Editor’s Note: Hello! You may have noticed that I’ve basically been silent for about a week now. This post was originally something I thought I could whip out in around two drafts, but, uh…nope! For the first FFXIV expansion that I really have a comprehensive view of, I wanted to go back, re-experience elements of it, and then deliver my opinions about the expansion as a whole. That took…a lot longer than I expected, and I didn’t want to do it a disservice by letting the draft die in unpublished while I wrote my 80th post about how long WoW 9.1 is taking or diverted to talking about modern pro wrestling after I watched AEW Double or Nothing 2021 the other weekend.
So now, this is done, and it is nearly 7,000 words. Yikes! I promise that I’ve tried to slim things down and fought very purposefully against my habit of summarizing lore in long paragraphs, so this is actually something of a succinct view of the expansion as a whole! I will warn that spoilers creep in at a few parts for Shadowbringers, including the most recent patch 5.55, so that’s there.
Lastly, as a programming note – I’ve got some posts in the kitchen on my experiences leveling alts in Shadowlands (I’ve been rest-rotating 8 alts, one of which has already capped, geared, and completed a Covenant campaign!), and I think I’m going to be tackling an analytical look at RPG design, spurred by some prior comments, some prior posts, and my experience this weekend running through as much Final Fantasy XV as I could. I might also herald the return of pro wrestling posting as I mentioned above, but eh…we’ll see.
So anyways, content notes aside, here’s 7,000 words about Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers!
All the content is out now and that means I feel it apt to discuss Shadowbringers.
Shadowbringers is the first Final Fantasy XIV expansion that grabbed me. There’s something magical about the level 80 expansion of both of my MMOs that really pulled me in. I would have felt sort of out of place reviewing ARR, Heavensward, or even Stormblood, because I was playing a bit and experienced some content, but Shadowbringers absolutely grabbed a hold of me unlike the prior chapters of the game.
So I want to establish the lay of the land here first. I haven’t played all content in Shadowbringers – I still haven’t done Savage raiding, I haven’t done every EX trial, I’m in-progress on the Resistance weapon but burned out on Bozja too fast, so I have little to say about it and nothing about Zadnor, I’ve done the NieR raids but not the followup weekly quest series past week 1, and I haven’t revisited the Firmament since the last patch of building.
Next up, I want to say this – I will be somewhat critical sounding in this post, and will probably get stuck on things I didn’t like or be more detailed there, as I tend to do in general. Don’t mistake it – I loved Shadowbringers. It might be my favorite MMO content of the last few years, and while I probably put more hours into WoW over that time-window, I would say I enjoyed the hours I put into FFXIV more.
That’s about all upfront – so expect a non-comprehensive review, with my subjective opinion about the content I did play, which I enjoyed but I will get hung up on particulars I didn’t like. Cool? Cool. Let’s do this.
The Leveling Experience at Launch
Leveling through the new content at launch was a treat, and I savored most of the content on offer. It is worth saying for those who don’t play FFXIV but are reading anyways that FFXIV’s questing style for level-up content can be a bit dull – it’s a lot of small drips of gameplay in a sea of story, but I found the balance in Shadowbringers to be rather good. It still isn’t as combat-oriented in that core content when compared to WoW or other MMOs, but the gameplay strikes a pretty good balance here. FFXIV uses level-gating for progress through the story pretty often, and Shadowbringers uses it as well, but the 70-80 climb had fewer points for me where I felt stuck or like I had to do a ton of grinding to get to the next milestone. Like with Stormblood before it, that point of grinding to the next quest milestone for the average player is later in – I hit that limit around level 77 or so, but it was pretty quick to move up the ladder and get things going, and after that I only maybe had some brief grinding to hit 79, which was easily done via Roulettes.
I do generally think that the level-capped model is too stringent for my liking, but Shadowbringers did almost well enough that I didn’t have standout moments of despair, with new quests locked away. It also helps that the last leveling trial and dungeon are a progression package at level 79, instead of 77 as would have fit the pattern in prior expansions. What this translates to is a sort of downward slope to the end as you round the corner on level 79 – instead of a lot of grinding up to 80 to finish the MSQ, you get quests, a dungeon, a trial, and then final followup quests all in pretty rapid succession, so there’s this feeling of momentum to it that is more satisfying than the plateaus at the 8-9 level bracket that would consume a lot of time in prior expansions.
Gameplay-wise, the leveling flow is also helped by Trusts, since you can do dungeon quests easily regardless of role or time of day, although it does take longer, so there are fewer bottlenecks where a DPS player can be stuck waiting for a queue – just run the Trust dungeon with NPCs and keep that momentum. The game offers a choice, which is great here as well – because you’re not then stuck doing just Trusts or just player groups, but instead can do both interchangeably as you go. Great! If you do get stuck, you have Hunts and Duty Roulettes available to break through experience gaps, and most veteran FFXIV players do their daily runs as they go anyways, which does help the curve. If you tried doing it through just the MSQ, you might have met with some disappointment as there would be some harder plateaus that way, but it felt like 3 days of roulettes didn’t really push me that hard up through any gaps I would have otherwise hit.
The visual diversity of the zones is excellent, and the process of defeating the Sin Eaters in each zone and restoring night to them adds this nice touch – creating a compelling impact on the world from your actions. The route through the zones is traditional FFXIV – a number of the zones have A and B sides, effectively, pushing you through them on one side to start and then revisiting the unexplored side 4-5 levels later, which is a nice feeling and does a good job of portraying a sense of danger to the later regions you explore.
Lastly, I have to say the Tempest is probably my favorite secret zone ever. It just oozes with ambience and it creates this wonderous feeling of misplaced calm, with the bigger reveal of Amaurot being icing on the cake. The music changes but keeps the same motifs, and now that we know the Moon in Endwalker comes back to this riff with yet-another take on it, it just feels like a really solid leitmotif for the Ascians and the Final Days. Just in Shadowbringers, we got 4 riffs on it – the Tempest strings version, the Amaurot sub-zone piano, the Amaurot dungeon tense version, and the use of it in To The Edge during the Warrior of Light fight in patch 5.3. Excellent, excellent stuff.
Overall, I loved the leveling process, and found it largely painless, which has not always been true of prior FFXIV content!
The Dungeons and Raids
There are two things I find true about Shadowbringers dungeon gameplay that will sound sort of contradictory, so let’s start there – I think that they are largely insubstantial bits of gameplay that scratch only a very particular itch, but there also weren’t enough.
On the first point, FFXIV dungeons have never been a focal point. They’re an appetizer, a bit of story, a focused bit of combat gameplay, and a fun aesthetic treat with the various visual kits and Soken’s masterful scoring. Once you’ve done a dungeon in FFXIV twice, you’ve more or less seen it – there’s no variety, no new routes, nothing to master. FFXIV is the king of linear dungeons, in that every single dungeon they make is the same formula – straight line to the boss x3. That itself is an evolution from the ARR model, where dungeons did have some branching or alternating paths, but 3.0 onwards – straight line express, baby. Part of the reason the Explorer mode is such a popular addition is because the dungeon’s best attributes are the look and feel, which you miss actually playing them. If you think WoW dungeons are the most “go-go-go” then you’ve never done a dungeon at max level in FFXIV, where if the tank isn’t wall-to-wall pulling all the trash, the dungeon is actually being done wrong (counterintuitively, pulling everything in a big death train is correct because it allows a tank to cycle cooldowns on a single large pull, making them more survivable then smaller pulls where the latter pulls might have all defensive options on cooldown).
Ultimately, I like that playstyle, although you may not. However, what I think we can all agree on is that dungeon content was at its smallest and least refreshed in Shadowbringers. In Heavensward, we got two new dungeons per patch, with 10 added over the lifetime of the expansion. In Stormblood, it was a pattern of 1 dungeon/2 dungeon in a two-patch window, with 7 added over the expansion. In Shadowbringers…we got 1 flat dungeon per patch, for 5 total. This matters because variety helps with the gameplay model of FFXIV dungeons, but having this model meant little variety and as a result, most people have seen all the dungeons of Shadowbringers more than they would have repeated dungeons in prior expansions, which can add to a feeling of repetition or content wear. In Heavensward, if you wanted more gear progression for an alt job, you could do two dungeons per patch and get a decently different cycle. Now, if you want to gear a job up in 5.55 via dungeons, you’re running Pagalth’an…a lot. It’s a cool dungeon and I do like it, but at the same time…anything done on repetitive loop wears thin. And unlike WoW’s model with Mythic Plus, where new affix sets make the dungeons feel different every week, Pagalth’an is…the same. The Twinning is the same. Level sync makes this even more noticeable because in a normal roulette setting, you’ll never overpower the dungeon. It reaches a saturation point of power and remains the same forever past it.
That beef aside, I found Shadowbringers to have an engaging and interesting set of dungeons, with a lot of different visual styles, boss fights, and interesting mechanics to tackle. Because of the wall-to-wall pulls the community locks into, the team at Square Enix has gotten much better at placing walls at fairly natural breakpoints in each dungeon, which serve to keep things from feeling too much like a death train rolling at full speed.
Now, on the raid encounter front, I have to admit that I have a stylistic preference for WoW’s raids. WoW’s chaotic fights tend to be more interesting to me, because it means that even week-to-week, slight variations in random targeting or raid composition can change things quite sharply. FFXIV has scripted raid fights that largely become exercises in preparing for breakpoints in the fight where you must act, then executing the strategy set forth. I don’t say that as a negative – I think it is an approach to difficulty that makes learning pulls more useful, that makes failure points more obvious, and has its own distinct challenges to meet.
Shadowbringers has raid fights that are progressively more difficult than what has come before in FFXIV, and I think that is a huge plus for it. Earlier expansions had some standout fights, but Shadowbringers has had a lot of fights where I feel a high degree of player flexibility comes into play in a good way. Titan from Eden’s Gate 4 was excellent, as one example, as the fight had a lot of mobile sections that required everyone to respond slightly differently – melee to maintain uptime, tanks to maintain control over the boss, casters and healers weaving oGCD spells and making smart use of limited movement to enable casting to continue, and ranged DPS largely getting to continue doing their rotations while moving, the lucky bastards. FFXIV has had mobile fights before, but Shadowbringers felt like it had a greater volume of these encounters and it stretched me to become better at its specific gameplay niche, even on normal mode.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Eden series, and I found E12 to be a fantastic fight on both mechanical complexity and the seamless implementation of story into the fight in a way that I found particularly novel. The whole of Eden’s Verse is a set of fights I will remember for a long time, and only partially because it is the 8-player raid content with the longest run as top of the mountain! On the trials front, I found Titania and Innocence to both be quite fun, and the Weapon trials offered via Sorrow of Werlyt were all excellent in their own ways.
As for the Alliance Raid series? Well….
Let’s Talk About YoRHA: Dark Apocalypse
I have about 5 hours into NieR: Automata and about 2 into NieR: Replicant’s recent remaster. I am not a NieR guy – I like the idea of it and want to play more, but it just has not happened. I am definitely not a Drakengard guy, although I know of the games and have one friend who definitely is those things.
I have two sort of intertwining opinions about the YDA raid series in Shadowbringers. On their own merits, the raids are great – difficult encounters relative to the difficulty level of the Alliance Raid in the game’s history, wonderfully unique and interesting settings, and strong use of the NieR style – the androids, robots, and settings all feel pretty well integrated and like they belong…mostly. The music hits so hard (I’ve listened to a lot of the version of Kaine’s theme used for Her Inflorescence) and the ability to explore the first two raid environments outside of the raid setting is pretty cool (if you can do the same for Tower at Paradigm’s Breach, I haven’t found it yet).
However, when I dropped that “mostly” above, I carved my exception for this complaint – nothing about YDA feels like Final Fantasy XIV. That is perhaps purposeful, right – it’s otherworldly, bizarre, and wholly out of place for the First, much less the rest of the game’s sprawling cosmos. This is also a problem that crept in slightly with Return to Ivalice in Stormblood – great raids, excellent design and fantastic aesthetics, but it feels like a field trip. Return to Ivalice used a framing device and setup that built the story in a way that it felt more like it belonged, at least. YDA does…not really do that. Yes, I know the dwarves kind of set things up and serve to help bridge us in, but the ending of the raid series does little to make clear how those connections to the First were made. The story of YoRHA: Dark Apocalypse instead teeters between dwarven fun-time and serious, unexplained android stuff. It never feels like a cohesive whole story integrated into the game, and instead feels like a cameo appearance of an entire franchise, with easter eggs and references that stretch back nearly two decades. And like, that’s great – that is in some ways what Final Fantasy XIV is with how it cherry-picks elements of other Final Fantasy games to integrate. However, FFXIV almost always (Return to Ivalice notwithstanding) integrates those references into the universe and story of FFXIV. The Crystal Tower is a reference to Final Fantasy III, but XIV’s version makes those references while integrating the lore of the Tower into Eorzea. The NieR stuff just isn’t meeting that mark for me. It’s there, and I like it on its own merits – but as an integrated raid series, it doesn’t give me enough of a compelling story or integration with the story of FFXIV – it is just there.
If I had played more of NieR, I’m sure I’d love it – most NieR fans I know do like it overall. But I have to look at it as part of a whole, and on that front, it fails – it points at NieR and Drakengard, says “remember those?” and if your answer is “no” then it makes no real effort to explain, contextualize, or enlighten. Fun gameplay, enjoyable raids, story was an absolute miss for me though, and in an expansion that absolutely shone on story, that is a real bummer.
Crafting and Gathering
I won’t have much to say here, because I haven’t had these jobs at level cap prior to Shadowbringers. However, what I can say is this – I think the quality of life changes made throughout Shadowbringers have kept the spirit of FFXIV’s strong tradeskill systems mostly intact while also making it more friendly to new players. The Firmament is the spearhead of this content, offering players a strong incentive to level these skills, making it almost painfully easy to do so, while still leaving reasons to enter the main world and do your gathering and crafting. That all being said, I do find that FFXIV’s crafting is still something of a slog, and while the rewards for undergoing said slog are pretty good, it does, at times, feel a bit like a drag on actual fun. The Firmament compounds this in a really bad way – by making the process focused on a few key items to craft/gather, it creates this repetitive tedium as you level. I still think that FFXIV has a pretty decent tradeskill system, and if you want actual tradeskill play, it is certainly far above WoW’s UI-based, overly simple model. But I also understand it isn’t for everyone, and I don’t have fond memories of playing in the Firmament or gathering in the Diadem, other than the feeling of satisfaction from level-capping all the jobs and knowing that the grind facing me in Endwalker is drastically less than rapidly pushing most skills from level 1 to 80.
Outside of that, I think the Crystarium trade quests meet the challenge of matching the style of the job quests, which changed to role quests for combat jobs, but it does feel like the storytelling is less-than as a result. At the same time, the job quests for Disciples of the Land/Hand weren’t always the most deep or involved, so I think the Crystalline Mean quests do a decent job of filling that gap. The stories told are interesting, focused on problems facing the First, and maintain a consistency with the rest of the game because obviously, the stories told on the Source couldn’t progress into the First, at least not without some sort of tomfoolery, and at the point you have to explain how random artisans can shift between realms where even most of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn can’t, you’re fighting a losing battle!
Combat Gameplay Balance
FFXIV is a game I’ve lauded when compared to WoW for having strong job balance, with DPS bands that feel nice, compact, and tight compared to the wide variance in performance for different specs in WoW. I do know, however, that this balance comes at a cost – there is very little choice that goes into building your character for performance even when compared to the neutered choices of WoW, so that simplicity should make balancing easier.
Throughout Shadowbringers, I feel like the team was responsive to balance issues and made a lot of course corrections to fix things. From Samurai changes early in the expansion to the retooling of the Ninja job and the redesign of elements of the Monk job, I am glad to see movement during an expansion, instead of a rebuild being pushed off to a future expansion. This is the first FFXIV expansion where I have leveled and played every job in open world, dungeon, and raid settings, and I am quite happy with how balanced things have felt. There are playstyles with higher skill floors (Black Mage comes to mind, along with the dual-combo of the Dragoon and the Greased Lighting style of Monks) but generally, things can be figured out pretty well with a basic guide and only high-end optimization awaits past the skill floor for most jobs.
With Shadowbringers, the variety of tools each job has access to has continued to grow, and every job now has some reasonably large number of situational buttons and options. OGCD weaving is the reality for more jobs and playstyles, and the Job Gauge systems continue to layer on depth to the gameplay for most jobs, with some thoughtful tweaks that shored up weak spots. As a White Mage main in Stormblood, the lilies added with the first round of the Job Gauge were awful, confusing, and just not that good. The new system is much cleaner, clearer, and gives us an overly strong AoE nuke for damage, which is a satisfying bit of kit, along with adding some good new oGCD variety to the job. Astrologian cards are a sore spot for me, because the new card system is not my favorite thing compared to the original one, but I think the buffs they offer are still pretty good and it creates a fun gameplay niche. I can’t comment on many other jobs in comparison, as I leveled most of the others to cap for the first time in Shadowbringers, but I enjoyed my time on each.
As for the new jobs? Dancer is something I really enjoyed, although the proc-heavy, RNG playstyle feels a bit too much like WoW for my taste, given how little control you can sometimes feel like you have over the play. Gunbreaker is…oh man, the reason I was hyped for Shadowbringers, and it delivered a lot of that potential. Final Fantasy VIII was my first mainline FF experience outside of childhood play on the NES that has faded from memory with time, so gunblades deliver for me in a major way. I actually find Gunbreaker probably the most fun tank in the game – the Continuation combos unlocked at level 70 offer huge depth and a lot of fun gameplay managing the rotation, while the defensive kit feels pretty well tuned with a mix of standard defensive cooldowns and rotational damage absorption/healing.
The Story, Part 1: 5.0
I’ve said a lot about Shadowbringers and its story over the last two years. However, let’s use this opportunity to summarize my feelings on the launch story and then discuss the patch content in two parts.
The launch story is one of the most emotionally resonant stories in any game I’ve ever played, much less an MMO. My easiest summary is simple – this storytelling quality transcends being an MMO-quality story (a backhanded compliment) and winds up being just a great story. It hits on strong central themes – hope in the face of hopelessness, persisting against unimaginable odds, being unsure of oneself, and then wraps up the main arc villain in strong themes of despair and hopelessness, as he tries desperately to ensure his people are remembered and their legacy is acknowledged. It is powerful stuff, full of emotionally resonant moments. At first, it doesn’t feel like we’ll succeed, and right up to the final story trial of the launch window, the game’s story keeps casting doubt at our feet.
I laughed, I cried multiple times, but I felt a distinct sense of satisfaction the late night I finished my path to first level 80 job and completed the story. Natsuko Ishikawa’s writing is superb, and the fact that she is returning to pen Endwalker’s MSQ should fill you with glee, as she has an outstanding track record in FFXIV, first with job stories and side content before tackling Shadowbringers MSQ, and all of her work is just phenomenal. In order to prepare for this post, I rewatched many of the story events of the launch content and man, I felt such a range of emotions all over again – it’s still fantastic even two years later to revisit.
Outside of the MSQ, Eden’s Gate story in 5.0 was….fine, I suppose. It wasn’t particularly great, but it sets the stage and starts ramping towards what we get later on. I do feel like it loses something from being condensed into raid content, as it only gets so much storytelling allowance to fill out and it has these layers of story it’s trying to flesh out – from the relationship with Ryne and Thancred, to the aether balance of the Empty, and then has to introduce Gaia and start to bring her into the story, but it feels like this was ill-considered. That being said, I think it would be difficult to manage without any of these elements – if you pull the Empty restoration project out of the story, the raid feels weird and unexplained, if Gaia gets more introductory exposition, the story sort of drags, and if you pull Thancred and Ryne’s heartwarming moments, the story lacks the emotional resonance it needs for later chapters. So, in the end, I don’t know how to feel – I liked it and as a whole the Eden arc definitely goes somewhere pretty good, but Eden’s Gate is trying to introduce Eden, the concept of the Empty, Gaia, the project to restore the empty, and then setting up Gaia and Ryne’s BFF routine for later, and there just isn’t enough content to really make all of that satisfying.
The Story Part 2: 5.1-5.2
The MSQ of Shadowbringers sort of drags in the time of the early patches. The focus shifts from massive, world-ending dilemmas to simple character issues, which is a strength of the cast of XIV but has to be carefully balanced to avoid feeling whiplash-y next to the huge story arc at launch. I feel like the balancing act was sort of missed here – 5.1’s MSQ feels almost too whimsical to come after the heavy themes of 5.0, while 5.2 then shifts back to ramp up towards the major arc of 5.3. I would say I was disappointed in patch 5.1’s story, because it just didn’t deliver enough of the heady mix of themes that had made Shadowbringers stand out to me, and sandwiched where it was in the story, felt too much like narrative whiplash. Patch 5.2 has an excellent story as I see it, given that it returns to many of the same themes of the base expansion arc while also weaving in new mysteries and creating this sense of dread and foreboding.
For non-MSQ story content, there isn’t much to say about the first chapter of YoRHA: Dark Apocalypse that I didn’t already say above, so I will say that the introduction was fine, but it still feels too disconnected and out of place.
Then there is Eden’s Verse, the middle arc of the raid series for the expansion. It was much better, I felt like – with the early narrativization of the Empty out of the way, the arc focuses in almost completely on the interpersonal relationships driving the story forward, establishing Ryne and Gaia as important parts of the future of the First after we leave and building their friendship to a point of tension. This is played off so well in the raid encounters (well, more accurately, E8) and it creates this great feeling that things are moving forward at a steady clip. I enjoyed this part of the Eden story a lot, probably second most after E12 (which we’ll discuss momentarily).
Lastly, we got the first part of Sorrow of Werlyt, the expansion-spanning trial series, in 5.2. Cinder Drift was an excellent trial on both difficulties, with the fight making smart use of progression checkpointing to make the EX grind a little less tedious, and to ease normal progression for story purposes. The stakes of this story are high, and in my ranty Sylvanas post, I pointed to this whole arc as one of my outright favorite redemption stories, and I still stand by that. It was excellent and there is a lot of good setup for the future in this first story chapter, because it has a clear narrative focus on Gaius and really locks that in early.
The Story Part 3: 5.3 and the Shadowbringers Conclusion
As has been typical (and will not be the case in Endwalker), the x.3 patch marked the end of the expansion story, as it serves to usher us towards the future expansion by closing the main narrative arcs of Shadowbringers.
This was also the first patch post-pandemic, and it had an elongated wait and a ton of excitement to deliver on.
I think they pulled it off.
The story of Reflections in Crystal is laser-focused on the fate of the First and our heroes making their escape from the world to return home, and it weaves these stories in and out expertly, using one to build the tension of the other. It also brings back the Ascian-heavy storytelling of the launch story to great effect, paying off one of the game’s longest-term villains in Elidibus. It does this by bringing more lore bombs front and center, codifying things the expansion has been heavy-handedly hinting at for most of the story progression about the player character’s true nature and our own relationship to the Ascians. It marks the return of Natsuko Ishikawa to the lead scenario writer role, and you can feel the shift in the story – no slight against the writers who worked on 5.1 and 5.2, but the shift in tone and depth is readily apparent because of how good Ishikawa is at her craft.
The story feels short and sweet but covers so much ground so well that time just flies by, and I think the best praise I can offer is that if you closed out the story of Final Fantasy XIV as a whole on the final cinematic of the patch (well, prior to all the Meanwhile… ones), it would be a fitting end to the game’s narrative arc, because it is just that good.
Of course, those Meanwhile scenes setup so much of what we have to be excited for in the near future, as Endwalker’s seeds are planted firmly here, and we’ve watched them grow over the last almost-year.
Side story wise, YDA has its second chapter here, and the same caveats and complaints apply from above – solid raid, interesting standalone story, no real connection to the world it’s in so meh.
The second chapter of Sorrow of Werlyt happens here, and I think it’s worth noting for two reasons – one, the non-trial trial is a lot of fun, but two – the theme and setting sort of pulls the emotional depth out of the story a little bit here. There isn’t enough investment in the characters yet to have a sort-of silly Gundam-esque distraction here, and so it feels a little tone-deaf in light of what is to come. That being said, Terncliff’s introduction brings the stakes back into focus, so the gameplay’s momentary diversion from the seriousness of the story is reined back in effectively enough to me.
The Story Part 4: 5.4, 5.5, and What’s Next
As the sprint to Endwalker starts picking up speed, we get a couple of interesting story patches. Patch 5.4 focuses in heavily on a central theme appropriate to what comes next in the story, surely – with the threat of Garlemald shrinking ever smaller thanks to our actions and the betrayals of Zenos, how will Eorzea’s people continue forward when so much of the current state of things is built on conflict, both with the Garleans directly and among the peoples of Eorzea as pushed by the Garleans and Ascians? The answers are interesting and enlightening – pirates learning an honest path forward, beast tribes unifying with the city-states that have, in their eyes, wronged them, and everyone coming to terms with how their actions in the conflicts that have forged the current Eorzea will be judged as the flames of war cool.
This is also subverted as our time feeling out peace is marred by the return of war, with Fandaniel taking the stage to stir the pot. The pacing of this is excellent to me because it has this pressurizing effect on the story, in that you feel this interesting release of tension in the early parts of 5.4 all the way up until the last moments, when new pressure is then added and the whole story is sealed tight to keep all of that pressure in.
This pressure then continues into 5.5, where the story takes the turns needed to veer towards Endwalker, as Fandaniel’s plan becomes ever clearer, our heroes request and fail to acquire help from a somewhat shocking source, and we tally up the losses suffered to fight back Fandaniel’s forces at Carteneau as everyone puts on their bravest faces to prepare for a new journey. All the while, the cutaway elements of the story reveal to us the progress Zenos has made on his ambitions of fighting us, showing us both how broken Garlemald is since his reign of terror has begun and his own personal preparations, as he takes up the scythe of the new Reaper job in order to face us.
With these last patches, we get the conclusion of both raid series for Shadowbringers. Eden’s Promise focuses heavily on Ryne and Gaia as characters, using the final bit of aether restoration to the Empty as the setup for a deeply fascinating journey through the psyche of both characters. We get to look at Ryne’s legend of Thancred and even Ranjit in her mind, while we fight against the literal erasure of Gaia’s memories in E12, one of the single most interesting fight concepts I’ve seen in any MMO, much less FFXIV. Having said that, I think the early part of the raid series is somewhat weak storywise, while much of the storytelling is loaded into the back-half of the raid chapter. However, it is hard for me to be too critical – the story told here is outstanding and I loved it both for the actual content of the story as well as the final cinematic and the overt callback to a moment from Final Fantasy VIII. Well done overall, although I think in terms of actual narrative building and clarity, I enjoyed Eden’s Verse a bit more – it’s close though.
Then there’s The Tower at Paradigm’s Breach. I…liked the raid, liked what it did, but for story, it must continue to be said, it doesn’t get slotted into the FFXIV lore in any meaningful way and so it feels very throwaway. I will say that FFXIV’s facial animation rigging allows some fantastic non-verbal storytelling to happen, and one of the fights having a genuine jumpscare moment was….well, it was certainly something. I enjoyed it! Again, I hate harping on it, because I liked the NieR raids in isolation, but I have no greater connection to the NieR story outside of FFXIV as of yet, and I just feel like the raid series made no real effort at being a part of the larger FFXIV continuity. I’m actually rather excited to see the Alliance Raid series in Endwalker be an FFXIV story, because I think that sense of belonging has been missing for two expansions now to some degree.
Then there’s Sorrow of Werlyt. These last two chapters are some of the best – Emerald Weapon is phenomenal for the storytelling that it invokes during the fight, while the whole arc in these two patches is emotionally resonant, tearful, and well-built storytelling that leans on the earlier foundation of the arc to really deliver a satisfying conclusion. As the fight against the Empire concludes in this upcoming expansion, I really hope to see Gaius have more of a role. Stormblood’s intro patches for Shadowbringers built him up quite a bit more, only for him to be sort of off to the side of the real Ascian story, and I think seeing him interact with Fandaniel, or to participate in the Pandaemonium raid series, would be excellent long-term storytelling, as it would give him that full redemption I think he should get and has earned the right to try for.
The Leftovers: Resistance Weapon, Bozja, Hunts, Etc
Lightning round time!
Resistance weapons – really burned me out on the game as a whole. I tried Bozja, hated it for its dreary aesthetic and dull gameplay, did FATES for the first chapter instead, only to find out that the option to do FATES for future chapters was dependent on you having done the Bozja story as well, meaning you still have to hit the Southern Front to grind out your Mettle, and at that point, why even have the FATE option? It’s a huge miss for me, and if I had to trace my current lack of desire to log in to the game (despite my Endwalker hype) it is absolutely Bozja. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. I haven’t gotten to do Zadnor as a result, so I have nothing to say about it one way or the other, and I will say that I also haven’t done the open dungeons (Castrum Lacus Litore, Delubrum Reginae, or the Dalriada) so I have no opinion on those either. My core feedback is simple – design a compelling zone (Eureka, for all its faults, was at least visually interesting) with good gameplay, or if you offer a second path, make sure that someone on that path won’t get sucked into doing the path they dodged in the first place anyways!
Hunts and Other Combat Gameplay – I liked Hunts, felt like there was a good sense of reward this expansion and the trains on my DC have stayed strong throughout the expansion. FATES felt fine, as usual, a decent mix of simple single-target fights and multi-spawning add fights, so no objections there.
Blue Mage – I would have broken this one out into its own section, but I think I can summarize this one quick – I like it. The nature of a Limited Job, as introduced, creates what I found to be interesting lines, and the way in which they kept the level cap creeping up at moments of the expansion where timewasting was warranted was pretty smart. I still need to level 60 to 70, but I have enjoyed the moments I spent playing BLU. The way in which it has multiple supporting content structures with the spellbook, the BLU log, the Masked Carnivale, and the smart way in which it can trivialize certain content (FATE farming for Resistance weapon stuff is pretty hilarious as BLU) all create a job that is a lot of fun to play. BLU is also probably the closest FFXIV gets to downtime content padding, as most players I know turn to BLU when they’ve met their other objectives and goals, and I think that creates really great gameplay.
In Closing – A Fantastic, Top-Tier Expansion Effort, Now Bring on The End
Shadowbringers gave me so much of what I want from an MMO experience – deep story content built on foundational lore where the two intersect in significant ways, strongly balanced combat gameplay with a variety of ways to try it out, a leveling experience that doesn’t suck, the ability to play solo or in groups to get a wide variety of goals accomplished, and a high degree of overall polish. The side-stories and patch stories have some weak points, and the expansion was marred slightly by the duration of patch 5.2 due to COVID-19 (not really the team’s fault, and their communication about it has been excellent), but it was well worth the investment of time, energy, and emotions I gave it.
As a whole, Final Fantasy XIV feels like it has hit its stride – the game has a robust community that is growing still and mostly good (I can’t excuse the patronizing use of “WoW Refugee” anytime someone tries playing it who likes WoW, it has some diehard fans – google “Scottzone FFXIV” if you need some context for how bad they can get, and sometimes the freewheeling nature of the community goes poorly – “you don’t pay for my sub” and the like being refrains you might hear more of as you get deeper), and most discussion of the game is overwhelmingly positive (although, if you’ve now read the Scottzone story…well, you might see why content creators or players don’t push too much negative discussion about the game into the wild). The way in which FFXIV has turned so completely around from that ill-fated 1.0 launch in 2010 is a fable in the games industry, and rightly so, as nothing else comes close to the degree of turnaround that FFXIV has accomplished.
Endwalker has set forward a lofty list of goals – to upend the story structure the game has used since relaunch, to conclude the lore and storytelling we’ve had from 1.0 and then to use that ending as the springboard into a new, original story, and to continue adding new ways to engage with the game, from the Island Sanctuary to yet more new jobs and a healing revamp alongside. At the same time, I think that Endwalker is going to be an interesting point in the game’s history for an external factor as well – Creative Business Unit III’s split focus between the maintenance and new content for Final Fantasy XIV while also building Final Fantasy XVI, the franchise’s single-player, next-generation debut.
However, if anyone has earned the trust of the gaming community to pull off the impossible, it is certainly Naoki Yoshida and his team at Square Enix.