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From Development Hell to Heavensward: Final Fantasy XIV Summons Phoenix

By Russ | June 17, 2015 at 8:00 pm

We often speak of journeys as something dramatic or to be revered. In games and other epic activities, the journey is to defeat some terrible warlord or horrific wannabe god. In other media and occasionally real life, the phrase “I’m taking a journey to find myself.” comes to mind – often as the words some young adult or former spousal unit may utter to their friends before renting an apartment the next town over to find success and a new love. Final Fantasy: A Realm Reborn takes both of these journeys – the virtual one players experience, and the moving to the next town over journey; and succeeds in creating an epic experience.

Square-Enix’s latest Final Fantasy MMO has done very well for itself since it’s relaunch as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn on August 27, 2013. It’s not just been profitable, it’s been profitable enough to pull the company up. It may even make you wonder where the funding for Star Ocean V came from.

It’s no secret this success is built upon the foundation of failure. A promising opening and visuals aside, the original Final Fantasy XIV was a plagued affair. Those visuals took a lot of horsepower to run, as every item in the game was meticulously rendered. The selling point of a PS3 version to help bolster recruitment – to the point where copies of Final Fantasy XIII came with vouchers to register for the PS3 beta – faltered and never saw release.

Players were punished with XP decreases the longer they played in one sitting. A lack of direction was apparent early on, and a few months into release directorial reigns were handed from Final Fantasy XI alumni Nobuaki Komoto to Arcade Dragon Quest guy Naoki Yoshida. Part of the problem with the original release was that it too closely resembled Final Fantasy XI, an older style of MMO; and not the emerging improvements of recent online games.

This isn’t to say Final Fantasy XI is bad – the MMO genre has simply grown with their intended audiences; players with less time on their hands yet are still financially viable customers. As Yoshida took the reigns, Square-Enix publicly apologized for FFXIV‘s poor handling.

It wasn’t enough. Yoshida was able to bring the story of Final Fantasy XIV (1.0) to some conclusion utilizing existing plot elements. Dalamud, Eorzea’s second moon, originally meant to be visited in a future expansion a la Final Fantasy IV; was forced to descend on Eorzea. This would be the closing battle for 1.0. And then Yoshida permanently deleted everyone’s game save by summoning Bahamut.

This... Isn't... Happening!

This… Isn’t… Happening!

The first part of that cinematic played as the servers closed down. However, let’s focus on Answers, the song which plays in the background of that trailer. Not gonna lie – the first time I saw that piece, I was moved. I had little prior knowledge of 1.0 at the time, having only registered as a Beta user and never having enough PC horsepower to run it. But that song sings a powerful statement which embodies the ideals of death and rebirth. It fits perfectly with the themes found in XIV‘s lore of Astral and Umbral eras, providing viewers with both the end of one era and the beginning of another.

The lyrics also manage to embody the nature of MMO games, encouraging old players pass on lessons and tactics to new players, with the whispered encouragements to Teach, Feel, Think, Hear, and other emotions, actions, and activities brought by experience.  Finally, the lyrics “In one fleeting moment, from the land doth life flow. Yet in one fleeting moment, from anew it doth grow. In that same fleeting moment, though must live, die, and know,” close the song, tie the eras together, and – on a personal level – bring some emotion.

I’ve personally always felt the lyrics are not just about the players which stuck through 1.0, but also a nod to the development team which paved the way yet was let go in the process.

The visual part of the trailer, An End of An Era, features all of Eorzea facing the Garlean Empire in the plains of Carteneau. The focus of the trailer are a party of adventurers featured in the original 1.0 opening; engaged in combat as Dalamud descends on Eorzea. Bahamut, unknown to be within Dalamud, bursts forth and begins to destroy Eorzea. Attempts to subdue Bahamut fail.

Louisoix, one of 1.0‘s guiding forces, teleports everyone to safety. In the latter half of the trailer, A New Beginning; the featured party arrives in a ‘new’ Eorzea. This part is mostly fluff to show players there are new things in this world to experience by showcasing Behemoth and Odin – two of the original endgame’s FATEs.

For all of the title of Answers; few would be found within A Realm Reborn‘s (ARR) main scenario. In what was likely an effort to ensure new players were not bogged down by 1.0‘s plot (and likely a way to forgo having to explain the rough patches), the start of each player’s journey is fresh and the opening cinematic to the chosen starting point introduces the basic setup of Eorzea. The citizens of Eorzea barely remember the events surrounding the Battle of Carteneau, and Luisoix is nowhere to be found.

The player arrives in one of three City-States (determined by starting class) and is introduced to a recovering world still having trouble with the encroaching Beastman tribes and prolonged threats from the Garleans. As the player progresses through story, the Garleans are initially set to the side as they work on a piece of recovered ancient technology, leaving the player to handle the immediate Beastman threat. Beastman tribes have the ability to summon Primals, tribal deities with the capability to brainwash followers.

The player is immune to this effect due to the interference of another elder being and resident soul of the planet, Hydaelen. After a few hours of story, the game sets into a comfortable rinse, lather, repeat of: discover threat, fight threat, and “Here comes a new challenger!” While sadly rather predictable, the plot offers enough nice touches once players hit the last third of the game to have some surprise. The main quest sees the resurgence of the Garleans and their superweapon, with the looming promise of another threat.

Like this jerk.

Like this jerk.

This story would be hard to experience the first couple of weeks of ARR‘s launch. The relaunch was so popular servers were unable to handle the log-in requests. Players, once logged, would stay logged in while not playing; keeping server populations inflated and other players out. Servers are named after Final Fantasy‘s more notorious monsters and bosses, and those with popular names filled quickly. A player trying to get into Odin would be met with rejection, simply because Odin is a popular summons.

While these problems would persist throughout the first couple of months during peak times such as weekends, the problems were eventually resolved. In the meantime, this video captured the moment quite well.   Sad to say, but Heavensward will likely have many of the same problems. Of course, this is only because ARR has done so well.

What awaited returning players stepping into A Realm Reborn was an all-new interface. Visuals, despite a downgrade; are still beautiful. Combat utilizes global cooldowns (GCD) for most combat abilities, with special abilities (instants) utilizing separate timers. The job system is still in place, with players leveling up classes and later utilizing jobs to combat Eorzea’s many threats. Gathering and Crafting jobs received a complete makeover as well, and after reaching level 10 in your initial class ARR lets you know there’s more out there. Combat is not always the answer in ARR – players can take on other jobs if they’d like. There is a whole separate endgame for crafting and gathering.

It isn’t just the slick visuals and ease-of-use combat system which makes ARR enjoyable. The significant amount of lore which finds its way into every nook and cranny of the game is part of the reason. The main story, which takes the player from a mere adventurer to a significant symbol of hope for the people of Eorzea, helps ingrain in the mind of the player they are special. The game’s loving attention to detail and presentation makes Eorzea an easy land to want to spend time in. Instanced combat and the ever-evolving Duty Finder – a system which helps place players in instanced combat – makes getting into a dungeon relatively quick. While there is a large amount of plot to experience, the endgame content is its own beast and even more fulfilling than the main scenario.

Part of making ARR shine is the incredible amount of endgame content. Seven different patches with all new story, boss fights, and content for combat, crafting, and gathering. There are additions to the game’s hardest endgame raid; The Binding Coil of Bahamut, and its easier-to-play-through sibling, The Crystal Tower. The Binding Coil of Bahamut raids are not just hard content, but remnants of 1.0‘s plot finally seeing some Answers.

FFIII Love

You can be this majestic too.

The Crystal Tower raids are love songs to Final Fantasy III, featuring enemies and bosses from that series while still remaining true to the lore of ARR. 15 dungeons would be added: five new dungeons and 10 hard mode dungeons. And there is still more to do beyond that, like a comedy quest line with its own boss fights against previous Final Fantasy bosses.

But I’ve been very general so far, haven’t I? Please allow me to get more specific, which is a nice way to say there are going to be some spoilers from this point on.

As stated before, the overall quest of ARR is pretty standard and falls into a rinse, lather, repeat phenomena around level 20. And to be honest, the initial plot is very basic. Even the plot featured in the added patches holds nothing new for players of RPGs or fans of fantasy and science fiction. However, ARR excels at presentation. At one point the player’s headquarters is raided and several incredibly unimportant NPCs are killed.

The player is away at this time and comes back to clean up the mess of bodies. Quite literally, too — the quest has the player loading bodies onto a corpse wagon bound for the cemetery. What bespeaks some insane dedication to immersion is when the player picks up a body (much the same way they interact with anything else), the amount of time it takes to interact with the body depends on the size of the NPC. Those large Roegadyns? Take longer to pick up then the much smaller Miqo’te. This immersion hits hard when the player picks up a NPC who should never have been near headquarters in the first place, and they weigh less than a child. You could likely snap your fingers in the amount of time it takes the game to register the interaction, and then it hits you: all those lives meant nothing to your enemies, and even the player can only feel their weight in death. It’s a tremendous way to get that point across in a scenario which takes place in just about every RPG I’ve ever played.

Beating the last boss — a version of Ultima Weapon — is suitably epic. Actually, the main Primal fights all feel epic, due in no small part to the amazing music which sets the tone for each one. Search for ‘FFXIV Primal Fight Music’ and listen to what there is to offer. The game’s music is overall very well done, but the music for these fights is more reminiscent of the boss battles in the Ys series. It’s music which pushes the player further, and enhances the feel of combat within the game. Titan’s theme is superb, with the second half of Leviathan and Shiva bringing a fair amount of rock to the mix. Ramuh’s theme is a personal favorite, and Ultima embodies a lot of the musical qualities of past FF end bosses.

Having talked up the presentation, there are times when presentation does fall flat. Some of that failure is due to the many inane fetch quests in the main story. Some of it due to the amount of time a player’s avatar will stand around as events unfold. Watch some of 1.0‘s cutscenes and then experience ARR‘s main story. 1.0 was a lot more dynamic in its presentation, and most of ARR loses that dynamism until well after the main game ends.

Greg really loves his cock

Greg really loves his cock

The Hildebrand cutscenes alone manage to infuse a lot of energy into the game, but it would not be until Patch 2.55 – Before the Fall – when ARR throws its balls at the wall and lets players have it. Nanamo’s assassination by poison – gasping, choking for air, for dear life; as her and the dreams she has for her people die violently and then fall to the floor – has so much presence it can almost be touched. Of equal tangibility is her confidant and military leader Raubahn’s response of red rage, tunneled vision, and seething despondence at losing both the closest person to him and his life’s mission to protect said person.

Nanamo’s and Raubahn’s twin falls, ultimate failure in their goals, and the scenes which display their dreams dying make the following scenes of sacrifice and self-loathing from other characters seem laughable in comparison. As the player is all but exiled the actions surrounding the exile are hollow compared to the incredible – if terrible to behold – scenes which played out just beforehand. But that presentation! Nanamo’s eyes in her final moments, Raubahn’s red vision and murderous intent – these dynamic displays are not often seen over the course of most of ARR.

"Surely you jest."

“Surely you jest.”

Thankfully, the combat is not so bereft of action. Combat more than makes up for ARR‘s lack of dynamic cutscenes. Animations are fluid, and boss fights change up enough to keep players on their toes. The Armoury system, ARR‘s version of previous FF‘s Job System; allows players to pick up new classes and jobs with the literal switch of a weapon and later, equipping a Soul Stone.

The difference between classes and jobs is relatively simple. A basic class can be leveled to 50, but the quests cap at 30 for classes. Players learn the basic skills from the class, and every 5 levels players may cross-class a wide range of other class’ learned skills. Jobs require a specific item, a Soul Stone, and limit cross-class abilities to every 10 levels and even then only from two other classes. The trade-off is boosted stats and special abilities. And the ability to not have to re-roll a character because the current class/job just was not working out.

If ARR has one major, consistent flaw to the game, it is the inability to monitor the DPS class. Classes are broken down into Tank, Healer, and Damage Per Second (DPS). Tanks keep the attention of enemies while DPS kills the enemies. Healers keep everyone alive. Monitoring a Tank or Healer is easy. Getting hit by enemies? Tank is not doing their job. Dying due to low HP? Healer is not doing their job. Enemies not dying fast enough? Well, that could be a DPS problem, or it could be tough enemies, or it could be bad positioning or something else. Without a ranking system or an internal program to parse damage, a player will never know. There are third-party parsers available for PC users, but those are bannable offenses under the terms of agreement.

Realistically speaking, there’s no way to tell on an individual level without submitting a player’s brain to an insane amount of replays. Some DPS classes also have support functions, and those functions are easy to see via the game’s extensive icon list. However, actual damage just cannot be tracked. And this is aggravating because it means without communication from other players, there is no real way to correct it. Even then if communication is awkward or awful the information may not go over well. Much of the game is pick up and play, and then often with random people. A way for DPS players to monitor themselves is ideal, even if it is something as simple as an end-of-dungeon DPS ranking.

Of course, ARR shines everywhere else when listening to fans. Several in-game quality of life changes have been made with fan response in mind. The ARR community is quite active, and Square-Enix takes an interest in what people have to say (so long as it is posted in the official ARR forums). One could argue feedback is the whole reason ARR is as good as it is.

Mor Dhona, past craphole.

Mor Dhona, past craphole.

Mor Dhona, several building permits later. Hell, even the quest icons got an upgrade.

Mor Dhona, where even the quest icons got an upgrade.

Heck, the Dragoon job is proof. When the game started, Dragoons were plentiful because the jobs looks and feels badass. The reality was the job had terrible animation locks to its jumps – which historically have been able to dodge anything by being in the air – so that while jumping players would take damage or fall to instant-death mechanics. Endgame fights are incredibly movement heavy with lots of dodging and placement, which made an animation locked Dragoon a floor decoration. Over time and patches, animation locks were reduced and Dragoon is arguably now the best burst melee in the game. Most of this is due to feedback about balancing issues. When Ninjas were released they suffered the same ”Cause it’s badass!” mentality. Ninja’s were overpowered at first and nerfed a patch later, again due to feedback.

Making sure I was a pretty floor decoration.

Making sure I was a pretty floor decoration.

And the fans are numerous. There are 4 million accounts worldwide for ARR, and Heavensward is looking to make people returns and new players join in the game. In a bit of foresight, Square-Enix has required players make it through the ARR storyline (including patches) before players can tackle any Heavensward content, including the new jobs. I consider this foresight because it allows older content to still be accessible while preventing new content from being overwhelmed. So what does all this mean for Heavensward?

Story-wise, the player has no place left to go. The expansion is the player’s refuge, and the scenes of snowy isolation embody the betrayal felt at the end of ARR, while the new lands reflect an adventure still to continue. The name Heavensward itself is akin to saying “nowhere to go but up.” And of course there is hawt Dragoon-on-dragon action. Let’s just hope the plot does not Drag-on Dragoons.

Heh.

Seeing some more life out of the cutscenes at the end of ARR, and the development team being comfortable with their ability to bring some good battles to the players, along with a heavy amount of lore to compensate; gives me a lot of hope things really can only go up from here. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has kept my interest for nearly two straight years. I look forward to flying Heavensward with it.

-Russell Ritchey

Further reading, if interested.

Topics: Editorials, Final Fantasy XIV, Square Enix