When Final Fantasy XIV first released in 2010, the consensus was that it was a complete flop. After months of patches, the resignation of its original lead designer, and removal of its monthly fee, Square-Enix decided to scrap it completely and start over. The result of their efforts is Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - a most fitting title.
I didn't play the game in its original incarnation - I got burned out very quickly during my time with Final Fantasy XI and wasn't really looking for another MMO in the same vein. Fortunately, I decided to check the reboot out at this year's E3 and was intrigued enough to want to try it out. Despite some rough login issues surrounding the launch, I've managed to have a pretty great time playing Final Fantasy XIV.
One of the best things about A Realm Reborn is its class system. Though you have to choose a class to start with and must level it to a certain point, each character you create can be every single class - once you've introduced yourself to the guild of each class, you can simply switch whatever weapon you're carrying to switch classes at any point, with few exceptions. When doing certain content your party will be limited in the number of times you are able to change class, and you cannot change class mid-combat.
The classes are broken up into four categories: Disciples of War (physical damage dealers), Disciples of Magic (magic users), Disciples of the Hand (crafting), and Disciples of the Land (gatherers). That's right, if you want to craft or gather in this game, you have to switch classes. Since I'm a shameless fan of Kain from Final Fantasy IV, I initially chose the Lancer class, a Disciple of War who specializes in spear/lance-based combat.
Once you've leveled several of the classes to a certain point, you'll be able to take a more specialized class called a Job - which should perk up the ears of anybody who played the early NES/SNES games in the series, or Final Fantasy Tactics. Different mixtures of classes provide different jobs, but needless to say, you'll be seeing your fair share of Paladins and Dragoons during your play time.
As with its predecessors, A Realm Reborn's quests are story-driven. I had to chuckle that the story centers around a terrible event that happened a number of years ago that nobody seems to be able to remember, which seems awful autobiographical to me. Long-time fans of Final Fantasy should enjoy the plot revolving around magical Crystals, legendary Warriors of Light, and an evil invading Empire. There's an awful lot of fanservice, both blatant and subtle, but it never really gets in the way of the game itself.
You'll do your fair share of FedEx quests and killing 10 rats, but the little storylines crafted through each zone are pretty interesting and tie together very well. Larger quest events called Duties are often much more interesting, involving multi-phase boss fights and cutscenes with full voice acting. Thankfully, unlike The Old Republic, the game doesn't try and use voice acting for everything, so new content can be released on a more aggressive schedule.
Other recent MMOs such as Warhammer Online and Guild Wars 2 have embraced the idea of public quests and events, and Final Fantasy XIV is no different. Here, they're called Fates, and anybody in the vicinity can join in, provided they're not too high a level. If you outlevel content, the game will scale your level and stats down appropriately, but it's not as smoothly implemented as Guild Wars 2's scaling system. Some Fates are as simple as fending off waves of enemies in a town, but others (much like Guild Wars 2) chain into larger encounters and sometimes gigantic outdoor bosses.
If you're looking for more to do beyond the regular story quests, NPCs called Levemetes exist in each zone and dole out challenge quests (called Guildleves) to whoever stops by. I haven't run into any that are particularly interesting on their own, but when you begin one you have the option of scaling up the difficulty. The amount of time it takes to complete a Guildleve is finite, and the more time you have remaining at the end, the better your reward will be. Bumping up the difficulty also helps gain greater rewards. If slaughtering things for the Adventurer's Guild isn't your thing, there are also options to partake in crafting and gathering challenges.
Levemetes also hand out group leves called Guildhests - which are one of the most brilliant pieces of content I've seen added to an MMO. Guildhests are short, group-focused challenges that help train you for encounters you might find in the instanced dungeons. If you pay attention, you'll be taught the entire group battle mechanic, and hopefully it helps players understand their role a lot sooner than the endgame.
Instanced dungeons are called Raids here, and oddly enough, the party size is four - usually in games of this type you roll with five players, but what the hell. Let's be different. Some dungeons are actually part of the game's main storyline, and you'll be forced to participate if you want to proceed. As expected, they're littered with trash mobs and boss-class creatures, but there's a little more exploration involved.
In the first dungeon alone, you'll have to find some secret passages and get keys to certain doorways by exploring alternate rooms to proceed. Once you make it to the final boss it's a significantly greater challenge than the standard tank & spank encounter you usually find early on in an MMO. In this case, the boss needs to be held in check by a tank, and the rest of the players need to constantly interact with parts of the environment to prevent extra enemies from joining in. The next dungeon I partook was even more of a challenge, with a boss that summons friends who make him invulnerable to damage.
Final Fantasy XIV's guilds are called "Free Companies". Joining one is usually a good idea when playing an MMO, and membership includes several perks, including permanent bonuses to XP accrual, access to the Company Chest for central storage, and of course, the companionship of your fellow players.
You can also join up to eight Linkshells, which are basically chat rooms for players who may or may not be in the same Free Company. It can get a little weird managing discussions that flow between your Free Company chat and various Linkshells, but thankfully you can designate separate chat tabs in the UI to help sort things out.
To be perfectly frank, I did not expect to like A Realm Reborn as much as I do. While my early preview of it at E3 was promising, the history of the game made me extremely wary. It looks amazing, the soundtrack is wonderful, and there's a ton to do. I've been loving my playtime with it so far, and I might even play this one beyond the trial month, which is about the highest praise I can give to a subscription-based MMO these days.