Please note: This article contains very limited spoilers. As someone who loves to play blind, I don’t want to ruin dungeon names, characters, plotlines, etc. What follows is a pretty generalized discussion of the expansion, that should be safe for the majority of players, newcomers, or those considering playing the game (unless you’re wanting to go in 100% blind). Screenshots may show new areas, but will not spoil story events or characters that appear after the initial introductory quests.
I’ve written about a lot of games here at TGG, but I’ve never written about the game that’s closest to my heart – Final Fantasy XIV. Through this game, I’ve come to love the experience of playing an MMO, made friends, and jumped off the deep end into the endgame raiding grind. It’s the game that feels like home to me when I just want to relax and take a break from the world.
Why write about it now? July 2nd brought us the official release of the newest FFXIV expansion, Shadowbringers. Like a lot of eager players, I joined in the early access opening on June 28th. I’d say bright and early, but it was 5am when I joined my friends to begin our adventure. To put this in perspective, I’ve been playing FFXIV for about two years – since just before the release of Stormblood. And while I’ve enjoyed it, I didn’t feel the need to jump right into Stormblood on day one, nor have I championed the storylines outside of the FFXIV community. Shadowbringers was the first time I’ve been excited to the point that I wanted to be there the moment it was available.
And so far it has been 100% worth it. If you want a quick tl;dr, Shadowbringers is excellent – not only as a FFXIV storyline, but also as a part of the entire Final Fantasy franchise and amongst MMO storylines in general.
I don’t want to spoil any of the storylines, so I’ll stick to the very basics: Shadowbringers features a world parallel to our own familiar Eorzea. We call it the First, and it is a world facing imminent destruction – the side effect of a quest meant to save it. Summoned by the Crystal Exarch – a mysterious man on a mission to save the world and his people – you, Hydaelyn’s Champion, Hero of Eorzea, Warrior of Light…you may be the only one able to undo the tragedy.
Prior to this, Heavensward was my favourite storyline. A Realm Reborn was a bit of a slog, and while I didn’t dislike Stormblood, it was heavily entrenched in politics (not that Heavensward wasn’t, but the background story of dragons versus humans made it worthwhile), which I found to be rather unexciting from a fantasy game. It had a lot of content I enjoyed playing, but I don’t think I would have told someone to play specifically for the story. That changed with Shadowbringers, which is by far the strongest FFXIV storyline, and has been considered by several players I know to be one of the better storylines in the entirety of the Final Fantasy franchise, despite being tucked into an MMO.
Shadowbringers starts with some pretty shocking strength – even for those of us who knew how it would begin. But instead of losing that strength and wonder, it only ever keeps building upon itself. In particular, side-quests and the quests and solo duties between cutscenes get a big upgrade this time around. Every expansion has its fetch-quests, needless dialogues, and in-between running back and forth. In Shadowbringers, these quests feel more involved with the story and the culture of the world around you than ever before. Some side-quests could be a little silly, sure, but many were actually quite interesting. Even better, at no point during the story did I feel like I was being dragged from quest to useless quest just to get to my next dungeon. They were engaging, and every fetch quest (though they were few) came with dialogue, discoveries, and a point. Solo duties feel like real content, encouraging players to follow mechanics and make the best of their skills.
FFXIV also has finally embraced the dark themes that have been laced through since A Realm Reborn. All throughout our journeys in Eorzea, there’s been an unbelievable amount of tragedy and horror lurking beneath the surface – the calamities, tempering, Edda, poison, curses… We’ve been courting death, destruction, and tragedy since the game’s beginning, but never quite went all-in. Lead by Natsuko Ishikawa (who also wrote the Dark Knight class quest storyline), Shadowbringers channels not only darkness, but some true horror story vibes – all the while feeling more like a Final Fantasy game than it ever has before. Still, though it can be quite intense, the writing of Shadowbringers (at least in the English version) still has quite a bit of character – jokes, clever commentary, and references are as present as they ever have been.
As you move through the First and help its people, you uncover stories that – despite being set in a fantastical world – are heartbreakingly relatable. The people of the First have troubles both mundane and incredible. They are the remnants of broken families and a broken world. A young girl tries to pick up the pieces after her father takes his own life. A man seeks to avenge the loss of his fiance. Everywhere in the first, people are chased by their memories and the reality in which they live. It’s a setting in which – though it often may be horrific – feels rewarding to turn every stone and search every space. Meanwhile as you progress through the story, you’ll get bits and pieces of what’s happening back home.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about my favourite part without including spoilers. The final zone of Shadowbringers has an area that I’m desperate to explore more of, and I really hope is elaborated upon in future patches. The expansion brought to light some incredible things, and also brought us new mysteries to look forward to.
Content-wise, all of the dungeons are unique and leave the player immersed in the world – think along the lines of Ala Mhigo or Ghimlyt Dark. Gone is the “you’re an adventurer! Just go to this far-flung cave and hit things!” of A Realm Reborn – now you’re in the action and your dungeons are truly part of the environment. While mechanics are in no way unapproachable, there also seems to have been a bit of a difficulty adjustment. We’ve gotten new and increased mechanics, making dungeons and trials more intense and fast-paced. For some players it will be a learning curve, but it’s great to have plenty of content where mechanics matter and every role gets something to do. The areas you get to explore are vibrant and stunning – well worth your time to take screenshots in.
Also, we need to talk about the Shadowbringers OST, which is easily one of my favourite soundtracks of all-time now. Each area has a gorgeous track to accompany it, and each new map found me saying “Oh THIS is my new favourite!” It was so amazingly clear through every part of this expansion that the entire team brought their all. From compositions, to art, to story, no piece feels underwhelming. We all keep talking up the story and the music – which are undoubtedly incredible, and have more than earned their place among countless Final Fantasy titles – but so much of Shadowbringers was wonderful.
Of course, the expansion brought with it not only a new story, but several changes, including:
- Adjustments to every role and class, including a simplification of role actions, cleaning up of cross-class skills, the reduction of button-bloat, and simplification of enmity control
- Removal of the TP stat, allowing many physical attacks and AOEs to be used without limit
- Quest Sync: a system that allows the player to do Shadowbringers sidequests as any 70+ level class, adjusting experience gain to their level
- An increase in glamour dresser spaces from 200 to 400
- Class quests have been replaced with role quests for tank, healer, physical dps, and magical dps. Finishing the MSQ requires at least one role quest line to be completed.
- Two new classes: Dancer (ranged support dps) and Gunbreaker (tank)
- Two new races: Hrothgar (male-only) and Viera (female-only)
In particular, I’m loving Quest Sync, which makes side quests finally worth clearing out even if you don’t have any classes at a specific level. I also have been enjoying the changes to tanks and healers so far. Healers are punished less for doing damage between healing, while AOE healing and MP management feel much more comfortable. Outgoing damage is also higher, allowing healers to do more real healing in new content. Meanwhile, tanks now should have an easier time holding aggro – where previously each tank had a tank stance and a dps stance (with tank stance often trading mitigation improvement at the cost of the player’s damage), they now have a tank stance that increases enmity at no cost to their contribution. This enmity is fairly easily kept, especially with the ability to use physical AOEs limitlessly. While I haven’t had the chance to play all my classes yet (like most players, I’m focusing on one or two first), I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from the changes.
Granted, some players are less excited about the dark turns of the story, and others are struggling to enjoy changes made to classes that they loved. Dancer and Gunbreaker have both been very well-received, but with no new healer since Heavensward, the roles are a bit unbalanced, leading to nearly instant queues at the moment for healers and often hefty wait times for tanks and dps.
On the whole, however, Shadowbringers has clearly been a hit so far. The incredible soundtrack, overworld, and dungeons would have been enough to sell me – I’ve been playing FFXIV so far because I genuinely enjoy playing the game even though I haven’t always been engaged in the story. But the fact that the story is an incredible ride this time makes it worth recommending as well. From plot twist to plot twist, I enjoyed every part of the main story, and even watched some parts more than once. This is perhaps the first time I haven’t skipped a single cutscene, and I didn’t regret it at all.
If you’ve been considering FFXIV, now’s a great time to get into it – classes shouldn’t be changing for awhile and the world is busier than ever. FFXIV sets itself apart a little from other MMOs with details like being able to level any and all classes on one character – undoubtedly the biggest original selling point for me. Rolled a tank and don’t like it? You’ll be able to switch early on and try something new. Like both tanking and dps? You’ll have to level those classes separately, but FFXIV will let you do anything and everything.
For $60 you can get the FFXIV complete edition, which includes A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers. Beyond that, it’s a $15 monthly fee, with plenty of content to make it worthwhile and several new content patches between expansions. Not quite sold yet? FFXIV offers a free trial which will let you level jobs up to 35 before you need to pay to proceed – work at your own pace and explore a sizable chunk of the base game before you go all in. And if you decide to join us for real? I promise your journey into the First will be worth it.
Have questions about FFXIV? The FFXIV subreddit has a great daily questions thread, and you can also feel free to contact me! I’ll do my best to get back to you – this is a game I really enjoy and would love to give people a fair expectation so they can think about if it’s a good fit for them.