The Returner: Rediscovering Final Fantasy XIV

The Returner: Rediscovering Final Fantasy XIV

I played a lot of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn when it first released. I participated in the closed and open beta tests, I played constantly throughout A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, I beat The Binding Coil of Bahamut (albeit with heavy Echo) and I even proposed to my real-life wife during our in-game wedding ceremony.

At some point, though, it lost the magic it once had for me. Whether it was simply a case of me becoming tired of the game, feeling a little frustrated at what had seemingly become established conventions with certain parts of the player community, or a straightforward desire to play something else for a bit… I can’t say for sure. Probably a combination of all of those things. Whatever the reason, after I finished the main story for second expansion Stormblood, I unsubscribed, with an uncertain intention to return “sometime”.

Final Fantasy XIV
Our in-game wedding. That’s me, as my alter-ego Amarysse, on the right.

My wife has been playing the game constantly since I introduced it to her, and we’ve made some lifelong friends, both in the country where we live and abroad. It’s something that is important to her — and was once important to me, too. On top of that, while somehow managing to remain completely unspoiled on the specifics, I heard a lot of people raving about how good the story in third expansion Shadowbringers was.

The other night, it all got a bit much. I bought a copy of Shadowbringers and resubscribed to Final Fantasy XIV. I knew it was going to be a difficult experience to get back into the groove of things after so long away — stopping before Stormblood’s first patch would mean I last played in 2017 — but I was also aware that there were plenty of interesting-sounding systems in place to help make the “Returner” process easier.

So I thought I’d write about them. That way, you can all see what the Final Fantasy XIV experience is really like, from the perspective of a lapsed veteran.

Final Fantasy XIV

First order of business in any situation like this is to fiddle around in the Options menu to see what has changed. I was excited to see that since I last played, there are now some “High Resolution UI” options. I play from my couch on a TV, so these were very welcome to see.

Final Fantasy XIV

There’s also a “Classic” theme for the interface now, which is something I’d been quietly hoping they’d add for a while. Not that I dislike the distinctive look of the default interface, but that vibrant blue just screams “Final Fantasy”.

Final Fantasy XIV

After logging in, I was hit with a queue to actually get into the game. Cerberus, the server my wife and I play on, is quite a busy one, so this isn’t unusual. A queue of 23 people doesn’t take very long to clear, though, so I wasn’t sitting around waiting. Having played through the chaotic launch of both Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn itself and two expansions, this was nothing!

Final Fantasy XIV

I was in! And immediately confronted with both a massive interface and a hearty “welcome back” through Final Fantasy XIV’s Returner’s Bounty system. This grants you experience point bonuses if you party with players who have signed up to be Mentors, as well as access to a special chat channel reserved for both complete beginners and Returners like myself.

Final Fantasy XIV

First order of business was to do something about that disaster of a UI, which that global UI scale setting I found earlier had played havoc with. I was tempted to just reset everything, but back when I was playing Stormblood I’d got it working in a way that I liked. So I took a good fifteen minutes to fiddle around with the sizing and positioning of everything, and eventually settled on something I was happy with.

Final Fantasy XIV

From here, I knew that one of the first things I wanted to do was check out the “New Game+” function, which allows you to take your current character and replay all the main scenario quests from the very beginning of Final Fantasy XIV onwards. While you don’t get any rewards for doing so, it’s a good way of reminding yourself how the story goes — or just having a coherent story experience without having to wait three (or more!) months between “episodes”.

But oh no! “That command is unavailable at this time”. I didn’t have to beat Shadowbringers before I could use it, did I?

Final Fantasy XIV

Thankfully, no, I did not. As with most game systems in Final Fantasy XIV, New Game+ is unlocked by chatting with a specific NPC, marked with the special quest icon that indicates they have something to unlock for you. This gives pretty much every system in the game some sort of narrative context, which is a really nice touch. In the case of New Game+, you’re reminiscing with Wistful Whitebeard about your past adventures.

Final Fantasy XIV

New Game+ splits Final Fantasy XIV’s main scenario into different “chapters”. By triggering a chapter, your personal version of the game world is “reset” to that point in the story, and there are certain actions you can’t take. You can hop out of New Game+ at any time and it saves your progress through the chapter you were on — alternatively, you can skip straight to a favourite chapter if you want to.

Obviously you need to have completed it “properly” first, though, which is why none of the second half of Stormblood (which covers the post-launch patch episodes) and none of Shadowbringers is unlocked for me here.

Final Fantasy XIV

Interestingly, New Game+ also allows you to replay other story-based content, including the quests you unlock as you level specific Jobs in the game. This wasn’t in the original implementation of New Game+, so it’s nice to see that the Final Fantasy XIV team have stayed on top of things.

Final Fantasy XIV

I decided to go right back to the beginning. It’s probably eight years since I experienced the very beginning of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and to be honest my memories of some of the things that happened are a little hazy. So I figured why not see how quickly I can blast through it with the level 70 Samurai job I finished Stormblood with? I could have started a new character, of course, but I’m far too attached to Amarysse to even consider that, despite my long absence.

Final Fantasy XIV

It felt comfortably familiar and nostalgic to be back on the dusty roads of Thanalan, even if those early quests saw me doing mundane chores like delivering pretzels to local soldiers. I was already starting to remember why I liked this game so much — it’s not because it’s a good MMO, which it is, but it’s because it has such a beautifully crafted world, and everything you do feels like it has context.

A big part of this comes from the fact that the game makes a consistent effort with story, and features a variety of instanced single-player content that makes you the star. You’re presented with these almost from the outset of A Realm Reborn, and they make the game feel like a regular, offline Final Fantasy. I mean, it is a numbered mainline entry in the series, after all.

Final Fantasy XIV

One of the nice things about these instanced single-player sections is the fact that while you can’t bring your friends along to help, you do get the opportunity to fight alongside the important characters in the story. This helps get around a common MMO issue, where supposedly super-important characters are little more than questgivers who stand around doing nothing for the majority of the game while you do all their dirty work.

On top of that, these sequences level-sync you to the relevant point in the story, so you can’t overpower them. This means that the battles themselves feel like they’re still meaningful struggles.

The game never lets you forget that you’re the important one, though. Before you hit level 10, you’re talking to Hydaelyn, the Mothercrystal, and learning about the heroic destiny ahead of you. No farting around slaying rats in cellars for twenty levels here; you’re the goddamn Warrior of Light (at least until Shadowbringers), and don’t you forget it!

Final Fantasy XIV

Another thing I always liked about Final Fantasy XIV’s instanced content is how despite the fact the game’s combat unfolds in quasi real-time in the world rather than on a separate battle screen, it still acknowledges its turn-based heritage by concluding pre-battle cutscenes with a delightful rumbling zoom blur “battle transition” effect. A lovely tribute to the longstanding fans of the series.

Final Fantasy XIV

Before long, you’re battling beings from the Void and fending off the unwanted attentions of the game’s recurring antagonists, the Ascians. I may only have 400 HP, but I’m a hero, dammit!

Final Fantasy XIV

One minor issue I ran into is the fact that during New Game+, Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t re-issue you with important items needed to complete certain quests — so you’d better remember where you put them. In this instance, I was looking for a pair of earrings called “Voice of the Just”, which you need as proof you are you say who you are in order to get into a banquet being held in your honour.

After a few minutes of fruitless searching, I was becoming increasingly concerned that I had left them on my third Retainer, who I wasn’t paying for any more. You get two Retainers (who can store items, sell items on your behalf and even venture off on their own quests) as part of your subscription and others can be hired for an additional fee; while I was more active, I had three on the go to carry all the gear I’d collected, but since I don’t know how long I’m going to stick around yet, I haven’t paid up for that third Retainer to come back.

Final Fantasy XIV

I eventually found the damn things, and without having to pay any extra fees, at that, and was treated to another lovely scene that reminds you that yes, you are indeed the hero of this story, and all those other people running around with gear that looks much better than yours are just random adventurers, definitely not Warriors of Light, nosirree.

Final Fantasy XIV

Actually, this scene does make rather nice reference to this potential incongruity — along with the fact that prior to the game’s spectacular rebirth as A Realm Reborn back in 2013, there were many people who played Final Fantasy XIV’s original incarnation who perhaps didn’t come back for the new version. Those people, so far as in-game lore is concerned, are the “forgotten” Warriors of Light from the age before the “Calamity” — the in-game event that brought Final Fantasy XIV’s version 1 servers down and completely rebuilt the game into A Realm Reborn and beyond.

In narrative terms, the Calamity saw the artificial moon Dalamud descend from the sky, releasing the dread Primal Bahamut from within. Bahamut, understandably annoyed at having been locked in a moon for a very long time, proceeds to wreck everything — though due to mysterious circumstances you learn more about through A Realm Reborn’s raid cycle, a significant number of people managed to survive this apocalypse.

Final Fantasy XIV

You get to see a lot of this happening through the “visions” your character experiences over the course of the plot. Again, this is a great example of Final Fantasy XIV ensuring that its lore isn’t just pages of text on a wiki; it’s a crucial part of the overall game experience.

Final Fantasy XIV

And with this, one could argue that Final Fantasy XIV’s plot truly gets underway. It’s at this point the narrative you follow that was exclusive to the city-state you start in joins up with the “main” story, and from thereon everyone experiences the same things — albeit sometimes from a slightly different perspective.

My adventures are underway again, and starting this New Game+ run is already reminding me what I used to love about this game. Over the coming weeks, I’ll share more stories from my experiences with my return to the game — and hopefully inspire a few of you to come spend some time in Eorzea, too, whether you’re a newcomer or a lapsed veteran like I am.

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Pete Davison
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