As it could be said with the launch of Heavensward four years ago, and with Stormblood two years later, the release of Shadowbringers once again marks a phenomenally fantastic time to plunge into Final Fantasy XIV and dive deep into its world, its stories, and its gameplay. Of course, I speak as one already well-versed in the lands of Eorzea; I could and would talk at length about XIV’s many features and faults, given the time and opportunity. Chances are, if you’re of like mind, you’ve already purchased Shadowbringers and are playing it right now, or have played it within the last 24 hours. But as I wish not to spoil even a single “onze” (ounce) of this expansion’s tale, I will instead focus on what the shadows bring to the game as a whole, and how those who are watching its swirling abyss from the sidelines might best approach their first foray into Final Fantasy XIV.
Before I can talk about Shadowbringers proper, we need to look back to the previous two expansions, Heavensward and Stormblood, to get a better appreciation for why Shadowbringers stands out. With Heavensward, a formula for expansion content and patch cycles was born, and this followed-through into Stormblood. Heavensward added a new transportation mode (flight-capable mounts,) six large and open areas, a 10-level increase in the player’s level cap, dungeons at every odd level to bridge the gap between the old level cap and the new one, more end-game dungeons, normal and high-end 8-player raids, new 24-player Alliance raids, and adjustments to all of the existing jobs, as well as the addition of three new ones. That sounds like a lot, and it’s not even all of it, but when Stormblood launched, we got nearly everything on that list again.
With Stormblood, diving was added; six more areas, another +10 to the level cap, a dungeon for every odd level, and new endgame dungeons. A new raid series, new Alliance raids, more job adjustments, and of course, new jobs, but this time they added two jobs instead of three. I enjoyed both of these expansions, and to their credit they did much to open up the world of Final Fantasy XIV; Stormblood was the first time we got to venture to another continent, and Heavensward allowed players to visit Ishgard, a long out-of-reach city-state that players had only been able to view from afar for nearly five years.
Nearly everything I listed is also present in Shadowbringers: an increase in the player’s level cap; dungeons for each odd level, and endgame dungeons; new raids will be added at the usual patch intervals, and there are six new areas to explore to your heart’s content. But the job adjustments this time around solidify a lot of what makes Shadowbringers a great time to jump in.
Tanking is easier than ever before. All tank jobs had their stances reworked; before, tanks would have an offensive and defensive stance, and reaching the skill ceiling as a tank involved learning and mastering when to forgo your defensive stance, which lowered your outgoing damage. In Shadowbringers, all tanks get one stance at level 10, instead of 30, and all it does is boost how much aggro you generate with your attacks; the defensive properties being passively applied to all tanks at all levels. This change makes low-level tanking and aggro management a non-issue, provided you activate the stance and are hitting targets regularly. All of the physical damage jobs, including tanks, can now comfortably spam their area attacks when engaging multiple targets, as the Tactical Point (TP) resource, which was consumed to execute physical damage skills before, has been removed completely. Area attacks used to cost more than 10% of your total TP, and eventually you would run out if you spammed them for too long. But now, physical attacks have no cost, so you can focus more on your job’s skill rotation. Meanwhile, MP has been homogenized so that everyone has a flat, crisp 10,000 MP at all levels, which makes calculating how much you’re using with your spells less of a headache. This last change feels like a no-brainer too, since all spells in the game have always cost a percentage of your maximum MP; keeping the number consistent works wonders to smooth the experience of managing your MP.
The individual job changes themselves are a mixed bag of sorts, but most of them came out with more pluses than minuses. I played through Shadowbringers with the poster job (and my personal favorite,) Dark Knight, and the rework feels much more satisfying than the Dark Arts spam of old, as the two skills that replace Dark Arts are damaging attacks that apply a damage buff to yourself, which you want to maintain throughout encounters. Dark Knight feels fast and flashy with its plethora of attacks to weave in between your regular combo actions, although I’m still dismayed by the fact that it only has one combo chain. I also dabbled a bit with the new Machinist: its reworked Heat Gauge, all new turret system, combined with new gadgets and a more stable rotation, come together to make the job play with a rhythmic flow that I’ve not experienced before. It’s almost like Machinist is one part Summoner, building up its Battery Gauge to summon its turret/robot, and one part Warrior with its overheated window allowing for the spamming of Heat Blast, Ricochet, and Gauss Barrel.
On the less-fortunate side, jobs like Scholar saw significant changes to their available actions. Scholars employ an Aetherflow resource which gave them 3 stacks to be used, at the player’s discretion, on either a powerful damage spell that restored their HP and MP, a spell to spread their poison statuses to multiple enemies, or one of a variety of healing options. Now, Aetherflow is solely used for those healing spells, as those two offensive options were removed completely, and since you cannot obtain Aetherflow stacks in the downtime between fights anymore, the job’s flow is different from previous iterations, and will take some getting used to if you played it before. Warriors also saw an adjustment to their invulnerability skill, Holmgang, which now has a 1-minute longer cooldown, but doesn’t lock you in place if you don’t have a target selected. Astrologians saw a complete rework of their card system, which makes all of the cards have the same basic effect, compared to before where each of the six cards were wholly unique. So now while every card is useful in every situation, none of the cards feel unique or stand out as particularly valuable. That’s not to say these jobs are ruined or that they aren’t fun to play like they were before; Scholar is still my favorite healer just for its aesthetics, shields, and faerie companion. Almost every job has seen significant changes in how they play, and most of these changes have lowered the skill floor for each job; a welcome change in my opinion, as a problem with many jobs has been that they don’t feel fun or rewarding until you have 50 or 60 levels under your belt. This is still the case for some jobs like Dragoon where you have to go 26 levels before having a full skill combo, but it’s less of a headache than it was before.
Which brings me to the new Gunbreaker job, which I spent the first day of early access leveling from 60 to 70. As a tank main who has played every tank to 70, and has raided as a Dark Knight and Warrior in the past, I’m conflicted on Gunbreaker. Its main mechanic involves accessing a secondary combo via consuming a cartridge from your Powder Gauge, which you build up by completing your primary combo, or by using a wonderfully named cooldown, Bloodfest, to automatically get the maximum two cartridges. You expend excess cartridges on single- or multi-target attacks while you wait for the secondary combo to come off cooldown. It’s a very fun and unique mechanic, but a lot of its other tools are either weaker or stranger than its contemporaries.
For example, its invulnerability skill, Superbolide, makes you immune to damage for 8 seconds, but also drops your HP to 1 upon activation. This makes it the worst tank cooldown to press accidentally or in a panic, as none of the other tanks’ invulnerability skills reduce their HP. Gunbreaker also has a weaker defensive ability in the form of Camouflage, which gives them a 50% chance to parry attacks, in addition to a 10% reduction to incoming damage. In Shadowbringers, every tank lost access to Anticipation, a tank-exclusive action which boosted their parry chance, and Warriors had their parry ability, Raw Intuition, changed to be a flat 20% damage reduction. On top of that, parrying attacks reduces less damage from before: it used to reduce damage by 20%, but now only negates 15%. Combine this with the fact that parrying doesn’t work on magical damage, and only has a 50% chance to occur, and it makes Gunbreaker’s smaller defensive ability seem pretty weak. But these weirder aspects of its kit may be a result of counterbalancing Gunbreaker’s substantial party utility and damage. At the end of the day, the job is still a blast to play, and my hope is its introduction, combined with the new tank changes, will inspire more players to take up tanking; the easiest role to play provided you can trust random people online to keep you alive and kill targets before they kill you.
Speaking of trust, the all-new Trust System added a new dimension to each of Shadowbringers’ dungeons. “Trusts” are a concept from Final Fantasy XI; they were added to allow players to essentially solo content with the help of NPC party members, and it’s a system I think is more valuable the older an online game becomes. With the rise of discussion about video game preservation, developers of online games which rely on stable populations and internet connections will have to consider more closely how best they can preserve their experiences for the future. Even if servers can be maintained and updated indefinitely, dwindling populations make completing content all the more difficult and intimidating for newer players. With Trusts being added to Final Fantasy XIV, this marks a potential beginning for the game to be completed entirely through solo play, though that’s a far-off dream at the moment. For now, let’s talk about how Trusts fare in Shadowbringers.
At each dungeon in Shadowbringers, you arrive at its entrance with a band of NPCs who help to drive the narrative of that dungeon. Upon unlocking the dungeon, you can queue for it and explore it with other players, or you can elect to recruit an NPC party to venture with, made up of the characters present at the entrance. Thus, the Trust NPCs you have available to you change as you complete sections of the story. When employing the services of Trusts, you cannot be aided by other players; it’s just you and the NPCs. To facilitate players playing different kinds of jobs, there is always at least one tank, one healer, and two damage-dealing NPCs available, so the only thing your job affects is which Trust NPCs you don’t use. Once inside the dungeon, you can complete it normally, and the NPCs will have unique dialogue and behaviors for the dungeons themselves and the encounters you’ll face.
It’s pretty charming and works well enough, but it does come with some caveats. For one, dungeon chests will drop fewer items, so if you’re looking to farm a dungeon for loot, it’s better to queue up with friends or other players. As a tank, I was apprehensive about pulling larger groups of mobs for fear that the NPCs wouldn’t be able to keep up with me, and the dungeons felt slower than I’m used to as a result. There were also some hilarious goof moments; Alisaie, the resident Red Mage, once died in a boss encounter, and her twin brother Alphinaud, our healer, was quick to revive her, only to have her resurrect in the middle of a deadly attack which promptly killed her again before her HP could be fully restored. In the second dungeon, there is a unique mechanic that the final boss activates, and each NPC reacts to it differently. I’d only been playing as a Dark Knight up to that point, so I never got to field Thancred, the primary Tank NPC, in the later dungeons, but I had seen from footage gained during the Final Fantasy XIV media tour in late May that Thancred’s reaction to this mechanic is to complete it halfway, and then use his Gunbreaker gap-closer to simply jump across the rest of the mechanic. Dark Knights have their own gap-closer ability, Plunge, so I thought I’d mimic his shrewd tactic, but as I attempted it, my character moved an inch forward, and then plummeted to his untimely demise. “Plunge,” indeed.
Overall, I used Trusts throughout the main story, and never had any major issues with the AI pathing or execution of mechanics. I think the system works well enough that I’m looking forward to what they do with it next. I hope they bring it to earlier parts of Final Fantasy XIV, as I think it would help people who may have anxiety with healing or tanking with other players, and it could serve to teach newer players about more involved mechanics in dungeons.
But let’s discuss that story for a brief moment. In Heavensward, you and your allies become entangled in the thousand-year long “Dragonsong War” between two nations: Ishgard and Dravania. Your goal in Heavensward is to uncover the secrets behind the Dragonsong War and hopefully put an end to it. In Stormblood, the Empire of Garlemald, Final Fantasy XIV’s major antagonistic faction, threatens to restart its campaign to invade Eorzea, the continent the game takes place on. The goal of Stormblood is to stop the empire’s invasion by liberating two occupied nations half a world apart; Ala Mhigo in the west, and Doma in the east, which would force Garlemald to fight on two fronts at once.
The goal of Shadowbringers is to stop the impending apocalypses of two worlds. We go from stopping two countries from fighting, to stopping one country from invading everyone else, to saving two entire planets from annihilation. It’s almost unfair how large the stakes have gotten in Shadowbringers compared to the stories told before, but that narrative is what makes it an incredible expansion. Shadowbringers delves into the history of not only the world of Eorzea, but the worlds beyond it, and those who seek to seemingly destroy it. When playing a new character in Final Fantasy XIV, there is a story quest at level 9 where you have to fight a golem conjured up by a masked mage who you later find out is an Ascian; otherworldly beings who meddle in the affairs of people, who hold the secrets of summoning and teach them to those in vulnerable positions, in the hopes that rampant summoning brings about the destruction of Eorzea. Any time something foul or forbidden is taking place in the world, you can safely bet an Ascian is involved. They have been antagonists since before the game relaunched as A Realm Reborn, and after nearly seven years of their machinations, Shadowbringers delivers hard on their history, their motivations, and their character.
This is not to say that Shadowbringers is without faults. One of the major antagonists of Shadowbringers is Vauthry, the ruler of Eulmore; a rich, pompous society with a strict caste system and meritocratic requirements of entry for those less fortunate to be born into wealth. Vauthry is the epitome of a corrupt ruler of a ruthless and velvet-lined city. He is also one of the only fat characters in the entire game, across all expansions. The only other fat character who has a name and is actually fat (not stocky and wide like male Roegadyn characters,) is Dulia-Chai, a minor character who also lives in Eulmore and is a member of the elite caste, and she has almost no bearing on the story when compared to Vauthry. This has the unfortunate effect where actions Vauthry takes, with his mannerisms, voice acting, sound design, and his characterization, magnify his weight and body, exaggerated though they may be; in other words, if there were more fat characters up to this point who had varying personalities and moral alignments, Vauthry’s actions would be unquestionably related to his being an antagonist. But with almost no other fat characters to contrast against him, a lot of what he does seems like it’s done to say “look at how fat he is.” To wit, he explicitly has a line about dealing with something once he’s finished his dinner. Again, if there were other fat characters in Final Fantasy XIV, it wouldn’t be an issue at all, but the sheer scarcity makes Vauthry an uncomfortable default, and an unfortunate one at that. I can only hope now that the development team has modeled and animated fat characters, they’ll use those assets and experiences to provide a more varied portrayal of them. I adored Dulia-Chai’s character, minor though she was, and I see no reason to leave Vauthry as the sole arbiter of a body type which is, by all accounts, normal and human.
On the topic of things that are normal and human in a different sense, Shadowbringers added two new races for players to play as, and the reception to them has been something of a mixed bag as well. Everyone who wanted to play as the female-only Viera and male-only Hrothgar are overjoyed, and I’ve seen enough of both, in terms of NPCs and player-made characters, to conclude that their additions are welcome. I’ve seen some truly inspired Hrothgar designs, and as the Viera hail from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Final Fantasy XII, my two favorite titles in the franchise barring XIV, so I adored their inclusion. As for everyone who wanted to play as a male Viera or a female Hrothgar, they are left in limbo. The director and producer of Final Fantasy XIV, Naoki “Yoshi-P” Yoshida, stated upon the reveal of Hrothgar that they and the Viera would likely be the last time they add new playable races to the game. And with only one gender available to each, it makes the prospect of the team adding male Viera and female Hrothgar dim at best. The reaction to this has been substantial, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they announce their additions in the next expansion, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.
As I said before, I could and would talk at length about how great this story is, and how expertly it is written, thanks in large part to Shadowbringers’ lead main scenario writer, Natsuko Ishikawa, but it’s something worth experiencing for yourself. The big asterisk that has long loomed over Final Fantasy XIV has only gotten bigger with Shadowbringers; that asterisk being that you really want to sink your teeth into the story to get the most out of it, and there are now two full expansions worth of content on top of A Realm Reborn to get through before you can even think of becoming a Warrior of Darkness in this latest installment. I leveled up fresh alts twice to get Noctis’ car mount from the Final Fantasy XV collaboration event on other Data Centers, and speaking as someone who knows how to speedrun A Realm Reborn, it still takes around 20 hours to get through, and that’s skipping every cutscene and knowing exactly where to go and what to do. That’s not even factoring in the 100 quests that bridge A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, the first expansion. I don’t recommend rushing through the game like this, as while the story of Final Fantasy XIV starts off mundane enough, with delivering pies, or removing pests, or picking up flowers off the street, every step is magnified by the bigger picture. Not everything you do in the story is traditionally heroic, but the power fantasy of “being ready, willing, and able to help people just because they need help” is uplifting and rewarding. If you’re wanting to pick up the game for the first time, my biggest piece of advice to you is this: take it at your own pace; everything will still be there for you, and you’ll find people ready and willing to help you along the way if you need advice, encouragement, or help with queue times. You could opt to buy a story skip and jump straight into Heavensward or Stormblood, but I don’t really recommend that option either, as much of Shadowbringers hinges on story bits that were seeded in A Realm Reborn. This is an expansion that rewards your patience and attention with some of the biggest narrative payoffs I’ve ever seen in a Final Fantasy game, or any RPG for that matter.
I’ll say this much: Shadowbringers is a story about coming to terms with your limits, coming to terms with failure and mortality, accepting who you are and what you are, and loving yourself. It’s not always easy to accept things as they stand, and it’s understandable to wish things could go back; to wish you had done things differently. And through communication with, acceptance of, and love for not only those around you, but for yourself, you can find that sometimes, even the smallest shards of hope are enough to push you through the doubts that cloud your mind. For love brings friendship, as light brings shadows. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a dwarf alt to level up. Lali-ho!