Sunday, August 18, 2013

Respectable Remix - Impressions of Final Fantasy: A Realm Reborn

The release of Final Fantasy XIV, the second MMORPG of the venerable series, was marred by harsh criticism and lack-luster sales. Whether it was the interface, the combat, or the economy, it seemed that nothing was right. In the end, Square took the dramatic decision to completely overhaul the game and relaunch it as 'A Realm Reborn'. In this post I cover my impressions of the final open beta phase of this relaunched title.

Let's just get this out of the way, 'A Realm Reborn' is a dramatic improvement over the initial release. In the two days I had with 'A Realm Reborn', I managed to hit level 15-20 with a few classes, fully explored one of the starter areas, and tried my hand at the first group dungeon. This last beta phase, a week before the official launch, represents the game that will be available at retail (nothing new is expected to be added in the next week). Key issues, such as stability, have been resolved and the game feels much more complete. In fact, if this were an all new release, I would venture that it is the most complete MMO launch in history. Many luxury features, such as a dungeon finder, which are often implemented in a content patch months or years into the game cycle, are fully functional. Impressively, the game features joined PC and PS3 servers and not once did I perceive any problem in the matchmaking. Flat out, the game feels like a polished and complete product. That said, 'A Realm Reborn' brings little innovation to the table and ultimately feels like almost every MMO out there.

Graphically, the game looks pretty decent. It, no doubt, pushes the PS3 to its limits but is less impressive on the PC. Even on maximum settings, some textures look a little rough and polygon counts seem overall quite low. The game isn't ugly by any stretch, but just don't expect it to be the best looking game on the PC platform. In terms of performance, on my mid-range machine I was able to play at a consistent 30+ fps on high settings. I felt that the varied environments in the starting areas I explored (desert and forest themes) showcased an art style that was immediately familiar to the Final Fantasy name. High points included convincing shadows cast by trees and an impressively believable day/night cycle. Spell effects were also flashy if a bit generic. The biggest negative graphically was, by far, my level 12 set of leather armor which, featuring a harness and hot pants, made my character look like a reject from a low-budget S&M movie. I suspect that this armor tier was more of a mulligan from the art department rather than evocative of the overall design. Given that the biggest draw for MMOs is typically not the graphics, I was more than satisfied with how everything looked.

The sound draws well from Final Fantasy stable of music and effects. Nothing is earth-shattering but that is mostly a good thing. The familiar victory fanfare and magic casting sounds all help to convince you that this is truly a Final Fantasy world. The voice acting is on par with recent Final Fantasy console releases; serviceable but occasionally grating. Only some quests are fully voiced and I found it a bit odd to see a cinematic cutaway to mute characters mouthing text boxes at one another. Further on this, guessing which quests are voiced is a crap shoot. For example, the tutorial story, where you figure Square would want to put their best foot forward, is not voiced. It's a fairly minor issue, but I think that Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic have, for better or worse, set the standard that MMOs ought to be fully voiced.

I felt it was fairly evident that Square is trying to bring a rich story, normally reserved for a single-player experience, to the online arena. Unfortunately, thus far, the plot is mostly forgettable and, at times, clearly padded. In fairness, trying to mix MMO mechanics with a robust story is a daunting task; you can only write so many fetch and kill quests before things are bound to seem a bit unnecessary. Considering only the main questline, I perceived the plot to be fairly bland and juvenile; setups with stock characters and Final Fantasy tropes feel predictable and are unsatisfying. As the game progresses, it is entirely possible that the story will evolve, but I am skeptical that, despite Square's best efforts, anything approaching a genuinely fleshed Final Fantasy story will be developed.

Gameplay, is about as familiar as it gets. The game adheres strictly to the tank, healer, dps party setup and each class has a well defined roll. If you have played World of Warcraft, the only real adjustment you might need to make is to the 2.5 second global cooldown. While this timer allows for plenty of time to determine your next move, I never filled my skill bar with enough options to really feel I needed it. The game is designed to be playable with a gamepad and I feel that the long cooldown might be to, at least partially, accommodate its use. More recent evolutions to MMOs, such as dodge rolling, are conspicuously absent. If you are not tired of the Warcraft formula, 'A Realm Reborn' represents a glossy retread. On the other hand, if you are looking for something new and inventive, you best look elsewhere.

I suspect that the above points on gameplay will be a major deciding factor for most people. If you long swore off WoW and grew tired of the formula you will inherently know to stay away. If you are an MMO addict who enjoys the thrill of uncovering optimal rotations and have an active WoW subscription with all of the newest content done, 'A Realm Reborn' is aimed at you. I would like to take the opportunity to point out that much of 'A Realm Reborn' feels incredibly grindy. While you can multi-class (effectively eliminating the need to reroll), leveling up a second class takes a LOT longer without main story quests to boost you along. Crafting, is a laborious and extremely time consuming affair which disguises the grind as sort of a luck-based mini-game. Finally, the hunting activity, (one source of exp for a second class) amounts to little more then a string of kill quests. Some people like the grind, some people don't; knowing what type of person you are will make your decision to pick up 'A Realm Reborn' a lot easier.

Ultimately 'A Realm Reborn' represents a major upgrade to the original release if not a major innovation to the MMO genre. Where it fails to innovate it succeeds in convincingly building a Final Fantasy world. If you still love World of Warcraft and are desperately looking for better visuals and new content to burn through, I highly recommend 'A Realm Reborn'. If you are a looking for something to rekindle your love for MMOs you can probably do better elsewhere (in this case check out Guild Wars 2). If you are a die-hard Final Fantasy fan waiting to lap up the latest story woven by Square I would wait until the game has been fully reviewed to see if the story actually ends up living up to the Final Fantasy standard.

Some Side Notes:
  • PvP is very limited by design (only arena combat and no open world ganking).
  • I played an Archer, Lancer, and Thaumaturge up to at least level 15.
  • The archer may be a bit overpowered (melee levels of damage from ranged distance?)
  • The advanced job classes appear less like a new class and look more like an extension of the base class.
  • The out of the box interface is highly flexible (modded interfaces are not available at launch).
  • The game will use a subscription model that mostly mimics WoW
  • The game allows a first and last name for your character (Duke, Nuke, and Puke Skywalker are all running around)