Monday, February 15, 2016

Realm Reborn Exposé!

Everywhere I turn, I find rave reviews and awards being given out to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and its expansion Heavensward. It makes me feel like I'm on crazy pills. I often feel like I'm in some kind of minority, but just logging in and chatting with players I can find dozens of people just like me. This does not include the dozens that I can't find because they've already quit or taken a long hiatus. I want to speak honestly for a moment about what exactly I think is wrong with Final Fantasy XIV as of February, 2016.

First of all, I want to state for the record that I do think FFXIV is fundamentally a good game. I've played it since the disastrous 1.0 launch, all through the reboot of A Realm Reborn, and up until recently. While I've felt discontent for quite a long time, I've never truly given up on the game. I could go on and on about what I think the game does really well, but as I've pointed out there are numerous sites out there singing its praises. In my own opinion, I think the game really shines at the entry level. I wonder if reviewers are loading up the game for the first time, creating fresh characters and running around within the first 45 levels as they write their reviews. Some of the most fun I've had in the game in the last six months is starting up a brand new character and experiencing the early parts of the game - making new friends or running low-level content with my wife. This casual, entry-level content is really enjoyable.

The real problems set in when you hit the level cap and begin the long grind of MMO end-game. Since A Realm Reborns launch, the end-game has consisted primarily of three things. First, you do your daily quests and dungeon roulettes to amass points to purchase gear upgrades. Second, you fight primals - which are instanced boss fights - that typically drop a weapon or accessory to help you upgrade your gear. Finally, there is the end-game raid which has consisted of 4 distinct rounds of boss fights (similar to and often including primal-type monsters). I choose to omit the Crystal Tower and Void Ark style of raiding because this is mostly used to patch in holes and upgrade alternative jobs due to the gear being significantly less powerful than the aforementioned triad of content.

  • Daily Dungeon Roulette

The Game Has Great Characters
Grinding points - called tomestones - to get gear upgrades is actually a really great system on the surface. The implementation, however, feels designed to get me systematically hating every single dungeon released into the game. The most efficient way to cap out your tomestones every week is to run what's called Expert Roulette. There are - of course - less efficient ways, but basically 4-5 runs of Expert Roulette (once per day) and you're done for the week. However, despite being called a "roulette" which might imply randomly selecting a dungeon from all "Expert" level dungeons, it really only pools from the same 3 dungeons - now 2 dungeons as of Heavensward - and no other. So as you're doing your Expert Roulette - you're basically playing the same 2 dungeons every single day for four months - or until you get fed up and stop doing it all together.

Typically when new dungeons are released, I run through them like a kid on Christmas. I'm wow! and oh! and neat! every little thing they chose to include in the dungeon. I love the way they construct them in this game, and I love their liberal, lore-sensitive use of previous Final Fantasy monsters and bosses to populate them. The Final Fantasy fan in me eats this for breakfast. But flash forward 3 months and I'd rather jab pencils into my eyes than set foot in these two new dungeons, because the game itself has caused me to hate them one by one. It's painful process to go through, literally every patch. Two new dungeons you'll love, but eventually hate! I feel like this problem would easily be solved if Expert Roulette simply pooled from a bigger selection of dungeons! Instead of 50% chance of the dungeon you just ran yesterday (and 100% chance you'll hate every minute of it), you would see those dungeons less and less the more they added. This alone would alleviate some of the pain.

  • The Primals

Have I mentioned I love Shiva?
The primals are subjectively speaking the best part of the game. I love every primal fight so much. Even ones people typically hate, I pretty much enjoy doing above all else. The problem with primals, however, is that they are almost always put into the game as stepping stones to bridge gear gaps. This means they grow obsolete fairly quickly. So there becomes less reason to do them over time (like most MMO content these days) but since they are released with better gear already in the game, they don't become obsolete every new patch, but literally within a week or two. It becomes more and more difficult to get primal teams going when there's very little incentive to do them. Sometimes - as with Bismarck - the fight is obsolete the day it is implemented, because it is a stepping stone to another primal (Ravana).

  • End-Game Raids

Bahamut's Teraflare - Epic!
Finally, you have the real end-game raid. For A Realm Reborn this was "the Binding Coils of Bahumut" commonly referred to as Coil. Heavensward basically carbon copied the exact formula but rebranded the content and aesthetics as Alexander - a primal without an interesting primal fight. For a long time - and even today - these end-game, high tier raids are what have kept me interested in the game when everything else has driven me crazy with tedium. The inherent problem with both sets of content is its restricting lock-out system. Originally, Coil could only be done once a week and not again. This restriction lessened over time to a point where you can take people in who have cleared, but you get substantially less of a reward the more of those people you bring. Even still, the level of difficulty and the restrictions on entry force people to group into necessary static teams to clear the content weekly without any decrease in available loot. As a result, outside of the 8-man team colloquially referred to as "your static" there has been very little reason to ever play or interact with other human beings at the end of the game (aside from finding new statics, and replacing static members). It's quite restrictive and adds to a very anti-social mentality for an MMO. While their are guilds and linkshells, the utility of these groupings has been extremely minimal as there is very little these larger groups can do together as a team.

Coil remains one of my all-time favorite end-game raids in an MMO that I've played. It was challenging and the feeling of completing it was sensational. The story made you feel like you were saving the world from utter destruction, and the challenge left you feeling like you'd really proven yourself as a player. Unfortunately, I haven't had either experience with Alexander at all. From its inception, I've been underwhelmed. The story (loosely given reason to even do Alexander) was all crammed into an easy mode - unlike Coil - that was completed in a single day. So there's no surprise victory fanfare for actually completing the end-game tier raid. Therefore this harder mode where the good loot drops offers no in-game motivation to complete. It's just a blatant loot carrot on a stick completely undisguised. The bosses themselves are boring and the final two instances are grueling and unpleasant to even attempt. It remains one of my least favorite end-game raids of an MMO that I've played.

Alexander Core - Derpy!
Not liking Alexander seems to be common, but even if I am in the absolute minority about this content,  I'm extremely distressed that after two years and a major expansion, Final Fantasy XIV has only managed to maintain a status quo. Although a patch comes every 3-4 months, it's like nothing has really changed since first hitting Level 50. Now I'm level 60 and I'm doing exactly the same thing I was doing a year ago. Running dungeons until I grow nauseous at the thought of them has really lost its appeal (if it ever had one). The same obtuse player lock-out systems that Coil had continues to be a burden on actual progression and casual grouping for Alexander. I was hoping for something different, something inclusive. I wanted an end-game that would take time to complete, challenge me, but also allow me to play with a wider variety of people and not the same seven people I always play with. Overall, I wanted things to be fun as they are leveling up.

  • Conclusion

Final Fantasy XIV has a lot to offer and a lot to like but over time, it's grown tiresome. The end-game hasn't evolved enough to be anything more than a series of carrots on sticks. Each new carrot invalidating the last, but all the sticks are identical. Nothing ever truly changes, and you plod ever onward on a quest for gear for gear's sake. I know - I know! A lot of people will tell me this is how all MMO are created, particularly successful ones. Does it really have to be this way? I know that for a long time it wasn't the standard in MMO genre. This new style really is not for me, and honestly - despite it's great cast of characters, it's very well balanced job system, and an amazing story and soundtrack - Final Fantasy XIV probably isn't going to be played by me much longer unless they take a stark new direction on their end-game content. I just can't do the same things over and over for another two years hoping that it will change when it consistently never does.

Disagree? Let me know in the comments! I love a good disagreement.


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