It's been a long time since a video game kept me up until 5AM.
On those occasions where a video game has kept me up until 5AM in the past, blame can usually be laid at the feet of a dramatic and exciting finale that goes on a little bit longer than I thought it was going to. Because once I start down the road that clearly leads to the final boss, there's no way I'm stopping. I'm sure at least some of you can relate.
Final Fantasy XIV was, as it turned out, no exception. And that was a surprise, because although I love the game dearly, I wasn't expecting an MMO to be able to step up to the plate and deliver a finale that could match up to the frequently ridiculous and overdramatic denouements of the single-player installments in the series.
How wrong I was.
Final Fantasy XIV's main quest takes you right from level 1 up to the current cap of 50, conveniently taking you all the way around the entire game world and back again in the process. In following the main questline, you'll run into numerous sidequests, learn the special abilities of your class -- which, remember, you can switch out at any time if you want to try something different -- and make your way through numerous dark and scary dungeons with three friends (and/or random strangers) at your side.
As you approach level 50, it becomes apparent that the stakes are getting higher. This becomes particularly clear in the Cape Westwind boss fight, which marks the first time you graduate from a four-person "light party" to an eight-person "full party" -- currently the largest party size supported by the game. The Cape Westwind fight is a good introduction to working together with more people simultaneously -- a vital skill that you'll need if you hope to survive the last two dungeons.
Once you actually reach level 50, the first thing most players do is finish off their class-specific quest, which completes their first set of "artifact armor" -- special gear that gives each class a unique appearance similar to how they were depicted in previous Final Fantasy games. Following this, it's onward to the game's final two dungeons: Castrum Meridianum and the Praetorium, both of which require full parties of eight people to participate.
The two dungeons are quite different from one another, and indeed markedly distinct from the dungeons you may have challenged earlier in the game. Castrum Meridianum is quite an open-plan dungeon that requires good leadership -- usually from the most experienced tank in the group -- and also makes use of some unique mechanics such as firing powerful cannons at strong enemies. The Praetorium, meanwhile, is a textbook Very Definitely Final Dungeon, complete with overdramatic music and, again, some unique mechanics -- in this instance, hopping aboard a suit of Final Fantasy VI-style Magitek Armor and having the opportunity to stomp about blowing everything up for a while.
And then come the final boss battles. A Realm Reborn had already set my expectations high with some top-notch boss fights throughout the course of the game, but I wasn't ready for quite how "Final Fantasy" the final confrontations were.
The latter part of the Praetorium is something of a boss rush, you see, with a number of dramatic fights punctuated by cutscenes in which villains shout at you while things explode and the music swells and throbs dramatically in the background. After taking down the game's last few recurring villains, you'll come face to face with an iconic Final Fantasy beastie: Ultima Weapon itself. Thus begins a huge fight in which pyrotechnics are going off all around you, and in which you'd better concentrate if you want to stay alive. In true "final boss" tradition, the battle against Ultima Weapon makes use of mechanics from most of the other major bosses throughout the game, giving the battle a really pleasing sense of closure when you come to the end.
And then? Well, I'll leave the details of what happens right at the end for you to discover for yourself, but suffice to say, those of you hoping for a lengthy and satisfying end sequence will not be disappointed. There's even a credits roll that rivals Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto in duration -- but after that's done, the game continues, having set things up nicely for both the current endgame content and future expansions.
One tip: if at all possible, run both Castrum Meridianum and Praetorium in a single session, and with the same group of people. If you're in a Free Company, recruit as many people as possible to come along so you're with people you know and trust -- this also minimizes the chances you'll be thrown together with speedrunners who get pissy if you don't skip the cutscenes. Because come on; it's a Final Fantasy final dungeon -- of course you want to see the cutscenes! (If you do find yourself resorting to playing with a group of randoms through the Duty Finder, set expectations up front: tell them it's your first time running the dungeon and that you'd like to watch the cutscenes. Jerks will generally leave at this point; other people will usually be understanding, particularly since recent patches and adjustments to rewards have discouraged speedrunners somewhat.)
So what happens after that? Well, the story-based stuff slows down somewhat, but there is still a narrative justification for most of the things you'll find yourself doing through a series of quests. You'll find yourself running level 50 dungeons to earn money -- level 50 dungeon monsters drop money instead of awarding now-redundant experience points -- and "Tomestones," which can be exchanged for higher-level equipment at a special merchant. Your eventual aims are the acquisition of a powerful "Relic" weapon for your class of choice, and gearing yourself up appropriately to take on what is currently the most difficult dungeon in the whole game, the five-part, eight-player Binding Coil of Bahamut. Along the way, you'll encounter "Hard Mode" variations of the tricky Primal fights from the main storyline -- iconic Final Fantasy summons including Ifrit, Garuda and Titan -- and learn that, indeed, reaching level 50 is just the beginning of your adventuring career because there's still plenty to do and lots to learn. Alternatively, if endgame progression does nothing for you, you're free to start levelling another class at any point -- and in the process take advantage of the "Armory Bonus" system, which grants a hefty experience boost based on the difference between your current class and your highest-level class -- or look into the potentially lucrative crafting and gathering classes.
On December 17, 2013, Patch 2.1 will be released. This is the first of the promised significant content updates for Final Fantasy XIV that Yoshida and the development team told us about early in the game's life, and adds a ton of new stuff to do.
Level 50s will have plenty of new challenges, including "Hard Mode" versions of Copperbell Mines and Haukke Manor -- two of my favorite dungeons from earlier in the game -- and an all-new dungeon called Pharos Sirius. Perhaps most notable, though, is the introduction of the 24-player raid on the Final Fantasy III-inspired Crystal Tower, a structure which is currently visible but not enterable in the game world.
Crystal Tower is not intended to replace the Binding Coil of Bahamut as the most difficult dungeon in the game; rather, it is intended to be an intermediary step providing players with more choices of things to do at high level. It'll serve as a good means of acquiring decent high-level gear -- though not quite as good as that found in the Coil -- but more than anything it will present interesting logistical and leadership challenges trying to keep 24 players in order. It's not quite as daunting as it sounds, though; those 24 players will actually be organized into three groups of eight rather than bundled all together.
In short, then, it's well worth making your way to the level cap of Final Fantasy XIV and finishing off the story, because it's a truly spectacular conclusion that kept me glued to my seat long after I should have gone to bed. And beyond that, there's plenty of stuff to do, with more on the way.
The future looks bright for the reborn realm, then; long may the light of the Crystal shine upon Eorzea.