You know, I’ve always wondered why there seems to be this sort of invisible wall that divides Final Fantasy fans.
Of course, everyone has their favorite title, but there always seems to be this massive disconnect between fans of the single player entries and those of the online titles. Now admittedly, I seldom played online titles until recently, and even then dabbled sparingly in Final Fantasy XI for a short time out of curiosity before the original release of Final Fantasy XIV back in 2010.
Having seen both sides of the coin, I started to piece together the bigger picture. Not only do MMOs emphasis multiplayer, but they’re often time eaters with difficult learning curves – a harsh truth that would do well to turn away those used to engaging single player experiences. Over the years, other series outside of Final Fantasy have worked toward improving their online games for novice players. It’s now not uncommon to see full-fledged MMOs promote single player play as much as group questing – a sort of marrying between traditional story-driven content while retaining the identity of an always online genre. Unwilling to stay trapped in the past forever, it was only natural that the next generation FF MMO followed suit.
Now, it’s no secret that FFXIV – Square Enix’s second attempt at an online Final Fantasy – stumbled out of the gate and landed flat on its face. That was three years ago, but there’s no point in dragging it out. You see, Square Enix learned a hard lesson – one that fleshed out a new team and an all new version of the game within an unexpectedly quick timeframe. Anyone else would have jumped shipped ages ago, but Naoki Yoshida and his staff have decided – for better or worse – to stay the course. Their vision is one of ambition, but also one of aggression in its appeal to both hardcore and casual game players alike.
Having gathered up the press for a two day excursion in San Francisco, I got to have another look at where Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was heading. The long path to rebuild is soon coming to an end and having followed the game since its conception, I was ready to see what the future was about to bring.
To ease us in, Producer/Director Naoki Yoshida started the day off with a presentation – one that would highlight both FFXIV and its place within the FF series. An extended real-time trailer showed off many of the locales within the game world of Eorzea along with large group battles against primals such as Ifrit and Golem. While trailers during presentations aren’t anything new, Yoshi-P surprised the lot of us by revealing that this footage was taken directly from the game’s upcoming benchmark. Available from today, the benchmark will let players see how the new version of FFXIV will run on their very own PCs.
Final Fantasy is the most important global franchise for Square Enix. Renowned for its emphasis on graphics, and expansive storylines, the series to date has spanned 13 mainline titles across 100 million units. According to Yoshida, “Square Enix will never give up on Final Fantasy” – a claim solidified into reality by the company’s efforts to rebuild FFXIV. The process of rebuilding the game is centered on several core concepts including updated servers, an improved battle system, map system and user interface all bundled together in a new custom engine.
The proof is in the pudding – or rather, through a lengthy comparison video Yoshida rolled out to demonstrate A Realm Reborn’s literal transformation. Old areas are now populated with far more interesting structures, such as the addition of windmills in the Red Rooster Stead, more realistic water in Moraby Drydocks (formerly Moraby Bay), and what was once a desolate camp in Ul’dah, now a fully-featured area to explore. The most jarring improvement, however, is how much faster the new battle system is.
One asset of FFXIV: ARR that has been kept generally hidden until now is the game’s story. Three story arcs encompass the planet of Hydaelyn – a world of mystery. The first of them revolves around the planet’s consciousness – that is, an entity assuming the form of the Mother Crystal. As a sort of avatar for the planet, she speaks to the players and guides them through the challenges they must overcome.
The second arc tells the tale of Garlemald, an enemy in the north. In this leg of the story, players will join one of the game’s three Grand Companies in order to take up arms against the Empire. An important keyword to remember here, according to Yoshida, is “the Warrior of Light.”
The third and final pillar of XIV’s story concerns the classic Final Fantasy summons – the entirety of which will appear in one form or another. Known as Primals, they are the bane of the land and have grown in both strength and influence since Bahamut’s return. As they consume the life-force of the planet, a very complex tale will be woven around their adventures. What happened to Bahamut? There will be a dungeon dedicated to those answers and more.
As with any FF, a good portion of the game will be told through cutscenes – lots and lots of cutscenes with some pre-rendered CGI thrown in for good measure.
There has been a big push to make XIV into an all-inclusive fanservice title. We’ve already seen such with the Crystal Tower and Amon along with hints of Eorzea’s own Gold Saucer, but plans beyond that include FFIII’s Cloud of Darkness, FFVI’s Magitek armor as a mount, Gilgamesh and Cait Sith. These elements are only scratching the surface, however, as Yoshida promises to “raise the bar for MMO graphics not only at launch, but in the future.” You could say the core of FFXIV is to marry the best MMO elements with Final Fantasy.
New additions making it into this new version include residences and Player vs Player gameplay. In fact, this is the first time in FF history for PvP and will largely consists of public quests, dungeons, and raids.
A Realm Reborn wouldn’t be complete without the PS3 version, and as previously announced the console release will launch right alongside the PC SKU. Players from both versions will have the ability to adventure together with complete cross-platform play. That is to say, one account will allow you access to your same character across both versions, and PC and PS3 users will populate the same servers. The PS3 beta is set to begin in Phase 3 per the latest development roadmap.
As of now, the PS3 version is about 75% optimized and is said to be pushing it to its limits. Having demonstrated the difference between the two versions to us, Yoshida assures that they’re working with Sony engineers to bring the best out of the system and iron out any remaining issues.
The challenges of putting an MMO on console don’t just stem from hardware limitations, but also the controller itself. While the PS3 version can sport a keyboard and mouse set up, Yoshida and the team have developed an all new gamepad user interface tailored specifically to take an MMO’s massive menu and shrink it down to a more accessible size. Known as the “Cross Hotbar,” this innovative alternative to MMO gameplay will be available for users to try for themselves from beta Phase 2. It’s truly a full MMO UI without all the fuss.
Wrapping up, Yoshida left us pondering a rather bold idea: FFXIV is the first MMO that console gamers need to play. It’s an interesting thought because when you get down to the core of console players – especially in terms of Final Fantasy – do they not limit themselves to single player experiences? As a console player myself, I can safely say that A Realm Reborn looks to change all that.