First Impresions: Final Fantasy XIV Dawntrail is a dense summer getaway for the MMORPG

    
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You have too much junk.

I finished up Final Fantasy XIV: Dawntrail’s story a while ago, but I’ve been spending a couple days turning over what I think about the expansion in my head. It’s not that those thoughts are in and of themselves all that hard to sort out, in some ways; sure, there are a lot of them, but I know those thoughts are broadly positive. But is the expansion a step up from its predecessor? A sidestep? A mixed bag? How does it measure up to Endwalker? To the game as a whole?

The answers are complicated, and I think a lot is going to depend on the individual player, what each person values in the game, and what anyone thinks that a post-Endwalker version of the game even looks like. But for my money, this is pretty much exactly where I had hoped the expansion was going to go. Which puts me in an odd place because I can definitely see spots wherein the execution is sloppier than it could have been or choices were made that didn’t need to be, but the end product is not only fun but a real triumph when a stumble would have been a logical continuation.

Players are obviously familiar with the story premise for the expansion. Wuk Lamat, the most orange cat possible, is in a competition to become the next ruler of Tuliyollal after her father, Gulool Ja Ja, has organized a trial to see who will succeed him. But it turns out once you arrive that this is definitely not a long-standing tradition in Tural. Tuliyollal itself is only a few decades old, having been founded by Gulool Ja Ja himself, and so Wuk Lamat’s quest is not just to take the throne for the purpose of having it but also to ensure that a unified Tural continues and actually develops traditions.

And this is, in fact, a real concern. Tural is immediately put forth as a place harboring numerous distinct civilizations, all of whom have different priorities and traditions. As Wuk Lamat seeks to complete her trial and learn more about her nation’s people, you really do get a sense of the fact that this peace is not precisely fragile but new. There are plenty of people alive right now who remember what Tural was like before.

It’s worth noting that while the Scions are definitely in the expansion, they are not the main characters. The story is definitely focused on Wuk Lamat, Erenville, and Krile, with other players having much more of a supporting role. Even the player character is more of a supporting player for the first half of the story.

boat

No, I don’t want to say where the second half goes. It’s very much a dual-structure story, with two conjoined three-act stories as intertwined narratives, but to say where it goes would be to give away some of the game. I will say that my own guesses about things like Solution Nine were not entirely right but also adjacent to the spirit of things, and I find the places the story ultimately goes to be delightful.

That’s not to say that the story is flawless. The second half has an overly long first half with a too-lengthy detour into random nonsense, and while I think the antagonists live up to my expectations, I can see why some of them might strike people either as being thin in their characterization or as being redeemed way too freaking fast. And I can’t even say people who feel that it doesn’t get there are wrong!

Even if the story doesn’t totally grab you, though, there’s clearly so much to unpack here in terms of lore and overall setting. It’s clear that FFXIV is continuing down the roads that Endwalker primed us for, and if you were wondering why certain plot points were brought up… well, this should make it clear that those concerns were unfounded. This is, in fact, a part of the plot and the text! And it will be moving forward.

In terms of gameplay, it’d be easy to feel like much of the expansion is retreading comfortable ground. And that’s not totally wrong. Most of the game’s jobs have remained largely the same from Endwalker with minor changes and expansions along the way. Fortunately, they were fun to play before, so this isn’t really a bad thing. The most novel parts of the job gameplay are Viper and Pictomancer, both of which are going to appeal to different playestyles.

Viper’s frantic play and general ethos puts me in the mind of jobs like Gunbreaker, but tilted toward DPS instead of tanking; you are going to be doing a lot at any given moment to maintain buffs and keep momentum, and it has a remarkably strong ability to keep up the pressure even at range. Pictomancer, meanwhile, reminds me of Black Mage more than anything; it’s less mobile and a bit more support-oriented, but it definitely feels like it’s a spin on that kind of caster gameplay rather than being closer to Red Mage. I think it works in no small part because it has very strong thematic differentiation, but its loop of building power to unleash more deadly combos is closer to how classic Summoner felt before its rework in Endwalker (albeit without the DoT side).

Secret garden.

The dungeon and encounter design keeps up the high standards that were established during prior expansions, but they definitely feel spicier even from an early level. The first dungeon definitely did set the tone, and none of the dungeons is afraid to hit you hard if you aren’t paying attention. They’re not cruel, but they are definitely filled with some different and driving gameplay. And it helps that basically all of them are gorgeous, both in terms of rewards and just environments.

We definitely see the graphical update pulling its weight here, with environments and characters really getting a visible glow-up all the way through. I noticed especially with some of the less humanoid characters that the engine did a good job animating a more full range of emotions; the Mamool Ja are a major part of the expansion, but rather than characters like Gulool Ja Ja seeming like a monster given outsized importance, his face emotes and we get a real sense of him as a person. And the zones themselves look gorgeous; three of the zones are very much divided into two halves, and the last zone is visually arresting twice over.

In some ways, the worst things you can say about this expansion is that it does at times give the impression that the developers were playing it safe. There’s a wealth of options and things to do, but if you are familiar with the gameplay formula that the game has established since about Stormblood, you will at this point find very little that will shake you out of that familiarity. Heck, the refinements and improvements to jobs kind of say that in and of themselves. This is still FFXIV. It is not trying to be something else.

But I think that’s kind of what I like about it. Dawntrail is not trying to be an escalation of stakes yet again. It is trying to be an expansion in which the world is not ending and you can just… go to a new place, explore new dungeons, find new stuff, and have a time. The story feels real, but it never rises to the level of feeling like the world is about to end. It’s a voyage of new discovery with new regions and new stuff to learn.

And for someone who really likes the game, that’s great! That is enough. That is what I wanted. It flexes where it needs to, and it trusts that what it was already good at doing is still good now. So good on you, Dawntrail. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some tacos to eat.

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?
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