As we head into the Shadowbringers finale, I’ve been reflecting back on my early days with Final Fantasy XIV. The game has been an unexpected constant in my life since 2013, with an uninterrupted subscription since A Realm Reborn‘s launch, hundreds of dollars spent on Primals Blu-rays, and quite a few art books kicking around. I may have even custom printed a canvas world map for the wall in my office.
I wanted to jot down a few good memories. Where historically appropriate (and available), I’m going to dig through my screenshots folder and see what I can pull out. I unfortunately don’t have anything from the earliest PS3 days, so images after the shift to mainly playing on PC will have to suffice! I didn’t upgrade from my 550ti until Stormblood, anyway, so it will be LIKE looking at PS3 screenshots!
It might be worth noting up front that I had, miraculously, somehow completely avoided MMOs up until this point. Despite being the perfect demographic, things like Phantasy Star Online and World of Warcraft missed me entirely. I often hear that there’s nothing quite like the magic of your first MMO, and I’m clearly not alone when it comes to FF14. Much of what has been done in Eorzea may have been done elsewhere earlier (and arguably better), but for me, well… it was my first.
I have never dipped into the (still somewhat recently-added) New Game+ options to replay anything, and I have never made an alternate character, so my original A Realm Reborn playthrough is still my “canonical memory” of the game. Much of it is faded, but there are still bits and pieces that shine through.
No agenda here, no real plan, no real flow to the writing… just a little bit of self-indulgent gushing. There’s a fair bit of revisionist history these days about the overall quality of A Realm Reborn, so this different perspective may be… interesting, at least? I would love to hear some of your stories, too!
June 2013. Final Fantasy XIV is holding another open beta in preparation for its big A Realm Reborn relaunch, itself also in conjunction with its long-promised PlayStation 3 version. This round includes cross-platform play and a traditional opening sequence and story quest.
After hearing about the disastrous 1.0 launch (the Game Trailers review with its showcase of silently walking through the copy/pasted maps still fresh in my memory), I can’t help but be curious. Let’s check this out, right?
Determined Final Fantasy XIV is not for me. I just don't care. And I can't be bothered to care. Nothing I played was interesting at all.
— Mike (@VegettoEX) June 29, 2013
(In retrospect, I now realize that I rolled as a Marauder – one of the two tank classes – and therefore started out in the city state of Limsa Lominsa. I don’t recall anything more other than the feeling of being completely lost. I suppose that tweet pretty much sums it up.)
August 2013. I’m not playing anything in particular, I have some Amazon credit, and an additional promotional credit on top of that due to a separate botched order. If you pre-order Final Fantasy XIV, you can get in on a final round of beta testing.
Hear… Feel… Think…
Hey, did anyone else hear that?
Following that initial beta failure, my real college-try at the game was by way of the Gladiator class. I had absolutely no idea what I was choosing or why – as will become quite apparent when we get to the first dungeon – but I figured that having offense and defense in the form of a sword and shield would be smart for a new player like me.
I distinctly remember cracking an Arrogant Bastard, ordering pizza from the place down the street, and wandering around The Steps of Thal for a couple hours, completely entranced by what I saw and heard. For better or worse, that combination of flavors and smells still conjures FF14 to my brain!
In wandering around the outskirts of Ul’Dah, more than anything else, it was Masayoshi Soken’s musical score that entranced me. The pieces that make up the suite of “To the Sun” perfectly encapsulated that feeling of leaving this city of riches, stumbling across refugees, smacking bats and rats, running from giant turtles that seemed far too strong for where they were and where I should be, and watching the sun rise over the mountains and aetherytes in the distance.
(Probably too late to reasonably recommend this to anyone, but “To the Sun” makes for a perfect driving atmosphere in Final Fantasy XV.)
I was playing the game on console, hooked up in my living room with surround sound. Despite playing for years on this exact same setup, it was somehow FF14 that made me take notice of the rear speakers. Whether it was a goldsmith cranking out some earrings over to my left, or a FATE kicking off behind me, the sound design added to that feeling of it being a real, living, breathing world. Even in the shift to PS4 and now PS5 on the otherwise exact same setup, I still feel like I’m chasing that original experience of sound all around me, which hasn’t quite hit since the PS3 days. (This obviously can’t be true, since it’s the same game hooked up the same way with the same speakers and everything…!)
Perhaps one of the most embarrassing experiences in retrospect – yet not realizing it at all at the time – was that first dungeon run in Sastasha. I legitimately had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what a tank even was, nevermind the fact that I had specific things to do here! Enmity? Combos? Cooldowns? What are you TALKING ABOUT…?
The first boss of the dungeon is a large Coeurl named Chopper. Not knowing the first thing about tanking, but figuring I should be doing damage while also avoiding his attacks, that big ol’ cat was spinning in circles, I tell you what. I don’t have any specific memories of the dungeon beyond that, but this should tell you something: you have 90 minutes to complete a dungeon (which at the time were generally made to be completed in 30 minutes), and we… well, we did not complete that dungeon. I don’t think any of the three other people said a single word in the chat that entire run, which leads me to believe we were all on PS3s without keyboards. I like to imagine that all four of us were completely new to MMOs and had no idea what we were doing, and therefore couldn’t be disappointed that we failed to complete what is effectively the game’s training dungeon.
And yet for some reason I pressed onward. Thanks to some friendly advice of “Flash, flash, and then flash some more” (remember the “Flash” ability…?) and “lol don’t just do halone, do your combo” (oh, is that what the glowing dotted lines around the abilities mean?), I managed to learn what I was missing entirely: I was supposed to “tank.” Grab the enemies’ attention. Hold it. Face them away from the other party members. Step out of the way of attacks if you can. Get yourself back into place. Use your defensive abilities to soak some of the damage. Wash, rinse, repeat.
To the game’s credit, it does attempt to teach you this stuff. The individual class quests often focus on specific abilities, and there’s even one where you’re basically told to just keep using the Flash ability over and over and over (I wonder what this one is like post-Flash removal and post-A Realm Reborn trimming…?). The guildhest missions are little primers for partying up and taking on specific kinds of enemy formations and attack patterns. There’s that one FATE out in Coerthas where the big cyclops troll uses the 100-ton swing, which is a primer for it being used again later by dungeon bosses.
Nah, all of this went completely over my head.
To MY credit, hey: this was a lot to take in. I had never seen anything like this before. There are UI elements all over the screen, and every button combination imaginable can do something. The PS3 is also struggling to play this at 15 frames per second, so give me a break!
It was somewhere around the halfway mark of the main storyline that everything clicked into place for me. I understood the holy trinity, I understood class quests, I understood cooldowns, I understood attack indicators… I finally understood the game!
And yet it was then, right as I actually felt comfortable with it, that I once again felt completely overwhelmed and out of my league. I no longer didn’t know what I didn’t know: I knew exactly what I didn’t know, and that was pretty terrifying, particularly in a tank role.
I never saw most of the fights in The Praetorium, because I was watching the cutscenes while everyone else ran ahead and burned everything down. (They’ve since locked the two A Realm Reborn ending dungeons to their own separate roulette with forced, party-wide cutscenes.)
(I was so disenfranchised from ever running those two dungeons again, that when I eventually did Main Scenario Roulette during Shadowbringers to help level my White Mage, I was shocked – SHOCKED, I tell you! – to [re]discover that Nero was actually a boss you fought back then! To me, he was just the dude that kept stalking Cid during the optional raids.)
After finding the then-as-of-yet-unimplemented entrance to the raid and building excitement, my first steps into Labyrinth of the Ancients were met with, “Well, I hope you read a guide on what to do.” (I hadn’t.)
I chickened out of a lot of early post-game dungeons (Copperbell, Haukke Manor, Halatali) because that word “Hard” next to them was too intimidating. Instead, I got my first philosophy tomestone gear from running Ifrit over and over. And over. And over again. (I would have been hilariously well prepared and fine for the dungeons, I would later discover.)
I’m ultimately very thankful for Hydaelyn nudging me over to a tank class, and though I’ve since moved on to a Dragoon main, I always feel comfortable sliding back into a tank role. Maybe it’s the decades of running a website and all the project management that goes into it, both at the micro and macro level. It’s good to have goals, and I’m able to easily jump into a leadership role and guide us there. Perhaps it’s also the narcissism that likes being “in charge” of the run, but there’s no denying that being able to set the pace is a relief.
It was around the 2.3 update that I really found my end-game groove. Syrcus Tower (the second of three 24-player raids in A Realm Reborn, with Labyrinth of the Ancients and World of Darkness before and after it, respectively) was my absolute jam, and may still be my favorite location in the game today… even after just running it 15 times for the current relic. The brilliant blue color with its yellow highlights is just peak Mike color choice (dating back to Daizenshuu EX designs!). Yes, the Crystal Tower is originally from Final Fantasy III, but the new piano and orchestral arrangements alongside all the enemies and environments… This is a very special area of the game. (It’s also mandatory, now!)
This update also brought the Tam-Tara Deepcroft hard mode dungeon, continuing a minor story about a group of adventurers from waaaaay earlier in the game. It’s amazing looking back on this era of the game and the staff’s growth in the area of storytelling, particularly here with Edda. There are Big Things™ happening out in the world, sure, but there are also very tragic, very relatable, very personal stories to tell. That face…
(And then that OTHER face…)
The 2.4 update kept the hype train rolling for me as I became even more comfortable in my role, both as a literal job within the game, but also as a player within the world’s lore and ongoing story. The Snowcloak dungeon music is comforting and pleasant, a perfect winter soundtrack. This lead in to the forthcoming Heavensward expansion also brought us our fight against Shiva, and another contender for Best RPG Battle Music of All Time.
Keeper of the Lake in the 2.5 update is another strong memory and accompanying feeling of accomplishment in A Realm Reborn‘s post-game. As a non-Coil player (I’ve always mostly rolled solo), the final boss fight against Midgardsormr was one of my earliest experiences with really needing to “learn the dance,” so to speak, of the rotating attack choreography. Where to position yourself for what was GOING to be coming, as opposed to what IS coming, was suddenly imperative. All with “Primogenitor” playing in the background? Insert chef’s kiss here. Also, uhh, Einhander is in this dungeon.
I often wish I were a better writer. I mean, I’m sure everyone does, but especially me, and especially here: I want to truly convey just how much the pre-Heavensward patches were so incredibly spot-on, responsive, predictive, well-crafted productions… which may be funny to hear, because they’re often looked back upon by the community as massive slogs gating people from reaching the expansion.
I look back on that era of the game incredibly fondly. Just as I was growing as a player, so too were the writers, artists, animators, composers, etc. in their respective roles. We all found our footing together.
People often say “there’s never been a better time” to get into a long-running, well-established game like Final Fantasy XIV.
They’re not wrong; the game is always improving and making it easier to jump in.
They’re also totally wrong; the journey over time from the literal beginning is something special, and the things removed from the game are sometimes just as important to the journey as the things added.
I don’t think it’s possible to replicate four completely green PS3 players heading into a dungeon without keyboards.
I don’t think it’s possible for you to wander out into the leveling grounds without seeing a flying Christmas bear. Or the Regalia.
I don’t think it’s possible to replicate forming a Dhorme Chimera group with no Duty Finder.
I don’t think it’s possible to replicate the enormous amount of people challenging Svara’s three-step FATE out in Coerthas. (You’re lucky to see two people out there nowadays.)
I don’t think it’s possible to replicate the player base collectively walking into the game’s first expansion all at the same time. (You could perhaps make an argument for 1.0 to 2.0, but even with the mass destruction, it was largely still the exact same areas as before.)
You no longer need to level a sub-class to 15 in order to unlock the job expansion for your main class.
We used to have separate tank-DPS/tank-tank and healer-DPS/healer-healer stances.
Our teleportation menu didn’t list enough information.
There used to be bees here.
I’m know people say similar things about the early, halcyon days of World of Warcraft; there’s a huge audience for WoW Classic, of course. But you can never truly go back, and you can never truly offer that same experience to a new audience. And that’s fine. I don’t want it. I certainly don’t want 1.0 (not that I ever played it), but I don’t want 2.0 back, either.
And yet I wish I could share that time and that experience with everyone exactly as I remember it. That’s one of the biggest hurdles in game preservation these days, isn’t it? It’s no longer about the raw 0s and 1s of the game data itself (that problem has long-since been solved), but rather the people, the experiences, the atmosphere, the learning, the growth… is it even possible to preserve something so esoteric, so fleeting, so ethereal?
I think that aforementioned “canonical memory” of A Realm Reborn is perfect for me. Good ol’ tin can, sometimes green and sometimes yellow-spandex, naïve, under-geared Paladin wandering around Eorzea. You were the real hero.
Heavensward was amazing and a true step forward, Stormblood was good and even better in retrospect, and Shadowbringers was groundbreaking and revitalizing. This is all true.
But none of that would have been possible without the heavy lifting of A Realm Reborn. Sure, it’s bumpy, and we know that not everything was planned out from the start… but considering what they were able to shape it into, where Shadowbringers brought us, and where Endwalker promises to bring us and wrap things up… it really is a special little miracle of a game, isn’t it?
It’s a game that respects you, respects your time, and offers you as little or as much as you want. It’s beautiful, it’s memorable, it’s special, and I’m so glad to be a part of it. The whole saga is there for playing, complete in content, if not in its original state.
And that’s OK. In fact, it’s probably better this way.
For whatever it’s worth to whomever it is that’s still reading this drivel, Eorzea and Hydaelyn welcome you with open arms.