There has been a noticeable trend in this Guild Wars 2 pre-xpac downtime where I am seeing a lot of fans and devs mucking around in Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn (FF14). To be honest, I didn’t bat an eye when the first iteration of Final Fantasy 14 first dropped. I did follow their rebirth story a bit because it was an interesting tale where money and time (and brand power, let’s not forget) can truly turn things around.
Last week, I finally picked it up through Steam, which says a lot right there. I can almost guarantee that if it were were not for Gaben’s paradiso I would not have tried it out. (Really surprised Guild Wars 2 still isn’t there, but I guess they feel more profitable without Gaben’s cut.) Actually I got the demo first, installed it, and didn’t touch it. Guess I needed that $20 worth of worth incentive to actually play it.
Before I cut this post, I will say it is a hyper polished experience of a calm distillation of last decade’s MMOs (for better and worse). There you go, tl;dr.
The character creation system is super robust. The models are really good, and there are a ton of options. If I wanted to have stock in the game or my character, I could definitely perceive spending a good hour refining my character’s look. I chose to press the randomize button until I was happy, removed the pretty flower tattoo, and set off towards adventures unknown.
As a person with some knowledge of Final Fantasy lore (fanatic over SNES and early PS versions and then FFX), the races were really underwhelming. Usually I like going for different, weird stuffs, but this is the first time in an MMO where the feeling of “meh” was so overwhelming that I defaulted to human. I mean honestly, cat people and pear-shaped minis were an immediate “no” as I didn’t want to play stylized Japanese anime races. The troll people and elves were okay, but just not interesting, and possibly a bit too edgy.
Starting to be an Adventurer
Let me say that if it weren’t for the $20 incentive I would not have made it much past the next part.
I then started out on a ship with a fairly meaningless prologue of me heading towards my starting city. If I chose another city I would be in a caravan or something else heading towards another one-of-three starting cities. If I was supposed to get excited through the pirate attack or understand anything going on besides (1) I am new, (2) adventurers are a thing, and (3) I am heading to the city, I got nothing.
After too long a while, I felt the real meat of the game’s lore was presented. There was a Calamity caused by evil and/or Bahamut. It not only burninated a lot of things, but it warped reality so that people didn’t have memories of Before (I capitalized that one myself!). Adventurers are the gallant murder-hobos who help people who don’t really know what’s going on.
There was really no attempt, as in other MMOs, to try and gloss over the fact that I will be going from quest hub to quest hub talking to strangers who will dump problems like “we need to harvest oranges” or “there’s herb in them streets” on me. It was now my job to be a vagrant worker. It was my destiny.
The next part was just horrible. It was an hour or so of “learn the city and game mechanics in the most boring, confusing way possible with quests!” Maybe it was my fault choosing a two-tiered city, which may have made it a bit worse, but this was the least thing I wanted to do at the start of the game because there was no combat.
I sorely wished for the old MMO trope of starting in some hamlet or starting instance where I could actually fight and do the things I expected to do for hours and hours. Instead it was an agonizingly slow method of interacting with this, run here, listen to this person, etc. I really wanted to start in a wine-making monastery with things to kill just paces away.
I will say that even though I felt FF14 was mired in old methods of quest items and handing over packages, the system was as polished as it could ever be. For instance, lighting lamps requires an item. If I right-click on the lamp, my quest item box pops up. Then I right click on the quest item to use it. If an NPC wanted an item, again the quest inventory would pop up and I could drag it over. I personally like RIFTs better where the quest item was in the UI, but for what FF14 did at least it was rather painless, even if quaint.
Time to Adventure!
Finally I broke free of the combat-less tutorial. I found a new quest hub outside the city walls, and I was doing what I expected. Like I said above, this is last decade’s hub questing. All the usual niches, including this blog’s namesake, are heavily present. I picked oranges, I killed 6 of this, I killed 10 of that, I talked to NPC’s who needed a talkin’ to. There was no attempt to move this MMO mechanic forward in any fashion. I really began to appreciate what Wildstar was doing at this point when they moved vanilla quest hubs a few feet forward.
There are open world events that occur throughout the areas. I felt like they didn’t have the impetus of other games with them. The ones I attempted mostly felt like a mechanical layer over grinding mobs. Don’t just kill pirates; kill pirates wanting to toll a bridge to get extra money and XP. Compared to RIFT, I really wanted more of a reason to care about this temporary open world events. Perhaps this gets stronger later on in lore and immersion. Right now open world events appear to me as just bonus XP and money bags to tangent the quest hubbing.
Finally there are story instances, which is the main reason I even attempted to play FF14. There is an overarching personal story told throughout the game, which includes dungeons (which I have heard is well implemented). This is the reason I was even here, and it did not disappoint. The early stage is filled with mystery and “guest stars” and oddly enough some voice over (which isn’t existent elsewhere, such as the opening instance on the ship). This is why I will keep playing throughout my $20 worth of 30 days.
The combat is pretty slick for the 2-second global cooldown skill rotation style combat. The UI is really nice. Combat feels good, although a bit tired. FF14 spices up the combat by requiring players to move out of ominous AoE shapes on the ground from the enemy.
The combat system is all about efficiency and timing. Even at the early stages I can tell that the whole combat system is hyper-polished. I am making decisions of choosing to immediately get out of the enemy’s AoE or trying to finish casting a spell. Do I want to re-apply the instant-cast DoT at the cost of 2-seconds of global cooldown? There is a lot of decision making. Unnecessary at my level, possibly, but I can definitely see how it can translate going upwards.
It is a pinnacle of a thinking-players MMO. The movement mechanics are not there, I feel, to be twitch, as it is for Wildstar. Twitch being the addition of excitement and… well twitch. The movement is there to make a split-second decision on efficiency. This does not excite me in the least, but I definitely recognize the superb game design when I see it.
The problem is that as each tier is mastered, the decision making process becomes rote. The If/Then statements of the mind become mere muscle memory, and the whole system, for me, feels like grind. I would hope that far later on encounters require a better branched decision process utilizing all different manners of skills. I don’t know if I will ever get there. Advanced level players are definitely welcome to comment on late game combat below.
In the Shade or Sun
I am not sure how much FF14 I will play. It was a calm experience. I can see whole weekend days given to the calm feeding of quests and leveling up. But, in it being a calm thing, it just wasn’t exciting at all. I wasn’t excited to level. I wasn’t excited to get to a new quest hub. I have no idea what is beyond the horizon, but I am hoping for a decent story.
FF14 is, for me, what I perceive players wrapping themselves up in a new, cozy blanket. I don’t find anything exciting about that. But, given the success of FF14, I feel that clearly a lot of players just want that calm, vintage MMO play. Nothing wrong with that. FF14 is a great game, but I think I prefer the higher pacing of Guild Wars 2.
My final thought last night was viewing FF14 more like Progress Quest along a stable of other MMOs. If I was going to just explore this solo-ish (I do plan on attempting dungeons when I get there), why wouldn’t I just play LOTRO, where I actually have stake in the lore and character? I still haven’t answered that to myself and my satisfaction. Perhaps peer pressure and the shiny are enough for now.