Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Review: Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes
Final Fantasy XIV was terrible. Imagine my surprise when I bought the Collector's Edition in 2010, only to find out that the game was an absolute mess, full of convoluted mechanics and sloppy gameplay. What Square Enix has done with this mess is something typically reserved for the film industry. Hated the first Hulk movie? That's fine, Hollywood apologizes by rebooting it only a few years later. In a similar way, A Realm Reborn was Square's apology to the dedicated fans who were eager to get their hands on another Final Fantasy MMO.
And what an apology this is.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn takes all those convoluted game mechanics and finally updates them to make them resonate with players who are accustomed to today's MMOs. It's a wonderful thing considering Final Fantasy XI tried so hard to be different that it alienated those that weren't patient enough to learn its hardcore mechanics.
As is pretty standard in a Final Fantasy game, and yet still somewhat rare in the MMO genre, you'll experience an extensive story all the way from level 1 to level 50. It's somewhat of a shame that not all of it is voiced over, save for the key cinematics, but it certainly does draw you in. There were times when I wanted to click through the dialogue boxes to just get back to leveling my Arcanist, but I appreciated the writing more once I got familiar with the story.
One of ARR's best features is its simple and easy to understand class-change system. After you progress far enough in your main story (which is around level 10 or so) you'll be able to pick up any or every other class in the game by simply pledging yourself to the respective guild. Switching your class is as simple as equipping the correct weapon designated for that class.
If you're the type to enjoy multi-classing, which is encouraged, A Realm Reborn makes it extremely easy with Gear Sets, which slot whatever you're currently wearing into an accessible -- and even hot key-able -- button. This makes sense especially for crafting and gathering classes, which I'll get into in a bit.
The initial combat classes are diverse enough to find enjoyment for almost everyone, and are split into the holy trinity, DPS (Thaumaturge, Arcanist, Lancer, Archer and Pugilist) Tank (Marauder and Gladiator) and Healer (Conjurer). Each of these classes has a Job specialization they can focus on (two in the case of the Arcanist) which they can access once they hit level 30 (though you'll have to reach level 15 with a secondary class). And while these specialized classes are an awesome way to progress your character, they're not necessary. If you just want to keep on leveling your Archer without ever becoming a Bard, you're free to do so.
In my playthrough, my main class was the Arcanist. At level 30, I could change my Job to the iconic Summoner class and call forth powerful beasts like Ifrit to follow me around and maximize my damage. In my spare time, however, I also managed to level up the Conjurer class, which allowed me to also take the Scholar Job as well. The fact that there is so much flexibility is downright ridiculous in a crazy good way. Not to mention, it pretty much guarantees you won't ever have to re-roll a character if you're not happy with the class.
What can happen though, especially if you decide to switch classes early on, is that you'll find that a lot of the initial low-level quests aren't available to you, since you've already completed them. But Square has smartly put more than enough safeguards in place to alleviate this.
First off, depending on the level gap between your main class and your secondary one, you'll get a chunk of bonus XP percentage when killing monsters. The Hunting Log, which is relatively different per class, will give you a list of monsters to kill every 10 levels, which upon completion also yields a pretty hefty XP reward. Then there are the ever popular FATEs, or public quests, à la Guild Wars 2. These have actually been one of the main sources of XP gain for players, as FATE parties can be found in pretty much every questing area.
Then there are the Levequests, repeatable quests that have a limit on how many you can do per day. Every 12 hours, you get an additional 3 Levequests to do. However, if you wait long enough, you can accrue a large amount of these, which will help you power-level yourself pretty quickly.
When you're not slaying beasts and completing your grand storyline, you can take up a number of crafting and gathering classes, which level up the same as combat classes. The major difference is that you're awarded XP for crafting supplies or gathering materials. These take a bit more dedication than combat classes, and leveling doesn't go as fast, which means patience is going to be key. However, these classes are a testament to A Realm Reborn's versatility, since, if you so desire, you can spend your entire time in Eorzea focusing on any of these crafting classes.
The game can seem like it's set to Easy Mode, at least until level 30-35. But once you take on bosses like Titan, or run dungeons like Brayflox's Longstop or The Sunken Temple of Qarn, the simple fights take a backseat and things start to get a bit technical. This is great, because it not only keeps you engaged in fights, instead of simply mashing your hotkeys over and over again, but it ensures that the party stays in constant contact and work strategically to ensure survival. Temple of Qarn was one of the first instances where defeating an enemy on a stone panel was necessary in order to progress through a locked door. One of the boss fights there also required us to move around variously lit platforms to get rid of the Doom spell put on us, which would kill us in a matter of seconds.
Unlike modern-day MMOs that are built on action-oriented combat like TERA and Neverwinter, A Realm Reborn takes a more traditional approach, with Tab-targeting and hotbars. I was a little worried at first, but Square pulled it off by making the combat feel fast, and almost, in a sense, alive. The rate at which you can pull off your skills has been exponentially sped up, at least compared to Final Fantasy XIV and XI. It feels great no matter what class you choose to play as.
A Realm Reborn is absolutely brimming with activities to partake in. Aside from your main story quest, you'll be able to join either of the three main factions and complete quests for them, take on any of the hundreds of side quests available, participate in FATEs, run a number of dungeons that increase in difficulty, complete Levequests, Guildhests, Grand Company requests, Hunting Logs -- it's mind-boggling. I can't applaud Square enough for ensuring that you're always left with something to do.
So what about end game? Hitting level 50 in A Realm Reborn will open up some new activities, such as harder tiered dungeons and Primals to fight, or the incredibly hard raid on Bahamut. This content is tough, and will seriously test even the best of players. There are also Relic weapons that each class can acquire through end-game quests. On the horizon there is the Crystal Tower raid, the same tower from Final Fantasy III, which is pretty awesome. There are also various level 50 FATEs, one of which spawns Odin himself in a massive fight for survival. It's epic, and it happens so infrequently that seeing it happen is a spectacle in and of itself.
Eorzea is a stunning land to explore. The vistas you come across will often make you want to take a break to maybe snap a few wallpaper-quality screenshots. The lighting effects especially give the game a very next-gen look. To say it's the prettiest MMO on the market would certainly not do it justice. If you have the specs to run it on max settings, I highly encourage it.
The soundtrack by Masayoshi Soken is probably my favorite soundtrack not composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Seriously, whether it's the somber piano theme of U'ldah at night or the upbeat rocking theme of major bosses, it all fits together and adds to the brilliant atmosphere.
The game is not completely without flaws and minor annoyances. As is usual for subscription MMOs, you can expect gold spammers to fill up your chat window in every major hub. Unfortunately, there is no easy way (yet) to block them without going into your Blacklist and manually typing the person's name. This wouldn't be that big of an issue if their names already weren't something ridiculous like Fuikjwi Meztacotl. Seriously, it's annoying.
Teleporting within each city is handy, though you can only select each location from a list, which never specifies where you need to go. Allowing a selection from a map -- or at least showing a quest icon signifying quests near each point -- would alleviate some needless teleporting or checking the map every time.
Speaking of the map, this also needs some work. Hovering over locations or buildings should give you the name of each one. Also, it would be convenient to have zones show what levels they are, as to make questing and looking for appropriately leveled monsters easier.
Lastly, with four huge backpack slots, it's pretty crazy that there is no auto-sort feature, unless you enable it when you first start playing the game. If you turn it on after there are items in your bag, you're pretty much out of luck.
All of these could be cleared up down the line if the fans are vocal enough about them, but they certainly don't hurt the overall experience.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is exactly what its name implies: a rebirth of a doomed game with polished mechanics and brilliantly addicting gameplay. I had once expressed that I'm not sure whether Square is making the right move by not getting rid of subscriptions, but they've won me over.
[Reviewed on PC]