To be perfectly honest, I bought a new PC with the prospect of Final Fantasy XIV being on the horizon, the other PC games I've picked up until now have just been bonus. But to get to the main point, if I had known that Final Fantasy XIV was going to be this terrible at launch, I would have abstained from buying a PC in the first place, though I suppose that means I would have missed out on some great PC titles released recently like Starcraft 2. Now you might be thinking that I could have just waited for the PS3 version, but after seeing how Final Fantasy XI went down for PS2 users I figured I would rather play day one. Though that seems like a huge mistake, considering that state that Final Fantasy XIV has entered the market. There is plenty here not to like, and you've got to wonder what Square Enix was thinking in putting this title out there especially when you have a fan-base that is as dedicated and rabid as Final Fantasy. After a good month with the game, it'll be hard for Square Enix to undo the damage this shoddy launch has caused.
To get the good stuff out of the way, which is not how I want to discuss this review, we'll start with the visuals. This game has a lot of beautiful vistas, and the world of Eorzea is a fascinating place. The only problem is that it has a lot of areas that are recycled, and it's terribly obvious while running through the Black Shroud forests. There are many other areas where this is almost blatant, but lets just say that a lot of caves look the same. Perhaps for the starting areas this is the case while the higher level zones contain a greater variety on landscape. It seems like a little thing to pick on but when you're running from Gridania (the city of the forest) to either Limsa Lominsa or Ul'dah and you see the same cave/ramp structure at least 3 times it's hard not to notice.What is also surprising is how poorly this game can run at times. I'm able to get 30+ fps on a GTX 260, but that's with effects turned off. Granted this is a card that is slightly below recommended specs but on a quad core with plenty of RAM? While we're on the subject of hardware, why can I not play this game in full screen when I have two monitors? I have to either set this game to 1920 x 1080 to fill the screen within a window, or I play 1280 x 720 in windowed mode. Attempting to run the game in full screen at 1280 x 720 full screen doesn't even give me an error, it just fails to work, so I have to turn off my second monitor to get proper full screen. The audio works quite well, with some good voice acting and music that is sufficient. Though the soundtrack is kind of minimalistic with only a handful of tracks being used for a variety of events.
The story starts out as an interesting hook that will keep you wanting to slog through levels in order to unravel more of the game's tale. Starting in each town gives a different story where your character is in the midst of some strange happenings. I chose Gridania, where my presence has angered the spirits of the woods, and I must do my part, along with some curious visitors, to cleanse myself to prevent entities of the woods from attacking me again. I'm currently between story segments which currently unfold every five levels, and this latest grind to get me to level fifteen has been nothing short of agonizing. Even with a linkshell the leveling system makes it much more difficult to advance than Final Fantasy XI. The most common way to level up is through a series of jobs picked up at a guild, where these jobs are referred to as leves, why? I have no idea, why not just call them, missions, or jobs? Anyway to get back on point, you travel from camp to camp out in the wild and you sync up at the camp to perform the job, then you've got thirty minutes to finish the task. Sometimes you're hunting specific enemies, other times you are mining or fishing, or chopping at trees to gain materials. At the very least it is much easier to change jobs this time around, just put a piece of equipment in to your hand and the job switches. If you're an archer like me, then hitting enemies will level your character, or if you're a weaver or carpenter creating items will level you up. There is basic experience to determine your stats and job specific experience will determine the skills available to you. The flaw here is that you will not always get skill points when performing actions, unlike crafting classes which always provide experience. The other problem is that if you're in a party you only gain experience when your actions are successful. So if you're not doing much damage, or are missing you will not level up more frequently. This problem is only compounded by the uncanny abilities of mobs to avoid shots more than 50% of the time. While I will admit this number is unfounded, it certainly feels like that is the percentage, even with gear intended to increase my accuracy I still saw that enemies evaded or I missed more often than not. To really add insult to injury there is currently a bug that causes enemies to properly tag to your character, which will allow enemies to regenerate HP as if they were not fighting you. The game has been online for over a month and this issue has existed since beta, and it remains unfixed as of this writing.
Combat for Final Fantasy XIV is a sometimes awkward affair with targeting being a difficult thing to perform. Sure you can use your mouse to specifically click on an enemy, but for someone who plays with a keyboard, a shortcut macro would be the most helpful thing in this situation. Instead you're forced to tab through targets often taking a good deal of damage in the process, and this flaw becomes really apparent when doing the combat jobs, where enemies are spawned, sure you can denote them by the fact that they have a little help icon next to their name, but there are many times where multiple people will be doing the same job as you, spawning multiple mobs, and you can waste time trying to attack enemies that aren't meant for you.
Macros are still possible in Final Fantasy XIV but for the most part they are used for switching jobs and skills on the fly. Having a number of jobs will cause you to fill up your macro list to quickly link your equipment and abilities together. Once in combat you have a list of commands assigned from 1-0 with the ability to hold control to go up and down more lists. It keeps screen clutter down, but can be costly when time is of the essence. These abilities will drain from a stamina bar that will slowly refill over time in a system that is similar to combat in Final Fantasy XIII. For the most part this system works, but as I said before, I found myself missing an incredibly frustrating number of times. Common RPGs don't dare to have you miss early on in the game, and I consider the first twenty levels to be early in the game. I figured upgrading my weapons would improve my odds, and sure enough, they didn't.
The combat UI is serviceable while the main UI is an absolute chore to slog through. I don't understand why it takes seconds between when I select an item in my inventory and when the information is actually displayed. This makes buying and selling items an absolutely dreadful experience, and is only compounded by and completely broken economy system. For a game that is so huge on player interaction it does an awful job on interacting with people. For example, there is no auction house system, instead there are wards, where players can set up an NPC to sell their goods. This is fine, except if you're a buyer, you're searching through literally hundreds of NPCs. And to do that for each NPC you must select them, then bring up the main menu, select that NPC's browse command, then about five seconds later their list of items comes up. I don't ever go there any more except to drop off items to my NPC retainer, which is no easier to deal with. Transactions with this NPC are incredibly slow and only makes this game feel slower.
This is also present in the crafting system, where the start up to making an item can take almost 30 seconds. Crafting as a whole is a somewhat frustrating experience which will more often than not result in failure and a loss of materials. Basically you are choosing the type of synthesis used to make an item, and if the item's durability hits zero in the process of the synthesis then the item is not made. There are patterns to how you can make items, but those patterns appear to change with the cycles of the month. Another needlessly difficult aspect of the crafting system is putting items out of your reach unless you take on multiple jobs. In order for me to make a specific piece of armor I would need to also take up leatherworking, carpentry, and goldsmithing. This is just if I want to be a cloth-craft type class. Sure I can go and buy the materials I need in the market wards, but that usually doesn't yield the results I am hoping for, and I can't go out and farm materials that I need because some drops come from enemies who are out of my league. I can party up in a pinch, but overall for a game that encourages you to be self sufficient, it expects you to be proficient in every possible aspect of the game. I get that Square Enix wants this to be a time sink, but I'd rather at least feel like I am making progress than just fail over and over again. And this really gets me, there is no central location to look up the recipes for crafting that you have earned through jobs, instead you are expected to use the Final Fantasy website, which is all well and good, unless you play the game in full screen, you can't alt+tab out of the game otherwise the game simply shuts down.
The social side of Final Fantasy XIV also feels like it was cobbled together rather haphazardly, you've still got the linkshell system, but have made adding people to a friends list a much more ridiculous affair than it needs to be. I have to be within a proximity of a friend to be able to add them to my list? Why? Updates in the future will address this, but it really should not have been like this in the first place. Especially when it can be so difficult to find people since only so many characters can be drawn in your vicinity at any given time. I've been right next to party members but I could not see them, instead the game opted to draw a character much further away from me.
After a month on the market, it's tough to say positive things about Final Fantasy XIV. Instead I am left simply asking, 'Why?" Why are such simple things in a state of disarray? Why were functional aspects of Final Fantasy XI removed or altered to a broken state? There are a ton of user experience issues that have not been addressed but look to be dealt with in future updates. It's hard to see these fixes bringing back those already disenchanted by the game, especially when there is seriously no reason why this game should be so difficult for the user to play. You don't have easy access to crafting recipes, combat is a pain in the ass and has a good number of bugs, it's incredibly difficult to play this game solo despite the game pushing you toward doing that. I was really excited when I saw those videos from E3 in 2009 that showed off what looked to be an epic adventure. Instead I'm left with an epic let down. At this point I'm not sure if I am going to renew my subscription, and Square Enix has already offered an extra 30 days for the trial. We may revisit this review further down the line to see if Square Enix makes it feel like I didn't pay eighty dollars for a limited edition beta test.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I can't believe Square Enix released this game in such a state. In their rush to beat WoW: Cataclysm they have alienated new users, and worse still, alienated their own fanbase who deserve much better than this.