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FFXIV: Shadowbringers is a relentless barrage of emotional gut punches

Final Fantasy XIV could be one of the greatest MMO revival stories in gaming history. Initially released back in 2010 to a very muted response, Square Enix quite literally nuked the game from within when its archaic design choices threatened its reputation. But that didn’t stop it. A bit of management restructuring and a few more years of development time and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn rose from the ashes.

Fast-forward to 2019 and we now have Shadowbringers, the game’s third major expansion since its 2013 rebirth. I didn’t stick with the initial launch of Final Fantasy XIV after the beta proved just how problematic it would be, but I’ve been an active player since the 2.0 beta. It’s one of the last subscription-based MMOs on the market, and getting millions of players to commit to that in the face of literally hundreds of free alternatives is enough to say Square Enix has created something special.

Smooth-er beginnings

Final Fantasy XIV has been plagued with server issues many times over; from instance servers breaking down and gating much of the game’s meaningful content, to full-on DDoS attacks causing days’ (and sometimes weeks) worth of flaky connections and subsequent log-in queues. Heck, I even remember the game’s producer and director, Naoki Yoshida, sobbing on stage during the game’s initial launch party. Not through joy, but because Early Access had been ruined by servers unable to handle the rush of players.

On day two of Shadowbringers Early Access, DDoS attacks and a meltdown of the dungeon servers slightly hindered progress for those on North American servers. Despite that, many players still got to enjoy those all-important first few hours of powerful storytelling before that particular ordeal, and Square Enix has since reported that players can continue to play as normal. Worlds in North America and Japan remain “Congested”, and its has led to some extended wait times for some players, though this can be easily remedied by using the World Visit System. Despite some minor turbulence, I would say that this it’s been a fairly smooth launch as far as MMOs go.

It’s heartstring warfare

The story of Shadowbringers expectedly takes place after the events of the outgoing expansion, Stormblood. But much of the story’s main narrative stems from a short-lived saga from patch 3.1 in the Heavensward expansion before it. The “Warriors of Darkness” arrived to challenge the Warriors of Light under the impression that doing so would “restore balance” to their homeworld — one of the mirrored “shards”.

After being sent packing, the Warriors of Darkness mostly fizzled from the storyline. But the effects of their crusade are just now being revealed to us. While Final Fantasy XIV borrows names and enemies from almost every Final Fantasy game to date, it has taken most of its systems and narrative direction from Final Fantasy III.This is another fine example of that.

The rich give up their wealth to live a cushioned life in the city of Eulmore, plucking slaves from the slums beneath…

A massive part of another world was utterly wiped out by light and plagued with 100 years of endless days. This should easily put your mission into perspective. The scrambling communities that still remain are haunted by Sin Eaters, pure white beasts born of light that hunt down people to finish the job. Sin Eaters add those slain into their ranks by twisting the deceased into nightmares, enlisting people’s loved ones into the same monstrosities they spend their lives running in fear of.

Life on The First is complicated, to say the least. The rich give up their wealth to live a cushioned life in the city of Eulmore, plucking slaves from the slums beneath and casting them out when they’re unable to provide entertainment. Those elsewhere, in and around the Crystarium, strive to rebuild communities and make do with what remains.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers review

Everything in Shadowbringers can be likened to the real world in some way. Some might attribute the flood of Light to climate change, whereas others might find it bears a striking resemblance to the aftermath of a nuclear war. Eulmore’s want to write the world off and embrace its final days while those elsewhere fight to survive stricken the world with political strife. That’s where you come in.

There are times when things slow down as you chat to the locals and learn more of long-lost civilizations, but more often than not, you’re being plunged into gargantuan battles that don’t shy away from demonstrating the nightmarish reality of the threat these people have dealt with for the last century.

Being slowly presented with these harsh realities would be enough to ignite a vendetta in any adventurer. I spent 30 minutes in a mission that should only have taken 10 just because I stopped my crusade to heal no-name NPCs who were about to meet a grisly end to a Sin Eater assault. I’ve spent 5 years in the healer role, and the grim thought of letting them die was too much to bear.

Breathing life into fiction

The relatable story of Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is only accentuated its generous voice acting. It’s not only more prolific but there’s a noticeable increase to the quality of each delivered line. Each Final Fantasy XIV expansion (before patches) is about as long as your typical JRPG. Creating something substantial like that every two years while simultaneously developing and publishing major updates every few months usually meant full voice-acting got the cut.

It’s too soon to tell whether the trend with continue here, but we can at least hope they’ll bring the cast back for the scripted playable scenarios they’ve really come to embrace this time around. There’s an Indiana Jones moment with Y’shtola that’s great fun, and what came after is a scene I expect fanart to immortalize in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways.

I’m no stranger to the frisson this game’s music often instils during a tense battle or chilling scene, and there’s been no shortage of that this week.

Main characters have always been voiced in bigger cutscenes, but Shadowbringers has made an effort to voice even the most minor character so long as they have something important to say — be it a guard questioning your reason to enter their city, or a displaced refugee cautiously welcoming you to their camp. And they’re fairly diverse, too. Final Fantasy XIV started with most characters rattling off lines of Shakespearean-style early modern English, but as we’ve ventured around the world in subsequent expansions, the diversity of accents has increased as more races have been introduced.

The current cast all do a great job of navigating these difficult combinations of distant accents and classical language, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the recording sessions were a trying time for everyone involved. I’m a firm believer in what a good voice-over can add to a game, and the increased scope of what Shadowbringers offers on that front brings a smile to my face. All that’s left is for end-game raid bosses to get the same treatment for the same kind of dramatic brawls World of Warcraft players have enjoyed for years.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers review

For most, Final Fantasy XIV is all about the sights and sounds, and we’ve been spoiled by composer Masayoshi Soken’s gorgeous orchestral scores since the very beginning. Judging from his work in Shadowbringers thus far, he hasn’t slowed down at all. I’m no stranger to the frisson this game’s music often instils during a tense battle or chilling scene, and there’s been no shortage of that this week. My spine won’t stop tingling in key battles.

There are a few reused tracks here and there, mostly found in settlements, but it seems we’ve been treated to another master-class of catchy tunes. I was whistling along within minutes of reaching each new zone. I haven’t had the full tour of The First just yet, but having pushed through the Rak’Tika Greatwood, all I can say is I look forward to chopping trees to its wind ensemble and drum beats. Well, once the political friction calms down. Civilizations is one hell of a zone track, and there’s many more examples of that kind of quality sound production throughout.

Mirrors

On the exploration side of things, that’s where Shadowbringers might divide the masses over time. As a mirrored shard of our own world, what remains of The First mirrors that of Eorzea. In shape, at least. While you won’t find copy and pasted versions of its key cities, forests, and seafronts, the similarities are plain to see. Lorekeepers will be kept busy explaining the reasons behind the differences of each zone, while those less inclined to follow the world’s history might pass it off as mere recycled content.

I found The First to be a gorgeous alternate vision of a world I’ve lost myself in over the years.

I found The First to be a gorgeous alternate vision of a world I’ve lost myself in over the years. It’s stuffed full of beautiful vistas and somber ruins the game’s many avid photographers will put to good use in time. With two new playable races tossed in for good measure, the incredibly vocal roleplaying community will continue to do what they do best. The continuation of the curated Sightseeing Log turns these sights into collectibles. You won’t need to hunt them down to appreciate this new-found world and its wonders, but it’s a reason to really take them in.

We’re still a few weeks away from seeing how Shadowbringers handles end-game content, but impressions are lavishly high as they stand. Some of the class changes haven’t been quite as drastic as they sounded many months ago, but they all feel faster and more fluid than before. Even the longer cooldowns added to skills like Surecast are sure to shake up high-end battle content the same way eliminating the cost of Sprint did in the past.

Having only toyed with my main class, White Mage, I can’t say for certain how each class rework has affected its devotees. But the mumblings I’ve heard seem relatively happy save for some potential oversimplification of classes like Warrior and Astrologian. Gathering and Crafting classes are now easier than ever to level up, which could diminish the appeal of them even further.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers review

Skill charges allow a bit more freedom from strict rotations, which should allow the developers to craft fights that aren’t held back by the limitations of a specific movepool, as well. It’s too soon to say whether the predictable post-release content cycle will return, but between it’s most powerful storyline yet and the changes to the core system, there’s enough here to say Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is a solid step in the right direction.

Backed up by terrific voice-acting and improved camera techniques the team have honed over the years, Shadowbringers is finally able to deliver some truly impressive scenes that constantly have my heart racing and mind churning with theories and dread. Shadowbringers, as it stands, is a non-stop barrage of emotional gut-punches. If you thought Stormblood struggled to match the tear-jerking story of Heavensward, Shadowbringers looks set to be a real contender for the throne.

Microtransactions

For those yet to jump into Final Fantasy XIV, level boost potions and story skips are available — but at a cost. I would say that microtransactions used in this way aren’t inherently bad, but can thrust newcomers into playing with the grown-ups before they’re even fully aware of how to do their jobs.

Some might argue that level boost potions and story skips aren’t a rewarding way to play, but these can ease the transition into a new job or expansion for those that don’t have as much time to play as others.

Old and new costumes are available for the wholly devoted in Mog Station — Square’s FFXIV account management website and store  — and has been known to upset the player base, but nothing found in the store will make you more skillful at your job or help you clear the game’s most challenging content. Luckily, you don’t even need to fear intrusive ads, as the store can’t even be accessed through the game itself, but only via a browser.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers review

It would be more fair to devoted players if Square kept new costumes and mounts unlockable through gameplay, but the community (and myself) are starting to see this tactic as a necessary evil to maintain the quality content in the pipeline.

Our Take

It’s hard to say how things will feel as the main story continues in smaller updates over the next few years, but what’s on offer right now suggests Shadowbringers is the finest storyline we’ve had yet. The only thing holding it back now is a truly seamless world – and that’s more a consequence of early design limitations that can’t be undone. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy XIV yet, you’re really missing out on something special.

Is there a better alternative?

Better? No. Different? Sure. MMOs come in all kinds of flavors, and only by trying them will you find what works for you. World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online, TERA; the list goes on.

How long will it last?

Final Fantasy XIV just keeps growing. It’s predecessor, Final Fantasy XI is alive and kicking almost 20 years on. This isn’t going anywhere, and updates keep new content trickling in all the time.

Should you buy it?

Yes. Final Fantasy XIV offers thousands of hours of meaningful gameplay. Shadowbringers is just the best part of it.

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