On February 15, I was invited to an event held by Square Enix to show off Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which will be beginning its Beta test on February 25. There, I was given a chance to both play the Beta version game and speak with Naoki Yoshida, the director and producer of A Realm Reborn.
At the beginning of the event, the Square Enix staff showed the press a new trailer for the game. The trailer itself was nothing special, showing players fighting against many iconic Final Fantasy monsters and riding around on chocobos. The interesting thing about it is that the trailer will be used as part the PC benchmark, so people will be able to use it to see how well the game runs on their computer while large numbers of characters and enemies are moving and fighting on-screen. This benchmark has already been released, and can be downloaded from the FFXIVofficial website.
The next part of the presentation focused on how extensive the rebuild of FFXIV has been, and the results have been impressive. The images they provided show that Eorzea is far more beautiful than it was before, with many environments completely rebuilt. Barebones campsites have been replaced with elaborate palisades, barren deserts have been filled with mountainous crags and thriving communities, and formerly empty shorelines are now lined with docks. Even previously inaccessible buildings can now be entered and contain NPCs and quest-givers. It was all rather exciting to see how thorough the transformation has been. What's more, a lot has been done to make it more appealing to Final Fantasy fans. It will eventually include such classic Final Fantasy set pieces as the Crystal Tower, the Cloud of Darkness, Gilgamesh, and player-ridden Magitek Armor.
Mr. Yoshida also took some time to describe the three main story arcs that will be seen in A Realm Reborn. The players will be fighting against the Garlean Empire that threatens Eorzea from the very beginning of the game, continuing the story that began in the original version of the Final Fantasy XIV. At the same time, the Primals, FFXIV's version of the classic FF summons, have been bolstered by the return of Bahamut and threaten the planet by eating away at the "aether" that flows through the world. Players will be guided through these quests by the Mother Crystal, the embodiment of the consciousness of their world of Hydaelyn, and unraveling the mysteries of that being will be a major part of the story that is interwoven with the struggles to fight against both the Empire and the Primals.
After the first round of talking ended, I got my chance to play the game firsthand. I have never played FFXIV before, so I started at the beginning with creating a new character. After experimenting with some of the character creation options, I settled on a male Miqo'te archer and began my adventure in Gridania, a settlement within the forest known as the Black Shroud. I was almost immediately confronted by rather hostile town guard who sent me off to begin the first few tutorial quests. This immediate hostility seems to be a major part of the storyline of Gridania, since many NPCs were either going out of their way to make me feel unwelcome or complaining about the insular locals. After the typical beginning quests involving delivering a few messages and bribing an unfriendly man with a pie, I left the town to test my luck against the local fauna.
The newbie area of the Black Shroud was filled with some squirrels, ladybugs, and Funguars, all of which fell very quickly to the two techniques I had at my disposal: Gloom Arrow and Heavy Shot. Mr. Yoshida mentioned earlier that making battles shorter was a selling point of A Realm Reborn, but I never played version 1.0 so I can't make the comparison myself. The interplay between the two techniques was rather interesting, since Gloom Arrow blinds foes and has a chance of making the more powerful Heavy Shot more powerful, but it wasn't long before I was wishing for a greater variety of techniques.
In the middle of my tentative first battles, a message came up indicating that a Full Active Time Event, one FFXIV's public quests, had appeared right next to me. This FATE appeared as a bright blue circle that was easily visible on the region map, and when I entered the circle I was instructed to kill as many Enchanted Funguars as I could. These enemies didn't normally appear and were a little higher level than those I had been fighting up to that point, but they died quickly without giving me any trouble, and I was rewarded with extra experience and for my trouble. Supposedly more difficult and interesting FATEs will appear later in the game, but for now they seem to be a diversion that will occasionally appear to spice up traditional quests and grinding.
After taking the time to try out the beginning, I took advantage of an offer made by the event organizers to see what it was like for higher-level characters. I was given control over a level 35 character who had been built up in several different classes. With this character, I got to form a group alongside other journalists and Square Enix staff and explore a mid-level dungeon found with the Black Shroud. For the most part the dungeon was way below our level and offered little challenge, but the boss fight at the end of was a different matter entirely. Despite being lower level, it still did a lot of damage, and thanks to its respawning allies, a field of poison it laid on the ground, and numerous explosive pods clustered around the edge of the battlefield, we were completely wiped out. I am quite ashamed to say that I was the first to die that time, and fell to the creature again when we made a second attempt. It's possible that I'm not cut out for archery.
To speak more about the graphics, I must say that A Realm Reborn looks quite good. The character models in particular are quite nice, and I really like the design of the environments. That said, the game certainly has made some trade-offs because of its nature as an MMO. Objects and environments look great at a distance, but can seem flat and lower quality when seen up close, particularly in cinematic story events. Mr. Yoshida claims that Square Enix will continue to improve the game's graphics so they will always be first rate, "even when Final Fantasy 17 is released," but fans who want the game to look as good as a single-player Final Fantasy title on equivalent hardware will need to keep their expectations in check.
After my gameplay session, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Yoshida and ask about where Final Fantasy XIV will be fitting into Square Enix's future strategies alongside its other online RPGs, Final Fantasy XI and Dragon Quest X. Interestingly, Mr. Yoshida said that he doesn't expect there to be much overlap between the FFXI and FFXIV player bases. While he hopes FFXIV will capture fans who stopped playing years ago, he doesn't intend to challenge the loyalty built up by fans who have been playing that game for more than a decade now. As far as DQX is concerned, he explained that he considers it to be targeted at a very different audience, as it is intended to be an online RPG aimed at fans of less complex gameplay, as opposed to FFXIV which is an MMORPG which will have significantly more complex gameplay. As such, he doesn't appear to expect the three games to compete against each other.
In response to some of my questions, Mr. Yoshida also spoke about the console version of FFXIV. He feels that the console version would be the best way to reach out to the many fans of the Final Fantasy series who would not normally play an MMORPG. Square Enix has been working hard on making FFXIV run well on the PS3, and currently it looks quite good aside from some framerate issues. He is also quite happy with the control scheme designed for gamepads, which lets players quickly access a large number of abilities, emotes, and saved macros. Finally, when asked about the possibility of the game being released on the then-unannounced PS4, he said he couldn't say anything about that and that it wasn't a priority, but made it clear that Square Enix wants to bring the MMO to "as many platforms as possible."
Overall, while I enjoyed my chance to play the newly remade Final Fantasy XIV, many aspects of my experience with the game were rather unsatisfying, so I can't quite say that it made me want to rush out and preorder the game. That said, I only had a short chance to play the game, it was not under the best circumstances, and I'm not generally an MMO player, so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. I encourage anyone interested in the game to try the Beta, which will be beginning soon and will eventually open up to everyone.
Square Enix has made some of the videos we were shown available to the public, and they can be seen below. More screenshots and art can be found in our gallery.