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The fourteenth instalment of the stellar Final Fantasy franchise that launched in 2010 is now but a distant memory when entering the wonderfully ‘reborn’ world of Hydaelyn in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Square Enix hopes to not only make a second try a success, but also to convince gamers that subscriptions are still viable and that they can deliver on the content, quality and service that befits a $15 per month fee in their first true foray into the MMO genre since Final Fantasy XI came onto the scene eleven years ago.

Players explore the realm of Eorzea, a region in the world of Hydaelyn five years after the events of Final Fantasy XIV. The invading Garlean Empire brought down the lesser moon Dalamud in an effort to cleanse Eorzea. Unbeknownst to all, the moon was a prison for the Primal Dragon Bahamut, who proceeds to lay waste to the land, marking the beginning of the Seventh Umbral Era.

ffxiv_09092013_130025The three Grand Companies of Eorzea enlisted the aid of scholar Archon Louisoix to reseal Bahamut but as the attempt fails, he utilises the last of his energy to send the remnants of the Grand Companies and Adventurers into the ether. The events of A Realm Reborn begin as the survivors return from the ether to join the rebuilding of Eorzea and deal with the conflicts that arise from the various beastmen tribes of the realm, the Garlean Empire and the mysterious Ascians that manipulate them from the shadows.

Visually, A Realm Reborn impresses. While many MMORPG titles opt for the more cartoony, exaggerated over the top art style with obvious fantastical elements, FFXIV remains surprisingly realistic, despite its fantasy setting. The world feels as if it could really exist, with fluid animation and little things that make it feel alive. Doors open and close as players approach, weather effects are realistic and genuinely change the atmosphere of the zone and each area feels unique and explorable; a huge improvement to the copy and paste world of the original.

Monsters have subtle idle animations which make them feel like a part of the environment, rather than just static targets for players to kill. The open world is not seamless, however, as it is split into zones with loading screens in between and this may lose immersion for some.  The impressive draw distance does mitigate some of this as it allows players to see features from other zones, and even the faint silhouettes of city structures in the distance.

As beautiful as the zones are, it would seem a waste if players only visited them once in the levelling phase and never came back again. Many MMO’s often have sparse and underpopulated lower level zones as the playerbase gets to the higher level. A Realm Reborn mixes this up, with some areas of the same zone featuring monsters for lower level players, while others are catered towards the higher end of the spectrum. The story also takes players all over the world, revisiting towns and settlements as well as previously unexplored areas. As a result, the entire realm of Eorzea feels populated, and I have yet to experience a time where a zone is completely devoid of players. Granted it has only been a week since launch, it’s a refreshing feel to constantly see other characters going about their business.

ffxiv_09092013_131816We are also reintroduced to the armoury system; Square’s fancy way of saying that all classes can be trained on a single character, effectively negating the need to create multiple alternate characters to train different roles. If you’re ever bored during the levelling process of a particular class, all it takes is a switch of weapon and you’re instantly equipped with the skills of another and can begin levelling that instead. Each class has its own level, thus even players with maximum-level characters will be forced to return to beginning zones to raise another class from level one.

Privileges of higher level classes such as mounts stay with you so there is no need to go through any monotonous slow levelling just to earn any convenience features again. Players can also equip some skills from other classes, allowing a level of customization and flexibility to each class. However, this system is fairly limited as some skills, although transferable, will be nearly useless. For example, Cure can be used by all classes, but any profession not trained in magic will find it has a negligible effect. Classes also lack talent trees, and as such are only able to assign attribute points gained to level, thus most classes will inevitably end up largely similar.

FFXIV ARR affords its players with many different avenues to progress. Square Enix has taken what are the most successful parts of different MMORPG’s and amalgamated them together for a varied and enjoyable levelling experience. Standard questing is present, much of which is the standard kill/fetch quests that MMO players are used to. The game does try to mix it up though, with occasional boss fights and escort quests that help in breaking the monotony. Even so, it’s hard not to feel connected with the world and the plight of its inhabitants. Rather than being presented with a long paragraph to read upon viewing a quest, voice-acted cutscenes reminiscent of Star Wars: The Old Republic progress the main storyline missions, while zone quests have some NPC dialogue to introduce the objective.

ffxiv_20130707_072006Despite the similarity to SWTOR, ARR’s English voice acting falls far short of standard, and is almost cringe worthy to listen to. Repeatable quests called ‘leves’ are also available, each using up an allowance that is granted every 12 hours. Each class is given a hunting log; essentially an auto turn-in quest list that has players kill various monsters around the world for an experience reward.

Finally, Full Active Time Events (FATE) are comparable to events found in Guild Wars 2 and Rift. Players work together to accomplish objectives such as monster elimination, escort duties, resource gathering or to kill a boss. While early FATE’s are relatively simple, at higher levels they can chain together to complete a narrative composing of various objectives. ARR is the first title in a while that makes dungeons a compulsory part of the main storyline progression. While the game is rather solo friendly, it’s odd to see group content suddenly forced onto the player.

Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t really try to innovate, rather gathering many successful aspects and delivering it in a polished package, much like what World of Warcraft did many years ago. The battle system is largely familiar, best explained as WoW combat style combined with the combo chaining mechanics from Aion. User interface is also standard and easy to navigate, instantly familiar to any MMO veteran. ARR opts for a minimalistic style, without any visual theme to provide a modern and uncluttered UI. Progression is largely linear, and the endgame still will inevitably revolve around the conventional gear treadmill found in most MMO titles.

The game also addresses several inconveniences of the MMO genre that are a source of player frustration. Extra inventory space is no longer a commodity for the wealthy, but supplied in full right from the beginning. Monsters that possess quest items will always have a 100% drop rate and gathering objectives are unique to the player, thus eliminating fighting for a single item while others wait for the respawn. No trash loot to speak of either. Gone is the obligatory vendor visit just to clear your bags of stuff that’s only good for selling.

ffxiv_09092013_131101Travel is also simplified as players are given the option to teleport to any previously attuned Aetherstone, albeit at a heavy monetary cost. You’ll never lose sight of things to do either, as logging into the game you are provided a list of recommended quests and activities based on your level and location. It’s these small steps and attention to detail that makes ARR simply fun to play.

Despite many steps forward in the quality of life aspect, the game still falls short of other competing titles. Functions such as map-marking, inventory auto-sort and the ability to edit the quest tracker are noticeably absent, though some are slated to appear in the 2.1 patch coming post launch. Players are also inexplicably restricted from performing some actions, such as whispering to another player while in a dungeon or even inviting another player to a half completed duty. A lack of auto dismount is also glaringly frustrating, as this has long since been established as being a genre standard.

The character creator is a combination of the slider-based customization of TERA and Aion, with the pre-set nature of World of Warcraft’s creator. While choices are abundant it still feels a little restrictive and definitely warrants some expansion.

It’s not the ‘WoW killer’, nor is it the ‘next big thing’ for the MMO genre. And despite its minor problems, Square Enix has managed to take MMO tradition and refine it, stripping away its less desirable aspects and combining it with Final Fantasy tradition set in a beautiful, vibrant world. The result is an all-around great game that embodies the some of the aspects of the MMORPG genre in undeniable polish and style.

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Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was developed and published by Square Enix, and is currently available for the PlayStation 3 and PC, with a PlayStation 4 version releasing in 2014.

A PC copy of the game was purchased independently by the reviewer.

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