Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games are often compared to spreadsheets with pretty graphics.
Well, Final Fantasy XIV is the most attractive version of Microsoft Excel as a game I’ve ever seen. The problem is, it’s also one of the most complex and obtuse experiences in existence next to actually managing a real spreadsheet.
Final Fantasy XIV is not a typical modern online RPG. From a complicated account creation system, to a game that doesn’t bother to teach new players how it works – there are lots of obstacles in your way if you’re not determined to overlook most modern MMO conventions.
The trouble starts at the beginning. Even creating an account is an arcane process involving optional add-ons and fees. Players signing up for access to the game can buy multiple character slots, which is a nice ala cart concept except for one thing: the basic $10 fee doesn’t even get you a character slot. It merely grants access to the game and allows you to log on. You have to buy any and all character slots for $3 a pop.
This choice of splitting up access and character slots is illogical. If you have to rent a slot to even play the game, why is the basic access $10 plus $3 a month and not $13? Why not bundle the first slot and offer add-on options normally?
Final Fantasy XIV (PS3 [Reviewed], PC)
Release Date: August 10, 2010
Account complexity aside, Final Fantasy XIV is a gorgeous game. The visuals are truly impressive, and with the right video hardware it’s hard to imagine ever playing hours and hours of older games with lower visual refinement, like WoW. Players can create characters from five visually distinct races and three starting zones, each with a cinematic story to tell. Unlike most MMORPGs, Final Fantasy tells a story and it involves the player from the beginning.
After introducing the storyline and the area the player chooses along with some key supporting cast, the game falls apart as a new experience. Most games recognize that new players will not know how the systems work, and good designers work in the introduction in a fluid way. Final Fantasy XIV, however, is an abusive host. Instead of easing players into the game world and teaching them the core skills needed to succeed, it simply leaves you standing there wondering what the hell to do next and then smacks you if you make the wrong choice.
Early levels and opponents are cruel lessons in frustration. Monsters, like forest mushrooms and small rodents, can kill a starting character easily. While they are not aggressive, they sure do know how to work together for protection. During my first six hours of play, I died multiple times. Luckily, the death penalty is forgiving.
Another frustration is the game’s quest system itself. Instead of wandering the world encountering creatures and picking up missions, the game works from an instanced challenge system. Players accept jobs and then usually have a fixed time to complete them. Logging out during a quest is grounds for automatic failure, too, so the game is not very friendly to real-life intruding on your gameplay.
Along with not grasping systems intuitively, I found that even the level up process was inscrutable. Until I began buying more gear from completing small hunt and kill quests, I was left with no special abilities other than “swing light axe.” It took research for me to discover how the skill system worked since there is no tutorial on this aspect, either.
Final Fantasy XIV is a game that allows players to quickly switch between classes, and one where races are merely a cosmetic affectation. You don’t need multiple characters to experience different forms of gameplay. Simply change your gear, and surprise! You’re now a magic user, or gladiator. Gear and character level combine to grant class abilities. Attaining class levels unlocks skills, in concert with the character gaining physical statistics which are not tied to class.
This is actually an interesting approach that offers a lot of tactical flexibility to players. Respecting your toon is pretty simple, and done on the fly using the game’s macro language. There is some reward for exploring the various roles and spending time learning each skill system and play style, but it often feels like Final Fantasy XIV punishes players who prefer a certain style of play, at least in the first few hours.
There are a number of technical glitches that prevent immersion. When entering new populated hubs I found that it often took noticeable time for key NPCs or other players to even register in the environment. Seconds would pass before the crowd would suddenly pop into being around me.
The game has a very console-centric menu system. Text is oddly broken up within dialog boxes and the game interface lacks many of the refinements other MMOs introduced to streamline or enhance gameplay. Final Fantasy XIV does not “feel” like a PC MMO.
This Final Fantasy MMO is not going to find itself challenging World of Warcraft anytime soon, as its core features just don’t “pop” and it fails at the one thing it must do to survive – teach new players how to play.
There are some commonalities here between Final Fantasy XIV and XI, Square’s last MMO. Players familiar with the previous game might feel at home. Only new players up for a challenge or willing to learn the game’s complex systems through trial and error should even consider signing on at this point.
I didn’t expect Final Fantasy XIV to be just another WoW clone, but maybe it would be better if it was more like the industry leader – there is a lot to admire about a game that can attract millions of active players. MMO’s evolve over time and often have rough launches. Final Fantasy XIV is not a bad game at its core, but as a new player option right at lanch there is a lot of need for adjustments and improvements.