The following is a review of A Realm Reborn, and the patches bridging the gap between it and Heavensward.
ARR is a rollercoaster that feels like it's on train tracks for most of the playtime, and then occasionally throws in a loop-de-loop when you've almost forgotten what ride you're meant to be on. I was aware that most of it was setup that would come into play in future expansions, so I tried to pay attention as best as I could where it would have waned and drifted off in other games. I didn't find it as dry as most people did. That being said, even with the higher tolerance I'd set myself for this, there were far too many times the pacing slowed to an absolute crawl. The gameplay requires much less attention than I would have hoped for the vast majority of the MSQ, and I was able to do my rotation and avoid attacks well enough while literally half asleep at times. So what did hook me? That question's going to take a bit to answer.
This was my first time playing an MMORPG since I played FusionFall when I was 11, and it was overwhelming. There's an onslaught of information when you start the game, and once again every time you log in afterwards. After getting past the initial learning curve, however, it's all laid out in an intuitive manner. Options and gameplay menus are where you would expect them. While a game like this also seems like a nightmare to play on controller, the way they've done the support for it is fantastic. Once you know your way around, you can fly through menus as efficiently as on a keyboard and mouse.
Confusion with the systems presented initially aside, the combat while actually playing the game is not as complicated as I imagined it. I started out as a Black Mage, which guides told me was a difficult starting class. I never really struggled too much with remembering my opener and rotation, beyond the initial hurdle of getting used to the controls. Enemy AOEs and mechanics are very simple and easy to avoid and required little of my attention for most of the game, up until the final gauntlet of bosses, from Rhitahtyn onwards, as well as the final duty of the patch quests. These fights actually had some more complexity to them and required at least a modicum of spatial awareness to not be hit.
Performing skills and abilities and playing a class efficiently is satisfying in a way that feels similar to practicing a combo in a fighting game, there's a rhythmic sort of feel to it. I did enjoy memorizing my opener/rotation and optimizing it to make it more complex and learning the song, so to speak. It's fairly restrictive to play your class efficiently, though there are a few moments of improvisation gained through procs for free ability uses.
I wanted to play at least one job from each role, so I also played White Mage. The rotation is mind numbingly simple with not much to keep track off, but the engagement with it comes from, well, the healing. Instead of an emphasis on managing your own resources and rotation, you manage other people's health bars. I found this simultaneously more and less engaging than BLM; it was more stressful, but far easier. I just panicked less when I was playing BLM. I plan to play Dark Knight through Heavensward if I end up enjoying tanking, and the job itself.
I don't think XIV's combat will ever really touch most other action game combat for me, but it is a unique experience of memorizing a complex set of skills to keep up the use of while also managing your position in relation to both your allies and the enemies. It's not consistently satisfying yet, but I could see it getting there.
The plot of ARR - as meandering as the questing is - is quite simple. Primals are being summoned by the beast tribes for various reasons, the XIVth legion of the Garlean Empire seeks to conquer Eorzea, and the Ascians aid them while having ulterior motives of their own. One of these threats is resolved by the end of ARR, the XIVth legion. I believe (I hope) Primals are also resolved by the end of the patch quests, which leaves the Ascians to be the overarching villains. I guessed that'd be the case, but I wish they were more compelling than they are. Even Gaius Van Baelsar had what felt like more thought put behind his imperialist ideologies than the spooky dark wizard cult. Based on the words of Midgardsomr, however, Heavensward seems promising in delivering a more complex conflict, so I'm looking forward to that. The patch quests also have a substantially more interesting story, based largely around political intrigue and scheming.
Where some of the story of ARR shines is in the smaller, more macro story arcs revolving around the nuances of the city states' societies - particularly Ul'dah - and other factions. I enjoyed the refugee plotline with the Domans, as well as the simultaneous critique of Ul'dah's hyper-capitalist society. I also enjoyed learning about places like Little Ala Mhigo and Little Solace and their troubles.
While the broad strokes of the story are average, what makes ARR really drag is also the smaller, more macro story arcs. The other ones. The ones that have you delivering ingredients to a feast (for yourself!) that the game acknowledges is a waste of your time in the face of a calamitous threat, but still carries on with it regardless. I know this is done to narratively develop certain areas and characters, but there are more entertaining ways to do that than having NPCs that ask you to do mundane tasks for them that they reward with thinly veiled exposition. These moments brought down the quality of the major events of the main story because by the time I got to something interesting, I felt more relieved than excited.
In fact, while writing this review, I realize that I honestly can't really remember much of the minor events I found interesting at the time throughout base ARR's story. There was just not much there that was memorable, even if I was mildly into it at the time.
The overly flowery dialogue is also worth questioning. I don't usually mind it, it does add personality to an extent (and hell, it's similar to the way I myself write), but it did make my eyes glaze over at times. I didn't find myself tempted to skip through any text, but I did have to check the log a few times to remind myself what the importance of a conversation actually was.
There are also a few other executional issues (likely caused by budget constraints) that bring the story down in terms of taking it seriously:
- The voice acting. I think this possibly had some of the worst video game voice acting I've heard - stiff, robotic deliveries are all over the place. God, this seriously undercut some important moments. One of the first examples that comes to mind is Cid's flashback. It improves vastly in the patch quests, but it's still iffy. I'm aware that it all changes in Heavensward. I hope it's substantially better.
- The animations. I don't mind the animations themselves per se, but there's a very off-putting, quick transition for people going in and out of idle poses. It's tolerable for the most part, but jarring during big moments, especially when the unnaturally fast unsheathing animation is juxtaposed with a fully choreographed fight scene afterwards.
- The lighting. The lighting could be softer during cutscenes, or have a secondary source, as some angles are distractingly unflattering for a lot of characters. There's some spots in the Rising Stones that are examples of this.
The characterization is also fairly flat. I should at least care about the Scions, and I kind of do… after the celebration in the ending of the patch quests, which is far too late for their characterization to be considered successful. Minfilia is the standard noble leader. Thancred being controlled by Lahabrea made me feel nothing, the effects of it weren't acknowledged much afterwards either. Papalymo and Yda are just bickering archetypes. Urianger's personality is being cryptic and he takes the flowery language I mentioned earlier to an all new level. Y'shtola is a smart, no-nonsense kind of girl. Tataru's insecurity due to her lack of relative power to the others was kind of interesting, but didn't wasn't developed long enough for the conclusion to be satisfying. Alphinaud's strong sense of justice and idealism combined with the naivete and unearned confidence that comes from his own privilege is perhaps the most complex it gets.
With a combination of bad pacing, exposition that feels so obviously like exposition, poor cutscene direction and voice acting, characters that just aren't fleshed out enough... there was a lot left to be desired in the storytelling of ARR.
Why did I keep playing?
Throughout ARR, there were glimpses of what could be. The Primal fights, the nuggets of clever writing, the music occasionally popping off. The final gauntlet I mentioned before felt like it was from a different game; the music finally swelling to a peak in both melody and emotion, boss patterns actually mattering and requiring full attention, and spectacle that doesn't feel empty due to the lack of any actual challenge. One of those loop-de-loops I mentioned at the start. That was when I decided to keep seeing this through. While nothing quite rose to that height again until the end of the patch quests with Vishap, and then the Sultana's celebration, there was definitely a leap in storytelling quality between the base game and the patches. This bodes well for the future.
I used to desperately wish this game was singleplayer, and I still kind of do. Though the MMO subscription scheme makes sense monetarily, I much prefer just paying once for a product and being able to access it at any time afterwards. I acknowledge though, that the game was built around this format, and that I am asking for a fundamentally different video game at that point. So, that being said; there is a magic to MMOs that makes this game feel different, and - trade-offs aside - I'd be lying if I said it didn't enhance the experience in a unique way. Seeing other people currently experiencing the same story beats as me, piling into an important trial with seven other players, and the act of filling a dedicated role in a party were all things I enjoyed.
And while I sounded harsh when discussing the characters, I did like getting any information about them that I could. Minfilia struggling to keep everything together, Thancred's attitude of joking and bantering the pain away, Papalymo and Yda's camaraderie despite the bickering, are all compelling to me on some level. I did find them endearing enough for the Waking Sands and the Rising Stones to really feel like a home within this world. I just wanted the game to give me more reasons to care about them. And with most of them gone for now, I'm eager to see what Heavensward and perhaps even further expansions will do with their return.