It’s difficult to peg what makes the Final Fantasy series so unique in the RPG space. Perhaps it’s the stylized visuals and stellar musical scores. Maybe it’s the turn-based, yet action-infused, combat. It could be the familiar monsters and recurring mascot creatures. It’s possibly the shared themes of camaraderie, high fantasy, and discovery. Whatever the case, Final Fantasy XIV Online nails the series’ formula on all points, delivering what is easily the best game in the series, and perhaps the most defining one.
Final Fantasy XIV Online is a MMORPG, so its multiplayer core makes it stand out from the franchise’s mostly single-player experiences. Yet, the game incorporates a well-crafted story with exceptional dialogue, thoughtful and highly engaging gameplay systems, fantastic settings, and a ridiculous amount of content. It also gives you the reigns, making your created avatar the narrative’s centerpiece.
The latest expansion, Shadowbringers, delivers even more content, including new regions, story developments, and gameplay tweaks. Final Fantasy XIV Online feels like a love letter to the series, as well as to the fans, and it’s an experience that you don’t want to miss.
Into the Shadows
Shadowbringers’ plot takes you Norvrandt, a world that’s consumed by light and overrun by light-spawned monstrosities. The few surviving people have banded together to live within the sanctuary known as Crystal Tower and its barrier-protected city, the Crystarium.
Other survivors live in or under Eulmore, a shockingly opulent tower city that’s filled with wealthy nobility and noble wannabes hedonistically reveling as they await the end of days. You are pulled from your own realm to aid the dying land by destroying the light and assuming the role of the Warrior of Darkness.
Story Not Optional
Despite its multiplayer-oriented nature, FFXIV Online’s story is the keystone that supports much of what you do in-game. Even seemingly mundane quests can lead to surprising plot developments, and it is clear that the development team has put a tremendous amount of effort to weave the narrative as carefully and expansively as possible. What this amounts to is a shockingly rich experience that combines all of the nostalgic elements of older Final Fantasy games with a new, immersive plot focusing on a single character.
Your character is integral to the developments within the game world for a variety of story reasons, and it’s a pleasure to see this expanded upon with each new chapter of FFXIV, right up until the end of Shadowbringers. The plot delivers a sense of closeness that is unlike other games in the series, because your avatar grows via narrative and gameplay. As a result, you’re pulled into FFXIV’s universe like no other game in the series before it, save perhaps FFXI.
The writing and dialogue are fantastic. I played the 2.0 release, A Realm Reborn, to its completion just as the Heavensward expansion was slated to be released. Though I fell off the game at that point, it had left a great impression on me, delivering a politically rich story that’s riddled with supernatural set pieces and an ever-expanding ocean of history and lore. Diving back into the story via the Shadowbringers expansion proved a radical jump; it features a tremendous amount of referential material to previous events and prior Final Fantasy games, but you can still come in with a fresh character and make sense of the plot.
Still, Final Fantasy XIV’s tale is delivered as a slow burn that is meant to keep you invested for the long haul. Perhaps the haul can be a bit too long in certain instances: all too often you will hit a level requirement before you can complete the next story section, which forces you to grind dungeons and hunt monsters to gain the experience required to continue the story. These roadblocks serve as an inconvenience when you try to get to the end game, and they happen a bit too often for my liking. I find that the story is involved enough that demanding these level requirements simply adds busy work. In fact, I would have much preferred if the story quests gave you enough experience to get to the next quest without much grinding in between beats.
The Price of Adventure
Should you skip the previous expansion content and jump straight to Shadowbringers, you will invariably be returning to older areas to unlock dungeons and trials, to acquire gear, mounts, and minions, and of course, to level the many classes the game offers. The only real downside to having so much content is that you will need plenty of time to see it all, and the old adage, time is money, is particularly true here.
Final Fantasy XIV is a subscription-based title, so you need to pay a monthly fee to play. The game is a time-sink: one of the best around, to be sure, but one that carries a bigger price tag. Monthly subscriptions start at $12.99, and limit you to a single character per game server. In other words, you can create eight characters, with each existing on a different server. You can also pay $14.99 per month if you want multiple characters on a single server, but because Final Fantasy XIV is so customization friendly, I don’t see much value in leveling alternate characters when a single character can do pretty much anything.
Mind you, these fees don’t include the game purchase; Final Fantasy XIV Complete Edition, which includes all expansion content, is valued at $59.99 and gives you one month of game time. If you already own FFXIV and just want the expansion, it’s $39.99. Note that this price does not include any additional game time.
Jack of All Trades
Among the many staples of Final Fantasy’s gameplay is the iconic Job system, an involved progression system that lets you customize party members by selecting and developing them into specialized roles. While it is essentially a variation on Dungeons & Dragons’ classic classes, the Final Fantasy games encourage you to swap between “jobs” as the situation demands. This system is utilized in FFXIV to great effect, though it is also modified to fit the Tank-Healer-DPS model that the gameplay is molded around.
Each combat discipline is designed to fill one of three major roles, be it tank (tasked with keeping enemies trained on them during scraps), healer (keeps party members healthy and the tank alive), and DPS (glass cannons that deal great damage, but cannot endure a direct onslaught of attacks). You can develop your character in whatever ranged or melee trade suits your fancy, and there is no penalty for swapping between jobs, save that you need to level up each individual discipline.
It is well worth developing additional jobs in Final Fantasy XIV. For one, you will never need to create or develop an alternate character unless you absolutely want to, as your starting character has access to everything the game has on offer. Most other MMORPGs lock your character into the class you choose from the start, so you will need to create a brand new character to experience other play styles. Secondly, having multiple high-level disciplines makes it easier to form parties. DPS classes are overly abundant, which means finding a party to run dungeons with can be time-consuming because of the surplus of damage-dealing classes. Tanks and healers, on the other hand, are more specialized and higher in demand, so it’s much easier to get into parties as one. Leveling jobs is valuable for that reason alone, but each role is distinct enough to warrant some development, especially if you’re itching for some gameplay variation.
Shadowbringers raises the game’s level cap from 70 to 80, giving each discipline 10 more levels worth of abilities and perks. In many cases, this new cap modifies how you approach the class during the end game. My character is DPS-oriented, with the lance-wielding Dragoon as its primary combat class. This class received several improvements that enhance its basic rotation, new attacks to round out their combos, and fresh abilities to inject for greater damage-dealing potential. All classes received noticeable balance changes as well.
The Shadowbringers expansion introduces two new classes: Dancer (a ranged, melee DPS class) and Gunbreaker (a gunblade-wielding Tank class). Dancer is a fairly easy-to-learn class that deals excellent damage, though its stronger skills are queued randomly, adding a reactionary element to combat. Gunbreaker is a potent tank with flashy blade attacks straight out of Final Fantasy VIII that deals potent attacks through the charging and use of magical bullet cartridges. Virtually all classes have unique gimmicks like these, making it fun to experiment with the Job system to find a play style that suits you.
All Work and No Play
Sure, you can fight ancient monstrosities and get dragged into political drama, but how about leisure? Well, Final Fantasy XIV has plenty of that, too. Not only does the MMORPG have combat disciplines to master, it also has plenty of crafting and gathering jobs to try as well, each with their own practical purpose. Culinarians craft food items that give temporary buffs and experience bonuses when eaten. Leatherworkers can craft leather gear and armor. Armorsmiths can create metals and plate gear. Virtually everything you create via craft trades can be traded with other players or sold in the marketplace.
Beyond that, there are gathering guilds you can join, letting you collect valuable botanic, mineral, and fishing materials for craft use. These materials can be used for your personal crafts, or sold to others if you so wish. Sure, crafting and gathering may not seem all that exciting, but each of these trades can be leveled to 80 like combat jobs, and have some extremely lucrative incentives at higher levels, making them well worth undertaking. Truth be told, I had a lot of fun messing with many of these crafting classes. I spent an inordinate amount of time cooking food I had no intention of eating, solely because I was driven to cook every recipe in my log. I don’t know what compelled me to do so, but I had a blast gathering and cooking the raw food, developing the trade, and undertaking the many crafting-specific quests along the way.
Granted, crafting disciplines are still technically work. If it’s fun and games you want, The Manderville Gold Saucer is packed with mini games, including the Triple Triad card game from Final Fantasy VIII and Chocobo Races from Final Fantasy VII. You could easily waste hours, if not days mastering the many activities offered within the themed casino. I took up racing and chocobo-breeding, as I never get tired of watching overgrown chickens compete in Mario Kart-esque track races. Besides, the monetary reward for winning high-level races is nothing to scoff at.
If the Gold Saucer’s gaudy casino aesthetic becomes too cloying, there are plenty of mounts to unlock and pet minions to find as you explore towns, interact with NPCs, and raid dungeons. You have logbooks filled to bursting with monsters to hunt, achievements to unlock, and jobs to master. Of course, true end game is all about fashion, and I’m loathed to admit that I’ve spent far too much time farming gear to glamour up my armors to achieve that perfect look. There’s no shortage of activities, so you won’t want for something to do.
A Touch of Fantasy
FFXIV uses a soft, realistic anime aesthetic to bring its world to life. Akihiko Yoshida, of Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII fame, is the key artist behind the character designs. However, FFXIV borrows heavily from all Final Fantasy games, pulling monster designs from many older games and in some cases, ripping the models directly from recent titles. The game world is brimming with detail, and each map zone is thoughtfully constructed.
The game boasts an excellent soundtrack, which only gets better as you make progress. There are plenty of sweeping fantasy tracks, ambient mellow themes, intense battle music, and lots of vocal pieces. The soundtrack is eclectic and is influenced by a broad range of musical styles, so you are just as likely to hear symphonic orchestra, as you are to hear heavy metal and electronica. Of course, classic Final Fantasy tracks are used liberally throughout the experience. I recognized the Spanish-styled Vamo Alla Flamenco from Final Fantasy IX used in the Dancer class’ introductory scene, for example, and the FFVIII boss theme, Force Your Way, is remixed for the current end-game raid. There are so many more familiar tracks remixed or sampled into the overall soundtrack that makes the music an absolute joy to listen to as you play.
FFXIV isn’t particularly demanding, according to its Steam page. You will want a PC with at least a 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 CPU, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 750 or AMD Radeon R7 260X GPU, 4GB of RAM, 60GB of storage, and the Windows 7 operating system to run the game. My gaming desktop, a computer that contains an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 graphics card, pushed polygons at more than 100 frames per second at 1080p resolution. Overall, the game runs extremely well.
The Final Fantasy
While the subscription-based payment model may turn people off, Final Fantasy XIV Online is a wholly unique game that delivers what I find to be the quintessential Final Fantasy experience. There is a constant influx of new content, seasonal events, and balance patches that keep the game fresh, and the community is as alive and energetic as ever. Despite its MMORPG nature, the game is every bit a Final Fantasy game as its predecessors, and worth the price of admission.
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