistant director on Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, the technical capabilities of a brand new title is this team's opportunity to deliver cinematic storytelling in a way that they haven't been able to achieve in Eorzea. And if the timing is any indication, we can expect to see other veterans from the beloved Heavensward expansion participating in this new entry. Final Fantasy XIV fans have dreamed about the possibility of these creators working on the next mainline entry, and despite Yoshida initially denying the rumours, it appears that dream has come true.
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