Expansion footraces are dumb in a lot of ways. Final Fantasy XIV has two expansions at this point, and the reality is that neither of them is optional or anything; all you can really say is whether or not you personally had a better time during one or the other. And the comparisons are pretty stark to begin with, even more so since the end of Stormblood is fresh in player minds and the end of Heavensward was more than two years ago and the peak-end rule is as much a thing here as it is elsewhere.
It doesn’t help that this is also, in some ways, a matter of subjective evaluation. Take the main scenario, for example; some people are just going to be there for the story of the Dragonsong War in a way that they’re not as invested in the dual revolution narratives of this expansion. Some people (such as myself) like that the main plot wrapped up neatly at the end of 4.0 and the next few patches could deal with side stories; others would have preferred a structure more like Heavensward. It’s subjective in the extreme.
Having said that, though, it does come down to subjectivity partly because nothing about the game suddenly stopped working, which in and of itself says something. The storytelling and pacing already worked, and while you can disagree with the story that was being told or the characters used to tell it, that comes down to personal preference rather than objective quality.
Put more simply, it’s telling that after delivering one moving long-form story, the game delivered another with a lot of side stories, and it’s up to the individual whether or not that second set was as personally resonant as the first.
I tend to put more stock in Stormblood’s story as well simply because it’s a more complex tale to tell. At the end of the day, the end of the Dragonsong War was a variant on the age-old “big bad is over there, go find him and introduce him to the new world of recreational vivisection.” There was a lot more to it than that and a lot of thematic weight asking if you could undo baked-in hatreds, but you were still hunting down and fighting the big bad.
But the revolutions here didn’t start with the big bad, but with making it plausible you even could fight the big bads. It had a lot more to do with finding and losing hope, and sometimes retreating into giving up because that was more comforting. You don’t save the ananta from Lakshmi, not completely; you don’t manage to convince everyone from Ala Mhigo you have their best interests at heart; you don’t avoid conflict in Yanxia. That fear is deep-rooted and hard to extricate.
Much like Zenos is nigh-impossible to fight, the overwhelming fear itself stymies your efforts. You get thrown into a lot of desperate, pitched moments along the way.
Of course, the story is only a part of the expansion; the gameplay also means just as much, and in this Stormblood maintained the high standard set forth by its predecessor whilst aspiring to do better. The new jobs and job gauges helped improve and diversify jobs while also keeping what made them fun, and there are no shortage of jobs that look even better in Shadowbringers despite being perfectly fine now. It’s telling that there were four jobs I highlighted as really needing major changes in the expansion, but even those jobs were still playable and fun. (And they do sure look like those changes are arriving.)
That having been said, for all the praise I’m heaping on Stormblood, it did do some things wrong. And I’m sorry for the people who really like it, but I think Eureka may ultimately have been the big thing that was done wrong after a fashion.
On its own, Eureka isn’t necessarily bad. But it did very clearly suck up a lot of development time, and it had some major issues with implementation and, well, fun. I think it was a commendable effort to offer us relic weapons through a means other than repurposed existing content, which has usually been the path, but that doesn’t make it actually fun and it doesn’t really help the central problems. Eureka tried, but it ultimately only had some very grindy rewards for a whole lot of extra work.
It’s also the one weak link in the whole equation. Looking at dungeons, trials, raids, and so forth? Everything else works, exceeding the high standard set in the past and being as accessible as ever. If Shadowbringers is, content-wise, just more of Stormblood? It’ll work, even if that’s leaving some possible new experiences on the table for no real reason.
The expansion also did highlight some areas that really could do with some expansion and improvement. I’ve mentioned the lack of appreciable rewards on regular trials, which is a problem; I also feel like we’re past due to have things made a little smoother for acquiring older raid gear, which is still something of a nightmare. (Honestly, it should be buyable for poetics if it’s an expansion old, and probably even if it’s a couple of tiers older, but that’s another discussion.) Just doing this expansion again but with more visual light would be a bad case of the game spinning its wheels.
Yet at the same time, the formula is still working. It’s a formula that the game has tweaked regularly since its initial relaunch and expanded out in various ways, but it is also a formula that both worked in the past and continues to work. Some things from Heavensward didn’t even get a minor tweak, just a new set of minor improvements before we moved on up. And while there are things that I hope get more adjustment with our next bit of progress (materia springs to mind) the basic equations all still work well.
I’m excited to see what comes next, and there’s a lot of potential in Shadowbringers. But Stormblood made good on the promise of its predecessor. It is undeniably a good expansion, and more to the point, it’s undeniably a worthy successor in the overall chain. Will it ultimately be remembered as one of the better updates for the game? I don’t know, but I sure did have a lot of fun while it was out.
Now, let’s just kick off early access already, shall we? No? Fine, I guess next week I’ll be talking about some last-chance speculation and final reactions from E3. Until then, you can leave feedback in the comments or mail it along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can catch up on this overall series, if you’d rather.