Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn – The Seedling of Rebirth Grows and Bears Fruit

Preview: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn – The Seedling of Rebirth Grows and Bears Fruit

Once upon a time there was a game developer: it had a long and solid history, so long and so solid that it had grown complacent, feeling that its fans would swallow whatever was put on the table. That developer created a MMORPG and not only released it way before it was ready, but also refused to understand that the market had evolved to new standards of quality.

Things had indeed changed radically, and the developer found itself at a crossroads, as the MMORPG failed so disastrously that it put the whole long history of its franchise in jeopardy. The trust of the customers was lost, and the brand seemed to be destined to a long downward spiral towards oblivion.

Almost anyone else would have abandoned that MMORPG, firing most of the staff and leaving it to wither and die in maintenance mode as a low quality free to play game, but the developer did the unthinkable: not only didn’t it fire its team, but it strengthened it, pouring even more resources in that game to create it anew, doing justice to its brand and to its customers.

That developer was Square Enix, and that MMORPG was Final Fantasy XIV. Now, almost three years after that fateful launch that got very near to killing  the Final Fantasy franchise, Final Fantasy XIV is no more, and we’re just a month away from the release of it’s successor: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.

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In my early preview of the first two phases of the game’s beta, I called it “a seedling of rebirth”. That’s exactly what it was back then, small and promising, but still lacking the content to really judge its worth. Did that little seed grow into a tree and bear fruit? Read on and let’s discover the answer together.

A Realm Reborn is set five years after the fall of the lesser moon Dalamud and the events that marked the end of Final Fantasy XIV. The adventurers (the players) that were sent to safety through time and space by the archon Louisoix are finally returning to Eorzea, while new blood is also appearing to bolster the ranks of those that are now called “the warriors of light”.

Unfortunately the threat of the Garlean Empire has just been dormant, but it’s about to extend its shadow upon Eorzea again, while a new and even more dangerous evil seems to have set its eyes on the land. Old heroes gather, and are joined by new ones, and that’s indeed the outset of an epic story.

Storytelling is one of the elements that changed most radically from the first game. Now the player characters aren’t colorless bystanders overshadowed by NPCs any more, but have become the true heroes of the story, creating a better emotional connection with the players behind them.

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The story itself is better integrated with the game and better narrated, and that’s no small perk. While this is a MMORPG, it’s also a Final Fantasy game, and a Final Fantasy game with sub-par storytelling loses a large part of its meaning.

While I can’t say too much to avoid spoilers, be ready to be surprised (something that is quite rare in MMOs), and if you’re a returning player with a sensitive heart, you may even shed a tear or two as certain events unfold. The team definitely did a good job in stirring the emotions of the veteran players with the events that led to the closure of the old servers, and they did an even better job of banking on those feelings with the new game. When a certain event happens (and those that played the beta with their old character will know what I’m talking about) tears will most likely flow.

Of course the game has a lot to offer to new players as well, and the first impact will obviously be with character creation and customization.

Gone are the days of the limited options of the original game and the early beta. The game offers a wide variety of elements to personalize at your leisure, going from a large array of hairstyles, including those long and feminine ones that are so scarce in most MMORPGs, to the shape and length of tails and ears.

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Those that enjoy the full slider customization you find in games like Aion or Phantasy Star Online 2 may still feel a little restricted, but the provided options are plenty to design unique characters without creating an army of proportion-defying aberrations that would walk around Eorzea and demolish everyone’s immersion. I would go ahead and say that the team stroke a near-perfect balance between preserving the game’s aesthetics and letting us make our characters truly our own.

What I do find unnecessarily restrictive comes right at the end of character creation: your starting city is linked to the class you choose. Want to be a gladiator from Limsa Lomisa? Too bad. You can’t, and that’s a bit of a problem considering that this changes the outset of your main storyline and the characters you’ll interact with at the beginning of the story. While I understand the reason behind this choice, I can definitely think of a few more elegant ways to implement it without restricting the choice of starting city-state.

Moving past this hiccup in presentation, we’re hit by the full glory of A Realm Reborn’s visuals. I won’t mince words here: this is by a long shot the most beautiful looking MMORPG in the market, and its visual flair runs circles around even the titles that are coming in the foreseeable future.

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The new engine, that has been built with elements of Square Enix’s cutting edge Luminous Engine, bring to life a world that is rich, colorful and absolutely stunning to behold in its density and beauty. There’s no place that looks bland or boring, and basically everywhere there are small details to be found and enjoyed.

The same can be said about equipment, that carries the strong creative flair of Final Fantasy games thanks to the imaginative work of Akihiko Yoshida and his team. From the richly detailed starting gear to the strongly characterized artifact armor, it’s really hard not to find something that will tickle your fashion sense in Eorzea, and every design carries a level of love for detail that puts to shame basically everything else in the genre.

If you’re like me and enjoy taking screenshots of your games, you better prepare a new hard drive for this one, because it’ll probably provide you with several gigabytes worth of vistas. Don’t believe me? Just check out the gallery below: it comes with 723 of my own screenshots, and those are just a fraction of the thousands the game compelled me to take.

The visual fidelity and density of the world comes with a bit of a price to pay. Gone are the almost seamless lands of the old Eorzea, replaced by quite a few loading screens. Luckily the transition is very fast, but you’ll find yourself zoning quite a bit. This doesn’t bother me excessively, but I’m sure some will find it unpleasant.

Yet, I can’t say this is a change for the worse. Considering how beautiful and detailed everything looks, I’m very willing to see black for a couple seconds in order to enjoy the richest world I’ve seen in a MMORPG to date. And no, this isn’t hyperbole. It’s very hard to see anything that gets even close to compare in the genre, and everything is further enhanced by a very effective and lively lighting engine that brings all those great models to life.

Effects and animations have also been improved massively from the original game, both in visual impact and variety. Some may find them a bit over the top, but this is a Final Fantasy  game, and if you approach a MMORPG belonging to this franchise expecting realistic motions and no pyrotechnics, I would say you’re playing the wrong game.

The most impressive element of this all is the performance of the engine. The game rarely drops under 55-60 fps on my good but not exceptional GTX 660 at maximum detail. Everything flies smooth and nice on the screen, and the full plethora of options that can be changed in game (and not in a crappy launch menu like in the original FFXIV) tells me that despite the console versions this is a true blue PC game, developed to juice every rig to the best of its possibilities.

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Speaking about consoles, the PS3 version isn’t as shiny. Resolution is visibly lower and aliasing is a bit disturbing if you’re used to the beauty on PC. There are also frame rate drops here and there, but I have to say that considering how old and tired the hardware is, it’s a good port that will satisfy console gamers while they wait for the PS4 version coming next year. On the other hand if you’re on PC, and looking at how beautiful the game looks with its DirectX 9 client, it’s hard not to be excited about the DirectX 11 one that will be released with the PS4 port.

Of course all the beauty of the world can’t really rescue bad gameplay, and gameplay was the weakest link in the original Final Fantasy XIV. Luckily that weakness hasn’t carried over to A Realm Reborn. 

One of the first things that you realize when playing the game is the sheer amount of things to do. The days of lacking content are just a memory of a distant past.

I briefly touched on the storyline before, and that’s the backbone of the game’s quest content, topped by lovely cutscenes and great storytelling. Of course there are also plenty independent side quests, whole questlines dedicated to every class and separate storylines for the Grand Companies, creating an extremely robust set for us to enjoy.

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The writing of every quest is top notch to say the least, as you would expect from a Final Fantasy game, but there are a couple elements that will probably prove polarizing. First of all, there aren’t many boundaries broken with the actual mechanics of the quests. Fetch missions and kill tasks abound, even if the superb writing and the lovely cutscenes (when available) do help a lot in keeping things fresh, provided that you’re willing to read the text at all, of course.

The second and most relevant element is the fact that the main storyline is dotted by missions that will require you to group, no question asked. The level sync of dungeons will force you to find companions even if you’re way overleveled and this may definitely ruffle some feathers between the most solo-oriented players.

Personally, I don’t find anything wrong with it. As a matter of fact, I feel it’s positive that in a MMORPG there are some (limited) instances in which working together with other players is required to progress. Too many developers try too hard to cater to solo players, turning their MMORPGs into Massively Single Player Online RPGs, and it’s nice to see someone going against that trend, but I do know that this opinion isn’t shared by everyone.

Some solace comes from the very elegant implementation of the Duty Finder (the game’s own version of a group finder), that will put you in a group automatically if you so require, and in my case always managed to do so quickly and effortlessly, thanks to the fact that it fishes players from all servers with what seems a very efficient matchmaking algorithm. If you really don’t like to go through the process of forming a party on your own, this will help you immensely.

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More content is provided by the return of the repeatable Guild Leves, the new Guildhest and by F.A.T.E. events.

F.A.T.E. stands for Full Active Time Event and it’s a solid staple of the game’s content. It includes a very large amount of dynamic public missions that pop around the map for players to engage into without the need of joining a party.  Think Warhammer Online‘s public quests of RIFT‘s rifts (ouch, wild alliteration here…). They’re definitely a lot of fun, especially the more story-driven ones, and there is a metric ton of them, meaning that it’s really impossible to run out of content to enjoy.

Guildhests are also quite interesting, as they are group-oriented mini battles/dungeons that will pitch you against a group of monsters or a boss (often coming with minions). They play the two-fold role of additional battle and leveling content and educational tool to get players used to more complex party content.

Of course the game comes with a very large set of group-based instanced dungeons, and they’re probably the most enjoyable part of the battle content. Not only do they look spectacular, but they’re very well-paced with an increasing level of challenge that goes from the tank and spank of the first instance to progressively more difficult bosses and encounters to ease players into the mechanics instead of just slapping their face with harsh multi-stage battles right from the beginning.

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Speaking about battles, the combat system has been revolutionized from the previous game, and now it’s very fluid and faster. It includes a soft global cooldown that gives it a deliberate, tactical pace that will probably displease the most twitchy players, but I found it very well-balanced and enjoyable.

The variety of skills at the disposal of each class and job is very wide, and there are many situational and positional active abilities that require timing and good situational awareness, creating a battle system that I won’t hesitate to define very solid, with a further spectacular element provided by nostalgia-inspired Limit Breaks.

Add to that the additional tactical mechanics like Astral Fire, Umbral Ice and the Transpose skill to switch between them, and even the normally quite plain role of the attack caster gets an interesting twist. If you keep casting fire spells you will receive the Astral Fire status, that will increase your damage but stop your mana regeneration and increase your spell mana cost, once you’ve run out of mana, you can switch to Umbral Ice with Transpose increasing your mana regeneration by a lot alongside your ice damage. Details like this show that development team put a lot of thought in creating a battle system that deviates from the usual fire-and-forget routines.

Tanking is also quite challenging and satisfying, especially due to the frequent appearance of minions and adds that will keep the tank busy and his control abilities in check. Advanced boss mechanics that can be encountered past the first basic dungeons also play a role. For instance in the Copperbell Mines you’ll find an “Ichorous Ire” that will keep you on your toes. I won’t spoil the fight, but believe me, you’re going to have fun.

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What will make or break the combat system for you will probably depend on how fast you like it. If you’re the twitchy kind of player that loves to fire all his abilities in rapid succession, you’ll probably find it too slow, but if you like tactical, reasoned combat that makes every skill count without being too slow, then you’ll very possibly love A Realm Reborn‘s approach to battle.

The most meaty defining element of the game remains the Armoury System, that lets you change class at will between the eight that will be available in the game (only seven were in the beta, with the newly introduced arcanist to be added at a later stage). Forget having to create an alt to experiment with a different class, as you’ll just have to switch your weapon to change from a tank to a healer or a damage dealer.

Add to that the fact that every class can evolve into an advanced job (arcanist will branch in two different jobs, summoner and scholar) with a more specialized role, and the ability to mix and match by using certain class abilities even when you’re playing another class or job, and you get an extremely flexible system with a lot of customization potential and charm in spades, that will also keep you busy for quite a long time while you level up all the classes you’re interested in.

There are also several crafting and gathering classes at the heart of a definitely deep and full featured crafting system that can easily be defined a game in its own right, not only because of its inherent depth, but also thanks to the peculiar tactical minigame you’ll have to execute when creating new items. It’s been streamlined from the one present in the original game, and it’s very engaging and enjoyable, at least if you’re the kind of player that doesn’t mind deliberately paced puzzle-like gameplay that doesn’t have anything to do with action.

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If you’re worried about where you’ll store all the equipment needed to dress up all those classes and jobs, worry no more, as the game comes with a very elegant feature named the Armoury Chest. It basically includes separate inventory tabs for every element of your equipment. All your weapons will be stored together, separated from all your chest pieces, your hats and so forth. Not only this provides a lovely solution to inventory clutter, but it also makes changing classes easy and fast, and even more so because you can save different equipment sets and switch between them on the fly.

The UI itself is streamlined and well designed, having almost every element comfortably available at your fingers. Only the map can use a little more work, especially in the department of quest markers for objectives that are placed beyond the borders of an area, but the development team already explained that the problem is going to be fixed with the open beta.

The controller UI deserves a final note, as it’s probably the most elegant and simply revolutionary implementation of a gamepad-friendly hotbar. The “Cross Hotbar” is made of abilities arranged in four crosses representing the D-pad and the four face buttons of the controller. You can switch between the left pair and the right pair by holding the left and right triggers, and quickly activate any ability by pressing the corresponding button.

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Gone are the times in which you’d have to scroll between abilities on the hotbar with the D-pad before activating them. Now a single trigger/button combination activates every skill on the fly, proving just as fast as a keyboard. It’s so well implemented that I moved to the controller altogether, and I’ve always been a keyboard and mouse kind of player.

I was already quite confident in the quality of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn with its early beta, but phase three has been an eye opener. The visible care and love gone into the game is uplifting, and the level of polish is already very advanced, not to mention the fact that the sheer amount of content offered is definitely rich, with a lot more to come with open beta and release. In my previous preview I defined the game “a seedling of rebirth”, and now I can confidently say that the seed has grown and is bearing fruit.

Of course we’ll have to see if those fruits hanging in front of our noses are as mature and juicy as they look, but only the game’s release and the months beyond that will answer that question. At the moment, though, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn fits the definition of a labor of love quite perfectly, and it looks fantastic to boot. If you thought that the original Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t a true Final Fantasy, A Realm Reborn is exactly that, and then some.

Editor’s Note: If you didn’t play the first Final Fantasy XIV and plan on playing A Realm Reborn, you may want to check out the eight episodes of our The Story So Far column, that will get you up to speed with the story and help you enjoy the plot of the new game better, considering that it’s a direct sequel.