Welcome! This column is part of a regular series in which we share what members of the Tom's Guide staff are playing and enjoying right now, with an eye towards helping you find great games that you may have missed. Be sure to check out our recent entry, where we talk about Demon’s Souls.
Final Fantasy XIV makes for a pretty entertaining meme. You’ve probably heard some variation of it by now: the critically acclaimed massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Final Fantasy XIV, with its expanded free trial, and Heavensward expansion, and no restrictions on playtime. But like most memes, the FFXIV copypasta went viral for a reason. And that reason is because FFXIV is very, very good.
Tom’s Guide has already provided information on how to play Final Fantasy XIV’s free trial, but we never explained exactly why this expansive game is worth your time. (It goes without saying that it’s worth your money, since you don’t have to pay anything for the first few dozen hours.) My on-again, off-again affair with FFXIV is currently on again, and this time, it might stay that way for a while.
A Realm Reborn
First off, a little background on the game: Final Fantasy XIV is a Japanese MMORPG that takes place in the fantasy world of Eorzea. You create an adventurer and take part in a grand series of story arcs, both by yourself and with other players. There’s real-time combat, questing, crafting and all the other genre trappings you’d expect. As you advance from level 1 to level 60 (and beyond, if you pay up), you’ll learn new skills, refine your play style, complete cooperative dungeons and get to know a cast of affable non-player characters (NPCs) who aid you in your journey. It’s a little more story-driven than most MMOs, but if you’ve ever played World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic, you should find yourself right at home.
FFXIV has become one of the most popular and well-loved MMOs on the market. But what’s interesting about the game is that it seemed destined for an ignominious end from the moment it launched. When FFXIV debuted in 2010, reviewers and fans alike excoriated the game, railing against its frustrating interface, shallow gameplay and buggy design. Nothing short of a top-to-bottom overhaul could save the game — and that’s exactly what Square Enix did. The company retooled FFXIV and re-released it as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. This time around, players loved the experience, and have stuck with it for four expansions, and counting.
I started playing Final Fantasy XIV back when the COVID-19 pandemic was just getting underway. With real-life gatherings curtailed, I wanted a way to spend time with my friends and coworkers. Some of them recommended that we try FFXIV, since the cost for entry was nil, and most of us had at least a passing familiarity with the Final Fantasy series. I had expected to log on for an hour each night and use the game as, essentially, a virtual chatroom. But between the involving story and the nuanced gameplay, I found myself sticking around for hours each night, continuing to refine my skills and gear. Before I knew it, I had completed A Realm Reborn’s main story.
Although I’d had my fill of FFXIV for the moment, I didn’t bow out entirely. I continued to dabble in the game, using it for an hour or two at a time to test various gaming mice, keyboards, headsets and other peripherals. But it wasn’t until recently that I started playing again in earnest — and found myself facing a tough decision.
Time and money
There’s an old saying in the tech world that “if a product is free, then you are the product.” I’d known from the beginning that Square Enix was not giving away FFXIV’s generous trial out of the goodness of its digital heart. The company expected that I’d be hooked on the game, and willing to pay up to see the rest of the story. That gamble may be about to pay off.
The reason why I picked up FFXIV again is because I found myself unable to complete the surprisingly intricate series of quests between A Realm Reborn at the first major expansion, Heavensward. After researching the game’s difficulty spike online, I found that my gear was not sufficiently powerful, and that I’d have to run some dungeons and earn some late-game currency to compensate. Running the dungeons has knocked the rust off of my skills, and earned me the equipment that I needed. But it’s also pushed me extremely close to the free trial’s level cap.
Once I hit the level cap, I’ll have to decide whether to buy the game ($60) and a monthly subscription ($13 per month), or simply move on to another title. In terms of raw playtime, I’ve already gotten my money’s worth (so to speak) from FFXIV. But now that I’ve taken the time to build up my character, I feel invested again, in both the gameplay experience and the high fantasy story.
However, there’s also the main reason why I enjoy spending time in FFXIV — the community. I have played a fair number of MMOs in my time, and I have never found a group of players as friendly, easygoing or good-natured as the FFXIV crowd.
FFXIV pretty much requires you to run dungeons with other players in order to complete the main story. But unlike World of Warcraft, those players do not demand perfection. In one dungeon run, the whole party wiped out because our healer lost connection.
“It happens,” said our tank, lying lifeless on the dungeon floor.
I’ve lost against my share of bosses. The responses have ranged from communal laughter, to advice for the next run, to proclamations about how things could have been even worse. The harshest response I’ve gotten was mild annoyance. Eorzea is simply a much more chill place than Azeroth, or any other MMO realm I’ve ever visited.
It’s not just my opinion, either. FFXIV’s latest expansion, Endwalker, was so successful that Square Enix had to shut down all new sales of the game for a while. The servers simply couldn’t handle the number of people who wanted to play. That’s a pretty good problem to have.
In the end, I may pay up for the FFXIV subscription, and I may not. But if nothing else, I’ve learned that the meme has a point. It’s really not a bad idea to give the free trial a shot.
Next: Final Fantasy IV is one of the best games in the series and shows how tedious modern JRPGs have become.
Might just get the full version.
Nothing's stopping you from just making a second account to play an alt on the free trial. That's what I do when I want to drop in and enjoy a dungeon or two when I'm unsubscribed between content patches.