Since I returned to Square Enix’s super-successful MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV last week, I’ve been focusing the majority of my attention on the New Game+ mode I talked about last time. The reason for this is that I last played Final Fantasy XIV in 2017, and it’s been about eight years since I played through the original A Realm Reborn storyline, so I wanted a bit of a refresher!
MMO veterans may find this a little strange, particularly considering that New Game+ offers no rewards whatsoever — not even achievements for making progress through it — but Final Fantasy XIV is particularly distinctive among MMOs in that it places just as much emphasis on its narrative as it does on progression- and mechanics-centric content. In fact, if you’re not into hardcore raiding and suchlike, you can have a completely satisfying — and authentically “Final Fantasy” — experience from the game purely by following through the main storyline quest to its conclusion.
While I’ve done a bit of raiding in my time, I’ve always been this narrative-centric type of player; getting gear and making numbers get bigger is all very well and good, but the reason I always loved Final Fantasy XIV was because I adored its world, its characters and the dramatic situations in which you found yourself on a regular basis. And the game’s presentation backs that up; the incredible soundtrack by Masayoshi Soken provides a real sense of “musical theatre” to many of the story’s most important encounters — complemented beautifully by the rather “dance-like” steps you and your party members will need to perform in order to survive various mechanics.
Different people, of course, feel different ways. While I was playing Final Fantasy XIV this week, I noticed one person in the “Novice Network” chat — a channel reserved for both newcomers and returning players plus volunteer mentors — complaining that they “didn’t sign up to read a visual novel; I just want to hit things”. While I understand that the appeal of MMOs for many people is the endless grind to constantly make your character more and more powerful, I found this attitude a little disheartening to see.
As noted above, Final Fantasy XIV has always distinguished itself from other MMOs thanks to its emphasis on narrative and lore, and to see someone treat it as an inconvenience rather than something which provides a nice bit of context to the action makes me sad for the people who work hard on bringing the world of Eorzea (and beyond) to life.
Which brings me to Final Fantasy XIV’s “2.0” content — also known as the game content which formed the original “A Realm Reborn” release and its subsequent patches prior to first expansion Heavensward. While well-received at the time of original release, many players have come to look back on the 2.0 content with a little less fondness, seeing a great deal of it as an unnecessary waste of time.
Me? As you might have surmised from the above, I love it — and it’s because of that context it provides to the action. A Realm Reborn is effective at what it does precisely because it chronicles your player character’s start from humble beginnings all the way up to Ultima Weapon-toppling Warrior of Light — and beyond. It’s an inspiring rags-to-riches story filled with fascinating political intrigue — Final Fantasy XII fans will feel right at home with all the shenanigans that go down in desert city-state Ul’Dah in particular — plus a combination of dramatic and very “human” moments.
You learn quite early on in Final Fantasy XIV’s story that your character is “special”, though the exact meaning of that doesn’t become clear until a little later. Your journey around the original A Realm Reborn world, gradually coming into contact with the various city-states and beast tribes who live around Eorzea, gives you a strong sense of being both important and just a single piece of a very complex world at the same time. While you become extremely powerful over the course of your adventures, you are neither omnipotent nor omniscient; sometimes, tragedies occur even despite your best efforts.
A great example of this comes in the early-stage conflict against the primal Ifrit. Betrayed by someone you thought was a comrade, you find yourself waiting to be sacrificed to the fiery primal by the Amalj’aa beast tribe. The mysterious power of the “Echo” protects you from Ifrit’s “tempering” process, which irreversibly brainwashes those in his presence, and you ultimately manage to kick the snot out of him sufficiently to send him back to Primal-land for a while — at least until level 50 rolls around and his Hard and Extreme variants come out to play, anyway.
But not everyone you were with was blessed with the Echo, and all of your former comrades end up tempered by Ifrit, even as you strike the final blow. As they’re escorted away by a slightly tardy rescue party, you’re assured that they will be taken care of — but you subsequently learn that all of them, without exception, are to be put to death; the tempering process is irreversible, and the existence of a tempered individual is extremely dangerous to public safety.
There’s nothing you can do about this, and it’s a heartbreaking moment that puts a bit of a dampener on your victory. At the same time, if you hadn’t stepped up, even more people would have ended up sacrificed to the primal — and he’d still be running amok.
Final Fantasy XIV — and A Realm Reborn in particular — is full of fascinating narrative moments like this, and it’s for this reason that I’m absolutely loving my current New Game+ run. I’m in no hurry to rush to level 80 or the very latest in “relevant” content; MMOs are intended to be played over the long term, and if you rush in a mad flurry to get the latest and greatest gear the day it releases (and then spend all day complaining on Reddit that there’s “nothing to do”) you only have yourself to blame, so far as I’m concerned!
Some of my favourite video game experiences of all time came as part of Final Fantasy XIV’s original A Realm Reborn release; I still have extremely fond memories of running the original 2.0 “finale” dungeons Castrum Meridianum and Praetorium with my guild back when I first hit level 50 — back when these dungeons were still a reasonable challenge for most non-raiding players! While I doubt I’ll quite recapture those same feelings I had staying up until 4am to take down Ultima Weapon and Lahabrea for the very first time, successfully reminding myself of at least some of the things that originally made this game special to me in the first place is what will keep me coming back in the long term.
With two “chapters” of Final Fantasy XIV’s New Game+ story down, I’ve still got a way to go — but I’m having a great time so far. I’ll see you at level 80 in… a few months at this rate!
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