Imagining a Free-to-Play FFXIV: Eorzea Without Commitment

Final Fantasy XIV is not a free-to-play game. Beyond the cost of the base game itself, which is currently $19.99, there’s also a recurring subscription fee of at least $12.99 a month.

Unless, of course, you take advantage of the game’s exceedingly generous free trial, in which case you get access to that entire base game (A Realm Reborn and the first expansion, Heavensward) with just a few inconvenient restrictions, almost all of which have to do with the sort of intrusive capitalism that I come to fantasy MMORPGs to avoid.

In the free trial, you can do all the quests, all the crafting, all the available jobs from those two games, and level all the way to 60. The only thing missing is the timer, that unfriendly reminder that if you don’t finish all the content this month (and want to), you’ll have to reup.

My approach to this sort of transaction is not dissimilar to that of getting a gym membership. The difference is that while paying a monthly fee is a sometimes necessary financial incentive for those opposed to exercising, it is an unhealthy one when it comes to gaming. It transforms an activity that should ideally be fun into a constant financial transaction, souring it.

A monthly fee makes an activity that should be fun into a constant financial transaction, souring it.

As a free-to-play experience, the grind isn’t as noticeable, because it’s at my own pace. I never feel compelled to rush, because I’ve removed that invisible incentive to do so. I can’t imagine ever completing a Relic weapon under the confines of a subscription, brutally checking and rechecking spreadsheets and external sources to find the most efficient ways to accomplish FATEs or dungeons. Adding a subscription’s deadline alchemizes a joyful pastime into deliberate work.

The limitations of the free trial also shift the way in which players must engage with the game, which is to say: by becoming more significantly immersed. There are no shortcuts in this version; you can’t pay people to gather resources for you, or simply purchase the final HQ result. As a result, you’re more invested in what you’re actually doing: you come to understand not the economic forces but the level of detail that goes into how each item is crafted: how it works, where it comes from. The geography of the land takes on that much more detail. It’s no longer just a collection of pretty landmarks, but also a geological and ecological one as well. You get a sense of what it must be like, even to be a creature living amongst these resources, or a fish amongst the clouds, dunes, or aether.

The limitations of the free trial shift the way in which players engage with the game: they make it more immersive.

Restrictions on inventory space (no retainers) and a monetary cap of 300,000 gil also turn crafting into even more of an efficiency puzzle, for those who like those types of things. You learn to gather just enough for what you want to do while you’re there, so you don’t have to make return trips, and then also craft things as quickly as possible so that you can get the items out of your inventory and into (usually) your glamour chest. And because you can’t take that money with you, you actually contribute a lot more to the world’s economy. You splurge on the fancy beast-quest mounts. You buy up frilly shoes in Ul’Dah, not because they’re useful, but because you’re at the cap and can desynthesize them for the Demimateria III you need to craft items for Master Tomes.

I’m perfectly fine spending money on Final Fantasy XIV; in fact, I want to support the game’s active and continued development. But I’d feel healthier about an option that allowed me to eschew the monthly fee and just pay per expansion, treating the portions of patches that aren’t global like add-on DLC, much like the free trial currently blocks off certain quests that I don’t have the necessary content unlocked for. Maybe gate certain cosmetic functions, like housing, behind a premium monthly membership (similar to what Plus does for Dota 2), or continue to keep certain PvE functions like the Party Finder off-limits, though I’d say that the game would be better overall if Free Company (guilds) could still function without everyone being a subscriber, since the end-game raids are largely impossible with random pick-up groups.

Recurring payments encourage binging, and if that’s how you want your content consumed, go for it. If you’re switching between platforms each month, whether that’s All Access, Apple TV, Peacock, Hulu or World of Warcraft and FFXIV, you’re incentivizing–in some players–an unnatural rush. I don’t want yet another form of monthly rent that, to some degree, dictates what I do in that time. I don’t want to feel as if I’m working in a video game to “earn” free playtime or to justify the money I’m spending. The latest patch of FFXIV has added an Explorer Mode that lets players do exactly that: take it easy, running through completed dungeons with photo mode on and enemies off. I suggest maybe the next step would be to add a permanent “Free” Mode that lets users similarly chill.

First Drafts: “Mobius”

Game jams and indie sites are filled with novel concepts that could sometimes use a bit more fleshing out. This off-and-on feature aims to highlight great concepts that we hope we haven’t seen the last of.

I’m beyond delighted to learn that Adam Pype (@adampi) is working on Shovel Knight Dig, but I really hope he at some point returns to Mobius, because this is a really fun concept that deserves to be fleshed out. Still, even as a pared-down experimental platformer, there’s a good progression to the journey.

Things begin simply enough with just a circle, getting you used to navigating this wrap-around space, but soon enough, you’re able to “twist” the circle, creating a mobius strip that you must rotate with one hand while leaping about it with the other. The coin-collecting’s just there to force you to full explore both sides of these strips, and to figure out how to additionally manipulate them by shrinking or growing the bands to alter how the various points connect with one another. It’s actually the game’s weakest design, particularly once timed blue coins appear. These are not the sort of environments you want to have to rush through, especially with these heavy jumps and instant-death spikes, which also makes the two boss “fights” more irksome than anything else.

Not enough has been done with perspective-shifting platforming. There’s Fez, perhaps, and plenty of puzzle games like Monument Valley, but mainstays like Super Mario Odyssey have only toyed with what it might be like to have a 2D Mario navigate three-dimensional murals, and other indies like VVVVV and Dandara have only really messed with a player’s orientation. Mobius goes round and round without spinning in place, ultimately going so far as to introduce two concentric strips at once, which players can leap between like some impossible, dizzying mobile. More of this, please!

No Refunds: “Greedfall”

Seen it before, done it before, irritated again.

Honestly, the constraints of this “No Refunds” column isn’t ideal for discussing a lengthy RPG; the first two hours of most are often bogged down by all the expositive world-building and tutorials, and reading through a skill tree doesn’t properly convey how the game will actually play out once you start getting enough depth to actually choose not only how to tackle enemies in combat but how to work your way through missions.

Then again, in a glutted market, maybe it is ideal. Playing through Greedfall, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d played this exact game before, or if not this game, then a game very similar to it. I found myself thinking about first dates and missed opportunities and how it’s true that you only ever get one chance to make a first impression. Greedfall might not be a bad game once players leave the small, grey quadrant of Serene with its decidedly un-bustling docks and lazy architecture, such that the Coin Guard’s barracks, the local tavern, and a rich family’s home all have interchangeable and unmemorable facades. But it feels safe to say that Greedfall will never be a great game, only a serviceable one.

Take, for instance, the prologue. Each of the three side missions introduces you to a key faction: the nautical Nauts (get it?), who use some sort of sworn magic to calm the seas; the Bridge Alliance, who are essentially a consortium of science-leaning nations; and those from the religious nation of Theleme. As is customary, you’re given the “choice” of how to resolve the favors they ask of you, but this isn’t The Witcher, where figuring out who to side with is difficult. Sure, that rogue alchemist might have first been turned against by his own people in the Bridge Alliance, but he’s actively lying to and experimenting the innocent, desperate people he’s swindling with his false panacea. Those heretics that the Cardinal from Theleme has asked you to hunt down? There’s no doubt that they’re telling the truth about being persecuted because they uncovered the truth about some of the church’s doctrines, and you’d be heartless to turn them in.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Your agency is an illusion, and there’s no penalty for being “good” given that you can just lie to the quest-givers if you still want that reputation bump. You can still work with them, at least in the prologue, even if you betray them. It’s hard to tell what the consequences may eventually be, but harder still, given the low-stakes writing, to care. Greedfall, even in its best scenario, is simly cribbing from history and fairy tales, regurgitating the familiar as a comfort to those who need to idle away their time in a fantasy RPG before idling their time away in the next fantasy RPG before . . . . Well, you get the idea.

Many games compensate for a familiar setting or story by trying to accomplish something with the combat; not so with Greedfall. At best, it’s the tactical pausing of Dragon Age mixed with the annoying bosses of Dark Souls, but without any of the deeper world-building or specific design of either game. That first boss, a massive wolf-like thing with tree-tendrils coming out of it (a trope most recently seen in Remnant: From the Ashes), is imbalanced in all the worst ways. It can kill you in two or three hits, often chaining attacks on you while down; the dodging is imprecise and parrying ineffective; and for all that, if you compulsively loot all the glowing crates you stumble upon and have lockpicking, you’ll probably have dozens of bullets by this point and can simply shoot it without a second thought.

“Look,” says Greedfall, of the choice between climbing an unguarded ladder or fighting through a throng of sailor guards, “We gave you options!” If that’s the metric for unequal decisions here, might I suggest one more? Play something else.

It feels safe to say that Greedfall will never be a great game, only a serviceable one.

Discourse: Leveling Up Empathy

The big stories this week surrounded the toxicity of the community responding to one critics report of epileptic triggers in Cyberpunk 2077 that resulted in a grand mal seizure and the choice to publish a well-intentioned but somewhat tone-deaf piece about how to handle exploitative mechanics in Genshin Impact. What the two have in common at their most outraged responses is this idea that if there’s a problem that I don’t share, the issue is entirely yours. I think the only reason why people are coming together to mock the horrible load-in renderings of Cyberpunk 2077 on last-gen consoles, particularly the base PS4/XB1, is because not enough people have adapted yet, so their problem can’t simply be waved away as a matter of not being rich or savvy enough to upgrade.

The problem, of course, is humanity’s collective lack of empathy, a thing already exacerbated by competition in games, where one person receiving something that helps to “level” the field somehow takes away from another person, even in single games. We’ve heard this all too often, most recently with the idea of offering accessibility options or difficulty modifiers to FromSoftware games like Sekiro, so that everyone can enjoy the design and story, regardless of skill. They argue that the struggle is necessary for the gameplay, missing entirely the point that for those who have accessibility issues, the game they’re playing is actually several times harder than intended.

But that feeble defense makes even less sense when applied to Cyberpunk 2077. Who would actually advocate in favor of game design that causes a percentage of the population, however small (and it’s likely bigger than you think), to have a medical response? It’s easy to say that the epilepsy warning is there, and someone who develops a photosensitive response just shouldn’t play the game, at least so long as it isn’t affecting you. But now imagine that you’re allergic to bees, and every time you tweet something negative, there’s a chance a bee will sting you. Should we just collectively dismiss your concerns that you’re unable to fully utilize Twitter because of the constant risk of anaphylactic shock? Should we just point to the warning in the Terms of Service that note these side effects?

But now imagine that you’re allergic to bees, and every time you tweet something negative, there’s a chance a bee will sting you.

The issue, having been identified by users of Cyberpunk 2077, should be reportable and patched, like any other bug–like, say, a bee–and until then, there should be a clear warning communicated by the manufacturer, just as we do for almost all of the things legally sold in this country. Nobody’s saying that Cyberpunk 2077 needs additional delays–this need not affect you. You just need to stay out of the way of criticizing those who request an option to, say, skip or reduce certain problematic effects.

The issue with Genshin Impact is similar. It’s easy to say that you, personally, were able to enjoy a gatcha game by learning to set limits. Congratulations: you are not an addict. If an addict could walk into a casino and gamble only as much money as they could reasonably afford to lose, or order just a single drink, they wouldn’t be an addict. The trick is to make sure that the advice you’re giving can be followed by everyone or, if it can’t, to make it clear who you are communicating to. There’s value in the Waypoint article for people who want reassurance that they can enjoy Genshin Impact without paying to win, or for tips on how some people have found pleasure in the free-to-play model. But we need to have empathy for those who don’t, and when we see someone preying on others, whether it’s a person or a game, we ought to speak up even if it may not directly affect us.

Now, you might argue that if Genshin Impact didn’t prey upon whales, you wouldn’t be able to get a game of that quality for free, but that’s a selfish response. It’s the same response given by the people who scalp PS5s, justifying it by how it puts food on the table for the sellers, or by me hypothetically dealing crack to thirteen-year-olds. You can simply give people a list of advice about how to avoid criminals or dangerous situations, but better still would be to improve those situations.

Nothing gets better until we first acknowledge that there’s a problem.

But as we’ve seen from America in 2020, nothing gets better until we first acknowledge that there’s a problem, whether it’s your problem or not. And here’s the craziest thing: it costs you nothing to make this concession. That is, it costs you even less than the nothing it costs to recognize another person’s name, identity, marriage, sexuality, etc., because none of these things have any impact on your ability to “play the game” that we call life (or Cyberpunk 2077). And if you can’t muster up the ability to respectfully consider, with empathy, where another person is coming from, at the very least, get out of their way: so play we all.

No Refunds: “Call of the Sea”

After exactly two hours and one minute, I was in need of a break on a particularly frustrating puzzle in Chapter 3, but this Myst-like first-person puzzler (with hints of Polynesia and Lovecraft) has me curious for more.

I want to drown Norah Everhart, the adventurous protagonist of Call of the Sea. Over these next few hours, she just won’t shut up, providing dulling context for each item she stumbles across. For a game that provides very little signposting for where or what its enigmas are, there’s a lot of talking, which separates this from better first-person puzzlers that know when to get out of the way.

The one place where Norah’s chattiness works is in the context of the various puzzles scattered across the island. She industriously copies down all of the relevant clues into her journal, using a (poorly designed) foresight to put them in the most helpful layout, regardless of when they’re found. To wit, if she starts sketching totem orientations, she’ll put the first one you find in the right spot, even if that means leaving weird blank spaces on the page.

This doesn’t mechanically make sense, but it is convenient, especially given how tenuous some connections are. Additionally, since each of the first three chapters gets larger in scope–a jungle trail, a campsite at the base of a temple, a beached ship and the surrounding cliffs–it’s nice to be able to see that a clue is clearly missing. (You’re also free to solve without the journal if you want a “pure” experience, but considering that many old adventure games were designed to get you to call a pay-per-minute help line, it’s nice to have some built-in help.)

My love-hate relationship with Call of the Sea persisted throughout these opening chapters: Norah moves too slowly, even while sprinting (and especially climbing ladders), and objects can be difficult to interact with, especially with a controller. All the aforementioned ‘splaining she does. And yet, drowning her out, there are some nice, albeit familiar, details about an insanity gradually washing over the crew, and the design of these ancient devices, especially a massive organic organ powered by valves chiseled into tidepools, is quite Myst-like, in the best possible sense. The cartoonish palette also does a nice job of evoking a pulpy comic from the ’30s: bright and colorful, but with hints of danger.

I’m not feeling the same compulsion that Norah has to dive back into Call of the Sea, and I’m not satisfied by how inexact some of the puzzles are, like one that involves slightly tweaking the placement of differently sized blobs on a lens. But I do enjoy the overall environment, so I’ll be back, eventually.

  • Developer: Out of the Blue
  • Publisher: Raw Fury
  • Platform: PC* (Currently on Xbox Game Pass)
  • Release Date: December 8, 2020

No Refunds: “Monster Sanctuary”

Consensus: After exactly two hours and one minute, it was hard for me to stop playing this game, midway through the second dungeon, the Blue Caves. I’ll be coming back to this one for sure.

Release Date: 12/8

Platform: PC* (*Available on XBOX Game Pass)

Developer: Moi Rai Games

Publisher: Team17 Digital

I might be biased because of my love of all things platformer, especially those with gorgeous pixel art, but combining turn-based RPG combat, Pokemon-like monster collecting, and the so-called Metroidvania style turns out to work exceedingly well.

The game essentially hooks you four different ways. First, there’s the exploration, with each monster type serving to give you new ways to cut or burn through vines, smash through walls, press down plates, activate elemental orbs, or otherwise navigate the environment. Second, there’s the monster taming, with each type having a robust skill tree with a variety of branches to level up depending on whether you’re using them to heal, support, or damage foes. Third, there’s the optional theorycrafting, where you can tweak a monster’s diet and its weapons and accessories to maximize the output on passives that work in conjunction with crits or maximum HP. And finally, there’s the combat itself, which ranks each battle based on how well you chain together combos, utilize debuffs and damage over time, and minimize incoming attacks.

It speaks to these strengths of Monster Sanctuary that the absence of a story–little more than an extended tutorial in these first two hours–isn’t bothersome. And it’s encouraging that each zone has enough variety of monsters to keep the constant battling for new eggs (i.e., hatchable recruits) from feeling like a grind. “Sanctuary” may be in the title, but this game doesn’t feel safe; here’s hoping it holds up.

One Life: Spider-Man: Miles Morales

I grew up in New York City, which is a blessing and curse when it comes to media. You always feel represented–New York is nothing if not ubiquitous–but you also never quite feel seen, because what you’re seeing reflected through the screen is a glossy, exaggerated mash-up of themes that are always in service to something else. We’re the perfectly anodyne city for Grand Theft Auto IV to dump every urban satire atop. In Spider-Man, we’re a perfectly compressed open world that’s the right height to web around in.

For the most part, Spider-Man: Miles Morales treats New York City as more of the same; a backdrop for big exciting chases. But by making Miles Morales such a creature of the city, and then having the decency to actually tell his story, Insomniac Games gets one thing truly right, and that’s the way it sounds. Miles is intimately, inextricably linked to music, and hearing things through his eyes allow us to better understand both him and the city. It’s one of those small, significant details that I wish more games, especially open-world ones, would invest in.

Here, the gameplay reflects Miles’s development in a series of Sound Sample side quests, where Miles is tasked with listening to a variety of objects in a small area–like a bustling Chinatown street, the slushing regularity of the harbor, or the industriousness of a local fire department. Beat by beat, you learn how to put the city together, until at last using a mix of all the city’s “melodies” to unlock a snazzy new suit. But make no mistake, the reward is in the way it gets you to slow down and actually consider the city and the people in it. It’s one of the most lived-in moments of 2020, and I can’t praise it enough.

No Refunds: “Unto the End”

A clangy cross between the gameplay of Dark Souls and the visual aesthetic of Flashback, the Viking-like Unto the End is a brooding, deliberate game that I have absolutely no interest in.

This isn’t a bad game, but it’s a sparse and derivative one, with no real way to distinguish itself or draw any but the most hardcore of players into its world. You are simply a red-headed warrior, sent off with a lock of your wife’s hair to . . . do something? Something that requires you to go into a series of dark caverns and slay monsters for keys?

It’s not as if I didn’t try to play by Unto the End‘s rules so much as I just didn’t understand them.

I’ve never really understood why impenetrability is deemed an asset for games, especially in a linear title like this one. I enjoyed, at first, realizing that not all creatures were hostile, and that you could, in fact trade your four key crafting components. Until, that is, I realized that I was just trading in a loop. My herbs became bones, my bones became leather, my leather became sticks, and back again. I had no idea how many I’d get, or what I’d need, which was more or less the theme of the entire game. As a result, I abandoned most of the game’s already limited mechanics, brute-forcing my way through encounters that were designed to be carefully studied and parried through but which were more often than not just frustratingly slow showdowns.

It’s not as if I didn’t try to play by Unto the End‘s rules so much as I just didn’t understand them. At first, I kept rolling around an angry Yeti’s feet, trying to figure out the right timing with which to stabby-stab him to death. A half-hour later, I simply fled his slightly larger cousin, a wendigo-like behemoth that kept trying to bludgeon me with a deer’s corpse. The game had failed to communicate whether there were unique items I was passing up, or if the struggle was just for generic crafting gear, irrelevant since if I wasn’t fighting, I had no need to upgrade my armor or brew health tonics.

It also didn’t help that the game kept repeating itself. Perhaps there’s some twist a bit later, but the first two hours I spent were spelunking through identically dark caverns and snowy fields, hacking away at the same blurry grey cryptids. The only adjustments necessary were based on how many of them swarmed me at once, or which weapons they used, none of which was relevant if I could just run along to the next objective.

Unto the End also suffers from a glaring dissonance: it demands that you pay close attention to enemies so that you can defend them appropriately by blocking up or down, rolling away, or ducking. But it plunges most of these encounters into poorly lit areas, and fills them with multiple foes at a time. I was already in search of a reason to keep pushing on in the first place; now I was also trying to find a reason to focus on the combat.

After two hours and one minute, exactly, I happily quit. Nothing beyond my own stubborn ego had compelled me this far, and nothing was going to lure me back.