When the simple act of creating an account for the massively multiplayer online game you just bought is a convoluted mess, you know you're in trouble. It's unfortunate that the first impression you have of Final Fantasy XIV is so indicative of the experience at large. It's hard to miss these gaffes--the bizarre and unfriendly method of getting an account set up, the troublesome patcher, having to exit the game if you want to adjust the graphics settings, and so on. These might have been forgivable flaws had developer Square Enix provided an excellent reason to overcome these obstacles, but in fact, they set the stage for a misguided effort that uses its atrocious interface and tortuous mechanisms to veil its core simplicity and unending repetition. The brighter aspects speak to the MMOG that might have been. A robust graphics engine gives your travels some razzle-dazzle, an open-ended class system offers welcome flexibility, and a focus on storytelling makes the initial hours more bearable than they may have been otherwise. But these minor peaks are outweighed by abyssal valleys of aimlessness and unfriendliness. Final Fantasy XIV isn't fun; it's work.
Once you get past the confusing process of opening an account and endure the arduous patching, Final Fantasy XIV puts its best foot forward. Character creation offers a slick look at race and class choices, showing off a number of fantastic character models and dividing them into subcategories. There aren't a staggering number of ways to physically customize your character, but there are enough selections to keep you content, and the races are visually diverse enough to get you excited about exploring a new fantasy world. After you finish making an avatar, you choose one of three starting cities and get treated to an impressive, competently voiced cutscene featuring the game's expressive character models and idyllic music. It's a strong first statement, though it's a fleeting one. Other cutscenes feature more of the same solid voice acting, though most are eerily silent and showcase characters that move their lips but make no sound. Nevertheless, this is a good way to set the stage for what would seem to be a great-looking, narrative-focused online role-playing game.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIV dampens the goodwill this opening might inspire from almost the moment you take control of your character. You might wander off after this introductory sequence, only to respawn where you started with a simple message that you left the zone, though the game makes it unclear where you should be going in the first place. "Where should I go?" "What should I do?" These questions will be constantly on your mind in the first hour--and the fifth, and even later--as you struggle to figure out what the game expects of you. Once you finish up your first story quest, you never get an indication of how to further the tale. As it turns out, you can pick up the next main quest from the same non-player character once you reach a certain class rank requirement, but the game never tells you when that is or even whether you should be talking to the same character or not. You can view the quest objective on a map, but this gargantuan eyesore is separate from the main map and labels nothing but the quest goal without giving you a sense of relative location or direction. It's meant to be used in conjunction with your main map, which is an equally monstrous disaster that fails to label any number of important locations, doesn't allow you to zoom out, and requires you to use the keyboard to scroll.
This is your real welcome to the land of Eorzea. The interface is an abomination; it was clearly designed for a controller and fails to fulfill basic functions. You can't simply press a key to open your inventory--you have to enter your primary menu and select the correct option from there. When you want to equip an item to a particular slot, the game doesn't just list the objects you can choose for that slot but, instead, lists your entire inventory. If you want quicker access to what are standard keystrokes in other games, you must create macros, which are shortcuts that require you to know specific text commands. If you plug in a controller, you might understand the thought process behind this abysmal interface, but even that isn't a simple task; you have to manually configure buttons and thumbsticks in the configuration utility, which exists outside of the game. These and countless other oddities make interacting with Final Fantasy XIV a chore and constantly have you asking, "Why?" "Why aren't there just normal hotkeys?" "Why can't I set a waypoint on the map?" "Why can't I just drag and drop my skills and spells into the quickslots I want them to fill?"
You can add numerous "hows" to the list as well. Once you start earning income, you will seek out new gear and other important items, but finding what you want or need requires you to face an avalanche of design follies that consistently waste your time. A few important NPC vendors are labeled on your map, but the majority, which are located in merchant strips, are not. Once you reach a vendor area, it's difficult to figure out who sells what, given that most stalls have no sign indicating what they offer. Until you remember which vendor meets which needs, you click on them hoping they might have what you want. Similar inconveniences plague player-based transactions. There is currently no auction house. Instead, each player gets use of a single "retainer," which is a character that functions like a storefront. To use one, you must place the retainer in an area called the market ward and equip it with the items you wish to sell. A shopping trip to the market ward is a nightmare that first involves figuring out where it is (because the map doesn't label its location as such); teleporting in; waiting for all the retainers to pop into view after you arrive; and selecting each of them one at a time to see if they might sell something useful.
Getting to the market ward is a minor hassle compared to navigating Eorzea at large. There are chocobo stables and airship docks, but for now, those sights are a big tease: These methods of transportation are not implemented yet. Instead, you either need to hike to your destination (the long, boring way) or teleport there (the expensive way.) If you walk, you might be inclined to beat up on the occasional monster, but there are noticeable problems when considering an enemy's relative strength. Some monsters may "con" blue, which indicates that they should be pushovers, but they might instead put up a reasonable struggle. Others may "con" red, indicating a tough or impossible fight, but they might go down with relative ease, so it's not always easy to know whether a foe is an even match. The critter variety is disappointing as well. Dozens of hours in, you are still fighting rats and dodos while encountering tiny ladybug-looking insects that are too tough to tackle. If you'd rather avoid combat and the long road home, you can teleport to camps you have already visited, but this costs anima, which is a resource that accumulates at a ridiculously slow pace.
When you finally start figuring out how to get around Eorzea, you may enjoy many of the sights and sounds. Beautiful in-engine cutscenes set the stage for a grand adventure. The detailed character models move with a certain authenticity, and elaborate costumes inspire you to learn more about the culture. In the meanwhile, melancholy arpeggios played on a celesta lend a green forest an air of enchantment. It takes a beefy computer to run, but Final Fantasy XIV's graphics engine is terrific. The draw distance is sizable, the lighting is excellent, and details like clouds of dust and glistening pools of water are eye catching. Yet while there are sights worth noting, such as your first glimpse of city-state Limsa Lominsa from the approaching ferry, the art design doesn't match the impressive technology. The woods of Gridania are cookie-cutter corridors that harbor few visual surprises. Exploring green fields and arid deserts reveals little but more fields and desert. Even the soundtrack, as lovely as it is, gets monotonous, given that the tunes associated with each area play without pause. Ultimately, the game's beauty is only skin deep. If you enjoy exploring massive worlds to discover what fantastical sights and sounds you might drink in next, Eorzea is a disappointing place for it.
It's unfortunate that Final Fantasy XIV does so little with its original world. Outside of the infrequent story tasks, you receive quests from the local guilds called levequests. The more common ones (regional levequests) are structured in the same way: Go to this crystal, activate a mission, and perform it. This doesn't involve any quest writing, storytelling, or character development; levequests don't introduce you to interesting Eorzean citizens or flesh out the world's backstory. They are bland, repetitive, stand-alone missions that involve killing a certain number of creatures or harvesting resources--and then grabbing your reward. Many levequests can be completed in a matter of minutes, yet the game inexplicably limits the number you can perform to eight every 36 hours. This leads to hours upon hours of unstructured gameplay in which you grind, join others on their quests, and craft. You can also join a public quest called a behest, which is a kill-loads-of-monsters event that occurs near each camp every hour, but otherwise, Final Fantasy XIV is aching for good content. Once you reach physical level 20, other features become available to you, such as improving your standings with various factions and guild-specific rewards, but getting there is a tedious journey.
Variety isn't Final Fantasy XIV's strong suit, but things pick up as far as flexibility is concerned. You pick a class when you first begin, but this isn't a permanent discipline. Rather, you can be any class at any time by simply equipping the weapon or tool associated with it. Want to become an archer? Grab a bow. Fancy yourself a conjurer? Ready your wand. Not only can you be what you want, when you want, but you can also mix and match the actions you learn from multiple disciplines during combat. Each class ranks up separately, though you also have an overall physical level as well. The only real need you might have to create additional characters is to experience the stories of the other starting cities or check out the other races, though the statistical bonuses among the different races are minor.
Combat involves choosing a target and performing an attack, skill, or spell; this is standard for the genre, give or take various combos and other tweaks, such as location-based damage for certain classes. Another such tweak is the battle regimen, which is a group-based sequence of attacks that must be set up in advance. It's fun to experiment to see what benefits various combos bring, but activating them doesn't always seem to work and the game doesn't explain them, so most groups ignore them completely. Nevertheless, the often slow pace of solo combat improves when you group with others. Colorful spells and some fun animations and sound effects give group battles a little oomph that solo battles lack, but even here, Final Fantasy XIV sucks out much of the fun, particularly if you want to play a support role. This is partially because you aren't consistently rewarded with experience or skill points for casting heals. (The calculations for rewarding experience here are based on both players' ranks, and whether or not your target is taking damage.) But it's also because you need a full command of macros to pull off what should be incredibly simple tasks. The game doesn't distinguish between friend and foe when you cycle through targets, which makes for messy targeting in large groups. You can't click on a group member's name on the party list to cast a spell on him or her, and there is no auto-follow command. You can create macros to overcome some of these barriers, but you shouldn't have to.
Grouping brings the game's pathetic map back to the forefront. Group members are identified by blue pips on the minimap, but you can't zoom in and out, and team members aren't identified at all on the useless main map. Thus, you should make note of your location before returning to camp after defeat, lest you find yourself floundering to figure out where everyone went. Of course, your groupmates might try to direct you to them using party chat, though Square Enix made other forms of player communication as convoluted as possible. Rather than providing a healthy number of chat channels so that players may easily talk to each other, Final Fantasy XIV utilizes the same "linkshell" system that was saddled on Final Fantasy XI. Linkshells are chat channels that allow you to communicate with anyone else invited to the linkshell and are primarily used as a substitute for guilds. To be invited to one or to invite someone to yours, you must be within interaction range. Similarly, if you want to group with someone, you have to be in clicking proximity to receive or send a party invitation, assuming you aren't grouping with others using the little-used party search feature.
Crafting is a big part of what there currently is to do in Final Fantasy XIV. You harvest basic resources by fishing, mining, and the like and then combine them into products you can sell or use. Weaving, carpentry, and goldsmithing are among the many crafting options open to you, and both crafting and harvesting require you to perform a minigame. When weaving, you choose your raw materials, select the recipe, and then attempt to synthesize the highest quality item before its durability reaches zero. When mining, you must pay attention to the text feedback to determine how close you are to getting useful resources. These minigames seem like a nice change of pace at first, but they soon become a real drag. The interface, normally sluggish anyway, is particularly poky when crafting and gathering, and the animations are excruciatingly long. And be sure to have a pad of paper close by or a Web browser window at the ready because the game does not store the recipes you learn. There is a bright side to the emphasis on self-discovery, though: It's mildly fun to experiment in the hopes of learning a new recipe. Most recipes you learn, however, will come from completing local levequests, which are focused exclusively on crafting. You just need to be careful you don't miss any recipes because they are displayed in your chat channel and can be easily overlooked in all the clutter.
Final Fantasy XIV is a notable entry to the genre but only for what it lacks. It lacks character; bare-bones quests and audiovisual repetition fail to instill a sense of fantasy wonder. It lacks cohesion; communication failures, economic oddities, and stringent limitations leave you constantly directionless. And it lacks joy; the abysmal interface and boring monsters make it a struggle to stay invested. The open-ended classes, the stunning graphics engine, the focus on story--these elements deserve rightful praise. It's a shame they weren't put to use in a game worthy of the Final Fantasy brand. Certainly, Final Fantasy XIV will improve as features are added, yet the failures go beyond the superficial. Updates may address a multitude of flaws, but "fun" is not a feature that can be added with a simple patch.