A couple of months ago, with Stormblood fast approaching, I decided to dive back into Final Fantasy XIV in an effort to catch up and see what I’d been missing out on. Now, I hadn’t played since before version 3.1 – the first major update after Heavensward’s launch – so I had a lot of catching up to do. What’s impressed me the most in these last few months hasn’t just been the new content, though, but just the wealth of small but noteworthy improvements that cumulatively make Final Fantasy XIV a far more enjoyable game that when I left it almost two years ago.
Something Old, Something New
When I stopped playing Final Fantasy XIV last time, it was mostly because I’d run out of things to do and grown bored. The story through Heavensward was every bit as exciting, heartfelt, and silly as I’ve come to love and expect from the game, and the ride from level 50 to 60, through all the beautiful new zones, was an utter delight.
But when that journey was over, the destination left me wanting. In the early days of Heavensward, the endgame consisted almost exclusively of running daily Duty Roulettes and farming just two “Expert” level 60 dungeons, all so that you could grind tomestones with which to buy homogenous role-specific gear. Those two dungeons were really well-designed and a lot of fun, but they grew dull and tiresome nonetheless after repeated runs. Before long, the first part of the new 8-player raid was added, but I had neither the gear nor the patience for the “hardcore” content.
It goes without saying that the subsequent patches added a bunch of new dungeons, from easy 4-player stuff, to extreme versions of existing trials, to a new series of mid-level 24-person raids. All these new duties are good at the very least, and most are great – Final Fantasy XIV has some of the best encounter designers in the business and it shows, with bosses that continue to show how much life is left in “tired” MMORPG mechanics.
One thing I really like is that there seems to be less focus on strict timing for things like dodging AOEs; playing in New Zealand, latency is always an issue even on good internet, and a lot of stuff in A Realm Reborn was nigh impossible as a result. I’ve still never beaten Twintania for exactly this reason. I must admit, I haven’t bothered with the high-end stuff like Extreme trials or Alexander (Savage), but everything else manages to make widespread (and very creative) use of AOE markers without putting such strict demands on reactions that latency becomes an issue.
But the more impressive thing is the variety of new content released over Heavensward’s couple of years, much of which can be enjoyed by players of all levels. The most significant of these is the Palace of the Dead, a sort of dungeon crawler minigame that’s available at all levels, is a great source of experience points for low- and mid-level jobs, can reward some decent gear for Level 60 jobs, and – most importantly – is a lot of fun. The Palace of the Dead sees you fighting through a randomised dungeon full of traps, monsters, and treasure. Your level inside the Palace is unrelated to that of the “real” world; you start at level 1 and can go right through to 60, regardless of what level you actually are. You also earn experience for your non-Palace level as you play, and it’s a very viable alternative to farming FATEs and Duty Roulette to level up. There are 200 floors in total, but you can save your progress every 10 floors and return at your leisure, so it’s something that you can easily dip in and out of as you please. Not everyone will enjoy it – it’s a deliberate attempt to recreate a rather old-school genre within the world of Final Fantasy XIV – but it’s nonetheless a great way to expand on what the game has to offer.
The Diadem and the Aquapolis also take a randomised approach, albeit on a smaller scale. The former tasks players with exploring an uncharted area of the Sea of Clouds, undertaking special missions that lead to a variety of rewards. Each instance of the Diadem has space for up to 9 different parties, each chasing their own objectives but working together (and competing for treasure) within the same space. It’s the same philosophy behind FATEs taken to a grander scale, and that can be a lot of fun.
The Aquapolis, on the other hand, is a special dungeon that randomly appears when players use high-level treasure maps. Inside, players fight through a series of bosses, with a choice between two doors after each victory. The correct door leads to some treasure and the next boss; the wrong one brings the dungeon to an end. With a bit of luck, you can get some sought after crafting materials, glamor gear, minions, and orchestrion rolls.
There are other introductions aimed at keeping “old” content relevant and viable, making the overall endgame much more varied than if the only useful stuff was that made specifically for level 60 players. Duty Roulettes continue to make low-level dungeons worth doing at least once a day, and the new Wondrous Trials adds to that with a fun little weekly scratch-card that you fill in by completing certain dungeons and trials.
Still the best story in an MMO
Final Fantasy XIV has become famed for its attention to story, something that often seems like an afterthought in MMORPGs. It’s got everything you’d expect from a Final Fantasy game – excitement, action, melodrama, humanity, heart, silly humour, and nods to older games. Instead of trying to write a story around the MMO structure, it makes each player the star and hero of their own story, which unfolds in that traditional Final Fantasy way. It’s great, and Heavensward continued that greatness with a new chapter about the closing days of a thousand-year war and a city where tradition and modernity are forced into conflict.
As with A Realm Reborn, the main story component of Heavensward ended neatly, but left the door open for further developments with each major patch. The Dragonsong War arc that began with the expansion’s launch finally comes to a close, and in a suitably epic and thought-provoking way: amidst its dragon fighting shenanigans, there’s an insightful look at the way we remember our wars and those who died fighting them, that we might celebrate their sacrifice even as we condemn the war itself. It also wraps a nice, neat little bow around the highborn vs. lowborn subplot, as Ishgard finally sees its way to abandoning its rigid and highly inequitable class structure in favour of something more democratic.
With the Dragonsong War arc drawing closed some time ago, the last couple of patches took the story in a new direction, as the remnants of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn find themselves roped into a battle against the self-proclaimed Warriors of Darkness. The story itself is not an overly deep or complex one, taken on one of Final Fantasy’s favourite narrative themes: the need for balance between darkness and light. What makes this arc noteworthy, though, is the fact that the Warriors of Darkness are the heroes from the original Final Fantasy XIV. Their reason for coming to the world of A Realm Reborn is that there own world was swallowed by an imbalance of dark and light, and the only way to restore it, as far as they could tell, was to stop the Warrior of Light in this world. It’s a fun little nod to vanilla Final Fantasy XIV , and a clever way of acknowledging both the failings and the importance of that first effort. Flawed though it was, we’d never have A Realm Reborn or Heavensward without it.
Finally, there’s the myriad of side stories that play out through the new dungeons and questlines that surround them. They’re all a lot of fun, and embellish on the story of the Hero of Light by showing the wide expanse of her heroics, from stopping the resurrection of a giant walking fortress-turned-primal to helping a gang of sky pirates that finds itself in way over its head. Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t just do story better than most MMOs, it’s right up there with the best Final Fantasy games, and the many updates to Heavensward continue to prove that.
Living a the good life
All that new content is great, and it’s what keeps a game like this alive, but – as I said before – I think my favourite parts of my return to Final Fantasy XIV have been the quality of life changes. They’re all little things, but the cumulative effect of them, especially after almost two years away, is quite profound.
Chocobos are now treated as pets rather than companions, meaning you can queue for dungeons while your chocobo is summoned; no longer do you have to abandon your chocobo, and all the efficiency she brings to solo play, while you wait for a group. You can also summon mounts while your chocobo is summoned, which is a welcome change from the chocobo herself being the only option unless you repeatedly dismissed and re-summoned her.
Speaking of queuing for duties, there’s now a lot more information displayed while you wait. Along with the average wait time and your elapsed time, you can see your place in the queue for your role and whatever it is that you’re queued for. If you’re next in line, you know that your turn will probably be soon, regardless of the average time; if you’re 20th, it’s probably safe to go get that coffee and take a bio break. The Party Finder can also now be used to form parties with players from other servers, much like the Duty Finder can, but with all the custom party options that the Party Finder allows.
Inventory management continues to get more streamlined. You can view all four slots of your inventory in one big panel, instead of having to constantly page back and forth, which is a very welcome change indeed, and you can also customise the right-click / square button menu to move commands you don’t use often to a hidden sub-menu. Glamor Prisms no longer have “grades”; there’s just one type of prism for each crafting class – so any cloth gear, regardless of level, just needs a Clothcraft Glamor Prism. You can easily search all your inventories, including retainers and armoire, for specific items using the “/isearch” command, and you can instruct retainers to sell items to a vendor instead of having to do it manually yourself.
There are new quest markers to differentiate between quests that unlock new features or content (i.e. quests to unlock a new dungeon) and those that don’t, so you can easily see at a glance which quests are important beyond the standard rewards. You can now teleport and eat food while mounted, eliminating all the wasted time spent looking for somewhere to land just so you can port to a different zone. When you wipe in a duty, all cooldowns get reset, so there’s no more need to wait around before starting the next attempt.
All these things go towards making playing Final Fantasy XIV as smooth as possible. There’ll always be more to wish for – what I wouldn’t give for a way to use items in retainers’ inventories while crafting – but the continued work towards improving the moment-to-moment experience of playing the game, instead of just adding new things to do, has made my return to Eorza an utter delight.
A look to the future
Stormblood is almost here, and it’s promising some major changes. I must say, I’m still skeptical about some of them – like the new role abilities, which seem like they’ll further homogenise roles that could desperately do with some more differentiation. But there are far more that I’m eagerly looking forward to, like swimming, new Job Gauges, and expanded inventories.
The last couple of months has reminded me of why I fell in love with Final Fantasy XIV in the first place. I assume that the early days of Stormblood will have the same lack of endgame content as Heavensward (such is the nature of MMOs, really), but I know there’ll be more to come – and even if I do get bored, the appeal of the Return to Ivalice raid should be enough to keep me excited at least up to patch 4.1.
There’s just days until Stormblood’s early access launch, and I couldn’t be happier about returning to Eorzea. If you’ve moved on, I’d encourage you to give it another look. If you’ve never played Final Fantasy XIV before, well, there’s no time like the present.