(Editor’s Note: This article was written shortly after 1.18 hit, and was held back by convention content. Our apologies on its tardiness, but we feel it’s still relevant to our readers.)
Nobody is quite sure how it happened, but Square Enix’s latest attempt at MMORPG conquest has seemingly fallen to its knees and is currently crying out “uncle” to the rest of its online peers. This is a title that was so dismal at launch the CEO of the company actually apologised to the community for releasing such a shoddy product. I for one accepted that apology and quarantined my own “special edition” copy of Final Fantasy XIV and decided to leave it alone until its noxious gasses had cleared, and its world inhabitable by gamers.
Almost a year has passed since I last set foot into the games beautiful world of nothingness, and with patch 1.18 spreading its updated code about, and with 1.19 imminent, it seems like a better time than any to head back into Square’s product to see if there is entertainment to had in this title after all.
Back Into the Fray
My major problems with FFXIV when I last played in October, was its simple turgid, needlessly difficult, and downright stupid user interface. Unfortunately little has really changed in this aspect. Seemingly the developer believed they were breaking new ground and creating online genius when they designed this hell-bitch of a UI – they were wrong. How difficult is it to slap on a hot bar, some customizable chat tabs, and a dozen menus which are slightly handsome to behold? Obviously very difficult, because navigating through this game is a task onto itself. The mouse and keyboard set-up may as well be disregarded as useless and the Windows/360 pad is the best way to play. Clicking for combat is still as difficult, entering combat stance still takes a few seconds to register, and in all, you will be wondering if the software itself is on some sort of tranquiliser as it fumbles and stumbles when you give it any kind of request.
OK, so my first impressions of returning to this particular MMO were not the best, but struggling past the absurd interface, I soldiered on to see what changes the developers have affected. One thing that immediately struck me was the overall performance of the title – the options to scale the graphics seemed expanded, and even on “high” I was running a respectable 30-40 FPS, were before the same setting reduced my system to fits of tears and resignation. Running around the beautifully crafted world without stuttering constantly does go some way to sweeten the pill of what I remembered of the game. The scenery is vivid and expertly sculpted; the cities too look magnificent as the sun sets and shafts of light appear between structures.
It is hard to deny the beauty of a game like Final Fantasy 14, and this was apparent before it was patched, but another problem remains in that it just all feels so empty. The self-described “hamlets” on the edge of cities and in the wilderness are nothing more than a collection of brightly coloured tents centered around a floating crystal, and there is nothing to the art direction that cries out “immersion!” The cities all just seem so gorgeously bland, with little in the way of tricking you into believing it as an actual residence for a virtual populace. It seems odd as the games predecessor didn’t suffer from this problem, and one of my hopes was that the new team driving the game would have sought to update this aspect: evidently not.
So aside from the aesthetics, what else has changed for the player who is returning from launch? Well evidently, not as much as I would have hoped. The game still exists in a bubble of unashamed grind, the levequests are still available from the twinkling crystalline hubs, obviously made just in case you felt immersed in the game, and there seems so little to really interest the gamer above and beyond gaining levels. It seems odd as the Final Fantasy series is acclaimed for its engrossing, if somewhat corny, storylines, and those on offer in this entry are truly uninteresting. The opening quests serve as an obligatory annoyance more than anything, and fighting the urge to skip the cut scenes becomes one of the MMO’s greatest challenges.
The innovative job system is still here, with slight refinements – levels are gained with slightly less grind, and more tasks seem available, but it still all feels poorly explained at executed. One of the major problems is that everything still feels fairly boring – the mini-games for professions sting the eyes with tedium, and the combat is little more than pressing “F” left clicking your target, slapping a couple of hotbar abilities and waiting for it all to come to a desperately slow end.
Has patch 1.18 made Final Fantasy XIV any more enjoyable than at launch? Personally, I wouldn’t say so. There is evidence of polish, refinement, and leanings into the right direction, but those dissatisfied at launch won’t find the game they were hoping for. It is still mindlessly complicated, the UI restricts anyone not wishing to make love to their Xbox 360, and it still packs that feeling of wading through hot fudge. There is still no auction house, but searchable player merchants, little in the way of social interaction, and distinctive lack of forward facing development. Spending time within FFXIV makes you feel like you have gone back in time to play a very needlessly complex EverQuest clone, albeit without the charm.
The problems with Square’s MMO run deeper than a few patches and half a year’s worth of work, and regardless of end game content, PvP and the rest, this game needs to be fun from the start before it is worthy of your time and effort, and to put it simply, it still doesn’t feel this way. The tedium remains, and without some serious u-turns to the games mechanics, I wouldn’t be surprising before this one was finally pronounced “dead on arrival”. It is a shame, this was one my most anticipated MMO releases of last year, but perhaps my expectations got the best of me, or the world just isn’t ready for Final Fantasy 14. Role on patch 1.19 and hopefully some serious changes. I suspect with that a brand new team on the title, we’ll be seeing FFXIV come a bit closer to what we all want it to be in time.