After more than a decade in operation, Final Fantasy XIV has an impressive, long-standing legacy, buoyed by a fervent community and frequent content updates charting new realms and mythology. With so much backstory, and years of upgrades and improvements to consider, starting the game as a beginner feels incredibly daunting – paralysing, even.
But after an introduction to everything the game has to offer, I’ve stumbled onto the realisation that, really, there’s nothing to fear from this sweeping RPG adventure – except maybe the wandering bee swarms.
As an online game, Final Fantasy XIV has always been a rare black sheep for the franchise. While other games have also explored multiplayer realms, the majority of Square Enix’s flagship series is focussed on linear adventures with a core cast of characters. Lacking a Cloud or Tidus to hang the action on, Final Fantasy XIV depends on player creativity and curiosity to drive its high fantasy story forward. And while this represents a significant shift from the mainstream FF formula, it also provides scope for ownership, as players take the reigns of their own custom hero.
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On entering Final Fantasy XIV, it’s your job to discover the secrets of the land of Hydaelyn, embodying the skills and talent of one of several skilled hero classes, taking on quests that further your prowess in battle, and bring you closer to saving the world from the threat of the mysterious Garlean Empire.
The action is largely story-driven – and it was this point that surprised me most. While you can team up with other players to head off in parties and take down terrifying beasts together, the game seems to be optimally played as a lone ranger, hunting down more ambitious story quests as you boost your combat prowess.
Moments after your story begins, you’re trained up in the ways of battle and exploration with a series of rapid-fire quests, and sent off to meet your destiny. You can take on a vast array of quests all at once, which comes in handy when the early set-up gives you mini-battles like ‘Take on five Tiny Mandragora’ or ‘Slay wild dodos’. These are simple, but lay the groundwork for a self-guided romp through well-designed fantasy worlds, and a quirky array of questlines.
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While some elements of gameplay are not clearly explained – the game’s click-based combat, for example, thrusts you directly into the action – most of the time, info prompts will tell you more about Hydaelyn, and your unique quest through its world. To further soften the blow of entering a strange and overwhelming new world, Final Fantasy XIV metres out its dense array of quests, allowing you to tackle the story and side quests in any order.
Barring a 15-minute introduction, gameplay is freeform and carries no real expectations. You’re free to level up in any way you like – a process that is streamlined, thanks to the game’s considerate approach to combat.
For example: Say you’re just starting out, doing mini-quests to gain experience. You’re out in the open field, when suddenly – shock horror – you stumble across a roaming level 33 Gigantoad, oozing through a local pond. For a moment, you freeze in fear. Then, you realise combat in Final Fantasy XIV requires initiation. Unless you’re stumbling into a special FATE event, you can simply walk away and leave the toad behind, consequence-free.
This minor detail means your time in Final Fantasy XIV can continue at a leisurely pace, if you want it to. Like The Elder Scrolls Online, it demands nothing from its players. You can just kick back in gameplay, exploring high mountains and river creeks to your heart’s content. The game doesn’t quite dazzle with its early 2010s landscapes and blocky aesthetic – it does look fairly dated in 2023 – but it has a nostalgia-infused charm and a real sense of personality, particularly in its vivacious NPCs.
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That’s not to mention the game’s lovely flute-based soundtrack, which sweeps you along in a sense of quiet calm – shocking you awake only when a surprise FATE event strikes, or your circumstances call for action. Then, you’ll get the rousing bump of drums and electronica as you draw your weapon and shoot off an array of spells.
Occasionally, your travels will also be interrupted (or aided) by fellow citizens of Hydaelyn, each with their own quests to keep them busy. Even in my short time with the game – and lacking a real need for help – I had several travellers ducking in to help out while I fought off wasps and other wandering beings.
The game’s world is littered with nice folks who’ll fight for you, and people trading tips or gear – and some just jumping around, or hanging out for a quiet moment.
In bustling city centres, there’s plenty of activity, and the quiet, excited rush of newcomers and veterans meeting. Even lacking powerful gear, and armed with little knowledge about the world Final Fantasy XIV, I was greeted kindly by an assortment of heroes, each on their own self-guided quests for victory. With no real pressure to pursue a single path, or advance the main story on a strict timeline, I spent my hours in the game seeing the sights, initiating minor battles, and building up confidence.
There’s zero judgement for doing so – and as a newcomer, it’s grand.
In the space of an hour, armed with my own personal directive, I was rocking a new hat and boots, much stronger spells, a wallet full of Gil, and far more confidence than I had to begin with. And from there, the world was my oyster.
I’ll admit I was initially reluctant to dive in with Final Fantasy XIV. The time commitment concerned me greatly. The dense lore seemed overwhelming. Neither feels like much of a barrier anymore – particularly given the game’s story pacing, and freeform exploration that allows you tackle anything, in any order. Being able to play through the entire game and level up to 60 without paying a buck certainly helped my experiences, too.
As a classic MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV may feel indecipherable, from the outside. But with a fair balance between hand-holding and freedom, it quickly reveals itself to be a well-paced and solid RPG-focussed adventure that invites players to journey at their own whims, and at their own set pace.
A guided demo session through Final Fantasy XIV was provided for the purposes of this review. It included access to the game via its free trial, which is available to everyone.