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Played in 2023
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I think I tend to be more charitable towards ARR than most and it's hard to know how much of that is based on its genuine merits and how much is just plain nostalgia. In any case I think the base game is good, but for completely different reasons than the rest of the game. Yeah, the story is pretty by-the-numbers and bland barring a few stand-out moments. Yeah, the gameplay is a hollowed shell of its former self and no job gets fun until lvl 50. BUT, those early areas are just so cozy and fun to run around and get lost in, and when I think about my time with ARR, that's what I think about.
Whereas I look upon the later expansions as great stories that took my breath away, ARR feels like a city I once lived in, full of fond memories and tucked-away, unremarkable corners that nonetheless mean something to me. Some of my fondest memories with this game are from the times when I ignored the MSQ and just walked around, filling in all the blank spaces on my map, seeing what I could see, like the aimless walks I used to take in my old neighborhood in Nashville, arriving at intersections and picking a direction at random, learning every twist and turn. I remember wandering the Shroud, not even following any questline, just wandering, looking up at the sunlight through the leaves, my aging laptop perched on my knees, purring like a jet engine and turning my blanket into a sauna.
Like I said, the bulk of these feelings are probably nostalgia. I played ARR at a formative time and it gave me the Something I desperately needed to latch onto at the time. But there are plenty of other games that I played in similar states and don't feel this fondly towards. These feelings couldn't have gained a foothold if there wasn't something in this game for them to grab hold of. The early game areas really are something special, and as the game "got better" in later expansions, the feelings I felt towards the lands of Eorzea itself started to change. As priorities shift towards paying more attention to the narrative (because it's good now), the game world itself eventually becomes a means to an end. A desire to find out what happens next leaves less and less time for the aimless wandering that characterized my ARR experience. This isn't a bad thing necessarily, just an attempt to maybe explain why those early areas have such a grip on my brain in the way no later expansion areas ever have.
I think this is also why Stormblood was such a disappointment to me--it lacked both the compelling narrative of the "good" expansions and the lively exploration of ARR. It's just so barren, and not even in a fun or interesting way most of the time.
Best way to play these two by far. Shame they didn't just port these to switch lol
(tears streaming from my bloodshot eyes) ALL KILLER NO FILLER