It is no secret that Square Enix have had more than a few miss-steps in recent years. Between unrealistic targets and more than a few changes in the upper personnel, it’s clear that all is not as well as it could be in the Enix camp. But Square is a proven survivor and over the last few months has begun to identify why it isn’t quite the company it used to be.
Few examples illustrate this better than the turbulent tale of Square’s latest online-only entry in to its long running Final Fantasy series. Initially launched in 2010, Final Fantasy XIV was met with a disappointing response from both fans and critics alike, forcing Square Enix to even apologise to customers for the games lack of quality on several occasions. However, despite the damage to the brand, Square are determined to rectify past mistakes and have been hard at work on FFXIV’s re-launch, aptly titled Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. So the question is, will the damage that was done by its predecessor be forgotten or is FFXIV doomed in any form?
Back in 2002, Square Enix made a bold move in the release of the online-only Final Fantasy XI. Up until its launch, Square’s online gaming presence was at a minimum and Final Fantasy was a strictly offline experience, leading many to wonder if this was really a smart move for the Japanese gaming goliath. However, between an emerging MMO market and an incredibly unique experience, FFXI made a name for itself as one of the more hardcore MMORPG’s on the market. This allowed it to appeal on a much less beginner friendly level than the likes of World of Warcraft and actually made it stand apart from the competition, for both positive and negative reasons.
Unfortunately for Square one of these negatives is somewhat detrimental to the MMO business model. Namely a non-beginner friendly system can mean your player base will struggle to grow and although FFXI was (and still is) an incredibly rewarding experience at later points, many were put off by the time and effort required to reach the more interesting end game content.
Despite many of these elements being dumbed down with patches, FFXI suffered because of its nature of design. It is clear however that Enix has taken heed of this when approaching FFXIV: A Realm Reborn, offering instead a much more friendly first 10-20 hours.
After choosing race, job type and designing your character, FFXIV drops you into whichever major city pertains to the aforementioned character, much like every MMO of its type. As you may expect you are then introduced to many of the games elements slowly over the first 10-20 hours as well as learning more about your job role. It’s all standard MMO fair, giving experience for almost every action and the opportunity for an incredibly large amount of side quests from the word go.
In terms of story FFXIV: A Realm Reborn is standard fare for the franchise. It involves crystals, the powers of creation and the never-ending fight between good and evil. Despite this however, what is also present here is the staple great writing that has come to be associated with this franchise. This in turn means that you will almost never feel like you are treading familiar ground over the many hours of game play that A Realm Reborn provides.
Unlike The Old Republic or even Guild Wars 2 to an extent, nearly all the dialogue here is written rather than spoken and you will spend most of your time reading the story in dialogue boxes. Although this feels a little dated at first, once the story picks up pace you will no doubt find this to be a strength, much like it was in the older franchise entries, as characters can never be marred with poor voice acting.
Strangely Final Fantasy XIV on the whole gives the feel of a much older MMO in its structure. Littered with fetch quests and dialogue boxes, it feels more like a throwback to the earlier days of the genre than an attempt to push it into new territories.
However this is not necessarily a bad thing. The tried and tested MMO structure has proved successful for many years now and FFXIV goes out of its way to present it in the most user friendly and aesthetically pleasing way possible. Graphically, although a step down from FFXIV original incarnation, A Realm Reborn’s aesthetics are yet another step in the right direction. Clever art style has allowed the game to run just as well on console as the PC and although the PC version beats its counterpart overall in the looking good department, the PS3 version is by no means an ugly game.
Square should also be commended on adapting the games structure and interfaces for console. For this review I have played a substantial amount of time on both versions and there is little to separate them when all is said and done. And for those who are still having trouble with the console version, fear not as it is fully USB Keyboard compatible. In short, the experience is barely hindered by playing on console and considering how traditional an MMO A Realm Reborn is, this is no small feat.
However, where FFXIV: A Realm Reborn really shines and breaks new ground is with its combat and job system. Players are now able to change jobs at any time simply by equipping new gear. More jobs are also unlocked at later points as you progress giving a feeling of freedom to the combat that is rarely seen in an MMO. The combat is also very well designed, allowing for some clever animations and OAE tweaks that seem to set it apart from other MMO’s even though much of it is the same as what has come before in this well populated genre.
Another new addition here is the inclusion of FATE events. These are essentially the same as Guild Wars 2’s dynamic events and will appear randomly on the map for anyone in the area to jump into. Although a great addition, these do unfortunately give rise to one of A Realm Reborn’s problems. At later levels these soon become the best source of EXP meaning they are often replayed over and over. This in turn gets dull and shows that the games balancing is currently dropping off at later levels. It will be interesting to see how Square progresses content over the coming months to combat this.
One of the other potential problems here is the infamous monthly subscription business model. Although the game itself is being sold at a low price globally to compensate and many players will have no problem with paying monthly, the worry here is the history of others in this genre. With World of Warcraft still dominating, many MMO’s such as Star Trek Online and The Old Republic have launched with this business model only to be forced to alter later for the Free to Play/Micro-transaction dynamic. This in turn makes me wonder if a Pay to Play, Guild Wars 2 style take may have served Square better in the long run. Still, only time will tell I guess.
Despite a few issues and being a little traditionalist, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is still the best MMO experience currently available on PS3, not to mention PC. From the ashes, Square Enix have managed to save this failure and turn it around making A Realm Reborn the perfect apology and a welcome success for a franchise that has had its fair share of criticism in recent years. Luckily for us Square Enix is seemingly on the mend.