Last week I sat down to engage in my usual tradition of binging the early access period for Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion, Shadowbringers. What I didn’t expect was to come away Monday morning with what will probably be my favorite game since NieR: Automata.
Don’t get me wrong, as someone who has been playing this game since 2010, FFXIV has always made great strides at creating a charming world to live in and experience, but it always managed to come just shy of being something truly special (if we ignore the circumstances of its relaunch of course)---until now. Since 2013, it’s essentially been a comfort-food of sorts for me; something to come back to when I’m not in the mood for anything else. That means I’ve been able overlook a lot of its more egregious failings as my complacency with it set in.
However, this started to change and erode when the game relaunched as A Realm Reborn, and with each successive expansion that’s been released---FFXIV has made some startling jumps in quality. This has culminated in in Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, which is not only its best expansion so far, but very likely the entire series’ high point as far as I’m concerned.
My personal grievances with various job minutiae aside, this is the most confident and successful the game has been. Whether we’re looking at the balancing around job dynamics, its content pipeline, or the game’s near-draconian sensibilities with its narrative, it defies a certain level of logic in an age where a subscription-based and story-focused MMO shouldn’t be able to even exist---let alone shine this brightly.
The jumps in quality are why I imagine the narrative over A Realm Reborn’s merit has cropped up over the years as this game’s story delves deeper into its own world. For most people trying to get into the game now, there’s a specific barrier to entry guarding the other expansions and their content.
You see, FFXIV gates all its functionality through the player’s progress through its Main Story Scenario. This means access to most of what people are currently enthralled about with Shadowbringers is necessitated by their own progress within A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood. Each of these are around the length of an average JRPG, which can range anywhere from 40-100 hours each, depending on how distracted the player gets by side-content.
I’ve been more sympathetic to this issue than most, as I’ve gotten dozens of people into this game since it relaunched to critical acclaim. A valid criticism of A Realm Reborn’s main story quest is that it needs a heavy re-edit, as progress to even get to the first expansion Heavensward requires progress through 200+ quests, many of which just require you acting as courier for simple messages.
It’s in this area where I take umbrage with the denigration of A Realm Reborn, Stormblood and even Heavensward’s content gating Shadowbringers. Most of the complaints are simply substituting players’ impatience for a legitimate concern. Almost everything that elevates Shadowbringers are things elevated by its previous expansions. This has also led to it living in this weird space of on-demand segmentation that people feel a certain entitlement to now. The game has even tried to answer this in an not-so-ideal manner with jump potions that allow people to bypass “older” content in the game to plop themselves into the latest expansion with no mechanical or narrative context for what came before. For a select few, treating Shadowbringers as a standalone entry might work, for most—-not so much.
This is most egregious when looking at the game’s narrative, with a long-running arc spanning four content expansions now. Each of these feed into the context of what makes the current expansion what it is. A Realm Reborn establishes the universe’s two primary threats, one political and one more fantastical. Heavensward goes offroad, telling an ancillary tale of a war built on a trail of lies, corruption, and racism. While separate from the larger concerns of FFXIV’s main continent, Heavensward still has political resonance concerning its world in the long term. This is also one of the reasons Heavensward is held in such high regard, as it was able to temporarily cast off a lot of its narrative baggage in conjunction with the game’s increasing production quality. Stormblood---while still held in high regard, was a bit more divisive than its predecessor---splitting a mostly political invasion between two continents amongst your character’s involvement (i.e. that baggage comes back into play here).
The primary threat looming over each expansion has been the Ascians (the more fantastical villains) and Shadowbringers is the first to put an ethos to their actions. The largest narrative beat in Shadowbringers revolves around this specifically, with the main antagonist tagging along with your party and even helping you out. He’s almost disturbingly forthright and honest in every interaction despite being part of a group of genocidal war instigators. When the game reaches its climax, it does so in a way that makes you almost sympathize with his distaste for the nature of your ephemeral existence.
Something I’m seeing with Shadowbringers is something I’ve seen with the past two expansions, which are players rushing at breakneck pace to experience what longtime players are currently fawning over. As someone whose time is worth more than his money these days, I don’t buy the “I don’t have the time” argument. This is wrong-headed on multiple levels. The most prominent downside of this is not recognizing that the content is all new for any player just jumping in and there’s no reason to rush. FFXIV takes great pains to let brand new players engage with even max level veterans and its own content with an established pace. It doesn’t punish people for being behind and is very much an experience aimed at the journey and not the destination. Hell, even the director of the game advises people take regular breaks from subscribing and come back, as the game never lets anybody get behind to the point where it’s not impossible to catch up in a relatively short time.
A large reason Shadowbringers is resonating so strongly with people is simply the added context of those last three expansions, right down to minor quests in A Realm Reborn. It’s designed that way—-for better or worse, and people aren’t likely to consider their own sensibilities when it comes to gauging enjoyment of that.
This is particularly relevant for the nature of FFXIV’s primary means of questing, as it usually involves simply running around and talking to people. This is something that reminds me of NieR, where a lot of your most meaningful interactions are held in dialogue bubbles via sidequests. What sets Shadowbringers apart is what I described above, as it’s another large jump in quality for the game’s voice-acting, localization, and just general writing. What people are doing in 2019’s expansion is largely what they were doing in 2013’s relaunch of the game, it’s just done better now, albeit a lot better. Figuring out if that’s enough for you will be apparent long before you even make it to Heavensward.
For some players, it’s not easy to cast off the compulsion of goals or finish lines, but it serves a more genuine enjoyment of Final Fantasy XIV’s experience tenfold if you follow one of this latest expansion’s mantras:
Our journey will never end.