Final Fantasy 14 has had an absolute stonker of a year. 2021 saw the release of its latest Expansion, Endwalker, and an extraordinary increase in players, making it the most profitable game in the Final Fantasy series' history. It's quietened down a little (and only a little), but with over eight-years worth of updates and millions of players to its name, FF14 is now, unsurprisingly, one of the biggest games on the planet.
It's a position the game rightfully deserves, with each of its expansions praised by critics for an epic storyline that's gone from confronting evil empires to quelling thousand-year wars or hopping dimensions and facing a universe-destroying embodiment of despair, all while deftly navigating the threads that tie it all together.
As an MMO full of references to other games in the series, FF14 is often called a 'Final Fantasy theme park' - but there's far more to it than that. Its storyline rivals any of the single-player FF games - yes, even FFVII - while the daddy of Final Fantasy and its original creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, plays it for fun. He's so into it he started his own in-game fashion brand, in fact, and frequently tweets his adventures. Its blend of epic, player-central storyline and huge array of casual extras continues to surprise me even now, and despite approaching it with some scepticism after the original failed release in 2010, FF14's managed to keep its hooks in me consistently for over eight years, in a way no other game has.
It hasn't always been a smooth journey. The starting chapter, A Realm Reborn, definitely feels a little slow and simple in retrospect, but get to the later expansions and it has one hell of a pay-off that makes that early slog worth it. It really is a masterpiece of storytelling and one that only works because it's an MMO with a world that can be built upon and updated. It's taken almost a decade to complete the tale of Hydaelyn and Zodiark, but developer Square Enix isn't using that as an excuse to sit back now it's over - it's already sowing the seeds of the next adventure through updates to lead it into its next expansion, likely due some time in 2024.
With so many expansions under its belt already there's a lot to keep you occupied. Right now the game is relatively early on in its current update cycle but has already established the start of its main raid series. This features an 8-player type that focuses on an otherworldly prison with both normal and extreme versions, for whichever flavour of challenge takes your fancy, and a 24-man series that's a little more casual, focusing on The Twelve - FF14's oldest gods. They've also created an Ultimate difficulty version of a Heavensward fight called Dragonsong's Reprise, for those really looking to push themselves.
It's not all about the fights, though, as part of FF14's success is down to its breadth of non-combat focused activities, such as crafting and gathering, that are just as involved as the MMO's battle classes. All eight crafting classes and three gathering ones feed into each other to supply necessary materials for end-game gear and furniture. There are also a lot of genuinely brilliant side-quest series, including the slapstick adventures of gentleman detective Hildibrand, who has finally made his triumphant return in a recent patch.
The drawback to having such a breadth of things to do is that getting started can be an imposing prospect for new players. The developers are very aware of this, though, and have been working on updating the start of the game to make it more approachable, trimming certain sections back and reworking parts to make it solo-friendly. Instead of needing to party up with strangers for dungeons, for instance, you can now play with a group of AI party members to experience the story using the game's Trust system. It works surprisingly well - I've been using it to deal with my tanking anxiety by practising with the bots before leading strangers for real - but definitely takes longer to get through than if you partied up with actual people. It currently only applies to A Realm Reborn and Shadowbringers onwards, but will be updated to include Heavensward and Stormblood eventually, too. Between this and the generously-memed free trial - free up to level 60! - it's a great time to get stuck in.
One of FF14's greatest strengths is its respect for your time as a player. MMOs can ask a lot of your time, but FF14 never feels like it's pressuring you. There is always more than one route to end-level gear and dungeons and trials usually max out at 20-30ish minutes long. You don't need to be a serious raider to experience any of the additional story - the split in difficulty levels makes sure everyone can play in the way they have time for. The developers themselves will often tell people to take a break and come back later for the new patches. When other games ask you to grind out currencies for the best gear, it's refreshing not to feel that need to constantly keep up or risk missing out.
Things have calmed down considerably since last year, when queues to get in were thousands of people deep and some sales of the game were temporarily paused to ease congestion, but that doesn't mean it's quiet. There's still usually a queue of 10-50ish people to get in on most EU servers and all major areas of the game feel well populated. There's also been an uptick in community-made events and spaces in recent months - you'll often see in-game shouts for bar nights and bard concerts in major cities with spontaneous dance-offs and parades being a regular occurrence. The population of FF14 has never felt more lively and involved as it does right now.
It's also still growing, with four new servers being added to European data centers on the 5th of July. They launch with a lot of new incentives including EXP buffs and free play time if you reach level 30, and other bonuses if you switch any existing characters over too. There's also the added bonus of all of the housing plots being available, although they will only be purchasable at a later date.
Unfortunately the issues with player housing are still there. Things have been vastly improved with the addition of a lottery system that makes opportunities for securing a plot much fairer, but demand still far outstrips supply, much to the continued frustration of the community. It's a shame, but the neighbourly feel of having set and limited wards for homes is a hard thing to compromise on. There is a new instanced game area on the way in the near future, called Island Sanctuary, that will let you customise your own space and farm land, so many are hoping this will help fix housing woes by sating the currently insatiable need to decorate your own space.
The recent 6.1 patch in April set us off on a new adventure and will set up the next expansion with further updates over the next two-ish years. So far there's been talk of crossing an interdimensional rift into a world called The Void, which is known to be overcome by darkness. Unlike in Shadowbringers where our heroes were summoned across, this time it's about figuring out how to open that door yourself - and with it a huge amount of possibilities for the direction the story can go. It's a nice spot to be in, and the dev team have done an excellent job of making it feel like you're starting a fresh adventure. It's exciting wondering what might lie ahead and how they'll follow up the unforgettable story arc of Zodiark and Hydaelyn.
Right now it feels like Final Fantasy 14 has truly hit its stride, having accomplished so much over the last eight years. The world of Hydaelyn has never felt so full and prosperous. But with the development team juggling both this and Final Fantasy XVI at the same time, I am a little worried about how they'll deal with the pressure of making two monumental games. Here's to hoping they can keep up the pace.
This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how they're getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.