On announcement, Final Fantasy XIV was met with equal parts confusion and trepidation. For those who had not played Final Fantasy XI, it was an aberration in a series which was otherwise becoming more streamlined and approachable. For those who had, it was either seen with disgust or excitement – another MMO from a company that eschewed ease-of-use for deeper gameplay and a full-on grinding, old-school style.
Before you even begin, the same obtuse sign-up process dominates the experience. You need to register a Square Enix account using one key and register FFXIV to the account using another. From there, you must add a payment method: either 'Crysta,' a weird micro-transaction currency, or Clickandbuy, a current bugbear of the internet. The initial cost is 1000 Crysta, which works out as either $10, £10 or €10.
After paying for the initial service – which actually won't let you play the game – you have to buy character slots. These work out at 300 Crysta per slot. Once you buy a slot – of which you can buy 8, and which you won't pay for for the first month – you are ready to log on.
Before we go any further, it must be said how utterly irksome and inexcusably confusing and archaic this system is. Even Ultima Online – played on a 33.4kbps connection – was a simple case of logging on.
Sadly, the sign-up process sets the tone for the entire game. Anything in the world of Final Fantasy XIV that should be a simple process – from registering for the game to taking a look at your current quests to even opening the map – is frustratingly, unbelievably hard to do.
To start, you select a Job out of a bewilderingly large number of options that ultimately come down to the usual MMO archetypes, dependent mostly on weapons or skills. Interestingly enough, you can also specialise initially in a crafting career. All of these share the Synthesis system and can be played independently of the aggro crowd.
This doesn't mean you're locked on one path, though. You can level up each one independently, changing skill as you go and retaining your past abilities. This allows you to very much customise your own character to how you want to play, as each discipline is tied specifically to a weapon or series of weapons (Gladiators to Swords, Blacksmiths to hammers, and so on) and can be levelled up independently.
This is a great system that – in theory – could lead to some very interesting combinations and breakdowns of the classic class definitions. It also thankfully removes the usual strain of investment in a character, and is executed in a far more streamlined and palatable manner than other systems, such as the original Star Wars Galaxies' class skills.
Don't get too excited about your potential battle-mage-seamstress-goldsmith, though. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and Final Fantasy XIV makes you cling to each one until you burn alive.
The user interface – the blight of the FFXI – has been haphazardly improved. While the original almost required a gamepad to play, FFXIV is actually playable with a mouse and keyboard. No, that's a stretch – what I really mean is that the game is just as hard to use on the gamepad as it is with the mouse and keyboard.
Menus lag noticeably, at times taking a second between clicks, which sounds minuscule until you realise the sheer amount of time you'll be spending navigating between them. Furthermore, an Xbox 360 pad simply does not have enough buttons to deal with the commands and options that FFXIV has. In fact, moving around skills with a pad was what made me put it down.
At this time, I cannot even imagine how this game is going to work on a console. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say "badly".
The slowness of the UI isn't helped by its terrible design. Want to check out a quest? Hit Journal. Then select the quest. Then wait a second while it loads. Then scroll down (slowly) to see what you have to do now.
OK, you've exited the menu. Wait – where do you have to go now? Check your main map. Oh, wait, your quest isn't there. Go back into the journal, click the quest, click map. OK, it's there. Some improvements were made in recent patches, but regardless, what takes a second in a normal MMO may take five or ten in FFXIV.
Beyond the gulf of the UI lies an MMORPG much like many others, but with that glossy Final Fantasy charm and quirkiness. Initially, characters you meet speak in bizarre accents, but past the start point merely flap their gums like puppets as text appears. It's just weird.
As you complete quests, you gain both Skill and Class experience. One ranks up your raw statistics and the other levels your class abilities. This is where the complexity of the game lies – you might level for a bit as a Gladiator, and then switch to a Thaumaturge to combine ranged attacks with melee. As you change jobs, you retain your abilities, with a limit on how many you can equip at once.
In theory and in execution this actually works really well. It also means that you can switch to another, lower rank to help a friend level, while benefiting your own advancement. This is one of the few bits of the game that really succeeds, but it's depressingly hampered by badly-executed systems and restrictions.
Where World of Warcraft splits at the seams with quests, FFXIV requires you to fish them out like cockroaches. They're predominantly found in the form of Guildleves, shorter quests that grant you experience, loot and Guildmarks (used to buy skills) both for the classic "kill five miscellaneous creatures" and for crafting quests. These are relatively fun but quickly become repetitive – though they do remain satisfying in that hamster-ball MMO manner.
Combat is very close to the norm – hit number keys to execute ranged or melee attacks, heal, or buff yourself or others. As you level, the animations and moves become more intricate, the damage more potent, the heals stronger and so on. As you gain strength in different jobs, combat does improve, but only insofar as the system allows.
Crafting is hampered by the sludge of the UI. You equip a tool, hit Synthesise, select the bits to use, select the tool, select the recipe, confirm the recipe, and then enter the mini-game. A little bar slowly counts down, and you get to choose how ballsy you want to be with your synthesis – Standard, Rapid or Bold.
Bold ups the quality of the item, but is a gamble against its durability – so you are mostly trying to up the quality of the item before you break it in two. This is fun at first, especially when it comes to meeting certain criteria for a Levequest. Eventually, however, requirements are such that you just have to find people to help you find bizarre items – and this, combined with the relative difficulty of quality item-making, makes the process rather disheartening.
To add insult to injury, there's a limit to what you can do each day. The fatigue system in FFXIV stops you from making progress after a certain point. Essentially, you can only do eight Guildleves before your 'fatigue' significantly drops the amount of experience you earn, and the same goes for skill point gain. (It's explained very eloquently at Linkshells). This can be dodged by changing disciplines, forcing power-gamers to switch jobs and try out multiple parts of the game.
My verdict? Make your game fun before you begin placing arbitrary strictures on the players as to how fast they can play it. This is not World of Warcraft. This is a game that puts enough barriers in front of players as it is, and Square Enix should be doing everything it can to encourage them to play more and enjoy themselves, not to slow them down.
That said, the developers have done a good job of making FFXIV more approachable, systematically at least. Quests are soloable, and it's plausible to spend a fair amount of your time doing so. You will, because the communities are a fractured mess – considering that the European, Japanese and North American markets share servers, areas are eerily quiet before exploding into textual diarrhoea as one random person tries to sell something and another spits kanji through your textbox.
This leads me to the auction house system, which doesn't exist, making player-trading a case of spamming trade chat in the hope that you'll catch someone. You know which other game didn't have an auction house initially? EverQuest. Released in 1999. Which then got an auction house added in an expansion pack in 2001. You can retain your own personal store-front NPC salesman, and apparently you'll be able to have multiple salesmen in future.
It's asinine that such a feature as an auction house is missing, and that's the theme of Final Fantasy XIV – missed opportunity and a lack of understanding of fun.
If you look beyond the glaring faults and the barely penetrable interface, Eorza is a world seeping with charm and character. It has that otherworldly beauty of the series, and the character designs, while essentially rehashes of FFXI's, are attractive. Graphically, despite some frame-rate issues, it looks the part while avoiding the cookie-cutter designs of me-too MMOs.
However, content runs out quickly and the levelling curve is a brutal mistress. The Linkshell player associations can pursue their own guild quests, but these dry up. That's symptomatic of every MMO when it gets viciously pounded by the power-gamers – but the problem is that, while other games flesh out dungeons and other content after release, FFXIV is left fixing base functionality.
Somewhere out there, there is a player this game is perfect for. But he or she would still be advised to wait another six months before even thinking about Final Fantasy XIV, because Square Enix hasn't yet got its head around its own players.
5 / 10