Three years ago, I got the chance to play Final Fantasy XIV. A few days later, I went on GameSpot and did something I don't often do for high-profile games like this---I handed down a scathing review and concluded with a 4.5 score. Even though the thought of a horrific Final Fantasy game typically boils down as a matter of personal opinion, I think it's safe to say that I didn't have any problem calling Final Fantasy XIV the absolute worst game in franchise history; a sentiment echoed by then CEO of Square Enix himself Yoichi Wada. The overwhelmingly negative response to Final Fantasy XIV illicited a devastating ripple effect that prompted the departure of longtime Final Fantasy co-creator Hiromichi Tanaka (who also produced Final Fantasy XI), an overhaul of XIV's development team, a public apology from Square Enix, the suspension of monthly fees and, ultimately, a complete shutdown of all servers. Final Fantasy XIV might have been written off almost entirely, but Square Enix still believed enough in the product, choosing to cut their losses and do what everybody else in the industry has done lately to keep franchises afloat; reboot it and start fresh.
For starters, they enlisted a new producer; Naoki Yoshida. It might not mean much on the outset, but one significant factor is that Yoshida is a self-professed MMORPG player and fan who has played MMOs like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Everquest and the like. In other words, unlike Hiromichi Tanaka, Yoshida's intermittent, first-hand experience and knowledge of successful MMORPGs means that the man knows what works and what doesn't. The entire FFXIV team had also underwent a major overhaul, even going so far as hiring new composers for the music. With all that firmly in place, it meant that FFXIV would need to undergo serious changes to the formula---most importantly, removing, tweaking and doctoring the more unpopular elements like the abominable User Interface, the flawed Questing system and everything else that dragged the game down. Such a move was costly, but Square Enix was quite determined to regain the trust of fans and restore the reputation of the Final Fantasy brand.
The end result is what you see now, and what I am playing now -- A Realm Reborn. The subtitle holds a meaningful context; both in the game and for the game. The story is eerily similar to Final Fantasy XI; the land of Eorzea is devastated by Bahamut, forcing a band of heroes to act upon saving the people from imminent destruction. In the five years hence, Eorzea is slowly recovering and adventurers from every corner of the known planet have come here seeking fame and glory.
So, what are my updated impressions on a game that I billed as "the worst Final Fantasy game ever made?" Well, even though A Realm Reborn isn't the best MMORPG on the market, it is a significant improvement over the original model. The Fatigue experience, Quest limitations, clunky User Interface and sparse content of the first release are gone. In its place, A Realm Reborn is a traditional MMORPG that provides something for almost everyone. In fact, most people might accuse the game of being too similar to WoW or even Guild Wars 2, but ARR does stand out with a host of features that differientiate greatly from both Final Fantasy XI and XIV. One notable feature of ARR is the fact that the game no longer forces you to group with parties to get ahead (as was the case with Final Fantasy XI) -- ARR introduces a fair and balanced Quest system that solo players can enjoy. That way, even if they never join a single party in their lives, they can still cultivate their character at their own pace and on their own terms. Of course, ARR also gives incentives to players that do want to party---like expanded Skill Chains, bonus EXP, greater rewards and deeper challenges. In other words, ARR strikes a fine balance between solo and group play.
Coming off of Final Fantasy XI, I'm relieved that someone like me can enjoy a game like ARR. One of the biggest reasons why I failed at FFXI was the fact that I was forced to join parties just to level up my character and Jobs, and few parties wanted me. (It's like trying to find a job in real life; parties never come easy) The strain of forced grouping takes a toll on a lot of players, leading to arguments, dissention and even blacklisting. ARR eases those restrictions by making the experience friendlier for casual players, but not taking too much away from the grouping experience.
Another nice feature of ARR is the FATE events. This is an almost direct copycat of Guild Wars 2 where specific, timed events occur at any point during gameplay. Players take part in a timed fisticuff against a group of mobs and earn bonus spoils for participation. It's also a good way to earn quick EXP when you're soloing, but you have to put in your fair share of work if you want to get anything at all. Even though it's blatantly copying Guild Wars 2 in this regard, I admit it spices up the gameplay in significant ways and doesn't hurt the experience overall.
So far, A Realm Reborn is looking to make good on its promise to win back disillusioned Final Fantasy fans and help them forget the monstrosity that was Final Fantasy XIV. But, it runs the risk of being just like any other MMORPG on the market today because of its notable similarities to WoW and Guild Wars 2; the Final Fantasy name alone would probably be the only notable aspect going for it. However, the improvements and fixes to its illusory game design are more than enough for me to give it a second shot.......and actually enjoy it. It isn't the best MMORPG, but it's certainly a great one---if not a better pill to swallow than FFXIV.