I remember being at a game conference – E3 in 2010, if memory serves – when Final Fantasy XIV Online was announced. My thought at the time was: yikes, actually, that game looks like crap. It turns out my instincts were correct. It was absolutely crap! This resulted in a complete rework of the game. The developers practically destroyed the original FFXIV, subtitled it as A Realm Reborn, and fixing its many problems.
Not many people have good memories of whatever vanilla FFXIV was. But some of my friends have been playing ARR for a long time now, and all of them recommended it to me. It finally became too difficult to resist the temptation when the rabbit-woman Viera race was added to the game. I could ignore the siren song of sexy catgirls, but now I could become an Amazonian warrior bunny? All right, SquareSoft, you finally got me.
This is a review of A Realm Reborn and A Realm Reborn only. This is what it’s like to be me, a noob, playing FFXIV: ARR, in 2019.
I might add for context here that I have only played one other MMO seriously, and that MMO was (is) City of Heroes. CoH is not like other MMOS in many aspects. Anyone that has any kind of grounding in World of Warcraft may find my first impressions of Final Fantasy XIV to be strange and naive. As of this writing, I have still never played WoW. At first that was just weird, but now, at this point, it’s kind of too late to bother.
There is only one major deviation I’m experiencing from the “vanilla” ARR experience, in that I am playing ARR as a rabbit. This is technically Shadowbringers content that came in with the new expansion. However, other than the obvious rabbitness of my screenshots, being a rabbit only means one thing: I cannot wear most hats. FFXIV is very precious about its lush graphics and will not allow rabbits to wear hats. Even hats like top hats, which rabbits absolutely oughtta wear! Just let the ears clip through, you fussy cowards.
Starting the Game
The first boss of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, is trying to make a character on Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. This is an esoteric process involving a place called the MogStation. If you can avoid going to the MogStation, maybe avoid that. I had to go there because, not only did I want to play Final Fantasy XIV, I wanted to:
- Be a rabbit girl, and
- Be on the same server as my friends.
To accomplish this, I did the following:
- Bought the base game, which has a special edition that includes all previous expansion packs. Also bought the expansion pack and expansion pre-order.
- Paid a subscription.
- Made a catgirl character, saved her to a file.
- Waited until 2 AM one night, when the datacenter I wanted to put a character on opened up for new character generation. (Due to crowded servers, only certain servers are available for chargen at certain times, and these times can vary, so you have to camp the status page. Also, certain servers are in different data centers, and you have to at least be on the same data center as your friends if you want to play with your friends.)
- Made the catgirl on the right datacenter (if on the wrong server, for now).
- Bought a “Fantasia” potion, allowing me to transform the catgirl into a bunny girl when the Shadowbringers preview unlocked.
- Registered a code for the Shadowbringers preview.
- Used the Fantasia potion to become a bunny girl.
- Played as the bunny girl for a few days.
- Got another code for Shadowbringers proper, because the code for the preview content is not the same as the code for the actual content, for some goddamn reason. It didn’t cost more money but did require me to register the software again.
- Played for several weeks, until the server status allowed server transfers to the server I wanted in the first place.
- Paid for a server transfer and finally got on the correct server.
I don’t even want to bother calculating the total cost of this operation, but it was Some Dollars for sure. Fantasia potions and server transfers both cost real money.
It’s possible that I did this at least the second most ass backward and expensive way, but there are probably even more ass backward and expensive ways to do it that I only didn’t stumble on because the process I used was confusing enough.
Actually Starting the Game
Imagining that you have gotten this far in your A Realm Reborn journey, you now are left with another choice.
Do you want to play ARR? Or do you want to purchase the ability to skip ARR entirely by buying combat levels for your character and a “story skip” option?
These are two different things. In order to progress through the game you need levels, and you also need to complete a series of quests. You could buy level 50 in a class but still have all the content to do, or you could also choose to skip the content.
This was a momentary dilemma for me because I was (still am) being constantly reassured and reminded that the expansions for the game are very good, and the base game is only okay. However:
- I knew I would just be trading one kind of confusion for another with this bargain. Rather, instead of “When does the good part start?” while going through the early slow parts of the story, I’d instead be asking “Who are the people in this story and why should I care?” during the supposed good part.
- It didn’t make much sense to me to pay a lot of money to play a video game, and then, subsequently, pay even more money to not have to play that video game.
So, I went through ARR the old-fashioned way: as a Lancer, which becomes a Dragoon, along with a few short breaks to craft and heal.
If you’re like me and have a lot of friends that play the game, they will keep forgetting what parts of the game are not available to you early on. The game has many, many systems, and truly it is a kindness that it does not introduce those systems to you all at once. But early on, I wanted to party up with friends, and I simply could not. I had not been introduced to that system yet, and everyone else was so used to being in parties that they just forgot you had to unlock that.
This resulted in some stressful FOMO.
I’ve so far logged a lot of hours in A Realm Reborn (and A Realm Reborn only). I’d estimate that about a third of that time was spent enjoying A Realm Reborn. Another third of that time was just rushing through A Realm Reborn. And the other third of that time was doing some side tasks just to break up the pace of rushing through A Realm Reborn.
When I first started the game, I was still coming off the high of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and I was tempted to sidequest. Usually in RPGs, sidequests are where the good stuff is! But FFXIV has a multi-layered type of sidequest system and I did not quite understand it at first.
You may see a person with a golden exclamation point over their head. If you’re a silly noobie, like me, you will be tempted to click on that person and do their quest. But hang on. Gold sidequests are almost never worth doing! If you decide to check one out, it’s worth it to first check and see if the quest is at a level comparable to your current level, and if it gives any kind of meaningful reward. Otherwise, don’t do that quest! Don’t be like me and waste your time on dozens of pointless errands before the game even really starts, as there will be many other dozens of errands to do.
Now if you see a blue exclamation point, with a plus sign, maybe take that sidequest! Those are The Good Sidequests, and at least they are helpfully labeled… Unless the quest a) unlocks a class you don’t want to start right now, or, b) unlocks levequests, which are another type of quest you will have to do eventually but not right now maybe.
Some quests will be locked by your Beast Tribes Reputation. Some will be locked by your Grand Company Rank. Some will be locked because they involve doing a dungeon that comes after some dungeon you haven’t done yet. The game has a lot of quests!
The environments of the game are very pretty. The starting area I chose, Gridania, is a lovely forest area that reminds me of the PA Ren Faire. The other two starting cities are actually a bit more interesting, but after some play, I started to regard Gridania as home anyway. The city you start in is set by the choice of the class that you start in, but not even classes are locked down.
A cool thing about FFXIV is that you don’t have to make an alt, at least, not if you don’t want to. The game allows for easy class changing at any time with the push of a button, and all the classes level separately. Right now I’m a level 54 Dragoon, but I’m also a level 36 White Mage, for example. A new class is easy to start and pick up. I got some gear when I bought the game that gives bonus experience, which makes the lower levels breezy.
I’ve done a lot of crafting as well as combat, though perhaps not efficiently. Here’s one structural weakness: where the combat classes allow multiclassing, the crafter classes basically require it. Almost every crafter class feeds off some other crafter class in a way that becomes a hard stop to advancing. I thought it might make sense for my character to do Leatherworking, because, well, I’m killing animals anyway, and I have all these hides! To hell with Carpentry, though; I’m not going to be out there chopping down trees. But after a few levels, advancing in Leatherworking requires some iron rivets, so, please take up Blacksmithing. Hm, that’s fine, but to level in Blacksmithing you need to make weapons and those have wooden components, so go ahead and take up Carpentry after all and for that you need Botany and record scratch here’s your tree-choppin’ ax.
I also wanted to do some cooking, because I sure love cooking in a video game. Food you can eat grants various temporary buffs but also takes up some space in your inventory while you’re stashing it. Cooking is fun! But unless you want to pay insane auction house prices for the raw ingredients, you also gotta pick your own parsley and catch your own fish.
To break up the drudgery in crafting, you can hire retainers. These ally NPCs, which you design yourself just like your character, can help you with collecting, auctioning, and other dirty work. They also expand your inventory slots for long term item storage. I have two of them – I could hire more, but this costs real money again. One of my retainers is a halfling sort, a cheerful member of the tiny Lalafell race. The other is an Au Ra: a tall handsome Asian dragon man I have named Hanzo. Only I can see Hanzo, but it amuses me to dress him up in increasingly embarrassing sexy butler uniforms.
One can choose the personality of their assistants to some degree. If you like, you can have an assistant that sasses you, but if you know me you know that I would never choose this. Hanzo is instead endlessly patient with me, even if I’m trying to sort through his inventory three times in a row because I can’t figure out what shade of lilac I’d like to dye my new shoes. “Considering the coral pink, madam?” “Yes, Hanzo, but these assless chaps are for you.”
Rototo, my Lalafell, is mostly energetic and seems very eager to keep her job. Once I sent her on a quick, random, “just grab anything” style errand, and she came back with a wall. An entire wall.
Coming out of City of Heroes, I’ve always been spoiled for options as far as MMORPG fashion goes. In FFXIV, like in most other MMOS, you gotta earn your clothes. The game has a system called Glamouring that allows for one to skin one outfit’s looks over another outfit’s stats. The system has gone through a few different iterations by this point, and it’s very complicated. Please do not ask me to explain it.
However, as my friends’ Free Company (aka, Guild) is literally called the Glamour Police, I felt it was important to at least give an honest go at engaging with the fashion mechanics. The outfits are for the most part pretty cute. Now I occasionally hit a frustration wall, upon discovering that a certain outfit I thought was perfect for whatever function was also locked to some particular level or some particular class. But that does serve as motivation to keep leveling… to unlock new clothing options.
The Viera race starts out wearing an absurd thong panty set. As a rabbit, I can always dye it a new color and wear it in a pinch as a glamour skin if my current leveling gear looks like a potato sack. Having my bunny butt hanging out adds a certain level of gravitas to important matters in the world shattering events that occur.
I have not yet discussed the most important type of quest in A Realm Reborn. When you see a gold quest exclamation point that looks like a big lightning meteor, that is your Main Story Quest. Those are the quests you must do, most of all, to advance the plot. Many of these will feel like pointless errands, just like the other gold quests, but you have to do these ones. So suck it up, and would you please muck out the chocobo stables and fetch us all some wine?
“The plot really picks up when you kill your first god,” said one of my friends.
And it’s true, it does, at least to some degree.
Here’s a somewhat spoiler-lite summary of the plot of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. If even the slightest whiff of spoilers upsets you, skip the rest of this subheader, and maybe the next one, too.
The continent of Eorzea is home to three nations. The nations are not at war with each other, but they do some light skirmishing just to keep sharp. There is a problem, however. Some powerful elemental creatures, with familiar Final Fantasy names like Ifrit and Ramuh, are appearing and threatening the safety of the world.
Your character, the Warrior of Light, has the skills, talent, and magical destiny to take down the elemental Primals. In order to accomplish this, she joins up with a ragtag group of neutrally aligned warriors lead by a kind but bland woman in an improbable outfit. Along the way, you’ll also meet a guy named Cid (which won’t confuse me, because this is a Final Fantasy game), and a guy named Nero (which will confuse me, because this is not a Devil May Cry game).
Most of the leadership figures in the game are female, which is kind of neat! The game also doesn’t make a lot of noise highlighting this or anything, which is also neat. It’s just kind of how the world works.
At some point, Big General McBadguy shows up, and it’s hysterical. The man looks like Darth Vader crossed with a Texas steer, and everyone is just hanging out chatting with him as if he’s not radiating evil-stink lines and this is very normal. Then some events occur, he gives a “perhaps the same can be said of all religions” type of speech, and you and seven other people punch him until he dies.
Then there’s credits! So many credits.
You may think at this point: ah, I beat the game. The game is over now!
But the game is not over. It keeps on going from there and you are not out of “A Realm Reborn” yet. I am still not out of A Realm Reborn. I am being told by some people that it’s very close now, very close. It is such a pity, because it really does get good later, my friends tell me. Be patient.
I’d like to talk a little about the cutscenes in A Realm Reborn. This is a Final Fantasy game, and it has a lot of cutscenes!
Unfortunately, it feels like a majority of these cutscenes involve people sitting around in a room, discussing their battle plans or their political affiliations or what-have-you. I want to try to give these things my attention, because it is the plot and people worked very hard on it. On the other hand, these scenes are very dull. I’m sitting there in my bunny underwear trying to look interested while world leaders of fictional races discuss trade agreements between fantasy nations, and whether the economy of one can support refugees from another, and it’s like blah blah blah oh my god. Oh my fucking god. Is this the goddamn Star Wars prequels? Are we going to elect Jar Jar to the senate? Get on with it!
Sometimes, in turn, there is a super good cutscene, like a cool animation of a magical bird lady entering the world in a cloud of feathers in preparation for her epic boss fight. It’s sweet and you wanna watch it. But you feel bad about watching it, because at that moment you’re partied with seven other people. They’ve seen the entrance already, and dammit can we just kill the boss already? Get on with it!
I think many of these things that make the game seem quite unevenly paced are the primary story problems fixed in future expansions. I’ve resolved to be patient and take the good with the bad in hope of a greater payoff later.
Since dialog can’t really change the story much, your FFXIV: ARR character is basically a silent protag. Most tragically, I can’t flirt with the characters. I thought was a problem that we as a species had solved. Bioware understood this need, but their era is basically over. The torch must be passed to Obsidian now for good. I did also buy the new Fire Emblem game, and I have a good feeling about that one, but that’s a review for another day.
Romance set aside, the fiction of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn does a fine job of capturing your inherent specialness. The game makes it feel as if the main quest belongs to you and you alone. In this way it is a lot like Skyrim: the world is so open to your special destiny that you are absolutely free to join every guild, master every power, and fight every monster. NPCs marvel at your legend as it grows.
Of course, if you stop to think about it for a minute or two, every other person you meet is also having this experience. In the fiction, though, the other people you meet in the world who may occasionally join you on this quest, say, in an 8-man trial, are “adventurers.” Sometimes, this fiction works out marvelously! Sometimes I face down the scary boss, do my Dragoon jump into his face, hit my Limit Break, and feel awesome. Other times, I hit the “evasive backflip” option mid-fight and prematurely yeet myself off of the arena to my doom. “Ah, you are the hero who killed Titan!” proclaims an NPC. Lmao yeah actually my cool friend killed Titan while I ate rocks but thank you all the same.
When you hit level 50, your cool friends might invite you to do a Raid. The raid involves 24 people and a lot of particle effects. I think it was the hilarious Girlfriend Reviews channel on YouTube where I first heard the phrase “diarrhea Christmas lights.” That was absolutely a phrase tossed around during my first FFXIV raid. During the raid, there a lot of colors on the screen. There are many boss fights during the raid that are hard to explain, let alone see around all the colors.
If you’re doing your first raid in Final Fantasy XIV and it’s 2019, it will go kind of like this. You’ll say, “Okay, what am I dealing with here?” Then your smart experienced friend will say some helpful instructions, like, “Oh, well. When the boss starts casting Doomfist, stand on the Stack Pad. But if you have a red ball over your head, stand on the blue glowing platform instead–” At this point, you might already have some follow up questions, such as, “How do I know that the boss is casting Doomfist” or “What is a Stack Pad” but by that point, whoops, too late, you’re dead already, lying face first on the ground. You say “Oh, I thought I had the red ball,” and your friend says “No, that was a purple ball and if you have a purple ball you stand next to another person with a purple ball.” You idiot, you utter moron. You have no idea how your friend saw what ball you had let alone what ball they had or what ball anyone else had.
In one such boss fight there is a cursor that looks like a pointing hand moving around the battlefield. If the hand is pointing at you when the hourglass runs out, you are dead. Except I can’t see the hourglass; I’m not sure where it is or what hourglass people are even talking about. So I’m just trying to desperately avoid the hand at all costs. At one point I jump back into the fray, and, BAM, the hand points at me, and just like that, my number is up. If that isn’t a fucking metaphor.
As you consider the texture of the floor at this moment you might wonder: am I getting old? Is this what the inexorable march of time looks like? Am I just the old dog that, finally, at long last, cannot learn any more new tricks?
(Aside, on aging, I was talking to a friend earlier this week who said she’d recently gotten sucked back into League of Legends. I tried to play League of Legends once, I said, because the art seems really cool, but I didn’t understand it. “What’s not to understand?” she wondered. “It’s exactly like DOTA!” Exactly.)
The FFXIV content is better in Heavensward, my cool, smart friends all promise. They promise.
When I write a review with a lot of snarky bits, I think/hope most people understand when I’m just trying to be funny. But there’s two other types of reactions you can have. One is to try to correct me (“It’s Doom Gaze, not Doomfist, you dumbass-“ “Yeah, I know, but that was a joke and now it’s not funny anymore because you made me explain it”). The other is to go: oh no, oh my god, she hates the game.
Nah, I like the game!
I used to tell people that I didn’t think it was worth it to play ten hours of a bad game for the promise of a good one. Then I played Deadly Premonition. Then I was that asshole telling everyone “look, it starts slow, but you just gotta give it ten hours.”
I’ve played way more than ten hours of the worst parts of the modern incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV. I will definitely play at least ten hours more of those parts before I’m free of them. And even the worst parts… are not that bad! A little tedious in parts, a little opaque in others, but pretty fun on the whole.
A lot of the weirdest bits of Final Fantasy XIV are there because it’s a game that was built on top of a much worse game. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, and then I hit some jagged edge that isn’t entirely filed down. The quality of life systems are patches over much worse systems. This is why, for example, you give your retainer stuff to sell on the market board rather than selling it on the market board directly. Or why there are so many weird, abandoned currencies being referenced as things to turn in to vendors for new currencies. Trying to excavate this like a game design historian is a fascinating task.
Some people played years of a bad game before they got a good one. I have to count myself lucky to be among those that waited. Sometimes, I get a little frustrated with the game: with its pace, or with its interface, or with just how bad I am at it. But then some real honest to god Final Fantasy music starts playing, and the game gives me some delicious fanservice, and all is right again.
In 2010, when Final Fantasy XIV was first announced, Steerpike speculated that not Final Fantasy XIV, nor any game, could be “The WoW-Killer.” Final Fantasy XIV was definitely not the WoW-killer. It was crap. But A Realm Reborn? In 2019? It sure didn’t launch this way, but now, it’s reported to be doing WoW-like numbers and has a strong shot at the modern MMO title.
You can join me on my Twitch whenever I’m live, as I will be playing FFXIV for a while longer yet. I have been told that Heaven awaits.
Email the author of this post at aj@Tap-Repeatedly.com.