One of the things that I mentioned back when I was reviewing Heavensward in its totality was that for all the praise I give to Final Fantasy XIV’s stories, this was an expansion with just too many of them running at any given time. The MSQ was solid, but you also had zone stories, the Warring Triad story, the Alexander story, the beast tribe stories, the Mhach story… it was a lot of different tales all running, and I posited that part of the problem was just having, well, too many of them going.Stormblood rolls around, gives us all of those stories, and then gives us a pile of additional stories with Doman reconstruction, Eureka, more depth to the various custom delivery stories… however you slice it, this expansion did not reduce the number of stories but increased them notably. Some of them are wrapping up with 4.4 (Omega and Doma are done at this point, for example), but others have yet to fully resolve. So does this compound the problem? Or is the sheer number of stories not a problem in this expansion, and if not, why?
Obviously, to ask the question in part is to imply the answer, which is that it really hasn’t had the same problem. Not only do we have more stories, the actual stories themselves have generally worked better (although whether the content itself has been well-received is another story; looking in your direction, Eureka). So clearly, it’s not just quantity that made the difference, and I think part of the reason is the difference in how the MSQ was set up from the start.
It’s no secret that the story of Heavensward was very much the story of Ishgard; that was sort of the entire point. But the problem (to the extent that there was a problem) is that Ishgard is, well, one city in a pretty isolated area. There’s a pretty fixed limit to how much can be done there and how many stories can tie into that. It also meant that any of the non-MSQ stories felt… well, less relevant. Lower stakes.
We didn’t have any connection to the Warring Triad until we were told to care about them. Alexander placed no one in peril aside from the characters made up for the story, whom we were told we cared about without ever giving us much reason to do so. There was a big cast for the Mhach storyline, but none of them really grew or changed or even interacted with players. They felt like self-contained tales we happened to be watching.
By contrast, Stormblood is the story of Ala Mhigo, and the story of Doma, and the story of Othard in general, and the story of Omega and Garlemald. It covers a lot of ground thematically because you’re exploring places where the Empire has been entrenched for a while and has functionally kicked up its heels; you’re also learning about the two nations you’re trying to pull out from under the Empire’s thumb, the culture of the region around Doma, and also Omega is established pretty firmly in its importance even before the raid. There’s very little that’s extraneous here; a lot of moving pieces, but all of them are relevant.
Arguably the least relevant one of the batch is Eureka, which is putting paid to a long-lingering plot thread from a while back, but the use of Krile and an ever-grumbling Gerolt manages to ground it well in a sense of place. Everything else has lots of different important adjacent spaces to explore without feeling like it’s covering the same ground as the MSQ or has no real bearing on things.
Furthermore, several bits of storytelling in the peripheral actually enhance the MSQ. When we start up the Ivalice raids, we’re immediately introduced to the idea that Garlemald as a nation contains more sympathetic people than we’ve seen up to now; two patches later we find out how much sympathy exists in the military. The introduction of the Kojin directly leads into the Kojin sidequests, which in turn ties in without leading directly into the Four Lords storyline. Instead of things existing in their own little bubbles, it ties back into the same elements.
More than that, it ties into the same themes. Heavensward had a pretty strong theme, exploring the ways that hatred and pain can linger and how we let go of anger. Unfortunately, none of its side stories really tied into that; Alexander was at least about letting go, but the Warring Triad was just a set of boss fights existing for boss fights. The Scholisticate just essentially repeated the same plot points without adding anything.
By contrast, Stormblood is about revolution, but it’s also about change, development, and the ways that nothing can stay immutable. All of the side stories tie back into that. What’s being uncovered in Ivalice changes the understanding of the Empire. Omega is trying to change into something to accomplish its objective without understanding personal growth. The Four Lords are stuck in the past and trying not to change, but realizing that stasis is destroying them.
All of this is not to say that every single thing in the expansion is landing perfectly in terms of narrative. Hildibrand’s story is still not hitting the humorous notes that he did in the first outing, which I think is partly due to his continued presence due to fan demand; I feel like people keep asking for more and hoping that each new installment is half as good. The Ananta fail to teach you as much about the tribe and the culture as would be useful, and considering they’re apparently a monogendered race with parental relationships, some elaboration would be nice.
But at no point do I feel like you could just yank a random one of the stories without damaging the game as a whole. More relevantly, none of them feel like completely independent narratives that could go anywhere. These all feel like distinctly Stormblood stories which could only be happening here and now, even when one of them is almost wholly set outside of the actual areas of Stormblood.
The one downside here – from my perspective – is that it makes it much harder to figure out where we’re going next. In the base game, it was easy to tell we were heading to Ishgard simply because that was the one direction indicated by stories without being in the old spaces; similarly, when Heavensward indicated things afoot in Ala Mhigo, it was almost painfully clear that we would be headed that way.
But at this point? Yes, I could see us going into Garlemald. I can also make a good case for not going to Garlemald (especially since, you know, there were warnings to not do exactly that). The broader focus without as many unresolved threads means nothing stands out like a lightning rod. There’s no question in my mind that our next destination will make sense, but there’s a lot of questions about where we’re pointed right now.
Well, probably not the New World. That area always seems to get short shrift.
Feedback, as always, is welcome down in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I want to lift a little game from one of my favorite webcomics and start taking about just how many enemies the player characters have at the moment.