Final Fantasy XIV: One Year After Rebirth

There are no second acts in politics or MMOs. We’ve seen this come into play with every game that shifts from a subscription model to free-to-play, every game that’s a sequel to a massively successful prior game, every retool of a controversial but workable gameplay mechanic. There are no respawns for MMOs.

Except Final Fantasy XIV.

A Realm Reborn, the 2.0 version of the disastrously bad 2010 MMO, launched in the late summer of 2013. It seemed destined to fail, because it was trying to thwart not only its own history but the rigidly unforgiving marketplace, which to that point brooked no dissent of “da rules”. In the subsequent year, FF14: ARR was responsible for bringing Square-Enix out of the red, launched one of the most generous upgrade plans of all MMOs, and introduced players to an entirely new world that they had thought destroyed forever. It was nothing short of a cast of Raise for a franchise that was succumbing to its own legacy.

But what made ARR such a fascinating success? Fittingly enough, there are fourteen reasons.

14: A Splendid Story.
Each of the major content patches (2.x-level) has included new additions to the main storyline of the game, continuing to unravel the threads of the Ascian plot. While there’s no additional experience to be gained from completing these end-game quests, players will still find lots to do as the Scions of the Seventh Dawn in Vesper Bay become the Crystal Braves of Revenant’s Toll.

13: An Enchanting Eorzea.
The 2.28 patch introduced a new non-combat challenge for players in the form of the Sightseeing Log. By reading cryptic clues to locations, times, and actions, the players search the world of Eorzea far and wide for specific vistas and scenic spots. Of course, you could just look the answers up online, but you’d be robbing yourself of the beauty of the scavenger hunt.

12: An Incorrigible Inspector.
One of the most notorious NPCs in the 1.0 version of the game was Hildibrand Manderville, Gentleman Hero, Agent of Enquiry. Accompanied by his lovely and pyromaniacal assistant Nashu Mhakaracca, Hildibrand returned to Eorzea in Patch 2.1 to usher in a new era of baffling and ridiculous insanity. His storyline continued in each 2.x level patch to follow, chasing a phantom thief and encountering foes with a plethora of arms… and tentacles.

11: A Dungeon Doubled.
Beginning with Patch 2.1 and continuing ever since, the number of Duty Finder dungeons in the game world has fair near doubled. Most of the early-level dungeons received “hard mode” upgrades– not mere reskins of the existing areas, but wholly redesigned areas building upon the lore and history of each of them. In addition, post-game dungeons such as Hullbreaker Isle and Snowcloak were added, giving players new areas to team up and take down.

10: A Prolonged Progression.
The Relic Weapon quest line, a returning feature from Final Fantasy XI, has been extended and expanded in ARR to become Zodiac Weapons. After upgrading their relics to their Zenith forms, players can embark on a quest to transform their signature weapons into ever-higher tiers such as Atma, Animus, Novus, and so on. Rather than rely on clearing Hard Mode Primals as the Relic quest did, however, each step in the process sends players hunting through the world, re-engaging players with content they may have cleared, or may have overlooked.

9: A Coiled Catastrophe.
The show-stopping “End of an Era” trailer that closed out the 1.0 service life featured the Doom of the Allagan, Bahamut himself, laying waste to the land of Eorzea. In-game, this event– the Calamity– had huge repercussions, but none so strong as the discovery of a hellish subterranean labyrinth called the Binding Coil. Patch 2.2 introduced the Second Coil of Bahamut, four more dungeons in which the secret of the dragon’s sleep are further explored; the Final Coil of Bahamut’s turns were added in 2.4. Moreover, 2.3 added the Savage Mode of the Second Coil, a brutally hard version of the already unforgiving dungeon that offered nothing in return but bragging rights.

8. A Dangerous Duel.
In case you thought that Bahamut was the only big baddie still kicking around the world, each of the 2.x level patches introduced new trials (boss raids). In 2.1, Extreme Primals– harder-than-Hard-Mode battles against Ifrit, Garuda, and Titan– were added alongside Good King Moggle Mog XII. Yes, a three-story-tall daemonic Moogle. Later patches introduced Leviathan, Ramuh, Shiva, Gilgamesh, and Ultros, while adding the Relic Weapon battles against the Chimera and the Hydra to the Duty Finder to ease player frustration. Most of these have Extreme counterparts as well.

7. A Blessed Bond.
Certainly a quirkier aspect of the game is the introduction in 2.45 of the Ceremony of Eternal Bond. The Eorzean counterpart to marriage ceremonies is tied to the introduction of an optional-purchase shop where players can spend actual money on in-game cosmetic items such as metallic dyes or wedding bands. The Eternal Bond cutscenes are nice, to be sure, and a no-cost option exists for players who prefer not to drop dough on a virtual engagement. Even with gender and species restrictions being completely absent, though, it’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. Still, for hard-core role-players out there, it’s nice to have the option open.

6. A Stealthy Servant.
In Patch 2.4 players were treated to something most other games reserve for paid expansions: a new character class. Rogues are a fast-paced melee damage-dealer class that emphasizes getting in a target’s face and stabbing it repeatedly. When they reach level 30, though, they graduate into the Ninja job, adding adaptability through ninjutsu. The class also serves as a preview of the Doman people’s storyline, which is expected to be expanded upon in the paid expansion in 2015.

5. A Refreshing Rebalance.
No game gets it right the first time. There’s always massive game-breakers or exploits that keep developers up at night. In the early days of ARR, that headache was Paladins and Warriors. 2.1 rebalanced the two tank classes in order to bring them into alignment, making them equal but not identical in their capabilities, and made it easier for them to capture and keep enemy attention. In Patch 2.45, Dragoons gained a massive overhaul that dropped a lot of their positioning requirements and increased their magic defense, saving them from being the official representatives of the Floor Inspector’s Union in high-level content.

4. An Exceptional Experience.
When folks see the abbreviation “MMO”, the first thing that comes to mind is the word “grind”. Make no mistake, ARR still is a grindy game; you’ll be repeating content for experience, loot, money, or materials. But each patch has eased the pain of the grind somewhat, allowing experience to be gained more rapidly. Dungeons offered increased experience and gil rewards early on, and the introduction of daily Duty Roulette bonuses gave players even faster paths to level to 50. Coupled with the addition of weekly Challenge Log bonuses, as well as boosts to experience gained while crafting and gathering, players can reach maximum level in all classes with a minimum amount of elbow grease.

3. A Customization Cornucopia.
Everybody loves making stuff their own. Be it the color of armor, the stats on weapons, or the appearance of gear they love, players were given a tremendous amount of control over their gear in the past year. Each 2.x level patch added new gear for crafters to produce, and likewise for players to customize through the melding of materia (something not allowed on the highest-tier gear looted from dungeons). Part of the Zodiac Weapon quest requires players to make tough decisions about what stats they want to boost on their personal weapons. And the Glamour system allows players to equip that high-level gear while retaining the appearance of any other compatible piece of clothing, including dresses, swim trunks, or Chocobo costumes.

2. A Hearty Hunt.
This is sort of a mixed bag, but it bears mentioning because it is a major benefit to players. In Patch 2.3, The Hunt was added to the game, challenging players to seek out and defeat notorious Mark monsters in the world. In return, they would be awarded credits towards high-level gear previously made available through dungeon drops or end-game currency. The gear was bargain-basement priced compared to dungeon runs, and for about a month or so every server was overrun with Hunt parties, massive alliances dedicated to rapidly exterminating Marks for the hunt credit. This was because the credits offered per kill were pretty meager on their own, but they added up when run consecutively. As a way to expedite players’ readiness for current end-game content– which was the intention of the system– it worked. As a way to ensure people actually ran end-game content instead of endless Hunt stalking– not so much.

1. A Protector’s Promise.
The land of Eorzea is watched over by the Mother-Crystal, Hydaelyn, and safeguarded by the Twelve, the ancestral gods of the spoken races. In a sense, though, there is another protector of the realm: lead producer Naoki Yoshida. Having taken over the reins of the game in the midst of the disastrous 1.0 launch, Yoshida took great care to foster openness and communications between the staff and the player base, through Letters From the Producer and Live Letter events. These expanded into the Japan-only FATE events, mini-gatherings where fans mingled with the development team, and their international counterparts, the Fan Festival events. Through these, players were heard and answered, alleviating the concerns that the game was helmed by a despot; in the end, Yoshida has enjoyed a level of adulation and appreciation almost unheard of among any game’s community. Doesn’t hurt that his in-game avatar, the Wandering Minstrel, was behind one of the more touching and stirring events over the summer.

Very few online games offer huge swaths of content in their interim patches; even fewer still do so after having recovered from an almost fatal failure in the marketplace. Still, with the end of the 2.x era rapidly approaching, and the Heavensward expansion looking to arrive in the late spring of 2015, Final Fantasy XIV has proven that there are, in fact, second chances. I still contend that this is the best MMO I’ve ever played, and quite possibly the best MMO of all. I’ll catch you folks in-game.

2014 In Gaming: Z’s Top 5

The year past has been a rather difficult time to be a player of video games. Even the word “gamer” has become passé, tainted by the vociferous minority. Still, despite the efforts of certain people I could name, 2014 has been one of the best years for video games since the halcyon days of the Super NES/Genesis. Bungie released their first post-Halo work; Professor Layton teamed up with Phoenix Wright (finally); Hearthstone tried to do for digital card games what Ascension did for deck-building games; and Freddy Fazbear charmed his way into our hearts and urinary tracts. Those are the big successes of 2014, and more power to them. But they’re (largely) not what I played.

Let’s take a closer look at the five games I played the hell out of in 2014, and why you should drop that Duty disc, stop staring at those gaming monitors and and put your eyeballs on these.

5: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (NIS America, PS Vita, February/September)

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

I reviewed Danganronpa back in February, and found it to be a thrilling, hilarious trip through a twisted high school. When the sequel came out in September, I was a little busy and it fell through the cracks, but it’s no less fun and no less enthralling; it manages to correct a few of the problems I had with the first game and introduce me to a new cast of defectively apex classmates. Visual novels are still a hard sell in North America, though, so honestly it’s not that much of a surprise if these slipped past you, too. If you love detective games or ridiculous dialogue, there’s no need for despair: just go grab them.

4: Puyo Puyo Tetris (Sega, PS3/PS4/PS Vita/Wii U/3DS/Xbox One, February/December)

Puyo Puyo Tetris

I feel pretty confident in saying that in all likelihood you haven’t played these. This is because there has been a perfect storm of problems making it too difficult to bring into North America: the PS3 version wasn’t available digitally until the summer, and pretty much every other version has some form of region locking or inconvenience. That’s a real shame, because this is probably the definitive version of both Puyo Puyo and Tetris available today. This even unseats my previous favorite version of Tetris (The Next Tetris Online for Dreamcast). I had to resort to ordering yen-based PS Network cards to get the game, and I don’t regret it at all. With the next-gen versions having been released this past month, hope is renewed for a potential North American release… but with Ubisoft having locked up the Tetris license, it ain’t looking likely.

3: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (Nicalis, PC/Mac/Linux/PS4/PS Vita, November)

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

Poop is funny. Let’s just get that out of the way right now, poop is funny and this game has a lot of poop. It’s also got a lot to say about religion, but the message is subtle underneath the hybridization of Rogue-like procedural generation and Zelda-like top-down gameplay. The game is fast-paced and challenging, and is deep enough that it’s a new experience every time you play. The PS4 and Vita versions are a little twitchy in terms of some nasty save-game bugs, but they’re mostly ironed out by the time you read this. I hope. Oh, and one more thing: poop. Funny. Trust me.

2: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call (Square-Enix, 3DS, September)

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call

I love music games. LOVE THEM. But ever since Harmonix wound down the production of Rock Band, it’s been really difficult to find good music games. Granted, the Kickstarter to revive Frequency was successful, but there’s something about jamming to music that brings back memories of casting Firaga that really speaks to me. The original Theatrhythm was all right, but had a few hiccups such as a too-strict main mode and a too-small set of on-card tracks. Curtain Call fixes these and grants access to a massive catalog of music almost right away. Plus, including one of my favorite characters from Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t hurt.

1: Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, Wii U, May)

Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart is one of those games that’s most analogous to pizza: even when it’s bad (ahem, Double Dash) it’s still pretty good. But the game’s notable in the year not necessarily for what it does well– it’s the best racing game since Split/Second— but for signalling the shift in Nintendo’s approach to DLC and titles-as-platforms. The announcement of the two DLC packs, which would include favorite retro tracks not initially included on-disc, completely upended the established paradigm of the games not necessarily obsolescing their past iterations. When Super Smash Bros. announced DLC, we knew it was the beginning of a new era. Mario Kart 8 doesn’t just improve upon its history, it improves upon every game Nintendo publishes thereafter. And not even Luigi can be angry about that.

Dishonorable Mention: Driveclub (Sony, PS4, October)

We live in an era where we no longer expect games to be “finished” by the time they are released. This has resulted in day-zero patches that creep into the gigabyte range (I’m looking at you, Halo). Being a former software developer, I get it. I really do. Marketing writes checks that developers can’t cash. But there is no excuse for a game to be launched broken, to remain broken months after release, and to be actively detrimental to its own sales. Driveclub hits all those rather awful marks. It was announced as a free title for Playstation Plus members, but when the game couldn’t even handle the artificially-suppressed number of paying customers, that offer was suspended indefinitely. And because the game still doesn’t really work online, nobody’s buying it. So it honestly doesn’t matter if the game’s a worthy successor to Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport; if nobody’s playing, it might as well be the entire text of this review pressed into a disc repeatedly.

As always, folks, thanks for supporting OTDT in 2014, and we look forward to serving you in 2015.