Games don't get to a fourteenth iteration in the series, with an additional bevy of side games, without shipping units. In Final Fantasy's case, the number of units shipped is massive - around 100 million at last count. In the 23 years since the first one, the series has formed a massive fanbase and created a brand that's worth billions of dollars.
Which only adds to the confusion that is caused by playing Final Fantasy XIV. With that much money, that many fans and that much expectation, how can it be that the game is...well, this bad?
It turns out, you see, that the fourteenth game in the main series and second Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game to bear the brand is, quite possibly, the worst MMO ever released. That it's also the worst Final Fantasy game is in no doubt whatsoever and, at any point in the future, should anyone feel the need to discuss the most disappointing or otherwise worst gaming experiences ever, this game will at least be mentioned.
Let's start at the beginning.
When you first get the game, you are required to sign up for an account - this is standard fare for MMOs and is becoming increasingly common for any kind of online game, massively multiplayer or otherwise. No big deal, right? Wrong. The registration process for FFXIV is unbelievably convoluted, directing you to various sites and forms through which you must provide credit card details and select from confusingly named options or wait for various stages of the process to be completed without your input. During this process you'll learn that, should you want to have more than one character, FFXIV will cost you up to $63 dollars PER MONTH to play. That nets you just ten characters maximum - the minimum ($24) gets you just one.
Once you get in to the game, you're treated to a lovely intro movie - enjoy it because everything goes downhill fast from here. One of the first things you'll notice is that the game is not full-screen. After spending a few minutes trying to find graphics options, you'll figure out that you have to exit the game to change the options via the (completely separate) settings & options program - which defaults to Japanese. Change it to English and you can finally set your options - just be careful because some of them don't work, resulting in graphics options that don't display everything in the game.
Once you finally get it working at the resolution you'd like (be careful - the game crashes if you select full screen and then tab out to check your email or tweet about how bad it is), you set about creating your characters. The characters you can choose between look good in their default configuration, which is great because you can change very little about their appearance. They're vastly different in silhouette and and "attitude", as well as being very true to Final Fantasy. Nice. That's literally the last good part of the game so if you don't want to hear anything else bad about the title, now's the time to close this review and check out some of the other awesome content on NZGamer.com.
Still here? Let's get into it, then.
At the start of the game, you're tasked with... figuring out what on earth you're tasked with. Once you figure that out, you need to figure out how on earth to accomplish it - FFXIV includes next to no assistance or guidance in telling you what your quest is or how on earth you go about achieving it. Once you fumble your way through to the fact that you need to repeatedly click on the prone bodies in the clearing, things get underway - ultimately introducing you to your first phase of combat.
In FFXIV, your character can be in one of two modes - one of which is combat, the other of which is deep embarrassment at being in such an awful game (I'm paraphrasing). You need to switch between them in order to engage in combat with an enemy - why on earth this is considered a good idea is something which is never made clear. Believe it or not, this is the least awkward part of the user interface, which is arguably the worst interface ever devised - even worse than regular Final Fantasy games, which tend to peak at "sub-optimal".
Combat itself is pretty standard fare - select an enemy and use one of the actions you have docked in your action bar at the bottom of the screen. You can also select when to attack, opting to choose between speed and effectiveness - a cool twist in theory but it's hard to tell how much impact selecting between the two actually has.
Once you've completed the basic introduction quest chain, during which you'll discover that NPCs lack any kind of indication as to their function and that tracking what you're supposed to do in a quest is painfully difficult / relies on random luck at figuring it out, you're introduced to the random quest system. Many locations on the map (just wait when you load the map - icons take ages to load in, every time) have little quest crystal things that issue out daily "kill a bunch of rats" type quests for you to complete. Accepting one of these takes about a dozen clicks and, should the game server crash out or your client disconnect (something that happens frequently), you fail it and can never reattempt it. Spectacularly cool feature, that.
The quests have next to no information about where you're supposed to find whatever rat-variant this particular one asks of you but the mini-map will give you some clues. Just don't ever look at the quest map as ten or so clicks into the interface, it's completely different to the main game map.
Speaking of the game map, it's practically unnavigable - you can't see how each of the sides of the map connects to the next one which you can't scroll to (you have to select it from a list). It's hard to imagine in a world that has Google Maps, World of Warcraft or even beta testers that this is the map system they thought was the one for them. It's almost better to a) remember where you've been and b) randomly attempt to find your way to new places than to actually use the game's mapping system.
Throughout the experience, much of which will no doubt be viewed through tears and heard over the sound of your own gnashing teeth, you're constantly greeted with lengthy loading screens, black screens and flashes of partially rendered game world or other, low-polish examples of presentation. In fact, the entire game lacks polish in every respect - it's as if the designers decided that referring to other games and building on them would be a weakness and that reinventing everything, without any feedback on the usability or fun of the features in question, was the way to go.
Another mind-boggling feature inclusion is the limitation in the number of quests you can complete each day. No doubt a method to prevent people spending too long playing the game, what it ultimately means is that you spend most of your time grinding on mobs (killing things over and over for experience) once you've exhausted your quest count. This feature seems similar to making cigarettes out of asbestos; you'll still use them, you'll just be crying and dying inside while you do.
Everything about the game is sloooow; moving, menus, interactions, spawning of NPCs, the map - you name it, it's slow. Even the icons on the map take an age to appear and they don't cache so you have to go through this cludgy experience every time you load it! The game's so slow, in fact, that you'll be idling in an area waiting for NPCs to spawn for minutes at a time before they appear - combine that with the fact that you frequently don't know where you're supposed to go and you can imagine how often you're standing around in the wrong place waiting for teleporting NPCs that won't ever turn up.
We were unable to ascertain what caused the lag (graphics settings have no bearing on it) so we can only assume that a combination of the game's net code and our geographical distance from the game servers (we don't know where they are but they're not in NZ) contribute to the issue. The test machine has a dedicated 15Mbps internet pipe so it's hard to imagine that it's anything to do with our connection.
Disconnections are frequent and, for whatever reason, the game likes to give you a lot of technical detail on just why you've been kicked out. Messages like "Server error 43330445" appear, bewildering the player without giving any actual information that may be of use (like, "Unable to contact server, please try again later" or similar). The launcher and patcher is like that too, presented via some cumbersome Internet Explorer-like window, it tells you lots of stuff like "peers" and "connections" (with associated numbers) but at no point does it tell you the size of the patch - the only piece of information which is actually of any real interest.
Visually it seems to be nice, with lush character graphics and some genuinely imaginative creatures, all of which fit nicely within the Final Fantasy art style. The game's lag issues, however, truncate the animation and make everything jerk around unnaturally, spoiling most of the effect. You also have extremely limited options when creating characters, resulting in a bunch of cookie-cutter humans running around.
The sound is decent, with voices (occasional; not all dialogue is voiced) and great music that again fits very well within the Final Fantasy canon. The loops for city music, etc, are short however so it won't be long before you're reaching for the option to turn it off. Sound effects are crisp and ethereal, with an excellent implementation of surround sound, should you be lucky enough to have a setup to take advantage of it.
In a universe where World of Warcraft is six years old and numerous other MMOs have been released to varying levels of success and acclaim, it's hard to understand why Final Fantasy XIV exists in this form. It is woefully inferior in every important way to almost every MMO ever released - let alone recently. Instead of taking what other games (even Final Fantasy XI) have done and improving on or learning from them, it seems to discard every advance ever made in the field and reset the experience back to when it was only the hardest of the hardcore that participated.
That, I suggest, is a losing proposition - time marches on and those hardcore have gotten used to the brave new world where gamers are treated with respect, love and attention. They simply will not accept this failed attempt at a new experience and will not stay long (should they be foolish enough to turn up in the first place); it's hard to imagine even major changes to the system that may eventually come in patches making enough of a difference to make this game worthwhile.
A truly awful experience and one that should be avoided at all costs. STAY AWAY!