Final Fantasy 14 used to be the best MMO that I hated to recommend to new players. Its episodic story resembles a lot of great TV shows, with expansion-like seasons that peel back new layers of mystery and drama while evolving its core characters in exciting ways. But getting into FF14 is daunting—it's expensive to get started (the base game, the latest expansion, and the first month's subscription fee will set you back almost $100) and the first season, called A Realm Reborn, is a total slog.
But on August 11, when FF14's 5.3 update titled Reflections in Crystal launches, I'm not going to have many caveats about recommending it anymore. Final Fantasy 14's free trial and A Realm Reborn are getting a big overhaul. Now, everything up to and including Heavensward, the first expansion, is free and the grind is being reworked to be much less annoying. Even if you don't intend to play after beating Heavensward, you're still able to experience one of the best stories in the entire series. If ever there was a time to start playing Final Fantasy 14, it's now.
Taking it slow
With the current free trial, you're only able to level to 35 (along with a few common restrictions like not being able to access the in-game player market) before having to cough up money. That upfront cost is a big ask for a story-based MMO where the best bits don't happen until much later. On August 11, though, Reflections in Crystal will expand the free trial to include everything from A Realm Reborn and the first expansion, Heavensward. Players will be able to reach level 60, participate in all the associated dungeons and cool Primal boss battles, and experience the excellent Heavensward story—which easily rivals the best games in the series. It's a ridiculously good deal.
"Discussions were going on for a little over a year ago," game director and producer Naoki Yoshida told me during an interview last week. "There were concerns about, well, how that might affect the sales of the expansion packs or the disc version, the packaged versions of [Final Fantasy 14]? But we've always compared this to a TV series; let's have people watch season one for free and it might make it smoother for our players to transition into the later seasons as well."
Soon after Shadowbringers launched to commercial and critical success, however, Yoshida explained that Square Enix decided to take the risk, believing that giving more away for free would only help more people invest in the story and see it all the way through to its latest twists and turns.
But what's great about this free trial is that you don't even need to commit to playing Final Fantasy 14 like a proper MMO. While I enjoy a lot of the grind that is FF14's endgame, players could easily use the free trial to play A Realm Reborn and Heavensward like a singleplayer RPG. You'll occasionally have to group with other players to complete certain dungeons and boss battles, but you'll have little standing between you and some of the best Final Fantasy storytelling since FF9. If you liked Heavensward and want more, then you can choose to buy the game and subscription to play onward into the Stormblood and Shadowbringers expansions (which are both great). But if not, you still got to experience a bit of what makes FF14 special.
And if you've tried FF14 before and bounced off of it, it's worth giving it another shot because Reflections in Crystal also addresses some of the biggest complaints about the story told in a player's first 50 levels.
Yoshida explains that during A Realm Reborn's development, the team was so hard-pressed rebuilding FF14 after its failed first launch that they simply didn't have enough time to create an engaging and well-paced story. "We didn't have much time to develop A Realm Reborn, and at the same time the staff members that were working on the title, their understanding of MMOs was very scattered," Yoshida said. "In order to mitigate that, we set a rule that [each] quest would have a certain number of experience points delivered, and that it would take about nine minutes to complete each quest."
That nine-minute rule made it easy to map out the story of A Realm Reborn, but it also meant that even the most inconsequential quests were dragged out for the sake of hitting that arbitrary target. To explain, Yoshida uses the concept of a basic fetch quest where the player has to get some water from a nearby river: "You'd have to collect the bucket, then you'd go to the river, and then you couldn't collect the water in one go so you'd have to collect it three times to get the right number, and then you'd go to a person to deliver the bucket, and then you'd go to another person to collect the reward," Yoshida said. "We thought that the amount of time that a player would have to spend versus the gameplay experience that they would get out of that particular quest line was very unbalanced."
That kind of pacing is everywhere in the original A Realm Reborn, and it really kills a lot of the tension built by the story. Back when I first played in 2013, the drama of its final chapter was somewhat spoiled because I had to spend hours grinding public quests called Fates just to reach the level cap to start the next quest. It sucked.
When Reflections in Crystal launches, however, a lot of those mindless quest objectives will be trimmed away. Keeping with the previous example, Yoshida says players will now just have the bucket automatically, they can collect the water in one go, and the person they give it to will also end the quest. Those changes might seem minor, but when applied to hundreds of quests across the world of Eorzea, it should make A Realm Reborn a lot more fun to play while putting the emphasis back on the actual cutscenes and story instead of the mindless tasks in between. Yoshida said the team has altered so many quests to remove unnecessary steps that they've lost count, but only about 13 percent have been deleted outright. "We're hopeful that for new players joining the game, it will make it very smooth for them to progress through the scenario quests," Yoshida said.
This won't fix everything, though. Compared to Heavensward and Shadowbringers, A Realm Reborn is just a little too mundane. There's a lot of time spent fleshing out the people and cultures of Eorzea, and it can be hard to appreciate that worldbuilding until it starts to play a crucial role in some of the crazier plot twists later on. But if you're a fan of Final Fantasy games—especially that golden era before FF7 when everyone started wearing too much leather—there's still a lot to love about A Realm Reborn and Heavensward. And if you make it through A Realm Reborn, everything keeps getting better from there.
As a long time fan of the game, it's exciting that more players than ever will have an opportunity to discover what makes FF14 so beloved. During our interview, Yoshida confirmed that Final Fantasy 14 now had 20 million registered accounts (including free trials and lapsed players), but it's great to see Square Enix take much bolder steps to make FF14 more accessible to a wider range of players.