Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (hereafter ARR) officially launched last week, aiming to make a game that was renowned for being terrible into something good. Square Enix didn’t anticipate so many people wanting to play, however, and there are not nearly enough servers for us all. There has been so much demand for the game that it took me four hours of trying to log in every five minutes before I could play yesterday. They’ve put a cap on the number of people who can be logged on to a given server at any given time, which makes it hard to actually get in to play the game… but once you do manage to log on to a character, the experience is great. By taking this route, Square Enix has managed to avoid the problem of lag, lag, lag that usually plagues highly-anticipated MMOs (and their expansions) when they are first released. This excellent gameplay experience comes, however, at the cost of angry customers.
This is a long article, so here’s my TL; DR: It’s like Final Fantasy XI, but with some modern MMO conventions. I recommend it, but if you want to play it you should wait a bit before doing so.
The Angry Masses
Too busy looking at #FFXIV launch internet rage to notice my character had logged in fine on my PS3 behind me.
— Mojo (@Mojo_FFXIV) September 2, 2013
I’ve wanted to play on one of the Japanese servers since I decided to get the game. I live in Japan, and not having lag is a wonderful thing. It’s also nice to know that a significant number of players will be on when you are on so that you can find parties for things. Apparently, however, a lot of people from the North American and European region have also been trying to get on the Japanese servers. I can only guess at what their motivations are, but since fewer Japanese people are trying to get on servers in other regions, the Japanese servers have been almost impossible to get on. To give you an idea of what I mean by “impossible”, I was only able to log on to the character I made on a Japanese server, intending for it to be my main character, this morning.
After three days of trying.
Needless to say, the Japanese players haven’t been very happy. Looking at the #FFXIV hashtag on Twitter gets a mix of English and Japanese tweets, but on Friday evening it was a solid wall of Japanese, some of it venomous and most of it demanding money back or extensions of the trial period. There was one, however, which just made me laugh — the author just tweeted himself yelling the name of the producer/director who turned the game around
Looking at the hashtag now, as I write this, though, most of the tweets are in English and most of them are treating the login problems as a joke. Cultural difference or situational? I don’t know. After all, when I checked the tweets on Friday, the Japanese server list wasn’t populating. And presumably, the people at Square Enix are doing their damnedest to increase capacity ASAP. And right now, it’s early in the workday on Monday here in Japan. Still, though, some of these tweets are pretty entertaining.
They’ve implemented a wait line system, which helps ease the frustration of waiting to log on because you no longer have to manually try periodically, but sometimes it breaks. When it’s working, though, it’s a glorious, glorious thing. Ultimately, though, these problems are temporary, and so I will move on to reviewing the game itself.
Remembering Final Fantasy XI
I was a pretty big fan of Final Fantasy XI (FFXI), back in the day. I played it for several years. There were a few things about it that made it unique — namely its job system, which let you have heaps of variety on a single character; the fact that since it was originally released on PlayStation 2, it was designed for use with a gamepad; and the fact that it had a very strong storyline. Perhaps the most unique thing about it, though, was that anyone from any region could play on any server, and the game had translations for things built into the chat system to facilitate working with people who didn’t speak your own language.
Having people from all over the world to play with was a great experience, in general. As a student of Japanese, it also proved a great way to practice reading Japanese and to learn slang and common forms imperfect grammar for casual conversation. By playing the Japanese version of the game later, when I was so familiar with the game that it didn’t matter if I could read everything or not, I was able to study kanji and vocabulary in a familiar context and quickly power up my Japanese abilities. I’ll never forget the kanji for “shield” because I learned it the hard way.
A more generic benefit to having people from all over the world on one server is that if you’re willing to play with people with whom your ability to communicate is limited, you can still find parties at any time of day. At the time, I was a resident of Alaska, which meant that the bulk of the US population was a sleep when I played, especially if I wanted to find people to play with at midnight on a Wednesday or something. But midnight in Alaska is the end of the Japanese workday and mid-morning in Alaska is evening in Europe, which meant I could always find someone to play with.
— Kean Giledaks (@KeanGiledaks) August 31, 2013
My one big problem with FFXI was that even though I could speak Japanese, I couldn’t type in Japanese without having the Japanese version of the game — even if your computer had Japanese input support. Squaresoft (not yet merged with Enix) was so strict about not allowing mods that if they caught you modifying the game so you could type in Japanese, they would delete your account. What made this so ridiculous was that all three versions of the game (North America, Europe, and Japan) were really just one version bundled with a launcher for the appropriate language. You could play any version you wanted by going to the official web site for your version of choice, downloading the launcher right from Square Enix, and using it. But doing that changed not just input options, but ALL game text. It was all or nothing.
To the best of my knowledge, this is still true. They still won’t let you mod the game, you can still download any launcher, and you can still only type Japanese if you are willing to play the entire game in Japanese.
That’s really the reason I haven’t been playing FFXI for the last year or so. It’s still going strong in Japan, and some of my coworkers play it. I wanted to play with them, but I can’t talk to them without using the Japanese version and the game has changed so much that I can’t relearn how to play it using the Japanese version.
Which brings me to why I decided to buy ARR. It’s a lot like FFXI, but this time, you can type in Japanese from the English version of the game. (Though it looks like I’ll need a US keyboard to do that. My Japanese Microsoft ergonomic one isn’t working right.)
Comparing ARR with FFXI
I have the PlayStation 3 version, and as with FFXI, ARR’s control scheme is designed to work really well with controllers. The buttons on the face of the controller default to being used for things like movement, camera control, menus, and interactions, but by pushing L2 and R2 you can access customizable hotbars. You can switch to new hotbar presets using R1, which makes it fast and easy to switch setups and to see exactly where all your skills are. By default, 3 of your 8 hotbar presets are unique to your current job and the others are shared among all your classes, though you can customize this. At any given time, a PS3 player has easy access to 16 things to do, with 16 more a button press away and a well-designed full menu available by pushing the start button.
There game does a pretty good job of introducing the player to all the systems. There are help windows, easily disabled, which pop up when something happens for the first time. They have detailed information if you want it, but can be skimmed without any real impact on what you are doing. The starting quest chain is designed to ease you into things gradually, and some things don’t unlock until later. I don’t know how easy it would be for someone fresh to MMOs, but as a veteran of them it’s really easy to follow.
I’m not far into the story yet. It’s still in the setup stages, but it seems like ARR will have a strong narrative centered around your character, just like FFXI did. This involves cutscenes, some of which are done in traditional Final Fantasy style and some of which are really just story-important dialogue between characters. As with FFXI, the cutscenes don’t tend to last very long. Both ARR and its predecessor have some multi-player instances which have cutscenes at the beginning, which a player will have to see the first time they go and be able to skip later, but unlike FFXI your party can’t start the battle while you are watching a cutscene.
Stylistically, the aesthetics are similar to those of FFXI, both visually and audially. The graphics are beautiful. This includes both the cutscenes and the regular gameplay. The first time I experienced a thunderstorm, I had the game muted and thought my graphics were bugging out, but then I realized it was raining and looked up. ARR has some of if not the best graphics I’ve ever seen in an MMO, and a lot of love went into crafting the environments. The music loops well without being annoying and generally just creates a nice backdrop to the game.
The job system has been revamped. It still exists and you can still use skills from other jobs, but I haven’t gotten high enough in level to have much experience with multiclassing under the new system yet. From what I’ve read, it seems like you can equip a set number of skills from other jobs, so it isn’t necessarily limited to one subclass, per se. But like I said… I’m not there yet. More on that later, maybe.
The basic jobs, available from the start, are not the traditional Final Fantasy fare. Jobs available from the start include archer (which is a long-range damage/support class), fighter, and arcanist — generic names. Once you reach certain levels in multiple basic jobs, you can get quests to unlock things like Black Mage, White Mage, Bard, Dragoon, etc. I am shooting for bard (pun intended, and you’ll see why it’s a pun in 3.. 2..), which requires level 30 in the archer job and level 15 in the pugilist job (one of the basic magic classes). I have no idea what the advanced job unlocking quests are like, but once the quest is complete you get an equippable item that lets you just be the advanced job.
One of the most convenient changes made for ARR is that to change jobs, all you have to do is change your main weapon. You can carry around quite a bit of spare equipment because they have given you a special inventory for just that purpose, which makes it easy to keep stuff on hand for multiple jobs. Combined with a lot more backpack space than FFXI and the fact that they aren’t charging you a dollar for every extra character you make and it looks like item management will be far more pleasant than before.
A minimap in the upper right corner is a thing that exists, which has your x and y coordinates relative to the map displayed at the bottom. This is great for requesting raises or otherwise coordinating player movements. If you pull up the actual map, it doesn’t take over the screen; rather, it opens a map window which can be scrolled around when active. If you leave it up when it isn’t active, it becomes partially transparent. You can either allow the map to follow your character, turning it into an extra minimap with a longer sight range. Alternately, you can scroll to a specific location and leave it there while using the regular minimap to navigate. The default map settings have it following your character unless you’ve scrolled it, and I find that this is a really good setting.
Floating symbols over the heads of quest givers and quest enders have also been implemented. I’ve seen mixed comments about this from other players, and to be honest I have mixed feelings myself. On one hand, MMOs are so much easier to play when you have guidance to quest objectives because the worlds are so big. On the other hand, it was a nice feeling to play FFXI and come to know the world like the back of your hand, to be able to run halfway across the continent at level 1 because you knew exactly which parts of the map were devoid of monsters and where you couldn’t go without dying. The thing is, though, that while some of the experience that led to that understanding of the game came from exploration, you spent a lot of time looking things up online. Having floating quest symbols all over the place neatly avoids having to do that for basic things (though metagaming players will still have plenty to look up). Overall, I am a busy adult with too many things I want to do now and I find it a welcome change — one that also makes it easier for new MMO players to ease in to the game.
As a veteran of FFXI, it feels like going back to an old, beloved pool for the first time in forever to find out that they’d renovated the place without disrupting its overall design. That said, you don’t have to have been a fan of FFXI to enjoy ARR. However, and I was talking to a friend about this last night, it is still an Asian MMO. There are a lot of grindy quests that don’t do much to enrich the world or the story. So think a bit about whether or not Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a game you want to play. Take your time, because the servers don’t look like they’ll be ready for you soon.