Preview: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Early Beta – A Seedling of Rebirth

While the first incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV was in no shape or form worthy of the legacy of its franchise, there’s one thing that Square Enix did right with it: the emotional buildup to the end of the sixth astral era and the fall of Dalamud (that marked the closure of the servers) created an emotional link between the remaining players and the setting of the game, and that’s a link on which A Realm Reborn plays heavily.

That’s why it’s not surprising that, when I first walked into New Gridania at the beginning of phase one of this closed beta, I shed a tear. From Gridania I departed to march to the final battle for Eorzea, and to Gridania i finally returned. The circle was complete.

Disclaimer: this preview has been expressly authorized by Square Enix, but remember that the general Non Disclosure Agreement is still in place (so much that we have been asked to avoid posting our own screenshots), so please refrain from posting anything that breaks it in the comments below or in any other environment, as doing so can earn you a permanent ban that would jeopardize not only your further participation in the beta, but also your ability to carry your Final Fantasy XIV progression into A Realm Reborn

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First of all it’s important to specify that this preview is only about phase one and two of the beta of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.  This means that only the city state of Gridania and its surrounding areas (a very small part of the world) were accessible and level progression stopped at level 35 only for 7 classes (three of which were crafters or gatherers). Several features were still missing, including the whole endgame, and only three dungeons were accessible of a total of 16-18 expected for release. Even much of the main storyline was omitted in order to avoid spoilers.

You can consider this preview a small glimpse on a much bigger one that will come later into phase three, while we wait for the actual review that will of course be published only after the full release of the game.

Character creation is very similar to what we found in the first incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV, meaning that our Eorzean alter-ego is assembled by putting together a sizable number of pre-defined elements instead of using freeform sliders. Quite a few options – especially for hairstyles – are still unavailable, but there’s a good degree of variety to be achieved even if more vanity elements would probably be a welcome addition.

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Adding to what we had in the original game we also get a few options for breast size on female characters and for muscle definition on male characters. Another quite welcome change  makes voice options from all four languages (Japanese, English, French and German) available regardless of your localization of choice, adding to the vocal variety between toons.

The most visible difference with what we previously had is obviously the availability of three new race/gender combinations: male miqo’te and female roegadyn and highlanders. Their design is definitely top-notch, and I can see a lot of people appreciating the attention that went into giving male miqo’te the option of looking rather manly unlike your usual catboys.

Female roegadyn and highlanders are equally spot-on in their design, both fitting the strong & sexy niche that was direly missing in Final Fantasy XIV.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see quite a lot of musclebound ladies treading the paths of A Realm Reborn, considering that both races look charming and definitely rather unique in the MMORPG arena so crowded with thin and girly barbie-like avatars.

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After finally getting into the game and past the introductory sequence it’s hard to miss the fact that the visuals have changed, and not just by a little bit. Character graphics are a little less detailed than their counterpart in in Final Fantasy XIV but the texture filtering option doesn’t show any difference between medium and high detail, so it’s possible that the high level still isn’t implemented. This isn’t to say that characters look bad, mind you, quite the opposite, they look fantastic. They just don’t look as fantastic as they used to be, but still a notch above everything else you’ll see around the MMORPG market.

What has been lost in character detail has been gained in basically everything else. Gone is the limitation that prevented the engine to display more than forty characters at once, and veritable crowds can now walk around you without making your video card explode or without appearing and disappearing like ghosts. Performance has been optimized very nicely, and my very decent – but not exceptional – gaming PC can easily play the game at its maximum level of detail without breaking a sweat.

While the engine that came with 1.0 seemed potentially powerful due to the very liberal use of normal maps and the high resolution textures, it screamed “obsolete” due to bad optimization that made it a resource hog even on the most powerful PCs. Let’s not even talk about the inability to alt-tab out of full screen without making the game crash. A Realm Reborn‘s engine is nothing like that. It comes fully featured and even includes a border-less window option  (that many developers still forget to implement, for some reason), while advanced performance options like Occlusion Culling and LOD Streaming give even less powerful PCs an edge.

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The biggest positive change comes with environmental design. Remember those drab and lifeless areas made of repeated tiles that characterized the original game? Well, they’re completely gone. The development team replaced them with a lush, dense and absolutely lovely world made of forests, caves, villages and various amenities pieced together artfully in what’s basically the most radical design u-turn I’ve ever seen for a MMORPG.

Those that played the first incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV might even find themselves a bit disoriented by the passage from a world in which they were basically prompted to move from banal point A to dull point B to an environment in which there’s a lot to explore, experience and discover, like a true Final Fantasy world should be.

It simply looks beautiful, and that beauty is enhanced further by the new lighting engine. Walking under the verdant canopy of the Black Shroud forest is a true pleasure due to the dynamic shadows cast by the trees on the environment and on our characters, while the touch of light makes every locale more lively and interesting.

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If there’s something I learned by treading the worlds of hundreds of games is that a good lighting engine is the main key that unlocks the beauty of an area built by polygons and textures. The passage from Final Fantasy XIV and its poor lighting engine without dynamic shadows to A Realm Reborn and its full fledged and advanced lighting and shading solution is like walking from a desert into an oasis.

Monster design is another very positive element, as every critter is modeled and textured masterfully, with quite a lot more variety compared to FFXIV 1.0.  It creates a fauna worthy of the previous numbered chapters of the franchise and definitely very pleasant on the eyes. Forget fighting hordes of squirrels, as you’ll leave those behind quickly to move to more intimidating enemies, and all of them just look great from the smallest trash mob to the more elaborate bosses. 

Combat animations have also been improved massively especially in the field of variety and scope, and combined with a set of effects that lean a lot towards the glamorous and over-the-top style many Final Fantasy games got us used to, they definitely create battles that will turn a lot of eyes and fit the franchise very well.

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On the other hand, while the developers clearly stated they’re not final, the current movement animations tend to be a quite stiff due to the lack of the physics-enhanced transitions that made those implemented in 1.0 look so good. We’ll have to see how the final version will look, but at the moment more work is definitely needed in this area.

Technicalities aside the biggest boon to the visuals comes from art direction, that is simply fantastic. Akihiko Yoshida and the rest of the art team seem to have been literally unleashed with the remake, creating a vision of Eorzea that is leaps and bounds better than what its first incarnation brought. It’s definitely worthy of the inspired designs normally brought forth by numbered Final Fantasy titles and gives A Realm Reborn a very unique feel that sets it apart rather radically from the rest of the genre. 

Ultimately, while some elements are still a bit rough, A Realm Reborn‘s graphics are undeniably beautiful. Even if we still didn’t see the whole world and we can only judge by the lush forest around Gridania, it’s easy to place the game at the very top of the food chain of the MMORPG market with nothing that really comes close between titles that have already been released and those that will hit the shelves in the near future. It’s simply a pleasure for the eyes, and it’s good to see a MMORPG that isn’t afraid to push the envelope of what powerful gaming PCs can do, without sacrificing scalability and playability on lower-end machines.

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Considering that the development team stated that visuals aren’t even final yet and there’s still room for further improvement, it’s really hard not to be excited for what’s to come.  Add to that the possibility of a DirectX 11 engine post-release, and I honestly feel bad for other games that get pushed on the shelves with engines that are already five-to-seven years old. The beta was available only during week-ends, and having to adjust to MMOs powered by dated engines during the week wasn’t exactly easy on my eyes.

Music is another high point in A Realm Reborn, and while the replacement of tracks by Nobuo Uematsu with others made by the Square Enix internal sound team left many perplexed (apparently Uematsu’s music isn’t completely gone according to what Naoki Yoshida said when I recently interviewed him), I can honestly say that Masayoshi Soken and his brave companions created one of the best scores I’ve heard in a MMORPG, definitely on par with what was featured in the game’s first incarnation and with my personal favorite Age of Conan.

All the tunes fit their areas of application beautifully, ranging from calm and atmospheric to epic and adrenaline-pumping. They’re very appropriate both to the game’s visuals and to the world, and I can’t help but hope in a CD or digital release of the soundtrack down the line. I can see myself listening to it quite often.

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Only the main theme for the city of Gridania kind of weirded me a bit. It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong. It’s actually quite the opposite, but it’s so strikingly similar to the Hobbiton theme that I’m wondering if it’s an intentional – while rather heavy handed – nod to The Lord of the Rings. 

There was still no voice acting in the beta, so I have nothing to say on that front yet, but combining a great soundtrack (at least from what we’ve heard so far) and striking visuals definitely gives A Realm Reborn a solid edge in the area of production values.

Of course what really matters the most is gameplay, and here I have to issue a warning: if you’re looking for a MMORPG that shatters boundaries, flies in the face of traditions, gets rid of the trinity and otherwise recklessly embraces extreme innovation stop right here. There are high chances that this simply isn’t the game for you. Not only A Realm Reborn doesn’t reinvent the wheel (while it does redesign its previous incarnation’s wheels rather radically, but those were a tad on the square side), but it openly doesn’t try to.

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It does have quite a few elements that set it aside from the rest, but it’s obviously and purposely designed to deliver a classic MMORPG experience that will feel familiar to those that played many of the genre’s entries from the times of Everquest and onward. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering the poor results yielded by other games that implemented radical innovations for the sake of having something different to write on the back of the box, it’s an important element to consider depending on what you’re looking for.

The UI is the first gameplay element you’ll have to tackle, and it’s definitely one of the best I’ve seen in a MMORPG. The consolesque exercise in user-unfriendlyness that plagued the first FFXIV is completely gone and replaced by a modern, accessible and beautifully sleek interface that does everything it can to deliver information efficiently and quickly to your eyes.

It even does more than most (and some may consider this overkill), by conveying accessorial information like the the occurrence and direction of aggro, and it’s hard not to see that a lot of work went into responsiveness and user-friendly design.

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What the new UI is most successful at is in having basically everything at your fingertips with as few clicks as possible. A clear example is the equipment and inventory diagram on the bottom right that will clearly let you see how crowded your bags are (and access each of them separately) without even having to open the window. That’s a job well done right there.

The map is basically the only element that still needs some relevant work due to the separation between areas, that makes finding the route to your destination a bit more laborious than many would like, but it’s a very minor flaw that can be easily corrected.

One of the major innovations brought by A Realm Reborn is the ability to dynamically switch between the classic mouse & keyboard interface to a controller-friendly one that will also be present in the PS3 version, and believe me, this one is a treat. 

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Controllers have always been cumbersome for MMORPGs due to how hotbars are normally accessed and activated, forcing players to scroll between abilities with the D-pad before actually using them and ultimately wasting a lot of time that in this genre really shouldn’t be wasted, especially with advanced content. This necessity is completely gone in A Realm Reborn.

When you switch to the controller interface your action bar also changes to two pairs of crosses with four actions each, for a total of sixteen actions. Each pair of crosses corresponds to the D-pad and the face buttons of the controller. The left pair is activated by holding the left trigger, while the right pair is activated by holding the right trigger. Holding each trigger will also evidence the selected pair and will cause the names of the actions on them to pop up for to further intuitive activation.

Sounds complex? It’s not. The most important result is that each action can be fired with a single combination of trigger and button, making using the controller just as quick as using your old and trusted keyboard and mouse. It’s a solution that I can’t hesitate to define a stroke of genius and that I can see converting quite a few PC-elitists into controller enthusiasts when combined with the movement precision granted by the analog control sticks.

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The armory system seems almost unchanged from what we’ve seen in the late evolution of the previous incarnation of the game, besides the fact that almost all the actions have been changed or tweaked and that you need to get to level ten with your first selected class in order to unlock the ability to switch to other classes. This isn’t much of an obstacle, as you reach level ten quite quickly, and the limitation has probably been put in place to make the initial progression a little more linear and less confusing for those that haven’t experienced the system before.

If you aren’t familiar with it, the basic concept is that (once you reach level 10) you can switch classes at leisure depending on the weapon you’re wielding. Want to move from Lancer to Archer? All you have to do is to switch to a bow and you’re done, allowing you to level all classes on a single character without needing to create alts (and repeat content over and over) in order to switch to a different role.

When you level different classes you can also assign a limited number of abilities from inactive classes to be used with your active one. Want to be a Gladiator able to heal? You just have to level Conjurer as well and you can use the Heal spell even when you’re going around bashing monsters with your sword and shield.

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The system is very flexible and fun to play with, but honestly (and I know I’ll be singing against the choir here) I preferred the completely unlimited approach we had during the first months of Final Fantasy XIV. It allowed for inventive and imaginative combinations of skills for roles that the developers couldn’t even get near to predict. And while I know that it was a balancing nightmare, it was also a whole lot of fun for me.

I understand  that this change has been made in order to further class uniqueness and role pride, not to mention to make balancing classes a lot easier and probably functionally better, but while my brain knows and even approves, my heart simply isn’t there. Call it a conflict between pure entertainment value and functionality and a plain matter of taste if you will.

Combat is fast, dynamic and very responsive (besides a few occasional lag spikes due to massive overcrowding), but it definitely doesn’t break any mold. Like every Final Fantasy combat sustem it’s extremely pretty to watch , but it’s classic MMORPG fare and the level 35 cap of the beta combined with the temporary absence of the announced limit break system makes it very hard to gauge its functional values at the moment.

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It’s definitely a lot more fun to play in a group than solo but I’m saying something rather obvious here, as group synergies make everything more complex due to the higher number of variables.

What basically split the beta community in two rather litigious halves is the presence of a global cooldown for ability activation. While I personally don’t mind it too much, I understand fully why many don’t like it. It gives a very regular pacing to battles, but some prefer a more fast and furious approach, and I can’t blame them for that. Considering how vocal part of the playerbase has been about it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was tweaked or even removed, but we’ll have to see what the future holds there.  I sure wouldn’t complain at all if it the development team decided to eliminate it completely, and I’m positive that I wouldn’t be the only one.

It’s rather obvious that Square Enix opted for a rather gentle approach to the difficulty curve. I have felt really challenged very rarely during my whole beta experience (including when fighting against dungeon bosses), and when I did, it didn’t seem due to an intentional gameplay mechanic, but simply because a few quests included some balancing mistakes. One in particular was so unbalanced that troops of generous veteran testers often loitered around the area to offer much needed heals to the unprepared newbies that found themselves at a frustrating disadvantage.

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The ability to smooth-sail through content triggered some backlash from the most hardcore area of the beta testing community (especially those coming from Final Fantasy XI), that clamored for a higher degree of challenge, but this is par for the course in modern MMORPGs, and we’ll have to see what will happen with higher level content. If I know the development team I personally expect a radical increase of the difficulty curve as the endgame approaches and is reached, and that would be a wise approach.

With today’s content-crunching MMORPG audience easy gameplay all the way through would definitely be a mistake, but accessibility is quite a different (and very positive) pair of sleeves, and what I’m seeing so far seems to be the early and gentle slope of a curve aimed towards accessibility and destined to become a lot steeper towards the end, but I could be wrong about this.

A rather annoying problem I found is the Levequest-specific part of the claiming system. When someone activates a Levequest (repeatable content you can activate periodically and separately from the usual one-time quests, for those that aren’t familiar with FFXIV 1.0) it will spawn “private” monsters that only he can see until combat begins, and only he can attack.

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The issue comes to light when they are attacked and they appear for everyone, as other players still can’t attack them, and they’re denied by a curt message that breaks immersion rather radically and comes out as simply annoying. I understand that developers want to reduce the chance of abuse, but this simply isn’t the right way, and in my opinion this stopgap should simply be removed. It’s not in any way conducive to fun gameplay and it’s an insidious source of frustration and targeting mistakes in crowded areas.

Quests are another element that doesn’t really break the mold, as the vast majority of them is made by the usual kill and fetch tasks that have been done to death by other MMORPGs. That said the way they’re presented in is actually quite fetching and the writing is amazing, so I wouldn’t count them out, especially since the most of the quest content (including those from the many accessible areas) still isn’t implemented yet, and most of the story-driven questlines are partly omitted to avoid spoilers.

It’s not unlikely that the development team just implemented the fastest and easiest ones to create a placeholder for progression and we’re likely to see some surprises with phase three, but in phase one and two there wasn’t much that could be defined groundbreaking on the questing field. Ask me again with my next preview and I’ll be able to give a more telling answer on this.

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An interesting addition to the content line-up are F.A.T.E. events (short for Full Active Time Events), that are basically A Realm Reborn‘s own version of Warhammer Online‘s public quests. They often pop on the map automatically and involve players that happen to pass by into large battles (either against large groups of enemies or Notorious Monsters) where grouping isn’t needed and everyone receives a reward depending on their contribution to the completion of the event.

While most F.A.T.E. events included in the beta were on the simple side, they were quite enjoyable, and provided a chance of socialization and interaction in a game that, at least for the first levels, is rather solo-oriented. They surely have a lot of potential, and I can definitely see them turning into a main selling point with further development.

Crafting and gathering have been slightly streamlined to make them less cumbersome and grindy, but they’re still quite deep, especially compared to the simplistic mechanics included in most mainstream MMORPGs. While the system isn’t fully refined in the beta yet, what we’ve seen so far is most definitely the base of a very solid feature that will probably keep artisan-inclined players busy for a long time, enabling them to make a visible impact on the game’s economy that won’t be fully player driven, but seems to aim towards a nicely functional hybrid.

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One of the most criticized elements of Final Fantasy XIV is that it really didn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game. Most of the elements of the lore simply weren’t there when the game launched, causing many fans of the franchise to simply give up early, since they wanted a true Final Fantasy MMORPG. A Realm Reborn takes the opposite approach. The amount of fanservice is almost overwhelming, and it’s really hard to turn a corner without bumping into some classic element that will make the fans smile.

I’m actually very pleased to see how much the development team embraced the deep and rich lore coming from the roots of the series. That’s what the fans want, and it places them into an environment that is a brave new world and warmly familiar at the same time. The Final Fantasy franchise is a treasure chest of quirky ideas and epic legends and it’s only fitting to pull from it as many gems as possible. Now we just need a Kefka-like villain to make everyone smile. 

A last mention has to be made on how polished the game is for an early beta. I experienced very few bugs and most of them were minor, and this speaks volumes on the perfectionism and attention to detail that Naoki Yoshida seem to have instilled into the team. If this level of quality will be carried through the subsequent phases and into launch, I can easily see the possibility for a smooth landing for A Realm Reborn. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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Ultimately Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn won’t be for everyone. No MMORPG ever is and this won’t be an exception. It definitely won’t be for those that demand a reinvention of the genre or the abandonment of its most classic tropes.

What it’s shaping up to be is a completely new (compared to its predecessor) MMORPG characterized by a very solid and competent traditional gameplay. It seems to be destined to base its uniqueness on exceptional art direction and flavor, and on how traditional elements are assembled between themselves and with a few uncommon ones to fit in a tight package, more than on the indiscriminate implementation of innovative mechanics.

Some will call it “clone”, but it simply is not, and from what I’ve seen so far those that will be able to see past the forum-born catchwords will very possibly be in for a great ride. Of course most of the content and a lot of the features still aren’t there for us to scrutinize, but the first phases of the beta of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn represent a very solid and sweet seedling that definitely holds the potential to hatch into a full rebirth that might surprise and please many.

If you want to know more about Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn you can read our recent interview with Director and Producer Naoki Yoshida. If you have missed the first incarnation of the game you might want to check out the eight episodes of our Final Fantasy XIV: The Story So far column that will help you catch up with the story and includes all the relevant cutscenes.

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