When it was announced during E3 2009 that Square Enix were working on Final Fantasy XIV, and that it would be coming out in 2010, many couldn't believe their eyes. Square Enix held true to their promise though and Final Fantasy XIV was released on time, on the PC at least. However, it's not without its problems and its clear that the game was released before it was ready; there are so many simple problems. It does bring many new ideas to the table, but one thing it's certainly not, is Final Fantasy XI.
The story of Final Fantasy XIV is three-fold and as with many MMOs, takes a long time to really get going. Depending on the starting city you choose, you'll be greeted to a different entrance cutscene which helps to explain the game briefly and also sets the scene. For example, the Limsa Lominsa cutscene revolves around a sea serpent that many believe is a myth. It quickly develops into a conspiracy theory revolving around an NPC called Emerick.
What's nice about the story, is that the game actually helps guide you through it. Instead of simply mentioning a vague next step, there's a journal which tells you exactly where you need to go. You can also enter instances too which can help you learn a bit more about the situation - they're also specific to you, so it allows you to walk around in what's essentially a bubble so you can progress with the story. If you try to leave the instance, it'll reset you, to guide you through the process.
Before you can do anything though, you have to select a race and starting job type. Square Enix always maintained that they wanted Final Fantasy XI players to feel at home, which is why all of the races, despite having different names, are all similar in looks. Some new deviants have been added though, such as the Highland Hyur or the Hellsguard Roegadyn. Perhaps this is a mistake made by Square Enix though, as through accommodating dating the game's art style to Final Fantasy XI, expectations were made about the gameplay and those expecting the game to be like Final Fantasy XI will be disappointed. There are some similarities, but they are far and few between.
There are seven offensive disciplines in Final Fantasy XIV and they are split into two categories: Disciples of War and Disciples of Magic. However, the beauty of Final Fantasy XIV's discipline system is that you can mix and match all you want. Each job learns a new ability every two levels, but once it's learnt, it can be used in conjunction with any job. There are some minor drawbacks though, for example, using Cure when not using Conjurer as your main class will prevent you from using its Area of Effect capabilities. It's worth noting that you gain action points as your discipline ranks up and action points can be spent on moves which you can use. Cure, for example, uses 2 action points and when you're Rank 1, you can only assign 6 points. It means that you have to decide which are the most important and which you can do without - level every discipline and you'll be spoilt for choice, choose not to level other disciplines and your character will likely be deficient.
This system also means that roles within a party aren't as defined, there is a lot more flexibility. If you want to be a Gladiator, you don't necessarily have to be a tank, for example. Marauders and Pugilists can be equally adept at tanking. However, you might want to use some abilities from other classes. The Gladiator ability "Still Precision" would be perfect for a damage dealer, while the Marauder ability, Defender, would be great for a Gladiator who's trying to stay alive.
On the other side of the spectrum are the Disciples of Land and Disciples of Hand, which encompass a further eleven disciplines. Disciples of Land are gatherers, while Disciples of Hand are crafters. What's great about the system though, is that you can change class on the fly. All you have to do is swap your weapon out and you go from being a Pugilist, to being a Miner, to being a Blacksmith. You don't have to worry too much about equipping different gear, as all gear can be worn by all classes at any time.
This might not be the case as you get higher up though, as equipment has optimum ranks - the level of your discipline. If you equip gear before the optimum rank its stats will be diminished, and the closer you get the optimum, the more output it'll give. If you wear stuff that's below your optimum rank, its stats will receive a slight boost, but probably won't give stats as good as something of the optimum rank. It's an interesting system from a gear-management perspective, but it takes away a bit of the allure of getting the gear as you can wear the high-end gear instantly if you want. It's also a bit more difficult to tell if certain characters are under strength as only the person wearing the gear knows how much its being affected by their incorrect level.
Holding everything together is your character's physical level. This is completely independent from your discipline ranks, but it improves no matter what you do. If you kill a monster you'll gain EXP towards your physical level; if you complete some mining, you'll gain EXP towards your physical. While discipline ranks unlock new abilities, the physical level determines stats - which are then scaled to best represent your discipline's rank. It sounds a little bit complicated, but it actually works quite well, especially as an incentive driver.
The only problem with this is that increasing your discipline's rank relies more on luck. To level up, you have to obtain skill points and they are dolled out randomly during fights. It does work itself out over time, in theory, but certain disciplines have it much easier than others. There is also a maximum amount of skill points which can be obtained by performing an action - 500. And for Gladiator, or another class using a Shield, this can be a bit annoying. Shield skill is technically a separate discipline, so it receives its own skill points. The problem here though, is that the Sword skill points and the Shield skill points share the cap, so while a Pugilist can get 500 Hand-to-Hand points, a Gladiator can only get say 300 Sword and 200 Shield, it can't get 500 Sword and 500 Shield.
To try and make things a bit more fair, Square Enix have implemented a "Fatigue" system - something which tries to stamp out lengthy parties that gain a ton of levels. How it works is, if you level up a specific discipline for too long, the skill points you obtain will start to decrease until you receive none at all. This gets reset every week, but the whole theory behind it is that you try to embrace other parts of the game. When you change job and start earning skill points elsewhere, the maxed out discipline will start to regenerate on its own. It's worth noting that if you're playing through the game as a solo player, you'll likely not experience anything like this, it's to prevent parties levelling exceedingly quickly and neglecting other parts of the game, like supplementary abilities.
It encourages you to try out other disciplines and expand, instead of just having one core focus which you grind away at over and over again. Is this fair? Perhaps not, it takes away a certain degree of choice. However, it also encourages players to expand and try out new disciplines, including the crafting disciplines.
Another system which helps to promote this, is the Guildleve system. It's a basic quest system, whereby a player can get eight Regional Leves (Disciplines of War) and eight Local Leves (Disciplines of Hand), if they go to each region within a 35 hour period. The benefit of these is that they give out extra skill points, via Guardian Aspect and they allow you to level up crafting for free, all while gaining physical EXP. Completing these also grants access to Faction Leves, which give out rare equipment. All of the Regional Leves can also be undertaken with varying difficulties and overall, the system is a nice one. It promotes unity with friends but it also allows people to progress on their own terms without having to grind.
The gameplay in Final Fantasy XIV can actually be quite demanding. It's still a theoretical turn-based system, but there are no auto-attacks, everything has to be done manually. The game provides a bar of 10 moves (30 if you scroll up and down), which you can perform and you can also set up macros to do multiple tasks at once. It's all managed via the Stamina system, with the theory that performing certain moves requires stamina. You can only perform the move once the bar has filled up enough and it means that things like Slow, decrease the bar's recovery rate.
There are some problems with its implementation, as its not often clear exactly what is going on. It's partially down to the User Interface being extremely unhelpful, but the errors it hands out don't help that much either. Sometimes you'll see your stamina bar decreasing for no reason and sometimes it'll decrease without even performing a move - very frustrating if it's a tense situation.
The user interface in general is quite poor, but its in the battle that it rears its ugliest of heads. Targeting enemies, something which should be simple, is a pain and targeting party members is even more tricky. You have to use the mouse, but when things are moving around it's annoying. The toggle for Area of Effect spells is also very cumbersome and it's not uncommon to see people casting Area of Effect spells by accident because they didn't know whether it was on or off, or they simply forgot.
The crown in the game's design flaws is perhaps the Battle Regimen system. It's supposed to replace the Skillchain system from Final Fantasy XI, but it's so terrible that it's easier to just not bother. The theory behind it is that each person in the party activates their Battle Regimen and then stacks up a move. Once they've been stacked, the moves are carried out and bonus effects are gained. The problem here is that it takes far too long and it doesn't even seem to do anything. What's even more embarrassing about the system, is that the system isn't necessary. The game doesn't really have any reason to join parties, and if you do manage to navigate the user interface and manage to meet some people, the action is so frantic that you'd need some kind of super brain to compute the right time to perform the actions.
After much consideration, it's not difficult to come to the conclusion that the user interface was specifically designed to make tasks take longer, or that it was made to see how confused people can get. Something as simple as, showing party members on the map, was omitted and it's baffling to understand why. Perhaps Square Enix like the idea of people playing cat and mouse: "Where are you?", "Go right a bit, then down the slope and you might find us". It sounds stupid, but it's a realistic scenario within the game. Other gems are, an inability to sort your inventory and it's not even worth getting on the shambles that is the Market Wards.
Graphically, the game looks superb. It even looks superb running it on really low settings - bumping it up is a real treat. What's even more impressive is that the game features almost no load times. Cities and regions are all integrated into one seamless experience and it's only when going to another level in the city (via using a lift) or changing regions, that you'll ever see a loading screen. The landscapes, enemies and characters all look great and it makes exploring even more exciting. There are negatives though, with regards to server load. There are numerous problems with lag, NPCs not loading and the party system glitching up because the servers are under so much strain.
Final Fantasy XIV also sees the return of series veteran composer, Nobuo Uematsu. It's a welcome return too as many of the pieces of music heard throughout Eorzea are brilliant, especially the regional themes like "On Windy Meadows" and "Twilight Over Thanalan". It'll be great to hear what treats the game has in store for us as more zones unlock, and thus, more music can be heard.
Final Fantasy XIV feels like a game that's nowhere near the finished article. There are so many niggling nuances that just shouldn't be there, but the good thing is that Square Enix are actively looking to address these faults with a string of serious fixes in the coming months. Should they have launched the game this soon? Probably not, the servers suffer from severe lag and it seems as though hardly any feedback from the Beta testing was addressed. The Fatigue system is a unique way of encouraging players to expand their horizons and try out the new jobs, and with the ease of the system and flexibility, it can only be seen as a good thing. However, the game doesn't really promote parties and the Battle Regimen system is dire. There are also some severe problems with the user interface and the Market Ward system. Final Fantasy XIV is still a fun experience though, and those willing to embrace it will find a nice home in Eorzea.