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Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - A Well-timed Raise or a Wasted Phoenix Down?
Sometimes the best way to get something to work is to completely scrap what you already have and then start fresh. It lets you build on what worked in any previous versions, while at the same time letting you completely remove anything that might have been impeding the success of the project. Once a new version has been created after completely scrapping an original version though, sometimes one wonders how well it has performed over the original; did it manage to rise from the ashes, or is it doomed to repeat the same mistakes as its predecessor?
With the Final Fantasy franchise easily being one of my favorite video game series to date, I was excited about Final Fantasy XIV when it was first announced. When it was first announced at E3 several years ago, no one realized that its first incarnation would be received so poorly, and that it would be completely rebuilt from the ground up before being released to the public again. Is Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn the MMORPG that the online gaming community has been wanting, or was it a misused Phoenix Down that should have stayed in Square Enix's inventory?
A Little History About Final Fantasy XIV
In September of 2010, Japanese gaming company Square Enix launched Final Fantasy XIV, the second massively multiplayer online role-playing in their flagship franchise. Despite anticipation running high for this spiritual successor to their first foray into the massively-multiplayer genre, Final Fantasy XI, the game was released in a very unpolished, sometimes even unplayable, state. Issues included several in-game mechanics being needlessly complicated, such taking minutes to accomplish a simple task that would take a few seconds in other games, to the graphics engine the game utilized causing considerable amounts of lag even for the most optimal of computer setups.
Because of these issues, Square Enix issued a formal apology to players, and went about a total overhaul of the system while removing the subscription fee, replacing the entire development team in the process to get Final Fantasy XIV back up and running. However, it was decided that keeping the existing work was counterproductive, and a whole new version of the game was to be created, scrapping the initial version of XIV entirely. This original version, dubbed the "Legacy" version, was finally closed down in December of 2012.
The successor, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, was first announced in October 2011, under the leadership of new director and producer Naoki Yoshida. With a completely new graphics engine and most all in-game mechanics being revised or completely re-worked, the game launched in August 2013 across the world for both personal computers and the Playstation 3, with an upcoming Playstation 4 release after the console is released.
Graphics and Designs
One of the first things most any video game fan will think of when it comes to the Final Fantasy franchise is the graphics, and for good reason. Square Enix has, over the years, prided itself on some of the most beautiful, most intricate visuals in their games, in terms of both in-game graphics as well as during cinematic cutscenes. A Realm Reborn certainly lives up to its pedigree the very moment that you first log in to the game, with an opening movie that rivals, if not exceeds, the effects of the biggest budget Hollywood films.
When it comes to the graphics using the in-game engine, Final Fantasy XIV is no slouch either. Though obviously not as detailed as some of its off-line counterparts, all the characters offer very fluid motions and are full expressive, and all the battle effects are extremely impressive. From blanketing the ground with shards of ice using Blizzard II to delivering a hail of arrows using the Rain of Death skill, each effect is unique, instantly recognizable, and, for the most part, very awesome. For a lot of the skills and spells, I found myself just going around using them on random enemies just because I found them extremely cool looking, which I would consider a great sign of designs done right.
The landscapes of Eorzea are equally impressive. Though I've yet to explore all the regions yet due to having not reached end-game levels yet, the areas that I've come to explore so far have been varied and spectacular. There's been times where I've taken my Coeurl mount up to a cliff and looked off into the distance just to enjoy the scenery. The cities are likewise very distinct and instantly recognizable, from the white-stoned adorned port of Limsa Lominsa to the gorgeous Gridania, melding city and forest in the most breathtaking fashion.
When it comes to equipment and monster designs though, I have some issues. While there are a number of weapons and armor sets that look incredibly amazing, namely the final, "artifact" armor sets for the jobs, there are several pieces of equipment, especially early gear, that looks very bland and uninspiring. I understand that gear available to brand new players shouldn't necessarily look like extremely rare, very elaborate and ornate pieces of weapons and armor, but some of the gear that you do start out with, especially with the varied color schemes, looks almost laughably silly. For a brief time, my Marauder, which is meant to be a heavy-armor, tank class and a precursor to the Warrior job, was wearing what a friend of mine said was a "pretty pink dress", because that was the best piece of gear, stat wise, that was available to me.
On the monster aspect, my dislike is based not on finding the designs unappealing, so much as unoriginal. The Final Fantasy franchise has often utilized a large pool of monsters over the years that they've recycled in each entry, with largely similar designs to maintain a sense of familiarity over the years. With XIV though, a considerable portion of the bestiary features designs taken directly from Final Fantasy XI, just with the models cleaned up to a hi-definition version. If XIV was meant to be a sequel to XI and take place in the same world, then I could understand the decision to use those designs. With XIV meant to be a distinct world, unconnected to the XI world of Vana'diel, using the identical designs feels somewhat lazy.
Alongside astounding graphics, the Final Fantasy franchise has long held some of the most memorable musical scores, both in gaming and in media in its entirety. With few exceptions, these scores were thanks to a single man, famed composer Nobuo Uematsu, whose ability to capture moods and paint the most vivid of imagery with his music leaves him with few equals. Uematsu tackled the arduous process of the score for the "Legacy" version of Final Fantasy XIV on his own, bringing a unique feel to each battle and each area in a way that only he could, and for the most part each theme fits perfectly and captures the feel of what it accompanies.
For A Realm Reborn, in addition to Uematsu's scores, a number of scores were produced by Masayoshi Soken, helping to compliment Uematsu's already impressive work. I've personally found myself staying around certain areas just to listen to the music for it, with such works as the Ul'dah night theme and the music for the Guildhest battle system being particularly notable. I can easily say that the music is one of XIV's strongest areas.
Obviously the best and most important part of any game, video game or otherwise, is the gameplay, and unfortunately that's where most of the issues I have with the game lie. For those unfamiliar with MMORPGs or role-playing games in general, character progression often involves gaining experience points through various methods, and then participating in battles, some on epic scales, with your newly acquired skills. While certainly not unique in how gaining experience points and leveling is achieved, Final Fantasy XIV's approach to allowing players to have multiple classes and jobs on the same character is a double-edged sword.
As with most MMORPGs since World of Warcraft "set the standard" for how successful one can be, a good portion of experience points can be obtained from doing various quests available in areas, scaling out in difficulty and reward the further you get from the starting nations of Gridania, Ul'dah, and Limsa Lominsa. These quests offer decent amounts of experience points, gil, and often times equipment or other usable rewards upon completion. Unfortunately, once you've done one of these quests, you're unable to do it again. Should you find yourself leveling multiple classes, as the game essentially pushes you to do in order to acquire the ability to unlock jobs later on, you'll find that you'll tap out the supply of quests quickly, significantly impeding your leveling speed.
To somewhat alleviate this, there are special, repeatable quests available from the cities and most of the outlying towns known as Guildleves, as well as party-based "raids", that can amass decent amounts of experience points. Likewise, there are events scattered across the various areas on a time-based system known as FATEs that can also give a sizable amount of experience points in a relatively short period of time.
Unfortunately, there are downsides to all three of these alternative methods of leveling. With guildleves, you are given a number of "allowances" that refreshes after a certain period of time, and once you've used up your allowances, you're unable to do any more until you are supplied another set, which could take hours. With the raids, which can be found in the forms of assaulting dungeons or events known as Guildhests, you can't do those readily, as you need to form up a party or allow the in-game Duty Finder mechanic do it for you. In either case, forming a party for them can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, making them unreliable at best.
In regards to FATEs, while you can gain significant amounts of experience points from them, that depends in large on whether you reached it soon after it started. If you reach the FATE as it's nearing its completion, which may not be very long after it starts depending on the number of people there, then you may only be able to get a small portion of the experience you could have obtained otherwise.
Because of these issues, leveling multiple classes can be extremely difficult, requiring considerable amounts of grinding in hopes that the next level might be easier in some fashion. I feel that what Square Enix could have done is allowed the quests to be repeatable once per each class/job, but only give the gil and item rewards the first time that you ever do the quest. Leveling would still take time, but not be quite so tedious.
Fortunately, leveling crafting classes is a far simpler, and far more fun, activity. As opposed to a number of other MMOs, you directly affect and contribute to each synthesis you perform, and likewise contribute directly to increasing the chances of producing high-quality items. Because of this, I find crafting to be more than just a fun way to pass time, but something to actively spend time doing just because of the challenge and intricacies involved.
Though it had a very troubled past, I feel that, at least for the most part, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, has managed to prove to be a very enjoyable experience. There are some loose ends as far as leveling is concerned that does hamper it a bit, but the gorgeous landscapes, impressive music, and epic battles still manages to more than make up for these shortcomings.
Though this is a very solo-oriented MMORPG, it's still a very enjoyable experience, and one I would recommend for others to at least give a try.