Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Impressions

I've been sitting staring at this blank screen for a little bit too long now, but exactly what to write about Final Fantasy XIV sort of escapes me. We've covered it extensively, and while I was shown stuff that was all new at Gamescom 2012, my primary reaction from what I was shown would be to write three words.

It looks good.

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Three words obviously aren't enough to carry a preview, else this job would be a whole lot easier - but they certainly sum up my feelings about A Realm Reborn, Square Enix's brave rebranding and relaunching of the spectacularly failed MMO that soured the Final Fantasy brand name significantly.

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What you get here, then, is everything done right. After a game arguably pushed out the door before it was ready in order to boast to investors they'd launched two FF titles in one year, Square Enix clearly took a large step back and identified massive problems in the development process of FF14 and eliminated them with the efficiency of a terminator.

"We've pretty much changed the way we do our development in the team," Producer Naoki Yoshida told me after showing off a demo of the game. Crowned head of the game after a staff reshuffle, Yoshida represents a new age for FF14 and possibly for the series in general.

Where many of FFs producers come to demo their game at shows like Gamescom in loose-fitting suits, Yoshida rolls up to our session wearing sunglasses and an ensemble of punky rings. He's different, but clearly understands how to structure development.

Where FF14's original release barely ran on high on hardware that would make Crysis cower and bow, A Realm Reborn can run on its highest settings on a PC that would've just managed the original release on medium.

It looks better to boot, running on an all-new graphics engine designed from the ground up by the team behind the impressive Agni's Philosophy next-gen tech demo. Almost every texture and model in the game has been recreated from scratch in 14 months - a change so significant that current players will be given the chance to redesign their current characters because their old look will be obliterated by the update.

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Some of the changes are more subtle than a complete graphical overhaul. The addition of jumping seems small, but in the demo we're given the implications become obvious - at one point, Yoshida meets a fence which in a previous version would've required a minute-long detour to get around. Here, he hops over it.

Chocobos are summoned into existence quickly and easily, the team forgoing lengthy animations of mounting them for just having the Chocobo appear instantly when summoned, the character already in the saddle.

The sense of immediacy allows you to get on your way in seconds, and makes Chocobos a functional form of travel. Riding them is, of course, accompanied by the traditional Chocobo theme music.

The UI is all-new, too - but as well as generally being cleaner, nicer-looking and clearer than its predecessor it’s also entirely customizable. Each element of the UI can be resized, moved and locked to different areas of the screen. If you want to have your hotbar across the top of the screen, that's doable.

This isn't limited to presets, either - it's a drag and drop system, so if for some reason you'd like all your UI elements to obscure the middle of your screen, you can - something that we were keenly demonstrated.

Another thing the team seems keen to leverage with this new vision for FF14 is the fan love for the rest of Final Fantasy. Elements have been pulled in from titles like FF3, FF6 and FF7, designed to give a sense of familiarity to those who may not usually play MMOs.

Meteor is currently falling above the world of Eorza, evoking FF7 and giving an in-universe apocalypse that results in the reboot of the world that's incoming with A Realm Reborn. Wars are fought with FF6's Magitek Armor, and FF7 and FF8's Limit Breaks are being added as a combat feature.

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The demonstration of Limit Breaks we see is pretty simplistic - a party battles a massive creature and is getting thoroughly slapped about by it.

The crew seem to band together at once, casting their arms skywards - and the mage of the group summons a meteor all his own to slam into the enemy. It's evocative of those old games, but also a pretty useful combat feature that'll probably be vital for high-level raids.

After all I've seen, there's little doubt in my mind that A Realm Reborn is going to be a solid game and one that, at last, is worthy of the Final Fantasy title. As I said, it looks good. 

If the public are actually willing to give it another chance is a question that will only be announced after it launches. If this fails, Square Enix can at least walk away with their head held high for fixing things and making good on old promises.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn will land as a free PC update for current users later this year and will arrive on PS3 in early 2013.

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