Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV has had a rough time of it. The original release of the MMO was plagued by bugs and failed to grab players’ attentions as its predecessor, Final Fantasy XI had. It was so unpopular, it lead to that most un-Japanese of corporate responses - the game was pulled and rebuilt from scratch.
The do-over, subtitled “A Realm Reborn”, is actually set five years on from the original release as opposed to over-writing its events, and sees players guide their unique characters through the world of Eorzea as the fearsome dragon Bahamut rises again. Set for release on PS3 and PC in August, with a PS4 version to follow in 2014, it now seems far more in line with the Final Fantasy franchise as a whole, with numerous Easter eggs for fans to find. Some are obvious, such as the iconic summon monsters, while others are rather subtle - Cloud’s Omnislash move from FF7 being used by others, for example. The mascot Chocobo birds also feature, appearing as AI companions that can provide support in battle.
Unlike most online role playing games, A Realm Reborn allows you to change classes at any point. Governed by armour choices, players will be able to mix up their playing styles as they progress through the game. Called the Armoury System, it seems to be a fair substitute for the Jobs system of some previous entries in the series. If you fancy switching to the magic-lobbing Thaumaturge class after spending 40 hours playing as a beefy warrior type, all you need to do is find the appropriate armour, not start a whole new game with a different avatar. There are a whopping twenty jobs to choose from, each offering a different experience in one of four categories - physical combat, magic, item creation or farming. Plenty to experiment with, and more than enough to keep gamers’ interests.
Group encounters - essentially the dungeons or raids found in the likes of World of Warcraft - are called FATEs, or Full Active Time Events. These instances may see you teaming up to take on huge bosses or meeting various objective. Player levels average out between party members, ensuring the challenge is equal for all participants.
We tested the nimble Lancer class alongside seven other players as we tried - and failed - to defeat the fire demon Ifrit. Had we succeeded, Ifrit would have become available to use as a summon. Contributing to the defeat was the control scheme though.
Playing on PS3 pads, attacks are activated not through the typical menus of an offline RPG but a tricky cycle of button combinations. The left and right triggers highlight different move sets mapped to the face and directional buttons, while a tap of R1 brings up a selection of item options. Each move has a cooldown period, typical of MMOs, but while you're rapidly twitching your fingers to bring up a move you can use, the battle rages around you. As a result, in can be a bit overwhelming to try to figure out what's going on. Playing with mouse and keyboard will no doubt provide more finesse, and even the PlayStation controller setup may work after becoming more familiar with it but first impressions are that the game suffers from the same broadly repetitive style of combat as many online games do.
However fans play the game, perhaps the biggest hurdle the game has to overcome will be that of subscription fees. At a time when the likes of Guild Wars 2 offers a rich online experience for free and World of Warcraft’s paid subscriber base is declining, it seems odd to relaunch a product with a monthly commitment that struggled to find its audience first time around.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is bold and colourful and ’feels’ like a Final Fantasy. Controller issues aside, it's undoubtedly an improvement over its flawed origins - but will that be enough?