By – Mike Bezek

Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn Beta Impressions

I embrace the term “superfan” to describe myself when it comes to the Final Fantasy series. No, I do not collect any type of memorabilia or enshrine scantily clad resin models of Viera, but I do have an encyclopedic knowledge of the series. While I had steered clear of the previous online iterations of the eponymous gaming lineage, the controversy and intrigue surrounding it was not lost on me. The spiral of negativity by press and consumers alike destroyed Square Enix’s second foray into the MMO market, forcing resignations and hopeless marketing to salvage a rapidly sinking ship. In a daring rescue operation, Square decided to take their ailing game offline in an effort to devise a more cohesive, reinvigorated experience to deliver a clarified vision of their product. Thus, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was, well, born.

While my previous experience with the 14th installation was limited to the free trial offered a few years back, I was well-versed in the myriad of game-breaking issues that needed to be addressed during this downtime. It was nothing short of a colossal laundry list with an annotation pinned at the end, in red ink, stating, “Our brand depends on you”. The success of A Realm Reborn is most likely going to be a defining moment for SquareEnix – a beloved series of thirty years will be put on the grand stage once again to not only reinvest their fanbase, but to cull the naysayers.

One of the most standout problems with the original release was that the artistic vision and technological shortcomings both had prominent displays, inextricably bound at every turn . The original graphics engine written for XIV suffered from issues like pop-in and incredibly short draw distances, which punctuated a horrifically laggy experience overall. Just peering at any screenshots of the old version evokes memories of the technology exhibited in FFX and FFXII: simplistic due to graphical constraints.

Landing in the world of Eorzea once again greets players with a completely rewritten engine that will push systems for all of the right reasons. The lush forests of Gridania are quite spectacular when you take a moment to absorb the various aspects flora and fauna dancing in the distance. Sunlight breaks through the trees to emphasize the massive canopy that stretches on for miles above you. The cobblestone roads leading to faraway places are punctuated with their compliance and respect for nature in the form of Forest Guards. It is evident from the first 15 minutes of exploration and combat that the developers were very serious in giving players a screenshot-worthy experience. For what it is worth, Square has most likely written one of the most accurate environment lighting setups in gaming.

Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn Review

It is to be noted that there seems to be considerable slowdown when all options have been increased its higher settings. This could be an acute case of the Beta Phase graphical sniffles, where the engine has yet to be optimized before finalization of the game, but I am still holding my breath at this point. The engine may have been rewritten, but the plethora of graphical shortcomings found in the previous version still fresh in the minds of many players.

But the true defining elements of A Realm Reborn is the old school approach to questing and combat, starting with the former. Many WoW veterans bemoan the “good old days” when simple kill quests took hours to complete, all the while dying innumerable times and grave running. The masochistic and archaic approach to the innumerable tasks brings the critics of the current state of the game out of the woodwork, all calling for a back to basics approach. Square is serving up that very same ideal to sate the salivating masses who want to trade dynamism for simplicity.

In my first ten levels exploring Gridania, quests seem to be divided into very familiar types: Fetch and Kill. To most MMO fans, this type of activity has been left in the dust with real-time events which break the traditional level-barriers that force players to chase down rabbits for 6 hours in order to reinforce their need to grow. For example, within the first hour of Guild Wars 2, the human campaign has you face down with a gravelly behemoth along with 20 other players in a massive showdown normally reserved for end-game content. But here in Eorzea, players will be climbing the figurative ladder that was a standard so long ago, constantly clawing at new features that are just out of reach.

Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn review

But what saves these quests from devolving into skull-crushing monotony within the first 30 minutes is the writing. Each task is accompanied by incredibly verbose incentives, penned at a higher level of reading then found in typical MMO’s. It is the kind of writing that made me such a huge fan of Final Fantasy from the early days of spoony bards and “treasure hunters” – characters had believable problems that were accompanied with actual personalities. It seems like this aspect of the game is a necessity, rather than an added bonus. I encountered no form of voice acting aside from the various grunts of player characters stabbing away in the grassy fields over yonder. The game does a great job at curbing the beleaguering MMO staple of NPCs being husks designed simply to dole out quests.

You should, however, be prepared to hunker down and take in the amount of lore, if not to simply brace yourself against the constant name-dropping. But don’t breath a sigh of relief once you get your bearings as the story will continue to lay it on thick. While I don’t mind the occasional trip down the rabbit hole, sometimes the amount of information given for a simple task can become rather inundating. If I need to kill a few Mirochus that are eating your crops, I really don’t need to hear about water tables and how Theoretical Agriculture works as well as the implications of these monsters breeding in this particular area. If anything, A Realm Reborn is an experience for those who would rather get lost in a story than chase the appeal of games constantly attempting to lie on the cutting edge.

Breaking up the main story are two very enjoyable, and dynamic optional quest systems. The first one is called F.A.T.E.(Full Active Time Event), and as the name implies, players in the immediate area can join in a massive battle that mirrors the events found in Rift. There is no need to plead players in the surrounding area for a group to receive rewards/experience, as you are automatically placed into the rankings after breaking the events perimeter. While the only FATEs available centered around pummeling various baddies, there is an aspect that was a bit off putting. Players that do not meet a “level requirement” have their rewards significantly devalued over those who meet the prerequisites. It doesn’t matter if you are providing much needed support to tanks, or supplemental damage, your reward will be a paltry sum simply because you weren’t as arbitrarily effective as a fellow player who may have stood around 75% of the time.

Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn review

The second system are the Leves which are broken into Guildleve, Levequest, and Fieldcraft. First and foremost, these quests serve as level-boosting filler that replace grinding, as well as inject some merit into mundane crafting tasks. {During my testing time, I only had the opportunity to pick up one type of Leve, so I will give my thoughts on that.) The Levequest tasks players with bounty hunts for various monsters, but the interesting twist on the quest is that other players cannot assist you. Once players reach the designated area, they must activate the quest in the log, which spawns instanced monsters that must be defeated solo. What adds to the experience is the ability to tweak the difficulty level of each Levequest, with the higher challenges yielding better rewards. It is very rare to see an MMO giving players the option to manually adjust the difficulty of specific content, but it remains an excellent change of pace to those looking for a greater challenge. The added bonus of an actual story, albeit in text form, sweetens the deal by making it more than a mindless task.

In an attempt to bring a spark of creativity to the otherwise drab action bar landscape is the entirely redesigned user interface. 1.0’s UI was awfully mundane, it had little inspiration and only assisted in bringing more negative attention to the game. This time around, a totally revamped look is easily one of the most beautiful interfaces out there. The spirit of minimalism and user-friendliness punctuates a subliminally colorful look, with different menu elements being very easy to understand. Player inventory nestles itself quietly in the corner as individual grids, allowing you to see their overall capacity. Health and other regenerative features are simply bars that echo a classic approach, while the action bar is colorful and fully customizable – but ultimately unobtrusive. What caps off this new look is the ability to customize nearly every on screen element, much like Rift did a few years back.

Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn Beta review

Complementing the UI are the small touches which facilitate tasks that would normally force the player to check journals or whatever mundane menu-driven task that ultimately breaks the immersion. Monsters that are quest-specific have a stylized “Q” next to their health bar, and those who still need to be slain for the Monster Journal will carry an icon next to their nameplate. Aggro is indicated by a thin, arcing line that will shoot out to the respective player, and will do the same if another player steals aggro as well. It is a simple solution to the issue of giving players a very concise method to understand who is the active tank without relying on a window or readout.

My main concern with the game rests in the combat and skill system. From my experience achieving Level 15, I found that my lancer had zero need to use anything but a one-two combo skill that provided additional damage. Everything felt very basic, and while I have yet to see what the future holds for my characters potential skills; fifteen levels in which only two abilities getting the job done is worrying. Accompanying my reservations is that all abilities share the same 2.5 second global cooldown, making combat feel very paced, but ultimately formulaic. What makes combat in various MMOs dynamic are the variable timers attached to certain abilities, forcing the player to make decisions and face consequences in the heat of battle. Correlating and executing certain attacks in various situations is what makes the experience stand the test of time through innumerable hours of playtime.

XIV’s GCD system feels like a repurposed ATB scheme ripped from the earlier Final Fantasy games: nearly every action (besides spellcasting) is guided by the same specific timer. The lack of bleeding, or any other DoT abilities leaves a very unfulfilling testing experience. It should be noted that many abilities, including the popular Limit Breaks, have been excluded from the beta experience. In turn, it becomes very hard to make a conclusive judgement on the combat as a whole. With the addition of DoT’s, and the many other abilities slated to return to the game, the combat could become leagues more interesting than what has been displayed so far.

Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn Beta review

But what spurns these otherwise vanilla battlefields is the excellent orchestral score that breathes life into each encounter. Every area in the game features a traditionally inspired Final Fantasy tune that I can only attribute to the developers channeling some vibes from IX – classiness laced with personality. Soundtracks in MMOs range from droll to tolerable, but Uematsu (with the help of a few new composers) works his magic once again to bring life and personality to yet another role playing experience. Even normal field battles feature a rousing tune that begins with the now eponymous crescendo, eventually leading to a new standard that never seems to get old. It feels as if every single aspect of the game was scored to give it memorability, instead of simply supplying a backdrop.

What SquareEnix has on their hands here is a volatile product: it carries the hatred and spite of consumers burnt by a horrid launch, but its revival appears to be something very special. Retooling a game of its magnitude was a bold move, and many questioned how the team could fix such a fundamentally broken experience. There are still many things that need to be addressed, such as the speed of battle being throttled by a sluggish GDC timer, but the foundation is very strong. Personally, it pains me to see any Final Fantasy title be lambasted by the press, and my hopes are high that they can come roaring back with this new product. If Yoshi P and his team hunker down and address the combat issues that have been mentioned in many publications, they could have the next big addiction in the MMO market.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is currently under controlled NDA.  TPG was given permission by Square-Enix to publish this preview.

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  • yo

    Dang girl

  • Steven S

    I’m torn about this title. I have played my fair share of Final Fantasy, but MMOs are not exactly my kind of games. I’ll obviously have to wait until the game is officially released but this review gives me hope that this just might be an MMO worth playing.