2010 should have been a banner year for Final Fantasy fans, as Square-Enix saw fit to release not one, but TWO entries in the long-running role-playing franchise’s official canon. After playing through – and loving – Final Fantasy XIII earlier in the year I only had the highest of hopes for the PC release of Final Fantasy XIV, which would mark the developer’s second try at making a comprehensive online world based around their distinctive audio/visual style. While it’s true that the first – Final Fantasy XI – was never a favorite of mine, surely the intervening years and lessons learned would result in a vastly superior game that truly benefited such a well-respect and beloved franchise…right?
On the surface there isn’t much difference between this and a more traditional game in the series, and the first thing I noticed is how cinematic and beautiful it can be. The graphics are generally amazing, for an MMORPG, though they do require the proper equipment to enjoy to their fullest. As you’d expect from a Square-Enix game, there’s plenty of gorgeous rendered cinematics buffered in-between actual gameplay moments, and the style benefits under the careful art direction by Akihiko Yoshida (Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII). The music and sounds are spot on as well, and fans should appreciate the return of acclaimed composer Nobuo Uematsu, who contributes his first full-length soundtrack to the series since (ironically) Final Fantasy XI. I particularly enjoyed the beautiful opening theme music and new version of the infamous Final Fantasy prelude music.
Recent games in the Final Fantasy series have usually been constructed from a familiar collection of themes and concepts, including elaborate CG cinematics, evocative characters, and plots that usually involve groups of disenchanted rebels that band together to save the world. Being a MMORPG, of course, the game eschews most of these contrivances (minus the CG cinematics) for a relatively anonymous adventure that isn’t unlike the vast majority of similar games out there. You’ll still trudge through various quests, slaughter countless monsters and enemies, and perform other tasks in order to level up your customized character to his/her maximum level allowed by the game. Only now you’ll be doing all this inside Square-Enix’s universe of stylized artwork and a gorgeous, orchestral soundtrack that’ll makes you forget that you’re essentially on one big grind-fest.
Whether you’ll feel this is a positive or negative will largely depend on your feelings towards recent chapters in the series, or towards MMORPGs in general, but the game doesn’t stray far from the genre’s basic premises. Character development has more to do with how you choose to level your character’s stats and items, and you’ll get to choose from five different races: The Hyur (aka the humans), Elezen (an elf-like race), Lalafell (humanoid folks with high agility and intelligence), Roegadyn, (physically large and muscular), and the Miqo’te (cat-like humanoids that everyone will most likely want to play as). You’ll also be able to customize just about every aspect of your character, right down to how their underwear looks. Don’t laugh, because this actually becomes part of the game’s combat strategy – just as long as you can micro-manage correctly.
The actual gameplay basically boils down to making a character, viewing a cool opening scene, talking to someone at the local Adventurer’s Guild which leads to the beginner quest chain, and then it’s over and you’re on your own. What happens next is entirely up to you, as the game doesn’t bother guiding you through these early moments, and it was only after running around like a chicken with its head cut off did I discover the game is played primarily through combat and crafting quests to earn experience and money. Combat quests will have you kill a certain number of monsters, while crafting quests ask you to craft and deliver them to someone; it doesn’t help that most times you’re not told how to get to the person who actually needs the items.
The game’s combat mechanics aren’t terrible, but they’re not great either, as they involve choosing an enemy and unleashing an attack, skill, or spell on them. Being a Final Fantasy game, there are various impressive-looking spells that really do help break up the monotony of the otherwise straightforward hack ‘n slash combat routine, but the targeting system doesn’t help, as it doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe when cycling through the targets. This makes for a lot of frustration in large groups, and also disappointing is that you can’t simply click on a member’s name on the party list to cast a spell on him or her; really sad considering its a standard in almost every MMORPG.
One feature that should have been better implemented is the ability to perform a group-based sequence of attacks that can be set up in advance. While you and your group can experiment to see what various combos do, they don’t always work like they should, and because coordinating them between various players is an exercise in tedium, most will likely just ignore them completely. To its credit the game’s combat does feature some nice battle animations and cast spells look great, but even these simple pleasures are hard to appreciate when the game’s shoddy UI and clunky controls suck so much of the fun out of the experience. You’ll find yourself needing to use macros to pull off what should be simple tasks, and good luck finding someone who can help you set some up, as they can be very complex.
Crafting is a MAJOR component of the game, as it helps level you up, grants new skills, and even helps you make money. Unfortunately, there’s no recipe book for the crafts themselves, and if actually do stumble across a new one, you’re forced to write it down (on paper), rather than have it digitally added to your in-game log. The only real way to add new crafts to your repertoire is either by sheer luck or by communicating with other players, or by completing quests where learning them in the objective. It’s boggling that such an important gameplay element has been relegated to a mini-game of chance, as you’ll seldom know if what you’re crafting will be successful or just a waste of time and items.
It’s a pity that something as basic as keyboard and mouse controls is frustrating, thanks to the game’s impossibly convoluted set-up, which seems bent on making actually playing the game a sluggish chore. The UI is a disaster, as trying to navigate through the menus (and sub-menus) was so frustrating and clumsy that I almost didn’t want to bother. Thank heavens I was able to play the game with a proper gamepad, which just so happened to be Snakebyte’s officially licensed controller, as I’m not sure I would have made it very far otherwise. You might think this would be awkward, but this is clearly how the game was meant to be played, which shouldn’t come as any surprise given its console roots (and upcoming PlayStation 3 version).
I’ve got a fairly powerful gaming rig of my own, so I was curious why the game continued to bog down and almost ground to a halt, even after playing around with the different graphic options. It turns out that much of this can be blamed on how Square-Enix chose to actually host the game, as many of these server-side issues resulted in slow menus, loading of gear, frame-rate spikes, and practically anything where lag would be a deciding factor. It’s absurd that the game almost requires you to continually search online websites and forums for helping get through these issues, which isn’t something most people don’t want and shouldn’t have to do, especially after long installations and several patches.
Final Fantasy XIV may come wrapped in the same cinematic visuals and booming soundtrack that’s made the series so endearing, but confusing controls and awkward combat make this second attempt at a massively-multiplayer Final Fantasy one to skip. With so much competition in a crowded MMORPG market you’d think Square-Enix would have put more effort into making such a marquee title stand out. I could understand if they were offering this free-to-play, but asking users to fork over a monthly service fee to play what’s essentially a bug-riddled, broken game doesn’t seem fair. I’m sure future updates and patches may fix many – if not all – of these issues, but that doesn’t help us right now. Fans deserve better than token chocobos and magic spells.