As you can likely tell from previous installments of this column, I have very much been taking my time over my return to Final Fantasy XIV. There’s no rush, after all — in fact, I suspect attempting to rush into things is a sure-fire way to get overwhelmed and burnt out before long, and I don’t want that.
As I write this, I’m still gradually working my way through the New Game+ mode to revisit the story of A Realm Reborn. I’m up to part 3 at this point, which is around the point that you, as the fledgling Warrior of Light, have the run of most of Eorzea as you track down the deadly Primals and then punch them in the face until they go away for a bit.
One thing that’s struck me as I’ve been re-experiencing these main scenario quests — and something which struck me back when I played Final Fantasy XIV for the first time — is quite how beautiful the world is. And as you’re levelling and working your way through the main story, you have plenty of opportunity to enjoy it, since your quests will take you all over the place and see you talking to a wide variety of people.
You’ll be doing most of this solo; the multiplayer content in Final Fantasy XIV primarily consists of self-contained instances which either take the form of dungeons or large-scale boss battles. There are some multiplayer things you can do in the open world — most notably the large cooperative mini-quests known as “Full Active Time Events” or “FATEs” — but for the most part, at least in the early game, you’ll be exploring solo.
In many respects, this is the polar opposite of how Final Fantasy XIV’s predecessor Final Fantasy XI did things in its early days. While that game has been made a lot more solo-friendly today — thanks mostly to its excellent “Trust” system, where you can party up with major characters from around Final Fantasy XI’s world and story — back in its early days roaming the open world was a dangerous task that you’d probably want to bring a party along for.
This was a mixed blessing, because it provided a feeling of genuine danger while you were out and about as well as a proper sense of achievement when you finally managed to reach a new location for the first time. But it also made it quite difficult to enjoy that world; when working with a party of other players, most people are keen not to waste one another’s time, and thus the action tended to primarily revolve around beating up enemies to get as much experience as possible rather than exploring and appreciating the world.
Final Fantasy XIV took the arguably wiser approach of making the open world not particularly dangerous — though things that outlevel you considerably will still happily kill you — and thus encourage people to explore it by themselves at their own pace. There are a lot of parts of Final Fantasy XIV’s world that are seemingly there for little reason other than to look nice or provide a pleasant place to relax, and I really appreciate that; it adds to the feeling of immersion in a virtual world, which can be enjoyable if you’re in the mood for it.
The excellent use of ambient sound and music throughout the game also complements this wonderful world design. While we’re all living the lockdown life, experiences like this in virtual worlds are super-important, because they remind us how nice the natural world can be, and why we might want to spend some time outdoors when it’s a bit safer to do so.
But Final Fantasy XIV’s world isn’t just about recreating experiences that one day we’ll be able to enjoy in reality again. It’s also a fantasy world, lest we forget, and as such there are plenty of places that you’d never be able to see in reality. They can be an awe-inspiring sight, whether you see them from on the ground, or from atop a flying mount that has taken to the skies.
The matter of flying mounts is one that I’ve always had mixed feelings about with regard to the world design in Final Fantasy XIV. Because although Eorzea (and beyond) can be a beautiful sight from above, I also tend to find you lose a certain sense of “scale” and geographical context if you can just hop up into the air and fly in a straight line from one place to another without having to negotiate obstacles along the way.
I’m in the very definite minority of people who appreciates the fact that the game ensures you’re practically forced to explore each zone fully on foot before being able to fly there. For those unfamiliar, Final Fantasy XIV requires you to attune to “Aether Currents” in an area before your mounts can fly there, necessitating both the completion of certain quests (including main scenario quests) and reaching certain locations from ground level. By the time you’ve found all the Aether Currents, you will have been to most of the major locations in the zone on your own two feet — and perhaps found your way to some spectacular vistas and intriguing landmarks too.
You didn’t used to be able to fly in the A Realm Reborn areas because zones weren’t designed with flying mounts in mind until first expansion Heavensward, but these days you can fly anywhere — and you don’t have to worry about Aether Currents in the A Realm Reborn areas, though you do have to have beaten A Realm Reborn’s story. I still find myself voluntarily walking from place to place in favour of flying, though; when I sit down for a Final Fantasy XIV session, I’m rarely in a rush, particularly while I replay the story content, and thus I’m more than happy to drink in the beautiful scenery and the wonderful ambience around me as I make my way to my next destination.
Not everyone feels that way about the game, of course, and while everyone is of course free to enjoy Final Fantasy XIV however they see fit, I often find myself thinking it’s a bit of a shame when some people spend all their time in instances, no longer really appreciating it as a coherent virtual world.
But each to their own and all that. One of the reasons I came back to Final Fantasy XIV in the first place is simply because I absolutely love the world in which it is set, and all the incidental detail that goes into making it feel like a real “home away from home”. And I’m grateful that I can enjoy that world at my own pace without having to rush — those dungeons, trials, raids and everything else will still be waiting for me when I’m done, or simply when I’m in the mood to do something with a bit more “direction” to it.
In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the sunshine in Costa del Sol, taking care to be well upwind of the latest delivery of Brayflox’s goblin cheese.
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