After a disastrous launch, the story of Final Fantasy XIV and its redemption is one of the most incredible in the video game industry. A distant follow-up to the series’s previous first into the MMO space, Final Fantasy XI, XIV launched on September 30th, 2010. Developed and published by Square Enix, it garnered unfavorable reviews at launch, getting a bleak 49/100 on review aggregator Metacritic. This lead to Naoki Yoshida taking over as director and being tasked with completely overhauling the game and rebuilding its image in the public eye.
Yoshida implemented multiple updates, including Chocobo personalization, graphical overhauls, and overhauling the battle system. But the problems ran too deep to be fixed with only patches, as the issues ran down to the game’s server structure and engine. It had to be taken down completely. The final version of the game, released on November 1, 2012, culminating the story in a massive apocalyptic battle that led to the destruction of the world just before the game was taken down on November 11th, canonizing the game’s reboot into its narrative.
A Realm Reborn
This culminated in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which launched in August of 2013. This is where players today start. Getting started in XIV is rather daunting, especially if one hasn’t done their homework. The character creator is sufficient with a handful of different races to pick from and plenty of facial customizations, but then it is time to pick a starting class. There are nine total classes to start with, and each one leads to a different job that is effectively your class after progressing through the story and reaching level 30 in the starting class. There is a total of eleven jobs in the base game and eighteen with all of the expansions. Every character can switch between the different classes and jobs and level them independently at any time. Still, there is no indication when making a first character what job each class leads to, leaving new players to do some leg work to make sure they start with a class that will eventually lead to what they want.
After making a character, players are thrown into a narrative following the political struggles of four city-states living under the shadow of a technologically advanced and malicious empire that threatens to invade at any time. The city-states are allies largely in name only. Each focuses primarily on their interior political squabbles and deals with the local beast tribes, small villages of animalistic races that are local to the lands around each city-state. Most of A Realm Reborn‘s story meanders between small-time local grievances and the busy work of the beast tribes. There are moments of high intensity and gravity scattered throughout, but they appear with little lead-in before quickly dropping back to the more tame quests finding people and delivering packages. This leads to the narrative feeling unfocused and complicated despite very little of what takes place playing into the bigger picture.
Where XIV shines, at this stage, is the gameplay. Combat is flashy, with intricate animations and vibrant effects. Classes are well-tuned to fill roles in a group while being competent alone. Jobs and classes get skills in a conventional way for an MMO, but certain skills also gain bonuses if used directly after another skill. It isn’t an overly complicated system, but it does keep the combat feeling more involved. There is also a lot of variety in the jobs, each bringing a unique approach and mechanics to the traditional tank, DPS, and healer roles.
The combat is particularly great once the player reaches the few dungeons that are worked into the story. Even as some of the least impressive dungeons in the game, they are still well designed with fun mechanics, well-crafted encounters, and interesting enemy designs that catch the eye and fit well into the greater world. They are also helped by allowing players to go through them with friends, helping to coordinate in the dungeons easier while also making it a better time. Unfortunately, playing through the main story with a friend is bogged down by annoyances. Most of the cutscenes and many of the quests are only available in solo play, meaning playing with a friend is an infinite cycle of getting in a party, running around together, watching each other in combat, and leaving the party for a short bit of playing alone before doing it all over again.
The dungeons contribute to what is an overwhelming amount of content, even with just the base game. There are gathering and crafting professions to level, guild activities, the Golden Saucer casino, timed events, raids, wondrous tales, free company missions, side quests, special areas, highly coveted player housing, and a popular community of fashionistas that utilize XIV‘s glamour system (similar to World of Warcraft‘s transmog). It is a lot, and it can be difficult at times to sift through it all to find what is worth doing and what is not, but the vast majority of the content is. By the end of A Realm Reborn, the game feels immense, and any MMO fan will feel satisfied with having invested their time, but it only gets better from here.
Starting the first expansion, Heavensward, it is easy to feel like one knows what to expect, and that feeling is largely accurate. Released on June 25, 2015, Heavensward was seen as a portent of what was to come for XIV. Would it continue its redemption story or slip back into the poorer quality of its past? Thankfully, it was the former.
Playing through Heavensward today as a new player feels very much like an extension of the base game, only slightly improved in nearly every way. The narrative sees the player falsely accused of murder and having to flee for their life. While trying to prove their innocence, the player uncovers a conspiracy surrounding an ongoing war between a fourth city-state and an army of dragons. The narrative here is subject to the greatest improvement in the quality of this expansion. The plot isn’t anything groundbreaking but has more focused pacing with memorable characters with tangible development arcs, something the base game sorely lacks.
Apart from the story, the largest addition is the increase in zone sizes. The areas introduced in this expansion are roughly triple the size of those visited previously, and the difference is impactful. The size makes the world feel vast and ripe with possibility. They are fun to explore and feel more alive than those in the base game. The appeal of the new zones is only helped by the expansion’s addition of flying mounts. A common feature for the genre, they add a lot to the zones in Heavensward in particular. They put the zones’ beauty on full display while managing their immense size and limiting travel times to stay within reason.
At the tail end of Heavensward, it is hard not to feel hopeful for what lies ahead. The improvements over the base game are incremental. However, they still signal an already solid product iterating and improving itself in the right ways as the player gets ready to move onto the next expansion, Stormblood.
Before starting Stormblood, new players have seen dozens of hours of gameplay, and are more than familiar with the game’s world, Hydaelyn. That is precisely why Stormblood‘s greatest success and asset is the two new regions, Ala Mhigo and Doma. It sent players to when it was released on June 20, 2017.
The story sees players working in both regions on covert operations to build up a rebellion movement and free the regions from Garlean control. Compared to the ones before it, the story is a slow burn but is complicated enough to make its slow unraveling feel earned and riveting as players watch the politics play out intelligently.
Ala Mhigo is XIV‘s analog for real-world Turkey and beautifully captures the region’s architecture and culture. It stands out from the rest of the game’s cities with its proud steeples, a state anthem that is repeated throughout the story both as orchestral background music and a chant performed by soldiers, and a great history to explore and learn.
Ala Mhigo’s gothic architecture and harsh angles are contrasted by Doma, a clear interpretation of historical Japan. Bright and colorful with long curved designs, Doma is everything that Ala Migo is not. Each region brings with it a distinct flavor, area to explore, and enemies to fight that keep the expansion feeling fresh throughout the hours it takes to complete it.
The regions each bring a new job with them, the samurai and the red mage, respectively. Both damage-dealing classes each bring a new take on the role in a fun new way distinct to the other damage-role jobs in XIV. Samurai switch between different sword techniques while building energy in their katana that can be expelled in devastating special attacks. On the other hand, Red Mages are a ranged-melee hybrid class that utilizes red magic and rapiers to deal damage through repositioning.
Stormblood‘s main negative is how it forces players to complete quite a few sidequests to level up between main quests despite the quality of side quests being very poor. Typically little more than a fetch quest with a paragraph at the start and end, the side quests are an unwelcome intrusion that takes away from the experience more than they add, which can be disappointing since they provide a great opportunity to flesh out the cultures and peoples of the new regions that go unutilized.
That being said, Stormblood continues the impressively upward trend of quality for XIV, making getting close to the most recent expansion, Shadowbringers, very exciting.
Personally, Shadowbringers is the expansion that brought Final Fantasy XIV to my attention long before I started playing it for this article. When it was released on July 2, 2019, I saw praise for it everywhere. It was hard to get away from the myriad calls for new players to try the game out simply because of how amazing its third expansion was. Claims that it was not only the best expansion for XIV but that it was one of the best Final Fantasy games ever were commonplace. So, when I traveled to start the main quest, I had very high expectations for it to meet, and it exceeded them all.
Shadowbringers starts with the player being sent to an entirely new world called The First, a separate dimension that separated from that of the rest of the game after a cataclysmic battle eons ago. The First is dying and has mysteriously begun abducting the player’s allies before taking the player as well in a plea for them to help save the world. Saying too much more would begin to spoil some of what makes this expansion’s story so spectacular, so I will stop there, but Shadowbringers‘ story is a leap of quality over those that came before it. It introduces players to an engaging new setting while developing both new and familiar characters in interesting ways. It is high stakes and energetic while also giving an interesting look at how different people would react to their world’s impending demise. The new characters introduced are some of the best in the entire game and instantly grab the player’s attention.
The story is also excellent in how it manages to pay off nearly everything that has come before it. Finishing the story in Shadowbringers feels like a monumental capstone event, XIV‘s very own Avengers Endgame level narrative. The scale of it all is something rare amongst video games and only pays off as well as it does because of the dozens of hours of context before it. The expansion was designed with newcomers in mind, so jumping in with a level boost or story skip item is not the worst thing. There are cutscenes to catch you up on what happened in the story and tutorials to teach you the jobs you’ve leveled that make the experience much smoother than other games of the genre, but I have to imagine that it would weaken the impact of the expansion’s excellent story significantly.
The expansion boasts an incredibly diverse color palette that is a bold new addition to the world of XIV. The different setting and unique place in its lifespan allow the environments to be completely new, ranging from the vibrantly crystalline to the dismally barren.
It also brings with it the gunbreaker and dancer jobs, both of which fit perfectly with the new setting. Gunbreaker is a visually interesting tank job that uses combos to build powerful techniques, but the dancer is the real standout here. Dancers are a ranged DPS class that wields bladed chakrams. While they fight, players can perform different dance routines in specific sequences to apply buffs to themselves and a single party member. The job is flashy, unique, fun to play, and is complex enough to allow players to adapt their playstyle to various situations on the fly.
With Shadowbringers being the most recent expansion, its completion also means reaching the endgame of XIV. The endgame is where MMOs live or die. As I mentioned before, there is a ton of great content to do in XIV, and nearly all of it has great rewards to chase. Running dungeons and raids, collaboration events with series like Nier and Monster Hunter, PvP, or even just buying a customizing an incredible house all have the potential to fill hundreds of hours. If you want to play other games as well, XIV is also structured very favorably to allow players to reenter the game here and there when one of the content patches releases every couple of months to pop in and see what is new and exciting in the game. Whichever way you prefer to play, XIV is well equipped to make itself worth your time.
It is at the end of Shadowbringers, upon looking back at a little over a month of playing hardly anything else, that it is easy to see just how great starting Final Fantasy XIV in 2021 was. It takes a great game to feel new and special for dozens of hours, but XIV only gets better and more special as it goes.
What starts as a largely standard MMO experience in A Realm Reborn expands in scope with Heavensward, gives depth to the world and characters in Stormblood, and pays everything off with Shadowbringers. It all coalesces to make an experience like nothing else out there, especially for new players who have the game’s entire epic scale in front of them.
Playing through Final Fantasy XIV in it entirety now is an undertaking, but players who do so are rewarded with an experience of incredible scale and quality. I cannot recommend it enough to any fan of MMOs or fantasy RPGs. Naoki Yoshida and his team deserve all of the praise they have received, and the recently announced fourth expansion, Endwalker, coming this fall, makes now a perfect time to jump in.
Final Fantasy XIV is available now on PC and Playstation 4.