“This time, The Warrior of Light must become The Warrior of Darkness.”
-Naoki Yoshida, Director of Final Fantasy XIV
“The following is a contributor post by the Teal Time Mage.”
No words embody the true spirit of Japanese Role-Playing Games more than “Final” and “Fantasy”. The sheer magnitude of this videogame juggernaut stretches far back to my childhood when I played Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the first time on my Super Nintendo. From there, my passion went on to include Final Fantasy VI and VII (I still say Sabin Figaro suplexing a ghost train is the greatest scene in videogame history!). The FF game I was really looking forward to was Final Fantasy XV because of its Shakespearean plot and quirky “road trip” setting. Alas, I would have to wait a staggering ten years before I could play such an ambitious new entry in the Square Enix library. It was at this time that my friend Zeno recommended Final Fantasy XIV to me.
My initial reaction was nonplussed, as I was not much of a fan of MMOs (monthly subscriptions and toxic player communities have turned me off in the past). A year later, though, I was finally swayed after all our mutual friends started playing FFXIV. It was at this point that I time-traveled back to being 5 years old again, enchanted at the magic and wonder of the world of Final Fantasy. True, FFXIV had its fair share of pitfalls in its initial launch leading to a rushed release date, a peppering of lagged controls, and an overly confusing HUD system which many gamers and critics alike found repulsive. The critical failure of the 1.0 launch of FFXIV forced a complete overhaul under the leadership of Director Naoki Yoshida. Yoshida (or Yoshi-P as he is sometimes referred to) raised FFXIV from a clunky mess of an MMO into a mainstream pop-culture phenomenon that has since spawned a J-Drama series, several worldwide FanFests, marketing with major snack outlets, TV commercials featuring A-List Hollywood stars such as Tom Holland and Hannibal Buress, and even a sponsorship for Wrestlemania 33 featuring WWE Wrestlers Austin Creed and the New Day (themselves hardcore gamers on Creed’s Youtube channel UpUpDownDown – see the video below where “The Man” Becky Lynch tries her luck at a dungeon playthrough).
At the time of this review, a live action series is currently in development for Netflix. This impressive impact on the Final Fantasy series as well as the gamer community, in general, instills a sense of endearing attachment with me that has lasted for the last 3 years.
As a new player for FFXIV, you can customize your own character race and job class from a multitude of different options as you venture through the world of Eorzea (which consists of the forested village of Gridania, the seaside port town of Limsa Lominsa, and the desert city of Thanlan). My player-character is a Miqo’te, a cat/human hybrid who journeys to Thanlan to join the Immortal Flames. Along the way, the protagonist is swept into a battle of good and evil in the form of the surrounding conflict between the invading Garlemald Empire and the free City-States of Eorzea (think Star Wars meets Dungeons & Dragons with just a dash of steampunk). Tertiary antagonists featured are the Ascians (a cabal of conspicuously cloaked conspirators), and the destructive Kaiju-like Primals rampaging across the land (eagle eyed Final Fantasy fans may recognize the latter as classic Summons Titan, Garuda, and Ifrit). In slaying the Primals and halting the advance of the Garlean Empire, your character gains the moniker of “Hero of Light” at the climax of the 2.0 version: A Realm Reborn.
Whenever I was dungeon crawling, I always relied on my free company “HeavenisticChaos” to help me out, coaxing me into the MMO mindset. You have the standard “Tank” who serves as the main defender, 2 “DPS” players who dole out the damage, and the “Healer” who keeps the party healthy when the chips are down. There also exist “8-Player Trials” for intense boss fights and “24-Player Raids” for extensive dungeon maps and item grinding, the majority of which usually bear homages to characters and locations from previous Final Fantasy games (one of my favorites being the aforementioned Ghost Train). Recently, FFXIV implemented a new “Squadron” system in which you excel as a ranked Officer in a Grand Company of your choosing; you can recruit and train 8 NPCs into your own dungeon crawling party and/or item farming group. I found this system quite refreshing: it bypasses wait times in favor of an instant queue, as well as introducing a party AI that flows well with the overall dungeon mechanics.
In the time since I started playing this massive MMO, 3 expansions have been released: Heavensward 3.0 which takes place in the snowy plains of Ishgard and the ensuing Dragonsong War, Stormblood 4.0 based in the eastern setting of Ala Mhigo and their struggle for Independence, and finally the most recent expansion which I will be focusing on, Shadowbringers 5.0.
Shadowbringers is a gorgeous game blending contrasting colorful overtones: the opening area, for instance, utilizes a pale yellow sky against a forest filled with drab gray grass and lush lavender trees, making for a palatable portrait primed with paradoxes and peculiarity. One of the main hub cities, known as the Crystanium, features a cool blue crystal spire at the forefront within a mishmash of primary colors reflecting the function of the city as a sanctuary as well as a place of commerce. Other noteworthy locales are the swamp ridden Rak’Tika Greatwood, the Wild West-styled gulch of Amh Araeng, and the grassy hills of II Mheg. Each of these new areas are vibrant and gloomy, replete with open fields you’ll spend hours traversing.
Two new races have been added to the player customization process: the bunny girl Viera, and the burly blue beasts known as Ronso (once again, longtime Final Fantasy fans should be familiar with these races). My one gripe is that the two new races are gender-locked at present, with the Viera as female only and the Ronso as male only.
The new enemies encountered in the game, known as “Sin Eaters”, are angelic creatures reminiscent of Judaic/Christian statues including Lions, Seraphim, and Celestial Dragons. Tetsuya Nomura (of Kingdom Hearts fame) was responsible for many of the creature designs in the Boss fights, and they all share a fair shake of ominous and opulent; the images presented are usually associated with the forces of good, yet here are depicted as sinister and openly hostile. I just wish that there were more of the “Sin Eaters” encountered, as I find their presence more unique than the usual monsters encountered on the world map.
New Beast Tribes encountered include the Dwarves (actually the First’s version of Lalafells), the returning Final Fantasy creatures Nu Mou, and my new favorite race, the Fae or Fairy Folk spoken of in Celtic lore (I have such a crush on new character Feo Ul). Nostalgia and nuance spun together certainly gives me goosebumps playing Shadowbringers, as I’m sure other Final Fantasy alumni can attest.
Final Fantasy XIV has certainly come a long way since its 2.0 overhaul. 5.0 has once again changed all the job class battle mechanics, effectively “trimming the fat” for techniques and spells that were often underutilized or skipped over completely. Playing primarily as a Dark Knight, I found many of the new move sets refreshing and energetic. For instance, there is increased focus on mob-clearing attacks including “Flood of Darkness” and “Stalwart Soul”, moves which can be chained through the Darkness meter in order to use more powerful attacks. You also have not one but two “Plunge” maneuvers available to you that can either be stacked or rested with charging bars split between them. Perhaps my most favorite new addition to combat is the level 80 technique known as “Living Shadow”, in which you summon a shady doppelganger for a limited amount of time to attack enemies for added damage (recharge time means you need to be sparing using this move, though, so pick your openings wisely). Many gamers might bemoan the loss of some of their favorite rotational skills (the Healer’s classic “Protect” spell has been removed completely), but I feel the new changes offer a balanced style of gameplay that innovates rather than impedes the MMO experience.
Two new Classes have been introduced for the expansion, namely Dancer and Gunbreaker.
Dancer is a more nuanced DPS class because of its rather rudimentary 1-2 combo of “Cascade” and “Fountain” leading to more random combat options featuring powerful move sets such as “Fountain Fall” and “Reverse Cascade”. These techniques can generate points for the “Fan Gauge” which can unlock “Fan Dance 1” and finally “Fan Dance 3” for single enemy targeting. The AoE equivalent to this rotation would be “Windmill”, “Bladeshower”, “Rising Windmill”, and “Bloodshower” to culminate with “Fan Dance 2” and again to “Fan Dance 3”. The “Fan Gauge” reminds me of Red Mage’s spell stacking skill sets with white and black magic bars giving access to a wide variety of spell casting, the key difference being that Dancer is mainly utilized as a weapon based ranged DPS as opposed to Red Mage acting in a more ranged capacity via spell casting. Outside of combat, I noticed that the Dancer will run quicker in battle stance not so dissimilarity from the Ninja Class. But perhaps the most interesting aspect to Dancer is the “Closed Position” technique that assigns other players your buffs, with the other character being gaining the “Dance Partner” stat; this reminded me a bit of the Dragoon’s ability to boost damage for other DPS classes.
Gunbreaker is the new Tank class that I’m sure Final Fantasy VIII fans will go nuts for as you finally get to use the Gunblade in battle. Tanks will utilize more offensive skills in accruing damage through the 3-step combo of “Keen Edge”, “Brutal Shell”, and “Solid Barrel” used in quick succession (I found it similar to my times playing as Paladin and Dark Knight before the class overhaul in 4.0). The exclusive mechanics come from the “Powder Gauge” system, where the third combo move can add a notch to your gauge for more powerful cool-down techniques; these include “Burst Strike” and “Fated Circle” for singular targets and crowd controlling respectively. It seems like a good class to choose; however, most of the dungeons I’ve come across with a Gunbreaker Tank tend to have the Healer pushed to their limits to keep the Tank alive, although this may just be the over-eagerness of online players and not necessarily an issue with the class.
While I wouldn’t say Dancer and Gunbreaker replaced my personal favorite classes of Dark Knight and Red Mage, they looked aesthetically interesting with either the cowboy or dancing acrobat archetypes featured. Indeed, a lot of my HeavenisticChaos friends went nuts with these new classes as they were clear fan favorites of the series.
Dungeon Crawling is in top form in Shadowbringers. Holminster Switch is your first foray into 5.0 that serves as an example of the formulaic layout of the expansion. You fight wave after wave of “Sin Eaters” to arrive at their mutual leaders (“Light Wardens”) who each encompass the final boss of each dungeon. The Dohn Mheg dungeon hits me with a rush of the Alice in Wonderland world from the original Kingdom Hearts due to its whimsical design structure, curious pacing, and quirky monster designs. I think Mt. Gulg is the most awe-inspiring dungeon out of them all because of the sheer adrenaline kick I get out of the massive scaling you do while the background keeps constantly shifting.
Of course, there is vested interest in the instances as well; there is one called “Legends of the Not-so-Hidden Temple” (no joke) where combat is minimized and you must evade traps and sentries in order to progress to the main goal. I did like the brief reprieve from active battles for a shot at tomb raiding.
Exploration in the overworld is much the same in previous expansions: you have to search for Aether Currents with your trusty compass in order to unlock “flight mode” for quicker, more efficient transportation. You’ll be spending a good chunk of time navigating every nook and cranny for these small green orbs, but luckily it never feels too difficult to overcome. There are also quest-related Aether Currents that are much easier to spot on the map post-4.0 due to the fact that the map icons contain a “+” indication on them. With the inevitable Beast Tribes being added, it would behoove any new gamer to unlock these currents and take to the skies (don’t worry; unlike Final Fantasy XV, you won’t crash and die from hitting a lamp post).
The breakout new addition to the 5.0 patch is the “Trust” system. Now you can enter into 70-80 main story quest dungeons with an instant queue consisting of main characters who are usually NPCs. You can customize the “Trust” system from a selection of several DPS, one Tank, and two Healers.
Another new addition is the “Hunt” Story Quests. Once again, you have a selection of different quests to undertake based on the class you are currently equipped with. The “Hunt” quests seemingly replace the more traditional “Job Quests” from previous expansions. Most interestingly of all, you are required to complete the “Hunt” quests in order to proceed through the final stretch of the main story, but it will net you level 80 gear and weapons so it makes it worth your time.
I’m thrilled at these new enhancements to Shadowbringers, as it really feels like a streamlined way of facilitating the main story without all the tedious level grinding and long queues to advance through the dungeons, instances, and cutscenes (I remember one such case during launch day of Stormblood, where there was so much queue congestion keeping players from proceeding in the story).
As is the case with most of the games in the series, Final Fantasy XIV features some truly awe-inspiring audio tracks which reflect both the tone and story of the 5.0 expansion. Masayoshi Soken more than proves that he is the future of Final Fantasy’s musical compositions whose foundations were paved by the legendary Nobou Uematsu. The majestic Celtic, Classical, and Hard Rock blend seamlessly into the melodious tracks. What I really dig about Shadowbringers is that it uses character themes as well as locales. I look back fondly on the bittersweet theme song for the Crystal Exarch, or the tranquil pixie theme for Feo Ul, even the Warrior of Darkness theme replete with somber beauty.
As far as memorable area themes, the Crystanium theme stood out to me as it felt true to the Final Fantasy whimsy I’ve been in love with for decades. There is also the Rak’Tika Greatwood, with its mesmerizing vocals reflecting the natural beauty of the area. Amarout’s gentle piano theme accurately conveys the sense of tragic isolationism in its tracks, which I felt to be both sad and placating at the same time. But perhaps my all time favorite song from Shadowbringers is the main theme that is played during the official trailer; I always feel leery when rock music is integrated with JRPG tracks, but this song just gets me so pumped because it symbolizes how darkness can be utilized for empowerment rather than corruption, which I feel goes to the theme of the expansion. I was very fortunate to hear Soken’s band “The Primals” perform previous FFXIV themes such as Ifrit, Titan, and Shiva with the beautiful vocals of Susan Calloway at last year’s Fanfest, so I can say with absolute certainty that new players will be in for a real treat with 5.0’s new musical library.
Voice acting is really well done; I feel that casting UK actors for the English dub facilitates the gravitas of the characters in a fantasy setting. What I found to be quite interesting is that Square opted for more Irish accents to be used by several of the characters (this especially worked wonders for the pixie voices). I was discussing with my pal The Well-Red Mage on whether voice acting is necessary for the game to convey the sense of emotional weight or scale, and I can say that both voice and text work really well in tandem. The best way I can elaborate on this is that text is used in short and sweet cutscenes that go into details about the story and where the player is about to go, and how that connects with the overall plot. By contrast, voice acting is used in extended cutscenes that highlight character depth, emotional extremities, and shocking revelations of the plot. I would say text is best used in plot interludes to get a proper frame of reference for what’s going on, and voice acting will occur at these almost episodic cinematic cutscenes to give the player a denouement of the trials they faced.
As the title of the expansion might suggest, Shadowbringers deals heavily with the dichotomy between light and darkness as the root of the story. The topical themes are interpreted from the story, locations, characters, and enemies that the player encounters across the expansion, as evidenced both on an internal and external level in each kernel of the game.
Externally, the world of “The First” embodies the innate corruption of the light as it stagnates the land with constantly murky yellow skies devoid of stars and moons; the state of the world indicates how too much light can be just as detrimental as too much darkness. Additionally, there is also the sociological corruption of Eulmore, whose hedonistic decadence spurs constant gentrification. The wealthy elite celebrate while the impoverished majority suffer and starve; the city even strives to maintain the status quo through a sort of religious rationale in which the elite believe it is their divine right to rule because of the so-called “sinful” lives the less fortunate live. Eulmore’s conservative mentality is challenged by other city-states of “the First”, mainly the Crystanium, who wish to bring back the night in order to being balance back to the world and stop the coming calamity which will occur if the world becomes consumed by light.
On an internal level, one can see the moral conflict and personal struggles faced by the characters. None fit the bill more so than the player-character as they go through the process of forsaking the moniker of “Hero of Light” in order to embrace the new “Warrior of Darkness” title to give hope to the despondent people and restore balance back to the world. There is also a powerful theme of redemption present in the game running parallel with the concept that darkness is not purely an evil concoction, that what we may think to be villainous may, in fact, be acts of desperation to save family or friends. What Shadowbringers does so well is it portrays redemption in its characters through their failings, moments of clarity, and even to a degree, survivor’s guilt.
Other tertiary themes I’d like to bring up are religious freedom, which encompasses much of the Rak’Tika Greatwood (hopefully we will see more of this explored in future patches involving the local Beast Tribes), and the theme of fatherhood. The latter of these themes is embodied in two characters predominately, and focuses on how it is best to move forward and allow prodigies to grow and flourish instead of locking them away from the world or over-protecting them; this parental perplexity concludes with one of the best battles I’ve seen in modern video gaming.
As a purely standalone story, the 5.0 expansion gleams with a savory palate that makes you hunger for more; a lot of this can be attributed to the fast-paced and deep writing of Banri Oda and Natsuko Ishikawa. I was most fortunate to meet Ishikawa-san at Pax East a few years ago, where she spoke about the game’s new dynamic direction breaking off from the main saga of FFXIV; I was immediately left in awe that we were going back to some classic Final Fantasy themes and locations which had enchanted me in my youth.
Unlike previous expansions, 5.0 has a very streamlined plot focusing on a crusade to kill the “light wardens” and restore balance to the world. There is very little of the political complexity that encompassed the last two expansions as far as theocracy or revolution; the stakes are higher because it talks about averting catastrophe. This gives a very straightforward narrative as you traverse the world of “the First” towards accomplishing your goal (think the original Kingdom Hearts where you travel from world to world, defeat the big monster at the end, and seal the keyhole instead of the intricacies of a shadowy society). As such, the plot keeps moving forward with a plethora of POV characters and playful dialogue.
One drawback from the story is that the main quest lines tend to drag a bit in the middle of the game. I must’ve spent 3 hours trying to put a train cart back together in Amh Araeng (I was playing in there so long that I thought I was in a Wild Arms game as I zoned out at my computer). Thankfully, the game kicks into high gear after these egregious endeavors.
The train cart aside, I found the story to be well written and spread out for an enjoyable experience that gamers new and old will enjoy. I don’t want to go into too many spoilers, but for those who have played Final Fantasy XIV up till now, you will experience the culmination of previous story arcs from the game which weaves itself beautifully into the narrative.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that Shadowbringers pioneered the story and mechanics presented (as it pays homage to plenty of games from the franchise), but I do feel it enhanced the gaming experience in the 5.0 expansion. The added “Sin-Eater” enemies offers an interesting new group of monsters to fight both in a combative way yet also in a storyline way as all the bossess reflect the corrupted areas that you explore.
Perhaps the greatest innovation the expansion offers you is greater emphasis on characterization, as well as new characters never before seen in the MMO. These heroes and villains go through superb character arcs that feel gratifying and thought provoking, once again a credit to the newly added writers of the game (I do sincerely hope that Ishikawa-san stays on as a lead writer, as I’m giddy with anticipation what her lore-building will lead to).
The newly added classes, races, and even dungeon mechanics (the “Trust” system being one of my favorites) bring a much needed overhaul to the game which I’m sure fans of the series will find most enjoyable.
Once again, while I don’t believe Shadowbringers changed the course of the MMO, it did bring it to the peak of what FFXIV can be with its current quality and scale.
While the story is exquisite, there is is no available way to replay the story in its entirety. As of this review, and from bits of info I heard at last year’s Fanfest, Yoshida is planning on doing a “New Game+”-like scenario where you will be able to reuse your current weapons and armor, but you will have to replay the entire story all over again, so there won’t be any skipping around to your favorite parts. Again, there is no current way to use this system at present. However, you can replay all the previous dungeons, trials, and raids for added experience, item, and currency grinding (the cap of the latter resets on a weekly basis); opportunities may arise where you can roll for a chance to obtain rare musical scripts and mounts to be used in game.
The best utilization of replayability is to try another class of your choosing in order to max it out at level 80 for added variety in your dungeon queuing (it’s advisable to have one of each Tank, DPS, and Healer on hand for added flexibility), the added bonus of which is greater access to the “Hunt” quests as well as level 80 armor and weapons.
If one wishes to simply rewatch story cutscenes, you need only retreat to an inn, and open up the “Unending Journey” book, a type of Theater Mode where you can revisit some of your favorite moments from the 5.0 expansion.
For those looking for a harder challenge to unlock in the game, there are added trials (known as “Savage” and “Extreme” for added challenge levels) which can be unlocked by either side-questing or by visiting the Wandering Minstrel who can give you access via your Duty Finder. If you succeed in these trials, you’ll be given added bonuses including more powerful weapons and armor.
In addition, you can start crafting quests to better hone your equipment or selling items on the market board for netting Gil. This may become vital for future Beast Tribe quests as they usually have one in particular in which the quests are for crafting alone.
For those gamers that want a more solo experience, there are also the recently added Blue Mage quests in which you must fight enemies to gain added spells in your repertoire. These enemies can be found in the overworld, dungeons, and trials; you have to defeat them each in turn in order to be given a chance to obtain the added spells.
In summary, there is a lot to do in the 5.0 expansion even after you finish the main story: added challenges, high-grade weapons and armor, and even alternate class grinding will have you exploring the game for hours on end.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
In conclusion, I would highly recommend Shadowbringers for any gamers interested in playing Final Fantasy XIV. The 5.0 expansion has the highest level of storytelling, characters, added combat mechanics, and innovative gameplay styles, making for an enjoyable playing experience. It truly is the crème de la crème of this MMORPG Juggernaut. As a standalone story it certainly is a mostly well-paced, deep, and philosophical exploration of light and darkness. The juxtaposition of light being a catalyst for an impending calamity gives a unique presentation of character depth and storytelling. The newly added selection of classes and races help to give players added options for customizing their characters, or simply a nice change of pace from their current preferences.
On a personal note, I will add that my playthrough experience helped me rediscover my enthusiasm of this franchise; the last few entries in the Final Fantasy series were enjoyable, but ultimately left me thirsty for more, and Shadowbringers helped to fulfill that role. I find myself transported back to my very first Fanfest, where I cosplayed as a Red Mage as Yoshida wore a Scarlet Witch T-shirt (hinting that Red Mage would be added in the Stormblood 4.0 expansion), and getting the thumbs up from him for asking about mount flight conversion for previous steeds (Sleipnir being one of my all time favorites).
My experiences with Ishikawa-san also left me in awe that the writing staff not only produced some high quality storytelling, but also were interested in reading some of my own works, a nice summation of the tremendous staff they have working on this expansion. Fast forward two years later to my second Fanfest, where I cosplayed as a Blue Mage variant from Final Fantasy XI: it was at this time that the Square Enix President came out in a blue cape and mask, and his entrance was followed by the Blue Mage reveal trailer – this left me in shock as I had twice deduced what new classes would be added to the game.
Listening to Soken’s band “The Primals” performing the musical tracks from the game got me extremely pumped for whatever the future would hold for the 5.0 expansion. For those looking for added information of the world of Final Fantasy XIV, I would try getting the official Lore books packed with background information on the characters, classes, races, and locations found in the game. I was lucky to get autographs by several of the staff who worked on the game, and even asked a few questions at their Q+A panel regarding seasonal events and added mini-games to the Golden Saucer. Final Fantasy XIV is more than just a game, it’s an experience built on the community of its fans, and the commitment of its staff. And it’s for this very reason that I recommend you play a part of it in this majestic tapestry they have woven within this most recent 5.0 expansion.
Aggregated Score: 9.1
The Teal Time Mage lives at a fixed point in time that is set between 1991 and 1997. Outside of his time vortex of nostalgia, he writes horror short stories, cosplays, and coordinates for various charity groups. Find him on Twitter @ArosElric, on Facebook @ArosElricCosplay, on Final Fantasy XIV’s Cactuar Server under the name “Aros Erlic”.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in promoting honesty and quality to games writing through thoughtful, long-form critiques. We’re building a future for games writers to get paid and find a fairer and happier alternative to mainstream coverage and culture. See our Patreon page for more info!
Categories: Game Review