Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion, Shadowbringers, came out a whole month ago and if you clicked on this review, you might be wondering why the review is so late after the fact. Reviewing an MMOs is a lengthy affair, as a desire to experience the true depth and breadth of new systems, content and dungeons makes it a fairly lengthy process. But this was made much longer. Get some coffee or popcorn, I have a long tale to tell that stretches the course of a month.
For some reason, I can’t honestly remember what, after reviewing Heavensward, I never reviewed Stormblood. In my mind I always wanted to go back and play it, assuming I would do so at some point when things slowed down in my other games and hobbies. It turns out that this lull just never appeared and with Shadowbringers around the corner, I was caught by surprise.
I loaded up the game and what would you know, my quest to “return someday quiet” meant I hadn’t even done the Main Scenario Quests of post-Heavensward (I wrote about the joy of playing a game where the story is given such importance over here and how much I was enjoying myself.) Oh wow, did I have a lot to do, and the pressure I was putting on myself to get a review out as soon as possible was probably really unfair, but this is the joy of not having someone to tell you that you shouldn’t do that.
I feel like after a solid month of Final Fantasy XIV, I can’t call this a review. It should be a book-like monstrosity that details a journey as I went from feeling stressed at the enormity of the task, feeling resentful of the other games and things I was missing, to eventually rushing through everything else that wasn’t Final Fantasy XIV so that I could log in and play some more. Join me on this journey, even if you don’t play MMOs, because you might want to pay attention to this chapter of Final Fantasy.
A new world
In the build-up to Shadowbringers, things start to go awry. Your closest friends, members of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, are suffering some unknown malady. You and your friends can hear a voice calling to them, cryptic and indistinct to all but you. Sometimes when the calls come, a friend falls into a coma-like state and you are left powerless. As a hero adept at dealing with physical threats and even conquering gods, you watch as your friends slowly keel over, unhurt but also unresponsive. Eventually, you are alone at the worst possible moment and the voice finally makes sense. You are needed somewhere else to prevent a Rejoining, which would signal the start of the Eighth Umbral Calamity.
So you end up on a completely different planet, which you learn is the First. Cut off from your friends, your allies and with a war happening back home, this feels like the worst possible moment to be away. But a threat looms in this world that, if left to run its course, will devastate your home. Welcome to Norvrandt, your new home. Over here, some hundred years ago in the battle between Light and Dark, Light won and it has all but consumed the planet, ravaging it with nightmarish but angelic fiends, and a sky that never turns to night. The residents of the world refer to the Light swelling up like a massive tidal wave, and The Flood has turned 90% of the world into an unlivable, empty wasteland devoid of life and colour.
Over here, some hundred years ago in the battle between Light and Dark, Light won and it has all but consumed the planet, ravaging it with nightmarish but angelic fiends, and a sky that never turns to night.
Being in a whole new world creates a beautiful fresh canvas for the storytelling team to work on. While you are made aware at times of what is going on back home, the more immediate threat is always in Norvrandt and you can play the entire expansion without going back home. Despite a portal to allow you to move back and forth, I pretended I was stuck there until things were smoothed over. Many things are similar, but with different names. Here Kobolds are called Mord, and other such names for the various races. What makes it so interesting is how culture has adapted to survive in the harshness of a world on the brink of destruction, to resist what appears to be all but final.
Luckily you aren’t completely alone, as some old friends have found their way here, but for them, a few years have passed by. Change is apparent in all of them, the weight of a world on collapse weighing heavily on them. The foe they face seems overwhelming thanks to a terrible trick that the more powerful sin eaters can perform. The Lightwardens, the most powerful of the sin eaters, can not only turn beast and man into sin eaters but when they die, their Light explodes out into the nearest living thing, turning them into a new Lightwarden.
Fighting the Light
Each area of Norvrandt comes with its own challenges and new people to meet and help. While this also lets you reunite most of the Scions, some of the questing hubs will stay with me forever due to the stories involved. In one area you must entertain the powerful but capricious fae folk, while in another you eventually find yourself attending to and helping souls in an assisted suicide clinic, people that have been attacked by sin eaters who will eventually turn themselves live out their last days here in peace, offering a painless death before the agonising, horrible process of becoming a sin eater claims them. In another place, people have decided to party until the end comes, living in luxury while just outside the city, the poor fall over themselves hoping to win a lottery to get inside, where they will work as slaves, but not have to rely on meagre food handouts.
In each area, you have to track down clues to the location and appearance of the Lightwarden and while doing so, get involved in the troubles of these places. Whether helping a widower deal with his grief or helping a Mord chieftain connect and communicate with his son, there are so many beautiful stories to be found. That doesn’t even touch on the tales and new bonds you form with your friends. There are some NPCs I would happily do anything for because they are so precious to me now. Once you find a Lightwarden, a dungeon (duty) lies ahead with a big boss fight. Dungeons in Shadowbringers have a twist in that you can now do them as single-player experiences, taking some NPCs with you into the dungeon. This means nobody can moan that you are watching the cinematics or stopping to enjoy the great sights. Hearing what the various NPCs have to say while avoiding a queue in the Duty Finder was a perfect way to do these encounters the first time, giving you a chance to learn the fights before going into the multiplayer versions which have a bit more loot. For every Lightwarden you defeat, night returns to that region and the first time you see the night, and hear the nighttime music of a zone, I couldn’t help but pause and just drink it in.
For every Lightwarden you defeat, night returns to that region and the first time you see the night, and hear the nighttime music of a zone, I couldn’t help but pause and just drink it in.
While Final Fantasy XIV has always been celebrated for its music, the tracks in Shadowbringers were so lovely, so impactful, that I turned off the special music for mounts so that I could listen to the songs for as long as possible. Sometimes I leave the game running in an area to listen to the music and hear it change from the day to the nighttime track.
Final Fantasy XIV’s story is complex before Shadowbringers arrives, and this expansion turns things on their heads. From the first reveal trailer, there have been big lore bombs and it feels like the stakes, the cosmology and the rather enigmatic enemy group that has been manipulating things for so long has been given a lot of time to speak and show itself to you and your party, rather than the players watching cinematics and scenes of events far away that our character is completely unaware of. This is done through one of the best antagonists that Final Fantasy has seen: Emet-Selch.
This Ascian approaches you rather openly with a proposal. He is tired of the countless fights he has had with those who uphold the will of Hydaelyn and offers a chance a rather stiff ceasefire during which he can try reason with and explain things instead of using swords and muscle to solve differences. XX is clever, knowledgable and superior to a fault, looking down upon you as if you were insignificant. This starts a begrudging relationship with the enemy and through the mocking and the belittling, not only does he help at times, but he reveals a lot about the ascians and their values, ideals and goals.
It is a refreshing way of doing things, to see a scheming villain step out of the shadows and reveal so much about Ascian way of thinking and his background without it becoming a dramatic monologue during a boss fight somewhere. Emet-Selch is well realised and a villain you can relate to and almost understand his motives and reasoning, which finally gives some grounding to a group that was dramatic, enigmatic and Machiavellian. He is powerful and knowledgable and the whole time he disarms you with logic and fact, with new information or a different perspective.
Yes but, this is a lot about story stuff
With Final Fantasy XIV being so story-driven, it is easy to forget about the meaty bits of the expansion, the stuff that lets you move around in the world. Job-wise some healers have been streamlined, which has upset those who enjoyed the randomness of certain abilities. In general, though, simplification has helped more than it has hindered. Two new jobs are available, both with pretty strong fantasy and abilities. The Gunbreaker lets you live out your Final Fantasy VIII dreams and wield a gunblade, while tanking enemies for your friends. They have some great mobilty and shielding moves and I am seeing Gunbreakers in a lot of the dungeons and raids that I have done. The new DPS is the Dancer, a ranged DPS that buffs another DPS as their dance partner, whirling and twirling like a dervish, throwing out some really powerful attacks while looking great. The downside of this is that with everyone enjoying levelling up a new tank and DPS, the duty finder queues seem to be short of healers really often, something that will normalise as everyone finds their favourite playstyle as the expansion wears on.
Area wise the game follows a similar formula to previous expansions: 6 new areas to quest in, to learn how to fly in and then promptly leave again unless you clean up your quest log. The zones are beautiful and all of them had rather fun quest hubs, though I do feel that some work on adding variety to the fetch, kill and chore quests would be really appreciated.
In conclusion, for now
By the time the final battle was upon me, I was covered in goosebumps. It was 2 am before I finally reached a point that I could log off because I just had to push through and reach the conclusion of the story. It was gripping, powerful and emotional. I was shouting at my screen and sending frantic messages to friends who were still awake on Discord.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers tells a complicated, nuanced and believable story in such a meaningful and well-done manner that not only should other MMOs be looking at implementing some of these strategies and tactics, but story-driven single-player games can also learn a thing or two here.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers tells a complicated, nuanced and believable story in such a meaningful and well-done manner that not only should other MMOs be looking at implementing some of these strategies and tactics, but story-driven single-player games can also learn a thing or two here. I have found it very difficult to write about Shadowbringers because I want to play more, and I want to dive into the deep end of the lore and the feelings of some of the best moments, but I don’t want to spoil anything for those who might read this and feel inspired to play. There are massive characters I have left out that you will love and hate and remember for a long time, but there just isn’t space. If you enjoy MMOs or enjoy Final Fantasy games in general, there is a journey over here that you will not forget.