Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn director Naoki Yoshida can hardly seem to contain himself these days. As soon as he sees me, he shakes my hand vigorously and says: "Thank you for your kind review."
He could have been referring to the fans, the press... pretty much anyone really. Since its relaunch last August, A Realm Reborn has been almost universally praised for turning around what had been pretty much considered a dead MMORPG. So complete has been the comeback that our own Pete Davison recently made the case for it being his Game of the Year.
Its secret is a mix of back-to-basics fundamentals and a deep appreciation for the history of Final Fantasy -- an element that has arguably been lacking from the series of late. Also important is the fact that it's a technically sound game with good graphics and lots of content. It doesn't really blaze much in the way of new territory in the MMO space, but it doesn't really have to either. Final Fantasy XIV is unapologetic in its MMO trappings; entrancing new fans with its fidelity to its namesake while pushing veterans to the limit with a variety of intense raid encounters.
It's only real weakness that the PS3 version is necessarily somewhat inferior to the PC version; among other things, suffering from a poor framerate and inferior textures. It's basically fine for what it is, but no one's first choice, which is why it's heartening to see it looking as good as it does on the PlayStation 4. With so few good MMOs to play on consoles -- DC Universe Online is one of the few -- Final Fantasy XIV has an opportunity to tap a whole new audience that has the potential to keep it going for a long time to come.
Crucially, Yoshida and company seem to understand this opportunity for what it is, because Final Fantasy XIV does a lot of important things right. For instance, while it's a subscription-based MMO, it won't require PlayStation Plus to play. It fully supports remote play on the Vita, and includes a customizable interface for those who want to go portable. And most importantly, it's cross-compatible with the PC version, meaning that people playing on PS4 can go raiding with their friends on the PC, and vice versa.
It also helps that it's very nice to look at, the PS4 version sporting graphics roughly on par with those of the PC version, along with a very strong frame rate.
What's really interesting about Final Fantasy XIV though isn't the graphics or the customization, but the fact that it's just a great fit for consoles in general, which is surprising for a hardcore traditional MMORPG like this one. Credit the excellent controls, which utilizes the triggers and face button, as well as the DualShock 4 touchpad. It seems crazy to say for a genre that prizes efficiency above everything, but it works really well. It's probably not ideal for, say, healers; but for other classes, the DualShock controller is a perfectly satisfying and easy way to play Final Fantasy XIV.
Where it falls down just a bit is on the Vita; which despite featuring a customizable interface, just doesn't have enough buttons. Whether you want to or not, you're going to have to map something to the rear touchscreens, which is never ideal. And on the newer model especially, it's a strain to make out the tiny icons and text. It's a pity, because the Vita seems like a perfect venue for grinding while watching Futurama or something; but once again, remote play feels a little wanting.
Still, it's hard not to be impressed by the effort Square Enix is putting into this port. It accounts for practically every taste, even going so far as to support a USB mouse and keyboard setup. It will also be possible to access characters from the PC version so long as you have a Square Enix account. This is part of a broader plan to integrate the PS4 into the existing community.
"We don't want it to be where the PS4 users are forming their own community and separating out," Yoshida says. "We would like them to be one big community."
Slowly but surely, Yoshida and company have removed every barrier to accessing their game, which has been crucial to building up a huge and varied community across multiple platforms. Even Vita Remote Play has been factored into Yoshida's calculations. Though limited at best, it still has its uses.
"It seems that with game consoles, you're more and more restricted to the television," Yoshida says. "But we all lead very busy lives and we might not have time to sit down in front of a console to play a videogame. With that trend of people being a little too busy, it's important to be able to take your gaming experience with you; and with the Vita,you have that place to to log in everyday. That way you don't run the risk of people getting too busy to sit down and login."
"It is a subscription business model, after all, and we don't want to run the risk of people being too busy to log in, because then they might stop playing altogether. So we wanted to provide a way for them to take their gaming experience on the train or on the go. That's why we put a lot of effort into making it work on the Vita."
Yoshida, being a hardcore gamer himself, adds: "I'm personally very busy as well, so it's beneficial for me as well to be able to get on my Vita and log in to my PlayStation 4 account."
With the community continuing to grow, Yoshida and his team have also been hard at work on new content to feed hungry players. Currently, the team is hard at work on their next content drop, called Through the Maelstrom, which will advance the existing storyline while introducing new dungeons and Leviathan -- a new Primal. It will arrive on PC in March, which means it ought to be ready for the PS4 version as well when it launches on April 14. Even without the content update though, Final Fantasy XIV isn't wanting for content. In particular, the PC version has been lauded by many for its excellent story, which ought to appeal to console gamers reared on Final Fantasy VII and its ilk.
Between that and the fact that it's shaping up to be a very strong port, there is every indication that it will be a success on the PS4, thus completing the turnaround first begun in 2011. With a strong console version, Final Fantasy XIV will be able to appeal to a huge number of console and PC gamers around the world -- something not even World of WarCraft was able to do in its heyday. It may not quite be the heir to WoW's throne, but it is nevertheless a beacon of light in what has heretofore been a declining genre. The PS4 version is the final piece of the puzzle.