Final Fantasy XIV Online Starter Edition (PC Review)
With two expansions now under its belt, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn’s success has continued to grow since its 2013 release. At this point, it’s pretty clear that we believe the expansions are strong additions that bring some improvements, but what about the actual game itself? It’s worth remembering the title’s history. Final Fantasy XIV was originally released in 2010 when it failed abysmally, leading to A Realm Reborn being developed to rectify that mistake. Taking advantage of the recently repackaged Final Fantasy XIV Online Starter Edition, we’re going to take a look at the base game—something that should be far more relevant to players that aren’t actually subscribed to the title. Without the expansions, is it actually worth playing?
It’s worth establishing what’s actually available in this Starter Edition—the renamed, budget value re-release of A Realm Reborn without either of the expansions. Capping players at level 50, the Online Starter Edition features the complete end-game and story that trickled out during the first two years of A Realm Reborn. It’s set in the realm of Eorzea five years after The Calamity—the name given to an in-game event that shut down the servers of the equally calamitous original release of Final Fantasy XIV—and the three major city-states are still recovering. They rely on adventurers from foreign lands, which is where each player’s custom-designed character comes in.
Final Fantasy XIV’s character creation offers a fair bit of depth. Players can create a character from one of five races (with a sixth available to players that have purchased the first expansion pack), and the two clans steeped in lore that provide an alternative approach to each race. Players may even select odd eye colours, hair highlights, a birth date, and a guardian deity. There’s enough to make your character feel unique. Eight available classes with their own internal mechanics are also available during character creation, but players should note that characters are able to freely swap between classes at almost any time. Furthermore, players will later be able to select from even more classes—including those that focus on crafting and gathering classes that also have their own end-game. There’s a lot of flexibility for players, though this comes at the cost of a poorly defined protagonist in the story.
Later referred to as the Warrior of Light, the player character has little agency or personality. While expected in the MMO genre, the Final Fantasy name comes with some expectations—expectations that the developers are aware of. The result is a story-driven MMO with a serviceable narrative. An evil empire wants to dominate the land, and a shadowy organisation wishes to spread disaster. Furthermore, the actual plot is locked into resolving the mess left behind by the 2010 release. The nuance of A Realm Reborn’s story only really shows up in later post-launch content. This may frustrate some players as most content will be locked behind the rather lacking story progression.
Dependant on the selected class, the Warrior of Light will arrive in one of the three city-states intending to find work. Players are quickly introduced to the local troubles, but most of the work is no more complex than the typically bland MMO sidequests that consist of slaughtering a specified number of the local wildlife or delivering items. There isn’t much challenge to the open-world encounters either, with Final Fantasy XIV aiming to welcome fans of the series that are unfamiliar with the genre. While it’s certainly successful at this, it may feel slow for fans of the MMO genre.
Most player actions are on a 2.5 second shared cooldown, reminiscent of the traditional Final Fantasy ATB gauge. The speed can complement content at higher player levels, offering room for more tactical decisions between actions; however, the classes aren’t complex enough to take advantage of this until the expansions. Fortunately, boss fights are designed to be incredibly tight and the classes are all delightfully balanced. Especially worth noting are the primal battles, where Masayoshi Soken’s eclectic composition blends with the later frenetic battle design to provide fights that are exciting and often intense—a fantastic distraction from the delay between a player’s attacks for those at the level cap.
Ensuring that the old content of A Realm Reborn is both still relevant and somewhat challenging, character levels are often level synced and roulettes exist to supply rewards for old content. Some adjustments to combat design and the increased availability of high-end equipment will still diminish the old challenges, but it’s a fair compromise for now-dated content. While the story may be comprised of constant filler and simple plots, the title is very deliberate in design and continues to hold up. Players shouldn’t worry about missing out on content regardless of their class choice or how dated the content may be. The only inaccessible content would be the frequent, limited-time seasonal events and the original Final Fantasy XIV release in 2010.
In contrast to the original release, A Realm Reborn’s stage design consists of maps much smaller that take advantage of their space, feeling incredibly dense in features. The maps offer a range of subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the original release. As the in-game world recovers, so too does the Final Fantasy XIV. Many relics of the original release can be found in the world design, but may also be found in the mechanics.
Players can consume a limited allowance to participate in repeatable quests known as leves—a hugely important element in the original release that is now largely ignored in A Realm Reborn. At some stage, player classes will transform into the traditional jobs of the franchise, supplying new actions and stat boosts that simply make them power-ups for classes. Many of the benefits and detriments of selecting a class or a job are gone, and the choice is fairly meaningless outside of Square-Enix presumably trying to avoid conflicts with old character data. Some content has been repurposed, such as the drop-in quests called FATEs that now often show up in the open-world maps. A Realm Reborn still has some leftover baggage from its previous iteration, but it’s also changed a lot.
A location known as the Gold Saucer was included in one of A Realm Reborn’s final updates before the first expansion was released. This location provides a number of minigames, including the Triple Triad card game from Final Fantasy VIII and a chocobo racing game. These can serve as fun distractions for players who enjoy collecting, or for those that may be waiting in a queue for party content. Even without the expansions, players can usually enjoy any new Gold Saucer content that gets added, however infrequently that may. Additionally, the Palace of the Dead—a randomly generated dungeon comprising of 200—has been added since the first expansion. Though only 40 of the floors are available without Heavensward, it suggests that content may still sometimes be added to A Realm Reborn.
While a little lacking in its narrative, the title’s gameplay is incredibly well polished. As an entry to Final Fantasy XIV, the Online Starter Edition successfully focuses on establishing an accessible MMO for long-time fans of the series. That being said, both new and old players may want to push through the lacklustre campaign to reach the far more interesting expansions sooner.