Thursday, December 31, 2020

Final Fantasy XIV Online: A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013)

As the world burns, I am playing Final Fantasy XIV.

Indeed, for the better part of the year 2020, I played the Square Enix MMORPG—my first MMORPG ever!—almost to the exclusion of all other leisure, the unplanned consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic shutting everything down. My adventure actually began a little before that, however, with a more earnest interest.

When my online Final Fantasy game of choice, Final Fantasy Record Keeper, started including characters from FFXIV, they were strangers to me and most of my fellow nostalgia-baited FFRK players. But the handful of Redditors that existed in the overlap between the two games’ audiences were more than happy to explain at length what Y’shtola and Thancred’s stories were, and invariably they would expound further into full-on impassioned discourses arguing why FFXIV, supposedly every bit as engrossing a story-driven adventure as the favored classics represented in FFRK, was a must-play entry for all longtime series fans. Best of all, most of it could be experienced single-player!

Having now completed A Realm Reborn (essentially, “Book 1” of FFXIV, not including an earlier version of the game that failed and was shut down) I can say that this MMORPG has so far indeed been a story-driven experience, in the sense that there is a single linear “main scenario” that makes up the bulk of activity in the game (at least until you start shooting for the endgame, which would likely take a non-hardcore player years to reach and also would not be of interest to them anyway). The A Realm Reborn portion of the story is roughly the length of a standard Final Fantasy: about 50 hours for me, though that included a few hours of side quests (most of which I undertook accidentally while figuring out how to differentiate side quests from main quests), some errant wandering, and some “away from keyboard” time (when I would take a mid-session break but leave the game running in the background). And as with any good Final Fantasy of the last three decades, you can proceed almost straight through without any grinding (though you may have to do 2-3 non-story dungeons, along with one set of class and job quests, which are worth doing anyway).

The active experience of the main scenario, however, bears only superficial resemblance to the single-player Final Fantasy classics. Series veterans longing for a return to the 16-bit glory days may welcome the high fantasy trappings and crystal motifs, but otherwise FFXIV satisfies no better than anything else post-FFXIII in bringing us home. Pitting it against FFXV specifically (since that was the last Final Fantasy I played), the two differ widely but ultimately trade blows about evenly. A Realm Reborn’s plot is far more comprehensible, which is not to say that it’s straightforward—there are myriad nations and deities to keep track of—but if it ever becomes hard to grasp, it is from the game saying too much rather than too little. The former means I sometimes get names mixed up (e.g. which member of the imperial royal family is which, when none of them have yet appeared on camera). The latter results in me not having any idea how or why Noctis in FFXV arrived at any given moment, nor what the meaning of his next plan is, such as there is one. So FFXIV looks and sounds more like my traditional conception of what a Final Fantasy should be.

Where A Realm Reborn falls short of expectations for the series is in the drama of the narrative. There is almost no rising action through the entire main scenario. This is why it was so hard initially for me to distinguish the side quests from the main quests: the actions of both felt similarly humdrum and inconsequential. More often than not, even the main quests would simply entail trekking back and forth between the same couple civilized zones within a bland overworld to fetch and/or deliver some MacGuffin. Sometimes the characters sending me on these errands would even acknowledge the tediousness of the tasks, which only aggravated me more. If you know your system is badly designed, then don’t just shrug and perpetuate it. Do better!

I kept waiting for my heroic journey to begin in earnest, and there were many false starts—a new character making a grand entrance, or a lengthy cutscene containing some bold speechifying—when I would get excited that events were about to be set in motion, only to be treated to yet another fetch quest. The characters and their speeches almost never amount to anything. To those Redditors who tried to sell me on how awesome Y’shtola and Thancred are, I say it would have been more accurate to sum them up thusly: “These are nobodies.” They barely rate as supporting characters, as their appearances are so brief and sporadic, their contributions to any action or dialogue so trivial. The only consistently significant narrative agents are Minfilia and Alphinaud, supervisory characters who exist to tell you what to do, since the player character does not have a voice to call their own shots. The choice to feature a silent and solitary protagonist is typical of MMORPGs, though fans of the SNES and PS1-era Final Fantasy games may find it a harsh break from the developed leads and party dynamics traditionally associated with the series.

Potentially more interesting than the main scenario are the class quests, depending on what class you select when creating your character. Technically optional, but required if you want to unlock core skills and abilities for your class, these are short stories that you can intermittently progress through alongside the main scenario. Perhaps because they are smaller in scope, they feel a little more intimate. By the time I completed the class quests for my gladiator character, I knew the supporting characters in that story a lot better than I ever got to know Y’shtola and Thancred through all of A Realm Reborn.

I think the narrative is further constrained by the persistent nature of the MMORPG world. Since it must be shared among many players who are at different stages of the story, nothing ever seems to change in it, which further undermines any sense of stakes beyond your immediate skirmish. By contrast, one aspect in which FFXV lived up to the Final Fantasy standard was in the grandeur of its set pieces. Looming threats turned to cataclysmic clashes that sometimes permanently altered the landscape. You could feel the end approaching through the darkening of the world, both figurative and literal. The only moments in A Realm Reborn that come close to that epic quality are the very final battles, which also happen to be among the worst moments, because the requirement that you experience them alongside other players creates a situation where randos end up photobombing all over your climax.

Yes, most of A Realm Reborn can be experienced single-player. Since quests are assigned to individuals and not groups, there is in fact almost no way to even try to work with others to clear the fetch quests together. For most of the main scenario, the other players are just passing through the background of your story, running their own errands or waging their own battles on the overworld. It does break the spell a bit when you’re trying to get through a quest dialogue, and then some dude playing weaver class decides to set down their spinning wheel right behind you to crank out a couple robes. But the fantasy was not that immersive to begin with. The real bubble-burster, for those weaned on the antisocial adventures of Cloud and Squall, and already leery of Final Fantasy going multiplayer, is when it comes time to tackle the dungeons, where players are required to party up with one another.

Most dungeons in A Realm Reborn are just long caves full of monsters, with a big boss monster at the end. There is no in-game explanation for why you must join forces with other players, only contrived reasons for why Y’shtola and Thancred can’t back you up instead. If your own mute hero is a practical nonentity, the other player characters might as well not exist at all, as far as the story is concerned. Only the most passing mentions are ever made to “your allies,” but nothing is ever said of where they come from or why they are as strong as you, despite your being a supposedly uniquely powerful warrior touched by the gods. So as a baseline, the narrative in most dungeons is thin. From there, points can only be deducted from the experience according to the degree to which the other players disrupt it.

Truly malicious behavior (e.g. bullying, offensive talk, deliberately sabotaging the group effort, etc.) is not something I have ever personally encountered in FFXIV. The more innocent kind of disruption is when some members of the party simply don’t perform well. They struggle to keep up with a boss, resulting in the entire group dying and having to restart. Sometimes it happens repeatedly, until the flailing player or another member so loses faith in the effort that they quit out, leaving the rest of the group in the lurch. I can’t entirely blame them.

The main scenario is generally well balanced for a more casual level of player, meaning that most battles can be successfully completed on the first try without ever having to grind for levels or even buy any items or equipment. Losses are almost never due to being underpowered, but rather from being underinformed about the mechanics of a boss’s gimmicks. Even in routine dungeon battles, the amount of briskly updating information to keep track of is absurd to me: health, positions, buffs and debuffs of all allies and enemies; timers telling me when each of my abilities is ready to reuse; who or where enemies are targeting (as marked by glowy shapes on the ground). Bosses add further mechanics that you might be seeing for the first time up to that point. There might be objects you have to interact with. Enemy attacks might be telegraphed through obscure text or subtle animations instead of the usual glowy shapes. When glowy shapes do appear, they might mean something different from what you’re used to them meaning. In one fight, a circle signified refuge. In the very next fight, a similar-looking circle was something to steer clear of—unless you were a tank, that is. And these things can change in the middle of a boss fight, so you have to be ready to adjust and adapt.

This can all quickly become overwhelming if it’s your first time attempting a given dungeon. Some gimmicks I’m convinced are impossible to grasp without having already experienced them once before, and I think that’s intentional to contrive comradeship through knowledge-sharing. The first players to figure out these dungeons can perhaps be thought of as pioneers, and then when they repeat them, they can share their wisdom with any newcomers in the group, and maybe the knowledge continues to get passed down that way. That’s fine in theory, but the strangers I group up with almost never give me any warning about what to expect.

When playing with strangers, I find that almost nobody ever talks, period. I get it, because I don’t talk either. It’s not what I play Final Fantasy for. But sometimes the failure to communicate is not a matter of being asocial. The worst players I’ve grouped with have been the veterans playing a dungeon for the umpteenth time, who would gladly disregard your presence, as they try to rush through as quickly as they can. The final dungeons of A Realm Reborn have been fairly ruined by the mentality of these players speeding through without giving first-timers the chance to really savor the climactic battles. (The battles probably also need to be rebalanced at some point, as the bosses are too weak now even for casual playthroughs.) But this is a problem that the designers created, and it shouldn’t be the players’ responsibility to sort it out on their own. This is also a problem, mind you, that simply doesn’t exist in the single-player Final Fantasy games I favor.

The multiplayer experience I’ve described is of playing in “pick-up groups” with strangers, since that’s nearly the only option when on the free trial. If you can manage to group with friends or family members, then the experience is certainly different. The pressure to keep pace with strangers’ unspoken expectations falls away, as does the diplomatic cautiousness of whether to give advice to someone who hasn’t asked for help but needs it. What’s left is a decent cooperative game that reminds me a little of the joys of questing with my siblings back in the day in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles and Dragon Quest IX, albeit without the full immersive context of being able to do anything together other than fight. At least the complexities of the combat actually become a boon, as they make for a less monotonous experience than those games.

At its best then, what FFXIV offers is something completely different from what I would traditionally seek from a Final Fantasy game, but it can be fun, if treated as a cooperative experience with friends. The fetch quest material in between each dungeon, at least in A Realm Reborn, is kind of a drag, but I have heard that the story picks up quite a bit in the next installment, Heavensward. I’m not sure all of my issues—silent protagonist, thin supporting cast, rando photobombers—can ever be resolved within FFXIV's MMORPG framework, but I’ll stick with the free trial for a while longer, and perhaps report back in a year on my Heavensward experience.