Why technical limitations make FF14: Shadowbringers the best Final Fantasy story in decades

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Certain corners of the internet will tell you that 'Final Fantasy hasn't been good in years!'. Everyone loves the old ones—it's why they're constantly being re-released and remastered. I, for instance, own Final Fantasy 9 on six different platforms and, thanks to the pull of nostalgia, I know I'll buy it again if another remaster comes out.

I know I'm not alone either—that first taste of awe and anticipation in a new world is intoxicating. You never forget your first Final Fantasy game.

Sure they all look dated now, with edges blockier than a Lego set, but that's part of what makes them so charming. There's mystery hidden behind those blurred worlds, something that more recent entries have lacked. FF15 chased open worlds and visual spectacle but came away feeling empty because of it. With the world looking so perfect there was nothing to hide behind. Very little felt open to interpretation.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

But Final Fantasy 14 is different and often overlooked because it's an MMO and not a 'proper' Final Fantasy. The current iteration of the game is over six years old now and was designed to be able to also run on the PlayStation 3, so its age is definitely showing. The textures are a little flat, the animations sometimes feel stilted and your hair clips through almost everything. That's not to say it looks bad, stylistically the game is still stunning, it's just that its wrinkles are starting to show compared to the younger games out there. Thanks to some great design it's aging gracefully and it also knows how to work with what it has, dazzling with imaginative landscapes and garments over polished graphics.

FFXIV’s story is mostly told through text boxes and aging character models.

The fact that it's an MMO means it has to tell its story very differently to other entries in the series—it's working within a completely different set of parameters. With a huge world and millions of players to support on all sorts of rigs there's a limit to how much power can be used while keeping everything running smoothly. The flashy sequences and set pieces of FF15 aren't an option, so FF14 has to make do with what it has. That's arguably the game's biggest strength. Limited tech gives it more creative freedom—it can't render realistic pores on skin or perfectly flowing hair, so pours its energy into inventive plots and cinematic camera angles to compensate. 

The game is riddled with Easter eggs and throwbacks to other games in the series—you can swing Squall's famous gunblade from FF8, visit Costa Del Sol from FF7 and fight the villainous Kefka from FF6—all designed to give you your Final Fantasy nostalgia fix. It's a huge part of why FF14 is so popular, but the way it's presented is also a throwback to that golden age of RPGs. Much like the PS1 classics that everyone still argues over, FF14's story is mostly told through text boxes and aging character models. It's simplistic but effective and has the benefit of leaving things open to interpretation.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Things always seem way more badass when you're playing them out in your head. You don't remember how dodgy the sand looked during that sineater transformation sequence (no spoilers here), but you do remember the horror of it. Of course Shadowbringers' excellent writing is the star here, full of sorrow and affection for even the smallest of NPCs, but that old tech adds to the effect. Realism is distracting. The simplicity of older tech is easy to look past to get the full intent so you can connect with it more deeply. It's also nostalgic—there are so many rich memories entwined in how Final Fantasy used to look. Tidus and Yuna kissing in FF10 looks a little stiff now, but you still feel the full weight of it.

It's taken a lot of time and practice to get to this point, A Realm Reborn was good but after six years of iteration and experimentation with how to present its story Shadowbringers excels. The development team have taken everything they've learned from previous expansions and applied it masterfully. While newer games seem to chase the realism of cinema, Shadowbringers feels like curling up with a favourite old novel—a little old-fashioned but a far richer experience for it.