FFXIV: Heavensward finished, as is my tale… for now

After a two-month stint back in Final Fantasy XIV, I’m stepping away from the game for other worlds. It isn’t an acrimonious split, but one that I feel needs to happen to make some time to explore other titles. I got my fill on FFXIV for now, so it’s time to let it rest and let interest in it recharge.

I actually feel really good about stopping now, as I just finished up Heavensward. Not all of the patch content, mind you, but the core expansion itself. Back when I restarted in late October, I hadn’t even finished ARR, and in the intervening two months, I got through all of 3.0. That feels like a good accomplishment. I’d really wanted to see what the Heavensward fuss was about and to give FFXIV another chance to impress.

So did it? Impress? Well, yes and no. I’ll start with the negatives, because it’s not as if this MMO really changed from the last several times I played it. There’s still too much trope-worthy head nodding and fists-under-chins and other overused emotes. The combat is plodding and dull. Every guild I find seems to talk a lot the first night and then never thereafter (was it something I said?). And the vaunted Main Story Quests themselves are an exercise in walking places, watching wayyyy too many cutscenes of non-importance, and sometimes fighting a carefully groomed coterie of three bad guys. Then a dungeon every dozen missions or so.

But I was able to see more positive this time around, and I want to be fair. There are some *great* story moments. The story as a whole is like a 3.5-star fantasy book, too many dragons and self-pity for my liking. But every once in a while, FFXIV managed to surprise me, or make me laugh, or give me some really excellent eye candy. I did want to know what happened both to the story and its ever-expanding cast of characters, but my patience started to wear thin on how long it took for anything to happen at all.

What else did I like? Let’s see. It’s pretty. Heavensward is really good-looking and wasn’t a non-stop snow zone as I had originally assumed. There are some terrific fantasy locales that the artists did a bang-up job on. I got my healing fix over the past two months and made peace with the terrible things that they did to the Scholar. I rather enjoyed the Mechinist class tales. And flying was a hoot.

The end credit sequence of Heavensward was about 15 minutes or so, delivering a whole mixture of interesting beats. There was exaltation, sadness, and not just a few cliffhangers and new threats to keep the story ball rolling. Maybe in a few months I’ll come back just to find out what happens next. At least I’ll be in a good spot to pick up on the Dragonsong War series and then into Stormblood.

But for now, yes, I need a break. I had to push myself through the last 20 or so quests, trying to get across that finish line before apathy overtook me. I’m glad I did, but I’m also glad I’m able to look to a different challenge come January.

So farewell, FFXIV. I don’t regret coming back, even after my snit fit last spring. Heavensward might not have been this life-changing amazing experience, but you know what? It was pretty good even so.

FFXIV is the homeowners association of MMORPGs

In this latest bout of FFXIV play, I’ve spend a lot of mental time sorting out the pros and cons of this MMO. Despite what white or black knights might purport, there’s more than enough to fill two solid columns’ worth of features, almost to the point where (for me) it’s a 1:1 ratio.

I don’t really care to go into this list, save to discuss the one feature that could be seen as either a pro or a con, depending on what your preferences are and how you like to play. And that’s for Final Fantasy XIV’s tendency to be, for lack of a better analogy, a homeowners association.

An HOA dictates the laws of the neighborhood it governs, requiring home owners to comply in how they handle their property and house. It limits free expression in order to gain a theoretical higher standard of community beauty and cleanliness. HOA neighborhood cultivate a copy-and-paste look among its members’ lots. And if you enjoy everything looking that specific brand of nice, like having access to certain amenities, and like having someone else take care of these rules for you, then I suppose HOAs are enjoyable places to live.

Of course, if you’re all about free expression and using your home and property as you see fit, an HOA is a constricting beast indeed. Your choice is either removed or pared down.

That’s FFXIV in a nutshell. Looks great, and if you’re into its specific brand of progression and play, it can be a lot of fun. You don’t have to worry about gimping your character, because the game handles your leveling and balance. You go into a dungeon, you don’t have to worry that other classes will be missing essential skills or talents they need, because they’ve been given the same boilerplate build as everyone else.

But if you prize choice and freedom, especially in your character’s progression, then FFXIV starts to feel very restricting. There is some manner of choice: You can choose gear (although you can’t progress past certain points in the storyline if you can’t pass an ilevel check). You can swap jobs to play whatever class suits you that day. You can customize your appearance, house, and fling out whatever pets and mounts you collected.

Yet compared to most other MMOs, FFXIV is a barren wasteland of character choice. There’s nothing in the way of stat distribution or skill selection (although there used to be). No talent trees. No alternate specs. Once you pick a job, you’re playing the same exact job as anyone else that picks it. You may be more or less skilled as others playing that job, but you won’t have a different toolbox than they will.

I guess that when I don’t think about it too much, I can avoid having this HOA feel bother me. Of course, I do think about it. I am not nearly as attached to my character in FFXIV because of this design. I don’t really look forward to leveling as much because my path has been fully predestined by the developers.

I do miss how the game used to be, back when I first played. At least then you could collect cross-class skills to mix-and-match as a sort of secondary system. That wasn’t perfect and was already on its way to being outdated, but I thought it was a good idea. A combination of collection and choice.

Oh well. It is what it is. I’m sure a lot of folks have made their peace with this design, such as my FC when I asked them what they thought of it. In a way, it makes FFXIV a lot more like some single-player action or adventure games rather than one with RPG flexibility.

FFXIV’s aether currents are a better way to handle flying in MMORPGs

When The Burning Crusade added flying to World of Warcraft back in 2007, we all felt like it was the most liberating move the game had done yet. Having the ability to move about freely and explore this game world in a new way was a heady rush — and one that hasn’t really gone away since. I had previously loved City of Heroes’ flight for many of the same reasons: it was a boon to explorers, it was convenient, and it was simply fun.

And while flight is exhilarating to be sure, it introduces a significant problem into MMOs. By using flight, players can simply bypass the landscape obstacles, journey, and challenges below. Questing ends up being a helicopter experience of flying in safety to a spot, landing and doing the objective, and then airlifting out. Danger is vastly reduced and the sense of going on an actual quest, complete with meaningful travel, is eliminated. This isn’t even touching on another issue, which is that flight removes the player distance-wise from the crafted landscape and keeps them from getting immersed into the world that developers have made.

World of Warcraft has struggled with what to do with flying ever since Burning Crusade due to these issues. Flying is fun, but in non-superhero settings it doesn’t seem to work when left toggled on all of the time. Blizzard has erred on the side of grounding players for a long long time and then making them doing a lengthy grind with each expansion just to “earn back” flying. That has rankled players and feels like a clumsy solution.

Now that I’ve been going through Heavensward in FFXIV, I’m inclined to agree with my MOP colleague Eliot — Square Enix developed a much better solution with aether currents. The idea here is that flying is unlocked on a zone-by-zone basis, with the only requirements being a handful of quests and locating ten or so floating misty orbs on the map. Since both the locations and quests are discovered as you go through the main storyline, there’s no way to blitz ahead and unlock it too early. But around the time you finish up the main storyline in that zone, flying is unlocked for future use there, and so it doesn’t feel like it took that long to accomplish.

It’s a Goldilocks scenario: Neither too long nor too short. You do have to spend some time grounded, but I never am resentful of this because I feel like at every step, I’m earning that flight. I don’t get the impression that the developers are yanking away my privileges. After all, FFXIV is a game that’s all about unlocking features, one step at a time, and this fits into that format well.

I wouldn’t mind seeing this sort of approach spread to other fantasy MMORPGs with flying, to be honest. It is a darn sight better than what Blizzard is stubbornly clinging to with WoW.

Flying high in Final Fantasy XIV

You know that scene in Fellowship of the Ring where Sam stops in a field and has that realization that if he takes one more step, he’ll be the furthest away from home that he’s ever been? I had my own Sam Moment in FFXIV last week as my character finally caught back up to where my original character was — and then pushed deeper into Heavensward than I ever have before.

It was actually a really good feeling. I’m not blazing on fire for FFXIV, but ever since my re-return a month or so ago, I’ve been wondering if I would be interested enough to catch up to where I used to be. It was a tiny bit of a grind getting Mechinist up to scrap — and then, hilariously, I switched back to Scholar anyway because I liked having a healing fairy at my side — but overall I didn’t experience much difficulty getting here.

I want to get through the entirety of Heavensward at least to give the much-vaunted story a real chance. Fans rave about this expansion as being the start of the “real good” stuff, and so far? Well, it’s not horrible, but it’s not page-turning excitement either. At least Alphanerd got a coat to cover his weird pants-tights he has going on. And any scene with Tataru is gold. And the ninja girl is more than tolerable.

Part of my middling feelings is that right here is the narrative nexus between dragons and elves, two things — you might recall — I am less than enthusiastic about. I’d be alright if Heavensward ends with the dragons eating the elves (one does, but it’s sort of a love thing? They kind of lost me with that.) and then the dragons dying of indigestion. Listening to people fawn all over majestic sky-lizards hurts my eyes from the rolling.

At least I’ve gotten to the point where my small party is on an actual journey instead of dithering around in zones and then returning to Ishgard for yet another pow-wow in the Count’s quarters. The forward momentum makes me want to log back in to see where I go next and what happens.

So here’s something cool: I finally got to fly in FFXIV! I took a few minutes to figure out the aether currents system, which fortunately proved to be a lot more straight-forward to navigate. Basically, you unlock flying zone by zone. There’s about 10 or so exploration points you have to find and five quests to do, and that’s it. Ding! It’s only slightly gated (with the quests appearing at a point in the MSQ), but I felt like I unlocked it at a good point without being strung along for too long.

Compared to World of Warcraft, flying itself in FFXIV feels slightly more clunky, but that’s true of a lot of this game’s controls. It works, but it’s not as… tight as I’m used to in WoW. I did have fun zipping around the zone, exploring the spots on the map that were hidden, and checking out things from a high vantage point. Good stuff.

FFXIV: Moving Heavensward

Hey, look at that! A title card for an expansion, at last. Can’t think of any other MMOs that use title cards for the start of their expansions, unless they force you through a trailer or something. But at least this officially marks the end of my exile in the wasteland of 2.X quests and the achievement of a significant goal — to get to Ishgard so that I could swap my class over.

Story-wise, I find it really irritating that Alphanerd is the one Scion that survived the palace escape to go on this road trip with me. He’s useless and self-pitying, and for the life of me, I do NOT understand how he got to be where he is in this game. Is he a trust fund baby who is throwing money around so people respect him? At least he’s wearing real pants for once.

And I’m all for having Tataru along. Complicated feelings on Lalafel aside, I love her character. She’s the adorkable mascot that you wish you had in real life. So I guess it’s up to the three of us and an ignorance as to how long we can overstay our welcome to figure out how to come back from the terrible defeat that I had zero part of or say in.

But the second I switched over to Mechanist, I had to put a bookmark in the main story quest, seeing as how I got demoted down to level 30. Getting those 20 levels became the priority as well as doing all of the Mechanist quests along the way for skills and amusement.

No hard feelings from me on this, actually. It’s probably a good thing to have to grind out 20 levels with a new job just to get a handle on how it functions. I’m pleased to report that the Mechanist is pretty much what I expected and wanted out of a class. I get some utility, a lot of pew-pew, and a cool steampunk aesthetic. I hear there’s the promise of a robot at level 80, but that’s going to be a long time coming.

While I did some FATEs and whatnot, mostly I leveled through dungeons. Hitting that once-per-day leveling roulette quickly became my gaming priority, because the XP bonus there was immense. Like, 1.5 to 3 levels worth of progress in one run. Plus, again, I got to learn the rhythm of my class (although in those lowbie dungeons, it was mostly spamming the single AOE skill I have while watching TV). It’s also helping me stock up on tomes so I can gear up at level 50 without breaking my bank.

I have a favorable outlook on the future. I’m not going to get distracted by side quests here; I want to get through this expansion and see whether or not FFXIV can finally stand on its long-touted storytelling merits. If it can, I think I’ll stick around for a while to come.

FFXIV: Who decided it was a good idea to give an army to a 17-year-old kid?

I’m very happy to report that last week’s expeditions into FFXIV paid off handsomely. I progressed through the Seventh Astral Era 100 quests much more quickly than before, partially thanks to skipping every cutscene until I got to 2.5 and partially thanks to a couple of unexpectedly long play sessions.

While the story and activities weren’t anything to write home (or to you) about, there were a couple of beneficial factors. The first was that jawing about the story and offering up observations with my free company helped to forge some early friendships and give me someone to talk to about the weirdness that often pops up in FFXIV. We talked about “fantasy pope” and “Alpha Nerd” and whether or not Lalafel lack souls and have to devour others when they get the opportunity. I know the story is very old hat to some of these players, but it’s a point of commonality that everyone has an opinion on, and that helps to build relationships.

I’ve also been getting my “game legs” back through these series of quests. My guildies have offered some helpful hints, especially about gearing up, and I’ve been lightly experimenting with different classes. The Summoner didn’t end up being my thing, and I dabbled for a while with the Red Mage before dying far too often in group experiences. So I did, at least for these quests, jump back into Scholar just so I didn’t have to wait forever for queues to pop. And while I am still very displeased with a lot of the changes Square Enix made with the class, I think I’ve found a workable solution that lets me both quest and group. I’m still going Mechanist later on, but it’s never a bad thing to have a healer in your pocket.

I also got my character to look the way I wanted. I already said that I switched her over to a human with a bit of punk hairdo, but after a little while tinkering with glamours, I gave her an outfit that looked sensible and modern rather than some giant poofy jacket/skirt combo.

Of course, the slight irony to last week was that while I was racing to catch up in the story, Square Enix moved the goalpost even further away with Patch 5.1. Hey, more quests aren’t a bad thing, but I do start to go cross-eyed when I think about how long it’s going to take to get to where everyone else is at. I also have been making lists of other activities that I want to do at some point, such as investigating beast quests.

I’m not on fire for FFXIV, but I am feeling like I’m in a comfortable groove. It’s a good time when I log in, and when I bounce between this and LOTRO, I get my MMO needs satisfied.

As a dog returns to his vomit, so Syp to FFXIV

Yes, Syp of the past, I know. I read your note. I even heeded it at two separate occasions this past summer, cautioning me away from a FFXIV return. I know I place myself in a position of mockery for both Syp-of-the-past and commenters-of-the-now, both of whom are undoubtedly shaking their heads at my love/hate relationship with this game.

But Bio Break is a place, if not free of judgment, then freeing for me to be honest. I’ve come back to Final Fantasy XIV, and I’m even having a (cautiously) good time so far as I’ve played for over a week now. Sure, I could just not be honest and decline to write about it, but this blog is more for me than anyone else. I don’t want to lie to myself.

So what happened is the whole Blizzard boycott/leaving World of Warcraft thing. That set into motion a couple of weeks of wild experimentation in which I tried out new MMOs and loaded back up old ones, seeing what might hit the spot as a second-slot game (in addition to LOTRO) and fill that WoW void. I’ve also been going through a very crazy and stressful time that increased the need for some solid relaxation at the end of the day, so at some point I said, “Huh, well, what’s the worst that could happen?” and subbed back up for another round of FFXIV.

I almost logged right back out when I saw what had happened. Since the last time I played was pre-Shadowbringers, I haven’t been around for all of the class changes that happened with the expansion. I guess that Yoshi P declared war on Scholars in my absence, because I came back to a class that was gutted and decidedly Not Fun. I gave it a few rounds, trying to come up with a better rotation, but the huge dip in DPS and the evisceration of my pet drained me of any interest in pursuing this job.

But that was, like leaving World of Warcraft, strangely liberating. Since playing a Scholar wasn’t an option for me any longer, I was free to pursue alternatives. I looked at where I was at in the game and what I had unlocked, and decided on a two-phase approach: To level a Red Mage through the Seventh Astral Era slogfest, and then get to Ishgard where I could switch over to Mechanist. After doing a lot of research, I think the Mechanist may be a really good fit for me.

That day, however, will be a while from now. When I came back, I realized I was at the very last quest of FFXIV 2.0 (why I stopped there, I don’t know), and because of my previous journey, I knew I was in for a whole lot of dullness with the next 100 main story quests. But the change of class, the use of a fantasia potion to give me a new look, and the discovery of a pretty friendly guild all helped to change my perspective somewhat. It’s still the same FFXIV with its very deliberate pace, excessive nodding, and “pray return to the Waking Sands,” but sometimes it helps to hit a game at a new angle.

I’m hopeful that if I power through the 2.1-2.5 quest series and get to Heavensward, get the Mechanist, and then embark upon the expansions, I might find some traction that I haven’t had in a while. At least it’s giving me a relaxing and dependable experience for late at night.