Last year was a year without MMOs as Smudge concentrated on other things and stayed away from Guild Wars 2 and Neverwinter. However, Square Enix ran a promotion to get old players back to Final Fantasy XIV in December and managed to hook us.

FF XIV has been one of my regrets as I enjoyed it, and especially enjoyed playing my main character, Rylea. Who I didn’t have any screenshots of. But while we talked about it, it seemed unlikely we’d get back to one of the few MMOs still wanting a monthly subscription. But we’re back, subscribed, have bought the expansions, and having the usual mix of frustration and fun.

As a game, FF XIV has a number of places where it’s… second best. But it manages at least that good on about everything.

It’s solidly in the old model of giving you lots of buttons to press, with every class having a bewildering variety of different abilities. This also includes dozens of different emotes (some of which you get from certain quests). And every class now has some form of gage or meter, many of which I’ve yet to get any idea of how they work. Combat abilities tend to feature a lot of shared cooldowns, and keep me too busy too look at the screen too often.

On the other hand, it uses a version of the Job System from other FFs, which means that every character can potentially be every class in the game. It used to be that halfway through you’d turn your primary class into a job by getting a few levels into a secondary class, but that has been dropped so it’s just by quest unlocks, and the job isn’t as special now. It’s streamlined, but it seems like the cross-class connections are weaker now.

Looks and music-wise, FF XIV is top-notch. The soundtrack is helped by borrowing themes from the previous thirteen games, but it’s a very extensive and well-done sountrack, and I think only the GW2 soundtrack is as big (and just as good thanks to Jeremy Soule, Maclaine Diemer, Lena Chappelle and Stan LePard). The visuals get the usual FF attention, and the models just look gorgeous, especially when you get a close-up on them.

The weak part of the world is it doesn’t feel very lived in. WoW was fairly good in this department, and GW2 is very good, as their main cities tend to have large residential sections that you can go through (or at least the peripheries of them), and various outlying farms and the like. FF XIV suffers from relatively small and cramped zones, much like Neverwinter, instead of the more expansive areas of most MMOs, or WoW‘s ability to cross an entire continent without hitting a load screen. We assume that this is part of cost of letting it run on a PS3, but the fact that even the main cities are split into two zones is a real pain.

The crafting system is one place the game shines and out-does other MMOs. Combined with the job system, it’s easy for FF XIV to support dedicated gathering and crafting stats as they have their own classes, and the act of crafting is its own minigame where you can spend effort to try to create high quality items that can generally match the next grade higher gear (or slightly better). Of course, high quality materials turn it into an even bigger inventory sink than normal, but it gives more interest than, “Quiet woman! I only need to make another 25 chairs before I can make the couch!” (For those of you who remember Hammer of Grammar.)

Questing is a mixed bag. Mostly, it’s the standard model, and I really miss the conversation trees from GW2 and especially SW:TOR. But there are a lot of cutscenes in the questing that have people moving around and acting, which helps a lot for storytelling. One thing I realized recently is that the FF series has always been interested in telling a story, and sometimes they let telling get in the way of experiencing. FF XIV has a fairly good main story, and a number side-stories, generally dealing with the classes, but oftentimes the story is more told to you (visually) instead of making you feel part of the story (which really was SW:TOR‘s strong point; thanks BioWare).

One of the regrets with our leaving FF XIV is that we had gotten close to the end of the main story, but hadn’t actually finished it. We actually spent some time away from it once we came back, which I think was intelligent, as it gave us a chance to get comfortable again, and actually finish getting to level 50 before diving into the main story. This included a certain amount of re-doing some low-level quests as they had re-arranged things, and broken our ‘completed’ tags for a few things. They’ve also formalized the ‘unlock’ system for quests that introduce in-game abilities, and that is a nice addition.

The ending sequence itself… had problems. It’s a suitable climax to the story, but has two back-to-back dungeons that must be run. The required story dungeons have always been a bad experience for me, as the rest of the party you’re thrown in with generally skips all the cutscenes and runs off. This is especially bad for the final two, where Smudge and I basically spent the entire time watching all the cutscenes, as by the time one was over, the rest of the party had encountered/defeated the next boss, so we’d go straight into the next cutscene (this was shortly before a patch that now requires everyone to always watch the cutscenes, which feels too heavy handed to me). Neither of us has ever liked the ‘must run faster’ mentality of a lot of people in MMO dungeons, and like to go in to something that’s a challenge and plan our way through it, but it seems turned up to 11 in FF. I think in part that some of it is the insistence on gorgeously produced cutscenes instead of going for in-game-engine skits which most MMOs do when trying for story in a dungeon. Flipping out of the cutscene breaks immersion, and heightens impatience if you’ve seen it before. Though why there’s so many people eager to wreck the experience for what they’ve been told is someone seeing it for the first time is still beyond me.

And yet I still have to rate it better than the end of GW2, which featured a story-in-dungeon ending, which ended up being anticlimactic due to poor design. At points the NPCs all had things to say, which you didn’t have enough time to go through all of, and at other points, you were fighting a dragon… by waiting around for it to pass in front of the deck guns of the airship you were on. The big fight, and all your usual skills weren’t a big part of it.

A nice touch of FF XIV‘s ending is the first cutscene of the final dungeon actually shows the entire party together (instead of the usual ‘lone hero’ bit; again, I really appreciated when SW:TOR would acknowledge you were in a party in dialog) which was a really nice touch:

Since then, we’ve ended up falling into a Free Company (which is a little lewder than I’d strictly like, but their hearts are definitely in the right place), and are now working our way through the post-ending/pre-expansion content. The FC has been focusing on trying to get the various horse-mounts for anyone who wants them, which means lots of runs through the toughened-up Trial encounters. I certainly appreciate it, though I keep hoping to work on crafting, and get a second class up to decent levels…. I’m suffering from my usual not enough time in an omnivorous gamer’s life for everything.

There is the usual inflation of gear values between expansions which I tend to consider poor design (I’ve only seen GW2 get away from that at all). Rylea’s gear has changed out three times after the ‘game end’, and is still possibly a bit short of where it ‘should’ be. But, I have been taking lots of screenshots.