Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn might just have the slowest start in video game history.
In fact, let’s scrub the “might just” from that sentence. It is the undisputed champion, taking a mind-boggling fifty hours for its main scenario plotline to actually go anywhere interesting. That’s longer than the entirety of the Witcher 3, longer than all of the original Mass Effect trilogy put together, and, as it turns out, about two hours longer than the base story for A Realm Reborn itself. It isn’t until you’re well into the post-release patch content that the writing starts to show signs of life. Since Final Fantasy 14 is a MMORPG (and one of the few surviving subscription-based ones, no less) you might wonder why that’s such a big deal; games such as Guild Wars and World Of Warcraft aren’t exactly known for the stellar quality of their writing and have been no less successful in spite of that. WoW in particular has been successfully reconstituting garbage into a written format to fuel its main plotlines for well over a decade now, and it’s only with the most recent expansion that it seems to have finally run out of road1. And it is certainly true that it’s not quite so much of a problem for Final Fantasy 14 than it would be for a traditional single-player RPG, especially now that the systems underneath it have undergone six years of refinement. Mechanically speaking, Final Fantasy 14 might just be the best example of a modern MMORPG I’ve seen so far. However, it also makes some highly unorthodox design decisions around how it integrates the main scenario into the wider game that took years to pay off, and even then only in the expansions; and as a consequence the abject state of the original Realm Reborn story experience came damn close to making me give up on the game entirely.
To understand why this is — in fact, to understand Final Fantasy 14 at all — we need to wind the clock back a few years and revisit how and why A Realm Reborn came about. It’s not the original Final Fantasy 14, you see; the original Final Fantasy 14 was a game so infamously terrible that Square Enix were legitimately worried that it would tank the reputation of both the Final Fantasy franchise and Square as a developer. The usual publisher response to a game that bad is to tie a rock to it and let it sink and hope everyone just forgets about it (see Anthem and Artifact in the last year alone) but Square, unusually, decided to try and pull Final Fantasy 14 out of the hole it was in, and they did this by rebuilding the entire game from the ground up and blowing up the old version in a rad cutscene that serves as the intro to A Realm Reborn. As relaunches go it was relatively successful and provided a solid base for Square to build on for FF14’s critically-acclaimed expansions. There was, however, a catch: in order to get the reboot out as quickly as possible to stem their reputational bleeding, Square Enix found themselves developing what was essentially an entirely new MMORPG in just over two and a half years. Even for a “normal” videogame that’s not a lot of time; for creating the amount of content required to support an MMO (or the modern GaaS equivalent) it is less than half of what you’d need to do it properly.
Given that severely condensed development time it’s something of a miracle that Realm Reborn is as good as it is. Of course I’m coming to it after a further six years of development, and Realm Reborn is much better than most MMORPGs at integrating new content into its existing game structure and has fleshed things out a lot more since it launched — things like the addition of new dungeons, overhauled skill trees and making big new side areas like the Gold Saucer available from just a couple of hours into the game instead of having it be a playground for max level players only, all of which have added a lot more body to something that must have been more than a little bit anaemic on launch. For the most part it plays like a standard MMORPG, in that its bones are based off of World Of Warcraft, and it mixes in a little bit of Guild Wars 2 here, a little bit of The Old Republic there. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking the best ideas of each game while adding a fair few ideas and mechanics of its own, along with a general aesthetic that is very Final Fantasy.
However, the most Final Fantasy thing that Realm Reborn does is how it handles its main storyline. The only MMO I’ve played long enough for this to matter is World Of Warcraft, and the model there is that the main story only rarely intrudes on your adventures in its world, with each individual area you visit having its own set of isolated quests that make up a little mini-storyline. The most you’ll see of it is the occasional showpiece quest showing up every dozen hours or so that’s essentially a barely-interactive cutscene. WoW itself is designed in a very atomic fashion so that you get to pick and choose which content you want to do, but with the flipside that the main story is effectively optional, or at the very least crushingly superficial, and therefore meaningless. I can imagine Final Fantasy’s writers and designers looking at this model and screaming hysterically before throwing it straight into the garbage, because it is totally anathema to everything Final Fantasy is about, i.e. a linear, hugely overblown story told via frequent and extremely lengthy cutscenes that could quite easily be stitched together into a film.
Not coincidentally, Realm Reborn’s main scenario story is a linear, hugely overblown story told via frequent and extremely lengthy cutscenes that could quite easily be stitched together into a film2. The key word here is linear. The base Realm Reborn story is comprised of something like 200 quests, and the post-launch patch content adds another 100 story quests, and they must be tackled in sequence, one after another. There’s absolutely no way of short-circuiting this process (short of paying Square some money, that is), which is particularly awkward when you consider that every single game feature is gated behind completing a main story quest at some point. Want to do dungeons? You have to complete the main story up to at least level 15, when the first dungeon unlocks. Want to do more than that one dungeon? You’ll have to go even further into the story, as it drip-feeds access to new dungeons every 20-30 quests or so. Want to leave your starting city? Gotta complete the main story up to level 20. Want to ride a chocobo? Again, main story to level 20 or you’re out of luck. And crucially, if like me you are just starting Final Fantasy 14 because you saw Shadowbringers reviewing really well and wanted to see what all of the fuss was about, then you’ll be in for a bit of a shock: before you can start Shadowbringers you’ll have to go through all of Realm Reborn and its patch content, all of Heavensward and its patch content, and all of Stormblood and its patch content. If you keep your eyes on that main scenario road by ignoring all optional side activities such as crafting and the Gold Saucer and so on, this is still somewhere in the region of 150 hours of playtime.
Now, the linear nature of Final Fantasy 14 and the huge time investment required is not necessarily a dealbreaker. True, for someone like me who enjoys optimising their path through a game to see as much of it as possible in as little time as possible, not being able to do things at my own pace really, really chafed for a while. However, all that’s really required here is a mental reassessment of what Final Fantasy 14 is: it might look like a traditional MMORPG at first glance thanks to having lifted so many of their mechanics, but (as I really should have guessed from the name) the larger narrative part of it is still a Final Fantasy-style JRPG, and I’m perfectly capable of playing and enjoying those too if I’m in the right frame of mind for it. I have no problem playing a 150-hour game that’s full of cutscenes aside from carving out enough time on my evenings and weekends for it — that is, just so long as I’m enjoying the cutscenes and the story that they are telling.
Unfortunately it’s here that we swing back to the problem of Realm Reborn’s truncated development timeframe: while Square have been able to go back and beef up the underlying game structure, they’ve done absolutely nothing to the questlines and story cutscenes themselves. These remain just as they were when Realm Reborn launched in 2013, and they are utterly atrocious. Nearly all of the cutscenes are just static character models talking to each other. The lines that they spout are the worst kind of cliched claptrap, and the voice actors who have to say them are working with zero direction and, more often than not, just say the lines in a flat monotone, like they’re reading them off of a cue card. The story that’s being told initially seems somewhat promising, with a fair chunk of worldbuilding and scene-setting being done in the first ten hours in spite of the cutscene quality; however, it appears somebody at Square then realised they only had fifteen hours of story content for a game they wanted to last for at least forty, and so the middle two-thirds of the game consists of the most blatant filler content you’ll ever see in a video game, even by MMORPG standards. There’s a thirty-quest sequence based around you cooking dinner, for crying out loud — and remember, this is not optional content, these are main scenario quests that you have to complete to get to the end of the game, and the start of the expansions.
This makes the larger portion of A Realm Reborn an unremitting slog, with far too many make-work quests that involve you going to one part of the world to talk to a guy, going back to the quest giver to talk to them, and then going back to the first guy to talk to them again. This is a textbook, textbook example of how not having enough time to iterate or polish can really hurt a game; the plot that’s present in Realm Reborn feels like it’s barely a first draft, and it wasn’t given the time it needed to evolve beyond that point. It’s pretty telling that once you finish the main game and get into the post-release patch content — which Square Enix would have had more time to work on thanks to not being in a mad rush to reinvent their entire game — the quality of the storytelling markedly improves. What had been an incredibly banal good versus evil setting suddenly starts slowly layering on subtle political intrigue that comes to a dramatic head when the Heavensward expansion kicks off; cutscenes that had previously been static character models talking to each other from a fixed perspective become far more dynamic and even slip in a few not half-bad action scenes; and the delivery from the voice actors moves from the abysmally bad into the realm of the more-or-less acceptable, presumably because they were finally being given some direction as to the context for what they were saying instead of having to take their best guess and work from there. But you don’t get to see this stuff until fifty hours in, and until then you’re stuck working your way through this painfully belaboured story. And you have no choice as to whether or not you do this, except to stop playing Final Fantasy 14 entirely.
Fifty hours is a long time to wait for something to get good. This is a video game, not a TV series where you can just tell people to skip the first season or two because the show is still finding its feet; and furthermore Final Fantasy 14 compounds the problem by being particularly dogmatic about making the player experience things in sequence. This actually becomes something of a strength later on, as the story writers don’t need to worry about whether or not the player has done a certain questline and the dungeon designers don’t need to worry about whether or not they’ve seen a certain boss mechanic before; they know exactly what the player has experienced up until that point and can write or build things accordingly. That’s the weird thing about FF14, in fact: when it comes to mechanics it’s taken retroactive steps to improve the player experience through those initial fifty hours. It makes regular dungeon runs a compulsory part of the main scenario, but it also gives you a series of tutorials against computer-controlled NPCs that ensure you know how to play your role before you have to jump in with real people. This requires a large pool of players to fill out those dungeon parties, so it incentivises experienced players to shepherd newbies through dungeons by doling out bonus experience rewards if a member of the party hasn’t done the dungeon before. Any time progress in the main scenario opens up a sidequest that will introduce a new feature or unlock a new dungeon, that sidequest is marked with a special blue quest marker so that players don’t have to consult a wiki to figure out what is and isn’t going to be important. There’s even a few nice quality-of-life features present here that I’d like to see in World Of Warcraft, like auto-looting of enemy corpses and target markers appearing above enemies that are required to complete quests.
When it comes to the story, though, there’s been zero effort made to streamline that experience for new players, or even to freshen it up. I do understand why Square would be reluctant to do this; Realm Reborn was already a reboot, and it would be slightly silly if they went back for a third go. However, I’m also thinking of games like Destiny that went to the trouble of rerecording a bunch of dialogue after Peter Dinklage’s performance as the Ghost got trashed by players. There is precedent elsewhere for it, and since crawling through the Realm Reborn main scenario quests is a significant barrier to entry for anyone who has just subscribed to the game and wants to get to the good stuff I would have thought that Square could at least consider, for example, cutting all of the make-work bullshit quests out of the game (which would shorten the critical path by at least 50%) and inflating the XP rewards on the rest of them to compensate. Nothing of value would be lost, and new players wouldn’t be faced with such a daunting journey before they could even start playing the much-improved expansion content.
Sadly that hasn’t happened, and it probably never will. Final Fantasy 14 is thus left with one of the weightiest millstones of all time hanging around its neck, and that’s a real shame considering all of the good ideas that it has. I’ve mentioned a few of them above, but I’ll mention two more here: first, while you pick a starting class on character creation you eventually unlock the ability to change class just by switching weapon. Marauders use two-handed axes, but if you equip a magical grimoire in place of the axe you’ll automatically change class to the Arcanist, which must be still levelled separately (albeit with a hefty XP bonus for any class that’s not your highest-level one) but which ensures there’s no need to juggle alternate characters on a server, as one character can do all combat and crafting roles if you’re willing to put the time in3. Second is that in addition to dungeons and raids, FF14 has a third type of instanced party encounter called a Trial, which can be best thought of as “fighting a raid boss without having to sit through the raid”. You and seven party members are teleported into straight into an arena to do battle with an appropriately intimidating baddie; while they start off quite simple these boss battles gradually grow in complexity until they encompass some of the best gameplay I’ve seen in any MMO, largely because I’ve never had the patience for raids and I very much appreciate that — unlike its main scenario — Final Fantasy 14 lets me skip to the good bits.
Crucially, A Realm Reborn is not a bad game. Any time you’re outside of a cutscene it’s actually a very good one — with the obvious caveat that it is still an MMORPG when all is said and done, and if you don’t like MMORPGs it’s probably not going to change your mind on the subject. It does at least put a unique spin on the concept that kept me playing through the increasingly dire story, even if I was dangerously close to chucking the whole thing in after I finally finished the original Realm Reborn main scenario quests and the first chunk of post-launch patch content turned out to be more of the same, just with some desperate wink-wink nudge-nudge lampshading in the quest text that acknowledged the futility of what you were being asked to do4. I did eventually manage to make it to the expansions and these are good enough that I’ll begrudgingly say it was worth the effort of getting there — good enough that I may even do a separate review once I’ve finished them all, as I don’t think this one fully explains why I’ve put so much time into FF14 over the past month. But as far as A Realm Reborn itself goes, it’s a really mixed experience that I find impossible to recommend, because “It gets good fifty hours in” is not ever a reasonable thing to say about a game.
- To be clear, much of the incidental writing and quest design in WoW — up until Legion, at least — is great, I assume largely because that’s the part the writers and quest designers are left to do on their own without corporate oversight. It’s the main plot driving each expansion (with the possible exception of Wrath of the Lich King) that invariably turns out to be utter balls. ↩
- The film in question would be one of the Star Wars prequels, as both they and A Realm Reborn share an unfortunate fondness for static cameras watching two people standing in one place having a boring conversation. ↩
- There is a convenient outfitting system for storing sets of equipment appropriate for the different classes that can quickly be equipped whenever you change class. ↩
- The quest NPCs saying “Wait, you’re the guy who beats up gods for fun, why are you doing my chores for me?” did not improve my mood at all. You’re the one making these damn quests, quest designer. You tell me. ↩