This is it folks: the moment you've all been waiting for. A full review of Final Fantasy XIV. Here's the TLDR: there are enough fatal flaws to justify pulling the plug and sending it back to the drawing board. However, these flaws are sufficiently constrained that a concerted repair effort could save this from being another Tabula Rasa. With that dire forecast out of the way, lets start off with what I like.
I like the music. I'm going to start with this because, ever since Final Fantasy 7, I have been able to determine whether or not I'd like playing a FF game just by listening to its soundtrack. I listened to the FF8 soundtrack before I played the game, loved it, and sure enough, loved the game. FF9's soundtrack didn't do it for me, and I never got into the game. Same with 10. 11, thumbs up (especially love the airship tune), and the game had me hooked for years. 12? Not so much, and the game reflected it. 13? Really not doing it for me. 14? Well now, as the game in question: I loved the soundtrack. The music is great. It's varied. The themes are strong and not at all repetitive. Everywhere you go, you hear that place's music and it feels so appropriate. My only gripe is that, even with the volume slider at max, music is noticeably quieter than the game sounds. Fix please!
Graphics are nice. I've mentioned previously how much I liked the character emotes and animations. There's a few extra emotes I'd like to see in the game, especially a brandish animation to show off your weapon or tool. Anyhow, the huge open vistas of Thanalan and La Noscea are amazing, especially when you see the capital city of Ul'dah or Limsa Lominsa in the distance. Gridania and the Black Shroud, conversely, are bland, repetitive, and not in the least bit interesting to look at, mainly because you're running around in a maze of valleys and not able to see much of anything. Bleh!
Cutscenes and story are very good, though I haven't had a chance to see many yet. The Ul'dah story is my favorite of the three opening ones, and I'm enjoying parts 2 and 3 there too (I'll only ever see one city's story, sadly). The cinematic moment when the maddened Gobbue crashes into the wall and the flower petals scatter into the sky, then it goes slo-mo and plays the theme song... Major thumbs up. The few parts where characters have voice acting is very good, though I'm disappointed at how little voice acting there is in the game, especially when other MMOs (see Star Wars: Old Republic) are claiming to have 100% voiceovers. I would much rather hear Thancred toss wild accusations at Ul'dah's elite society members than read the (well-written) text on the screen!
FFXIV inherits FFXI's convoluted crafting system, but spruces it up significantly with a fun crafting mini-game. Now players feel like they have much more control over the success of a synth and whether or not they'll get an HQ. This is very good. The new local leves also give players a chance to learn the basics of crafting (and get much-needed crafting XP!) without having to spend money on grinding materials. This lets players get into and get going with crafting with a far smaller barrier to entry, which is great considering how crucial crafting is to the FFXI economy...
Which unfortunately brings us to the start of the bad list, probably with the absolutely worst bad thing that could possibly happen in any MMORPG: FFXIV's horrid, dismal, and downright stupid approach to a player market. I would have loved to be in that production meeting where some lead designer said: "It would be great if players had no way of finding anything they wanted to buy" and just smack him upside the head. FFXIV has taken ever bad idea that ever went into an MMORPG marketplace, and found a way to make them worse.
Lets follow the story where it begins: Squeenix's design team. And I quote: "We do not want the extent of a Disciple of the Hand/Land's stay in Eorzea to be about simply putting the items he creates/gathers up for auction, which is why we have envisioned a bazaar-driven economy in which players can be creative in the methods they use to sell their wares." In other words, Squeenix felt that an auction house was too impersonal: players were trading goods to panels in the wall and had no idea whom they were buying from or selling to. Moreover, they wanted to implement the idea of creative marketing: that players can entice customers with wily words or what-have-you. The problem is that they thought this would work in a game.
In a game, unlike the real world, all items are created equal. Every Bronze Hatchet +1 is exactly the same. There is no way for me to market my bronze hatchet as a Soulrift original or brand it with my logo or convince you that it is, in fact, better than anyone else's. So if you're going to buy a Bronze Hatchet +1, there is one thing and one thing only that motivates your choice over who's hatchet you buy: price. This is why an auction-house style system works: everyone puts in their hatchet at the price they want to sell it at, everyone else puts in how much they're willing to pay, and if there's a match: bingo! A sale!
Still, Squeenix was headstrong on this bizarre bazaar system, so lets see how they implemented it... FFXI, I'd note, also had a bazaar system: players could mark items for sale and other players could buy them by being in physical contact with a player. Certain items couldn't be sold on the AH and had to be bazaared; often you'd find clumps of players in bazaar mode selling their junk this way. It made certain areas laggy and crowded and it was a stupid pain in the ass to search through each player, one by one. Moreover, it meant players had to sit there, afk, for hours on end, rather than actually playing the game they were paying to play. Epic fail all around.
So Squeenix thought it would be better to replace players standing around with NPCs standing around. Yeah, that's it, because we don't want to have an impersonal market where players trade with a wall, we'll have an impersonal market where players trade with NPCs who have stupid names like "buymyjunk" and "crapsoldforless". That's a lot more personal, right? Of course, we don't want these NPCs to litter the actual game world, so we'll create these instances, called Market Wards, that can hold a bunch of NPCs. That way, instead of navigating laggy areas with AFK players, you can navigate a laggy area with randomly placed NPCs. Sadly, the game can't actually render all that many NPCs on the screen at one time, so you'll have to keep shifting around in the Market Ward and hope your game renders some new NPCs if you want to keep shopping.
Meanwhile, you still have to check each NPC manually to see what they have for sale. This makes it more personal, see, because you don't get confused by silly notions of what other people are selling the exact same duplicated item for, or how many they have, or any of that kind of nonsense. And, heaven forbid you actually find out if a specific item you're looking for actually is on sale without checking every NPC; though, of course, if you don't find the item after checking them all, it might actually be there, only on an NPC that didn't load because the game can't render too many NPCs at a time. But that makes shopping exciting, right?
But Squeenix realized there should be a way to buy items instead of just selling all the time, so they added a system to retainers to put out a buy order. Except they can only put a buy order on a set of items that the player has already stored on the retainer. And, since you have to store the payment, those take up bazaar spots too (the bazaar can only have 10 items listed at a time, so a purchase takes 2 slots). Anyways, this system is in place because there's no reason anyone would want to buy anything they didn't already have, right? Oh, and you can only buy items in sets, because we wouldn't want more than one person selling you a part of whatever it is you're trying to buy.
So, to sum up: you cannot search retainers to find items, so you cannot find out if the item you want is available for sale, nor can you find out the prices each person selling an item is charging. Also, you can put a buy order on a retainer, but only for something you already have, in the number you have, and for an exact full-set deal. If you want to buy 12 Dodo Eggs, the seller must have twelve; you can't have two separate people sell you six each.
Let me repeat: this is stupid. It's so extremely stupid that the internet has devolved ten years to compensate: sites like YG have set up online bazaar markets so players can list the items they want to buy and sell so they can actually be searchable. Of course, this only works as long as people participate in the website, and because the website isn't linked to the game it cannot update when items are bought, so most of the time when you go shopping the items are already gone. Fun, eh?
Oh, and what about all those players cluttering up the game world with their personal bazaars? They're still there. Yeah, it's FFXI all over again, with the streets full of peddlers. Because why would you wander into a Market Ward and browse dozens of NPCs when there are dozens of players right there in the middle of the city for you to browse? It's not like you have any way of knowing whether or not you're getting ripped off by their prices by comparing it to a centralized marketplace, right?
So here's what Squeenix has to do: scrap the Market Wards. Gone. Poof. Finito. Implement a single world-spanning central market in exactly the same way EVE Online has done it: players can make buy orders and sell orders, set minimum unit quantities, track transaction histories for each item, and view every item in the game's database. That's it, right there; that's what Squeenix has to do. And, no, don't make separate markets for different cities. It's pointless: you have players the ability to teleport at any time. That sort of an artificial "market segmentation" doesn't accomplish anything when the markets aren't in any way segmented!
So, economy rant over. Time to rant about more flaws in this game. Right now, you only get rank points towards leveling up your current combat class by doing damage. This means that, if you're a support player in a party, you get no XP. Also, you only get XP every few hits: you might hit 5 times and only get XP on the 5th hit. So if a monster takes 10 hits to die, you might get 200 XP killing it solo. If you fight it with three players... no one gets any XP at all, because it's dead in 3-4 hits from each player. Oops! Thus this is the first MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER game I've found that actively discourages grouping in order to level up. I mean, I know they wanted to shift away from FFXI's group-centric gameplay and make soloing viable, but I didn't think they'd do it at the expense of grouping!
Then they've got this action bar thing where you can set up actions. Except that, in beta, whenever you'd switch jobs, it would erase the whole bar! How annoying! So, now it doesn't erase the whole bar! It just keeps whatever abilities your last job had on the bar! Now you can be an axe-wielding marauder... with archery style still stuck there! Instead of using a macro to assemble your skills onto your blank bar each time you switch jobs, you have to manually reassign them depending on what skills were already there when you switched! Why manually? Because some classes have more than one basic skill that goes on the bar, and when you switch to that class it goes to the first empty spot. If that first empty spot is in a different place because of how your skills are set from different class layouts, you can't use a macro to set up your skills because you'll get an error when you try to set a skill to the spot where that basic skill randomly showed up! HURRAY! Why no one thought to actually save bar layouts for each class is beyond me, but keep in mind this game's being made by the same idiots who thought bazaars would be more personable than an auction house.
At least combat itself should be more fun, right? I commented on how the stamina bar should make combat a more interesting activity because players don't just sit there with auto-attack on and hit TP moves every 100%. Oh, wait, I was wrong: now players manually have to spam their auto-attack while they wait for 1000 TP, then they hit a TP move. Brilliant. It's gone from boring to cumbersomely boring. Despite the potential for an interactive combat system, position and movement mean nothing, as everything just auto-aims no matter where you or your foe are. And there's no point using skills like bind to kite because monsters are leashed to such a short tether that most players thought the game was bugged when monsters would jerk back and forth and heal up every few seconds.
Basically, with grouping and economy shot dead, there should at least be some multiplayer aspect to the game, right? Well, you can chat... but not if you're doing anything, because any action or event at all closes your chat box and erases whatever it was you were writing. Doh. Then again, they clearly didn't mean this game for verbose players (like myself) because the text box is so anemically small you can barely shove out half a sentence before the keyboard goes dead and letters stop showing up. As far as long distance chat, there's no auto-reply feature, so you have to manually type in a player's full name (eg: Telsia Twiceborn) if you want to reply. At least there's a "re-tell" shortcut...
FFXI's social group system, the Linkshell, returns in FFXIV with some crucial functionality gouged out. In FFXIV, pearls no longer take up inventory space (yay!) and you can listen in on multiple shells at a time (yay!). However, you can only invite a new player in person (ok...) and you can only promote or kick out a member of the linkshell in person (WTF?!). This means that there is no way to stop an abusive member from spamming /linkshell as long as they can hide from leaders and there's no way at all to remove someone who's stopped playing the game. /facepalm
So, basically, here's what you should do. Don't buy the game until the economy is fixed. Instead, download the whole soundtrack and some screenshots or gameplay videos. Listen and watch. Right there, you have 90% of what's good in the game without all of what's bad! Then, as the french would say, PATIENTEZ! Wait wait wait, and someday this game might be worth playing, and you can probably get it for $10 in the bargain bin.
Or... it could go the way of Tabula Rasa, and then you won't have to worry about missing out at all.