No story spoilers
I’ve been under a lot of stress lately, and my recent go-to stress relief has been FFXIV. It’s hard to say if this is a review. MMOs have always been difficult to review because, by design, they can be played for hundreds of hours that can eventually turn into thousands of hours. Where do you decide you’ve played enough to review? Who knows. So, this will be a part review, part article of some kind, part rambling (probably).
I have a decent history with the Final Fantasy series and have been playing MMOs for almost 15 years (or over 15 years if you consider the original Guild Wars an MMO). But when some of my friends first started checking out FFXIV, I couldn’t afford to subscribe to that and World of Warcraft. Fast forward several more years, and my friends and I are a bit over WoW and decided to finally try out FFXIV. For now, I still can’t afford to go all-in, so I’m on the free trial. But that’s a LOT of free content. It’s a very generous “trial,” offering more content than many full-priced games.
A Realm Reborn (Levels 1-50)
So, when FFXIV first came out, many years ago now, it was a dumpster fire. By all rights, it should have just been shut down like most MMO failures. But they didn’t give up. When the game relaunched as A Realm Reborn, it had undergone a huge overhaul. There are tons of videos out there that tackle the long and tangled history of the game. But what matters to me is that the entire base game and the first expansion, Heavensward, are included in the trial. That’s levels 1-60 with several races and tons of classes and jobs. It’s easily over a hundred hours of content you can “try” before buying.
A Realm Reborn isn’t exactly a globe-trotting adventure. It takes place on the continent of Eorzea, primarily in the countries Black Shroud (a forested region filled with elves and faeries), La Noscea (pirate archipelago), and Thanalan (an arid region with rocky landscapes and deserts). Later, you’ll enter a very small neutral region Mor Dhona, and the snowy, very gothic highlands of Coerthas (easily my favorite region in the game). Each country has its own capital city (an instanced area where mounts aren’t allowed) and several large, instanced sub-zones to explore. Yes, the world is instance-based rather than seamless.
The Instanced World
On one hand, the world not being seamless seems like a downside, but it allows for each zone to be carefully hand-crafted without worrying about the full map. The zones vary greatly in layout and design, as well as in size but are generally pretty large. And unlike most MMOs (which are often referred to as “theme park” in style), most zones have low-level and high-level areas. Wandering too far can be dangerous, but you’ll also be returning to zones frequently.
In fact, you’ll be constantly traveling around as you quest through the main story; you don’t exhaust an area and move on like an adventuring locust devouring quests. And any time you take up a new class, you begin at level 1, giving you more reasons to return to early zones.
You’ll have access to 6 races with the trial, 5 from the base game and 1 from the first expansion. You’ll have the Hyur (humans), Elezen (tall elves), Lalafell (tiny potato-like people), Miqo’te (anime cat people), Roegadyn (tall, muscular humans), and Au Ra (anime dragon people).
There are three things that I really appreciate with these races. For one, each has two clans (visual and lore variations). Second, while there are very minute stat changes between races, they’re so small as to be more for flavor than function. They otherwise have no other gameplay difference; no racial abilities. Lastly, and most importantly, they are not split into warring factions. They’re all on the same side.
The story is basically a checklist of Final Fantasy tropes because that’s pretty much every FF game since the old days. Countries at war, big battle, massive destruction, and the game starts 5 years later where the countries are still recovering from what they call the Calamity (from what I understand, that is how they re-set the setting when they relaunched the game). The bad guys are almost a straight copy/paste of the judges from FFXII. It works and will feel familiar if you’ve played a FF game before. You might even see some of the bigger plot points coming.
The main story was shortened when they released the major update, A Realm Reborn. It’s a fun main story with some typical JRPG slow-downs, but the patches really improved the story (as well as increasing the number and frequency of voiced cut-scenes). If you make it through the base game, the patch updates will reward you for your patience.
What always makes the FF games great are the characters and individual stories, and it’s nice to see that included in the MMO. The most interesting thing right off the bat is that the game is far more story-focused than other MMOs. If this weren’t an MMO, they wouldn’t need to change very much to make it a typical FF game. Lots of cut-scenes, lots of characters.
But this time, you get to customize and fully control the main protagonist. Though, for most of the main story, you’re more of a silent protagonist with little to say. Once you hit the patch updates after level 50, your character (still voiceless) at least communicates more, and there are more opportunities to select dialogue instead of quietly nodding. It’s still not quite in-depth role-playing, but JRPGs very rarely offer role-playing anyway. The ability to choose any dialogue makes this a rare exception.
What’s an MMO without side-quests? And even the side-quests are filled with story. You might be asked to kill a group of wolves, then upon turning the quest in, learn that you were sent on the hunt as part of a woman’s revenge for her dead fiancé as she details the fateful encounter with the beasts.
Everything has a reason and even NPCs you meet only once have personality and a story to tell. And as such, the game is more about quality over quantity. This is something I’ve wanted in an MMO for a long time. I don’t want to complete 20+ quests in an hour where I skip the quest text because it boils down to, “These things bad, there are many of them lately, go kill some. Thanks.” I want a game that makes that hour immersive and memorable, focusing on fewer quests that actually engage me. I’ll have plenty of excuses to mindlessly grind enemies another time (we’ll come to those).
If I had some downsides to the story is the uneven quality. Each class and job (advanced classes) has its own story arc. I started as a Lancer and it wasn’t until I picked up the Arcanist (to unlock Scholar for healing) that I began to see how weak the Lancer storyline was. There was only one notable character in the Lancer story arch; the rest of it played out like standard training in every other MMO. Even the head of the Lancer’s guild feels like a generic trainer NPC. It never occurred to me he was supposed to be an actual character. Easily probably the weakest story arc I’ve come across in the game.
But the Arcanist story arc was really well done. The trainer still plays a minor role in the story, but she has some sense of personality that feels more distinct. And the story itself was much fresher and the characters more memorable.
The Dragoon and Scholar stories have both been good and an interesting contrast to each other. The Dragoon story is very heavy and serious, more or less giving you responsibility for the fate of a whole country. The Scholar story is much lighter, packing in a lot of humor and teaming you with a lalafell Marauder investigating the mysteries of a lost civilization.
There are some things I appreciate that they do differently here, but some things that take getting used to. While it’s the same action hot-bar, global cool-down style combat as most MMOs, the pacing is much slower. I don’t really mind. Sometimes MMOs (WoW, in particular) can get too hectic and stressful when you’re literally counting individual seconds in order to manage your rotation or handle a complex boss mechanic. FFXIV is more casually paced, including in dungeons until you hit 50.
However, you have far fewer skills while leveling up in FFXIV. Instead of having a repetitive rotation for your first few levels which blossoms into a multi-step rotation, you might be waiting many hours before your rotation gets interesting. Expect some spamming of one or two abilities. For a while.
The Lancer was, for me, a bit boring until level 26, and didn’t hit its stride until you upgrade to Dragoon and learn Jump at 30. The Arcanist was a little better, opening some more interesting abilities at 18. Things are much more engaging at higher levels, at least, and still without the need to study rotations and gearing on some wiki or forum thread. Mind you, we’re still talking ARR here. I’m sure it’s very different when you get into recent expansions.
Another mechanic that some MMOs have dabbled in before is enemy ability templates. Basically, when an enemy is about to do a big attack, a template appears at your feet, outlining where the attack is going to land and giving you time to step out. There’s no dodge mechanic, per se, like in Guild Wars 2 or the criminally underrated Secret World, but instead, the game gives you the time you need to move to safety—assuming you notice it in time and don’t wait that last second to get your spell off. And the game doesn’t hold back on the avoidable moves. Some of them can be really nasty. You’re supposed to avoid them, so move or pay the price.
Another thing I really appreciate is that there is no talent/skill tree to spend points in, improving your stats or abilities by tiny degrees while you worry about wasting points on sub-optimal “choices.” It frees up the leveling experience to focus on the story. You don’t really fret over your character, proper gear, or how to correctly specialize.
You specialize at level 30 by choosing a job (advanced versions of the basic classes). So instead of, say, the typical 3-tree arrangement for talents/skills where you are often expected to devote to one specific tree, you skip the tree itself and just choose what you upgrade your class to. Up until Shadowbringers, you were required to reach certain levels in other classes (a classic gating technique from the olden days of FF games), but now you can upgrade at level 30, even if you’ve never taken on a second class.
Offering advanced classes instead of talent/skill trees a simpler, more straightforward approach that still gets the job done (get it? Job?). I never really feel like I’m missing talent trees. The purpose they serve by allowing you to customize your character is fulfilled by the advanced jobs and the fact that you are free to change your class/job to anything. You don’t have to stick to what you started as. Now that’s a very welcomed change. You’ll, of course, still feel inclined to make additional characters, but much of the motivation is to play as different races and have a variety of characters to pick from (and not force one character to carry the burden of an inventory that several characters could be carrying).
One mechanic that has appeared in a handful of MMOs is the idea of level scaling. Usually, it means scaling your level down to the content you’re doing. This most often occurs when FATEs (random events that pop up around the map) are too far below your level. You have to scale down to participate. This reduces your overall stats and locks out any abilities that you acquired after the level you’re scaled down to.
While questing, you’re generally free to play at your normal level, but instanced story events will also scale you down to ensure that it’s not a total cakewalk. This works pretty well, for the most part. It even means that anyone can do any dungeon at or below their level, so when the story asks you to complete a specific dungeon (something it will do many times), you know that there will be a group to run it. You never have to go to the cities and spend an hour begging for a run or asking guildmates to take you. You also unlock the dungeon roulette which offers rewards for doing random dungeons, raids, and trials (stand-alone boss fights), further ensuring that someone is running group content at all times.
However, when running these random dungeons and getting scaled-down, it often means being returned to your low-level rotations which can be a very dull experience depending on your class/job. Especially since the first dungeon is level 15, I wonder if any class is engaging to play at that level. Lancer and Arcanist definitely aren’t.
There are many little quality-of-life features in the game. I’m sure not all were there when the game launched, but they’re here now. For one, you begin with a huge inventory of 140 spaces. You don’t need to stop by the bank every time you’re in town nor do you constantly upgrade bags (though, I’m not opposed to limited bag space as long as the game isn’t gratuitous with its items and loot). If that wasn’t generous enough, you earn your first chocobo early on which includes another saddle-bag inventory that holds 70 items. On top of that, there are no trash vendor items in the game, saving you a ton of space.
But wait, there’s more! You also get Armory storage that can hold 35 of each equipable item, saving even more space. And there’s a “glamour” system that allows you to save items into special storage that lets you create and save outfits that you can swap to on the fly. Sounds like endless space!
Well, not quite. The crafting professions are elaborate and use dozens of items, many of which you’ll have to farm or buy from players (though, trial accounts can’t use the player market, so you’ll have to get them yourself). There are also a ton of dyes in the game to customize your outfits with, but these take up space as well. There are also many varieties of “materia” (gems to plug into your gear) which all have multiple levels. These will also slowly take up more and more space unless you dump them (and you’ll probably want to dump ones you don’t use). But none of these items have much value to NPCs. If you want money for them, you need to sell them on the player market.
As mentioned earlier, quests are designed towards quality instead of quantity. And the needs they ask of the player are also designed towards that. Instead of asking you to kill 10 of that monster, another 12 of that one, then collect 15 of these items, you typically only need to kill 3 enemies to fulfill a quest. Same with items, you only need a few. While questing, you’ll often spend more time reading story text than grinding.
But if you are looking for something to grind out, there are Hunts you can do which ask you to kill increasingly tougher enemies. It can sometimes be tricky tracking down the enemy (and they can be in dungeons), but you’re still never asked to kill very many. Each class has its own Hunt list, and when you join a grand company (three in-game factions), they also have a Hunt list.
And all the while, there are public events called FATEs that you can join, scaling down your level if needed. Players can jump in at any time without the need for groups. All kills in the game are shared. Whoever hits first gets full rewards for their contribution, but if you deal enough damage hitting someone else’s target, you’ll also get full rewards. There’s never a reason to worry about kill-stealing. And once you’ve joined a grand company, FATEs offer a special currency that you’ll use at your faction HQ, incentivizing you to go out of your way to complete FATEs often.
But when in doubt, there are also Levequests. These are random quests you can pick up all over the place (though some towns require a quest to unlock them). They’re simple and automatically reset and shuffle as you complete them. Though you are limited on how many you can take at once, and you have a limit to how many you can complete. Every 12 hours, you get 3 Levequest allowances. And there are different types of Levequests. Instead of grinding a bunch of items to level your profession, it’s almost always more efficient to do some crafting Levelquests. Same for gathering.
Another thing I’ve wanted to see more of since Fable II was crafting mini-games. Pretty much every other RPG, MMO or not, just sticks to the same basic system of a menu. You click the item you want to make, double-check that you have the items, then click “craft” and watch a progress bar for a few seconds. It’s boring.
In FFXIV, gathering and crafting professions have mini-games that become increasingly complex as you level. The better you are, the more efficient you can gather and the more frequently you can craft higher-quality gear. It rewards you for learning the puzzle, but it doesn’t punish you for doing poorly. If you want to just quickly collect your resources or throw together an item or two, you can do that without fussing over the mechanics.
Then there are the other mini-game distractions. You’ll eventually find your way to the Golden Saucer, a casino-style playground full of mini-games and events. This is also where you’ll unlock the famed Triple Triad card game which you’ll be able to play all over the place and earn new cards from defeating NPCs. Though, the rules of TT (which vary from place to place and which NPC you’re facing) can sometimes be annoying. Be prepared for frustration if you intend to play a lot of TT.
Winning games at the Golden Saucer or at games of Triple Triad earns you a special currency which you can spend on a variety of collectibles from pets, mounts, hairstyles, music for your inn room or player house (no player housing for trials), and unique weapons and armor. There are also weekly lotteries and daily mini-lotteries. You can easily waste away the hours at the Golden Saucer.
There’s always one aspect of MMOs that the designers have no real control over. The players who form the community. However, philosophies regarding the game’s design have helped tailor the community by appealing more to different players than most MMOs typically target.
From the ground up, the game is designed around cooperation instead of competition. There aren’t rival factions to choose from at character creation, forcing you into an “us versus them” mentality. Even the PvP is framed around allied factions that opt to fight under specific conditions. You also can’t kill-steal. You can’t steal someone’s gathering node, either. This type of community-building has fostered a helpful community that has patience for new players. I’ve never seen a dungeon party dissolve after a wipe or seen anyone rage-quit a group. No one’s cussed out another player or passed blame. Even after multiple wipes, everyone sticks together to see it through.
So how do you interact with the community? Guilds in FFXIV are called free companies. My friends have one started, though I can’t join on account of being on the trial version. The good news is you can set up player-owned chat channels as well as cross-server channels. Worth noting that free companies are able to purchase their own property that members can use and customize. But there is also player-owned housing if you’re not interested in joining a free company.
No game is perfect, nor will everything be agreeable to the same people. There are a handful of things I wish were different or equal in quality to the rest of the game.
For starters, with the ability to teleport anywhere you’ve previously been to for a fee that eventually becomes meaningless, the world can feel a bit small. Everywhere is at your fingertips; the journey to and from home is largely optional. It loses a lot of the “adventure.” Guild Wars 2 had this problem as well. The silver lining is that FFXIV at least has traditional travel methods in the form of chocobo taxi services, ferries, and (between the main cities) airships. But for some players, instant travel to everywhere is a plus.
A more common complaint is the amount of visual noise. It’s a bit overkill while you’re alone. But in groups? Especially large ones? It starts to become a problem where you can’t even see what’s happening on screen. Something you need to move out of is buried in the flashy explosions and fireworks of everyone’s abilities. There’s just no reason for it.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s also the uninteresting gameplay of low-levels that stretches longer than it needs to. Early rotations for your first 20 or so levels can be really boring and repetitive. The early dungeons can likewise be very plain and boring in layout and complexity of the fights. My Scholar gets a little faerie that automatically heals someone every few seconds. In low-level dungeons, I’m basically another DPS because my faerie will do ALL of the healing.
But I think it takes even longer for the dungeons to get interesting compared to rotations. Most dungeons, even approaching level 50, are simple in layout and tactics. There may only be a fight here and there where you’ll need instructions, but you can usually figure it out anyway. It’s a very casual approach. The good news is, the dungeons are typically very short. I’d guess 10-15 minutes to be the average. There are a couple of later dungeons tied to the story that go much longer. The final story dungeon for the base game takes maybe 30-40 minutes (most of which is from cut-scenes). And boss fights in patch content ups the complexity without becoming over-designed and tedious.
As for the story, I did mention it has some slow-downs, but not as bad as they once were. But there are a couple of other downsides. One is the inconsistent voice acting. In ARR, there aren’t very many scenes with voice acting, to begin with, but some actors are maybe… not great. Once you get into the post-50 patches, the amount of voice acting ramps up, but I’ve heard that the quality remains uneven, with some performances standing out as particularly bad.
In addition to the voice acting inconsistencies, there are inconsistencies in the cut-scenes. Early on, there’s a lot of story to acclimate you to the setting and characters. Then it thins out a bit as you get the run-around in the middle of the campaign. Towards the end, things ramp back up, but the climax to the base game is nearly ruined by a lack of good cut-scenes incorporating the other characters. Some of the cast of characters basically never get to do anything in the main ARR campaign, leaving to join action off-screen. Your party in the final scenes are the random players in your group during the dungeon. It really deflates what should have been the big climax. It also feels very rushed towards the end (making me think that time and/or budget were running out).
This mostly improves with the patches leading up to Heavensward. But the issue of leaving the climax to player groups continues to be a problem for me. I guess that’s just the price you pay for it being an MMO.
Lastly, if you try to learn everything the game has to offer upfront, you will be overwhelmed. You need to just start and let things come as the game deems appropriate. But some systems are more complex than they need to be (such as materia and glamour plates), and the explanations can be lacking. A friend of mine avoided messing with some systems for this reason, and even I didn’t initially understand how glamour plates work when the game first explained them.
This is common among most Asian MMOs. Even single-player JRPGs often have a system or two that are dense and complex seemingly for the sake of it. Still, I’d take that over extremely basic systems that don’t engage the player.
Final Thoughts on ARR
There are still more things I haven’t even touched on like the Sightseeing Log where you can solve little riddles that point you towards vistas you can travel to and find. There are multiple types of PvP. There’s treasure hunting. Chocobo racing. A MOBA-style mini-game using your pet minions. Grand company squadrons. It really is a dense game. And this is just for the trial. You also have player housing in the full game, retainer NPCs you can call on, and a full player-driven marketplace. And still things I haven’t touched on!
Overall, FFXIV is a welcome new home after World of Warcraft. They are very different games. I enjoyed WoW for years and may yet return someday (though it always feels less likely with each expansion), but FFXIV is much more my style. There’s so much story to explore. Plenty of little diversions. I’ve particularly been saving cooking and fishing because I know I’ll get sucked into them once I start. And this is just a free trial! When I can afford to do so, I’ll definitely be getting the expansions. It’s a shame it took me this long to try it out.