A reader recently sent in a letter asking Justin to explain why he (Justin) had never really connected with Final Fantasy XIV despite giving the game the ol’ college try. I can’t answer that question, obviously; I’m not Justin and don’t presume to know how his mind works, and given his pathological hatred of elves, I’m not sure I’d want to. But I can point out some of the little things that make me fall in love with the game all over again on a regular basis, something that’s hitting me hard as Stormblood ups the bar significantly from the level established in the game so far.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of the game, and I have been for years. But there are a lot of reasons for that, and some of them are just reasons like these. Every time I duck back into the game (on a daily basis, yes), I notice something I missed before, and half of the time it makes me smile. So let’s look at the little things that make me adore this game.
1. Attention to (tiny, easily missed) detail
When you run the Temple of the Fist dungeon, you’re moving through the upper levels of the temple located at Rhalgr’s Reach. You can see the actual settlement below you on the ground if you crane the camera a bit after the second boss. And you’d never notice it otherwise; it’s just there, a little nod to the scenery around you.
That’s among the least attention-to-detail moments in the game, though. If you’re wearing a long coat and jump into some ankle-deep water, the hem of your coat will get wet, and the water will slowly creep up a bit due to capillary action. When your character jumps into water from a higher location, you bob down a bit underwater and then pop back up. Heck, several instant shots you can unload between weapon skills as a Machinist don’t fully interrupt your animation but feature a different flourish while you twist and fire again.
You do wind up with the occasional bit here that doesn’t seem as attentive to detail (the corpses for the Sky Armor enemies in certain areas, for instance), but that’s noteworthy just because it’s one of the rare times that attention to detail isn’t a thing. There are so many flourishes that you don’t even notice, details that become part of the background because they’re small but notable.
2. Attention to lore
A few minor plot points in Stormblood’s story make reference to things that took place back during 1.0. Nothing earth-shattering, but enough to remind you that yes, the developers know about the world they’ve created. This is a consistent and comprehensible world, one replete with details and a solid foundation.
I have my lore book right here, and I’ve loved making guesses and predictions about the game’s world and finding myself unexpectedly justified many times. The only game I can think of with this much attention paid to its lore and the consistency of its setting is Lord of the Rings Online, and that has a good bucket of lore to begin with. This is all new right here, yet I still feel like I have a solid picture of what Eorzeans do for fun, how they behave, what their cultural standards are, and so forth. Ask me how a Stormwind resident would react to a Pandaren visitor, I have no idea; ask me how a Limsa Lominsa resident would treat a Namazu showing up on the docks, and I can write you another thousand words on that alone.
3. Attention to background
In the final story dungeon, there’s a battle raging around you with the Eorzean Alliance on your side. At one point, just out of your obvious field of vision, and Ishgardian knight rushes in to prevent a ranged soldier from taking aim at you. “Ishgard remembers, hero!” he shouts.
You can miss this entire exchange. It’s animated, there are little dialogue windows, but you might not notice it happening. I didn’t notice it until it was pointed out.
All throughout the world, there are various little NPC dialogues playing, little canned dramas, slices of the world around you. Sometimes they even become far-reaching; there was a story running through Heavensward of a noblewoman and her love for a common man that involved no quests or anything, just animated scenes you could easily miss happening in the background. This is, really, a subset of the first point, but I find something wonderful about the idea that this game has many stories you can see happening while never interacting with them in any real way.
4. Smart quests
The Red Mage class trainer is Ala Mhigan, and he discusses how he and his order worked to liberate Ala Mhigo and failed. Unless, of course, you already finished the main story and then unlock the job; then his dialogue changes to reflect the fact that the events of the story intimately deal with the liberation of Ala Mhigo.
This doesn’t change the mechanics of any quests, but I’m always in awe of the fact that the game recognizes and changes based on other things you’ve done. When you’re leveling Botanist, the dialogue changes slightly if you’ve done a dungeon elsewhere, because the game knows you’ve done this and alters dialogue to suit. Places where static NPCs need to be will have new people there if those NPCs die or change locations, and dialogue will change to reflect that.
Heck, half of the time you can talk to people in an old location and get totally new dialogue based on new story developments, just like a classic Final Fantasy game. So that’s awesome.
5. Series nostalgia and nods
There’s a fine line to be walked with the game when it comes to nostalgia. On the one hand, the game needs to keep plenty of nods to previous games in place to make everything work, especially if you think (as I do) that nods back are part of what defines this franchise. On the other hand, it also needs to establish its own world. On the third hand, it also needs to make that nostalgia inclusive rather than exclusive, ensuring that the extra little nods don’t lead to non-series veterans feeling locked out.
We’ve been flirting with this ever since the relaunch, and honestly, I think the game has done a very good job of managing it. You don’t need to know that the first boss of Sastasha (Hard) is from Final Fantasy V to make the fight logical or interesting, but it brings a smile to fans of the game. The past serves as fertile ground to harvest for new ideas, inspiring fights and dungeons alike, but stuff like Omega and Shinryu facing off manages to have its own life within the game rather than relying wholly upon history to keep you invested.
6. Diversity of playstyle
There are a lot of games out there where playing one option within a set means that you have a pretty clear picture of what the other options will play like. I enjoyed playing a Brute, for example, but I would not say that Dual Blades/Radiation was a completely different experience from Kinetic Melee/Willpower. I would even go so far as to say that they were basically the same. If you played a Brute, you could map over to another Brute nicely, and if you played a Tanker or a Scrapper, you didn’t have far to go. Very, very similar.
By contrast, I really enjoy the fact that despite many similar pieces, playing Warrior feels very different from playing Paladin or Dark Knight even though all three are tanks. Even beyond the animation, the actual experience on each job is significantly different even within the game’s roles. You would never confuse playing Ninja for playing Monk, and both are fast-moving melee jobs. Especially when some games seem to just differ by names of attacks and some visual flair, it’s nice to feel that your job is really different from its contemporaries.
7. Fun and unique options
Red Mage is, in my eyes, one of the most unique and interesting caster/melee hybrids I’ve ever seen. After years of playing an Enhancement Shaman, I had some guesses about how this would play, but I’m happy to be entirely wrong. This job plays nothing like that, but it also plays exactly like the concept seems that it should play. It’s something I haven’t seen before, and it’s gloriously fun.
It’s also hardly alone. Even the jobs that get closest to familiar ground from other games, like Warriors and Black Mages, also find ways to feel very distinct and unique from similar classes in other titles. The sheer kinetics of Warrior married with its dance of deliberately increased vulnerability feels like it pulls together what are usually opposing drives into a single place, not splitting up the whole “berserker” and “tank” aspect but combining them into the same space. Black Mage is still fundamentally “cast big nukes to make things fall down,” but you get the sense of really gathering forces and carefully aspecting yourself to unload something more powerful than normal.
And all of that is without getting into the really esoteric-sounding options. “Yeah, that job is where you literally channel the energy of dragons into yourself to kill things. Traditionally, dragons. Also, you jump a lot.”
8. The crafter/gatherer systems
Maybe this shouldn’t delight me so much, but I love that when I want to gather, I have to actually change to a different job altogether. I have a whole collection of new abilities. I can’t just stop in the middle of a dungeon to gather things, nor can I just rip some herbs out of the ground when I see them near a quest target. I have to make choices, and a great deal of thought and work goes into making those jobs work.
Yes, a case could be made that functionally you could alter the system and have it work in a more traditional “craft as a heavily-armored Paladin” sense. But I really appreciate that this is not the case. I like the split. And whatever quibbles I sometimes have with the implementation of these systems, the effort expended is always appreciated.
9. A balance of humor
“Xaela tribes across the Azim Steppe tell tales of a horrible giant duck that flies from beyond the Nhaama Desert every autumn to sup on the flesh of man. The word for “giant duck” sounds far more imposing in their native languages.”
That’s just the description of a random FATE, just a bit of dry humor tucked away where you could easily miss it. And there are all manner of FATEs with similarly dry wit sandwiched in there.
Want some puns? Those are all over. Want some straightforward physical comedy? Present. Prefer witty, snarky dialogue? Alisaie in particular seems to exist in quests just to provide that, and Y’shtola more than does her part too. (“If this is not the real Thancred, he’ll serve as a more than suitable replacement.”) The game, when you pay attention, frequently rewards you with bits of humor and snark that make me laugh out loud on many occasions.
And it never interferes with the dramatic parts. It’s possible for the game to be joking one moment and deathly serious the next, and both flow together with perfect clarity. Even the grimmest moments find time for some levity, and nothing is ever just silly without a point. That matters to me.
10. Tiny, perfect moments
The ultimate Paladin ability in Stormblood is Passage of Arms, and it’s easily my favorite addition to the job despite the fact that I use it, at most, once per dungeon. But that moment when it happens? That moment when the boss is about to unleash something huge, I plant my sword, and I shout for the part to get behind me as I erupt into a living shield?
At that moment, numbers fall away completely, and it’s a dramatic moment. Just like when I find myself threading the needle on Ninja and unleashing a spinning sequence of slices, arcing high into the air over the boss to deliver a killing blow. Or that moment when the healer blows all of the cooldowns at once and explodes with healing energy to keep everyone on their feet despite the aforementioned big attack. Heck, the little twirling staff flourish White Mage has on some of its cooldown abilities alone.
The game is filled with moments like that. Yes, they’re mechanical, they’re part of the game, all of that. But whenever possible, the game seems to push to go out of its way to feel like something cinematic, something more about the experience. There are other ways to mechanically handle the Susano fight other than having the tank literally struggle to push back an enormous sword while everyone else races to break the enemy’s grip. But it feels like something climactic and neat, and that alone is worth a nod.
And it’s things like that, a nod toward the cinematic and the cool and the defining seconds, that mean that I have run the same dungeons time and again… but I still get a charge out of seeing the same big attack coming toward us, planting my sword, and shouting, “Get behind me!” Because it’s just plain cool.