Of course, the picture that it pains thus far also isn’t a pretty one, and there are a whole lot of question marks without solid answers. That’s part of the nature of this exercise. So let’s take a look at what we’ve learned from patch 4.3 and both what has gone said and gone unsaid. Fair warning, if it wasn’t obvious from context alone, there will be unmarked spoilers below. If you haven’t finished the story, you may wish to look away or resign yourself to spoiling.
The biggest question mark hanging over people’s heads, of course, is who the heck Shadowhunter is supposed to be. There’s nothing technically saying he has to be anyone we know, of course, but the narrative strongly implies it; if his real identity wasn’t someone we know about, revealing it would mean very little to the audience. Fan speculation, however, casts him as Gaius van Baelsar, the arguable big bad of the main relaunch arc.
I think that seems pretty likely, in all honesty. While we last saw Gaius in a state that would imply death was imminent, the game has at this point made it very clear that “probably dead” does not have to mean “dead” by any means. It’s much more acceptable when we’ve seen that ambiguity made explicit in the form of Gosetsu and Yotsuyu’s survival.
More to the point, it’s pushing us away from the Empire.
One of the most interesting things that I personally saw about the little “coda” with Alphinaud is just how clear it made the dangers of dealing with the Empire. We have, up to this point, been winning most of our engagements with Garlemald, but it’s wrong to think as a result that Eorzea (and Doma) is actually capable of standing up to the full might of the nation just yet. The only way that anyone survived the sneak attack was due to intervention and luck, and even then it was important that everyone vanish well before the full might of the Empire arrived.
In other words, trying to attack head-on now would be a fool’s errand. It still seems like the Empire’s inability to defend Doma and Ala Mhigo comes less from an inability to do so, and more from a lack of desire. It would cost resources that aren’t worth the expenditure. Losing those two outlying territories seems like a calculated sacrifice.
So where do we go? It seems like we’re going to be hunting the Ascians with more intensity, because they’re playing their hand with more intensity, and the Empire and the Ascians do not have the same goals at their core. What’s interesting to me is that we know there’s an Ascian behind Zenos now, but we still don’t know who Elidibus is… but the emperor does.
Interestingly enough, we do know that while Elidibus could conceivably be Gaius van Baelsar, if that’s who Shadowhunter is, he can’t be. We’ve seen the lower half of Elidibus’ face, and they can’t be the same person. Which means that Elidibus as well is someone we probably know (or at least know of) that can’t be the obvious suspects.
Our actual next destination is still unclear, then, but the core of our next destination seems fairly obvious. We need to learn more about the Ascians, because so long as they’re behind the Empire it’s going to be intensely difficult to get any closer. Their influence is stretching pretty far at this point, but it’s always in subtle ways, speaking to the difficulty of hunting them. We’ve managed to kill three of them, but that’s just inspired the remaining ones to get smarter; we haven’t had a direct shot at an Ascian since Lahabrea and Igeyorhm made their ill-advised assault.
All of this does rather support the idea that Gaius is our new eleventh-hour ally. After all, he’s the only high-ranking Garlean who has some knowledge of what the Ascians actually want. Lahabrea tipped his hand to Gaius on the expectation that he would be too dead to act on that knowledge; the Emperor, it seems clear, still believes that the Ascians are helping him safeguard the world from the Primals rather than facilitating them.
Obviously, my speculation about what had happened to Zenos didn’t come to pass. Ah, well.
What we really needed for this patch were more moving pieces, and that’s honestly what we’ve gotten. It’s not clear at this point where the story is going to go next, but it seems like the next two patches can focus more on clearing things up and giving us our next expansion direction, because we’ve now got more mysteries to resolve and both Ala Mhigo and Doma can rest. Not that they have to do so, mind – there’s still space for more stories about putting together an actual government in Ala Mhigo, for example – but the stories don’t require more elaboration to make sense.
It’s easy to forget because we haven’t really checked in on the Ascian plotline with intensity since the end of 2.5; we’ve been cleaning up around the edges, and frankly most of the enemies we’ve fought for a while would have done similar things even without them. But their stated goal of bleeding the planet with summons and desperation has been working rather well. It’s a subtle thing, but facing Tsukuyomi was a reminder that this is definitely a plan that not only can be pulled off but is being pulled off. They’re winning, slowly but surely.
My suspicion about our next destination being Meracydia ties back into all of this; we don’t know all of the details, but we know that a lot of the pieces of the Ascian plan tie back there. Bahamut was summoned in Meracydia, and the successful unleashing of that dragon primal from his prison was the Calamity that dead no small amount of damage. It strikes me as just the sort of place to go if we’re looking to start taking out the Ascians at the root… and more accessible than the heart of the Empire.
Of course, we won’t know more until the next patch arrives in what is likely October or November. So we’ve got some time to speculate.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, let’s talk about dungeons, both in terms of the ones we’ve gotten through this expansion cycle, how the pacing change has affected them, and what we might expect in the future.