Final Fantasy 14 is the best MMO that I hate to recommend

(Image credit: Square Enix)

I love Final Fantasy 14. I have rambled incoherently about it on our podcast, declared it our best MMO of 2019, and even traveled halfway around the world just to cover it. Since I started playing when it re-launched in 2013, I have logged nearly a thousand hours on a single character—which is nothing compared to more hardcore players. It's one of my favorite games of all time, and now that its new Shadowbringers expansion is out, I'm even more excited about the prospect of sinking another thousand hours into it. And yet, for all that enthusiasm, every time a friend asks me if they should start playing it, my usual answer is "no." As great as FF14 is, it's an almost impossible game to recommend.

Yes, I'm aware of how ridiculous that sounds. At best, it makes me sound like a weird elitist who wants to hoard all of FF14 to myself—a sad MMO hipster who is terrified of other people liking the same thing I do. At worst, it makes me a hypocrite. Hear me out.

Journeys and destinations

The best time to start playing FF14 was six years ago.

MMOs are intimidating games to get into, but I think FF14 might be the worst of them. When I first started playing, it was back when it relaunched as A Realm Reborn. The original FF14 was a disastrously awful game and, to Square Enix's credit, they spent a good few years rebuilding it as an entirely new MMO. The developers even wrote the demise of the original version into the story, an apocalypse that ended the old world and birthed a new one.

Though I never played the original FF14 much, the relaunched A Realm Reborn version was a revelation at the time. Square Enix improved on everything, resulting in a gorgeous, accessible MMO with an uncommon emphasis on storytelling. As a lifelong Final Fantasy fan, it was brilliant and I immediately fell in love with it.

But what's kept me playing for all these years is the way FF14 has continued to evolve. With Heavensward, FF14 went from telling an OK story for an MMO to weaving a tale that confidently sits as one of the best in the entire series. And though Stormblood didn't quite reach the same high as Heavensward, it did tee up some satisfying revelations that have paved the way for Shadowbringers, which in turn promises to turn the whole world of Eorzea upside-down.

Unlike World of Warcraft, where until recently expansions were largely isolated from each other, FF14's story is a consistent thread that leads from each update to the next. Everything is connected, so truly understanding Stormblood's rebellion and character arcs requires knowledge of events that came before.

Like any excellent TV show, I've developed an intimate relationship with the main characters and the world of FF14 along the way. FF14 does a remarkably good job of bouncing between fun fan service and gutting plot twists that have sometimes left me speechless. I gawked as villains once thought dead returned to life, marveled over new revelations about the lore of Eorzea, and agonized over the uncertain fate of favorite characters. It's an almost singular achievement that Square Enix has managed to weave a coherent and compelling story across six years of an MMO. World of Warcraft, comparatively, is a mess of paradoxical timelines that barely make any sense. 

But I don't think my FF14 journey could have the same impact if I were to begin it now. Unless you have the patience and commitment to sit through nearly 100 hours of story just to get to Shadowbringers, you're going to be missing out on the fundamental appeal of FF14—that sense of grand adventure I have been on for more than six years.

Part of what makes FF14's storytelling work is that it's delivered piecemeal through updates. Every three months, like clockwork, a new update is released that continues the main story while adding new dungeons and other features. That pacing gives plot twists room to breathe, creating tension and drama that persists until the next update is released. And someone racing to catch up with everyone else is going to inherently miss out on that.

So much of what has made Final Fantasy 14 special to me is that I've experienced it as it's happening.

Starting from the beginning and playing catch up comes with its own problems, too. What I've now realized in hindsight is that A Realm Reborn was only great relative to the disaster of FF14's original launch. I was willing to forgive so much because so much had gotten better. A Realm Reborn's story was passable but compared to the narrative heights both the Heavensward and Stormblood expansions have reached, it's aged poorly. Before you can start to enjoy the thematic punches that I just mentioned, you're going to have to sit through dozens of hours of meandering bullshit.

There are ways around this, however. For $11 you can pay to skip A Realm Reborn's story—effectively marking all of its associated quests as complete so you can jump straight into Heavensward (You can pay $25 to unlock all the story content up to Shadowbringers). There's even a way to view in-game cutscenes so you can get all caught up on the story you're missing, but that amounts to around a dozen hours of cutscenes.

Level-boost potions are sold separately and cost $25 per class. So if you're new, in addition to buying Shadowbringers and the base game for $60, you're looking at spending upwards of $110 just to start playing Shadowbringers right away. It's akin to recommending people skip the first two seasons of a popular TV show because they're not that good—but there's no denying that even if those initial episodes suck, they're an inextricable part of what makes later episodes better. A Realm Reborn's plodding story is much longer than a few hours of television, though.

And that's why, more often than not, I want to tell people they're better off not playing FF14. It's not because I don't think it's wonderful, but getting into it is such a frustrating catch-22. The best time to start playing FF14 was six years ago. Anyone looking to play it now will either have to miss out on part of what makes its journey special or endure the long grind to catch up. Neither are ideal.

Also if you start playing you too can have excellent pants like mine.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Square Enix has created something special with Final Fantasy 14, and I love that I get to be a part of it. But so much of what has made Final Fantasy 14 special to me is that I've experienced it as it's happening. I've watched for six years as the pieces of what the game is today have slowly fallen into place.

If there's one silver lining to this, it's that FF14 is showing no signs of slowing down. And even if you decide to skip the entire journey in favor of getting into Shadowbringers right away, missing the beginning might not matter four years from now. There will be a mountain of new twists and turns to fondly reminisce over and everything that came before will be obsolete. But anyone getting into FF14 now is going to have to make peace with all of this.

And that's why I hate recommending Final Fantasy 14. It's a large and risky commitment, and even if you catch up to everyone else there's no guarantee you'll fall in love with it the same way I have. Or maybe you will—a lot of people certainly have. Just know that if you're going to give it a shot, it's best not to rush through it. All great journeys take time.