By Will Kostakis
When it comes to Square Enix and Final Fantasy this generation, I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve. While previous Final Fantasy games demonstrated the power of marrying addictive gameplay with engaging narratives, the gameplay in this -- or last -- gen has been a bit subpar. The narratives? Nonsensical. While the practically on-the-rails Final Fantasy XIII left a bad taste in gamers' mouths, the original Final Fantasy XIV was the straw that broke the reputation’s back. Square Enix singled it out for having "greatly damaged" the brand. Square Enix sought to fix it, which in itself was cause for concern – the last time they tried to fix an underwhelming game, we got Final Fantasy XIII-2, which introduced a new host of problems that were explained away as being "what fans wanted".
But then, cue the choir and the ray of light piercing through the clouded sky above, Square Enix delivered. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is good. Playing it, I was transported back to a time when Final Fantasy games were a pleasure, when I was motivated to explore the world because I genuinely wanted to discover more, not simply because I wanted to get the whole thing over with (for more of my thoughts on discovering the world of Eorzea, click here).
The most painful thing about the initial Final Fantasy XIV, and the past 10 or so Square Enix releases, is that they take so long to get started. While A Realm Reborn doesn’t exactly start guns-blazing, you take control of your character within minutes of finalising his or her appearance. It wasn’t long before I was exploring a city, joining a guild and accepting missions. None of the initial quests amounted to more than 'visit this person' or 'touch this crystal' or 'kill four ladybugs', but I was appreciative that the game didn't force me into a four-hour prologue to learn the mechanics (I’m looking at you, Kingdom Hearts II).
That said, it was jarring coming from offline Final Fantasy games to this one. The 'deliver this', 'kill that' structure of the missions felt so trivial when compared to, say, Yuna’s journey to defeat Sin in Final Fantasy X. But it’s the MMO norm, and it's the concession Square Enix has made to get into the lucrative online gaming business. That said, when the plot does kick in, it does so in a big way. The game finds the perfect middle ground between being a good MMO and a good Final Fantasy.
Square Enix’s boldest move with A Realm Reborn is allowing players to experience the entire game’s available skills with one character – you're not locked into being a brutish gladiator forever. Once you reach Level 10, you can equip different weapons and effectively change your class. Sure, you have to level up from scratch again, but it’s better than spending the whole game regretting the choice you first made, and having to redo a large portion of the game with another character to see if your regret was well-founded. While I initially found the combat system to be a little dull, allowing me to switch between classes and learn skills across them made for a far better gaming experience.
As has Square Enix’s focus on building communities within the game. There are the FATEs, diverse public quests that allow you to work with other players to complete a particular goal (you're rewarded based on contribution); the guild heists, glorified how-to-beat-dungeons tutorials that you complete in groups of four that are actually quite fun; and the dungeons themselves. There's never a moment when you feel alone, and better yet, never a moment when you want to be. For more on one of the game's more light-hearted FATEs, click here.
Given how obsessed Square Enix were with how good their games looked at the beginning of this generation, it's funny that the best game they've put out since has the worst production values. There are noticeably fewer cut-scenes, and much less voice work than even the PlayStation 2 incarnations, and at times, the PlayStation 3 appears to struggle to run the game.
The PS4 does not, flying along in 1080p, so use Square's PS3-to-PS4 upgrade system to your advantage. The PS4 version also lets you use your PS Vita for remote play and has mouse and keyboard support for those looking for a PC experience off the PC. While it isn’t perfect, A Realm Reborn is an important first step towards Final Fantasy meaning "day-one purchase" once again.
With additional content by Steve Wright