All right, the answer to the last question there is pretty transparently a “no,” but let’s not derail the opening preamble here too badly. We’re considering here.
The biggest problem with evaluating any expansion at this point is that until Stormblood releases, we don’t really have a great deal of context, just the base game and what came afterward. Context matters a great deal, but it’s easy to speculate about whether Heavensward will go down as being one of the best or one of the worst expansions. But we can at least look at it in relation to the base game, and what it changed.
If there’s one theme that’s come up time and again in these review columns (and you can check them all out for yourself down below), it’s that Heavensward refined the things that already existed in the base game. That’s not to say that nothing changed, but more that many of the changes were more about a shift to a larger context rather than a big sea change. It wasn’t that Paladin got worse; it was having two other tank classes which could both deal better damage that made Paladin’s utility seem a bit less desirable. Paladin was still solid and well-designed.
When you look at the obvious point of comparison, Heavensward seems almost painfully sedate by those standards. It really does keep things astonishingly similar to the game that already existed, just fixing and improving the flow and providing a better experience all around.
The question is why that’s supposed to be a bad thing.
Heavensward very much followed the same blueprint laid out by a game that impressed the hell out of pretty much everyone, and it refined most of its weaknesses while finding new strengths. Systems that didn’t work quite as well to start with, like Hunts, got a chance to be integrated in the leveling flow from the ground up. There were missteps here and there, like leaving out leves as a leveling mechanic, but that ultimately doesn’t subtract from the focus on what the title did well.
But it also didn’t mean that the expansion went stagnant, either; there were plenty of experimental systems. Exploratory missions, Palace of the Dead, Lord of Verminion, mercenary status for PvP, the very idea of having a normal mode for Alexander – all of these things were ways to shake up the existing formula. Some of them worked better than others, and I’ve pointed out that Exploratory missions in particular took some time to get right and might arguably still not be there.
The point is that the effort was made. As each refinement to the core systems landed, another system pushed the limits of what the game could do without throwing off the existing balance. It’s almost like the developers were trying to provide more options without damaging the choices already in place, or something.
I know, I’m shocked too.
This isn’t to say it was without its flaws, of course; some of the experimental bits really didn’t land well, and the game’s persistent issues with things like housing have yet to be fixed. It also introduced a pretty bad set of number bloat, and while it’s something the game appears to have been planning on from the beginning, it’s also an issue that could compound given a little bit of time. Of course, the availability of item sync addresses that a little, but it’s still going to require another look or two before numbers get out of hand.
All the same, it was an expansion delivering what players already enjoyed in a consistent and fun fashion, and it addressed a number of the flaws from the base game to make a stronger overall experience. That’s exactly what an expansion should be doing, at least by my standards.
None of it helps much if you want the game to be wildly different from what it is, but that’s really on you at this point. From what we’ve seen publicly, Stormblood is staying the course as well, providing more of what makes the game work well without causing any massive upheavals. There will be changes, but we’ve seen nothing to indicate you can’t rest assured it’ll be mostly the same game.
I admit that part of me would be just as happy without another level cap bump, but I think that also carries with it the risk for the game becoming far too top-heavy. Final Fantasy XI managed to do just fine without a bump for quite a while, but that was a game that wound up being exceedingly top-heavy, with a lot of max-level characters and a large number of people who just… couldn’t compete. It also brought its own problems of making the top increasingly unwieldy from a design aspect.
That’s not to say that I think the game has handled its 1-50 content as best it possibly could; I’d like to see a little more relevance for these lower areas, especially when you consider that the new jobs just bypass them altogether. This expansion already had little for people not already at the level cap; Stormblood will ensure that you do have something to do if you’re level 50, but it’s still mostly about providing that new level band and endgame content.
Does it work? Yes. Would I still be happy to see some new zones filling out the middle of the game? Also yes. It doesn’t really weaken the expansion that it wasn’t there, but it’s worth noting.
Ultimately, past a certain point it becomes a matter of looking for something to complain about. I head about someone complaining that the game patches too frequently, for example. Rather than going down that road, I think it’s worth just noting that there were fields where the expansion underperformed. Not many, and not badly, and that makes all the difference.
So Heavensward was, all told, just about a perfect expansion. It did exactly what it set out to do, didn’t massively disrupt things which were already working while correcting the things which weren’t, and it also gave us a lot of new things to do besides. It had its issues, but I’m happy to see that two years after my first impressions, I’m still pretty comfortable with the evaluation.
And let’s not forget that we can’t have an Haurchefant dropped on us again.
Feedback, naturally, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I’ll have the live letter to react to, and not too long after that I’ll have more fun stuff for you to read, so keep your eyes peeled. We’re done with looking backward for the moment; now it’s time for the next installment.