Final Fantasy XIV: Needs More Moomba
By Jake Winters (Kibeth), OnRPG Journalist
Final Fantasy has always been a strong gaming brand – selling more than a hundred million titles in the past twenty years – so the latest online venture had a big name to live up to. Its September 2010 release of Final Fantasy XIV, the second MMORPG in the series, brought harsh criticisms from fans and gaming websites worldwide: the controls were awful, the combat was sluggish, the game tested even the most powerful computers; the list of problems was endless. Despite this, one year on and the game is starting to become the epic that it should have been. Since the game was set to go P2P last Friday, I hopped into game during the last few free weeks to give it a proper review.
The game is set in the war-torn lands of Eorzea; recently struck by a colossal army from overseas, the cities of Eorzea have banded together to defend themselves from future attacks. As an adventurer, it is your job to aid the cities in any way you can from dancing with children to fighting off waves of monsters. Each starting zone has its own short storyline that converges into the main storyline.
Did I forget to mention the giant winged Leviathan?
Apart from the main storyline quest, players also earn quests called Guildleves. These can be collected from any main questing hub at a player’s leisure, and are based around either field work (combat or gathering) or local work (crafting for local NPCs). Guildleves are the principle source of earning experience early on, and the majority can be done without assistance of other players. That’s probably a good thing, though, as the game feels more like a single-player game with MMO elements. Regardless of server populations, a story-driven quest filled with cut-scenes and instanced areas (locked to other players) makes playing through the first part of the game a lonely experience. Even later on, quests do little to encourage team play, and the need to party only really becomes apparent at the very end of the game.
Character creation involves choosing one of five races, a gender, a plethora of appearance options, and the starting zone. Of all of the starting options, the character class is the least important (a shock, I know). Rather than picking a single class and being stuck with it for the rest of the game, a player’s class changes whenever they switch weapon. Want to be a Mage? Equip a staff. Want to be an Archer? Grab a bow.
Classes are split into four ‘disciplines’. The Disciplines of War are in-your-face classes like the brutish Marauder or the fist-fight Pugilist, while the Disciplines of Magic are the healing Conjurer or the damaging Thaumaturge. Additionally, the game’s gathering and crafting professions are also considered ‘classes’; Disciplines of Land are able to fish, mine and log trees, while Disciplines of Hand can turn raw materials into any kind of weapon, armor or accessory.
This openness and ease of class change is one of the game’s best aspects. Players are free to change on a whim, meaning the game remains exciting for much longer. The only negative is that each class has its own level, and many hours of time are required to keep even a small number of classes on the go. Additionally, the game actively discourages the use of a single class (especially players who ignore the crafting classes), as many of the better items can only be crafted using a combination of different skills.
Here’s a picture of a chocobo, for nostalgic purposes and whatnot.
A Squall of Trouble
Final Fantasy puns aside, the two combat Disciplines (War and Magic) are fairly standard among MMOs. Players have a standard HP (life) bar, an MP (mana) bar, and an Action Point bar. Spells cost mana, physical abilities cost Action Points, and if you run out of life then you die; it’s all very simple, and the game’s lack of creativity really shows.
Combat feels a bit sluggish and dull, even after the numerous changes Square Enix has made to improve it in the past year. Lock onto target, use ability, enemy dies, rinse and repeat. Come to think of it, the combat does have a few ‘special perks’, but most seem to intentionally go out of their way to annoy, rather than help.
Combat is exciting, as long as you don’t mind the first six hours of nothing but mushrooms.
Rather than a simple ‘target’ system, the game has a soft target and a hard target system. In order to make the most of abilities, targets need to be ‘locked onto’ (hard targeting), but this zooms the camera in and disables camera panning for the most part, making combat incredibly irritating. While the options menu provides some alleviation to this, the problem persists on most Discipline of War classes, and seems to serve no actual purpose.
Disciplines of Magic have a different problem: while they don’t need to lock onto targets in order to fight, all spells require ‘confirmation’ before they’ll cast, meaning that instead of a single hotkey press, you’re required to also press Enter to confirm that you’ve selected the right target. In the middle of a heated battle where you can’t afford to take your hand away from WASD and the mouse, having to drift to press Enter can be incredibly distracting. On top of that, split second casts (especially for healers) lose their haste, leaving the targeting system causing more problems than it solves. While workarounds are possible using macros, it really shouldn’t be necessary for players to have to fix such obvious design flaws themselves. Sure, a locking camera and confirmation system might work on mainstream Final Fantasy games because they provide so called ‘immersion’, but in an MMO there’s simply no place for such inconveniences.
Combat isn’t all bad, mind. The polished graphics make spell textures look incredible (even on lower quality settings), and Final Fantasy fans will be excited to know that the game recycles many of the old favorites such as –aga spells, Protect, Shell, and numerous other combat centerpieces from games gone by. Ability combinations also provide a small amount of uniqueness to combat; using certain abilities or spells in the right order might confer a benefit such as increased attack power, reduced cast time, or various status effects.
Skills to Pay the Bills
Next to the music (which will be enthused about later), Final Fantasy XIV’s most unique feature is just how immersive the gathering and crafting professions are. Rather than following mini-map prompts to a generic resource node and clicking it for a reward, the game actively encourages players to work for their items. Chopping trees involves finding a suitable tree, picking which part of the tree to hack at, and then a guesswork mini-game to determine whether you get the item or not. Despite not being able to describe how interesting the system is in words alone, having to actually work for items makes the experience that little bit more rewarding, and one can easily lose hours of their evening just wandering around logging, mining or fishing. For the less hands-on gamer, Final Fantasy XIV also contains generic point-and-click nodes, though they usually offer different rewards and require gamers to pick and mix between the two systems.
Better than the gathering system is the crafting system. Again, rather than putting the materials in a box and pressing a button, players take a hands-on role in item creation. Players can pick just how to craft their item: do they sacrifice item quality for getting it built faster, or do they take a little longer to have a better quality item?
Recipe not yet in the game: Chocobo Skin Lingerie.
The gathering and crafting systems have formed a love-hate relationship with players. Some people prefer having a hands-on role in their creations, and find the whole system immersive and fun. Others find it frustrating (taking five minutes to craft one item, knowing you need to make another twenty) and would prefer a simple ‘press button receive item’ system.
User Interface and Macros
Final Fantasy XIV’s interface attracted considerable criticism shortly after release, and still remains one of the game’s biggest problems. WASD controls feel a little clunky, and lock-ons during combat make it difficult for players to stay maneuverable in the heat of battle. Besides the camera and movement issues, the whole interface is governed by a single menu system; hotkeys to access skills, quests, the inventory, and every other function need to be manually assigned by players, and the constant reliance upon a single menu removes any immersion the game might have otherwise had.
Additionally, there is no simple way of changing classes that doesn’t involve going into the main menu, opening the character screen, picking a slot, picking a replacement slot, closing the character screen, and then closing the main menu. While veteran players might be able to create macros to alleviate this inconvenience, new players are at the mercy of the gruesome interface.
Simple improvements like making obviously needed buttons accessible via hotkey or on the main game screen could seriously improve the game’s navigation system, but Square Enix seems to have neglected this incredibly important task in lieu of whatever else they’ve been doing for a year. Of all of the issues still present in the game, the horrendous interface remains public enemy number one.
Gameplay Tech Specs
Apart from its iconic gameplay, characters and spell names, Final Fantasy has always, always been great with music, and Final Fantasy XIV is no different. The game’s musical score feels more than just background noise; being in a forest sounds like being in a forest, a relaxing jaunt around town sounds like a relaxing jaunt around town. Of all of the pieces, however, the combat music wins gold. The music that plays during timed quests feels frantic, the music that plays during epic battles with evil monsters (read: mushrooms) actually sounds like there’s something at stake if you lose. While the score is significantly smaller than mainstream Final Fantasy games, Nobuo Uematsu (the game’s lead composer) has once again pulled a stroke of genius out of the musical sack.
Final Fantasy XIV is a graphical masterpiece.
Equally noticeable is the graphics; the game blows most other MMOs out of the water with its clean, crisp environments and characters. Gone are the days of squares for hands (for anybody who has played Final Fantasy VII). Final Fantasy XIV’s graphics have struck gold. Unfortunately, this high benchmark means that Square Enix has alienated a considerable number of players with computers unable to run the game’s system requirements.
Lightning Shouldn’t Strike Twice
Square Enix has at least admitted that Final Fantasy XIV didn’t meet expectations, and recently announced plans to rebuild the game from (almost) ground-up as Final Fantasy XIV v2.0. With their honesty in mind, it seems a little unfair to give them as much flak as they’re getting. This year the game has improved tenfold, but some really glaring issues still remain. Still you can’t play it and not get the feeling of missed potential and as you battle and scavenge within the shell of an online game meant for greatness.
The torrent of bad press initially lead the game to become free to play temporarily (so long as you have the box set), and while this no doubt made players a little less willing to criticize, Square Enix’s move back to a pay to play model in early 2012 might become more of a problem than a profit. The general feeling is that the game is only as popular as it is because it is currently free to play, and that the game is still too poor quality to be able to sustain itself under a subscription model. Whether or not this is true will be shown in the coming months. With at least a year until Final Fantasy XIV v2.0, Square Enix has to contend with the next twelve months of problems, and hope that their band aids can try to fix the gaping wound that the initial release created. At the end of it all, one can only hope that v2.0 is as good as they say it is; surely the same game can’t fail twice in a row, can it?
Graphics – 5 (one of the best looking MMOs around.)
Controls – 2 (clunky camera, bad targeting system, inconvenience UI, and sluggish WASD.)
Features – 4 (generic combat, but the crafting and gathering systems are incredible.)
Customization – 4 (access to every class makes the game far more exciting.)
Community – 2 (plays like a single player game, there are no incentives to play as a group.)