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 game’s 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? By the looks of things it seems Square may back on the right track, but with the wrong business model.
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 userbase 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 dummied 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 a 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 game’s 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. Most side and story quests (at least early on) require killing a certain amount of a particular creature or finding so many of a certain item for an NPC giving the whole thing a formulaic, fetch quest feel. It’s safe to say that any MMO veteran will not be surprised by the content on show here, however it is delivered well, simultaneously leaving little to complain or write home about.
This mix of high and mediocre quality is also present when it comes to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn’s story. Although presenting an interesting tale right from the opening, it is quickly lost amongst the vast amounts of unnecessary dialogue and focus on questing rather than narrative.
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, exciting 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. The game looks great and the menus and interfaces work well, even on a DualShock 3, allowing for a smooth experience regardless of the format.
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 also controls well across all formats, making it one of the most satisfying elements of the game, keeping you hooked, even if the quest is a little dull.
However, despite all of this there is one fundamental potential flaw in Square-Enix’s new flagship MMO and it comes in the form of their choice of business model. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is set to be a subscription-based MMO costing roughly £10 a month, a system that has not brought success for many in recent times. With MMO’s like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Star Trek Online being forced to change their strategy post release, it will be interesting to see if FFXIV doesn’t end up in the realms of Free-to-Play within a year or so of it launching.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is in no way a bad game. It is a massive improvement on the games original form and brings a more than competent MMO experience to the gamer. Despite this however, Square has clearly gone for a more traditional structure and business model that could hurt it. With games like Guild Wars 2 not only changing what to expect from the genre, but also doing it with no monthly subscription, Final Fantasy: A Realm Reborn may just be approaching the market with a little too much confidence.