First impressions: Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers is beautiful, horrifying, and a crowning achievement

    
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Guilty or innocent?

It was clear to me how special Shadowbringers was going to be when I saw one of the most effectively horrifying scenes I’ve witnessed in an MMO during the initial main scenario quests.

I hadn’t gone to Amh Araeng for that, of course. I had my choice of locales and just decided to go there first. And the quests had done a good job of establishing the bleakness and the desperation of the setting, putting me in the mindset of the story and already conjuring several cross-references that sprang to mind. It was shaping up to be, well, another Final Fantasy XIV expansion.

Then… I finished up that zone and got a scene that was so pointedly disturbing and sad and proof of how you can do horror effectively in a setting where it always looks like you’re standing outside in a clear field at high noon, and I realized that this was going to be a high-water mark even for a game that has continually impressed in both scope and sheer quality. Having made it all the way through the story at this point, I can say that yes, it definitely lived up to that initial promise and then some.

Let’s take a step back. Shadowbringers was a bit of a surprise when Square revealed its setting during the third and final fan festival for the game in Tokyo; instead of bringing us to another region of the game’s world, it was set to bring us to another shard of this world, the First. It’s long been known that Hydaelyn (the planet) was split into 13 shards plus the Source some 10,000 years before the game starts, but the other shards have long been the domain of overarching cosmology. This time, players are being sent to the First to deal with the crisis afflicting this mirror of the world, where ghastly light is overtaking everything on the planet.

If you’re wondering how that’s relevant or thinking of other expansions in which you head off into another world, the good news is that the question of “why is this a big deal” is answered basically immediately in a satisfying and clear fashion. You’re not trying to solve the problems of the First just to spin your wheels; the story makes it very clear that what you do here has immediate and far-reaching implications because what happens on the shards affects the Source in a very material fashion.

This is their least disturbing moment.

What follows is a story that is… well, “expansive” doesn’t cover it. The story bears the heavy workload of introducing you to a world that’s similar to the familiar while also being different and giving you realistic stakes without feeling overwhelming. It’s a difficult balancing act to manage, and it pulls it off almost perfectly.

It isn’t quite perfect. There’s a lot of stuff I want to see better explained. But the stumbles are more about parts where the plot does drag a little bit or the momentary progress feels a bit wonky, and pretty much as soon as I hit one of those, the game immediately found something else amazing or a new horrifying image to fill the mind.

Why do I keep saying “horrifying”? Because this expansion is the horror expansion. The story that’s being told is frightening, and the imagery associated with it is appropriately creepy. Yes, everything is bathed in perpetual light, but it’s not even sunlight, just an endless scintillating sea of artificial illumination. It adds to the sense of dread, of a world that’s coming apart at the seams while you desperately try to pull things back together.

And the actual story itself is… wow. It’s packed with emotion from top to bottom, taking the time to really go deep into the psychology of every single major character. By the end of the expansion you will have a nuanced understanding of Alphinaud, Alisaie, Y’shtola, Urianger, Thancred, Minfilia, the Crystal Exarch, and even Emet-Selch; even the more minor characters get nuance and explanation and payoff.

More than that, though, the stories feel genuine. Yes, they’re told through the lens of a fantasy story, but they create a solid exploration of concepts, like a father raising a daughter he can’t help but resent after losing his wife, or a young woman dealing with the limitations of what she can do to fix things in the world around her, or a man trying to live up to the legacy of his hero without being able to admit it. It’s moving. It’s complicated. It gives you some serious feelings about characters you’ve been acquainted with for years now.

It’s good enough that I’m nearly 800 words into this first impressions piece, and all that I’ve talked about has been the story. For an MMO. That should tell you something, especially since the game encourages you to take on the game’s dungeons at least once with these characters to get some of their optional side dialogue and watch them interact. But you don’t have to; you can run every dungeon in normal group content, which is what I did and is still my preferred approach.

The tide breaks.

Part of the reason for that, is that in some ways there’s less to talk about on the mechanical side, but not in a bad way. Yes, a lot of the moment-to-moment gameplay is going to be very familiar to veterans. Hunts still work more or less like they did in Stormblood, and you unlock them at a similar cadence. Go and clear quests, FATEs pop up and you can do that, and so forth. The “content” side of the game has long been a polished and coherent experience with a clear picture of what it’s trying to accomplish.

That leaves us to discuss the fine details, like the actual zones and dungeons and such, and here, well, there’s some stuff that’s hard to talk about simply because even mentioning parts of the last zone would pose huge spoilers. However, the game definitely continues to live up to the high standards set by Stormblood’s content and then surpass those same standards.

Dungeon bosses have mechanics that can be understood on the fly but also require care in play and combine in interesting ways. The last boss of the first dungeon, for example, involves a rotating section wherein players are expected to not just keep moving but time out their paths. The third dungeon has a boss with a column-dodging mechanic that masquerades as a hiding mechanic. Heck, there’s a boss that has time-delayed AoE mechanics that would be interesting and complex if that was the only thing going on in the fight.

Similarly, each of the trials is unique, is engaging, and involves new elements of play. Far from being the almost perfunctory fights of the prior expansions, each of these is a climax to an ongoing story that makes you want to step in and put these bosses to the sword… and yes, in many cases these fights are bookended by some genuinely horrific imagery. That’s a whole theme going on here.

Meanwhile, the actual job play mechanics have been refined and improved across the board. There is some healer grumbling, centering largely around the fact that Astrologian has seen its card system reworked extensively and Scholar has lost most of its DPS tools to bring it more in line with the universal healer kits. This is definitely a change, and it does mean that you’re expected to heal a bit more heavily, but the game also facilitates this, rather than expecting you to stand around waiting for a reason to heal when nothing is happening. Actually playing Scholar in a party feels more fun, and it allows White Mage to actually feel distinct with its damage options.

And if there’s some downside for healers, it’s all upside elsewhere. Paladin now really feels like a holy spellcaster with a lot of party support options (but, ironically, several of those support options are only for party members). Dark Knight gets to keep its management of MP central while having a smoother playstyle. Ninja leans into its pseudo-spellcaster style, Dragoon leans in on long combos and positional play, and the new Machinist gets plenty of machines to play around with.

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The new jobs, similarly, expand what the overall lineup looks like. Dancer adds the most support-based job into the game’s overall rotation while still being a solid ranged damage dealer; it also makes another party member just plain better, so you get that added benefit from having it in your party. Gunbreaker, meanwhile, is a tank that feels kinetic in a way that most others don’t, having clearly inherited some of Dark Knight’s previously frenzied mechanics in a new fashion to make a job that’s always doing something. They’re fun to play and satisfying, and pretty much anyone who had been waiting for either one will likely be satisfied.

And it’s overwhelming just how much stuff there is here. The new zones feel both gorgeous and fully realized. The new quest sync feature for all of the game’s sidequests encourage you to take part in additional content at your own pace, knowing it’s always there to help you level without being tied to doing it inside of a limited level window. I’ve not even touched on the new delivery mechanics for crafters and gatherers that takes the place of what had previously been class quests.

Failings? There are a few. If you preferred the most complex random management of Astrologian before or being green DPS as Scholar, you’ll feel a little perturbed. There’s a few points when the story does lag a little bit, and there’s the simple reality that there’s a fair bit of catching up to do before you get to Shadowbringers as a new player.

But all of these are really minor failings. The expansion isn’t perfect because nothing is, but if you start trying to pry away the small flaws, you realize how well the entire experience is put together. Even the flaws feel less like “they dropped the ball here” and more like “something had to give; this was the most reasonable part.”

In short? Shadowbringers is a triumph. It’s amazing. I had expected it to be at least good because every other expansion has been, but it feels so much better than even that. When the biggest flaw that you can really point to is that it’ll take you a while to reach this point if you start playing now, that’s fantastic on a whole.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some… everything to do in Norvrandt. Where do I get some more Voeburt lore here…

The Nymian civilization hosted an immense amount of knowledge and learning, but so much of it has been lost to the people of Eorzea. That doesn’t stop Eliot Lefebvre from scrutinizing Final Fantasy XIV each week in Wisdom of Nym, hosting guides, discussion, and opinions without so much as a trace of rancor.
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carnalforce1337
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carnalforce1337

Can you jump right in this expansion and skip the other two.. Like in ESO?

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Jeremy Barnes

Emet-Selch is the best FF Villian in a long time.

Alyn
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Alyn

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Yangers
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Yangers

I was watching Damiani (from Easy Allies) play through this on Twitch, and all I could think was how visually terrible it looked. Although, if the story is good I don’t mind janky graphics.

How is this game solo? Can you play through it or do you need groups? If so, is that easy to go about in game? None of my friends play it is all.

Dantos
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Dantos

You will need to group to do the dungeons/8 man trials (big boss), which are required to progress the main story, which is required to unlock pretty much everything. They have the standard dungeon finder, which rewards people for doing lower level stuff, so you will usually be able to be matched with people.

If you havent played before the 1-50 stuff is alright, but the main story quest can be a real slog of a million tiny interactions, especially at lvl 50 when trying to progress into the heavensward expansion, there are ALOT of main story quests to do to get there. I dont mean it as a discouragement, but to acknowledge that its an issue alot of people have faced.

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BigAngry

I finished the MSQ about 2 days ago, and through it all, I cannot say it was anything less than a masterpiece. There was this feeling of dread and hopelessness that I haven’t been made to feel in a video game since Final Fantasy VI when Kefka destroys the World of Balance and it turns into the World of Ruin. There is so much emotion in this expansion, and head writer Natsuko Ishikawa is a force of nature. Her writing in ShB, much like her writing in Azim Steppe in Stormblood, is packed full of triumphant highs and stinging lows.

I am so, so happy with this expansion as a whole. I played through MSQ on Machinist, and I’m even more happy with how that job turned out. It FEELS machiney now, not just some two-bit Bard clone. It’s got its own identity now, one that has not one but two 40,000 damage direct crit-capable attacks!

The only thing I’ve not run yet are the two post-MSQ lv80 dungeons, but that’s just a matter of time. The bosses of this expansion are so varied and with such neat mechanics (the 2nd boss in the 79 dungeon comes to mind as SO innovative!) that I’m really looking forward to the two new ones.

Overall, full agree with Eliot, this expansion is a triumph. Fantastic review, Eliot!

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Shadex De'Marr

Astro changes are being pretty much universally panned. For healer to be the job in need on every roulette every day since 5.0 says something about how many people have stopped playing them. 5.0 was Yoshi’s Star Wars Remastered. He has too much power that no one is going to stop him when he randomly decides to start f’n with stuff that was perfectly fine.

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styopa

Your opinion is your own, of course, but this strikes me as a touch histrionic. I main a WHM but was seriously considering AST for 5, I absolutely love(d) the class.
I agree that it seems like it’s been gutted, but I admit I’m still msq’ing so I haven played it yet.

Nevertheless, to suggest this is a Lucas moment is going too far, to me. If anything, SE has over the years at least earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to change, knowing that of something is broken, a) they know about it already, and b) they will fix it asap.

Personally I’m optimistic that the healers have been vanilla-fied because there was just too much else going on in 5 to address their central issues. Better to in a sense bill them down to simple core functions, and then about 5.1 or 5.2 focus on making each of them (and who knows, maybe a 4th?) interesting, unique, and challenging.

I hope so anyway.
But I do believe it’s far, far too early for such bitter grapes.

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Jeremy Barnes

Healers have always had insta queues for each expansion. It lasts a couple weeks then goes back to tanks. I know that screws up this narrative you’ve created for yourself, but oh well.

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Vagabond Sam

I was cautious about the story being a bit ‘Warlord of Dreanor’ with it being potentially disconnected from ‘the Source’ and being a non-sequitur as a result.

However, it turns out that the story is so closely related to the core characters in the game, as well as my own charterer’s journey that it was such a thrilling experience to play through.

It actually makes me a little nervous that the next expansion has a lot to live up to.

But with the story done it’s nice to be able to relax and level up Dancer, which is a lot of fun to play so far. Also working on my gathering and crafting and hoping to make some quick gil from people power crafting with more gil then ‘time’ ^^.

Congrats FFXIV, I am excited for the patch additions to the story and seeing how this all shakes out.

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Loopy

After being thoroughly uninvested in the Stormblood story, Shadowbringers is a welcome breath of fresh air. I’m absolutely loving the MSQ so far, and i’m only lvl 72ish. It’s been a very long time since i’ve actually wanted to keep on questing just to go through more of the narrative.

That being said, i really dislike what they did to some of my favourite classes:

PLD doesn’t feel like a gladiator with spells any more, but rather a simplified one-dimensional caster with some melee interwoven between Holy Spirit bombardment. I do not enjoy that gaming style (which i know already started changing in Stormblood), and will unfortunately be parking the PLD for the foreseeable future.

AST card changes are just awful. Having choice on who to buff at what time, do i convert or keep, do i change or absorb.. all pretty much gone. Yeah, here’s the same boring % dmg increase on all cards, with a gimmicky mechanic that’s neither fun nor engaging. Parking this one too, since may as well just use a dedicated healer like a WHM at this point.

I also dislike a lot of the ability pruning that took place. Maybe it’s just me, but it appears that majority of the jobs that i have are boiled down to the same 3 button rotation with a couple of side cooldowns to spice it up. Dungeon runs also feel like AOE fests, which gives me PTSD from the WoW times and BC/Wrath days. AOE (at least during leveling) used to be reserved only for really large mob packs where focusing targets was simply a waste of time. AOE was TP-expensive, and you didn’t want to waste it. With removal of TP, every pull is an AOE pull, and it just feels kinda.. boring.

I haven’t formed a full opinion on this expansion as a whole, since i’m very much super early in the process. But there are definitely pros and cons to it, at least from my perspective.

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Marty Woods

I only ever played the base game and found the story and questing to mediocre but I did enjoy the dungeons a lot . I have heard though it really starts to improve once you reach Heavensward and beyond so I am thinking of giving it another try given .

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Mallus

To be honest I felt the same way but to be fair you really need to play through the entire story and then it all starts to make sense. Once you have completed the entire story including Shadowbringers you will most likely be very happy you did. I would advise playing the MSQ while queing for dungeons while leveling it’s all that’s really required to level any class in FF14

cambruin
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cambruin

So, I’ll ask this, just as I have been asking this every previous expansion; are they moving away from linear questing into an open world type of questing in this expansion? It’s the one MMO I wish I could get into, but as long as they hold on to that ‘move from A to B to C’ type of questing, I just can’t.

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Vagabond Sam

Nope. The nature of the story is such that you are guided throughout the levelling process.

‘Open world activities’ is only a thing once you have completed the story and are either doing level capped activities, or levelling up subsequent classes.

As Elliot points out, the zones themselves can be spoilers, and the game presents the story as mandatory. and therefore will ‘guide’ players through the story before setting you free.

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Nemui Byakko

AFAIK the only non-linear MMO is ESO and SWTOR, and even there it is more like minor embellishment. What is “open world questing”, exactly? If you mean multiple same-level zones to level-up, then no, there are none. But in most cases you don’t need to have alts in FFXIV, and there are different ways of levelling professions than through questing.