Hands-On Impressions: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Confession time: I’m not much of an MMO person. That may make you think I’m probably not all that qualified to preview Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and if you think that’s the case, sit tight – we’ll have a preview from Erren, who has much more experience with both FF11, the original FF14 and MMOs in general. In the meantime, you’ve got me – but I think I represent a pretty vital segment of the FF14 reboot’s intended audience.

See, I’ve always watched MMOs from afar and dabbled in them – and covered them a lot for this site, too – but I’ve never really gone deep on one. The only MMOs that have really gripped me hard – the Phantasy Star Online games - aren’t really. What I have gone deep on is Final Fantasy – I’ve completed every numbered title in the series and the vast majority of the spin-offs. That puts me squarely in the crosshairs of Naoki Yoshida, A Realm Reborn’s Producer and Director.

This is a game that is designed to tug at the heartstrings of even the most lapsed Final Fantasy fan. Chocobos and Moogles are a given, but this is a game that also features Limit Breaks, FF6’s Magitek Armor (that you can pilot!), FF3’s Cloud of Darkness, FF7’s Cait Sith, unlucky ‘master thief’ Gilgamesh, a story centred around Warriors of Light and plans to even add FF7’s Gold Saucer after release.

Even though my personal interest in MMOs is low, going into my hands-on time with FF14: A Realm Reborn I was intrigued – for I wanted to see if this scratched the Final Fantasy-loving itch in me and remained interesting as a game in its own right. After a whopping six hours to get stuck in, I’ve certainly been able to better solidify my opinion.

Something about this feels so very, very FF.

More than FF11 or FF14 before it, A Realm Reborn does above all else feel like a Final Fantasy title. It’s something Yoshida stresses in his pre-demo presentation, dedicating several minutes to underlining that he and Square Enix consider this the latest title in the series, not a side entry to be skipped over by those not into MMOs. More than that, he says that had the company not stood up, took the hit and decided to fix the game, it could have spelt the end of the FF series.

It’s a bold statement, but one you can understand. “Square Enix is putting everything into this project,” one slide proclaims in bold, bright red text. Another tells us that “Square Enix will not give up on Final Fantasy – no matter what.” This is a company acutely aware that FF14’s original release and the last few years have been less than ideal – and they seem determined to find a fix.

If you want more of a catch up on what FF14: A Realm Reborn is, I highly suggest visiting our jam-packed game page, which features multiple previews, interviews and features. The gist is this, though: the original FF14 was rubbish, and Square Enix put a new man in charge and threw the entire game out, rebuilding it from the ground up.

It’s something the company repeatedly stress throughout our demo day is a world first for MMOs – World of Warcraft: Cataclysm reshaped that game’s world, but A Realm Reborn doesn’t just change geometry - the battle system, animations, character progression and even music have all been vastly edited at least and completely rebuilt from the ground up at most.

The end result is an MMO that can now be described as more than competent. The original title was a mess, and this simply isn’t. Even in beta form with months to go until it launches, this title is tight, runs brilliantly, and looks absolutely fantastic.

The game looks fantastic on PC, both in combat and up close.

It carries that sense of quality of experience that FF really became famous for – and it’s the first time I’ve felt that way about a recent title in the series in quite some time. To my eyes, it appears to be the most polished title Square Enix’s Japanese side has managed to put out in this entire console generation – an incredible turn-around from the original release.

All that was on the PC version - which can't have the quality of its visuals stated enough - though the PS3 footage shown leaves something to be desired, but a pledge was made during the presentation that the developers were "working closely with Sony's tech team" to iron out issues.

With that said, it’s clear that Yoshida and his team made a conscious decision to play it safe with their reboot of FF14’s world – the game is conservative in style, a sort of predictable MMO-by-numbers.

Picking a male Miqo’te – an addition to the previously female-only cat-people race - early quests felt very typical for the genre. I was fetching this, delivering that, trotting back and forth through different parts of the starting area as the game taught its basic concepts. Even later, though, as I approached level 10, the quests were still largely about fetching things, delivering things or simply going out and killing a certain number of enemies.

Booting up a pre-built save of a Level 35 character did let me experience some more exciting stuff, including a full and challenging raid style dungeon – but all of this, again, feels pretty much like the genre standard, just executed in a very pretty-looking and tightly-playing way.

Combat looks dynamic, but under the hood is very typical, conservative MMO fare.

The game looks incredibly dynamic, and clearly some care has been taken to make battles look exciting and dramatic even in these strictly turn-based and netcode-driven combat systems, but under the hood this is a very typical post-WOW MMO. The one major new concept that does feel rather different, FATE – randomly appearing quests that multiple players can contribute – has also sort of appeared in a sense in Guild Wars 2.

After the damage they took in the initial release, it’s hard to blame Square for playing it safe with this aspect of FF14, and they attempt to offset it by ensuring the game looks, sounds and feels more like Final Fantasy than the previous two online attempts.

For many, the nods – from obvious character and location appearances down to the most subtly borrowed phrase in the music – will help drag them to A Realm Reborn. I thoroughly enjoyed what I played of the game, and can’t wait to get stuck into the beta from the comfort of my home next week. It makes me incredibly happy to report that A Realm Reborn presents an FF universe with all of the heart that fans love the series for, and presents it well. That alone is enough to get me to give it an extended try - the fact that it is bloody smooth and good to play (if a little too safe and conservative) only helps matters. 

The question that remains, however, is if the game will manage to do anything new or of particular note to make it stand out from the MMO crowd at a time when the genre seems to be poised to aggressively evolve. The gesture being made with A Realm Reborn is incredibly brave, bold and impressive – but one wonders if just being a typical MMO with that ‘Final Fantasy’ feel is enough. In 2010 this would've been far more impressive - but the ever present, frightening thought is that it could simply be too little too late.

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