Sitting back playing Final Fantasy 14 with a pad in hand is a perfectly fine way to spend time. Square Enix nixed the original (utterly broken) FF14 in 2012, and this new form is as much sequel as relaunch. It's now a stable, sprawling MMORPG that mixes genre conventions (questing, crafting, raiding) with the trappings of the long-running JRPG series. It's aimed at people for whom a Chocobo isn't just another mount, and for whom Cure isn't just another healing spell. It'll resonate strongest with people who care about this universe, its music, and its monsters.
Pad control is one of the things that sets FF14 aside. Keyboard and mouse are available too – and necessary for group content – but being able to relax and play it like a console RPG freshens the formula. The combat is flashy and strategically interesting, and a novel class system – which enables you to level up multiple professions on a single character while mixing and merging them – provides a steady sense of progress and a vast spread of potential progression paths.
Rather than retread Final Fantasy 14's story from the beginning, A Realm Reborn acts as a straight sequel. The events of the original game ended in the type of worldsundering catastrophe that has justified MMO overhauls since time immemorial, and your characters' relationship with that disaster forms the basis of the central plot. You've also lost your memory, but you might have guessed that from the words 'Final Fantasy' in the title.
The dialogue is a goldmine for nonsense fantasy words – it broke through years of familiarity with the genre to make me freshly aware of how ludicrous these stories can sound to outsiders. It's like listening to a talking dog read Tolkien aloud. Actually, no. It's not that exciting. But it does raise approximately the same number of questions.
FF14's greatest strength is that it doesn't feel generic. Its console-RPG heritage bolsters its sense of identity, from the use of series-staple music and sound effects to class names and character designs. It's an attractive place to spend time, particularly if you have a history with the twinkling MIDI of FF's score.
It's less distinctive in terms of structure, but not without fresh ideas. You'll spend most of your time doing quests in the WoW model, but they move at a pace and travel times are minimal. Then there are FATEs – public quests, equivalent to Guild Wars 2's dynamic events – and Levequests: timed daily tasks with scaling rewards based on how quickly you beat them. In addition to regular instances, there are minidungeons called Guildhests that allow for quick, cross-server group play in five- to fifteen-minute bursts.
A certain amount of grind is, however, inevitable. You have an individual level for each class, which means that eventually you'll run out of quests at the lower end and rely on FATEs or Levequests to progress. I like the way that early content remains relevant, but repetition is part of the process.
There is a vast amount to do, which will please players looking to make a serious commitment to a new MMO. The problem is that the subscription fee makes that commitment more or less mandatory. It's an outdated payment model and it doesn't suit the game, particularly when there are free and subs-free alternatives that offer much the same experience. It also prevents that laid-back, pad-inhand feeling from being a serious proposition in the long term.
Structural innovations and strong presentation, held back by grind and an old-fashioned business model.