Review - Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
Final Fantasy XIV is already a game fighting for superlatives. There are valid arguments to be made that there’s truth in each of these statements:
It’s the best Final Fantasy game.
It’s the best MMORPG.
It’s the best live game on the market.
It has the best music in the Final Fantasy series.
It has the best story of any RPG on the market.
It’s the best comeback in the history of video games.
These are all things I’ve heard hundreds of people say about FFXIV at some time or another, over the five years since FFXIV: A Realm Reborn hit the market. They’re all very bold claims that probably sound ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t been playing Square-Enix’s hit MMO.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
Final Fantasy XIV’s newest expansion, Shadowbringers, proves every one of those claims is true.
The ace up FFXIV’s sleeve has always been its focus on storytelling. It has all the leveling up, creating a character, adventuring, crafting, and mining you’d expect from an MMO game, but it also goes to great lengths to present a cohesive story. The MMO genre typically pushes plot development to the background, but the Final Fantasy series is known for having memorable (often ridiculous) stories, and XIV has continued that tradition in its two previous expansions.
Shadowbringers takes the series’ storytelling to an impressive new level. This time around, your character is unwillingly summoned to the First, an alternate dimension of the world you’ve inhabited throughout the FFXIV story so far (I’m generalizing and summarizing the complexities of the story quite a bit, so bear with me if you’re aware of those details). Nine-tenths of all life on the First has been wiped out by a cataclysmic event known as The Flood of Light, inadvertently caused by this dimension’s version of your character and his allies. An enigmatic figure known only as the Crystal Exarch has a plan to unwrite the events of history that have led to the First’s current condition, and that plan, of course, involves the Warrior of Light (that’s you) going on another adventure.
The First is a steadily dying world when you get there, and that impacts everything about its locations. The game’s writing makes sure that everyone you meet has had their life affected by the Flood. There’s a staggering breadth of ways Shadowbringers illustrates the awful condition and the pessimism of its setting, and it’s almost overwhelming at times. The story’s ominous vibes are compounded by the game’s visual presentation as well. The Flood of Light has forced every other naturally occurring element into a sort of stasis, so there’s never any weather other than blinding sunlight, even at midnight. Getting a constant visual reminder of the state of the world every time you look at the sky gives the game a depressing vibe reminiscent of Majora’s Mask.
With the story of Shadowbringers being such an important part of why this expansion is great, I don’t want to dig too deeply into it here. I can safely say, though, that it brings up difficult questions of whether it’s worth the sacrifice to be a hero. There’s a philosophical debate to be had on the topic of justifying your character’s motivations, and whether it’s right to keep charging forward in the face of opposition without considering the wider consequences. Everyone I know either cried or teared up at least once playing through the story (for me it was right after the incredible first dungeon), but I also laughed out loud multiple times. FFXIV has always had good writing, even in the earlier days when the plot wasn’t so great, but Shadowbringers steps up the dialogue in terms of both comedy and drama. Every other hour of the main story has some hilarious quotable or situation (I need answers about those goddamn beavers!) and yet, the story maintains a sense of dread and urgency throughout. Simply put, this is about as good as an RPG’s writing can get – from story, to dialogue, to item descriptions, to quest setups – and Shadowbringers is worth buying just for that alone.
Of course, with this expansion, Final Fantasy XIV reaches version 5.0 and that means lots of updates to the existing game come with this package. The quality of life improvements are too numerous for me to even list here. If I had to highlight one change, the way they handle gear as you progress is brilliant. Rather than have quests give random gear, they’ll instead give you an item box labeled with a gear level. You can open these boxes at any time, and the gear you’ll receive will match your current job. It makes sure you don’t have to stop progressing through the story to gear up for the harder content, or, for people with endgame gear from the last expansion, it makes it easy to gear up secondary jobs later. Hell, you could even just open the boxes and sell the gear. Once you reach the end of the story, the main quest line also gives you a level-80 set of job-specific gear, so you’ll have a head start getting into the endgame. They clearly thought this stuff out. As a bonus, you’ll look awesome in the ending cutscenes, too.
The more obvious additions with Shadowbringers are the new jobs and races. You can now make a male Hrothgar (essentially the Ronso from Final Fantasy X) or a female Viera (Fran’s race from Final Fantasy XII). You’ll also have the option of using a gunblade as the new tank job, Gunbreaker, or playing the new support job, Dancer. FFXIV doesn’t have racial stats or bonuses, so the race choices are purely cosmetic, but I’d recommend at least testing them out in the character creator because they have a shocking amount of customization points. Hrothgar specifically is a very welcome option, as it finally gives the game an animalistic racial archetype.
The new combat jobs start at level 60 and can be unlocked without any progress in the Shadowbringers story. Gunbreaker is an aggressive tank job with long, powerful combos (some attack sequences can string together 10 attacks or so) and some surprising defensive choices. One of their attack combos puts a shield on the user, and that shield can be given to another player. They also have a skill that puts a health regeneration effect on a chosen party member.
Dancer is the game’s first “true” support job. The dancing mechanic involves using certain abilities as “steps” and longer dances beget greater benefits. The brilliance of the system is that Dancers don’t deal meaningful damage unless they’ve set another party member as a dance partner, which causes any self-targeted buffs on the Dancer to also affect the selected ally. This means you won’t have to worry about Dancers not “doing their job” since their own damage output is tied to how much they contribute to the group.
I can’t speak to specifics of every single job (yet), but I’ve put most of my time so far into existing jobs and I’ve loved every change. Paladin remains my favorite tank job. They received some excellent refinements and some much-needed AoE damage output. Black Mage, my preferred DPS job, changed in very few ways, but the changes all make the job easier to play and dramatically increase its damage output. I’ve been describing it to friends as, “It feels like they took the shackles off.”
The core combat system is different in Shadowbringers, overall. The developers have stated they wanted each job to be better individually so that it didn’t feel like the ideal party would require people to play specific jobs. In practice, this idea seems to have taken the form of simply making every job better on its own, while leaving most of the synergistic stuff to Dancers. In addition to this, Shadowbringers continues the FFXIV expansion tradition of trimming and pruning less useful skills from each job. Therefore, it should feel like every job does more damage, yet is also smoother to play. There were some controversial changes to how healing jobs work that I have yet to experience, but I can confidently say that playing as a tank or DPS has never been this enjoyable.
As a content package, Shadowbringers meets the standards established by the previous FFXIV expansions. You’ll have about nine 4-player dungeons, 40+ hours of main story, hundreds of side quests, 17 combat jobs with the new level-80 cap and new skills, and two endgame “Extreme” bosses out of the box. The normal-difficulty raid encounters will be added to the game next week, with the savage difficulty to be added two weeks after that. Crafting and gathering jobs will also reach level 80 and have new skills and refinements. And, after all of this, the game’s trademark 3-month content cycle starts up, so you can expect the 24-player raid, further job tweaks, new 4-player dungeons, and a new endgame boss to be added by October of this year.
There are also brand-new features like the Trust system which allows you to play through 4-player dungeons by replacing human players with AI companions. They’re smart enough that this feels absolutely viable as a means of progressing through the story, yet they also have personalities that make them fallible. It’s a fun system that, like most of this expansion, is better than it needed to be. Trust makes the main Shadowbringers quest entirely playable without other people, aside from the few 8-player trials you’ll encounter throughout the story. This expansion also added New Game +, allowing you to play through FFXIV’s whole story with current gear. I haven’t touched this at all yet, because honestly, I’m having too much fun doing everything else. (CORRECTION: New Game + isn’t there at launch. According to the official patch notes, it’ll be added at patch 5.1 or later, so at least three months from now.)
After over 1,000 words, I feel like I haven’t even begun to cover Shadowbringers. It’s easy to just list out each new feature, although it’d be a really long list. The hard part is explaining why each update and addition improves the game so much. In the end, the story is what this expansion will be known for, and that on its own is enough to firmly establish FFXIV Shadowbringers as the best RPG in the Final Fantasy franchise. Combat might turn off those turn-based RPG die hards, but there’s more than enough action to appease anyone who likes fast-paced fights. The game’s skill ceiling and combat depth are still my favorite parts. I haven’t even mentioned the outstanding art direction on display. The game still has multiple breathtaking views despite running on an engine built in 2010, and there are still new attack animations that get you fighting-game-hype for pulling off certain moves. And I’ve also been quiet about the music. Final Fantasy XIV already had what I consider to be the best soundtrack in video game history, and Shadowbringers’s score is possibly the best set of tracks the game has ever added. When I mentioned having cried at a point in the story it was because of the use of music in one scene.
I rarely recommend Final Fantasy XIV simply because it is an MMORPG and that means it’s a huge time sink. It’s not grindy (you’ll need to do each combat encounter once, maybe twice, to get all the way to the end), but there’s so much story and content accumulated over the years, that it certainly requires a time commitment. On the other hand, it’s one of the best stories you’ll ever experience in a video game, and, at this point, part of what makes it good is how it uses its length as a storytelling tool. The impact of all your character’s adventures throughout the years has become a part of the world’s history.
In short, it’s hundreds of hours of game, and it’s worth every one of them. If you’ve never played FFXIV, and you like RPGs, do it. Get over the $15 monthly subscription if that’s the hold up, unless you can’t afford it. If you’re a fan of the game already and you’re on the fence about Shadowbringers, understand that the combat, music, writing, and job design are at an all-time high, so chances are anything you liked about the game is better than it ever was before. For the third time in three expansions, I find myself thinking, “I don’t know how they do it.”
Dark story with depth and existential philosophy.
Improvements to the already incredible gameplay.
The atmosphere of the new areas.
Astoundingly good soundtrack.
New races, no free item to change your race is a silly choice.
(An outstanding game with negligible flaws)
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