As I come closer to end of my second full year as a Final Fantasy XIV subscriber, a thought crossed my mind—a certain opinion I never imagined I'd call my own back when I signed up in 2013.
Could this be the best Final Fantasy game of the past decade?
But the more I think about it, the less controversial this rhetorical question seems. I've been following Final Fantasy through its ups and downs since its first US release in 1990, and the past ten years have seen me more checked out than ever before when it comes to the brand that once determined my console of choice. Even after sinking 120 hours into it years ago, I've finally come to terms with the fact that I didn't really like Final Fantasy XII all that much—though I really, really wanted to. And while I've certainly enjoyed Square-Enix's attempts to reinvent Final Fantasy XIII with XIII-2 and Lightning Returns, neither of these games possess the sheer confidence I love to see from the series.
But with Final Fantasy XIV, things are different. Much of its brilliance can be chalked up to the fact that Square-Enix essentially had the chance to rework it from scratch—a rare luxury in this industry. Unfortunately, A Realm Reborn hasn't fully escaped the taint of the original, disastrous 2010 release—whenever I read justifiable hand-wringing about the state of Final Fantasy following the mismanagement of the Fabula Nova Crystalis project, I rarely see anyone bring up Final Fantasy XIV's return to form. It could be that MMOs aren't the flavor of the moment in 2015; Hearthstone, MOBAs, and Minecraft now dominate conversations that used to be about how things like World of Warcraft couldn't stop making ludicrous amounts of money. (A fact that's still pretty much true.)
What's most impressive about Final Fantasy XIV's stranglehold on me is how it's essentially destroyed my anti-MMO snobbery. Granted, this stance is informed by personal experience: A family member basically got me into RPGs on the NES and SNES, but ever since Everquest released, that's been the only game he's played for, oh, the past 16 years. As someone who loves playing lots of different games, I filed away MMORPGs in the "not for me" category, based completely on an earlier, clunky form of the genre that had no problem consuming your life. While it's easy to lose yourself in the overwhelming amount of content Final Fantasy XIV has to offer, I wasn't surprised to hear director Naoki Yoshida FFXIV also wants to engage with people who have more to do in their lives than play FFXIV. An in-game menu called the Duty Finder instantly directs you to the nearest relevant targets, quests, and attractions, making it a lot easier to achieve some progress if you don't have much time to play. If I have, say, an hour free and I want to do some worthwhile FFXIV-ing, I use the Duty Finder to toss me into a queue for an instanced dungeon—within minutes, I usually find myself right where I want to be.
And what's strange is I'm not necessarily playing FFXIV for its social component. I generally treat it as a single player game with some multiplayer action here and there—that $14.99 a month is to keep my online interactions (mostly) free of buttholes. This is a completely viable way to go about things, mind you; while the dungeons and boss fights require the assistance of other people, FFXIV does such a great job of training players for their specific roles that constant communication isn't a necessity. That's a godsend for people like me, who mostly use FFXIV as a low-key game to play in order to relax and burn through a few podcasts—not to get into arguments with strangers online. And, for the most part, I've found its community extremely helpful and generous; the few times I screwed something up in my attempts to wrap my head around a new role were generally met with gentle suggestions instead of stern reprimands.
It's a testament to Naoki Yoshida's leadership and vision that a former MMO naysayer like me has been faithfully checking in on FFXIV every weekend or so, and with no plans to end my subscription anytime soon. And I've committed even further by recently picking up the expansion Heavensward, even if my slow-as-hell MMO engagement style means I won't be touching any of its content until early 2016. If, like me, you've also lost some faith in Final Fantasy over the past decade, consider giving XIV a try—it's where all the best stuff is happening.