Some games stick with you more than you expect. Final Fantasy XIV certainly did for me. I never played the original version, the one released in such a horrific state back in 2010 that Square Enix was forced to stick a knife in it and go back to the drawing board. You know it's bad when even a game's publisher openly admits they've released a flop and stops even taking money for it. Still, they took it back to development, vigorously retooled it, complete with a five-year timeskip to a new story, and in 2013, it returned under its new name, A Realm Reborn. I gather it was going to be "Oh God Our Jobs Depend On This", but the focus groups didn't think it had enough snap.
Luckily for Square, the gamble paid off. Final Fantasy XIV is one of the few MMOs whose name doesn't rhyme with Earled Of Awecraft to still be ticking along nicely with a mandatory subscription, with its first expansion pack, Heavensward, due this week. I'm not planning to talk about that here... because I haven't played any of it. But! This does seem like an opportune moment to take a second look at the original game - an often frustrating, yet intriguing take on the MMO template.
Final Fantasy XIV can be a bit of a mess. Putting it kindly, it feels like a game where about 20% of the team has played an MMO, and the others have at best glimpsed the genre and frankly PC gaming in general through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. As just one of many examples, take the new Heavensward expansion. You can buy it on Steam, and like most MMOs, what that gives you is a serial number to put into the Square-Enix website - a poorly designed horror show in itself, hidden behind an unfriendly launcher that makes simply getting a password reminder far more hassle than it should be. Unlike most MMOs though, Square draws a distinction between a regular PC copy of the game and one bought on Steam, so a Heavensward code from one won't activate on the other! And you'll only see that if you click the 'Read Me' button on the store page and scroll down to a section that's 'Important', but clearly not AS important as advertising a new hat.
Grr! And this is not isolated face-palm moment by any stretch of the imagination.
Most of my initial experiences with the game back then were as frustrating. This is a game where the Blizzard spell hurls a ball of ice at one enemy, while Blizzard II is is an area damage attack. Was 'Blizzaga' or something too hard to type? The new player experience is also pretty weak, with quests that think a triumphant fanfare is the appropriate response to being asked to get someone a glass of juice, and which put far too much focus on daily type quests called 'levequests' - a name that comes from a combination of the word 'queste', from the Old French for 'shit to do', and 'leve', the ancient Aramaic for 'boring'. Having to mainline all of this for review purposes didn't exactly endear it to me, though I was quite fond of the weirdly British script. It's so odd to play an MMO full of lines like "Enough of this mummer's farce!" and with characters casually muttering "Bugger me!" in conversation.
But as I said, it's surprising how some games stick with you. Over time, and a couple of return visits without the same pressure to push forwards and stare critically at things, I've come to think a lot more fondly of the game - both for what it at least tries, and for what it succeeds at. A recent patch for instance added the Gold Saucer, a casino based on the beloved theme park from Final Fantasy VII. I talked about this more on my own site, but I think it's probably my single favourite thing I've ever seen patched into an MMO, and it's a credit to Square-Enix that it's free to all players rather than being a carrot on a stick to draw players back in for Heavensward. Chocobo racing! Triple Triad throughout the world! Lots of mini-games! It was a bit empty when I popped in now just to take a look, rather than the bustling hub of the first time I took a look, but never mind. It's easy to find examples of Final Fantasy XIV being a bit creaky, but things like this are still a pleasant reminder of it going above and beyond to actually earn its second chance and redeem itself after that terrible launch.
(I'll even forgive its inevitable shilling of Lightning, the most boring of all Final Fantasy characters, in person during the launch event and in Triple Triad card form more recently. Goddamn, Square couldn't shove her down our throats more if they stuck her face on an endoscope...)
In particular, it smacks of a game that doesn't quite understand the rules of its genre, and I don't mean that as a complaint. Well, okay, sometimes. Mostly though, I mean that it feels just a little uncomfortable enough to have thought about things that other games take for granted - like dungeons. Every game has dungeons. This is one of the few that insists you do them even on the largely single-player focused storyline, and early. There's even a boss fight against Ifrit (a fire monster, for non Final Fantasy players) who is quite happy to show rookie players what a total party kill looks like. It does admittedly go a little nuts with this, demanding three dungeons in quick succession - unless that's been patched - but the message is pretty clear. You bought an MMO? Then damn it, kupo, you're at least going to play with some other people for a while.
That might be a plus or minus depending on how you roll, and how bad the dungeon queues are while looking for groups, but it does come with a definite plus - Final Fantasy XIV is one of the only MMOs I can think of that actually takes the time to explain how to do it. As a Thaumaturge for instance, there's training in what your role as a damage dealer actually is and what your party tank will expect from you. It's maddening how little that usually goes explained, with games simply assuming that already just knows about tanks, healers and DPS. Honestly, this was a breath of fresh air.
Sticking with a Thaumaturge, because that's what I focused on (FFXIV uses a Job system so you can chop and change, levelling each class individually), combat was also oddly fun. It's a very stodgy system compared to many, but with some nice touches. In that role for instance you get both ice and fire spells, with the gimmick being that the more you use one in a fight, the more powerful but draining it gets. Levelling up classes also unlocks cross-class skills, in a cool extra gimmick. The game's full of this kind of thing - not necessarily huge sweeping changes to the status quo, but at least something different. Then it often throws you into a poorly designed map where you can't bloody find anything, or something else worth grinding your teeth for. But then, after that, usually something cool. It shakes out a lot better than it feels like it's going to while annoyed early on.
Past those first impressions, it's also a surprisingly good Final Fantasy game in a way that, say, The Elder Scrolls Online utterly failed to convey the spirit of its own franchise. It's very different in terms of play, but it still works, in the surprisingly good story that unfolds, in the characters you meet, and the cute details like the chocobo song playing as you bop around. It manages to make you feel important, as a game with a personal quest should, while still making the multiplayer side an advantage on a regular basis. Guild Wars 2 style FATE quests that just spring up and offer the chance to jump in and fight alongside a party for instance, or the range of group/duty finders. One I particularly like, small as it is, is the Recommendations panel that opens up at login, pointing you towards suitable things you might want to go and do, like a specific dungeon for your level. Another, again a little like Guild Wars 2, is the ability to just zap around the world on command instead of wasting endless time on taxis or running to find one of the world's teleport crystals - though they do serve as free local teleports for getting around larger locations, saving much shoe leather.
There's a fair whack of grind associated with all this, and it's a game best taken slowly - though given that Heavensward demands you've finished all of the story before letting you into the new stuff, I suspect that the dungeon queues are going to be quite brisk at the moment. A little now and again certainly takes the edge off the annoyances, some of them still at a point where it feels worth getting on a plane to Japan and booking an appointment with the game director just to scream in their face and stride out with a sense of happy purpose. (When checking out Gold Saucer for instance, it took a wiki to find out what I was meant to do - heaven forfend the airship to it simply sell a ticket instead of declaring I didn't have authorisation to go there. The actual solution? Find a random NPC on the other end of the world willing to give me his for free. Ngggh! Seriously, what the hell?)
Even with everything I like about Final Fantasy XIV, I can't say it's a game that I feel compelled to actually play long-term. It's a slow burner at best, there's a lot of grinding to be done both for your main and additional classes, and the frustrations do build up over time. Still, thinking about it, dipping in now and again... yeah. The more time passes, the more I'm glad that it both got its second shot at success and embraced it like a bear with a particularly cuddly bunny rabbit.
Certainly if you're a Final Fantasy fan and it fell off your radar at launch, it's worth at least trying the 14 day trial to see how it rolls and if its unusual mix is enough of a change from the usual theme-park MMO style. If not, well, maybe check back in a couple of years. I hear that can help...