Developer: Square Enix / Publisher: Square Enix / Played on: PC / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Teen [Alcohol Reference, Animated Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence]
In two decades of gaming, I’ve never seen a turnaround as drastic as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. The original game, released in 2010, was directionless and willfully ignored any MMO innovation since Final Fantasy XI’s release in 2002. A Realm Reborn, on the other hand, not only rounds up every great MMO feature we’ve seen in the last decade, but manages to improve all of them to create the smartest and most attractive MMO I’ve ever played.
I know, I know, it’s hard for me to believe, too.
Realm Reborn does so much right it’s hard to find a starting point. The core gameplay won’t shock you, especially if you’ve spent a few hours with the standard-setting World of Warcraft. From 10,000 feet, the games look nearly identical—you do quests to gain experience, craft items for yourself and others, and enter dungeons that provide focused combat around familiar tank / healer / DPS mechanics. Nothing too exciting yet, but Realm Reborn’s success is more in its execution rather than its innovation.
Take the class system for example. Similar to Final Fantasy XI, you can change your class at any time by simply changing your weapon. Each class retains its own level too, meaning that you can go from a max level healer to a level 1 DPS in an instant. But here’s the smart bit—true to Final Fantasy’s job system, you can pull in abilities from other classes on top of those in your current class. In this way, Realm Reborn provides a real incentive for leveling up other classes aside from your main. For example, the Swiftcast ability allows to you insta-cast any spell once every three minutes. That’s awful handy as a healer, but you need to level up a DPS class to 26 to get it.
That might sound like artificial goals to encourage grinding, and it may very well be, but Realm Reborn offers so many different activities—and all of them enjoyable—that leveling just becomes an excuse to participate in the game’s content. For starters, the writing and story in Realm Reborn are incredibly good, and story is generally the last thing I care about when it comes to MMOs. The overarching main quest has you protecting Eorzea (that’s the mystical land of Final Fantasy XIV, by the way) by joining a sort of national security agency. The other characters in this agency are charming and the various cases you investigate don’t always end predictably. I became genuinely interested in what happened in the story of the game, which is an outright first in any MMO for me.
There’s still plenty of Final Fantasy left once you exhaust the main quest too. Each class has its own storyline as well, with new arcs opening every five levels. Every class also has a unique hunting log that awards bonus EXP when killing a certain amount of specific monsters (which brings to mind Lord of the Rings Online). Realm Reborn even incorporates world events similar to Warhammer Online and more recently Defiance. Called FATEs for some reason, these events will have you and whoever else decides to join in attacking a single large boss, killing as many small enemies as possible, or protecting an NPC as he / she runs through enemy-infested territory. As in other games, it’s a spontaneous way to earn a hefty chunk of experience on a whim if one pops up next to you.
All that leveling comes to a head in Realm Reborn’s dungeons, which are on par with World of Warcraft’s when it comes to complexity and difficulty (and I say that as someone who considers WoW’s dungeons the best around). The dungeons start off basic, but eventually work up to enemy combinations that will push your crowd control skills to the limit. Bosses require tactics beyond the typical tank ‘n’ spank approach too, with my favorite being a giant flan that you have to blow into small pieces by kiting over floating bombs.
If terms like crowd control and tank ‘n’ spank don’t mean much to you right now, Realm Reborn also offers mini dungeons called “Guildhests” that teach players the basics of MMO combat. They introduce basic concepts like “don’t stand in the fire” first, and eventually scale up to prioritizing targets, crowd control, and pulling specific monsters out of a pack. Given that MMOs have been around for more than a decade, it’s strange that they’re only now starting to add in-game resources to learn the MMO ropes. TERA made some headway in this regard with tutorial missions but Realm Reborn is finding better ways to welcome the newbies.
Newcomers will also appreciate how goddamn gorgeous A Realm Reborn is. On levels both technical and artistic, Realm Reborn both looks and sounds amazing. It beats the production values of any MMO around, taking that title away from TERA in my book. Draw distances are amazing, textures are crisp, and animations convey fantastic personality from both the tall, lithe Elezen to the squat, pudgy Lalafell. Music is likewise amazing, setting the tone of exploration or combat perfectly. Typically I mute MMO music in under an hour to play my own, but even twenty hours in I was still listening to the game’s soundtrack. Even the sound effects are well done. Spell effects and weapon clashes make large battles (especially in the FATEs) sound like a sugary, anime version of Lord of the Rings.
There’s more to the game’s presentation than the bits on screen and sound from the speakers. This is the first game from Square Enix I’ve played in a long, long time that really feels like Final Fantasy. It’s more than the simple appearance of series regulars like cactuars and chocobos. The larger, scarier monsters look like concept artist Yoshitaka Amano’s drawings come to life. Recurring summons Titan, Ifrit, and Ramuh make appearances too and look especially incredible—as though someone reached into Final Fantasy VI and turned those sprites into high polygon models that live and breathe. Though visuals, tone, humor, and a million other touches too numerous to mention, Realm Reborn captures a Final Fantasy spirit that’s been dormant since Final Fantasy IX. As someone who grew up with this series, logging in to A Realm Reborn feels like visiting an old friend, which marks the first time I’ve ever felt sentimental about an MMO.
Don’t take my universal gushing until now to mean the game is without fault, though. Login and stability issues plagued the game’s opening week, and while that’s to be expected of any MMO launch, it’s still not fun to spend two hours trying to log in. As of writing, those issues are all but gone, but they’re still worth noting. Additionally, cross-server grouping isn’t in the game at launch, meaning you’re restricted to only players on your server for dungeon groups. I have tons of friends that I’d like to group up with and can’t. This is a problem that’s been solved by other games, and it’s the only big way that Realm Reborn feels behind the curve.
Really, more than any concrete issue, Realm Reborn’s biggest drawback is that no part of it is uniquely new. It’s superbly built and produced, but every feature in the game can be traced back to another MMO from the last five years. If you’re a stickler for new or experimental game mechanics, you won’t find them here.
What you will find is the most mechanically broad, content dense, and goddamned gorgeous MMO ever made. If you’ve enjoyed any MMO of the past decade, there’s something in Realm Reborn for you. And if you’ve enjoyed them all? Well… just remember to take a shower once in a while.