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.