First of all, I should mention that I had never played a MMORPG prior to joining phases 3 and 4 of A Realm Reborn’s beta, and as such, these impressions are coming from the fresh eyes of a newbie in terms of the genre. Furthermore, as someone who has little experience of the Final Fantasy franchise – outside of FFXIII and the Tactics series – I feel that I am uniquely placed to judge this game purely on its own merits. And I’ll begin by saying straight off the bat that this game is enthralling.
Enthralling in terms of the gameplay and the world it has built, steeped as it is in Final Fantasy’s rich lore. Besides your typical fantasy environments, many of the iconic Final Fantasy classes and enemies are here and wonderfully realized – there isn’t anything quite like riding around Eorzea on your trusty chocobo mount, while the chocobo theme plays in the background. Speaking of the music, the soundtrack is typically top notch for a Final Fantasy game, and even after the thousandth time of hearing them I can’t imagine myself tiring of the songs.
None of this will mean much though if you can’t create the perfect avatar to commit your time and money to, and for the most part the character creator caters to these needs. You choose from five races, which are effectively the same as in FFXI, before customizing every facet of their appearance. There are enough options to create your ideal character, although it could to do with more templates and hairstyles.
After creating your character, you are pretty much thrust into the game after a brief cutscene. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the wealth of gameplay mechanics at first, but the game does a good job of guiding you into them with ‘active help’ messages and quests that act as tutorials. The difficulty curve is smooth, such that MMO veterans will breeze through the first ten or so levels; don’t let that be an indicator of the overall difficulty, which ramps up after the first couple of dungeons.
If FFXIV 1.0 represented the nadir of user interfaces, ARR is a paragon of them. Its efficient menu system and customizable HUD is what allows players to familiarize themselves with the gameplay mechanics quickly, and utilize them with as little effort as possible. Quests you’ve taken on have description text on the side of the HUD (which can be hidden) and if the markers on the mini-map do not suffice, their locations can be viewed on the full map. While you are traveling, the larger map can be brought up with the square button and its transparency can be set to your liking depending on how well you want to see ahead of you.
Accessibility is the key word here, and this is reflected in everything from the classes to the quests. Changing class is as simple as equipping that class’ weapon from the character screen, where you can also save and switch between outfits. You can learn any and as many classes as you like from level ten onwards by registering at their respective guilds. This comes in handy considering how ARR encourages experimentation between classes. As well as jobs requiring you to level up a secondary class, certain abilities can be used by other classes, opening up possibilities for unique builds. The non-combat disciplines are also fully fledged, offering their own meta-games for gathering, crafting materials and ultimately crafting gear, which I barely scratched the surface of during my time in beta.
The whole questing system is extremely streamlined. There is never a shortage of sidequests to undertake, and while they mostly boil down to ‘kill X beasties’, they occasionally mix things up with escort missions, or make you interact with objects or use emotes. You can take on multiple quests at once and stay on top of them with the Journal. Story quests are distinguishable by their own icons, sometimes offering tougher instanced battles. It is very hard to lose track of where to go to progress the story, as the next mission often begins where the last one ended, with no need to return to the quest giver. If you ever are at a loss of where to go next, the handy ‘Recommendations’ feature shows a list of quests to consider taking on.
There is plenty of variety in the form of FATEs (randomly occurring battles that anyone can participate in à la Guild Wars 2), hunting logs, guildhests (which require a party and teach you dungeon basics), and dungeons. The dungeons I got to play were meaty and varied, but most importantly great fun, requiring good teamwork within the party. Also they’re where you can find valuable loot. If you can’t find any friends to party up with, the duty finder serves as a matchmaker across servers, and if you are one of the in-demand roles (Tank or Healer) you can be matched instantly.
The final piece of the accessibility puzzle is the controls, The new ‘cross hotbar’ is ARR‘s greatest innovation on PS3. On the bottom of the screen you will see two sets of eight icons laid out like the DualShock 3’s face buttons and D-pad. L2 activates one set, and R2 the other. With one of the triggers depressed, simply press the button/direction that corresponds to the desired command. You can map literally anything to the hotbar – actions, menu options, items, emotes, macros, etc. Pressing R1 switches to another cross hotbar with sixteen inputs, so the potential number of commands at your disposal is virtually limitless. The only obstacle this brings up is memorizing commands and the time taken to switch between hotbars in the heat of battle, but to help combat this you can choose which ones will appear when your weapon is drawn and sheathed.
The developers really thought of everything when designing the controls; they’re so good I can’t imagine the keyboard and mouse being any better. One thing I feel this system has problems with though is targeting. When dealing with multiple mobs it’s hard to target a specific enemy, and I sometimes attacked the wrong enemy then wasted time switching to the right one with the D-pad.
It is impressive that Square Enix have fitted all the content of the PC version on the PS3’s aging hardware, but it has come at a cost. The visuals are notably worse on the PS3 version, and it also suffers from character and enemy pop-in in congested areas like inns and FATE’s. The loading times are slightly longer than on PC as well, but still tolerable. One last concern I have is with the server issues. During the most recent beta phase, a significant number of beta testers were unable to log in due to errors. This was a serious enough problem that SE decided to extend the beta period while they resolved the problem. It goes without saying that like other massively multiplayer online games in recent memory, we can expect a rocky launch as the servers become flooded with players.
These problems aside, the big question is whether ARR will be able to hold players’ interest for the long haul with new content and updates in order to be a success. SE has a lot riding on this attempt to regain favor with fans – not just its reputation but its financial well being. One thing I can say for certain however is that unlike the original, ARR is built on rock solid foundations.