Starting From Scratch - Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Is the upcoming MMOG a true rebirth, or will it reopen old wounds?

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What does Final Fantasy mean to Square Enix game producer Naoki Yoshida?

When Yoshida recently presented his plans for the upcoming rerelease of the critically drubbed Final Fantasy XIV, he called out immersive graphics as a franchise hallmark. He mentioned fantastic storytelling. And he spoke to the series' sustained worldwide success and fandom. What he didn't mention was the ever-evolving gameplay that makes each installment play so differently from the last. The presentation focused so much on graphics, actually, that it was difficult not to wonder: Has Square Enix actually learned the lessons taught by the disaster that was Final Fantasy XIV's initial release? After all, beautiful visuals were one of the few ways in which the game excelled, so my heart sank as I heard about lens flare and watched comparison videos showcasing new, fancy graphical effects.

As it turns out, Square Enix seems to have learned a great deal from its online mistake, and Yoshida had no qualms about admitting the original game's poor quality. I asked him how it felt to take over the troubled project in late 2010. His initial reaction at the time? "Well--at least it can't get any worse." In time, that trepidation turned to excitement, culminating in a realization that he had an opportunity to destroy a world and allow a new one to rise from its ashes. And what better way to annihilate the remnants of a disastrous past than with the giant fireball that will end the first era of Final Fantasy XIV?

It was clear upon first starting A Realm Reborn that this was a very different game from the Final Fantasy XIV of yore. There were marked quest givers, proper waypoints, easily identified vendors, and normal hotbars. As a gladiator from the human-like Hyur race, I slashed and hacked my way through a variety of fantastical monsters, pressing the number keys as I would in any number of traditional online role-playing games. I came up against colorful winged zizes (apparently these giant birds have made their way over from Final Fantasy XI) and defeated humongous gnats on my travels through the vibrant and eclectic pathways. It felt fluid and comfortable, in contrast to the clumsy mess I played in 2010.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn isn't trying to be different from other MMOGs--it's just trying to be different from Final Fantasy XIV as it currently exists.

Quests didn't just have me fighting; they had me dancing with sylphs and searching for the missing, among other tasks. None of it was groundbreaking, but then again, Final Fantasy XIV's original means of breaking ground was to make the game as impenetrable as possible. The dungeon run I participated in was equally accessible and enjoyable. One of the original release's better elements was its flexible jobs system. Because I could draw on skills inherent to other jobs, I was able to heal teammates and fling poison at the monsters we encountered, in addition to standing my ground in a tank role. Proper group invites, auto-attacking: it was all there, making for an adventure unhindered by the original Final Fantasy XIV's broken interface logic.

That isn't to say that what I played was much different from many other games, and I pressed Yoshida on his choice of combat styles. With games like Tera, Wizardry Online, and the upcoming Neverwinter shooting for an action-game feel, why not shoot for a combat system less typical than the tab-targeting, hotkey-pressing standard? The decision, in part, was made not just to stay true to Final Fantasy's turn-based ways, but also to accommodate console players, who will be playing on the same servers as PC players.

Oh yes--remember the PlayStation 3 version of Final Fantasy XIV? A Realm Reborn will at last make good on the promise of a console version of the game, and though I didn't get to play that version, I was treated to some side-by-side comparisons, along with a lengthy video explaining how each button on the DualShock 3 functioned. Yoshida's goal is to give console players "the full MMO experience without the UI fuss," and he proclaimed that A Realm Reborn will be the first online RPG in which the console version sports a completely separate interface from the PC version, fully tailored for the PS3.

Yoshida is proud of how well the visuals stand up on the PS3 compared to the PC. In the comparison film, heavy aliasing and low frame rates on the PS3 made it hard to tell just how comparable they will really be, though to be fair, Yoshida was aware of the choppy frame rate, and shared that the team will be busy optimizing that version in the months ahead. Regardless, the game looks visually fantastic at this stage, though the most important changes aren't just skin deep. It isn't just the engine that's being redesigned--it's the entire world.

In other words, if you play Final Fantasy XIV now, expect wholly new geographic and architectural elements. Scenery will be different, and bustling villages will exist where there were only a scant few travelers before. Yoshida has literally moved mountains to make Eorzea feel more lived in, and filled it with Final Fantasy hallmarks: magitek armor, chocobos, moogles, and even limit breaks. Even more importantly, Yoshida and team are filling this reimagined world with new content, from player residences to public quests; from raid dungeons to player-versus-player battlegrounds.

PVP battlegrounds in a Final Fantasy game? Yoshida discovered that the notion didn't sit so well with every player, but he was insistent. Yoshida didn't divulge every detail, but he did say that he wanted to make sure that players could earn experience through both PVE (player-versus-environment) and PVP play. Want to stick to PVP and forgo PVE? Once you hit level 30, that's a viable option, and you can play as much or as little PVE as you like after that. I couldn't help but wonder, though: how well can you balance a PVP system in a game with so much skill flexibility? Yoshida's answer: "It's all about jobs." Combat calculations were designed with PVP in mind, and will hopefully keep confrontations as fair as possible.

Because I could draw on skills inherent to other jobs, I was able to heal teammates and fling poison at the monsters we encountered.

All of these elements that are "new" to Final Fantasy XIV seem "old" in the grander scheme of MMOGs. I asked Yoshida which online RPGs provided him the most inspiration, and his answers weren't surprising. He name-dropped World of Warcraft for its user-friendliness and enduring popularity; Warhammer Online for its system of public quests; Dark Age of Camelot for its player-versus-player content; and Guild Wars 2 for the way it made its map part of the exploration and questing process. When I asked him what makes Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn stand on its own, his answer wasn't as clear. He mentioned graphics, he mentioned the game's three story layers, and he mentioned the focus on console players--but not much more. In fact, he suggested that the idea of uniqueness among MMOGs is a bit of a misnomer and that most such games iterate on what came before rather than redefine the genre.

In other words, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn isn't trying to be that much different from other MMOGs--it's just trying to be different from Final Fantasy XIV as it currently exists. It's hard to say at this point whether that's enough, though Square Enix certainly hopes so. Yoshida steadfastly claims that the company is "putting everything" into this project and that it will never give up on a Final Fantasy game. Unfortunately, a lot of players have already given up on Final Fantasy XIV.

The promise of a beautiful, traditional MMOG might just be enough to lure some of them back, however, at least for a look at the upcoming beta, which begins on PC on Monday, February 25. How strange that notions of easy team communication, a client-side interface, crafting recipe lists, and simple shopping trips could be so refreshing. After all, Final Fantasy XIV included no such conveniences at launch. Then again, as Naoki Yoshida himself said of Final Fantasy XIV's initial state, "Well--at least it can't get any worse." And with A Realm Reborn, it looks to be getting a lot better.

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