Naoki Yoshida, producer and director of Final Fantasy XIV, might well get a second chance to make a first impression. With the poorly received 1.0 release now two years in our past, perhaps enough big budget MMOs have launched, and promptly clunked, to make FFXIVÂs total hat-in-hand revamp worth a look. Especially because it isnÂt an overtly money grubbing free-to-play conversion.
And taking a second look was indeed our plan as we sat down for a brief interview and some hands-on time with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
Graphics and Gameplay
Before we dove into the game, Yoshida-san led off with a side-by-side video demonstrating how not only the graphics of the game have changed, but also how movement around the world has improved.
While many areas have retained their names, colors and textures seem brighter and more nuanced, water is now beautifully translucent, once sparse hubs are now more populated, skyboxes now feature more depth and visual niceties (e.g. lens glare when the camera is pointed at the sun), and in general the graphics of the game got the polish they richly deserved. Better yet, Yoshida-san stated that higher spec graphics are accessible with a much lower spec.
Game play has also gone through some top-down changes. And yes, reviewers of years past, players can now jump over fences. Other quality-of-experience enhancements include more vibrant visual effects for abilities, floating combat text, and a much clearer and streamlined UI reminiscent of The Secret World (more on that below).
Aspects of the hybrid class system are retained; players can level any class they like, equip saved sets of equipment from the class, and use a discrete number of skills outside the class thatÂs currently their primary class. Having an archer or conjurer outside the fight that has Cure and Revive, for example, can be very handy on a dungeon run.
A Story Reborn
ARR storyline comes in three arcs, and as those familiar with the Shintoist lilt of the series since VII could probably guess, the mysteries of planet Hydaelyn comprise the base storyline of XIV, and will for Âyears to comeÂ. The planet communicates with players via an entity called Mother Crystal, and players will hear her voice as they adventure.
The second story is one that players will first encounter in the game. Players will join one of the armies from the three free city states to amass against the invading, technologically-advanced Garlean Empire.
Finally, the third story arc will carry specific significance for fans of the Final Fantasy series at large and is based around the idea of summoning primal entities: Leviathan, Ifrit, etc. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Bahamut takes center stage in later dungeons in ARR.
Other Final Fantasy perennials Â moogles, chocobos, along with bosses from previous versions (Gilgamesh was specifically mentioned),- as well as familiar mechanics (group-based limit break abilities like Meteor, for one) will take a prominent place in ARR. ItÂs clear that SquareEnix is pulling out all the stops to make XIV.
Speaking of chocobos, they wonÂt just be mounts in ARR, rather theyÂre also armed combatants that will fight beside players, having their own items and progression. Housing will come at a later date, and at that time Yoshida-san stated that he hopes to introduce raising chocobos.
Yoshida also noted that PvP will occur outside the storyline, and if it has a storyline hook, itÂs that the three grand armies are training their soldiers in areas like desert canyon-themed Black Brush area to take on the Garlean empire.
Crafting and Selling
SquareEnixÂs plans for crafting have been limited to commentary-free livestreams, so I asked Yoshida-san to highlight a few key points as to how the system is changing.
ÂThe 1.0 system was too many items and recipes and wasnÂt really friendly for beginners. With the ARR version, all recipes will be available from the beginning, so it will be much simpler. There will be two options . For players who donÂt have much time, they can craft something of random quality. But if you want to make sure the item is of good quality, thereÂs another way of making it.Â
Changes have come to the auction house as well. I asked about the new market board introduced to the players at around level two. ÂThe new market board will allow players to buy and sell from wherever they are, not just the region theyÂre in, and allows improved search functionality.Â
While a welcome improvement, changes such as this one highlight how painfully far FFXIV has been behind the curve over the past two years. Hopefully ARR helps FFXIV to turn the corner, but we shouldnÂt discount the features that will linger from 1.0.
What HasnÂt Changed
As essentially all of FFXIVÂs sub-driven contemporaries have since converted to free-to-play, I admit I was a little taken aback when Yoshida-san revealed that FFXIV would be sticking to a monthly subscription. I asked if SquareEnix had any additional plans to add value to the sub model of a re-released game, and the answer came in three parts.
While Yoshida-san hinted at playing the same account on either PC or PS3 Â Âyou can play on the couch, and when your mom tells you off, you can go to your room and play on your PCÂ Â he noted that the primary value-added with ARR will be frequent content updates. ÂWe have plenty of assets, so weÂre confident we can bring enough content to make them happy that theyÂre paying a subscription fee.Â
A third way that SE hopes to add value is through spontaneous in-game events that hearken back to the GM events of first-generation MMOs. ÂIÂve really enjoyed the concept of GM events stretching back to my time with Ultima Online, so I want to give a lot of power to the GMs to have a lot of GM events, just like we did with 1.0.Â
A final thing that hasnÂt changed is SquareEnixÂs commitment to the Final Fantasy series. ÂCurrently SquareEnix is putting everything behind Final Fantasy XIV,Â Yoshida stated. ÂThis may sound crazy, but SquareEnix is never going to give up on a Final Fantasy title.Â
Mission, Guildleve, and Duty Changes
Many flt that the limitations FFXIV put on completing group content was a messy attempt at garnering more subscription money through timesinks. I asked if this would continue in ARR. Yoshida-sanÂs replied, ÂThere wonÂt be any time limits in ARR. That being said, guildleves will be suitable for doing as a daily quest.Â
Also, ARR will introduce a Duty Finder similar in concept to LFG tools in other MMOs that will hopefully reduce the time needed to find a group and complete content.
With ARR, players will also engage in public quests, called fates, which require players to work with each other and NPCs in real time. About 46 will be in the game at launch, and these events will appear on the map and via an announcement on the screen.
Controller and User Interface Changes
The controller interface is probably the most brilliant IÂve seen in my admittedly limited experience playing RPGs and MMORPGs on console Â so much xo that I might prefer to play ARR on controller rather than mouse and keyboard when it comes out later this year. Any gamepad will work on a PC Â not just the PS3 controller Â which is handy given that getting a six-axis controller to work on your PC can be a merry adventure in barely functional, slightly scary third-party drivers.
The gamepad interface is as simple as it is powerful Â while the basic circle, square, triangle, and x buttons perform basic actions like talk, jump, and perform basic actions, holding L2 and R2 turns the d-pad and action buttons into two 8-slot hotbars. L1 and R1 swap between sets, allowing players to access emotes (a big part of the MMOF experience traditionally), hybrid skills, and macros with relative ease. Likewise, the UI switches from a typical line-abreast hotbar to four diamond shaped hotbars that illuminate as the R2 and L2 buttons are held down.
Both PC and PS3 players will be able to use a keyboard to communicate when their gamepad UI is active, but the game wonÂt use sixaxis to determine your control method of choice. This means you canÂt set down the PS3 controller and game on your mouse and keyboard when you want to be suddenly sociable. (That is, not without flipping a software switch.)
And use a keyboard to communicate you must, at least if you want to stick to officially supported chat channels. Fearing the intimidation factor for its younger, console-based, and (especially) female players, SquareEnix still has no plans to officially support voicechat. ÂIf she was going to join a party with him, if you had an official voicechat system she might feel obligated to join in. She could get scared and not want to play anymoreÂ
If youÂre interested in the controller interface, check out the SquareEnixÂs gamepad commentary video.
I dove into the game for some first-hand impressions, and after a fairly generic character creation experience (though IÂve always loved how FFMMOs allow you to choose your characterÂs birthday on a calendar that roughly mimics our own Gregorian goodness), I found myself in a ingenious blimp cart (one that I want to exist very badly), floating my way to a village in Gridania.
Without spoiling anything, the experience was the same not-interactive, less-than-epic series of cutscenes that drove many nuts in 1.0. Then, upon arriving in the village, I was treated to a non-linear series of beginner quests. If you found FFXIV to be a gorgeous world that almost punishes you with immersion, and you enjoyed it, then rest assured that ARR is still your cup of tea. For myself and others, weÂll hope that SquareEnix streamlines and amplifies the experience during beta.
The highlight of my playtime was the dungeon play through in The Thousand Maws of Toto Rok. The community team gathered eight folks together and investigated some techno-magic fusion gone awry. I chickened out with my Archer set with some Cure and Revive abilities from the Conjurer tree. The dungeon was a several stage experience peppered with trash mobs, visually repetitive but smooth on performance.
A scorpion-like boss named Graftias spawned waves of baddies, nasty Fleshy Orbs that did AoE damage if struck, and expanding pools of poison after his tail shed its shell halfway through the fight. After two wipes, we organized part of the group into an add-killing machine and won through to some decent loot. While the eight person group size might be a little unwieldy, the community folks ensured us that five players of the required level (and, IÂm guessing, more skill) could complete it. And, thanks to FFXIVÂs hybrid class system, you run a much lower chance of needing a healer or tank.
PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Beta Ramp-Up Plans
Perhaps one of the most stunning announcements of the hands-on event was that FFXIV will simultaneously release on the PlayStation 3 and PC as a cross platform, cross server title.
ThatÂs the promise, despite never releasing as intended on the PS3 and the just-announced PlayStation 4. ÂIÂm sure youÂve heard the rumors about the next-gen,Â Yoshida commented, Âbut whenever that comes out, weÂll make sure the quality of the graphics takes advantage of the latest and highest technology.Â
Yoshida-san offered another comparison video showing areas such as Camp Tranquil, Black Brush, and BuscarronÂs Druthers in PS3 and PC views.
ItÂs no surprise that PC obviously won out on crispness and clarity, but PS3 was definitely in the ballpark. PS3 players will be able to check out ARR themselves in the third phase of beta, according to Yoshida.
Our thanks to Naoki Yoshida and the Square Enix team, first for a desperately needed and deserved rebirth of Final Fantasy XIV, and for showing us a bit of A Realm Reborn. If you canÂt wait for beta to begin in the next few months, a benchmark application is available starting today. Square Enix is hoping to show you how far theyÂve come in terms of making the gameÂs graphical brilliance shine on even low end PCs.