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.
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.
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.
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.
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…