For many people, Stormblood was rather a disappointment and Heavensward was the standard for a good Final Fantasy XIV expansion. Stormblood is by no means a bad expansion, but more akin to a filler episode, no one asked for it, and you don’t miss a lot if you’re to skip the main story of the expansion. However as bad as it is, it does its job as a filler pretty well, especially in how it ends plot threads that were left hanging before Heavensward and how it transitions the story into the next expansion in its post main-quest updates. Now lo and behold, Final Fantasy XIV – Shadowbringers has come, and with it, comes new places, new fights, and new stories. And with all the marketing effort being put by Square Enix into the game, is it worthy of the hype and clamor that have been surrounding the expansion in the days following its release?
Simple answer? Yes, it is worthy.
Heavensward was previously touted as the best expansion FFXIV ever had, especially with Stormblood falling a bit short of what it could be in terms of narrative, while in terms of gameplay, Stormblood is a good leap forward. However, this time Shadowbringers have taken everything good about Heavensward and Stormblood and went full throttle with it, while also taking the shortcomings of both and fix them.
Before we go into the meat of the expansion, which is the story, let’s first have some appetizers. Let’s start with the gameplay.
……that is, if we can even play the game at all. Luckily, this time, we could go in straight away! Previously, Stormblood’s launch was pretty rocky. During its launch, even in its early access, the servers were overloaded with people attempting to log in, so much that you would have to queue behind literally thousands of people just to get in, and that’s not counting that apparently the server might have been victim to a DDoS attack. This time around, however, the game and its servers have been prepared accordingly and the only wait you have to experience was the wait to log in on day one where you would be behind thousands of players,. After you are logged in, everything is smooth as butter and you can proceed to go through the amazing main story of Shadowbringers uninterrupted, no more getting locked out of an instance like what happened back in Stormblood, also known as the infamous Raubahn’s wall (after Trumps Mexican border wall) or Raubahn Savage (after the harder difficulty raids) incident. This is thanks to the solo combat instances being put in far enough within the story that a lot of players would have taken a break before even reaching it, reducing their numbers at least by enough to not let the same thing happen.
Once you get in the game there is a lot to talk about, but the summary of it all is that similar to how Stormblood improves on the gameplay in comparison to Heavensward, Shadowbringers too, took an impressive leap forward. The dungeons are just as well crafted. It is very straightforward and linear as FFXIV dungeons have always been, but with even tighter boss and some rather creative mechanics, and the reworked jobs and classes makes everything feel new and fresh, and more challenging as well. Additionally, in the past there was some complaint of how certain roles can have difficulty in queuing into dungeons because the population of people playing the other two roles is lower or there’s not enough people playing at the time (e.g. 2 in the morning). But now that worry can noe be alleviated as the game has introduced the Trust System, a system that allows you to call on NPC characters that you meet in the story to come into the dungeon with you.
It needs to be mentioned that Final Fantasy XIV is not the first time the Trust System has been introduced, in fact it was a big hit in Final Fantasy XI. As mentioned, the trust system allows you to summon NPCs to play with you, in which the NPCs are controlled by AI. How good they are this time? I would personally say that it’s good enough. The AI will properly do the boss mechanics and fight enemies adequately, which is enough when you really do need to go into a dungeon when no other players are around to come along. However, they do come with some limitations, which includes but might not be limited to: not using AoE attacks on a large mass of mobs, not attacking when doing boss mechanics even when they can, and the tank NPCs will not move ahead of you and pull the mobs until they follow you to where it’s close enough to the mobs. It’s not the best help you can get, but it’s a choice you have when no other choices are around…………or you are feeling lazy.
Now when you get around to going in the dungeons, you can now get the feel of the job you’re using. From the feedback gathered during Stormblood, many (if not all) of the job classes have been reworked, some getting a few minor adjustments, some rebuilt from the ground up. This is something that they are doing to address the complaints in Stormblood. While yes, I might have mentioned before that while every class (other than monk) has found its niche and is at least contributes something to the party, some doesn’t ‘feel’ good. Examples include the Dragoon, which is while one of the higher damaging DPS class, doesn’t feel good to play at all simply because the entire playstyle is centered around what is basically a Super Saiyan 2 that requires too long to activate. Another example is the Ninja class, despite being the best burst damage support for the party, can be too overwhelming even for seasoned players with its relatively more massive selection of skills and cooldowns to keep track of compared to most other classes.
However now, it is apparent that many of those issues has been fixed, as many people who liked the jobs despite their shortcomings in Stormblood now went back to playing those classes; in my time going through the main quest dungeons, I found myself tanking for a party of Ninjas, Machinists, and Monks, three classes that were previously too much of a hassle to use in regular content despite their contributions to the party or especially lack thereof. Additionally I also came across Dancers, a new DPS class which is one of the two new classes that was added in this expansion. The other new class being Gunbreakers, which I also met with in segments where there are slots in the party for two tanks. These two new classes, Gunbreaker and Dancer, have been really well received by the playerbase, with Dancer apparently being a good addition as a support to raiding teams and how well it synergizes with other classes, while Gunbreaker, in addition to being a straight-up homage to Final Fantasy VIII’s Squal Leonhart and his style of Gunblade wielding, is also a fun and fast paced tank class even though apparently the class deals lesser damage and can be squishier than the other older tank classes.
And speaking of tanks, the system for tanking has now been reworked. Tanks now no longer have an offensive stance, and what was previously their defensive stance is now changed into an aggro generation mode. This makes tanking in the game a tad more easier and lets the players focus more on doing their rotation and raid positioning and whatever else they need to keep their attention on. This also in turn changes how the healers’ and DPS classes play as well, with while DPS classes wasn’t changed much, their damage output is now distinctively, though not significantly higher than before, and on the other hand healers now have to heal more intensively since there are no longer the defense bonus granted by the tanks’ defensive stance and their healing output is also distinctively higher as well.
Now previously, I was going to mention that the early consensus for Gunbreaker is that it’s not as good as the other tanks because serious raiding was not out yet when that part was written. However, now that it recently has, we simply have to talk about the new 8-man raid series: Eden. The name of the series is based on the Guardian Force (basically summon) from Final Fantasy VIII, and for my lack of knowledge about it, that’s as far as I’m gonna go to talk about the source material. But we’re here to talk about gameplay, so let’s start with the fact that, boy, Eden, compared to all the previous raid series, is on a whole other level of difficulty. It is intense and full of challenges, with a whole set of freshly designed fights that can be both callbacks and an entirely new experience at once. Mind you that at this point in the life cycle of the expansion, the harder (Savage) difficulty of the raid is not out yet and the whole deal is already half as challenging to the players. This is not a bad thing however as this encourages player to get better, with the mechanics starting to rely even less on very obvious attack markers and more on the tells on the bosses’ body language compared to all the previous expansions. However, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the rewards, and this time, everyone in the party gets something as each boss will drop 8 tokens to trade with for gear. Thanks to this, people who have really bad luck can have a chance at getting at least something from the raids, which is great for everyone.
But even with good gameplay, what does the meat of the expansion, The Story, taste like
Before we start talking about the story of Shadowbringers, there is something important to get out of the way: it is important to first temper your expectations. Not because the story is bad, it is in fact great as a lot of players can attest and the exact reasons why we will be talking about soon. But instead, it is because that the actual story isn’t what the marketing of the game implies it to be. The promotional materials of the game implies that you’re gonna be The Warrior of Darkness, and the enemies you fight are these angelic creatures that for some reason are hunting you down. From the sound of those, it is understandable to think that this will be a dark story where you (and your character) will be pushed to do succumb to the darkness to accomplish your missions of fighting a corrupt world government (that considers themselves the light side) that is also backed by the angelic creatures, being on the run from them at all times together with your NPC allies and people being killed left and right in the crossfire. The truth is…….it’s a bit less than that.
The world in the story is called Norvrandt, and it is a world that has been flooded by light and has been held off from total destruction for over 100 years, resulting in a world with eternal daytime and monsters made of light called Sin Eaters which feeds on the life force of…..well, living things. There is now only 2 major city remaining, the city of Eulmore, the one which will be hunting you down, and is somehow able to command Sin Eaters. And on the other side, the Crystarium, with its highly secretive and mysterious leader The Crystal Exarch, who have summoned you from your world to theirs to ask for your help in eliminating the Sin Eaters so the world could be saved. As mentioned above, this is certainly not something you’d quite expect from the trailers. You are still gonna be hounded by the armies of Eulmore and Sin Eaters, and people will be shown dying, eaten andmauled by Sin Eaters, and by other people as well, and when it is shown on screen, you will feel the despair and hopelessness, something you would expect in a world that is all but left to ruin. However, whenever you (as in your character) is on screen, that feeling of despair is gone and is instead somehow replaced with hope, most likely to give the feeling that you really are the world’s best and only hope……………..either that or my character just looks really cheerful. Either way, It’s a somewhat satisfying feeling as the people you’re gonna be fighting against are absolute brickheads or buffoons or both, but take that as you will in your own opinion.
Along the story you will regroup with the Scions, your NPC allies ever since the beginning of the entire game, which in the events of the updates leading up to this expansion, have been called to Norvrandt before you went on your own. This is one of the reasons why a lot of players find Shadowbringers very good, because the scions, in pretty much every expansion preceding this one, have been put into the sidelines or completely out of the picture for a majority of those expansions, and it’s a satisfying thing to finally see The Scions fully kick ass and interact as a group rather than letting you the player character do all the heavy lifting all alone while they do off-screen work, and the Trust system provides you with interesting, sometimes funny banter with them in the dungeons as well.
Additionally this is where most of the interesting parts of the story is, because the story of Shadowbringers isn’t about the fight against Sin Eaters and Eulmore, it’s about the characters, it is what made Heavensward great, and naturally it also makes Shadowbringers great. The story quickly establishes the goal that you and your Scions friends have to accomplish, which is ridding the world of Sin Eaters and by extension defeating the Eulmorean army. But as mentioned above the story is more about the characters and their dilemmas, such as Thancred not being able to accept that the Minfilia he knew is no more and that there’s a “new” Minfilia that needs his guidance to be her successor as an Oracle of Light, or the fact that your body is getting some side effects from eliminating the Sin Eaters and your friends are worried about having to resort to drastic measures in the case that you turn into one. As with the previous expansions, you can respond to their concerns via dialogue choices that are quite liberally peppered throughout the story, letting you immerse yourself in the story more even if it’s just a bit, which also makes the relationship between you and your NPC friends feel that much more natural and personal.
The above is just some of the example, there are a few more character arcs that the story goes through, and some other characters also get their subtle characterizations through dialogues in or out of cutscenes. Keyword being ‘subtle’, because the game doesn’t always directly tell you what a character is going through, it always lets you think and speculate about a lot of the points in the story that are said in throwaway lines that can easily slip from your mind. This is also one of the things that players like, because coming to your own conclusion is fun, and even when it turns out your answer is wrong…..well that’s a plot twist isn’t it? And that’s another thing that is great. There are a lot of revelations about the lore and plot, and many of them blows not only your minds but also the minds of the other characters in the game. And don’t you start thinking it’s one of those pulling-a-plot-twist-out-of-your-ass kind of plot twist, every word said by the characters, every piece of the puzzle that is your clue to solving the puzzle that is the mystery of the lore and story, they all are things that have been built up since the days of A Realm Reborn!! Talk about investment.
And that sadly brings us to the weakness of Shadowbringers’ story, it’s a story that requires investing into, it’s a story that have been built up from expansion to expansion and Shadowbringers is what it has culminated into and sadly it can’t really stand up on its own. To fully understand and enjoy the story, it requires you to go back to A Realm Reborn, not all of it, somewhere near the end is enough, but even then, it’s a long journey from A Realm Reborn to Shadowbringers and not everyone will be patient enough to slog through all that when all they want is doing raids with their buddies. With that said, you can buy the story skip to still be able to do the latest contents while also enjoying the story from the beginning when the New Game+ feature is released. Keyword being ‘when it’s released’, because at the time of this writing, it still has not been released. This is because the developers want you to enjoy the story of Shadowbringers first before letting you into the raids and other endgame content, otherwise people will rush the main story quests.
The story by itself doesn’t sound like something that is really new and notable, and that is because most likely it is. However a good steak is a good steak, and it’s not a good steak simply because it is a steak, it is good because it is well and properly dressed with seasonings, which is also what made the story of this game so good. It is put together with the best ingredients you can use to make a narrative great, it is what matters when you want to show the story in the best way possible, it is the presentation.
But before we get to how well the story and everything else is presented, let’s start with what you will see when you get to log in to the game, which is the addition of the new races, Hrothgars which is a race of burly lion people, imagine Elder Scrolls Khajits but more bulky and muscular, and Vieras bunny people not unlike the ones from Final Fantasy XII and other Final Fantasy games set in the world of Ivalice. The addition of Vieras has been planned since the days of Heavensward but it was not until now that they had the chance to add them, and boy people are delighted. Hrothgars, meanwhile, are a complete surprise for most players, and surprisingly players has taken in the addition of the race quite well despite the early receptions when it was revealed which was rather sour. This could be in part because of the Hrothgar initial wear being rather ugly, and once people customize their own Hrothgar’s apparel, it becomes at least far less of an eyesore.
And starting off, you will notice that this time, there are a whole lot more cutscenes that are voice-acted, and these are no ordinary voice acted cutscenes either, the voice acting has the quality of a mainline numbered Final Fantasy game, which it is! Even some minor characters are voiced in some cutscenes they are in. As it currently stands, Final Fantasy XIV is already going for more than just a few years, and being an MMO it could not really have cutscenes that are as flashy as even Dissidia Final Fantasy, but the voice acting really makes up for the limitation in character animation and expression. There are specially animated cutscenes yes, but they are far in-between each other and they are completely saved for the most impactful of scenes and when they do, they really don’t cut corners. The only thing not allowing it to be any better when you think it could be is the limitation of the game’s rather outdated architecture design.
Throughout the story, you will also start to notice that people of the world have been in despair and gave up of any hope of the world being saved from eternal light, and the aesthetics of the areas in the game certainly reflects this. It captures the feeling of being in a world with eternal light with no night very well, with somewhat unnatural yellow sun-ish light shining from the sky at all times, making the world not only look bland but also quite unnerving, especially to us who experience the day and night cycle normally. And this also extends to the part after you restore darkness to the world. When you have ridden the area of light, you will marvel at the beauty of some, even maybe all of the areas of the game, with the vast grassland littered with flower of Il Mheg, having been in the custody of the pixies, to the now scorching desert of Amh Araeng thanks to the place experiencing natural sunlight and thus the oasis effects that comes with the biome, and it is really awesome that this difference in vista is an integral part of the story.
But behind what you see and hear in the front, there is always something in the back that helps to make it work, and it is important to also recognize their contributions to help what it is in front, and that is to say that the soundtrack is no slouch, it is as great as every Final Fantasy music has ever been. It is as beautiful as always, and as last time we got mix of Asian and Middle-Eastern influence in Stormblood, the music now goes back into the traditional fantasy realm, with not only traditional fantasy music, but also a little rock/metal as Final Fantasy fans have known and love, there are even remixes from previous dungeons and bosses theme thrown into the mix for that hint of nostalgia. Additionally, as the Crystal Tower is a quite prominent fixture in the story, Final Fantasy III lovers will be glad that there are bits of the Final Fantasy III theme sprinkled here and there in the music. And after that, since the raid series this time around is based on the Eden Guardian Force from Final Fantasy VIII, prepare to hear Final Fantasy XIV’s rendition of Final Fantasy VIII music, which, personally, I find to be the best version of the music.
With all that said, Shadowbringers is an amazing expansion to Final Fantasy XIV. The jobs, while not perfect, are fun to play now, the story is awesome, and the music is as great as always. And with the New Game+ feature coming to it soon, you can (pay to) skip the story to get to the latest content and jump back in time to experience the story of the previous expansions while you enjoy the latest raid contents.. It is the best that Final Fantasy has ever been in a long time, and boy if you like fantasy, this will be definitely be worth your while.