Everything's better with a cool little hat.
For any MMO, the launch of an expansion brings a bevy of opportunities: chances to grow, chances to reinvigorate, and most importantly, chances to better the core game. The Final Fantasy XIV development team are no strangers to reinvention or betterment, as anybody who knows of the game’s catastrophic initial launch could tell you. However even with a list of past successes, aspiring to improve consistently is an arduous goal. With their second expansion, Stormblood, Square Enix had a clear list of goals, and while few of the changes result in sheer wonderment, there are enough little surprises to keep Final Fantasy XIV an experience well worth your time.
A point of pride for Final Fantasy XIV over other MMOs has been its focus on a “Main Scenario” narrative; what is a Final Fantasy game without a story, after all? While games like World of Warcraft or Tera tend to create stories for individual zones, FFXIV instead has zones designed for its story. Heavensward had it easy – utilizing a single city and a series of dragon-infested wastelands – but Stormblood sets its sights higher, looking at not only on the mountainous Ala Mhigo, but also the far-eastern Doma. While the shift to two separate nations and areas of the world is welcome, and the journey to these more populated regions a nice change of pace, juggling two disparate and distinct places can be a tenuous task, one that becomes all the more challenging when the plot already has other balancing acts to worry about.
While Stormblood continues to follow the player’s self-insert character, The Warrior of Light, it also experiments with the structure of its core story. A Realm Reborn and Heavensward both focused on a broader ensemble cast, which let the player feel agency within the narrative, and form personal relationships with the menagerie of characters. Stormblood still has an ensemble cast, but it leans much more into the character of Lyse, a revolutionary fixated specifically on the liberation of Ala Mhigo, her childhood home. While Lyse seems like her own character at first, it becomes clear the writers have tried to work her in as a secondary lead of sorts. While she has her own quirks, she by and large eschews any sort of distinct personality, in favor of acting as another transposition of the player. While there’s nothing wrong with a Point of View character, the format doesn’t work best when they compete with another audience surrogate, especially when that first surrogate is a self-made character carrying potential years of attachment.
This is the core problem of Stormblood’s narrative. While making both nations feel equally unique and lived in was already a steep bill, it becomes harder when the game places weight behind two separate characters who are meant to act as a ‘cipher.’ While Heavensward had memorable scenes of characters bonding and bouncing off each other, attempts to recreate similar situations in Stormblood fall flat because two of the five characters present at any given time are practically mannequins. Whereas Heavensward’s Ysayle was a revolutionary like Lyse, she still retained a personal identity, history, and set of core ideals that informed her actions. The largest problem with Lyse is that she exists as a reiteration to the audience of the narrative’s lessons. While characters such as the Doman prince Hien wax poetic about their individual feelings for their taken homes, Lyse regurgitates what’s been said already, rather than saying anything that feels original or personal.
The weight of this problem is made fully apparent during the Mongolian-themed Azim Steppe. While Lyse is incarcerated or away for most of these quests, the game goes back to treating your player character as the primary viewpoint, to much greater success. Learning more about one of the playable races of the game and meeting new, interesting characters without the interference of Lyse’s “yeah’s” and “but why’s” highlights the strengths of Final Fantasy XIV’s world and story, and there’s never been another area in an MMO that I truly felt free to live in and explore. The concentration on just the events within the Steppe helps perpetuate this notion, since up until then most areas served as a means to an end; a series of blocks on your road to revolution. The Azim Steppe stands out because it thoroughly loses you in its own story and characters, while still pushing the core plot forward. It’s a one of a kind area, and the type of narrative which made me remember what I loved about Final Fantasy XIV’s story in the first place.
It’s weird to call a 90 hour game rushed, but that’s exactly how most of the main scenario ends up feeling. While the initial implication is the revolution will be long and hard fought, the larger strokes and fights take what feels like less than a day. The arc in Doma has a clear flow and structure compared to the rapidly paced Ala Mhigo, but it still suffers from several stories that feel half-finished by the time they play out. Outside of the Azim Steppe, your best bet for a strong narrative will be the sidequests, which have continued to improve and offer interesting gameplay conceits outside of the “kill 5 enemies and come back” drivel common in the genre.
The Main Scenario is just one aspect of Stormblood though. The developers’ loftiest goal was a soft rework of the core battle system, with a focus on raising the “skill floor” for most classes. While Heavensward made most class’ core ability rotations more intricate, Stormblood immediately trimmed the fat. Many class mechanics are completely gone, and some of those that aren’t have been relegated to secondary considerations. Rarely used moves, like Warrior’s “Fracture” or Monk’s “Featherfoot,” have been completely excised without replacement.
In the best cases, these changes are great. Classes like Paladin, Black Mage, Astrologian, or Bard all have a new flow and identity which better suit them as well as the “meta-game.” Bard’s rework from caster to a run-and-gun style class in particular is a fantastic change that brings a much needed variety to the game’s available playstyles, and Paladin gaining an identity outside of “The Defense Tank” has been long overdue. Black Mage’s adaptation of a longtime player technique in the form of “Umbral Hearts” is a fantastic example of just how well the designers can nail a class’s gameplay design. While some classes end up without any mind-blowing changes, it’s hard not to find at least something on every class that has been improved for the better. For example, a simple change to Ninjas “Hide” lets big fights start with less prep time than ever before, and Monk actually gets to build up its “chakras” in-battle instead of just outside it. However, with 15 classes to focus and redesign, there will inevitably be a couple that don’t end up as well off as the rest.
Some classes end up pushed to the side: While the Summoner class garnered unnecessary complication, the once-complex Dark Knight has been reduced to repetitive button-pressing. Machinists have ended up in the middle – less complex, but with less heart and less damage. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIV has a history of taking its sweet time with larger class changes or, at worst, pushing them off until the next expansion. While only Machinist is in a position where you’d be better off not playing it, I might suggest holding off on these classes until they’re in a better spot, or even giving the two new jobs (Samurai and Red Mage) a whirl to see if their new play-styles might fill that hole in your heart.
Luckily, playing each of the classes in Stormblood’s battle content feels just as good as its predecessors, and sometimes even better. Every four player dungeon you’ll run into throughout the 60-70 leveling experience is yet another step up in quality from the already impressive formula Heavensward seemed to perfect. Each boss has its own unique gimmicks and appearance to make it stand out and feed into the memorable presentation of their home, with even normal enemy fights have started to bake in custom mechanics that make you think a little more than usual.
For eight man content like Raids or the big Primal boss fights, Stormblood can be more of a mixed bag than before. While both Susano and Lakshmi, the two “extreme” primals available to fight at launch, are more accessible than primals of the past, they suffer from feeling a little too easy. Susano more than makes up for his difficulty with endearing voice acting, engaging mechanics, and fantastic visual presentation, but Lakshmi’s brownscale fight feels boring and often times all too long. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a more accessible high level fight, but players who are looking for in-depth battles will have to head into the wild world of raiding.
Thankfully raiding in Final Fantasy XIV has never been easier to get into than with Stormblood’s “Omega” series of raids. The first four floors of the 12 part raid are currently accessible, and they’re easily some of the most fun and engaging fights that have ever been added to the game. The first set of fights, called “The Deltaverse,” take their inspiration from Final Fantasy V; everything from enemies, to venues, to music all look and feel both original and nostalgic. The fights themselves continue with the difficulty level of Heavensward’s final tier of raids, meaning that if you’re new to raiding, or someone who’s a little worried about just how hard these fights may get, there’s plenty of room to dip your toes in and get acclimated to a more intense set of challenges. For the more invested players, developers have also promised an even harder one-off fight coming in the near future as well.
If you’re a more competitive player, Stormblood has also brought with it a complete reboot of the game’s PvP features. While the core maps and game modes are by and large the same, each class has their own custom PvP hotbar with its own abridged set of abilities. While there is some overlap between abilities that jobs have in PvE and PvP, every move performs a different function in PvP. Dark Knight’s “Unmend,” for example, is just a ranged damage move in PvE content, but in PvP, it gains a short cooldown and allows you to pull rival players immediately towards you. There are also certain PvP exclusive moves that existed before, but now require no “PvP level” to choose from. Your gear also has no effect on how much health or damage you’ll have either, so if you’re a samurai against another samurai, you’ll be on an even playing field. PvP previously felt like a weird, intentionally-ignored side mode, with custom stats and a whole nightmare of class specific moves and strategies, so these positive changes, and the ability to enter matches in under 30 minutes, are welcome adjustments.
MMOs are massive, and even outside of the core gameplay loop of quests, dungeons, and raids, there’s always something to do alone or with friends. While crafting seems complex and overwhelming at first, Stormblood has made waves to make both the new recipes and leveling process easier than ever before (though if you’re new to the game, you’ll still have to do a lot of early level grinding). Hunts are around if you want to take on a big enemy in the overworld for rewards, and if you want to try your hand at that while leveling a new class, the scripted repeatable sidequest-style FATEs are more relevant and useful than ever. Even if you just want to soak in the sights and sounds, the new city of Kugane is easily one of the most beautiful areas in FFXIV, and possibly any MMO I’ve ever played, and Stormblood’s music continues to prove that composer Masayoshi Soken is incredible at creating songs which feel simultaneously anachronistic and intrinsic to their native area.
It’s hard for someone like me, who’s been playing Final Fantasy XIV for a little over three years now, to give a completely unbiased take on just how good Stormblood is. For veterans, you’ll largely be playing more of the same, albeit with a fresher coat of paint and a new way of doing it. For new players, I think that the lowering of the “skill floor” for most classes has been fairly successful, and that if you’re overwhelmed by playing either a new MMO or your first, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better, more accessible game than FFXIV. While there’s still a minimum monthly subscription fee of $12.99, the amount of content that gets added every couple months has provided me plenty to do at any given point, and there’s a lot more on the horizon with the patching schedule of every three months. Stormblood gives us a strong start, and I’m fascinated to see where the expansion will go over the next couple years.