Yes, it’s the question someone somewhere has probably asked at some point: with two highly regarded Japanese online RPGs on the go right now… is one “better” than the other?
Well, let’s nip that one right in the bud from the outset: no, because they’re two rather different experiences from one another, and as such aren’t directly comparable in terms of “quality”.
We can, however, compare their different approaches to various aspects of the online RPG experience, and from that, you can hopefully determine whether or not one or the other is “better” for you personally. So let’s do just that!
Phantasy Star Online 2 is free-to-play with optional microtransactions, whereas Final Fantasy XIV is a paid product that has a monthly subscription. This might seem like an easy win for Phantasy Star Online 2, but at the time of writing there are considerations to take into account, particularly if you live outside of North America.
Specifically, while the Phantasy Star Online 2 game itself is region-free, Sega hasn’t officially launched it in Europe, and actually adding it to your account and getting to play it from outside of North America can be a bit fiddly — you need to add it to your “cart” from the en-US Xbox or Microsoft Store on the Web, then “check out” for no money. Once that’s done, you can then download it to the appropriate device via your Xbox console or the Microsoft Store app on Windows 10. Supposedly releases for other PC platforms are coming later, but there’s no sign of these yet.
On top of that, if you do want to spend money on Phantasy Star Online 2 for its various premium features or cosmetic items, doing so from outside North America is, at the time of writing, a big ol’ pain that involves purchasing North American Xbox Gift Cards from a site such as Play-Asia, ensuring that both your Xbox Live account and Microsoft Store regions are set to North America, then applying the credit to buy the premium products. (Remember to set the regions back to what they should be afterwards if you use Xbox Live or your Microsoft Account for anything else!)
Final Fantasy XIV, meanwhile, has been global since its inception, and uses its own proprietary account rather than an existing region-locked one. So while you do have to pay to get started, it is much easier to get up and running if you’re not American — just buy it from Steam, Square Enix or even your local game store if you want to play on console, and off you go. Note, though, that if you start playing on one platform and wish to switch to another (e.g. start on PS4 and move to PC) you can keep your account but you will have to buy a new copy of the game for the new platform. This is the case for all new expansion pack releases, so if you want to move back and forth, take note!
As previously noted, Phantasy Star Online 2 is free-to-play, but you can purchase optional items. The main thing you’ll spend money on is the virtual currency “ARKS Cash”, which can then be spent on various items and benefits in the game itself, ranging from virtual scratch tickets that provide you a chance at getting themed cosmetic items to “premium sets” that do things like increase your maximum storage space and the number of Client Orders (quests) you can take on at once.
Final Fantasy XIV gives you a free month of subscription with your initial purchase. On top of that, the game has shown a pattern of making all previous expansion packs free for those who purchase the most recent one. This means that in order to jump in to the game and be “up to date”, all you have to do is buy the base game and the most recent expansion if you think you’re going to get that far — each expansion adds content on to the “end” of the previous one for the most part, though there are certain features that all players can take advantage of without reaching that point in the game’s story.
Final Fantasy XIV is designed to be both an homage to the Final Fantasy series as a whole and a solid massively multiplayer online RPG. With the former aspect in mind in particular, the game features a long, linear “main scenario” storyline to follow that takes you around the game world to various “quest hubs”. Much of this main scenario is designed to be completed as a solo player, but at various milestones there are “dungeons” (which are 4-player cooperative affairs where you work your way through a linear environment) and “trials” (which are 8-player battles against a strong, mechanically dense boss) to encourage you to play nice with others.
Once you reach the level cap in Final Fantasy XIV, the endgame consists of repeatedly running almost exclusively multiplayer-centric content in order to obtain incremental equipment upgrades, then perhaps taking on the most challenging “Savage” or “Ultimate” encounters in the game when you’re well-geared enough. Approximately every three months, the game has a major patch that increases the variety of endgame content and increases the maximum possible power level one can attain through equipment; these patches tend to alternate between introducing a series of four new 8-player boss fights (with optional “Savage” versions for top-tier raiders) and one long 24-player dungeon that is usually themed after another Square Enix property — mostly other Final Fantasy games, but the current patch cycle at the time of writing features Nier: Automata-related content.
Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, pretty much throws you into things without a ton of explanation, and very much becomes a game of setting your own goals and focusing on them as a result. This is actually fairly true to the series as a whole, particularly its early Master System and Mega Drive installments; those could often be quite obtuse and vague about where you were “supposed” to be going or what you were “supposed” to be doing at any given moment.
There is a natural progression of things and even a main narrative to follow, but the latter in particular feels rather unimportant to the grand scheme of things; in its early hours it’s mostly disjointed, seemingly context-free cutscenes accessed from a menu, though it does start to feature more in the way of structured, narrative-critical quests to take on as you progress. Most of your time progressing through Phantasy Star Online 2 consists of unlocking new areas to explore and completing “Client Orders”, which are objectives you can complete either once in your career, or as repeatable daily or weekly tasks.
Final Fantasy XIV gives you a gentle introduction to how it does things by easing you in gently with solo play, then gradually introducing the various types of group content as you go on. In Phantasy Star Online 2, you’re immediately thrown into 8 years’ worth of updates and told to get on with it — potentially overwhelming to a new player.
Final Fantasy XIV’s story is excellent, and the team behind it have only got better at telling it with each new expansion. Each expansion builds to a spectacular finale, then another spectacular finale as the patch cycle comes to an end ahead of the next expansion pack. Then, when the expansion comes out, the whole cycle begins anew. Each main scenario (base game and three expansions at the time of writing) will take you between about 20-40 hours to clear, depending on how thorough you are about completing sidequests.
Phantasy Star Online 2 is seemingly designed to be more of an “immersive” experience where the emergent narrative of your own adventures as an ARKS operative is pushed to the forefront rather than a scripted, linear story. Again, this is fairly true to how the original console games did things. That said, despite the poor implementation of the story content towards the beginning of the game, the characters are likeable and the narrative does drop some interesting teasers from the beginning, encouraging you to progress and see what’s happening.
In Phantasy Star Online 2, progressing through the story and completing certain tasks unlocks its characters as AI-controlled partners that you can take on quests with you instead of other players. Final Fantasy XIV introduced a similar feature in the Shadowbringers expansion, but at the time of writing this is only usable in Shadowbringers’ 4-player dungeon content; earlier in the game, there are sometimes instanced solo quests where you fight alongside major characters from the story, but they are not permanent party members or allies from a mechanical perspective.
This is the key difference between the two games. Final Fantasy XIV features global cooldown-based combat in which positioning and understanding of scripted encounter mechanics is of extreme importance, whereas Phantasy Star Online 2 is an action game with RPG mechanics. In other words, you press a button to do a skill in Final Fantasy XIV and it will play an animation and apply a specific effect; you will then have to wait a second or two before performing your next move, ideally mastering the “rhythm” of this cooldown to minimise the time between ability uses. In Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, you press the “attack” button and you attack; you press the “Foie” button and you cast the Foie spell; you press the “dodge” button and you dodge, complete with invincibility frames.
Both demand “skill” but in different ways; on the whole, Final Fantasy XIV can be described as a “slower-paced” game, but still requires its players to be on the ball to do the right thing at the right time according to the encounter’s overall choreography; it’s also a lot more rigid and punishing in this regard, with little room for creativity in most encounters. Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, features a more one-to-one relationship between the buttons you press and what your character does, and a consequent feeling of freedom to how you approach the challenges ahead of you.
What this also means is that Final Fantasy XIV’s mechanics are rather reliant on “optimal rotations” — specific orders in which to use the skills your character is equipped with in order to deal maximum damage and/or inflict the most possible debuffs on an enemy. In Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, mechanics are more situational; you do what is best at any given moment (usually making use of an appropriate attack for an enemy’s weakness) rather than following a set sequence of abilities.
Final Fantasy XIV features encounters with visible telegraphs and signals to indicate various mechanics are taking place. Under most circumstances, these appear with ample time for players to get out of the way or into position, assuming they know what the visual signals mean. As such, most new players are encouraged to either read up on fights or watch a video of the encounter before jumping into them for the first time, as a single player’s failure can doom a party under some circumstances, particularly in endgame content.
Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, revolves more around observing enemy behaviour and reacting accordingly. It’s less scripted and as such you can jump into anything the game offers without prior preparation being necessary, but there are still visual cues you can use and learn to understand what enemies are going to do. Enemies also have “weak points” that can be struck for significantly greater damage or special effects, whereas Final Fantasy XIV’s foes are all single targets.
One interesting contrast between the pair is that Final Fantasy XIV’s enemies have no physical presence — you can run right through them in order to get into position when required. In Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, enemies occupy the same physical space you do, and in many cases it’s possible to actually jump onto larger enemies in order to hit their weak spots; this is perhaps best seen in the “Big Varder” boss fight, which is against an enormous mechanical tank robot… thing that requires you to blow cannons off its “feet” before climbing up onto its main body to hit its core.
Progression in Final Fantasy XIV is mostly linear. You increase in class level, which unlocks new skills at various milestones. Every few levels, you replace your entire set of equipment with the appropriate one for the level you’ve reached. And at endgame, you gradually work your way through a sequence of equipment “tiers” in the hope of eventually reaching the maximum possible item level for the game in its current situation. This tends to be referred to as “vertical progression”, since there is no real deviation from the “correct” path.
Each class in Final Fantasy XIV falls into strict “holy trinity” definitions: there are tanks, who are expected to lead the party in encounters and take the brunt of the enemy attacks; there are healers, who are expected to heal and swear at the tanks profusely; and there are damage-dealer classes who get killed a lot. The game’s multiplayer content pretty much always requires an appropriately balanced lineup of representatives from all parts of the trinity: in 8-player content, that usually means one or two tanks, two healers and the rest are damage dealers.
In Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, there is a lot more flexibility. While some character classes are clearly suitable for using as tanks and healers, every one has the capability of surviving solo and of being a source of significant damage in a party situation — and there’s no set build that is 100% “correct”, so long as you can make your own personal setup work.
Each class can equip three different types of weapons, and each weapon you acquire can be upgraded by fusing it with other pieces of equipment that you don’t need. Armour (known as “Units”) has a variety of different effects and can also be upgraded, allowing you to build a character that is suitable for how you like to play them. This is known as “horizontal progression”, since there is often a lot of choice at any given moment in the game — though every so often you will want to try and obtain a higher overall “tier” of weapons.
Phantasy Star Online 2 also features a skill tree, allowing you to customise which passive and active skills your characters unlock as you gain in levels, and also features a “subclass” system, where you can use skills from a second class to complement or contrast with your main one. In other words, in Final Fantasy XIV, the levelling process is mostly about unlocking game features; in Phantasy Star Online 2, it’s about customising your character’s overall abilities and specialisms.
In both games, you can switch class at will, allowing you to try playing as a different type of character; progression for the new class starts again at level 1 in most cases (though some classes introduced later in Final Fantasy XIV’s life start at higher levels to minimise the need for grinding through old game content) meaning there’s no real need for multiple characters. Final Fantasy XIV used to feature cross-class skills, but this system was ultimately removed as it made things unnecessarily complicated, and effectively “required” players to level classes they might not be interested in to get the appropriate abilities.
Final Fantasy XIV’s content is mostly static, with new additions coming as part of the patch cycle as previously described. You run a dungeon once, it’s going to be the same every time, aside from the people you run it with.
Some variation is added to the mix through FATEs (Full Active Time Events, because Square Enix loves to name things), which are special events that occur out in the open world at semi-regular intervals, and two long randomised dungeons inspired by roguelikes, Final Fantasy Tactics’ Deep Dungeon and Tactics Ogre’s Palace of the Dead. But for the most part, Final Fantasy XIV is about becoming so familiar with existing content that you can run through it in your sleep in order to clear it efficiently and maximise your daily and/or weekly rewards in the time you have available to play.
Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, features a stronger degree of randomisation in the game as a whole. The map for each quest is randomised each time you play (albeit based on clearly recognisable “blocks” of scenery) meaning that you’ll need to explore in order to find the exit or the route to the next area, but the main variation from session to session comes in the form of “Emergency Orders” that crop up while you’re trying to accomplish your main objective.
These vary from defeating a set number of enemies in an area to defending a crashed pilot via hunting the map for specific objects and returning them to a specific location. In some memorable cases, you’ll even be tasked with attempting to communicate with a native species using the game’s emote system. They all have one thing in common, though: they keep the game lively even when running the same quest multiple times, and keep you guessing as to what you’ll have to deal with next!
Phantasy Star Online 2 also features “Urgent Quests”, which pop up at specific times each day throughout the week — different times each day in order to allow everyone a chance at them based on varying schedules — and these are updated and changed from time to time in order to keep things interesting. At the time of writing, for example, one urgent quest requires you to investigate unseasonal rainstorms in a particular area; another requires you to defend a mining base; another still requires you to fend off an incarnation of recurring series antagonists Dark Falz.
Things to do other than fighting
Final Fantasy XIV features crafting and gathering mechanics that are on a par with the battle system in terms of mechanical complexity. You are also able to hire retainers to gather items for you, purchase and customise your own house, take on optional challenges such as fulfilling a cryptic “Sightseeing Log” around the open world, rack up achievements and even participate in minigames at the casino-esque Gold Saucer.
Phantasy Star Online 2 is pretty similar in this regard: it features your own customisable quarters, an “auxiliary” retainer you can send out to do gathering missions for you, item crafting, an on-ship casino and a variety of achievement-style “missions” to accomplish. The only real difference is that Phantasy Star Online 2 lacks the “explore a static open world” aspect of Final Fantasy XIV — though it kind of makes up for this with each new quest you go on feeling like a whole new exploration.
Visually, both games are roughly on par with one another, since both Phantasy Star Online 2 and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn launched at similar times to one another — around 2012-2013 or so. In both cases, there’s a marked improvement in how things look as you progress through the game, particularly in terms of cutscenes; both games feature rather “wooden” cutscenes in their early hours, while later story content features much more impressive animations.
Music is a clear win for Final Fantasy XIV, however. While Phantasy Star Online 2’s soundtrack is solid, atmospheric, evocative of previous installments in the series (particularly the Dreamcast original Phantasy Star Online) and undoubtedly effective at what it does, the spectacular work of Masayoshi Soken on Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack — at times making it feel as much like an opera or piece of musical theatre as a video game — is, to date, completely unparalleled.
Voice-acting wise, Phantasy Star Online 2’s dub is atrocious, with actors frequently emphasising the wrong words in sentences and clearly recording lines completely without context. The Japanese voice acting is great, however. Final Fantasy XIV’s dub is not great through the original A Realm Reborn story, but got completely recast from Heavensward onwards — this is initially jarring (particularly when some characters suddenly developed regional British accents), but ultimately made for a high-quality English language voice track that fits well with the George R. R. Martin-inspired stylised dialogue.
Accessibility for newcomers
Final Fantasy XIV takes the win here, thanks to its overall structure of progressing through each expansion one at a time rather than being dumped into a hub and immediately confronted with 8 years’ worth of additions, refinements and changes to the game. The early quests in Final Fantasy XIV take the time to help you get to know your class, understand how the overall game structure works, and how to access the information you need.
Phantasy Star Online 2 does have some solid tutorial content that is very rewarding in terms of in-game items and experience points, helping new players get up to speed very easily — but you have to specifically go looking for it. It also features an admirably comprehensive in-game manual that you can refer to at any time, so there’s plenty of information to be found — it’s just a lot more immediately daunting to the new player.
As the game progresses, the situation inverts somewhat. Final Fantasy XIV starts to demand increasing amounts of perfection from its players as the mechanics of its encounters become more challenging, while once you’re over that initial hump with Phantasy Star Online 2, it’s easy to settle into a routine.
Final Fantasy XIV is in a bit of an interesting situation here, in that although it is a full-fledged MMORPG with a substantial (and popular) endgame, those who choose to engage with it primarily as a numbered installment in the Final Fantasy series by simply playing through the main story and then stopping when the credits roll will have still had 30-40 hours of solid gameplay per expansion, putting each installment in the “series” on par with a regular old offline RPG. Definitely value for money — especially if you can bang out that main story in your free month, which is eminently possible — with minimal long-term commitment required for those who don’t wish to make the game part of their lifestyle for years to come.
That said, Final Fantasy XIV does provide the option for making it a significant part of your life if you want to… and how. The top-tier raid content is extremely challenging, the fact that new content is added to the game on a regular basis keeps things interesting — and there’s always the option of challenging yourself to, say, level all the classes or get some of the more unreasonable sounding achievements and the (in-game) material rewards that come with them.
The key word is option; you don’t have to engage with that side of things if you found yourself satisfied by how the main scenario concluded — much as offline RPGs that feature robust New Game Plus or postgame content don’t demand that the player participate in this side of things if they’re satisfied with the experience they already had.
One thing to bear in mind, though: Final Fantasy XIV’s reliance on multiplayer content to “gate” progression through the main scenario at certain points means there are occasions where you will need to commit to anywhere between 20 and 60 minutes at a time for a four-player dungeon run (depending on the experience of your fellow adventurers) and anywhere from 10 minutes for a flawless clear to over an hour for a struggling party in the case of the eight-player trials and raids.
And on top of that, you need to add queue time for the game to find players who are also looking to run the thing you want to run; for damage-dealer players, of whom there are considerably more than anything else, this can mean wait times of 30-60 minutes, particularly for old content. You can do things out in the open world while queueing, but once you’re at endgame your options there are a little limited, especially if you have no interest in crafting and gathering.
Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, is eminently friendly to both short, solo sessions and protracted multiplayer excursions. A single quest can take as little as five minutes if you blast through it with AI companions, while working on some of the game’s longer-term goals with friends can easily see an hour or two flying by.
Phantasy Star Online 2’s endgame is rather less structured than Final Fantasy XIV’s. Rather than running specific endgame content, you’ll mostly be taking on high-difficulty, high-level versions of things you’ve already done — though with the randomised elements this isn’t really an issue — with a mind to farming materials, rare drops, money and the items you need to maximise your equipment’s potential.
The real endgame
In both games? Fashion, without a doubt. Final Fantasy XIV features a “glamour” system, where you can make one item of equipment look like another and put together outfits that way, and seasonal events often provide costumes specifically designed for this purpose. Phantasy Star Online 2, meanwhile, keeps fashion items separate from stat-boosting equippable items, allowing you to dress how you please for your adventures right from the outset. It also features a “Lookbook” where you can register your favourite outfits and accessories to share them with other players — and browse the outfits other players have put together too, of course.
Phantasy Star Online 2’s fashion items are easiest to acquire through spending real money on the ARKS Cash premium currency or acquiring the Star Gems currency that can be obtained slowly through gameplay, but there’s also a player-led economy where you can buy these premium items from other players just using the normal in-game currency of meseta. Be prepared to spend several million for a Hatsune Miku dress, though.
You should play Final Fantasy XIV if… you want a strong story; you enjoy playing with others at least some of the time; you prefer slower-paced combat rather than action games; you want a large world to explore; you yearn for a clear sense of obvious, vertical progression that you can’t really get “wrong”; you’re keen to sink your teeth into a substantial endgame; you want challenging encounters that demand you learn, memorise and practice their mechanics rather than just trying to muddle through; you’re a Final Fantasy fan.
You should play Phantasy Star Online 2 if… you’re primarily interested in the emergent narrative of your player journey rather than a scripted story; you’re happy to play solo or you’re anxious about playing with others; you prefer action-packed combat where timing, positioning and split-second dodging is important; you prefer smaller, self-contained adventures rather than a sprawling world; you enjoy collecting, comparing and upgrading loot; you will still enjoy collecting, comparing and upgrading loot once you reach the level cap; you enjoy setting and following through on your own goals rather than being told what to do; you’re a Phantasy Star fan.
You should play both if… you want to see two wildly different approaches to the online RPG that each represent the very best of what the subgenre has to offer.
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