Of all the writing gigs to hit my inbox, this one is easily the most intimidating. The opportunity to cover a game like Final Fantasy 14 is, of course, an exciting one. The name alone is synonyms with the best of the RPG genre and specifically, the MMO offspring had hit my radar years ago when it made waves at the Sydney Mardi Gras festival.
But it’s also…massive. Not in a cute way or in a hundred-hour RPG about punching God in the face way, but in a HUNDREDS of hours, multiple quests and story arcs and a firmly established player base kind of way.
This prestige brings with it a level of expectations, a desire to do the game justice – you don’t just stumble into 20 million registered players after all. Final Fantasy 14 is deeply beloved by both its fanbase and incredibly hardworking developers, a potent combination of factors that make covering it with wholly fresh eyes hugely intimidating. I’ve never played an MMO before, I don’t speak the language or understand the intricacies.
But I’m going to try. Because somewhere out there there is another player looking at this behemoth of a game and wondering if it’s possible to truly get into in 2020. Given the state of the world at the moment you might be that player, looking for something to escape into during isolation life or hardships. And with the Final Fantasy 14 free trial now including all story content up to Level 60, there has maybe never been a better (or more bittersweet) time to dive in.
Don’t worry, I was scared too.
Personally, I find it hard to relate to an RPG if I can’t define my own role in it. Pre-crafted characters can offer an amazing narrative in their own right but when I think of my favourite games in the genre I frequently return to your Mass Effects or Dragon Ages – the latter especially with regards to its Origins factor. Your character is often so much more than just the hair you spent ten minutes choosing and in the same vein as Dragon Age: Origins, Final Fantasy 14 leans into the customisable back story creation system.
It’s part of an amazingly robust character creator that I spent an embarrassingly long time messing around in. First up, there are eight unique races to choose from, though not all will be available to you depending on which version of the game you’re running. Given my penchant for shiny new things and massive creatures with himbo energy, I gravitated toward the Hrothgar, an all-male race of large lion creatures. Each playable race has a clan option which dictates your backstory essentially, and while not as detailed as Origins it still provides a nice layer of flavour to your roleplaying experience.
Beyond that there is also a staggering degree of cosmetic customisation to be had (yes a big dark purple lion does look great with eyeliner, thank you) as well as your voice and character’s birthday. After that, things begin to get a little more complex and here Reddit became my best friend. You’ll be prompted to choose a patron deity (minor element resistance, from what I can gather) and the big one – your role in things to come.
This is the first time I felt the anxiety of taking on such a large, established game kick in. It’s all well and good to say to yourself that you’ll just play it like any other RPG but ultimately you will be rolling with other players eventually and you’ll want to be as helpful as possible to them. This means educating yourself through means outside of the game, hence Reddit being your best bet. There are countless threads full of amazing advice just for new players and I encourage anyone who wants to really get into Final Fantasy 14 to hit the books as it were.
Final Fantasy 14 offers up some interesting classes (which become your “job” in the game) but it’s important to choose the right one for you. Some lend themselves better to newbies than others and understanding what you’re getting yourself in for is key to having a good time. I’m a simple man who likes simple pleasures so I chose a brute monk who would focus on DPS and not much else. But whatever is right for you is the role that brings you to the most joy. Find your bliss, then get good at it.
Regardless of who and how you want to play, after character creation the game drops you right into its mysteriously ethereal storyline. I haven’t touched on the narrative much yet and that’s because it is both complex and utterly compelling to discover on your own. The complex part is largely relegated to the richly detailed lore of Hydaelyn and its history of eras, Gods and heroes. It is, frankly, an overwhelming amount of information to process, let alone engage with emotionally. So when you dive in, take a deep breath, and focus on your hero – the rest falls into place pretty quickly.
There are more than enough hints at something more interesting than your average chosen one narrative peppered throughout the opening hours of the game (granted, in this case, opening means a dozen or so). Again, if you’re feeling overwhelmed at this stage (I was) it’s best to focus on the main quest line and little else. Through these, you’ll earn enough exp to level up and be eased into the game’s larger narrative along with its smaller factions and politics.
Final Fantasy 14 understands the importance of humble beginnings and won’t toss you to the wolves just yet. Once you’ve sought out the main quest givers of your chosen starting location (your class will dictate where you start your adventure) it’s business as usual for an MMO. I say that as if I have any real grasp of the genre beyond general zeitgeist knowledge and shitposting but for what it’s worth, I didn’t find these early fetch quests all that…fetchy.
There was undoubtedly a handful that made me trek back through an ornate palace corridor one too many times but this also instils a sense of place in the player. 14’s world is intricate, loaded with nooks and crannies to find and interesting faces to see, it begs to be thoroughly explored. So when the quest tells me its time to once again return to town, I couldn’t help but be at peace with it – every trip was another opportunity to see something new. Granted, this is early impressions and A Realm Reborn has a reputation for this kind of quest design so things are subject to change.
Speaking of which, Patch 5.3 recently dropped and looks to have tightened up the structure of this first leg of the game. When I spoke with the game’s director Yoshida Naoki he noted that player data from A Realm Reborn was the defining factor in choosing which quests to streamline, aiming to make the game more accessible to new players. Mileage will vary on how successful this process ends up being but so far at least things feel manageable, even to someone as green as I am.
In fact, manageable is the word I would use to describe the bulk of my first ten or so hours with the game. It takes great care to slowly introduce you to its systems, layering on different skills at an even pace and dolling out those sweet dopamine Level Ups at an equally enjoyable one. Some of this is likely due to my chosen profession; as I said earlier, DPS was recommended for me but the game actively addresses so many potential issues for newbies.
There is an automated Recommended Gear option, a way to scan the local area for recommended quests, training courses to help you better understand your role and so on. This pairs nicely with a shockingly easy to grasp hotkey bar that has been mapped to a PS4 controller. These systems and design choices interlock with combat scenarios that are maybe slightly too easy to breeze through but provide a welcome introduction to your skills and the game’s stunning visuals.
Its particular take on the fantasy aesthetic feels wholly unique, lifting elements from the wider Final Fantasy series as well as steampunk and Western genres. There’s a tangible sense of place to all of it, impressive considering how each of the three starting locations had to hook new players. I began my journey in the city-state of Ul’dah, a towering monolith to capitalism and gaudy architecture. Ul’dah sits in a massive desert region, surrounded by an open expanse full of old-timey bars, small settlements and mines. It’s a frontier with a palace smack bang in the centre.
The other starting locations (which you’ll get access to sooner than you might think) are equally inviting and unique. Lush forests and coastal white stone castle towns await you but your first area provides more than enough to discover to keep you engaged for the duration of this opening leg. The art direction is complemented by composer Masayoshi Soken’s gorgeous soundtrack which is all at once familiar and daring. The complete package being a game that looks and sounds like a proper RPG rather than what you’d maybe fear an MMO would be.
Which is my biggest takeaway from the first dozen hours with 14 – it feels so much better than I imagined it could. It’s streamlined in all the ways that matter, presents a visually distinct world and has dropped a few story crumbs to have me compelled to find out what happens next. Novak feels wholly unique to me, as your hero will feel to you, and with countless hours ahead things are looking up for this intrepid adventurer.
This post is part of an ongoing series focused on how Final Fantasy 14 feels to a new player in 2020. Keep an eye out for the next entry when we tackle raids, community engagement and start to piece together this game’s wild story.
Content was created using a digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.