Final Fantasy XIV has an interesting history, only it’s one that is likely to cause those familiar with it to be harbour some doubts as to the potential of A Realm Reborn. When it first released, and was known simply as Final Fantasy XIV, the game was an unmitigated disaster in just about every way. Poor to play, it was lambasted by critics and players alike, garnering low scores and attracting only a very small subscriber base.
Four years on, then, and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn - a title that hints at the game’s narrative and its troubled development - is finally available on PlayStation 4, after hitting retail late last year on both PlayStation 3 and PC.
The wait has been well worth it. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a superb game, and it bears little resemblance to the shambling mess that shamefully shuffled onto Windows-based computers nearly four years ago.
The structure of the game is reminiscent of its peers. The core of A Realm Reborn will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a recent Western-developed MMORPG, and it contains more than a sprinkling of Japanese influences too - especially in the narrative components of the title.
It’s in the execution of those familiar elements that Final Fantasy sets itself apart. Every component is meticulously detailed and thoughtfully implemented, offering rich functionality that might otherwise require the use of third-party modifications in other, similar games.
The quests you go on, for example, are presented in a more interactive style. It’s always easy to determine what the goals are, too, and they tend to have a generous variety of objectives or mechanics which helps to stave off the boredom that can creep in to this type of game.
There’s also an overarching story quest to stitch the lengthy leveling experience together, as well as numerous forms of dungeons, raids, short dungeons, multi-participant “Fate” quests, and so on, ensuring there’s always plenty to do.
Should you want to switch it up a bit and try something different, every character can learn every class, so there’s no need to form an army of alternate characters simply to experience or utilise another style of play. This flexibility extends to the crafting and gathering professions, too, so should you like leveling things, you’ll never be short of something to do.
All of this comes at a small price on the PlayStation 4, of course, as - assuming you stick to the controller as your primary source of input - it can be mechanically challenging to reign in all of the options available on the small selection of buttons afforded by a DualShock 4. It works well, to be sure, and the way in which skills are introduced fits nicely with the learning curve of the input method itself, but you’ll never fully shake the feeling that the game’s mechanics are slightly obfuscated by the use of a controller. Fortunately, setting up mouse and keyboard control in the game is simplicity itself, so should you find yourself struggling with your DualShock, it’s easy enough to switch to traditional MMO interface methodology.
Obviously, playing the title on Vita via remote play adds a further level of interface challenge to the experience, but the deep range of customisation options available at least alleviates the extra problems brought about by the Vita’s miniscule screen. The virtual buttons mapped to the back of the Vita work well enough, and you can always use mouse and keyboard in this mode too - although some sort of stand for the handheld would then be required.
Another slight hiccup that’s exclusive to the console versions of the game relates to the frame rate. Most of the time, it skips along at a merry rate, but once you get into some high level areas or raids and play alongside a number of other players, it can dip seriously low (sub 30 frames per second, possibly even sub 20.) It’s possible to improve this a great deal by dropping the resolution from 1080p to 720p (which you can do from within the game, likely for this reason) but by doing so you will - of course - lose out on some of the game’s lush visuals.
Another issue local players will face when tackling the game - and it’s something that’s platform independent - is lag. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is built in such a way that responses from the server are required for many operations and very little in the way of anticipatory calculation appears to happen client-side. As a result, getting out of the way of damaging attacks can be very difficult at times and even selecting targets seems to be affected. It’s not a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination and you do adjust to it to a certain extent, but there is definitely room for improvement.
Finally, the fact that the game’s areas are split into fairly small chunks - each of which is separated by a loading screen - is quite jarring for seasoned genre aficionados. Likely a concession to the inferior PlayStation 3 platform (and its tiny amount of system memory), the constant need to load a new area is baffling. Eventually, though, you do get used to it, and there’s always a chance that the developers will speed this up as the game is continually improved over the course of its lifetime.
As it stands right now, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn represents a dazzling reversal of fortunes for a game that, just a few years ago, was an embarrassment to the Final Fantasy name. It’s gone from being the worst MMO on the market and the worst Final Fantasy game ever released to rather nearer the top of both piles; in fact, if you’re looking for the next massively multiplayer experience - no matter how you like to play, or however many you’ve played before - chances are pretty good Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is what you’ve been looking for. The fact that you can get most of the experience with a stock PlayStation 4 (and all of it by simply adding a keyboard and mouse) is remarkable.