Lahftel
Lahftel
Lahftel, some guy with lots of lukewarm takes on video games. Mostly responsible for the FFXIV section and some variety content. Big Nerd. Top guy, smart guy, educated speaker.

12 Years of Final Fantasy XIV Part 2: Heavensward and Stormblood

A screen cap from one of Final Fantasy XIV's expacs, Stormblood
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Welcome to part 2 of our Final Fantasy XIV recap. Here we reflect on the award-winning Heavensward expansion and how the title transitioned into Stormblood.


**Warning This Includes Minor Spoilers For Final Fantasy XIV**

Heavensward

If the post A Realm Reborn content wasn't a big indicator that Final Fantasy XIV had made a miraculous comeback and was secure in what kind of game it wanted to be. Heavensward was the exclamation point to the sentence ‘We're still here and we're not going anywhere!'. From the moment you enter the Gates of Judgment and walk the Steps of Faith, the air around the game changed dramatically. Not only the recast of the English voice actors but also the cinematics and presentation now boasted so much confidence.

Ishgard was a huge city to explore with its own culture and people that had a very distinct feeling from what we've seen before. The tale of Heavensward is a classic fantasy tale of dragons and knights fighting an eternal war that non seemed to remember the origin of. And most of 3.0, the Heavensward expansion patch dealt primarily with that mystery as we slowly ventured from Coerthas into the dragon's territories of Dravania.

Content-wise, Heavensward felt very much like A Realm Reborn but bigger and better. Dungeons looked more impressive, trials became more intense, and raids seemed initially to cater to everything players grew to expect from the Coils of Bahamut. It was also when Final Fantasy XIV introduced its Savage content proper into the raid series. While the ARR versions of the Savage raids just provided a crisp challenge. The first set of Alexander's Savage fights nearly killed the entire raid scene. Players wanted hard content and they got it, fights with tight DPS checks that required flawless play and gear to back it up.

This would eventually lead to the type of Savage fights we have now; crisp challenges that most players can do if they're willing to put in the work. But the first slew of Heavensward Raid and Trial content was rough. And it taught players a valuable lesson, be careful what you ask for.

But there is a reason why Heavensward is called the award-winning expansion. It was the expansion that put Final Fantasy XIV on the map and it was probably the first time people started to notice its success. But it's also the story that really made this MMORPG expansion shine. This is quite funny because, for most of its runtime, Heavensward's story is self-contained and barely touches most of Final Fantasy XIVs more fascinating story beats.

And what do you get? Some would say is one of the best fantasy stories in gaming, maybe even in media as a whole. Written by Kazutoyo Maehiro who is now writing Final Fantasy XVI and it's safe to say that it was Heavensward that gave Square Enix the confidence to put Yoshida and his team to work on that game. Heavensward's story is so effectively easy that if you would just recap for someone it would hit as hard as it does when you play it. If you've never fought your way through the Vault and done everything leading up to it that particular moment would never hit as hard.

But it was also when Final Fantasy XIV started to experiment with its story structure a little. Instead of being sent out from an HQ to do tasks, most of base Heavensward feels like an adventure. You and your party of unlikely comrades set out to end a war that had been going on for a thousand years and it was also when we saw the MMORPG take a few steps back and let the world and its characters just breathe. So if you've never played Final Fantasy XIV, don't rush it. Take your time and take in the sights.

As Light Goes, So Goes Darkness

As the post Heavensward content rolled out, Final Fantasy XIV slowly started to broaden the type of content it wanted to offer. We got the Diadem, a big open zone players could explore and grind in to get better gear. New dungeons, new trials, and a new tier of raids every few patches. That with the new set of alliance raids made for some of the best content the game had so far. Everything just felt like an extension of what A Realm Reborn did but at the same time, it also started to show some of the cracks in the system.

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A regular RPG with stats and specific equipment and a whole slew of abilities players had somewhat free reign over does not go well with an MMO in which players optimized everything. And yea, why would you bring a Paladin whose strength is blocking physical damage into content that mostly dealt magical damage? Raid content in Heavenward felt somewhat ridged it was probably that point in time when the least amount of people actually cleared savage content. Either because it was too hard in an annoying way or just not fun to do all the prep work for.

In counter to that ran the story content which continued the trend of being the best story yet. It was also around that time when people started saying that Final Fantasy XIV had a great story despite being an MMORPG. Not only did we get the actual finale to Heavensward in 3.3, but Final Fantasy XIV also started the lay the foundation for its next two expansions and figured out the direction they wanted to take the story from here on out.

For me personally, it was during that 3.3 content when Final Fantasy XIV turned from an MMORPG that id played for 6 years at that point, so something really special. The moment you jump off the dragon before the Final Steps of Faith trial, the music swells and you stare down your foe and it was so much more than being the hero who had to slay the evil dragon. And even after all the attempts to make peace, some conflicts could only end in one way.

That trend continued into the next patch as well, suddenly your enemies were not just people standing in your way. The Warriors of Darkness you encounter are not just polar opposites of you, they are very much like you. On their own journey, trying their best to protect what's important to them. And it's something we would touch on again an expansion later.

The final patch of Heavensward was also the end of Final Fantasy XIVs lifecycle on PlayStation 3. Here we dealt with the aftermath of A Realm Reborn's post-launch content, not only did we reunite with old friends and foes. We also had to say goodbye to yet another comrade and in the aftermath, all eyes wandered to Ala Mhigo as we would now, finally take the fight to the Empire. And the game itself would evolve once again.

Stormblood

While Heavensward was a highly anticipated expansion, the air around Stormblood was much more understated. The long content fraud and people falling off raiding left Stormblood with much less of a chip on its shoulder but also was the reason for many of the changes. First of all, combat received a generous overhaul and the step from hitting the level cap to being able to effortlessly raid was streamlined and combat overall felt less like fighting the game.

Content on the other hand seemed like it was about to burst in every direction possible. If Heavensward put Final Fantasy XIV on the map and that was when the developers really honed their skills and figured out what kind of MMORPG they wanted to make. Stormblood was when Final Fantasy XIV really sanded off all the rough edges and broadened its audience. Because why just appeal to raiders and casual MMORPG enjoyers? It's when you saw Final Fantasy XIV become a much more social game with a lot of content that had nothing to do with gearing up.

And while the first raid tier wasn't exactly what people wanted in terms of difficulty, Square Enix would soon have their revenge by introducing the Ultimate difficulty. A kind of remix of older fights squeezed into a 10 to 15-minute encounter with the difficulty dialed up to 11. It's a type of content that went over so well with the community that they're now the highlights of the patch schedule.

Storywise we finally had a real encounter with the Garlean Empire for the first time since the end of A Realm Reborn. Stormblood was a war story through and through as we had to learn the hard way that just calling for a revolution doesn't exactly inspire confidence in people. And during the intro, we gear up towards a classic tale of where we beat the bad guys here, and then we beat the bad guys over there…

And then he appeared. Zenos Yae Galvus the throne prince of the Garlean Empire and our foil for the expansion. Now I would love to write a 50-page love letter to Zenos and especially his English voice actor Luke Allen-Gale but I just put a pin in here that I really liked everything about that character. So far we never had a direct enemy or a rival in the story of Final Fantasy XIV. Usually, we had to deal with people who had values opposing ours. But Zenos is different, he doesn't care about anything but a good fight.

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If you talk to Final Fantasy XIV fans about Stormblood, they would call it a weaker expansion. I think that is mostly due to the fact that Stormblood is much more concerned with world-building for the most part. Not only did we finally get to venture into Ala Mhigo, but we also got to travel east to the Japanese-inspired Hingashi and the Chinese-inspired Doma. The highlight was probably meeting the Xaela warriors of the Steppe and learning about their culture.

A good chunk of Stormblood is just exploring the world until we get ready and set for the roller coaster of emotions that starts once we return to Doma. The latter part of Stormblood gets dark, dark and uncomfortable at times. For an anime-weeb, MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV really does not shy away to show off how dark and messy a war can get. Something it would expand upon in its post-release content.

A Requiem for Heroes

Promotional art released with Final Fantasy XIV's Stormblood showcasing the Samurai class

Much like earlier patches, the content that followed Stormblood mostly dealt with the fallout of the events of the 4.0 patch. While this was by now not the first war we had to clean up, Stormblood was considerably darker in its themes. But also felt a lot more mature in how it tackled those themes. No longer was it right vs wrong and doing objectively the right thing. No, instead the story started to juggle various people from all walks of life trying to figure out what to do moving forward.

In both Ala Mhigo and Doma, we tried to make amends, either by making sure Ala Mhigo would have a future and that mistakes of the past wouldn't be repeated. Or helping Hien in Doma to figure out what kind of leader he wanted to be.

Thematically all of this came together in the 4.3 Patch: Under the Moonlight. Here the Warriors of Light had to learn one very heartfelt lesson, some souls don't want to be saved. No matter how much you try to understand them, no matter how hard to try to help them. There is always someone who prefers to at least end things on their own terms. Again sowing seeds and themes we would explore in later expansions.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy XIV Director and Producer Naoki Yoshida got to live out one of his dreams. For the Alliance Raids former Square Enix legend Yasumi Matsuno returned to integrate his Ivalice stories into the world of Final Fantasy XIV. And so we got an entire three-part raid series dedicated to Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII with all the fan service and references one would expect.

And Final Fantasy XIV also revamped the ideas of the Diadem content with Eureka. Open zone content that is in large an homage to Final Fantasy XI, here players can tackle difficult world bosses and group up to brave this dangerous isle which would end in the 56-man dungeon The Baldesion Arsenal. A type of content they would refine in the next expansion. Stormblood was probably when Final Fantasy XIV really found its footing in terms of content. Suddenly there was just so much more to do and I haven't even touched on the revisions made to the crafting system and all the optional content that was just there to get cosmetics.

Of course, its final patches would lead to the next expansion and I think I'm not alone when I say that the final dungeon of Stormblood is probably one of the best dungeons in the game to this day and the final patch's story was just a taste of what was to come.

Join us next time when we take an extensive look at how Shadowbringers made Final Fantasy XIV into the biggest MMORPG on the market and how Endwalker gracefully ended a story that had been told for over a decade. For more gaming and esports news, visit us here at ESTNN.

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