Games of this type are historically difficult to review, because they are ever-changing, persistent worlds. It’s like writing a printed strategy guide for an MMO, it is outdated very quickly. It seems “professional” game reviewers fall into one of two categories when it comes to reviewing MMOs: 1) They don’t look at MMOs any different than your typical console or PC game, where the campaign can be completed in a few short hours, or 2) they look at any other MMO and compare it to World of Warcraft, thinking it has to be just as easy, just as robust, just as popular as Blizzard’s 10,000 pound gorilla.
So, let’s take a different approach to this review. I’m not going to compare this game to anything else, I’m not going to treat it as a single-player RPG, I’m not going to get stuck in that mindset that every MMO has to come out of the same cookie-cutter mold, I’m not going to go on a rant about one small issue nor take off five points of the review score because I don’t’ like the way I have to spend a few minutes running to my next destination. Let’s step back, focus on what is important, and see how that relates to this game overall and the design philosophy behind it. Perhaps then we’ll emerge with a more balanced review that isn’t set to be outdated as quickly as some others.
Final Fantasy XIV requires the right type of mindset to enjoy. This is not a game that is competing with any other MMO, it is aimed at being a unique, deep and rewarding experience, which focuses on variety instead of constraint, patience instead of haste and the journey more than the destination.
We’ll wax philosophical later, but right now let’s talk about some other things. Firstly, character creation. All of Square-Enix’s games have incredibly detailed, eye-poppingly pleasing character models, and Final Fantasy XIV is no different. Character creation consists of first choosing your race and gender, then customizing the character’s appearance using a myriad of options. There is basically no way to make a horrible-looking character. It’s impossible, I tell you! Trust me, I’ve gone through the character creation process a dozen times or more, with various different races. What’s interesting to note here is that, with several races, you have two different regional options, which change the skin, hair and eye color options you have available. While this isn’t a huge deal – and there is currently no in-game reason to choose one regional option above another – it still adds much to the overall customization that is available.
I also like the fact that you can now give your character’s hair various highlights, as well as add scars and other optional characteristics. While every hair/eye color isn’t available, there are so many options you’ll still have difficulty deciding. The only unfortunate thing here is that there isn’t more customization of the various markings certain races, such as the Miquo’te, carry. I was at a loss to find any way to change the facial markings of my Miquo’te to anything other than the default.
Once the character model is finished, you get the opportunity to delve into which starting class you will be. The only bearing this has on actual game play is that you will start with weapons and sometimes armor that is a boost to your chosen class. Disciples of War and Magic are pretty self-explanatory – these are your basic offensive fighting classes, and you’ll definitely want one of these in your stockpile at all times.
Disciples of the Hand and Land are interesting because they are theoretically classes that are combat-free, even though they do have some offensive capability (although, to be honest, it sucks horribly). These include crafting and gathering professions like botanist, goldsmith, alchemist, miner and carpenter, and they almost always come with a piece of armor that will help you with that profession.
Choosing a starting class is a two-edged sword. On one hand, you definitely want some good offensive capabilities of a Disciple of War or Magic. On the other hand, you get fancy gear by starting as a Disciple of the Land or Hand. I happened to finally settle on beginning as an archer, and just picking up profession equipment along the way. Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s very easy to change your class at any point, as long as you can afford the basic tools of the trade.
After a few more decisions about your character, you’re presented with a final choice – your character’s starting city. Unlike Final Fantasy XI, the cities here seem to be a mixture of all the races, you can chose any of the three – Ul’dah, Gridania or Limsa Lominsa. This basically only decides the city you start in and the main story you follow throughout the game. Because travel is fairly easy – if also a long process – between cities, it is often just best to choose the one that appeals to you the most. Ul’dah is in a desert, Gridania is in a forest filled with mushrooms and moogles and Limsa Lominsa is full of pirates and fishermen. How’s that for an apt description?
But, enough about character creation – let’s get into the meat of the matter here. Combat is, frankly, your typical MMO fare, however there is no such thing as an auto-attack in this game. You must hit a button for each action you wish to take. This may seem rather tedious when you start out, but as you progress through the ranks of your offensive class of choice, it becomes more exciting when you don’t just have to sit there and use your regular, basic attack. No face-roll and win here. Battle seems slower and more methodical than most other MMOs, but that can be a good thing. Just like the rest of the game, it is more an exercise in strategy and patience than it is brute force in plowing through an enemy in a few short seconds. If you can get past that fact, as I mentioned, things seem to function much like other MMOs you’ve likely played in the past.
In the starting areas, enemies are scattered liberally throughout the zone, and you have a huge area to explore before you start getting into dangerous situations with mobs that will attack you on sight. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to distinguish these mobs from passive ones, much like in FFXI. You just have to learn from trial and error. Just because a mob looks mean and is twice the size of your character, doesn’t necessarily mean it will agro. Although, some are pretty darn obvious, like the sand dragon things around Ul’dah. I once got one-shotted by one of those things while harvesting from a tree about a dozen paces outside the city.
You can go out and just generally plow a swath of destruction through the mobs in the area, and level up your offensive class and your physical level pretty well. Although, you’ll probably get more benefit out of leveling via what are called guildleves – or, for people who don’t need a fancy name to make themselves feel special, they’re called quests. Yes, all guildleves are is Final Fantasy XIV’s fancy word for quests. You can pick these up in each major city – only a certain amount per 36-hour period – and go out into the field and perform what they ask you to do. The nifty thing here is that there are guildleves for all classes – battlecraft leves if you want to get your hands dirty, fieldcraft leves to help skill up your gathering classes, handcraft leves fro your profession-type classes, and the list goes on and on. Naturally, you can visit other cities and pick up their leves, as well, without doing anything special besides traveling there by foot at least once.
This seems to be a primary way of skilling up classes and your physical level. You’ve noticed me talking about two different leveling scales a few times now. That’s because you have one overall physical level, which continues going up as you perform various actions to get experience. You also have your individual class level, which fluctuates based on what class you switch to. So, you could level up archer until level five, then switch to marauder. At that point you drop down to level one in the marauder class and have to level it back up again. But, when you swap back to archer, you’re still at level five. It’s all a bit similar to the class-changing we’ve all seen before in Final Fantasy XI. And, changing classes is as easy as equipping the primary weapon of the class you want to be. These can be purchased in the major cities either at the class guild or another vendor.
Grouping is also a nice, social way to gain decent experience, as groups of people can take on larger and more profitable endeavors, including performing guildleves at harder difficulties to receive better rewards in terms of experience and gil overall. As an aside, it is nice that most guildleves can be soloed fairly easily, you just have to choose the lowest level of difficulty when you go to initiate them.
There are many more details as far as these guildleves go, but, contrary to popular belief, the game does a fairly good job of initiating you to the way things work, and after the initial tutorial leve, it isn’t too difficult to figure the rest out for yourself if you, you know, think a little bit.
Crafting is entirely where this game shines, I feel. The way it is integrated into the heart and soul of the whole experience is unlike anything I’ve seen in another MMO. However, like just about everything else in this game, it isn’t for everyone. Instant gratification has no place here. You’re rewarded for variety leveling, not focusing on a singular profession class. There are regularly items from a single profession that may require other professions to make. There are also many items that, in and of themselves, require two or more profession classes at a certain rank to synthesize sucessfully.
The whole crafting process itself is a mini-game, of sorts, where you can choose between three different strokes for one part of the synthesis – bold, quick or standard. Bold synthesis moves you slower toward completion, but dramatically increases the quality of the final product. Quick synthesis moves you faster toward completion, but doesn’t improve the quality. Standard is a balance of both. Speaking of balance, this is exactly what it takes to perform an overall successful synthesis of one item, which, again, may require materials from several professions. Check out the video below to get an idea of what I’m talking about here.
You will either have to skill up those profession classes yourself or purchase the materials – sometimes at a premium price – from either vendors or other players. It is a very deep and complex system, with many different factors weighing in on how successful you are, including, but not limited to what tools you use, the quality of your tools, the durability of your tools, whether or not you’re using the crafting facilities of a guild or camp, the quality of the items you’re using, and so on and so forth. Knowing this is Square-Enix, it might even be influenced by the direction you face, the weather, the phase of the in-game moon and the time of month – you never can tell.
Gathering isn’t quite as involved, but it is equally as deep and rewarding. Both botany and mining have their own mini-games to play out, that are fairly similar in design, but slightly different in execution. You choose the part of the exposed rock (or tree) you want to aim for, then you play a game of hot-and-cold until you gather the materials. What materials you get seems to be completely random, and you only have a certain number of swings per attempt. Each gathering node gives you anywhere from a single attempt, to multiple attempts at gathering items. It is a lengthy process, but the potential amount of items you acquire from any given gathering point is pretty hefty, as well.
Now, let’s move on to the part where I feel the game has both the biggest improvement to make, as well as where things are the most misrepresented – the user interface. The UI of any MMO is a fairly important aspect of the game, however it is not the most important aspect. Yes, I will admit, many areas of this game’s UI does not lend itself to be easily navigated – including the main menu, the chat window and everything in between. The biggest issue here is that, I believe, the game was designed with console play in mind. With consoles, you have primarily a controller to use as your means of user input. When I purchased a controller for Final Fantasy XIV, nearly all the issues I had with the game’s interface were suddenly alleviated.
Too many times I think people try to look at these aspects of the game in terms of other MMOs. While I understand that, these are the same people who would balk at comparing the UI of Fallout: New Vegas to that of Call of Duty: Black Ops, for example. Comparing the UI of Final Fantasy XIV to other games in a similar genre is about as obtuse. What is wrong with being unique, different and going for more of the console demographic than the straight PC MMO player? Absolutely nothing. That doesn’t affect my view of the game, and it shouldn’t, in all honestly, affect anyone else’s. That’s like knocking Halo: Reach for catering to the Xbox Live shooter fan, or a niche JRPG for catering toward fans of those type of highly-specialized gaming experiences. You just don’t do it under normal circumstances, so why do it with MMOs?
However, on the flip side of things, Square-Enix needs to realize that “standard” MMO interfaces these days are the way they are for a reason – they work extremely well. While Final Fantasy XIV takes a few things here and there from WoW-like interface elements, by and large it completely ignores everything that makes an MMO UI user friendly, and they seemingly do this on purpose.
The chat interface, for example. Why on earth would they make it so stupidly clunky to use this thing? You have to type someone’s name in there to whisper them, that’s fine. But then you need to press about a dozen keys to respond to a whisper, to change chat channels, to adjust anything or talk to anyone (yes, I exaggerated a bit, but not by much). This needs to be fixed, along with some other tweaks.
Every available action should also have the ability to assign a hot-key to it. As it stands, very few menu actions are usable through hot-keys alone, and this adds to the frustration of using this interface with a mouse and keyboard. However, like I mentioned, if you go into it with the mentality that this is a console RPG, and use a controller, many things suddenly become less cumbersome. Well, many things except the chat interface. Not much can save that at this point.
Aside from technical aspects of the game mechanics and playability, the visuals are absolutely stunning, but it comes at a cost – you need a pretty hefty machine to be able to take advantage of them. Myself, I had to upgrade to do so, when I could run other graphics-intensive MMOs such as Aion and Lord of the Rings Online at decent FPS and visual acuity without doing so. I think there may be some highly inefficient code there, because, let’s face it – Square-Enix isn’t known for their rigorous line up of awesome PC titles. If you say The Last Remnant, I will shoot you in the eye with a taser.
Now, as I promised earlier, let’s have a little philosophical discussion with ourselves, what do you say? This game totally takes the right mindset to enjoy, and I repeat this throughout the review for emphasis. Ask yourself, going in, what compelled you to be interested in this title in the first place? Do you want to explore? See the story? Hang out with friends and be social? The key to enjoyment in this game – perhaps even moreso than other MMOs – is to find that focus, that one thing that you enjoy, and work toward it. This isn’t a game for those who need instant gratification, so long-term goals tend to require rather hefty commitments – not of your time, but of your patience.
That patience, however, will be rewarded and, I feel, you’ll get a better sense of accomplishment than you do in most other games of this genre. That was the case in Final Fantasy XI, as well. Square-Enix seems to have a penchant for making things overly complex, but they also seem to bring about some of the most rewarding MMO game play experiences around – both from a game mechanics standpoint, and from a story perspective.
This is also a game that rewards variety and punishes those who only pursue one way of playing the game. As I mentioned, the profession classes are one huge melting pot, several of which being required to make just one item in many cases. If you go into this with the intent to stick to one thing that you really like doing and not go outside that line of thought, perhaps this isn’t the game for you, because it will be more difficult for you to progress and it may turn you off entirely.
Remember the story of the turtle and the hare? That is magnified here, more than in any other game of the genre that I have played. This isn’t a game that you rush to the end to raid, or to feel extra, super duper powerful. Forget that line of thinking. Slow and steady wins the race. Rome wasn’t built in a day. This game is 95% about the journey and 5% about the destination. If you get too wrapped up in wanting the game to be something that it is not, you tend to lose sight of how much value the game currently holds, because things will tend to get hard to enjoy.
This game does, indeed, have its issues. Certain decisions Square-Enix made tend to leave me scratching my head – interface issues, purposeful decisions that increase lag (such as having every action checked server-side instead of client-side because they’re paranoid of 3rd party programs), not giving us full-windowed mode, and the list goes on. However, many of these things tend to be more considered the icing on the cake, and not the cake itself. If you’re the kind of person who eats the icing and nothing else, this, again, is not the game for you. However, if you enjoy the entire package and can deal with some misgivings you may have about the “icing”, as well as some deficiencies within the game itself – knowing quite well that it will likely get better down the road – Eorzea is a wonderful world to explore. Final Fantasy XIV has some truly unique game mechanics, great story-telling techniques that blow any other MMO out of the water, awesome scenery, great combat mechanics and a deep and rewarding crafting system.
Truly, the benefits to giving this game a shot outweigh the deficiencies that it possesses at this moment in time. I commend Square-Enix for going outside the mold and not designing Final Fantasy XIV to be your standard WoW-clone that are a dime-a-dozen these days. There are some truly great experiences to be had here. Not every game that doesn’t have WoW’s numbers, or basic game design, need be horrible, and this one isn’t. Have an open mind and look past a few faults, and you will likely find an experience worth taking part in.
- Title: Final Fantasy XIV
- Platform Reviewed: PC
- Developer: Square-Enix
- Publisher: Square-Enix
- Release Date: September 30, 2010 (PC)
- MSRP: $49.99 ($14.99 monthly fee required)
- Review copy info: A Collector’s Edition of this title was provided to DualShockers, Inc. by the publisher for the purpose of this review.