One of the biggest MMO events of the year is almost upon us. Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIV is the second online-only game in the main numbered series, following up on Final Fantasy XI which was originally released way back in 2003 for PC in North America and later for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 consoles. This new game launches on September 30th this year, though you can get in early with the more expensive Collector's Edition. Final Fantasy XIV, like its predecessor, will also be straddling the platform gap. In addition to the PC version, PlayStation 3 owners will get a chance to dive in but not until early next year. On PC, the title's in open beta right now. I've had a chance to play for a number of hours to get the feel for the play and understand a number of its system. It's an incomplete picture at this point for sure, but so far, Final Fantasy XIV seems alternately fascinating and frustrating.
If you played Final Fantasy XI at all then you'll know it was a frequently punishing experience. Well before the level cap, it was near impossible to play solo, and you'd be stripped of experience points when killed in combat. It was a pretty game upon release, though, and those who were willing to put in the time were rewarded with powerful, if inscrutable, group dynamics built around chaining abilities to take down challenging adversaries. It remained popular, receiving a large number of expansion packs, but for newcomers (and especially those used to the user-friendliness of Blizzard's World of Warcraft), playing Final Fantasy XI for the first time was more like a punch to the gut than a thrilling adventure into a new world.
I'm only at physical level 10 right now in the FFXIV open beta, so I can't comment on the way the game scales its challenges further down the line, but so far the experience is much more forgiving than Final Fantasy XI. If you die, you don't run the risk of de-leveling. Instead, your character just gets hit with a temporary statistical decrease. This means it's wise to wait for the debuff to wear off before venturing into hostile territory again, which isn't much of a setback.
In case you read that previous paragraph and wondered why I specified 'physical level' when talking about my character progress, that's because class identity is a constantly shifting thing in Final Fantasy XIV. Physical level is your character's base level that remains constant. There's also your class's level, which increases independently depending on the gear you have equipped. Boosting this level will then unlock new skills to use for that class. When creating a character and picking a starting zone, you will have the option to pick a class, but that initial choice doesn't restrict you in the long-term.
The game's class system is extremely flexible. Basically, if you equip a weapon or a tool in your character's main hand, you become that class. For example, I started as a pugilist, a melee fighter that beats opponents senseless with flurries of punches. Soon after starting out in Gridania, a town situated in a large forested zone, I purchased a hatchet and a scythe. After equipping them, I was all of a sudden a Botanist. I bought and equipped a Weathered Cane and became a Conjurer capable of blasting magic at enemies. Then I paid a visit to the local carpentry guild hall and picked up a saw and claw hammer so I could fashion wood planks and, hopefully, something fancier down the line.
While it's annoying that the game resets your action bar every time you switch classes (meaning you have to go in and reslot skills after each switch unless you've got a macro up and running), the amount of freedom it affords you is exciting. Want to slaughter every enemy you see? Switch to one of the battle classes and hack at them with weapons or disintegrate them with magic. Then if you see a shiny tree or flickering grassy area, you can don Botanist gear, harvest, and then switch right back to a combat-focused class to continue killing. The system is particularly interesting because it gives you access to all gathering and crafting types. The wood obtained through Botany can then be fashioned into something else through Carpentry. If you grow tired of that, it's easy to switch over to a Miner and farm materials for different crafting professions.
What's especially impressive about all of this, and something I'm really excited to test out more, is that you can assign skills from other classes to your active class. I'd leveled a Conjurer alongside my Pugilist, for instance. While rebuilding my skill bar as a Pugilist, I found that it was possible to assign Conjurer skills to my Pugilist's action bar. The potential for this is huge, because theoretically you could assign heals, high damage attacks, and protective buffs to your most powerful character class after taking the time to level a number of them. There is a limit on the number of skills that can be assigned at one time, however. Each skill costs action points to set on an active bar, meaning you have to carefully select which skills to bring into a fight instead of simply assigning every skill to the same character. None of my classes are high level right now, but it's exciting to think of potential character builds down the line that combine some of the best skills from a number of combat disciplines.
While the process of leveling and combining class skills is great, there are a few other bits of the game that have bothered me so far, so now I will start nitpicking. Take, for instance, the system of finding resource nodes as a Botanist. It seems easiest to simply look for shiny trees and grasses than use the class' built-in node finder, which tells you the distance to a harvestable area in 'yalms'. That's not exactly easy for a newcomer to understand. That's like if I told you your missing cell phone was 100 minupecks away to the north. You wouldn't know whether to search the couch cushions in front of you or drive 200 miles north to that bed and breakfast where you spent the weekend. Figuring out the size of a yalm is isn't especially difficult, but it does contribute to a sense that Square Enix is hesitant about sacrificing its fictional fidelity in the name of usability.
Other factors contribute to this notion as well. Take, for example, the Teleport mechanic. You can approach crystals located in population centers and select this option from the main menu to swiftly warp around within the game world. It's convenient, but it's also limited by Anima points. These points regenerate but very slowly, sending the message that Square Enix will give you convenience but only to a degree. If you overindulge in fast traveling, you'll presumably lose the ability to do so until your Anima points are replenished -- sort of like reverse frequent flyer miles. Many other games put restrictions on swift travel, though, so this isn't novel; it's just that many use in-game currency instead of a regenerating number pool that can't be swiftly restored. I've never come close to running out of Anima points so far, but I can't be sure how this might change at higher levels with more locations available for teleport.
In the early levels it's only a few minutes of time to get between quest target zones and back to town, and from the looks of things, the plots of land are never very large. In Gridania, instead of huge open zones the areas of FFXIV are broken up into smaller open spots connected by patchworks of narrow passageways that occasionally have ramps up to higher elevations. Around the various zones skitter enemies like toadstools and smaller insects. I happened to travel a little further away from home than usual one time just to get a sense of what the larger world looked like and was one-shotted by a giant lizard sitting in a river, so that'll have to wait for another article.
As with any new online game as complex as this, expect to spend a number of hours figuring out what the various non-player characters standing around town do and how all the game systems work. Built into Final Fantasy XIV's conversation options with NPCs are a number of tutorials, though they're unfortunately inconveniently placed. Be sure to visit a crystal and read The Call of Adventure if you do wind up playing, because it explains a lot of what the statistics and magic points mean and other basic things that aren't covered by popup tooltips in the menus or tutorials.
To ease you into the fantasy world, you're given a story-driven quest when first starting out. In Gridania, it's a quest line called The Color of Sin that begins with you getting attacked in the forest and being brought into town to recover and get your bearings. Events throughout this lengthy questline serve to highlight important locations in town, to hand over some starting money (called gil, naturally), and to get a sense of what's going on in the world to give killing and collecting more context. Interactions are presented as cutscenes that you'd see in single-player role-playing games and serve to give you a greater attachment to the game world and the characters involved. Once it's over, you're on your own.
Making progress can be done simply by hammering on critters running around in the wilds or taking on Questleves, which is FFXIV's fancy way of labeling quests. These quests can be acquired for any class, be it crafting, killing, or gathering from resource nodes. Upon completion you're awarded with gil and items, and the way they function may be a little different than the genre standard. For starters, you have to travel to a crystal once you've acquired the quest to activate it. Then it's necessary to input a difficulty setting. The easiest setting is meant for a solo player while the higher settings are meant for groups, though you bump up the difficulty if you feel you're of a high enough level to power through. For instance, I replayed a few lower level quest at a higher difficulty setting and had no trouble stomping through.
Once activated, there's usually a time limit associated with completing the objectives, putting the pressure on getting the tasks done. So far the assignments are fairly standard: go kill X number of Y enemy, or harvest Z logs of wood, and the like. Perhaps they'll become more sophisticated at higher levels, but so far, it's basic stuff. After a quest is complete, you can opt to fast travel back to the point of origin or continue stomping things in the field. The good part about these is they focus on each of your classes, offering a structured outlet with which to make progress that gives the sense that you're not just mindlessly grinding to raise each individual class experience bar. The bad news is that it's really easy to run out of quests, which in turn means you'll need to grind or message others to see if you can latch onto their adventures. Perhaps this is meant to be the primary social encouragement device because the class system is so flexible. Coupled with the way the game limits experience gains based on time played, it seems Square Enix has built in a number of mechanics to encourage players to branch out and try everything in the game instead of getting tunnel vision in a race to the level cap. Regarding the experience point limits, if you're used to playing subscription-based MMOs and aren't familiar with it, I strongly encourage you to watch this video that does a great job explaining everything.
Even though some players will go completely nuts and level everything despite the measures taken by Square Enix, I think it's safe to say most will focus on leveling only a few classes. It makes sense to have a battle class leveled up for fights and to pair it with a sensible gathering and crafting combo, such as Botany / Carpenter, to make useful goods. How exactly the economy works is still something I'm still learning, but it's possible to sell items back to NPCs in towns or hire a retainer to hold onto items and put them up at a bazaar. Many items picked up in the field can also be useful for crafting. For example, as a Carpenter I can attempt to fashion planks out of logs. The process of actually doing this involves a number of steps, and it's entirely possible to fail the creation process entirely. After setting down the Carpenter's crafting gear, the game requires you select components to be used in crafting and select a desired final product. With these requirements met, it then shifts to the process of crafting where you need to balance progress against durability. This plays like a mini-game where percentage bonuses to progress are awarded alongside an increased chance of failure.
Mini-games also come into play while harvesting components out in the field. For example, if you approach a tree and want to hack at it with an axe, you'll first need to select where on the tree is best to strike, which comes off as arbitrary, and then participate in a mini-game to pinpoint where the harvestable resources may be. This is done by stopping a moving cursor on a semicircular display. The game will tell you how near or far your axe strikes are from freeing up resources, and with subsequent strikes it's necessary to stop the cursor's movement at a different position in the hopes of getting what you want. It was fun at first, but it seems like this'll be a pretty large time sink for anyone looking to harvest a serious amount of resources, and can be irritating at times because what you actually pull out of trees doesn't always make sense. For example, I was hacking at a tree in the hopes of getting maple logs, but I somehow walked away with feathers.
When it's time to toss aside the axe and get to fighting, I've found the combat tends to be fun. Only lower level abilities are unlocked right now, but as a pugilist, fights tend to be a balance between managing a stamina bar and triggering attacks that consume TP. Stamina is consumed as basic attacks are used to peck away at an enemy's health. All the while the TP gauge is building, and can be tapped to unleash more powerful attacks. There's also an MP bar, which so far my Pugilist hasn't had to deal with save for when I assigned the Conjurer's Blizzard spell and had him cast it a few times. The Pugilist also gets a heal ability, which consumes TP, not MP, which seems like it'll be very useful for all melee classes further down the line. Even though the class system is so dynamic, there are still character statistics to consider. After leveling you're given attributes to assign to increase attack, defense and accuracy for physical and magical attributes. I would imagine that if you use all the points to bump up physical attack, defense, and accuracy, you'd make a pretty crappy magic user.
There's a lot more to the combat, but I'll keep playing and report back once I've had more experience with the game to talk about group mechanics and higher level encounters. For now, I'll just say that a few areas of the game are a little worrisome. First, the interface seems far more convoluted than it needs to be, which I think in large part can be attributed to Square Enix having to make sure it works for the PS3's controller. Coincidentally, I switched from mouse and keyboard to a wired Xbox 360 controller on my PC and found the experience to be far more manageable, both in combat and in the often labyrinthine menu system. The other issue is performance. There's an insanely powerful PC in the IGN offices that I'm running the game fine on, but at home where I've got less powerful hardware, the performance really chops up. I dropped nearly all the graphics settings and the input lag was unbearable. Plugging in a controller helped, but the framerate was still far from ideal.
Please keep in mind that this is a beta and much is still being tweaked, but then again we are only about one week away from launch. Maybe some of these issues will be addressed, and maybe not. If you do happen to have a powerful system, you'll see this is one of the best looking MMOs available, with incredibly detailed character models, animations, and environments. At this point I'm excited to keep journeying around the world of Eorzea and discovering how more of the game works, and will be updating as I go beyond launch, eventually leading to a review in the coming weeks.
Oh and also, there are moogles in the game. Bonus.
Review from IGN
Images from Google
Videos from YouTube