GAMEPLAYFinal? Square Enix doesn’t know the meaning of the word. That’s apparent enough from the avalanche of Final Fantasy games we’ve seen since 1987, but it’s especially true of its approach to its last MMORPG. By all accounts–including Square Enix’s–2010′s Final Fantasy XIV was an abomination, a shameful excuse for an MMORPG that couldn’t even pull off the simplest kill-and-fetch quest without tripping over itself. And so I tiptoed into this “reborn” incarnation of Eorzea with caution, fully expecting the world to crumble around me pixel by pixel. That didn’t happen. Against all odds, it was good, and I found myself reluctant to leave when the closed beta breathed its last. But was it enough to justify such a Herculean effort? I’m cautiously optimistic.
Rest assured, this “remake” essentially amounts to a new game–I’m reminded of Augustus Caesar’s boast that he found Rome in brick but left it in marble. Concerned that FFXIV didn’t embrace the franchise’s lore with enough devotion? Know and rejoice that chocobos here probably outnumber the palm trees of Miami, and Magitek Armor war machines shuttle you about later into the leveling process. Limit Breaks, the group-based ability unlocks, made their appearance in the last beta, and there’s even a group finder. Hated the crippling lag? A Realm Reborn features silky smooth framerates on both the PC and the PS3. Missed Final Fantasy XI’s console integration? I sampled FFXIV on both the PC and PS3, and I found the latter’s gamepad-centric gameplay only slightly more complicated than playing God of War. Square Enix even addressed the concerns that the original told you little to nothing about how to play–in fact, almost to a fault. Description-laden pop-ups describe even the simplest features in encyclopedic detail, and a full 30 minutes of story and introductions passed before I was able to pull out my archer’s bow and shoot stuff. (While we’re at it, what’s with the absence of good beards in the character creator?)It’s largely worth the wait, though, because the gameplay’s actually fun now. It may be a little hard to tell what’s going on in groups thanks to an overreliance on flashy abilities, but it gains much of its excitement in the simple fact that there’s accessible group play in the first place. As of the last beta, there’s even a group finding tool and (surprise, surprise) Limit Breaks, the group-based skill unlocks common to the series since Final Fantasy VII. Long before the first dungeons appeared around level 15, I’d experienced around 20 of the FFXIV’s new “FATE”s (or Full Active Time Events) that evoke the dynamic events of Guild Wars 2 or Rift. They add yet another layer of variety beyond the surprisingly enjoyable storyline (as of yet still unvoiced), as does the welcome introductions of Final Fantasy’s familiar concept of jobs–i.e., a feature that allows you to become the class corresponding to the weapon you’re wielding. In short, polish and surprises await around every turn. There’s no question: this is how Final Fantasy XIV should have been at launch.
The problem for Square Enix is that that launch was just under three years ago. A seemingly small number, but that’s an eon on the MMO scale. Even Rift hadn’t popped up yet back then; in 2010, announcing you played an MMORPG was still almost tantamount to saying you played World of Warcraft, and the paucity of choice paradoxically created larger and stronger communities. The intervening years saw the rise and decline of Next Big Things like The Secret World, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Guild Wars 2 that both bedazzled and underwhelmed us, and countless indistinguishable free-to-play MMORPGs now peck away our nickels and dimes with microtransactions. Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 reared its ugly head in a world without the thinning playerbase such variety brings. At least it’s timed right for release. It has only WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online to steal its hype for now, and both of their release dates sit firmly in an undisclosed future.
It’s the pesky payment plan that will prove the biggest hurdle. The folks behind Final Fantasy XIV have pushed so strongly for a subscription model that new lead director Naoki Yoshida insisted that FFXIV would be shut down without them. But Yoshida’s reasoning seems sound. With free to play, he said in a translated VentureBeat interview, “You don’t know what you’re going to be getting, and because you don’t know what you’re going to be getting, you can’t plan ahead.” Content, he believes, is more important, and I’m inclined to agree. As attractive as I find the thought of playing for free, I’ve come to prefer the subscription model and what I see as the generally finer and more reliable content it brings. The constant reminders to spend this or that in a game’s cash shop robs games of the immersion roleplayers so eagerly crave, and the core combat content seems to lack much of the thought and creativity. But considering that Final Fantasy XIV makes few efforts to bring drastically new elements to the genre despite its polish, new features, and snazzy updated graphical engine, Square Enix will have a hard time winning over players beyond the bunch who were soured by the first go-round with this model.
Indeed, during a brief guided playthrough with Matt Hilton, Square Enix’s community manager, I couldn’t help but ask why Square hadn’t just scrapped the sad wreck of the original and released a new MMO entirely. There’s certainly enough material here to justify it, and a new name might attract players who still recall the taint of the original’s name but haven’t followed A Realm’s Reborn development enough to think of it as any more than an expansion. The answer I received, PR-oriented but honest, was that to let Final Fantasy XIV slip away untouched would have left an indelible stain on the Final Fantasy name. And it’s true that the extent of the revision sometimes defies belief, making what I’ve seen of Final Fantasy XIV look like one of the most impressive apologies to a player base to date.
That might be enough to propel Final Fantasy XIV to success beyond the launch rush. Even so, any sustainable subscription-based success will likely be a muted one–one better suited to around 400,000 subscribers (to quote Yoshida’s own number from his VentureBeat interview) than to Blizzard’s fabled and largely unattainable millions. As Final Fantasy XI proved, that’s more than enough to deliver an unforgettable MMO experience, and the seeming restoration of the series’ good name might provide the push needed to reach those comparatively humble numbers. At present, it’s a standard MMORPG, but it’s one with heart (and a smidge of desperation) and Yoshida’s love of the genre reveals itself with every click.