FINAL FANTASY had it rough this generation. The release of FINAL FANTASY XIII was largely met by well-deserved flak from fans and the release of FINAL FANTASY XIV in 2010 was the worst a main-game in the series had seen in both sales and critical reception in its’ then 23 year legacy. Square-Enix were quick to apologize and made it very clear that they’d be doing everything they could to make FINAL FANTASY XIV worth playing. After a few patches they finally announced that they’d be completely restructuring the game with a new development team as well as all new gameplay and story under the name FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn.
It’s been three years and A Realm Reborn is finally finished. Promising a grand fantasy adventure worthy of the FINAL FANTASY name, cross-platform between PC and PS3 users, with a PS4 version hitting next year. But does A Realm Reborn deliver a journey worth taking, or is this the final nail in the poor game’s already dug up and broken open coffin?
FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, PS3 and PS4 in 2014)
Developed and Published by Square-Enix
First things first, FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn is not a complete retcon of the original FINAL FANTASY XIV from 2010. The story is actually taking place after the world of Eorzea collapsed and was, like the title states, reborn from the events of the original game. That’s not to say you require any knowledge of the original plot or events to enjoy the story of A Realm Reborn, as the original story is spoken of as an event of the past and every returning character is basically introduced as a new character to the player.
This actually works in A Realm Reborn‘s favor as it makes the world feel richer and more fleshed out as a result while still having enough content in its’ own story and characters to stand on its’ own without all that backstory. A Realm Reborn‘s story is obviously influenced a lot by previous FINAL FANTASY titles, having plenty of similarities to FINAL FANTASY II, FINAL FANTASY VI and FINAL FANTASY XII.
At the end of the seventh umbral era, the small Eorzean moon Dalamud fell and unleashed the trapped dragon Bahamut. Bahamut devastated great parts of the world and burned down entire city states as the old wizard Louisoix sent the last adventurers and soldiers on the battlefield into a dimension beyond time and space before burning down in Bahamut’s flames. Our adventurers arrive at a newly reborn Eorzea five years later and this is where your story starts, either as a Legacy character that was transported through time (if you took part in the FINAL FANTASY XIV transfer program) or as a new character ready to take on the adventure ahead.
The villain takes the form of Gaius van Baelsar, a general in charge of the XIVth Garlean legion. Gaius was a minor villain in the original FINAL FANTASY XIV where he would appear to taunt the player as well as to question the orders that was held by the VIIth legion, the forces that caused the fall of Dalamud. Gaius is now plotting to claim the continent by his own means and ‘save the realm from their false gods’. Mentioning any more details of Gaius or his plans would be diving too far into spoilers, so I’ll leave it here by saying that Gaius van Baelsar is a very cool villain that manages to bring back just what worked well with classic FINAL FANTASY villains like Garland, Emperor or Gabranth.
Anyone who has seen the trailers for A Realm Reborn or played the original FINAL FANTASY XIV will know a little about the Garlean Empire. Such as how they use Magitek technology in the same way the Gesthalian Empire used it in FINAL FANTASY VI. Similar to that game the themes fall very much into the realms of magic versus technology. There are far more things that can be linked to the classic games, but I’ll keep them out of this review to not spoil anything, just know that there’s a lot of well-made and well put-to-use fan service in the story of A Realm Reborn and it’s bound to make a lot of classic FINAL FANTASY fans smile. There’s been a specific focus on making sure that fans of the long-running series have a lot to recognize and enjoy like that.
When it comes to the tone of the writing, one can easily see influences from the work of Yasumi Matsuno (FINAL FANTASY XII, Vagrant Story, FINAL FANTASY TACTICS). A lot of focus is put on the politics and overall structure of Eorzea’s world. Where other games might want to try and just tell a cool self-contained story, A Realm Reborn desperately wants to feel as a story taking place among thousands of other stories in a world that truly has both a past, present and future carefully planned out. While it doesn’t do as good of a job at this as Matsuno’s glorious world of Ivalice does, it actually manages to come damn close at times. Especially when the localization team does such a wonderful job at crafting new text-based accents that actually feel ‘fantastical’.
Leaving the main-story to the side, there’s of course specific storylines linked to each of the major classes in the game. These specific guild storylines all feel very different from each other and succeeds in creating a interesting side-narrative to the main-story. I found myself lost in the story for the Thaumaturge guild to the point where I almost ended up more invested in the characters from that story than the ones from the main-story. After you finish a class storyline you also have the chance to unlock a new storyline if you meet certain requirements to expand your class to a full job.
Speaking of the different classes, let’s dig into the basics of gameplay. When you start up the game and create your character you can pick from eight starting-classes. Archer, Gladiator, Lancer, Maruader and Pugilist are Disciples of War, the type of classes that don’t focus on magic. Arcanist, Conjurer and Thaumaturge are Disciples of Magic, which falls fairly self-explanatory into the classes that do focus on magic.
These classes eventually have the ability to become full jobs. Bard, Paladin, Dragoon, Warrior, Monk, Summoner/Scholar, White Mage and Black Mage respectively. It’s a classic job-system that we’ve seen a hundred times in FINAL FANTASY at this point, and it’s done very well. When you finish your Level 10 quest for your starting class you can start playing around and switching classes, as well as picking up side-classes.
The side-classes include Botanist, Fisher and Miner from the category Disciples of the Land. As well as Alchemist, Armorer, Blacksmith, Carpenter, Culinarian, Goldsmith, Leatherworker and Weaver from Disciples of the Hand. These classes allow for fun things like crafting and mining among other things that end up being almost as enjoyable as playing the War/Magic classes some times. I found myself weaving clothes for hours on end and having a grand time with it. The fact that the game allows any character to take on all these classes allows for a lot of freedom that I appreciate in a genre where you often find yourself locked in with what you initially decided upon.
While the beta had me scared that there would be huge balancing issues between the classes, that problem was thankfully fixed before the release version of the game. There was a clear issue with certain solo-quests that weren’t properly balanced for light armor classes like Thaumaturge which ended up causing a mountain of dead high level players to form around certain instance entrances. While some might frown upon certain challenge being lost due to this balance, it’s fair to say that the game has a lot of challenging quests further into the game to scratch their itch.
A Realm Reborn decides to play it fairly safe in the core gameplay. To a player who has played any other fantasy MMO the interface will be easy to adapt to, and so will the combat. Gone are the menu system from FINAL FANTASY XI or the constant clicking on enemies from FINAL FANTASY XIV. Instead it’s the standard targeting and hotbar-mashing playstyle that you either love or hate depending on your affection towards the genre. What is beneficial to the FINAL FANTASY brand with this combat system is how well it replicates the ATB system that everyone loves, waiting for that cooldown to finish so you can toss away a new attack is essentially the same as waiting for your turn, it’s not spot on the same but it does serves a very similar purpose.
I’ve never been a huge fan of this style of gameplay myself as I find it clunky and restrictive a lot of the time. With that said, there has been exceptions such as Guild Wars 2 that managed to turn a concept that I always found a bit dull into something very fun and fast-paced. A Realm Reborn stays true to this philosophy as well, offering a very fast-paced and visually interesting combat presentation that feels fulfilling and polished. The comparisons to Guild Wars 2 doesn’t stop there either as it’s clear that Square-Enix were keeping a good eye on NC Soft’s title while it was in development.
For example, A Realm Reborn features FATEs. A FATE is a quest that will occur out in the world and involve every player that steps into its’ radius. It’s practically identical to Guild Wars 2‘s Group Events and it’s a fun feature that I really hope catch on beyond these two games as it offers up great team-work as well as just a constant reel of fun things to do in the game while you’re just travelling about. Clearing FATEs will also give you Company Seals that you can spend on various things at your Grand Company, such as armors or even your own personal chocobo.
You’ll join one of three Grand Companies fairly early on in the story. They follow their own quest chain system and basically serve as another side-story like the class guilds. You may only join one Grand Company per character, though you can try out all three on the Recruit level before advancing. There’s also player formed Free Companies that replaces the bigger functions that Linkshells from FINAL FANTASY XI and FINAL FANTASY XIV had. Linkshells still remain as a group option, but Free Companies are now the big official guilds, with customizable crests to wear.
Customization is of course important in any modern MMO and while A Realm Reborn does try to offer options, it ultimately falls short in the initial character creation process. The gallery of hair-cuts could feature more options as many are identical cuts but with very slight changes. Though there are different hair cuts depending on what race and gender you pick and that does offer a more unique look as a result. Hair may be dyed in one colour or two different colours by adding highlights to the hair, which is a nice touch.
Other features such as height, face-types, ear-shapes and such are also different choices depending on the race and gender picked (see a pattern here?). The races consists of the same five races that were in the original FINAL FANTASY XIV, which in turn were basically re-titled races from FINAL FANTASY XI. There’s the human stand-in race called Hyur, the elven like Elezen. A race of cat-people called Miqo’te, a larger hulk-like race named Roegadyn and last there’s the race of short gnome-like people known as Lalafell.
Of course the starting options are just that, a start. When you get to finding/buying gear, and making it yourself, is when the actual work to stand out comes into play. The game will treat you fairly equal to other players of your class as you’re guided through the first part of A Realm Reborn‘s story, but as you break free and start venturing through dungeons and get into the actual meat of the game it opens up and you start to come into your own.
Apart from crafting your own clothes and equipment, you can also affect the equipment in different ways. When it comes to what your character is wearing you can dye the items in different colours after unlocking the dye skill through a specific quest that you can take early on. With the dye skill you can buy or craft different shades of dye and apply them to any wearable item that has a colour option as noted by a little circle in the upper right corner of the item’s icon.
There’s also the fan-favourite materia system that is finally returning from FINAL FANTASY VII. It was originally introduced in the 1.19 patch for FINAL FANTASY XIV and was carried over into A Realm Reborn as a skill you may access through a quest that unlocks once you’ve reached Level 19 with any Disciple of Hand class. The way materia works is by having you forge spiritbonded equipment into materia-orbs with different powers and stats that you then put into slots your equipment has, however, you require different Disciple of Hand classes depending on what equipment you’re trying to put it into and you need to meet the item level.
Because of this materia is useful and powerful, but also a time-sink that basically relies on you having other friends with varying classes so you can all help out each other when you wish to put things into the equipment at hand. Understandable for a multiplayer focused game, but it does take away some of the reason why the materia system was so popular to begin with, its’ simplicity. To reach a spiritbond you must simply use the equipment enough until the item in question gets a Convertible/Meldable status.
When it comes down to grinding experience points you might want to do more than just regular quests, dungeons and taking on FATEs. If so then you’ll be spending a lot of time with your Personal Logs as well as playing Guildleves and Guildhests. Your Personal Logs consist of a Hunting Log, a Crafting Log, a Gathering Log and a Fishing Log. These logs are tied to your class and basically gives you experience bonuses for doing things your class is meant to do. The Hunting Log will have a growing list of enemies you can take on and the Crafting Log will have all the different things you can create, clear a page on the log and you’ll get a great reward.
As for Guildleves, these take the form of missions you’ll find in every area that you can do multiple times as long as you have Allowances. You get Allowances on a set timer and you may spend one to take on one of these missions that can be of any kind. Guildleves are adjustable by a 0-4 difficulty and can be taken on alone or as a group. Different areas have different guildleves at different levels with a 5 level gap between the set standards. It’s something I recommend playing around with a lot as it can make for a lot of fun when working as a team, even on something as annoying as a escort mission.
Guildhests are short but sweet missions taken on as a team of four. These can be accessed either through Guildhest vendors standing around where Guildleves will be, or through the Duty Finder. You unlock new Guildhests every 5th level and they basically serve as non-intrusive tutorial and guide on how to work together as a team. The missions will revolve around a task with some sort of twist to it and everyone need to work together on finishing this task, which most often involve killing something. Currently absent from the game is a PvP mode. There is a category for PvP on the Duty Finder, but it’s only placeholder for now since PvP will not be implemented until the 2.1 patch arriving later on.
The world of Eorzea is large and takes a long time to fully discover, something I can’t claim to have done myself yet. The starting areas around Gridania, Limsa Lominsa and Ul’dah all carry their own look to them and feel unique and varied. I especially liked the green fields of Limsa Lominsa that would link up with weird icy glaciers and lead into weird mushroom filled mountain paths. The cities themselves are also fairly large and worthy of spending some time to get to know, as there are multiple merchants with different kinds and class of items depending on where you decide to buy things.
Exploring takes key as soon as you finish the starting quests, which takes about fifteen to twenty hours to do the first time around, as that’s how you’ll discover many of the quests that do more than just giving you experience, like the aforementioned Materia or Dye quests. The game once again takes a page out of Guild Wars 2‘s book by having you get experience point filled achievements for mapping out the world. And like I’ve already mentioned, mapping out everything will take you a long time. You also get experience points for every other achievement in the game as well, making for a fun hunt.
When it comes to the amount of content available, A Realm Reborn really does itself a favour for letting you jump into new classes on the fly. While each class is bound to their own level, it’s nice to be able to play a Jack of all Trades type of character in a MMO. This of course was a feature in both FINAL FANTASY XI and FINAL FANTASY XIV but it’s something I would like for more games of the genre to take on, as it compliments the amount of content available in the class-specific quests really well. Sure, you can just create a new character, but sometimes it’s fun to keep it all in one place.
It’s also nice to see A Realm Reborn take a big focus on having quests that aren’t just kill X amount of enemies or deliver this thing to this NPC, but actually having quests based around things like helping out in your city by putting up posters for a guild, guiding merchants between safe areas to avoid bandits, asking around town for what the most popular colour is on average so the weavers guild can take that into account for future work. All these small things mixed with the fact that every quest have a actual character interaction with dialogue to lead up to what you are doing and why you are doing it help to create a world that feels much more alive than some other MMOs on the market.
Of course it helps that A Realm Reborn is a absolutely gorgeous game as well. There are a lot of reused assets from the original FINAL FANTASY XIV, but that game was never not a pretty game to begin with and the updated engine does the great art-direction justice. The way light will shine through the leaves of the trees while you’re running around the forests of Gridania or the way your fire spells reflect on the surface of the water is simply gorgeous to behold if you have a PC that can support it. There’s even great weather effects that makes for some really cool visual touches like clothes flopping around in the wind during a heavy rain storm, or your character becoming disoriented from a intense desert sun. I wish I could praise the PS3 version’s visuals just as much, but I can’t. We will get to that further down.
The artstyle is derived from art by Hiroshi Takai (The Last Remnant, SaGa Frontier) under supervision and direction from Akihiko Yoshida (FINAL FANTASY XII, Vagrant Story) who both have a talent for art direction as shown in their previous games. Yoshida in particular is one of my favourite artists working in the game industry and I’m happy to see that his style has been represented as well as it has. The inclusion of Takai is interesting as this is the first time he has worked on a FINAL FANTASY game since FINAL FANTASY V, but he has done a great job as lead artist and I hope he get to work on more titles.
The soundtrack for the original FINAL FANTASY XIV was celebrated as it was the first time Nobou Uematsu had done a full FINAL FANTASY soundtrack in ten years. A Realm Reborn however contains mostly new songs or remastered old FINAL FANTASY tracks by composer Masayoshi Soken. And this is going to come as a surprise to some and I can already hear the shouts of heresy as you’re reading this. But after listening to the tracks by Uematsu again through the Before Meteor collection album that was recently released and then playing A Realm Reborn I have to say that I prefer the tracks by Soken in comparison.
That’s not to say Uematsu’s tracks are bad, and they’re not all gone from the game either, but the soundtrack that Soken has composed is probably the strongest FINAL FANTASY have had in many years while still remaining a beautiful love-letter to the 31 years of FINAL FANTASY music. The town themes are all memorable and the new battle themes are some of the best I’ve heard in recent memory. Soken have previously worked on Drakengard 2 and Dawn of Mana among some other smaller Square-Enix title, this is the first FINAL FANTASY title he has composed for and I would love for him to take on the role of lead composer for another one. One of the best soundtracks of the year, rivaled only so far by Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack for Etrian Odyssey IV.
There’s not much voice-acting in A Realm Reborn. It’s more than there were in the original FINAL FANTASY XIV, but that had maybe ten scenes with voice-acting, eight of which were in the opening story-arc. The acting isn’t particularly noteworthy, and sometimes it’s just outright awful, even for bad FINAL FANTASY voice acting. I could have done without out it personally and I’m thankful that you can turn off voice in the settings after having listened to certain characters. I’m not sure it’s the actors and actresses fault in particular though, it seems more like they were confused and not well-informed on what they were doing, a directorial problem.
The lack of constant voice-acting might seem like a weird choice among games like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World that sports voice-acted dialogue in every cutscene. But the reason I think it works with the voices turned off, or in the scenes where there just isn’t any, is the same way in which it works for The Legend of Zelda. By having the NPCs properly interact with you by name, which something I often miss in RPGs today, you build more of a relation to the story and characters. And since every player character in A Realm Reborn must have a first and a last name that makes dialogue actually read more naturally since the writing can take advantage of this.
While playing the game on my fairly sub-par PC I didn’t actually run into any major problems performance wise. The game mostly ran at a decent frame-rate and there’s a very accurate benchmark tool that you can download for free if you’re uncertain that your PC will be able to handle the game. Unfortunately there are further problems with the game that doesn’t just stop at the infamous Error 3102 problem during the open beta of the game. Let’s talk about these problems, shall we?
Most important to bring up is game breaking glitches and there’s really only one that stands out in my memory. I was riding along on my chocobo on a regular path when I suddenly just fell through the ground and ended up stuck beneath the world. I decided to teleport out of there only to find myself stuck and unable to walk when I had teleported. I also couldn’t access any menus, so I tried to teleport again and was stuck on a infinite loading-screen. More people have mentioned these loading-screens errors but that was the only time I encountered it, apart from that the game has worked fine. There were some minor visual glitches now and then, but I’ll chalk those up to my computer rather than the game.
Unfortunately there’s not much positive I can say about A Realm Reborn‘s handling of servers. I decided to wait and see how this would be dealt with before I would wager it into my review and I’m sad to say that I have to do it. Square-Enix have dealt with the launch of A Realm Reborn in a terrible way. At the moment of me writing this more than half of the North American and European servers are locked from creating a new character and this is something that might get fixed next week.
This of course makes it hard for people to play with friends, I was looking forward to playing with certain co-workers myself only to end up having to playing without them because of this. I understand that a MMO launch isn’t easy and that server problems will happen, but when Square-Enix have both FINAL FANTASY XI and Dragon Quest X running at the moment, both multi-platform MMOs, you’d think they’d know how to handle this better. Doesn’t help that thanks to Square-Enix locking player caps at a, in their words, severe low during Early Access, many people who pre-ordered the game were unable to actually take advantage of the Early Access pre-order bonus. Inexcusable and just depressing for a otherwise great game to completely mess up this.
Sure, it’s not a failure on the level of Diablo III or SimCity, but it’s still far worse than most other modern MMORPG launches. Thankfully the improved servers should be active by next week and if that isn’t enough Square-Enix will be offering world-transfers starting mid-September as well as a extended period of free days when everything is fixed. Hopefully I’ll be able to play with everyone I want to play with soon enough. It’s not the games fault, it’s entirely on Square-Enix and no one else. They’ve shown that despite having eleven years on the MMO market, they can’t handle it properly. Thankfully Square-Enix have since announced that they will be giving out more free days of playtime when things are fixed up to make up for all the lost days in Early Access and around launch.
Now, I did also play the game on PS3, which requires a section of its’ own. The game ran just fine in terms of framerate and performance, so there’s no need to worry that the PS3 version is unplayable. But I did allude to lacking visuals earlier on in this review, and that is sadly the case. The PS3 version of A Realm Reborn is not even close to being as pretty as the PC version. The game doesn’t even run at a native 1080p resolution, sticking at 720p, and as such splashes a big user interface that far too often feel in the way.
I realize that you need to sacrifice visual quality to make a MMO run stable sometimes and that the PS3 is a pain to work with on a hardware level, but I did expect the game to look better than this when the game have been targeted for console and PC release since it was first shown under the project name Rapture in 2005. With that said, it doesn’t look outright bad, but it doesn’t look like a PS3 game released in 2013, try somewhere around 2009 maybe and you’ll be more spot on. Of course that doesn’t actually hurt the gameplay itself, in order for that to be ruined there’d have to be problems with the PS3 version’s controls.
Thankfully that is not the case as the so-called Cross Menu system actually works really well. The way the multiple hotbars applies to the buttons through trigger accessing feels natural and is something I can see be used for future console MMO titles. basically you have two sets of 8 skills on screen at once, you can access either of these sets by holding down L2 for the left set or R2 for the right set and then accessing the skills with the d-pad or the face buttons. You can of course switch between multiple hotbars and not just the initial two on the fly as well, allowing you full access to all the skills.
The one thing that was a bit tricky was navigating minor things like if you ever felt the need to use a cursor, which I rarely did, but it happened. The way you access the cursor is by holding down L1 and pressing down on the right analog (R3) and you’ll then get a little pop-up cursor that’s really annoying to use and you might just end up wishing you didn’t try in the first place. It could also be tricky to use AoE attacks that required direct input on aiming the area. However, you can plug a keyboard and mouse into the PS3 if you wish to use that, or a controller into your PC if you want to try out the Cross Menu system on your computer.
So when you compare A Realm Reborn to FINAL FANTASY XIV, I think practically no one will argue against that Square-Enix have taken a great step forward with the title. The story is more interesting than in the original, which is actually a compliment as I found the story of the original pretty darn good despite it being married to a bad game, and the gameplay is just leagues beyond what was offered in the 2010 release. If Square-Enix’s only goal was to surpass the original FINAL FANTASY XIV, they succeeded a hundred times over.
But that wasn’t really the hard part, was it? So let’s also compare A Realm Reborn to its’ elder brother FINAL FANTASY XI. I’ll be honest, I did not play as much of that game as I wish I had because of various reasons so I will not try to crown one outright better than the other. However, it’s interesting to note that while FINAL FANTASY XI was infamous for not telling you anything and having you basically need to join a large party from the start if you wanted to make any progress, A Realm Reborn actually does the direct opposite.
Both A Realm Reborn and FINAL FANTASY XIV had heard the complaints regarding the way FINAL FANTASY XI treated new players and tried to combat this. A Realm Reborn does offer a lot of content early on that you can technically solo without problem, sometimes even encouraging you to do so. It works our really well and I think most people will find the game very newbie-friendly in that sense as well, If you want to you can even walk around your starting town doing quests, getting familiar with the system and reach Level 3 before you even need to fight your first fight. Or you can run straight out and kill as many Cactuars as you want, it’s up to you.
As with any other MMO, the long-levity will depend on user-base and future content. Player of FINAL FANTASY XI know that Square-Enix is capable of providing the content too as that game have been running successfully for over twelve years now. The beta tests and the Early Access have shown that there is at least great interest in the game, and if that exists after waiting three years from the initial release of FINAL FANTASY XIV, then I certainly believe in the game’s potential.
I’ve made it no secret that I love A Realm Reborn. It’s the best FINAL FANTASY since FINAL FANTASY XII and the most fun I’ve ever had in a MMO not starting with the words Phantasy Star Online. Square-Enix managed to assemble a great team that not only saved a total mess of a game, but they made it something truly alive and special in a way I honestly can’t say I expected them to.
In the end, FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn is absolutely the final nail in the coffin for FINAL FANTASY XIV, but in a positive way. Because with that old game dead, buried and forgotten, we can all happily accept this completely reborn game into our lives.