You wouldn't think that simply meeting standards would be cause for celebration, yet when it comes to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, congratulations are in order. At its launch, Final Fantasy XIV Online was a mess--so much so that it was easy to question whether developer Square-Enix had ever played an online role-playing game before, let alone created one. But the old has been burned to ashes and an entertaining and beautiful game has risen to take its place. A Realm Reborn is a perfectly playable massively multiplayer concoction whose witty writing and colorful vistas make it easy to lose yourself in the fantasy.
This rising phoenix is not an entirely unknown creature, however. While A Realm Reborn represents a sizable step forward for this particular game, it does not leap over the shoulders of the games that have come before. This is a familiar kind of game with a familiar feel under your fingers. Genre fundamentals are delivered here with vigor, if not always with great imagination. You speak with characters labeled with icons floating over their heads, and they send you out into the world to kill roaming creatures, interact with objects, and collect various ingredients for their scientific projects and medicinal needs. When you encounter walking vegetation, skittish jackals, and winged demons, you target them and tap keys or click buttons on your skill bar until you vanquish them. While other massively multiplayer games have re-thought quest structure, combat mechanics, and exploration tropes, A Realm Reborn represents the old world.
A Realm Reborn is a fine representation of this old world, however. Once you choose a race and initial class, you are treated to a long and melodramatic cutscene ripped right out of the Final Fantasy storybook, and then land in the starting area associated with your chosen class. This is an unusual association, given how most similar games use your race to determine your starting location, and you spend the early hours performing gopher quests and slaying low-level creatures alongside a bunch of players dressed like you and performing the same attacks as you. This world structure is sensible when A Realm Reborn's flexible class system is considered (more on this later), but you'll long for some visual variety after a few hours of seeing and hearing the same spells being cast over and over again in every direction.
Once you venture out into the vast world of Eorzea, however, you'll be entranced by it. Open regions are large and attractive, urging you into the distance to see what secrets might be uncovered. In regions with numerous vertical spaces, using the minimap to navigate can sometimes lead to a wild goose chase when you discover that your destination is on a cliff above you, but circling back is no great frustration considering the world's visual grandeur.
Leave the city of Limsa Lominsa, for instance, and you're immediately struck by the beauty of the display before you. The view is a striking mix of moss-coated cliffs crossing the horizon and sturdy spires poking against the clouds. Outside Gridania, the tedious corridors of the original release have been replaced by lush forests where turtlelike adamantoises roam among golden luminescent flowers. As you cross The Footfalls just outside of Ul'Dah, collapsed statues and crumbling archways speak to the destruction that befell the land. Seeing such lovely sights at their best requires a modern PC, but the allure isn't greatly diminished even if you have to adjust some of the game's many visual sliders.
Yes, you will fight those adamantoises, either alone or with friends. There's nothing particularly unusual about the moment-to-moment combat: you select your target and click buttons on your hotbar or press your shortcut keys to fire off projectiles and swing weapons. Like in several modern games, enemies often signal their most powerful attacks, allowing you to move out of the way. Unlike those other games, though, A Realm Reborn doesn't feature a real-time dodge maneuver, so you don't feel like you're leaping out of grave danger. When peril approaches, part of the fun is in the escape, and sauntering into another position just isn't very thrilling.
It may not feature the most tactile combat, but warfare comes into its own when you enter one of A Realm Reborn's many entertaining and challenging dungeons. It's easy to queue up for a dungeon; the game automatically groups players of differing roles, though you may need to wait a bit for that to happen, especially if you play as a damage dealer. The dungeons strike the right balance of combat and treasure hunting, their various nooks and crannies filled with chests to open in between monster battles. Group warfare is colorful, with healing spells easing the violence with their healthy green glow, and horned boss demons galloping around arenas of fire.
Dungeons often require you to use various clever mechanics to triumph. For instance, you may need to lure explosive enemies towards goopy slime monsters so that their eruptions might damage those foes when your arrows cannot. If you're a conjurer, expect your healing spells to get a good workout; if you're a damage-dealing arcanist, you might be thankful for your own healing abilities when your magical comrade has difficulty keeping up. Outside of dungeons, however, combat can be pretty dry. Particularly for magic-users, the slow (but fluid) animations and conservative cooldown times can make for underwhelming open-world skirmishes, with the fireworks of particles and other glittering effects providing most of the interest.
Luckily, dungeons aren't the only place you join up with others. Public quests called FATEs (that is, Full Active Time Events) erupt out in the open, bringing players together to defeat a bunch of spawning lizardmen, attack golems and collect the minerals they leave behind, or protect an AI-controlled local as he makes his way from one point to another. FATEs are full of action, but are so short that you often stumble upon one just as it's finishing up, which can be anticlimactic. However, FATEs are a good source of experience points, so players often band together, riding their chocobos and other mounts from one to the next.
Having such sources of experience is vital, given A Realm Reborn's class system. By equipping the associated weapon (for battle roles) or tool (for crafting roles), you can be any class you want at any time. This is where the association of classes and home locations seems sensible; when you are ready to try out a new role, there are low-level quests for you to perform in that class's starting area. However, there comes a time when you must find other sources of experience if you're trying out enough different classes, and FATEs are one such source.
Levequests are another source of experience, and function much like they did in the original release, though the restrictions for how many you can perform in a specific amount of time are thankfully much lighter. General levequests gift you with gil (the usual Final Fantasy currency) and experience, while the grand companies (that is, the game's three basic factions) have levequests with additional currencies as a reward. Either way, such tasks are short and typically involve killing a bunch of creatures, though some of them throw in a few different rules with varying success. Using the "soothe" emote to calm enemies down once they have taken enough damage is a pleasant enough addition to battle; having to use the "beckon" emote to lead a character from one location to another is tedious and dumb, even if you create a "beckon" macro so that you don't have to type the emote every few seconds.
Ultimately, you can level up two classes high enough so that you can take on an advanced job, which earns you even more powers to play with. And even before that, you can slot in certain skills when you play as one class even if they belong to another class you play, giving you a little room to experiment. And of course, you could just play as your primary class and make your way through the game's story. The tale isn't enthralling, but it features mysterious villains, pious adventurers, and all manners of other Final Fantasy tropes. Few scenes feature voice acting, which is just as well, given the mediocrity of the English acting that you do hear, but the English localization deserves special mention: A Realm Reborn is rife with witty dialogue and fun references.
Even quest names are loaded with puns and cute allusions. ("Loam Maintenance," "Sylph-Management," "Dance Dance Diplomacy.") Some quest-givers spew more dialogue than is necessary, and various characters' pirate-speak and high-falutin' formality can make wading through the wordy dialogue a chore. But it's worth reading as much as you can, if only because you are guaranteed a few chuckles. A Realm Reborn occasionally touches on dark themes, and certain sights, like the petrified corpse of a bulky creature called a Goobbue, communicate an eerie melancholy. Typically, however, the game wavers between melodrama and freewheeling charm, and sometimes combines both in appealing ways. Consider, for example, the valiant music that sounds out when you ride a rented chocobo, a creature that looks none too valiant.
If you stick to moving through A Realm Reborn as only one combat class, you'll hardly run out of things to do and sights to see. Story quests send you all over the map, and fairly early on, too. If you're used to online games that carefully guide you through its world in a more or less linear fashion as you level up, you'll delight in the constant visual and tonal variety this one offers from one hour to the next. The downside to this map-hopping mission structure is that it sometimes comes across as random and unfocused. There are stretches when the story sends you to far-removed regions one after the other, with you spending more time traveling than accomplishing your goals, sometimes through areas filled with lower-level creatures that you have no interest in fighting. Of course, you could always switch to another class when this happens and find yourself distracted by levequests and the FATEs that crop up in the neighborhood, gaining a level or two before you know it.
Luckily, getting around the world is a snap, in contrast to Final Fantasy XIV's original travel tedium. Once you attune yourself to an area's central crystal, you can teleport there from anywhere for a price. (It's not cheap to do so, but it's hardly bank-breaking.) You can hire a chocobo to take you between local destinations, take airships to the main cities, and use other forms of travel. A Realm Reborn is clearly committed to rectifying the mistakes of its past. That's especially true in areas like grouping (it's easy to queue up for dungeons), communication (you may never need a linkshell this time around), and economy (retainers have taken on a completely different form).
The economy also benefits from improved crafting over the original release. It's easy to keep track of recipes and ingredients so that you can focus on the tug of war that exists between you and your materials. You choose crafting skills that best enhance the quality of your item before its durability is depleted, and ultimately can make some gil on the market by selling your goods. There's only so much the intricacies of crafting can do for your overall enjoyment: fishing and hammering are too slow-paced to be fun for extended stretches, but as in most MMOGs, you can safely bypass crafting altogether and let other players do all the work for you.
When it comes to crafting, you couldn't accuse Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn of not trying something interesting. That isn't true of most of the game's various features, however. The details vary, of course, but A Realm Reborn isn't so novel that it feels like a vacation to an undiscovered realm. Instead, fantasy-world travelers will understand the language and quickly take to local customs. Yet these previously charted lands are wondrous to look at and overflowing with like-minded adventurers seeking to make a name for themselves in a world in need of heroes. And when you need to escape to another world, sometimes beautiful landscapes and well-oiled entertainment are enough to keep you exploring.