So here we are, at the end of the story.
Final Fantasy XIV has been weaving a narrative now for a very long time, and Endwalker is the expansion that’s meant to put paid to all of it. It ends not with a tease of what’s coming next but a very conclusive final moment complete with a decisive screen announcing that this is the end. It’s not the end of the game or the end of all the stories to be told in the game, but it is the end of the story that’s been told for this whole time.
That’s a tall order for any expansion, especially coming off an expansion that was widely hailed as perhaps the best one in the game’s history. The bad news, then, is that Endwalker doesn’t strike me as quite as good as Shadowbringers was. The good news, though, is that it’s still an absolutely excellent expansion, far from a letdown in any way, shape, or form. It’s just got a big load to lift.
See, the thing about telling the story for this long is that there’s a whole lot of narrative elements to pay off and play with. The team has shifted its overall writing staff, and perhaps most notably Natsuki Ishikawa has come in to be seen as a certified talent after how brilliantly she handled the storytelling of Shadowbringers in the lead role. There’s a lot to pay off in terms of story threads and threats.
So much so, in fact, that if you haven’t yet played through the story, you probably don’t realize that all of the stuff you know about constitutes act one of the overall story.
Yes, really. All of the trailers, the previews, even the zones that you’ve already seen have been carefully set up to only really cover the first part of a truly sprawling story that covers themes reaching as far back as the initial ideas proposed in the theme song for 1.0. It’s a lengthy and involved story built on the history of the game as a whole, dealing with such disparate threads as the meaning of life, the justification of suffering, and the nature of bonds with other people. It’s… a lot.
And it does, for the most part, work. There are some amazing moments in there that will absolutely floor you even if you haven’t been following this story religiously for a decade, including one quest that has the most audacious lift I think the game has pulled off since basically ever. And that’s at level 83.
I’m specifically avoiding spoilers not just because it’d be a jerk move to spoil all of this but also because, well… it’s more fun if you’re surprised. You cannot predict the directions that this particular story will take. A lot of fan theories are either quickly proved wrong, or in at least a few cases they’re proved technically right but functionally wrong as hell. And just as in Shadowbringers, the expansion focuses hard on giving you an emotional response to these characters, making you strongly feel what’s happening to all of your Scion allies and giving you space to explore their motivations and feelings along the way.
This story succeeded in making me give an actual damn about Estinien, even, a character I generally found to be so painfully generic that I couldn’t even muster more than performative distaste. That’s an accomplishment.
When I say it’s not quite up to the level of Shadowbringers, that doesn’t mean Endwalker falters, not really. Rather, it’s just the reality of an expansion that both has several big lifts to make (some of which look kind of like lazier writing until later developments clarify them) and the simple reality that after Shadowbringers, we can’t be stunned by the emotional weight and heft put on the story at this point. We know this is a thing. If Shadowbringers was an emotional surprise showing just how good the game can be, Endwalker is the excellent followup. Less revelatory, less surprising, but no less pleasing.
And as before, I’ve spilled a good chunk of words about all this without even talking about the gameplay.
The two new jobs added to the game with the expansion are the biggest change, and they are both fun as heck. Sage in particular has a difficult road to walk, as it has to be a more aggressive healer while at the same time feeling like it slots neatly into the existing healer metagame. It can’t be more damaging than every other healer, even as it needs to exemplify aggression based on its main mechanics. The result is a fun new sort of job that really pushes the boundary of its design space to create interesting synergy and abilities along the way.
Reaper is, then, perhaps less surprising, but it’s also a heck of a lot of fun, with smooth but technical gameplay and a fun fundamental flow that emphasizes its unique mechanics. It doesn’t feel like any other melee DPS job, which is an accomplishment in and of itself when there are several others. Not to mention that both of the new jobs have style to spare.
Beyond that, well… most of the jobs have retained their fundamental identity from Shadowbringers, which is probably a good thing overall. Monk and Summoner are the most changed, the latter more so than the former, and general reception to these changes seems to have been positive. While Summoner is less of a pet job than ever, it’s also more of a Summoner than ever as befits the role.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a new expansion without new content to go through, and in this as well the game’s new dungeons and trials show how deeply the team has been working on all of these elements for years now. While there are few areas where I felt like I was seeing totally new mechanics or things I had never seen before, everything felt like it was in many ways a victory lap, a steady show of confidence for a game that realizes it had hit an apex and was now going to show off what it could do.
Fights are mechanically dense without feeling overloaded, putting together mechanics in an interesting fashion and relying on understanding without forcing you to get everything right on the first try or instantly die. If you’re paying attention, you can make it through reliably even without having a guide. And of course, the dungeons are arranged with an eye toward the game’s history, with callbacks and references to both series history and the game’s distinct own history.
There are, to be fair, some flaws. Gathering, for example, feels a bit more simplified with the removal of high-quality gathered items; it’s not an egregious sin, but it does make the gameplay feel just a little bit more flat than it did otherwise. There are bits that feel like lazy or contrived writing here and there, and while these things are addressed over time, it’s hard to avoid that initial feeling all the same.
The story also suffers a bit from an apocalyptic trope that we know isn’t going to be delivered on. There’s an extended period of faffing about at one point based on a solution that we know isn’t going to be implemented because it would interfere wildly with the whole premise of the MMO as an ongoing story. To be fair, this can be a problem with any persistent online game where you know that the world isn’t going to actually be blown up, but it stuck out to me because the stakes are so high here.
And last but not least, I’d be remiss not to mention the raft of lobby issues and login problems that the game has been dealing with throughout early access and will no doubt continue to wrestle with during the actual launch. It’s hard to really complain too much, as the team has been communicative about the problems and demonstrably worked to fix the issues, but still. It’s hard not to be bothered when you can’t log in to the game you want to play.
But that’s a temporary problem. And in broad strokes, Endwalker is a temporary expansion. There will be other stories. There will be more adventures. But this is the first FFXIV story in forever that ends with a conclusive wrap-up, with no lingering scenes promising the next threat just about to emerge. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the end of this feels like the ending to a long-running and well-written Final Fantasy game through and through, and it made me all the more thankful to have been on this trip through the whole of it.
So enjoy it. And as always… forge ahead.