Final Fantasy XIV Online
Review by RostorCrytea
"Such a marvel is proof not only that the gods exist, but that they love, and that profoundly."
Quick Note: This review was written on 02/10/2010 (2nd of October, not the 10th of February :D), and as such should act as a reflection of the game as of that date, whilst also taking into account its nature as an ongoingly developed and expanded game and its future potential in light of that, and its place in the MMO genre. As of this moment, I have tried out every single combat oriented class, as well as both the crafting and gathering mechanics, completed dozens of levequests, fully explored my starting area: Gridania, done the first two main story scenarios for that area, and explored the surrounding field at great length.
Final Fantasy XIV has created, quite simply, what can only be described as one of the most captivating worlds ever detailed, let alone seen in the MMO genre of videogames, with some of the most impressive fundamental gameplay elements any kind of RPG has ever had, with a story that's shaping up to be something truly incredible driving you through it. Not only is it the kind of game that any MMO fan would be better off experiencing, but the kind that any gamer, period, or even any fan of great stories, would be better off not missing out on.
The finest I've ever come across in an MMO to date, surpassing even that of its predecessor, FFXI. Your character takes on the role of the silent protagonist, acting as the medium through which you, the player, get to experience these wonderfully engaging cutscenes. On par with the kind you'd find in a single player Square RPG, the story is full of lots of mystery and suspense, slowly developing the characters and world around you, while skillfully revealing new pieces of information to the character through exposition that flows naturally through the dialogue and shocking you with revelations that change the way you look at the story. The music does a wonderful job of setting the atmosphere and emotion of the scene, and is of the kind of quality you'd expect from a great composer like Nobuo Uematsu. Along with the music and sheer charm of the story, the visuals, through both their high technical quality (the highest we've seen in an MMO to date) and fantastic art direction, create the kind of immersive experience its incredibly rare to find. FFXIV tells a great story within the confines of a breathtakingly beautiful world and consequently draws you into the story in a manner that the vast majority of RPGs attempt, but completely fail to do.
The story deals with such themes as religion, faith and the blind nature of it, politics, war and the threat of attack from a technologically advanced superpower, interracial and social alienation, the role that diversity has on disunity, and in contrast the need to join together against a great threat and resultant harmony. The world and story are full of depth and introduces these themes seamlessly into the structure of the story.
Beyond the brilliance of the cutscenes, as with FFXI, the FFXIV developers seem to have put a lot of thought into the detail and atmospheric quality of the NPCs and their habitual dialogue, which adds an entirely new dimension to the storytelling experience that FFXIV offers you, by giving the player more a sense of the norm and general atmosphere of the world, beyond the very personal and world shattering events you see in the cutscenes. Whilst single player RPGs generally put a similar amount of thought into this its rare that an MMO does and I'd argue that the general atmosphere of the world, achieved through its visuals, sound, and these periodic, ordinary pieces of dialogue, is even more important when it comes to this particular genre, where immersion into the world is as significant an aspect of the game as any, and given the obscenely large length of time that people are generally intended to, and generally do, put into these games, where the same environments and same pieces of music would naturally be revisited over and over again where it becomes all the more important that the player continues to be able to enjoy them over such an amount of time. Thankfully when you factor all three of these elements into the overall atmospheric quality that the FFXIV world delivers, you end up with a world arguably more captivating than any other we've ever seen.
The only area where the story appears to take a hit is the background story components of the levequests, which are sadly by far the most frequent and prevalent component of the game. For every story scenario there is, there are dozens more levequests, and the minimalistic story approach, as well as the huge lack of thought put into these background scenarios, often recycling the same passages and changing the names around for different quests, makes the story component of the game suffer hugely, and it's an aspect of the game I really hope they intend to work on.
Character Creation - The finest seen in an MMO to date. Players get to not only choose between a number of different races, but even sub cultures within each race, that has a varying impact on their appearance. Some of the smallest and least consequential elements of your character's appearance can be adjusted, and the selections available are generally very varied, with an especially varied colour selection for different elements of your character's appearance available. As far as variety and character individuality are concerned (which can be very important in an MMO where your character will be sharing a world with thousands of other player characters and will often want to have his/her own sense of identity), no other MMO does it better than FFXIV. The starting area can be selected, which determines which of the three early story scenarios you get taken through, which as of yet can each only be experienced by a character starting in that area, meaning you can only access one of these story scenarios per character, and it depends on which area you start in (unlike in XI, where you could switch between all three starting area storylines at any given time; something SE will hopefully be changing at some point). The starting class can also be chosen at this point, though these can quite easily be changed within the game, granting your character with easy access to every single class, regardless of your starting one. And of course this is where you select your character's name, a first and second unlike just the first in XI, with an option for players of XI to import their character's first name and realm from XI into their name in FFXIV.
Jobs - there are plenty of jobs, both battle oriented ones and gathering/crafting jobs, with plenty of variety, and the awesome option of switching to a different job at any given time with no loss of levelling progress whatsoever. The job at your disposal is determined by the primary weapon your character is wielding, which can be changed quickly and easily with no restriction, and there's even a system in place that enables you to use abilities from other jobs with your main one. Your jobs have their own separate level in the form of their rank, which you progress through skill points that you gain through general use of the job's abilities, but you also get your character's universal physical level, which you progress through experience points through the general usage of your character. A job's rank determines such things as the abilities you learn, number of action points you get when using that job as well as your hp and mp, certain equipment requirements, as well as when you can progress through certain quests and story scenarios, whereas your character's physical level determines the 12 universal attributes of your character (6 elemental: fire, ice, water, lightning, earth, wind, and 6 regular: strength, vitality, dexterity, intelligence, mind, piety, which are physical and magical: offence, defence, and accuracy, respectively). A huge and common player complaint is that your limited to gain skill points with each job a total of 8 hours per week, however I find this complaint unreasonable for the most part. SE have given a perfectly valid reason for such a decision, being that of a balancing mechanism, enabling the more casual players to compete with the more hardcore ones on a more even level playing field. It also has the effect of forcing characters who want to progress in a given job to switch over to a different one, acting as a useful control mechanism for forcing the players to experience the wide variety that the game's jobs have to offer, which is one of FFXIV's biggest selling points with regards to their many different jobs, but something many players, who often only wish to actively level with one class, would otherwise not be in a position to experience. You also get many players that attempt to rush to the end game content, whereas the FF MMOs have always placed more of an emphasis on the journey to the end game, so by delaying such an approach, this decision acts as a useful control mechanism by also forcing players to appreciate the journey to the end game more so than they otherwise would. Besides, 8 hours over a week is hardly that small an amount of time, it doesn't prevent people from playing as their favourite job beyond that amount of time, it doesn't prevent the levelling of any other jobs after that time, and given that you can add abilities from other jobs to the action bar of your favoured one, it doesn't even attempt players from adding to the main role of their character. FFXIV is the kind of MMO where your character will likely need to be effective in multiple jobs to remain a competitive player overall.
Combat - Aside from a few issues, such as the poor targeting system, which can often be extremely frustrating (as there's no easy way to differentiate between yourself and fellow players and enemies, occasionally making it quite tedious when trying to target an enemy, sometimes mid battle, and can even mean the difference between life and death at times), and common cases of lag, where especially with the magic oriented jobs can cause quite a delay (sometimes delaying your spells to such an extent that you're not able to pull off a crucial offensive or healing spell in time and can often end up losing you the battle), the battle system in FFXI is the finest I've come across in an MMO. It has quite possibly the finest blend of strategy, tactics, and action I've ever come across. The use of an action bar adds a lot of strategy to the combat; your character possesses a certain number of action points, and these get acumulated by adding abilities to your action bar, where only then can they be directly used (your action bar is never set in stone; it can be adjusted completely at your leisure); this forces you to pick and choose through your set of abilities and to think about which ones would be ideal for a given scenario/location/purpose, prior to actually using them in combat, forcing you to think about the combat before engaging in it. The feature of adding abilities from other jobs currently not in use adds another element of strategy to the combat and allows for some pretty varied approaches. There's also a strong tactical side to the game; abilities will often have complex usage requirements, with three different pools that can be drawn from being your hp (health), mp (magic points), and tp (tactical points built up whilst engaged in combat, but slowly depleted outside of it), often multiple of these pools at once. Abilities will often have interesting cumulative or over time effects, and all in all there is a lot of room for tactical thinking involved. The enemy A.I. can be very responsive, often moving in and out of range/your line of sight, forcing your character to constantly be ready and on the move; they often flee causing you to give chase, and they can operate seamlessely at different levels of distance often influencing how effective certain abilities are or even nullifying them, and they can often even temporarily leave the immediate area, such as burrowing into the ground, forcing you to retarget them. Ultimately the way the combat's designed is that it forces you to think quickly and be very interactive with your enemy. Your are also able to move whilst casting spells making the combat a lot less static for mages as it often is with other MMOs. There's also a lot of variety with the different jobs and even at this stage no noticable balancing issues, which is always a plus. There are seven combat oriented jobs; two magic oriented ones (Thaumaturge, and Conjurer) and five physical (Gladiator, Marauder, Pugilist, Lancer, and Archer), with the promise of plenty more, and even early signs in the game of there being some (such as guilds for jobs that currently aren't in the game, but are clearly planned to). It's worth nothing that while HP can slowly be replenished by entering passive mode, where you sheathe your weapon, there is no way to re accumulate your mp, outside of certain mage spells that have high cooldowns, or accessing an aetherial node, though between the easy access to the aetherial nodes (although these cannot be accessed for that purpose during a quest) as well as how slowly your mp gets used up with respect to how quickly your mp replenishing abilities can be back in use, there isn't really ever any real issue regarding limited mp.
Gathering - the gathering mechanics in this game are nothing short of fantastic. Unlike pretty much every other MMO where it's usually a matter of simply finding a resource and then clicking a button to extract it, in FFXIV there's a complex and involving mini game involved that's arguably as entertaining as the battle system in its execution. First off, FFXIV devotes entire jobs to these gathering roles, not simple side stats, with their own set of abilities and action bar. Not only do they make the process of finding a resource fun and engaging, using cooldown abilities to indicate the direction and distance from the nearest/most appropriate one, but there are essentially three stages to the process of extracting resources from the given source. You start off by setting a position on a slider; this determines where abouts exactly you will attempt to gather resources from the source, and has the impact of determining what resource you may be able to extract. The next process involves trying to get the perfect spot on a guage, a process that requires a bit of skill to it as the pointer can move quite quickly with a controlled, delayed response time. You are then given a sense of how close to the mark you are, with "nothing promising" indicating nowhere near, "you feel something promising" indicating that you are quite close, "getting further from the mark" indicating that you're even further away then your last attempt was, and "you've almost got it, only one more attempt required" indicating that you've got the perfect spot. What's more, there's a separate bar that slowly gets depleted with every attempt, where when it reaches zero you'll no longer be able to continue, meaning there is the possibility of failure and of breaking what you are attempting to extract. It provides the perfect blend of difficulty to force the player to actively engage in the process, while not making it so hard that it becomes an inaccessible process, and the mini game itself can be quite a strategic and fun process. Really, as far as the gameplay's concerned this is an area I couldn't be more impressed with. There are three gathering jobs: the botanist, miner, and fisher, with slightly different, but fundamentally similar play styles. The jobs are even equipped for limited combat capability, but naturally the idea is that you would rely on a more battle oriented job in conjunction with your gathering one.
Crafting - 8 crafting jobs in total: the Carpenter, Blacksmith, Armorer, Goldsmith, Tanner, Weaver, Alchemist, and Culinarian. As with the gathering jobs, these are equipped with limited combat capability, but designed to be used alongside a combat oriented one. The crafting system, as well as the gathering system, is another very complex, involving process, and something to be truly admired next to the lazy approaches of most other competing MMOs with their simplistic designs. In FFXIV, you get three bars during the crafting process: a durability bar, a progress bar, and a quality bar. The durability bar depletes from a certain value with every attempt, and if it reaches zero the attempt is failed. The progress bar gets filled with each action, and when it reaches 100 the item is crafted. The quality bar is filled depending on your approach and determines the quality of your item. There are three different types of action you can use during the process; a normal one, an efficient one, and careful one, each of which deplete the durability bar, and add to the progress and quality bars to varying extents. There are also a lot of other variables at play, such as the colour of the sparks as detailed in the process, and certain miscellaneous aspects such as the in game time of day and date, that can determine the extent to which each action will add/deplete from certain bars. Ultimately it's a very complex, strategic process, and attempting to make the highest quality item possible without failing the attempt can be a highly thrilling and engaging activity, and extremely rewarding when you succeed.
Quests - As mentioned earlier, the story, or rather its minimalistic and lazy approach in this regard, really shows in this area, and from that perspective creates quite a repetitive experience, and sadly you couldn't truthfully say anything too different from a gameplay standpoint either. Even the initiation process is a really repetitive thing, initiating all of them from the adventurer's guild from a menu, rather than exploring the town and getting them from different NPCs as you did in XI. The crafting quests always involve the simple creation of an item, with a cool feature being the quest issuer provides you with all the reagents required, with the catch being you don't get to keep your creations or any surplus over the quest objectives. Gathering quests either involve the gathering of a certain number of items, or the complete depletion of a source of resources, with an added twist being that occasionally it takes you to areas where enemies will attack you without provocation, where you may need to be adequately equipped from a combat standpoint. The battlecraft quests typically all require the killing of a certain number of enemies, or the gathering of their loot, with occasionally the added twist of an enemy fleeing and then gathering more enemies to ambush you and add more to the quest objective, though you can chase after them or distract them initially to prevent them from doing so. While sadly it is a mostly repetitive affair, the fact that the different core aspects of the gameplay are as fun and engaging as they are still makes for a highly enjoyable experience, and it creates the perfect opportunity to experience the large variety of the different jobs at your disposal, or to simply explore this breathtakingly beautiful world before you. The regional quests (gathering and battlecraft; crafting quests are local and not timed) are all timed at 30 minutes, and for the battlecraft quests, there are five difficulty levels that can be selected that all yield varying xp and skill points and loot. There's also a maximum of 8 regional quests (gathering and battlecraft) and 8 local quests (crafting) that a player can initiate per day, which to a lot of people is considered too limiting, though in a way it acts as a good control mechanism as it forces some players to interact and cooperate with other players (as they can still partake in their levequests if they're engaged in a group together) which in many ways would be what SE had in mind for players, by even choosing to create a game in this genre in the first place. The difficulty levels are also in line with such an intent, as they're designed for group play based on their layout and the fact that the difficulty at the higher levels requires it.
Trade - A huge player complaint is the lack of an auction house for players to put their items up for sale, either on auction or for outright sale. In place of this SE have set up the market stalls instead, where players can hire a retainer to sell up to 80 of their items to browsing players. Whilst this system does capture the essence of a marketplace type environment quite well it completely lacks the acceptability and usability of the auction house, as well as the auction element to the trade system, and can be quite a tedious process, so as far as player trade is concerned the exclusion of the auction house can be seen to be quite a huge blow to the game's appeal, though that being said SE have stated that they are considering adding it to the game.
Travel - One huge drawback is that as of this date, the game hasn't granted you access to chocobos, or any kind of mount, thought it's pretty clear that they're in the process of adding them as they've even set up Chocobo Stalls around the starting areas. SE have also stated they will be adding airships into the game as a means for travel, and there are also boats as well as speed enhancing abilities that enable you to get around more quickly. There's a lot of exploration to be made, in some ways encouraged by the games breathtaking visuals. There are many dimensions to the locations, with you often coming across complex maze like structures and multiple levels across the terrain. A really useful feature is the ability to teleport to any aetherial node you've made contact with, at the small cost of 4 anima (you start off with 100 and it gets replenished very quickly) making travelling a very easy and casual task, granting the player the choice of whether to travel to and adventure through/explore certain areas.
Grouping - Certain areas or quests can prove to be quite dangerous to play through whilst solo, which along with the leve difficulty settings and limitations has the effect of encouraging group play which is certainly a good control mechanism in an online only game with multiplayer emphasis. The different jobs available fit quite well into different roles, and player can effectively earn xp/skill points in parties of quite varied level differentials, meaning players can benefit from being in a party without having to be too close in level. There are a few annoyances as far as the general social/group play elements go, however. First off, to invite a player to your party, they have to be within viewing distance so that you can directly select their avatar and form a party with them from a menu, meaning you cannot do so over great distances. As mentioned, the targeting system doesn't differentiate between yourself, enemies, and fellow players, making group play quite problematic at times, and the chat box was designed for Japanese Kanji, meaning for the English speaking players it doesn't allow for much to be said at all in a single increment, which can be quite difficulty when you want to speak in detail about something, whether its just being sociable or about group strategy.
What truly separates Final Fantasy XIV from any other MMO and the vast majority of RPGs and games in general, is what is quite clearly an unprecedented level of captivating design in its game world, a great battle system, matched or possibly even surpassed with its phenomenally brilliant gathering and crafting systems of unparalleled interaction and strategic thinking, with a thrilling story to drive you through it. Drawbacks consist of the lack of an Auction House system in place, the repetitive and mindless nature of the levequests, and certain minor annoyances such as the flawed targeting system and the general lag times; all things that SE can easily change in the near future with the planned releases of updates and patches. It's also worth noting that the system specifications are incredible high, though that's more reflective of something that's good, that being the incredibly advanced and high quality technical components of the game. However it's worth noting that you'll need a very powerful system to play it, let alone to great effect. Either way, a truly great game that absolutely doesn't deserve the criticisms it's been getting among the general gaming public. A well deserved 8/10; this could go up to anywhere including a perfect 10/10 score depending on how well SE resolve the game's issues and how effectively they continue to add content to the game while maintaining the same level of high quality.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/04/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIV Online (Limited Collector's Edition) (EU, 09/22/10)
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