Of course, it’s also difficult to evaluate expansions as they’re live, simply because you lack a certain degree of perspective. Still, Heavensward is over, and while I can’t put it in the context of the game’s overall history, I can look at it as it stands as a whole. With five major patches and a whole lot of storytelling, how was the expansion? Didi it start strong and then falter? Did it deliver what it promised? Was it fun all the way through?
The answers to those questions are complex. Fortunately, we’ve got a couple of months to examine the expansion before the next one comes out. So let’s get started with the story.
When the 2.x patch series ended, we were left with a whole lot of really involved setup. The Scions were broken, Raubahn was stuck in a dungeon, the Archons and Minfilia were missing-and-presumed, and Ishgard was less “where we’re going next” and more “the only port left in the storm.” It was an interesting setup that promised to simultaneously give us investment in Ishgard’s conflicts and force us to fight back against a lot of chaos back home.
We got half of that.
The story of Heavensward was pretty great, but the entire plotline about Ul’dah, the Scions, and the losses there was resolved more or less in the background. Worse yet, nothing really changed as a result of all that. We had a fair bit of running around to do, but by the time all was said and done everything in Ul’dah wound up more or less in the same place.
Obviously, things were a bit different for the Scions. But even there, we lacked some of the emotional connection that would have made the story really sing. Patches 3.4 and 3.5 had stories that largely focused around putting the Scions in the right places for the storyline, and partly as a result of that they wound up being the weakest patches in terms of the story. Rather than feeling organic, it felt like moving pieces around until things were set up properly.
But the flip side to all of this is the story focused around Ishgard. That was the main focus through the launch up until the end of 3.3, and that was something else.
I have some critiques here and there of the storyline as a whole, but they mostly come down to nitpicking. The story gave us heroes to root for and villains to root against, and rather appropriately for an MMO it made a point of showing how hard it is to change something that’s really rooted in culture and visceral emotion. Waving a staff and saying “we’re all friends now” doesn’t make it so.
More to the point, it asked a lot of questions while tacitly admitting that they didn’t actually have firm answers. Nidhogg isn’t wrong to be so angry and unwilling to forgive Ishgard for what was done, just like the people of Ishgard aren’t really to blame any longer for what their ancestors did without their knowledge or consent. There are no right answers, just a whole lot of bad ones.
And while Ysayle may have been right, she was also far more wrong than she knew at the same time. Which is part of her central tragedy, I suppose.
Putting the end of the main story in 3.3 was an interesting move, not just because both the end of the initial expansion and the end of 3.3 needed to work and feel like satisfactory conclusions on their own. It meant that we could, in fact, just have our conclusion and triumph for the story without requiring it to tie into the next expansion. This was a good thing for Ishgard’s story, but maybe not such a great thing for the two subsequent patches. Neither 3.4 nor 3.5 really felt as strong as the main story, even when they both used many of the same characters and continued much of the same arc.
Of course, some of that comes down to what the patch stories there were designed to do. The Warriors of Darkness wound up being a complete non-starter, showing up as major characters in two patches, never receiving any individual characterization, and then vanishing after serving as a MacGuffin and a source for a little bit of exposition about cosmology. (And rather unclear cosmology, at that.) The Griffin only slightly avoids that fate due to his real identity, and even then, it felt a bit odd to have Papalymo and Yda working with him, however little they knew.
Heck, the whole Papalymo and Yda thing felt pretty cheap all around. “Oh, yeah, we were just here and we were fine all along, we all just forgot to look for one another.” Awkward.
Does this mean the story was bad? No! Very much the opposite. The story was good; it’s just that the overall quality of the story made the weak spots stand out that much more. More so than the original, this was an expansion with a strong narrative identity that pulled through the game, and the result was a lot of investment. But when that got disrupted, even briefly, it became much easier to note that something was just plain wrong, like the story had abruptly shed all of its momentum.
Put more simply, since the 2.x series rarely focused on any one plotline or region for very long, it was easier to overlook when you veered off in random directions. Heavensward had a solid and tangible focus, which meant you noticed whenever it was yanked in another direction.
At the best moments, this expansion really did feel like the sort of plot that wold work well in a standalone Final Fantasy game, which is obvious where it was going. At its weakest moments… it still was all right, but it mostly was staying afloat through characters that are easy to like and having just enough narrative thread to keep you invested. Which makes for a good main scenario, but still one that leaves you a bit disjointed. It’s just that the good moments are so good you tend to forget about any weirdness along the way.
But that’s just the main scenario, and this particular expansion had a lot of additional side stories… which would take too long to really analyze all of them right here in this specific column. So that’s going to have to wait until the next installment as we pick apart the expansion as a whole. Until then, feel free to leave your feelings about the story or just general comments down below, or mail them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.