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A beginner's guide to Final Fantasy 14

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Final Fantasy 14 has always been a good MMORPG (at least since its 2013 makeover), but over the past few years it's morphed into the best overall MMORPG you can play today. It's so good, in fact, that its story has evolved beyond merely being "good for an MMO" and into one that can stand proudly beside any of the singleplayer games from the series. 

There's never been a better time to play. The current Shadowbringers expansion frequently popped up on lists of 2019's best overall games, and we gave it a score of 94. In August, Square Enix's Patch 5.3 greatly expanded the free trial for new players from level 35 all the way to level 60, which means you can play through the base "A Realm Reborn" game and 2015's excellent Heavensward expansion entirely for free. 

Square Enix also trimmed much of the fat from A Realm Reborn's sprawling storyline and introduced some welcome quality of life changes, including the ability to fly in any of A Realm Reborn's zones. Each FF14 expansion has been better than the last, and this latest update helps tighten up some of the original campaign's shortcomings (and it helps you get through the whole thing more quickly. too). Trial players can also now play the Au Ra race and the Astrologian, Dark Knight, and Machinist classes, which previously weren't available without buying specific expansions. 

These are all great and needed changes. But Final Fantasy 14 can still be overwhelming, so I'm here to help. I've played a lot of Final Fantasy 14—2,200 hours since 2013—and with that experience I've put together this guide to ease the way for both new and returning players. 

Before you start the free trial

Square Enix expanded Final Fantasy 14's trial to allow new players to play the Heavensward expansion and to level 60 without paying a penny. The catch there is "new." The free trial won't work if you've ever spent money on your FF14 account before, even if you bought it seven years ago and just piddled around in the starting zones. But if you only had a trial account before Patch 5.3, that trial account should now support the increased level cap from 35 to 60. 

The upshot of all this is that it may be wiser to make an entirely new account if you want to play through A Realm Reborn and Heavenward with the free trial. Keep in mind some of the limitations, though:

  • You can't use the Market Boards (which means you can't buy or sell stuff) 
  • You also can't join Free Companies, which are FF14's version of player guilds

If you're mainly playing for the story, though (and that's generally a good reason to play FF14), these are sacrifices you should be able to live with. And if you ever decide those limitations are too burdensome? You can remove them by buying the FF14 Starter Edition, which gives you access to the same playable content as the free trial and only costs $20. 

Why you should play FF14

Final Fantasy 14's story remains the best reason to play. Much as in a good single-player RPG, much of the narrative unfolds in cinematic cutscenes, and its mature themes touch on everything from loss to redemption. Square Enix does a good job of making the members of the large cast come off as real people, and some of the main characters have undergone believable changes over the years. It's only gotten better since launch. The music is also consistently amazing, and, well, all the characters are just frickin' beautiful.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Beyond that, Final Fantasy 14 has the friendliest community of any major MMORPG. That's not to say you won't stumble across the occasional toxic jerk, but based on personal experience, they're nowhere near as common as they are in World of Warcraft's heroic dungeons or The Elder Scrolls Online's Veteran content. FF14 even has a commendation system for rewarding players who are especially skilled or helpful, so there's some incentive to be kind.

FF14 does have an endgame loot grind, but it never feels as essential as it does in a game like World of Warcraft. You can play FF14 largely as you would any single-player RPG—aside from the fact that you do have to participate in some raids or dungeons to progress the story—but it doesn't pressure you to participate. That's partially because there's such a ridiculously wide range of other things to do:

  • Unlocking the many raids and trials
  • Getting involved in player housing
  • Participating in the many forms of instanced PvP
  • Getting involved in the rich crafting scene
  • Joining "hunts" to fight powerful open-world bosses
  • Racing your chocobo against other players
  • Getting hooked on a collectible card game
  • Challenging other players to a few rounds of Mahjong

And that's not even touching on the glamour system, which allows you to dress up your character in virtually any way you want. Some players call the glamour system the "true" endgame. 

Best of all, you can do all this and level every single combat and crafting class on the same character. To play another class, you simply need to equip the weapon associated with that class. And you should do everything on one character, too: There's really no reason to make a traditional "alt" in Final Fantasy 14.  

That's 27 characters at the level cap. There's no way I would have had the patience for that in another MMO. (Image credit: Square Enix)

Sounds great, right? Alas, there are some downsides, and the biggest one is that Final Fantasy 14 does an awful job of making a good first impression. The story for the core A Realm Reborn experience is the weakest of the bunch by far, and it'll probably take you more than 100 hours to finish even with the streamlining in Patch 5.3. It's such a slog that I know of many players who've quit long before they got to the parts that keep so many players raving about FF14, which typically begin at Heavensward. For that matter, most classes simply aren't as fun or as fast-paced in the early levels as they are from 60-80. 

It's also sometimes a pain in the ass to play with your friends (which I'll discuss in the next section), and Square Enix's "Mog Station" site for managing your account isn't exactly intuitive, to put it lightly.

FF14 also may not satisfy you if you're looking for a deep challenge unless you're willing to devote time to endgame "extreme" and "savage" content. Even then, most of the normal content is relatively easy compared to what you'll find in, say, World of Warcraft, and most of the biggest challenges rely on knowing when to stand in a specific spot. A single misstep can often mean the difference between life and death. On the bright side, this is partly what fuels the comparatively friendly atmosphere: You can often correct a poorly performing player with a smart piece of advice.

How do servers and data centers work?

FF14 players play on individual servers, which are grouped into specific data centers. Specific data centers exist for North America, Europe, and Japan, but you can create a character on any of them regardless of where you live.

If you want to play with friends who already play FF14, you'll have to be in the same datacenter with them. Otherwise, you'll never see or be able to talk to them in-game. (For that matter, adding friends across servers is a bit of a pain in the ass because you both have to be online at the same time. It requires some out-of-game coordination.) Socially, at least, it's one of the big downsides of playing FF14 compared to World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online, where there's usually a way to talk to or group with friends regardless of which server they're on. 

Two players on Excalibur and Ultros could play together, but their friend on Cactuar would be out of luck. (Image credit: Square Enix)

Data Centers have their upsides in terms of options. In my case, I play on the Ultros server, which puts me in the Primal data center. By going to any of the big Aetheryte crystals in the three major starting cities, I can travel to any of the seven other servers on my data center, either to find better prices for items on those servers' market boards or to participate in organized "Hunts" with other players.

Should you level boost?

Because Final Fantasy 14 doesn't let you access certain zones or expansions until you're at a specific spot in the story, reaching the level cap of 80 can still take hundreds of hours—even in the wake of the extensive streamlining in Patch 5.3. Square Enix lets you work around this by buying a number of boosts on its Mog Station site, but you could end up paying as much as $79 if you want to jump straight into the current Shadowbringers expansion. 

Boosting a class to 70 (the beginning of Shadowbringers) typically costs $25. Boosts that complete the story get more expensive the more recent the expansion: A Realm Reborn costs $11, Heavensward costs $18, and Stormblood costs $25. Just to emphasize: If you're a new player and you want to start playing the Shadowbringers expansion today, you'll have to buy all that.

Pressed for time? I recommend skipping at least A Realm Reborn. You miss out on a ton of the story if you buy all of them, of course, so you won't have much of a clue about the dynamic between characters when you arrive in Shadowbringers. (Fortunately, Shadowbringers is largely a self-contained story.) That said, you can watch all the major cutscenes by going to an inn and interacting with a piece of furniture labeled "The Unending Journey."

Checking out The Unending Journey in the Kugane inn. (Image credit: Square Enix)

If you want to play with high-level friends close to the level cap now (or you simply don't want to slog through so much story), though, this is the way to go. You can always go back and unlock dungeons, trials, and raids that weren't included with the boosts later on.

FF14's combat classes, briefly explained

As a reminder, one of the coolest things about Final Fantasy 14 is that you can play every single combat (and crafting) class on the same character. All you need to do is switch out your weapon and set up gear presets in your character panel. Here's a rundown of all the combat classes, which I've grouped into FF14's own groupings of tanks (who keep enemies from attacking other players and can take a lot of damage), healers (who heal), and DPS (classes that mainly deal damage). 

Tanks 

Warrior: Warriors run around chopping up enemies with giant axes, and typically that'd be a DPS class in another MMO. They're tanks here, though, and they make for pretty good ones, too.

Paladin: Paladins are your classic "sword and board" tanking class. If you're into no-nonsense, easily understandable tanking, this is the way to go.

Dark Knight: Like edgy, kinda emo warriors? Try a Dark Knight. It's a complicated class, but the greatsword-swinging aesthetic is great.

Gunbreaker: Gunbreakers wield gunblades, and they're a great class for players who want to play a tank that "feels" like a DPS class.  

Healers 

White Mage: No other healer in FF14 has the raw healing power of the White Mage. It also does fantastic AOE damage. A good choice if you're new to healing.

Astrologian: Astrologians are cool because they perform a lot of abilities by pulling cards from a floating tarot deck. Unlike the White Mage, the Astrologian places just as much emphasis on damage mitigation as on raw healing. 

Scholar: Scholar is a challenging class, in part because you have to juggle a pet's abilities along with your own. Master it, though, and people will love you. Levels simultaneously with the Summoner class, so you get a "free" DPS job.  

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Melee DPS 

Monk: Like to punch things? This is your class. It's currently one of the best damage-dealers in the game, but keep in mind that many abilities require you to stand at a specific spot by an enemy in order to deal maximum damage.

Dragoon: Dragoons wield lances and have some of the coolest looking attacks in the game. Some of these abilities lock them into animations, though, which led to a joke that they're "floor tanks." It's better than it used to be, but it's still something to be wary of.

Ninja: A fast-paced, fun, deadly damage class… that's also known for requiring good ping. (It's also my main). Uniquely, some major Ninja skills require "spelling out" words with the characters Ten, Chi, and Jin, so lag can severely hamper your performance.

Samurai: Does ridiculously good damage at the moment, and also has a relatively simple rotation, to boot. Sometimes frowned on because it's a "selfish" class, meaning it's all about damage and little utility for the rest of a group. 

Physical Ranged DPS 

Bard: If you're way more into supporting other players than doing damage, go Bard. The damage is pitiful, but Bards can play several "songs" that boost damage or stats.

Machinist: Like shooting guns in your fantasy MMORPG? Level a Machinist. And if you want more guns with your guns, you can lay down a turret.

Dancer: Yes. you dance with this class… while slinging around some deadly bladed chakrams. It's quite fun! Two of the strongest abilities require performing what's essentially a QTE prompt. 

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Magical Ranged DPS 

Black Mage: Black Mage is all about explosions! It's utterly devastating in the right hands, but it does have a fairly complicated rotation. Black Mages also aren't very mobile, which is a bit of a pain in the movement-heavy fights of Shadowbringers.

Summoner: Summoners are all about summoning creatures and dishing out pain with damage-over-time abilities. They also level simultaneously with Scholars, so you get a "free" healing class if you level one.

Red Mage: Red Mages wield rapiers and cater to players who like to play with a mix of melee and ranged magic damage. Along with Summoners, they can also resurrect other players, which helps ease some of the burden on healers. 

Blue Mage: Blue Mages are kind of cool in that you go out into the world and learn spells from enemies you fight. Unfortunately, they only level to 60 and you can't run random dungeons with them. It's more of a "personal challenge" class, as they have their own instanced boss fights for testing your skills. 

Helpful tips

  • Final Fantasy 14 has eight crafting classes and three gathering classes that you level separately like regular combat classes. (They even have their own storylines!) If you plan on leveling more than one of them—and you should—don't vendor or sell your gear for these classes once you've outleveled it. You can use the same gear for all crafting and gathering classes. In other words, once you've leveled your Carpenter, you can use almost all of the same gear to level your Alchemist.
  • FF14 has gorgeous and flashy combat effects… that can make it super hard to figure out what's going on in an Alliance Raid or Trial with other people, particularly if you play a melee class. To make these fights more manageable, I recommend limiting combat effects for everyone but yourself. To do this, hit Escape, go to Character Configuration, Character, and then select "Show Limited" in the Party section of "Battle Effects Settings."

Just a normal day as a melee player with the visual effects turned all the way up. (Image credit: Square Enix)
  • If you want to be where the action is, set your "home" to Limsa Lominsa, the starting city for the Maelstrom faction. (You don't have to be a member of the Maelstrom to do this.) It's FF14's de facto hub in part because Limsa's Market Boards (where you buy and sell stuff) are literally right beside the main Aetheryte Crystal. Reaching them in other cities tends to involve a bit of a jog.
  • Familiarize yourself with raid strategies. FF14's community is friendly enough to deal with multiple "wipes" on a boss, but things go more smoothly when everyone knows what they're doing. If it's your first time in a dungeon or trial, say so, and players will be a lot more forgiving. I prefer to think of FF14's boss fights as being like dances: Learn the right moves, and you'll generally be okay. My favorite video resource for learning fights is YouTuber MTQCapture (or Mizzteq), who crafts short, no-BS guides that explain everything you need to know about a fight, and usually in only five or so minutes.
  • Want to level quickly? First, make sure you do all the quests in the "Main Scenario Questline," which is always visible in the upper-left corner of your UI. It gives the best XP and gear by far. At Level 17, you can unlock the Palace of the Dead, a roguelike "Deep Dungeon" you can run over and over again for a hefty chunk of XP when you complete it until Level 50. The Palace of the Dead uses a separate leveling system, and you'll get the best XP (and fastest queues) if you queue for floors 51-60, but you'll have to unlock them first. Beginning at level 61, you can use a similar dungeon called Heaven on High to level. In that case, you'll want to grind through floors 21-30. Beyond that, be sure to do your daily "roulettes" through the Duty Finder for random trials, raids, dungeons, and PvP, which you'll see by pressing "U."
  • Fast travel is super easy in Final Fantasy 14, although it costs a handful of gil every time. Make sure you attune to every single aetheryte crystal you find—the big blue crystals in the middle of major towns—and you can teleport them at will afterward. This is also true within major cities, which have smaller aetheryte crystals in addition to the big ones. They'll make it a lot easier to get to specific districts when you're in a rush.
  • Watch for quest markers with blue backgrounds. These quests generally unlock something, whether it's a long questline, dungeons, cosmetic items, and a host of other things. There's a ridiculous amount of good locked content in FF14, and I know from experience that you can play through most of the game without even knowing it's there. If you don't mind spoilers, here's a handy list of everything you can unlock.

These are the quest markers you're looking for.   (Image credit: Square Enix)
  • At level 30, you can use your Chocobo mount as an ally in combat by summoning them with Gysahl Greens. You can spec your Chocobo to be either a tank, healer, or DPS, but in my experience, healing is the most effective use of the skill points. Remember to keep them out while you're questing and you'll find combat much more manageable.
  • Final Fantasy 14 supports a "Novice Network" chat channel where experienced players who've earned Mentor status impart advice to newcomers with questions. Any player with a crown next to their name can invite you to the network. The experience varies wildly from server to server though, as some servers have incredibly helpful mentors and some seem more interested in using it as a chatroom.
  • When upgrading gear, it's almost always wise to prioritize item level over stats. Also, when buying gear with the "tomestone" tokens you get from instances or through the Duty Finder, aim to replace your weapon first and then your chest and leg pieces.
  • Bummed by being stuck in a long queue? Switch to a different class and level it through class quests and FATEs (dynamic events) while you're queued as another class. FF14 is good at making the most out of your time. Also, don't bother using the Duty Finder to queue for Extreme or Savage raids. You'll be waiting for an eternity. Use the Party Finder instead.