The first thing you notice is that the game plays very differently from any other MMO on the market. In most games, you're given a series of tutorial quests that introduce you to most of the important elements of gameplay, and those quests segue into a larger variety of quests available later on. FFXIV does not do that. You get a very brief walkthrough for the very start of the game, and then you're more or less dropped into the world to just do whatever you want. Levequests are explained only in passing, linkshells and changing classes don't even get touched on, and you're on your own when it comes to equipping actions.
In some ways, yeah, this could be seen as a good thing. I've played a lot of MMOs at this point; I don't need yet another tutorial on quests that send me to go talk to someone else. But at the same time, it's important to stress that when you first drop into the game, it's easy to feel almost completely lost. Unless you have someone there to help guide you through your opening steps, you'll be left to figure out much of the game totally on your own, and there are lots of elements -- referred to only in passing -- that wind up becoming important. (Guild marks spring to mind.)
Furthermore, you do not have the constant push to new hubs and new areas. The game has five main regions, and while those regions are subdivided into a number of geographically distinct areas, you're still using the same cities as hubs. It creates the sense that those cities are places instead of simply quest waypoints, which is going to appeal to some people, but if you're sick to death of Ul'dah, you're still stuck visiting it more or less constantly.
I'm not even going to get into the game's control scheme except to say that it's going to take a little getting used to. In an era when UIs are almost universally designed according to a single standard, such deviation is pretty notable, but it's a scheme you can overcome pretty quickly. (The biggest issues come if you're used to clicking on buttons instead of using hotkeys.) Additionally, the improvements to customizability help immensely, so you can hammer the UI to a more recognizable shape.
But... here, let's start with the obvious. Action bars in the game don't work like the action bars in pretty much any other game out there.
In World of Warcraft, to use an obvious point of comparison, you have plenty of action bars up at any given time, and you can easily put every ability your character has learned on said bar simultaneously. FFXIV, however, gives you 30 spots to equip things (three bars of 10 buttons), and you have to take into account the action cost of each action before you place it on your bar. Of course, you have only one bar up at a given moment, so you need to consider what actions are on which bar, and...
Once you get used to it, it all makes sense. The system is necessary when you consider the plethora of abilities accessible to characters, since almost every ability can be used by any class at any time with only a handful of restrictions. But it still feels totally different. It's another hurdle of learning where ages of experience ("just toss the ability on your bar") are contraindicated by the game design. And all that's without getting into optimal ranks or class affinity, by which one ability might be less effective than another less-powerful ability because of your level.
The oddity doesn't stop there. Very few pieces of armor are going to require a rank or class, with most equipment favoring a certain class but not requiring it. Sure, your heavy plate armor is favored by a different class and level, but if you're playing a mage and realize that you can deck yourself out in the heaviest armor in the game, you're going to wonder why you don't do that. Yes, there are mechanics in place to prevent that, but your first though is going to be that if you can wear iron plate from level 1, why wouldn't you do so?
It's one of those things that makes sense once you know the reasons, but until that point it seems just plain unreadable. And if that doesn't sound like fun, well, again, the game might not be quite right for you.
The fact that you can, with enough gil, walk right out of the character selection screen and dress yourself in the best gear money can buy speaks to another oddity of the game -- namely, it doesn't have an endgame per se.
Oh, there are things to do once you hit max rank, assuming that you've decided to totally eschew any other class (which is a thunderously bad idea, though it's not as if the game tells you that in so many words). But even without leveling other classes, you have options: You have content to explore and gil to earn and equipment to get. But that equipment is not part of a steady climb toward deification; it's another set of options. You can be quite well-equipped without ever setting foot in the Darkhold, the current apex of the game's challenging content. And that seems to be a byword of the game.
In essence, in FFXIV, you aren't working toward something. You're just experiencing something. There's no sense of a character's having reached the magical point at which the real game unfolds. I don't think that comes into play even if you've managed to get all 18 classes up to the maximum rank, which itself would be a task beyond daunting. You are in a world, and you're left to decide what you want to do within it, whether that's fight monsters or just sit in the city and craft. And there is a set of progression points and advancement if harvesting or crafting grabs your interest more than killing things.
Here's the thing: All of these attributes could be looked at as flaws. And that's a fair assessment. But for some of the game's players, including me, these elements are precisely what make the game so appealing. The fact that I had to figure out the game as I went was part of what drew me in. The fact that I'm not working toward some arbitrary goal makes me feel free to pursue whatever inspires me. The challenge of figuring out the system is the sort of thing I like doing anyway.
If these things sound like pulling teeth, though, you will not like the game. And that's fine. This stuff doesn't appeal to everyone equally, nor should it. If you're looking for something more traditional, there's absolutely no reason to feel bad about it.
That's why I say that the game isn't for everyone, at least as I look at it now, because there's nothing wrong with liking steak, there's nothing wrong with liking chicken, and there's nothing wrong with saying that steak just doesn't sound good tonight.
As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or sent along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, let's talk about Firefall Faire, yes?
From Eorzea to Vana'diel, there is a constant: the moogles. And for analysis and opinions about the online portions of the Final Fantasy series, there is also a constant: The Mog Log. Longtime series fan Eliot Lefebvre serves up a new installment of the log every Saturday, covering almost anything related to Square-Enix's vibrant online worlds.