Today we’re going to take a closer look at Final Fantasy XIV’s combat mechanics, and how they’ve been refined between the original release of A Realm Reborn and Stormblood.
For those who’ve never played a massively multiplayer online RPG before, Final Fantasy XIV’s mechanics may require a bit of an adjustment, as they’re rather different from the various systems the series has used in the past. But for those familiar with other popular MMOs such as World of Warcraft, the game will quickly become second-nature — with a few important distinctions from the conventions of the genre.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Final Fantasy XIV’s mechanics is that, although clearly inspired by the way a popular Western title has done things, there’s a strong feeling of “Japaneseness” to them that gives the game a very strong sense of its own identity, making it a unique experience even to MMO veterans.
The first and perhaps most important thing to note about Final Fantasy XIV’s mechanics is that the whole experience is designed to be gamepad-friendly — the original incarnation of the game was designed for PS3 alongside PC, after all, and the current version sees PS4 and PC players happily coexisting on the same servers, with no distinction made between the two.
World of Warcraft-style MMOs are typically based on a system of hotbars and cooldowns, with your character’s various abilities spread across a variety of buttons, and a “global cooldown” requiring you to wait a set period between setting off each ability.
Final Fantasy XIV’s basic system works on this same principle, with hotbars working in the normal way for keyboard and mouse players, and being associated with holding down a trigger button then pressing either a face button or a D-pad direction on gamepads. This is, surprisingly, not as cumbersome as it sounds, particularly given how the rest of the game works.
The global cooldown (or “GCD” as it is typically referred to) is about 2.5 seconds, which is quite long in comparison to the seemingly faster-paced combat of World of Warcraft. The reason for this long interval in between individual moves is so that other abilities — known as “off-GCD” skills — can be “weaved” in between instances of the GCD. In other words, you can cheekily sneak in additional abilities in between your “main” moves, though these off-GCD skills typically have a long, independent cooldown of their own before they can be used again. Stormblood also added the “Job Gauge” system, whereby most classes have a means of building up an additional “resource” of some description which can be expended on various powerful moves.
Each of Final Fantasy XIV’s classes works in a slightly different way, but the basic principle is one of “rotations”: an order to press the buttons in and trigger your skills that provides optimal damage output. Some classes are more strict about these rotations than others — in this case, the rotations tend to be referred to as “combos” in order to distinguish them — while others give you a bit more freedom to use them as you see fit.
Let’s take new class Samurai as an example. Samurai has three single-target combos, and two area-effect combos. All of the single target combos start with the same ability, and the two area-effect combos start with another single ability. From there, other abilities on the hotbar “light up” in order to show that they can be used next with some sort of bonus applied to them.
In the case of the single-target combos, one of them applies a Slashing Resistance Down debuff to the enemy, another increases the speed of your GCD slightly, and another increases your damage output slightly. Once you reach a certain level, each of these combos also lights up one of three “Sen” markers, which can be used to trigger one of three special moves depending on how many are lit. Alongside this, most Samurai moves build up a separate “Kenki” gauge, with most of the job’s off-GCD abilities requiring a certain amount of this gauge to use.
Contrast with Black Mage, which doesn’t have set combos that are explicitly told to you by the interface, but most certainly does have a “best” order in which to cast your spells thanks to its interesting “Astral Fire/Umbral Ice” system, whereby casting fire spells causes your damage to increase but your MP regeneration to halt completely, and casting ice spells returns your damage to normal but rapidly accelerates your MP regeneration.
Since the game has been around for a while now, the theorycrafters of the Internet have generally already determined the “best” rotations for each class, meaning that in a lot of cases there’s not a huge amount of freedom in how you play — at least not if you want to put out some decent damage numbers. Instead, it’s perhaps best to think of the basic combat in Final Fantasy XIV as somewhat more akin to a very slow-paced fighting game — you’re pressing buttons in a specific order to have set effects, and deviating from those patterns will cause your play to be sub-optimal. It most certainly requires skill, for sure, but it’s less about coming up with strategies on the fly as in more conventional RPGs, and more about developing the muscle memory to be able to do what you need to do without even thinking about it.
It’s not just about pressing buttons, mind you. Final Fantasy XIV’s main distinguishing feature from many other MMOs — and the thing that gives it its distinctively “Japanese” feel — is a strong emphasis on movement and dodging.
Many enemies have the ability to perform area of effect attacks, and these are clearly telegraphed on the ground with prominent, pulsing markers. As you progress through the game, the game develops its own distinctive visual language for these markers; while most of them are variations on “don’t stand here”, there are also distinctive symbols that mean “everyone gather here”, “everyone stay out of the way of this person” and “everyone make sure you’re not facing this target”, among other things. This language has been refined and made to be much more consistent since the original launch of A Realm Reborn; now Stormblood is here, you can rest assured that a specific mark you see always means the same thing, which wasn’t always the case!
With the strong focus on dodging in mind, playing with a gamepad feels like the optimal way to play, since movement is certainly a lot more straightforward with an analogue stick than it is with standard keyboard and mouse controls — though it does, of course, depend on what you’re used to, and those who choose to play with keyboard and mouse certainly are not put at any sort of disadvantage if they take the time to set up their interface carefully.
In some ways, Final Fantasy XIV’s boss fights are designed somewhat like those you’d find in a Japanese shoot ’em up, in that success in them in most cases is determined more by learning their attack patterns and finding safe spots than necessarily churning out as much damage as possible. Of course, damage is an important part of the equation — many bosses have an “enrage” attack which brings the fight to an immediate close if you take too long over it — but for the most part, learning the various encounters and how to successfully deal with the mechanics involved is the most important aspect of Final Fantasy XIV.
There are certainly a lot of encounters to learn, too. In fact, although there are quests to complete, open-world exploration to indulge in and “trash” monsters to kill both in the multiplayer dungeons and solo out in the open, it’s fair to say that Final Fantasy XIV is primarily a game about boss fights — so much so that some of the most dramatic encounters in the game’s story take the form of “Trials”. These are long fights against a single enemy that sometimes take ten minutes or more to complete; the battles generally consist of multiple “phases” in which the boss uses different attack patterns, and there’s a ton of variety, too — it is by no means just a game about not standing in red markers while you press the same three buttons over and over.
In the original A Realm Reborn story arc, for example, you face Final Fantasy mainstays Ifrit, Garuda and Titan. Ifrit, as the first you encounter, is the most straightforward of these, consisting primarily of wailing on the big fiery best until he falls over, occasionally making sure you don’t stand on anything that looks like it’s about to explode, because it probably will. Titan, meanwhile, builds on this by featuring attacks that can potentially knock you off the side of the platform on which you are fighting him, while Garuda is the most complex battle of the main story, requiring you to hide behind rocks at certain points in the fight and deal with additional enemies quickly.
A Realm Reborn’s subsequent patches got more and more adventurous with the Trials. A fight against “Good King Moggle Mog XII”, for example, required you to kill moogles in a particular order to weaken the tyrant in question. A face-off against Leviathan sees the party standing atop a floating platform that the great sea serpent is rather fond of slapping around, sending everyone flying. And some sidequest battles against series favourites Gilgamesh and Ultros feature a series of bizarre, unique mechanics that force you to fight in a very different way to normal!
Both Heavensward and Stormblood built on these encounters with even more varied mechanics and things to do. In Heavensward, for example, a battle against Bismarck required you to battle trash enemies until you can trigger a pair of hookshots to drag you close enough to the giant sky whale, at which point you can jump on its back and start hitting it as hard as possible before it throws you off again. And in Stormblood, the battle against Lakshmi features the new “Duty Action” system, whereby you’re given a special, unique command to use only in that battle, in this case to put up a magical shield that protects you from the boss’ most powerful attacks.
There are pros and cons to this approach to battles, of course. On the upside, the tightly scripted nature of these fights means that they can be appropriately dramatic in an authentically Final Fantasy style — in fact, Heavensward’s later patches introduced cinematic cutaways for some bosses’ ultimate attacks, making them even more spectacular to watch — but on the other hand, it means that you generally need to “learn” the fights beforehand in order to be a useful party member.
Most of the time, the game’s clear use of its (now-)consistent visual language makes it relatively straightforward to figure out what is going on, but it’s worth noting that when you’re challenging these encounters, you are playing with other people who, in many cases, will expect everyone coming in to a battle to know what to do and when. And in some cases, the failure of just one member to perform a mechanic successfully can spell disaster for the rest of the team — particularly if that member is a tank or healer.
That said, most of the content in the game is designed to be relatively casual-friendly, so mishaps can generally be recovered from so long as your healers are on their toes. It’s only once you get into the current tiers of “Extreme”-difficulty boss fights and “Savage”-level raids that absolutely everyone involved needs to know exactly how to complete the encounter, though generally speaking throughout the entire game you’ll have a much more pleasant experience if you take a moment to read up on a boss fight before you jump into it with other people, particularly if it’s a battle that established players have been taking on for four years now!
For some, this attitude — which is largely the community’s fault rather than the game, it has to be said — will spoil that sense of “discovery” and learning new encounters, but it’s worth noting that even if you have a checklist of what to do when in front of you, these fights are still thrilling and enjoyable to be part of because they still require a certain amount of skill to complete. In other words, don’t let the requirement to “study” fights put you off; Final Fantasy XIV features some of the series’ most memorable encounters, with a variety of fan favourites putting in appearances at one point or another.
Final Fantasy XIV’s combat system certainly stands alone in the series, even distinguishing itself from its MMO stablemate and spiritual predecessor Final Fantasy XI. For those used to fighting the way they want to fight in an RPG, it may take a bit of adjusting to, but it won’t be long before you discover the true joy of games like this: seeing a group of players working together, performing an intricate “dance” perfectly in sync with one another and achieving victory against seemingly insurmountable odds.
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