Last year, after a tumultuous time for the company, Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada conceded that the damage had been done. Its flagship brand Final Fantasy had been "greatly damaged" by XIV, an MMORPG that failed to excite critics, and more importantly, failed to excite fans. The backlash was severe. But as a company, Square Enix isn't one to let a game, let alone one as important as a numbered title in the Final Fantasy series, die a slow death. The PlayStation 3 version was put on hold, the development team replaced. What was left of its disheartened user base were given free passes to roam a world that no one wanted to be a part of.
For many companies, that would be the end of it. Call it quits, burn it down, and cut its losses. But not Square Enix. As producer Nakoi Yoshida puts it, "As a company, we cannot let a title like Final Fantasy XIV end in failure. We let a lot of fans down and lost a lot of their trust--we need to get it back." That's a bold statement for a game that has been so heavily shunned by so many people, but the company's ambitions for the game are perhaps even bolder. Final Fantasy XIV: A Real Reborn isn't an expansion pack, nor is it a patch. It is, according to Yoshida, a complete rebuild of the game, both on the PC and PlayStation 3--modern, slick, and able to compete with any of the great MMOs of the West.
Indeed, it's those great MMO games of the West that proved to be the starting block for rebuilding the game, once the development team had been replaced. "The developers didn't look at what players really wanted," says Yoshida. "We created a 450-page Excel spreadsheet that documented exactly what it takes to be a great MMO. We went over it with the development team, told them to play other games for inspiration." The result is a game that Yoshida claims lives up to the "global MMO standard."
And so Final Fantasy XIV lives on, but the game is almost unrecognizable. The visuals have been greatly improved, powered as they are by a new graphics engine, which Yoshida says needed to be as impressive as possible, thanks to the long life span of the MMO. The animation engine has been overhauled too, with the niggling lag that made the game feel so sluggish now eliminated. The maps have been redesigned, all-new assets have been created, and there are "hundreds" of new quests to complete, and dungeons to explore--a content quest finder will make them easier to find.
More importantly, that sprawling, confusing interface has been streamlined, and seeing the game in action, it immediately looks a lot more user-friendly. Menus have been simplified, icons have been made clearer, and the whole thing can be customized to your own preferences. And that's just the PC version. The PlayStation 3 version will feature a completely separate interface, designed explicitly for a control pad, by an entirely separate team. And yes, the PS3 version will launch alongside its PC counterpart this time, or so they tell me.
In one final flurry of fan service, the Limit Break system--made famous by Final Fantasy VII--is being introduced, albeit for groups rather than individuals. If your party has its Limit Break bar powered up, it can unleash devastating attacks or spells, or even heal itself. It even comes with the requisite over-the-top visual flourishes that the Limit Break system is famed for.
Whether or not that's all enough to change the fortunes of what is, perhaps, the most disappointing entry ever in the Final Fantasy series remains to be seen. Like Yoichi Wada said, the damage has already been done. Convincing people to once again place their faith in Square Enix might be too much to ask. But from what I've seen today, Final Fantasy XIV: A Real Reborn is certainly well on its way to doing so.'