Review: Final Fantasy XIV Online (PC)

Final Fantasy XIV Online
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Genre: MMORPG
Release Date: 09/30/2010

Prior to this year, the last entry we got in the main Final Fantasy franchise was Final Fantasy XII in 2006. It is now 2010 and we get not one, but two entries in the franchise this year. The first, Final Fantasy XIII was released in March of this year and was a single player adventure full of controversial design decisions. Now, we have Final Fantasy XIV Online, which is an MMORPG and models itself after the rather successful Final Fantasy XI. Does lightning strike twice for Square Enix in the realm of MMO’s, or will it crumble before the house that Blizzard built?

Let’s Review

Story/Modes
As is tradition in Final Fantasy titles, FFXIV starts off very cutscene heavy as it introduces you to the world of Eorzea. Depending on what you selected as your starting nation, you will be treated to one of several story arcs using your created avatar as the central character. While I can’t comment on all of them, nor even say too much about the one I embarked on myself since it is spread out over your journey to level 50, I will say that what I saw of it thus far was very interesting. It’s not often that I play an MMO and actually care about the lore of the world that I’m in, and FFXIV did a great job in getting me involved in the world of Eorzea and the characters in it.

That said, since the narrative is sandwiched between huge chunks of grinding and leveling, it will likely be months before you ever uncover the whole story and whether the tale as a whole is even worth the journey or not. Though if the core experience was all about the story, this really wouldn’t be an MMO, so I’m impressed that they even incorporated this much.

Story/Modes Rating: Great

Graphics
I know I say this every time I review a Square Enix game, but damn is this title beautiful. You’ll need a fairly good system to truly appreciate the visuals, given the high specifications required by the game. But if you just built a PC within the last year or so, you’ll be able to marvel at how good this game looks.

Various emotes provide a vast assortment of animations for the characters to perform and every minute detail seems to be accounted for. Heads turn to look at things. Facial expressions are formed. Eyes dart around. The whole world seems to come alive around you. I think I literally said “Wow!” out loud the first time I started playing this game. All the screenshots and gameplay videos in the world couldn’t do this game justice. It’s that good.

It’s not just the characters and monsters either. The world itself is absolutely gorgeous. Especially the water effects. The first time you run across a stream in the world, you just want to run back and forth and splash it around just to see how amazing it animates. You’ll even notice the grass kick up as you run across the fields as well.

Graphics Rating: Amazing

Sounds
After being absent for a couple of titles, it’s nice to see Nobuo Uematsu return to the franchise. The soundtrack is probably one of the best I’ve ever heard in a Final Fantasy game. And the songs aren’t just good, there’s a vast variety of them, so you won’t find yourself growing tired of the same ones over again. When you trigger a battle with an enemy, it queues some battle music for you, but this music changes depending on what area you are fighting in. You are also treated to some intense music when you accept leves (another name for quests, more on those later). And let’s not forget about the return of the victory fanfare, something that even FFXIII didn’t have!

A number of cutscenes are also fully voice acted too, which is a fun addition to an MMO. The voice acting is pretty good too for the most part, with the exception of a few characters here and there that either have piercing voices, or are just overacted. You can choose a voice for your own character too at the beginning of the game, but don’t expect to hear yourself say much during the game.

By the way, this is the last time I’ll have anything nice to say about this game for the rest of the review, so if you’re a troll or just overly squeamish, I suggest you turn away now.

Still reading? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Sound Rating: Classic

Control/Gameplay
Oh, where to begin. You see, the trouble starts the moment you are required to create your avatar (actually it starts as soon as you set up payment, but I’ll get to that later). You are asked to choose a great many things, but the game doesn’t explain what they mean and how they impact the experience to come. For example, you are asked to select one of twelve gods and a name day (which I assume represents your character’s birthday), but FFXIV doesn’t tell you how this affects your character if it even does at all. What happens on my name day? What do each of these gods do differently? These are things I would like to know and this title fails to explain them to me.

After the opening cutscene plays and control of your character finally rests to you, the player, you’ll notice another big issue: The UI. If you’ve played FFXI, you’ll have grown accustomed to the menus buried within menus. It was fine for its time. But it has been about seven years since that game’s release, so it would be nice to not have an interface that was so clunky. You can definitely tell the game was made for a console controller rather than a mouse and keyboard combo. This is great and all, but considering the PS3 version won’t be out until next spring at the earliest, gamers without a controller have to deal with their joke of an interface.

Let’s say I want to interact with an NPC or another player. There are some buttons that flash on the top of the screen that tell you that you can do something important with them. “Great!” you think. “I’ll just click that button and it will do what I need!” No, that would be too easy. All that button does is bring you to your menu that will then allow you to click on that button and do what you need. It would’ve been faster to hit the hotkey for your menu yourself and do it that way. “Well, that sounds like sloppy design.” you might be thinking. Yes, it does. And that’s only the beginning.

The combat itself isn’t too shabby. It’s pretty standard fare really, depending on what class you ultimately choose. There is no auto attack function, so when you encounter an enemy or monster on the field, you must click on them followed by whatever attacks you want to use on them manually. Almost every function behaves manually, such as the gladiator’s ability to block attacks. It’s a minor addition, but it’s pretty neat and ensures that you are constantly engaged in the battle.

If I had to describe Final Fantasy XIV in one word, it would be “slow.” I’m not talking about just progress either. That’s to be expected, since this is an MMO. No, everything in this game behaves slowly, from the interface to the gameplay. If I want to attack an enemy and I hit a button for one of my attacks, I have to wait for my character to slowly unsheath his weapons, and then the damage is done before the animation even finishes. Actually, my second and third attacks almost register by the time the animation for the first will finish. This is not just my computer, I’ve noticed it on multiple systems on different internet connections. You might see how this could be a problem for classes that deal in tanking or healing duties.

Classes in this game are determined by the weapon that you currently wield at the time. So much like FFXI, this means that one character can master all classes if they want to. If you have a sword, you are a gladiator and if you have a spear, you are a lancer, that sort of thing. It’s the same with crafting and gathering skills as well. While each new class that you start off with will begin at rank 1, your character will have it’s own physical level that goes up separately. This means that if you decide to switch, you don’t necessarily begin back at square one. You’ll still have all of the stats you gained and allocated to your physical level.

The problem starts when you do finally decide to switch classes, the stats you allocated with your physical level don’t reset. You can choose to move them around, but you can only move so many before you have to wait for a cooldown period to expire. This means it could take days to completely transform your melee character into a magic user. I understand the need for such penalties, but this just seems ridiculous.

You can also solo your way to the current max level of 50 if you want to. And it some ways it may be more advantageous to you. Your job class gains ranks by performing actions against your enemy, so in theory, you could get more actions in over the course of the battle than if you have others sharing in your kill. This is especially true if you are the healer in your party, since you don’t gain any skill points by casting healing spells on your comrades. This seems like a sloppy system, since healers are rare enough in MMO’s. And now you want to alienate them by making them harder to rank up? Sure, they get attack spells, but how often are they going to get to use them?

Also, if you do want to form a party, you have to be right next to the person you want to invite in order to invite them. There’s nothing on any of your social lists that allows you to do this at a distance. So when you are going to type to your buddies to tell them to meet you somewhere to form a party, you will likely realize another major problem: the chat function sucks. You can barely type a whole sentence before the game cuts you off and you’ll have to split your thoughts into multiple lines. Of course, there’s so much spam that comes from battles and other people crafting their junk all around you that anything anybody says to you will likely get lost. And I couldn’t find a way to setup separate chat windows.

I feel there is way too big a focus on crafting in this game. Of all the things they could have done to separate themselves from other MMO’s, it had to be the process of crafting items. So when you sit down to craft something, you have to individually select what ingredients you want to mix together. No, there’s no recipe list. In fact, there’s nothing in the game that I could find that tells you what things you know how to make. You have to search the internet to find out what makes what. Fine, but don’t tout your game as the next revolution in casual MMO gaming if you can’t even put a simple recipe list in your game.

Back to crafting. So you select your ingredients and what hand you want to make them with, since your main hand and offhand items can produce different results. It will ask you what you want to make (which in most cases ends up only being one option). And then you start making it. You are given three different variations of synthesis that you can use, or you can choose to wait one round. Depending on whether the one you choose was correct or not, the quality of the item goes up or the durability goes down. It’s a neat mechanic the first few times you do it, and then it just quickly turns tedious. The sad part is you sometimes gain more experience from crafting than you do from fighting monsters, which sets a scary precedent for the rest of the game.

I have later been informed that the color of the item during the synthesis determines whether or not it will be successful or if you should wait one turn. Yet one more thing the game neglects to explain to me. Regardless, the whole thing still seems very random to me with zero fun factor. That’s fine if they want to have you lose all of your materials if you fail, but to have to suffer through the boring process of crafting and THEN failing feels like the game’s way of saying: “If you want this reward, you’ll have to let me kick you in the groin. But if you cry, I’m going to kick you in the groin again. And then laugh at you.”

If you want to obtain new gear in FFXIV, you need to rely on pretty much all of the crafting skills currently available in the game. Which is fine, if there was a solid process to obtaining these materials from other players if you don’t want to get them yourself. Unfortunately, this title does not include an auction house system, which means you have to rely on what are called retainers. Retainers are NPC’s created by other players which sell their items in the marketplace at whatever price they want to set. This is a terrible system on both ends. If you are the seller you have to give your items to the retainer one at a time, which when you consider how slow and sloppy this game’s menus are, you’ll realize just how painful that is. As the buyer, you have no way of knowing which retainer is carrying what items. So you have you click each one and check individually. This is a complete waste of the player’s time and a poor excuse for not having a better system in place. There is a patch supposedly incoming that will divide the market wards into sections that separate what the retainers are selling, but you still have no way of knowing who exactly has what or even a way to price compare.

Quests in this game are called Leves, and you can take on eight of them every 36 hours (I had to Google that one too). Since each area will only give you four at a time, after you finish them, you will have to go to the other areas to gather the other four. Except your anima, which you use to teleport from camp to camp, only recharges enough to give you about one teleport a day. You will eventually just give up trying to do this and go grind instead. Or craft. But considering what that entails, I would just rather suffer through trying to fight the same mobs as dozens of other players in the same boat as me. And even when I do take on leves, since they are randomized, I may end up with the same exact leve several times in a row, and I often do. You can exchange previously completed leves when you undertake new ones, but I have no idea how this influences the reward since FFXIV conveniently likes to leave out important information.

While it is possible to obtain new gear from leves, since your rewards are randomized, more often than not you’ll either have to craft them or buy them from NPC’s. But since these vendors like to charge an arm and a leg for these items, you’ll have to make money some other way. You can make a bunch from doing leves to be sure, but you make even more from crafting and selling the items. So again, since you now have to rely on a ludicrous crafting and retainer system to make money, you would almost rather just run around in your starting gear and hope that you get good stuff from leves. Or purchase them from retainers if you have the patience to sift through hundreds to find what you are looking for. Either way, unless you embrace the fact that you need to play their damn crafting minigame to progress, you are screwed.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Bad

Replayability
Being an MMORPG and all, there’s no doubt that there is a lot to do in FFXIV. I mean, ranking up all the classes to 50 is an achievement upon itself, as well as trying to craft all the strongest gear. The problem is, is any of it going to be fun? Considering I hate crafting and I lack the ambition to get one class to 50, much less all of them, I’m going to say no. Perhaps this genre in general is just no longer for me, but I’m tired of each new title being derivative of the others. And if you’re going to be derivative, at least be good at it. I feel like everything I’ve experienced in this game or have yet to experience I can find in other games, and done better. I would much rather play FFXI than this.

Replayability Rating: Poor

Balance
I mentioned that grinding was a big part of this game, as it is with many other titles in the genre. Which is fine, except that there is no consistency in regards to mob placement. Even the easiest areas in FFXIV have one random enemy that is several levels higher than all the rest and will aggro you and kill you if you get too close. The penalties are fairly mild for death, with only a small durability loss and a debuff that reduces your stats. But there’s no way to tell as far as I know which enemies will aggro you, and there’s a bug that is still unresolved that can sometimes prevent you from fighting back. When you strike an enemy, sometimes you will get a message that tells you that the monster has already been claimed by another player even though it hasn’t. And as a result, you can’t hit it and are forced to let the creature pummel you until the game pulls its head out of its ass and starts working correctly. Sometimes that never happens.

Remember when I mentioned the leves a little earlier? The things you can do so many of every day and a half? They are also timed. Almost every single one gives you 30 minutes to kill whatever creatures it tells you to kill. This is probably the biggest sin you can commit in an online game like this. What sense does it make to urge you to kill the same creatures that likely everyone else on the server is killing within a short amount of time? Sometimes the game will randomly increase the number you must kill, as there’s a random chance you will be ambushed by about four of whatever you are killing.

Luckily, your friends can share their leves with you, even though your reward will be smaller. In fact, you can have, as far as I can tell, as many shared with you as you like and can adjust the difficulty of the leve based on the number of players. And once you complete the leve the game will even warp you back to the camp where you first accepted it, which is nice. However, if you fail the leve or even get disconnected while undertaking one, you will fail it for good and won’t be able to accept it or another one in its place for another 36 hours. I’m beginning to wonder what kind of ass backwards design philosophies they had in place when they created this game.

Balance Rating: Bad

Originality

Most new MMORPG’s are just carbon copies of one another, and FFXIV is no exception. Almost everything you see in this game has been done by another game before it, and is nothing more than a melting pot of various ideas and features. The problem is, this game does none of them well, and what you end up with feels like an unfinished game that could use at least one or two years of more development time before it even feels like a GOOD ripoff. I mean, I wasn’t expecting it to deviate that much from FFXI, but I at least expected an improvement.

Even the source material is ripped right out of FFXI. All of the races are basically the same, they just have different names. Same with the classes. If a character has a sword and a shield and is used for tanking, you can call it a gladiator or a damage soaking douche for all I care, but it’s still basically a warrior. All changing the names does is confuse players that have gotten used to the terminology over the years.

Originality Rating: Dreadful

Addictiveness
This game was kinda fun the little bit I played the open beta. It was also entertaining starting my character for real and doing the first storyline chain quest. After that, the game leaves you hanging with no direction and no idea what to do. This would be tolerable if I could find fun things to do on my own, but I didn’t have much luck with that. As such, as was ready to cancel my account within days. I forced myself to play after that point, telling myself that there was no way that Square Enix would invest so much money into this game just to have it suck. Telling myself that has stopped working.

Addictiveness Rating: Bad

Appeal Factor
Anybody who enjoyed Final Fantasy XI will definitely express interest in this game. After all, many of the characters and features have made the transition, warts and all. Unfortunately, FFXI is still the better game and much of the magic that it had has been lost on its way to this title. Remember putting a six party group together and having your tank pull a mob to your group and try to keep him alive before he dropped during his run over? Or trying to achieve experience chains by trying to fight mobs back to back with each other? I’ve admitted in the past that I didn’t like FFXI that much, but never did I have any gripes with the gameplay. FFXIV on the other hand, is a mess. The soloable nature attempts to attract newcomers who, like myself, probably didn’t care for its predecessor all that much. But aside from the opening story quest, the game tells you absolutely nothing about what to do, how to do it, or where to do it. The manual is absolutely useless and while I don’t need my hand held in a game like this, I would like at least some direction. Even hardcore MMO players won’t find much to hold their attention until some major content updates start rolling out.

Another thing that will bar many players from trying out this game will be the insane system requirements that are needed to run the game decently. If your computer isn’t built specifically for gaming, like I mentioned above, within the last year or so, the performance is going to choke. Even higher end laptops have to turn the settings way down before they can even get the game to run. And they won’t even run that well. Granted, they are ensuring that the game will look good for years to come, but they are also barring a huge potential audience from ever playing the game for a long time. Although, given the quality of the game, perhaps that’s a good thing.

Appeal Rating: Bad

Miscellaneous
After installing the game, but before playing it, you’ll have to setup your account. This process practically needs a tutorial in of itself since the process is needlessly convoluted. You can pay using Crysta, which is Square Enix’s own little currency similar to Microsoft Points. There’s also another payment method that involves using another site that SE has outsourced for payment purposes, and while I never tried that option myself, I’ve been told that there’s a charge just to set up an account with them. The base price of the game is $9.99 per month, with an additional $2.99 per character. You can also purchase additional retainers for $1 a month each. Again, why not just offer a simple flat rate for the account per month?

Once you get your account set up and are about to log in, then you have to go through the lovely process of downloading updates. Except the update process is excruciatingly slow, and sometimes doesn’t even work. For the first few patches, I had to get them from another website since the downloader refused to work correctly and would just get hung up on 0%. I continued to do this for each subsequent update since it’s much, much quicker than what the downloader can ever do. SE has been pulling these patches down, insisting that consumers use their awful downloader to update instead. I’m appalled about how they could do this without first addressing the problems with their own software. What an embarrassment.

If I were to give Square Enix props for one thing, it would be the server stability for FFXIV‘s launch. Very rarely did servers ever go down, and even when they did, they usually announced on their site that they were going to do it. I think releasing two different versions of the game at two different times helped a lot with this, though I think that decision was as equally about money as it was keeping their game stable.

Miscellaneous Rating: Dreadful

The Scores
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Amazing
Sounds: Classic
Controls/Gameplay: Bad
Replayability: Poor
Balance: Bad
Originality: Dreadful
Addictiveness: Bad
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Dreadful

Final Score: Below Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
As both a fan of Final Fantasy and a veteran of MMORPG’s, this is one of the biggest disappointments I’ve ever experienced in gaming. I’m been anticipating this title since its announcement at E3, as I’m sure many other gamers had as well. I even bought the Collector’s Edition so I could play eight days early. Looking back, I don’t feel like I got early access and an assortment of collectibles. No, what I actually received that day was the middle finger and realization that I just did exactly what millions of other gamers had done: purchased a subpar product on name alone. Everything about this game feels like a rush job, and the experience I had could be equated to having played a paid beta. That’s what this game is right now: a paid beta. It has the potential to be so much more, but it could take months or even years of quality content updates to make this into a mediocre game, much less a great one. If you are on the fence at all about this game, I suggest you hold off for now. MMORPG’s are constantly changing, and Final Fantasy XIV is no different. So someday I may look back on this review in shock and disbelief at how I could write so many nasty things about a game I now like. Until then, either skip this one altogether and keep playing whatever online game you are already playing, or wait until customer reviews start to improve. Grab a chair though, it might be awhile.

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