Square Enix’s latest online offering for its legendary role-playing franchise is.... well, odd. It’s riddled with frustrations, from the excruciatingly long time it takes between starting a new game and actually being able to play anything, to the general lack of spoken dialogue, making it seem unsophisticated compared to almost every other MMO on the market. Then there’s the shadow hanging over the whole project, that the first time Final Fantasy XIV launched, it was a broken, awkward mess. Can this version hope to improve? Yet despite all these doubts and irritations, each enough to potentially torpedo the game, A Realm Reborn eventually proves to be rather enjoyable.
We say “eventually” because it really will take an extraordinarily long time to get going. The time spent on character creation bleeds into a lengthy intro, in turn prompting a series of slow preliminary quests to get you accustomed to the world and the various combat or crafting skills. Yet it’s here that the game starts to show the many improvements over its predecessor. A Realm Reborn has numerous systems at work, but they all feel accessible and understandable, a far cry from the overly complex approach the original FF XIV took.
Combat works well on the PS4 controller too – better than we expected for an MMO on console. The shoulder buttons switch between various clusters of preset controls on the face buttons, and although fiddly at first, you’ll soon become accustomed to switching through them and selecting the appropriate action. It provides a nice compromise between the speed of hack-and-slash combat and the depth of Final Fantasy’s traditional menu systems. The DualShock 4’s touchpad also works as a nice substitute for a mouse cursor, giving you that extra edge of precision.
Character creation is solid, but another potential area of frustration. There are five races to choose from and enough detail options to create an avatar to your liking, but none as refined as many of the game’s peers. Curiously, the five species are essentially the same as those in Final Fantasy XI but with the names changed – such as Hyur for the human parallel instead of Humes, for some reason. Character classes are more confusing, partly because it’s not terribly clear as to the difference between some of its eight options. Players will need to look very carefully at the benefits of an Arcanist over a Conjurer, for instance. However, more detailed jobs can be unlocked, simply attached to armour and accessed by levelling up in the FF tradition.
Base class also determines your starting area, meaning it’s tough luck if your intended play style doesn’t match where you want to be spending the first 20-odd hours. Once you get into the world, wherever you may be, you’ll then have to learn its visual language, which also lacks clarity. Passages to new areas have a shimmering bar across them, which you’re likely to think means you can’t enter, rather than being the access point to potential adventure.
Once you figure out how to explore the world and where you can go, that’s when A Realm Reborn shines. The Eorzea continent is stunning, full of enticing locations and endless activities. Although many of the quests come from the ‘go there, kill that’ mold, there’s plenty to do besides. It borrows a page from Guild Wars 2’s book with FATEs – random group events that any passing player can join in on, but just as in GW2, they’re as intrusive or engaging as you let them be. Match making and team building in general – the heart of any MMO – are pleasantly simple, linking up with people you’ve met in-game or sending invites through friends lists. Group-focussed missions are notably tougher than solo encounters though.
That Square Enix has kept to a monthly fee model will be the killing blow for many potential players. Despite the abundance of content in the game and the engrossing world it delivers, subscription MMOs are a dying breed. You’ll have to be very dedicated to A Realm Reborn to continue paying, but it’s actually one of the few such games that justify at least a few months’ time and money.
Reviewed by Matt Kamen