Some people will tell you that the next patch for any struggling MMORPG will "completely turn things around". Generally, those are crazy. After dipping my toes in the waters of patch 1.18 I was about ready to hand in my Moogle badge and leave the lands of Square Enix, but this latest update is beginning to change my mind, very slightly.
To date, both patch 1.18 and 1.19 are the largest to hit the ailing Final Fantasy XIV. From playing the former build I was underwhelmed by the changes made to this MMO, but when formed together with October's latest additions things are finally starting to make sense. This isn't to say that this game is excels in any way but it is now at least playable. So while many players will still raise their Alt+F4 fingers with rage, as a whole the experience is getting better and things are moving in the right direction, finally.
So enough babble, what has changed exactly? Well first and foremost, Square Enix has made great changes to the leveling systems, most importantly being the abolition of the "physical level". Why the developers felt that the game needed yet another gauge for progression above and beyond the many professions in the game, I'll never know, and it did muddy the waters somewhat. Now that this has gone, things seem more clear and concise, and coupled with the decision to remove attribute point allocation; things seem more organic and easy to manage. Of course these changes will be controversial, and a quick look over many fan sites will see the anguished cries of those that have seen a dramatic slash in their hit points and damage rating, but hey, it's all for the greater good right?
Another addition, and a much needed one, is the introduction of two modes of transport: Chocobo and Airship. Anyone familiar with the JRPG series will remember the cutesy yellow bird that usually accompanies a little jaunty tune, and they are certainly a welcome sight within FFXIV. Perhaps it is the blandness of the world, but watching a hulking bipedal avian stalk across the land makes things just seem better; perhaps I just have a thing for Bird Bird? The other series staple transport, the airship, is slightly less impressive, but handy none the less. Now trips between the three major cities are handled with a small dowry of gil and a cutscene, which breaks the tedium of walking through the "big empty". Small but effective changes, but why this took a year to implement is beyond me.
Aside from those two, personal, stand-out changes, Square Enix has affected a number of updates, refinements, and add-ons across the board from new low level instances to the inclusion of Grand Companies - effectively another way to grab missions and engage with the MMO, the caravan quests being a particular success. From looking at both patch 1.18 and 1.19 it seems as though the developers are slowly but surely bringing the game in line with "traditional" MMOs, and definitely their focus seems to be on making the experience for its existing player base more enjoyable and easier. Take for instance the new Ifrit encounter, and the beast strongholds - both add a layer of Endgame goodness, as well as the much needed excitement and thrills the title so sorely lacked.
For a player that has roughed the slightly dismal start to FFXIV's life, things are certainly starting to turn around, and it does seem like now is the time where they can start to look to the horizon like Uncle Owen shrugging off the trepidation and allowing for a moments optimism. Even for those lore nuts, Square have added a number of side quests which allow for more yarns to be spun, and even more impossibly jiggling boobies to be unveiled. Patch 1.19 is promising for veterans, but what about you disgruntled ex-launchers? Or perhaps those of you thumbing your wallets, wondering whether or not to bite the gunblade and go for it? Well that's another matter altogether.
Patch 1.19 is a good thing for Final Fantasy XIV, almost a great thing, but the problems still remain that make this one of the most frustrating and annoying MMORPGs on the market. A number of tutorial pop-ups have been added, but the starting experience is still as ill-explained and hard to grapple with as ever. The ever-horrible UI still feels cumbersome, and while some of the lag has disappeared, navigating it is still an un-enjoyable experience. While ever this interface remains, the game is carrying around dead weight, and clubbing to death the hopes of anyone that wishes to get near to loving the game. It is just that bad. Square, kill it, burn it, forget about it, and rebuild - it isn't inventive, it isn't easy, and it is definitely is harming your game.
To add to these woes, progressing through the Final Fantasy XIV is still a chore. Aside from Guildleves (which we will get on to) the only real way to progress is mindless grind: and I know I am not stupid, every MMO dabbles in grind but this one really takes it too far. Couple this with the world’s slowest combat system and things look bleak. The developers have yet to really make the tools of advancement engaging, fighting a small sheep will see you prod and punch impotently for a minute before it finally submits to your will, and the mini-games which envelop gathering are almost forms of torture.
Admittedly things have gotten in easier in respects to equipping your character and advancing further. Two NPCs offer a small number of weapon and armour upgrades, whilst also merging together all the tools needed for whatever class you wish to take on. This small change is welcome, and with the retainer in place it is easier to buy and sell equipment. This is a welcome change, and makes things easier, but everything is still too ill-explained, and forgoing the cries of "carebear" I still see the need for Square to implement a comprehensive tutorial explaining the many facets of the game.
Moving onto the game’s questing, again things still aren't quite there. Sure, we have the main and side missions which give some interesting story, but the Guildleves and behests are simply dire. Nobody reads the text description of a quest these days, but by taking out any sort of explanation, Square have really made Guildleves the most uninteresting objectives ever. Couple this with the fact you must travel to a city, pick up your missions, go to the applicable camp site, find the crystal, engage your quest, and then set about the task, makes it even more tedious - and the worst part is they don't even reward very well, and you can only undertake a set amount a day. Fundamentally this game is flawed in so many ways, and part of me is looking in wonderment to the developers to see how they can salvage the experience.
To put it simply, I can't in any sound mind recommend that new players or ex-players return to the game just yet. The things that annoyed you at launch largely remain, looking to put off any newcomers in the very same way they did a year previous. While the new player experience is not everything, and many will point the finger explaining that it is a narrow point to nitpick, but why stick around if the opening 20+ hours are such a distressing bore?
At this moment in time, Final Fantasy XIV is an odd bird. Patch 1.19 has made some great changes, but the roadblocks still remain for a player that had issues at launch. The same disagreeable decisions remain and look likely to be around a while. For someone who has stuck through the bad times, this patch is great, excellent, and a fine addition, but for those who need a reason to go back, this is not it yet. Like last time, Square are still some ways off, and a massive overhaul is still needed - but, without wishing to be too negative, it is slowly progressing and it may not be the complete train wreck once thought. There is a glimmer of hope, and as a Final Fantasy fan, I desperately hope the developers make it the game it should and can be.
Images courtesy of Final Fantasy XIV Pro. Thanks!