Welcome to Part 3 of our extended journey through the history of Final Fantasy XIV. Today we'll talk about how Shadowbringers was the best thing to ever happen. And how Endwalker somehow managed to meet sky-high expectations.
**Warning This Includes Minor Spoilers For Final Fantasy XIV**
Shadowbringers will probably go down in infamy to be the expansion that made Final Fantasy XIV blow up. It turned a game with a considerable, dedicated audience into a mainstream phenomenon, and at this point the biggest MMORPG on the market. Everyone was excited about it since it took one of the plot points from Heavensward and based an entire expansion around it but it was also the first expansion after the considerable transformation Final Fantasy XIV had undergone in Stormblood.
The combat system was once again overhauled as we got rid of the last few kinks and rough spots from the early days and everything just started to play smoothly. Jobs were now easy to pick up and fun to master with recovery options. Balance-wise, especially all the tanks got evened out so all of them could fulfill the role effortlessly and there was a lot more focus on party synergy now. This would of course come with battle content that tests players' ability to the fullest, even normal ‘casual' content became much more involved and everything was just a step up from Stormblood.
While I don't want to get into too many spoilers here, Shadowbringers story, most of it least is very tame compared to previous expansions. It's just very confident that you traveling in a strange new world and meeting its people can carry an expansion. And it really did, if you reflect on it now you'll probably notice how kind of optional a good 80% of Shadowbringers base story feels, you just got and deal with local trouble that would then lead to a dungeon or a boss trial.
But in the thick of it, everything is just so disarmingly charming that you don't really care. After the grim tale of Stormblood, we get to go on an adventure with characters that have been with us since the start. And it felt like the writers really had the confidence to just let the characters and the world they had created carry most of the expansion. The biggest payoff is probably the story of everyone's favorite grumpy dad Thancred and the sheer charisma that Shakespeare-enthusiast Urianger brings to the story.
However no one probably expected that Shadowbringers turned from a well-written, adventure with a darstly villain in Vaultry and cool comrades to the masterpiece it is once you reach the final act. Now I don't want to spoil anything, but Shadowbringers does such a well-telegraphed yet completely out of nowhere 360° double kickflip of emotions and somehow still manages to roll off smoothly. I'm not even mad when people say this is the best expansion. If you know, you know and if you don't know what I'm talking about, go play Final Fantasy XIV. Trust me 250 hours worth of questing make that moment hit even harder.
Vows of Virtue, Deeds of Cruelty
Now Shadowbringers base content was easily the best Final Fantasy game of the past 20 years. It was also probably one of the best things I have ever played or watched. And I can say confidently with no restraint that the post-patch content manages to top it and even enhance it. Some have called it the victory lap but I think it is just the second part of what we started during the final section of Shadowbringers.
Here Final Fantasy XIV reaches some of its highest highs yet, despite the patch being released amidst a pandemic and the lead composer fighting a fierce battle with cancer. I would go out on a limb here and say that 5.3 is probably the patch when it happened. When Final Fantasy XIV turned from a popular MMORPG that just casually became the highest scoring game on Metacritic in 2019 outside of the PC release of Red Dead Redemption 2 to a game that would no longer be denied its spot on top of the MMORPG world.
And while the pandemic forced some delays, including the delay of one of the Ultimate encounters and some trouble getting patches out of the way. It was also during that patch cycle when we saw Final Fantasy XIV explode in popularity. Of course, some of that had to do with some of the best content the game had brought to the table yet. Bozja was yet another open zone in which hundreds of players would fight in a war with small-scale skirmishes and huge raids. And both the raid tiers and the new set of trials managed to convince in both stories and the actual fights themselves.
By this point, you'll notice that we've gone from an MMORPG that was doomed to fail, to a miraculous resurgence. A period of time when the developers honed their craft and defined what kind of MMORPG they wanted to make to the title that continued to grow, refine and exceed expectations with every single patch. And all of this led to the perfect storm we got to witness last year.
In April 2021 the next expansion was announced, Endwalker was supposed to end one of the major storylines of Final Fantasy XIV but also mark a new beginning in the journey. And during the extended content drop of 2021 till the release of the expansion, we suddenly saw unprecedented growth in the player base. Years of good reputation and the numbers to back it up made Final Fantasy XIV the number 2 MMORPG in the world. And when both streamers and disgruntled MMO veterans finally decided to give the game a try when there was still almost half a year till the next expansion. It happened.
Finally, Final Fantasy XIV stood at the top of the MMORPG mountain and dominated the news cycle for almost two months. The game sold so fast that they ran out of digital copies to sell and they even had to put a stop to the popular free trial because servers couldn't handle the sudden increase in load. That high would last well into the next expansion and the hype for Endwalker was almost unbearable. It was so bad in fact that Director and Producer Naoki Yoshida had to delay the launch for two weeks because he wanted to make extra sure that the game would hit all the marks. Spoiler alert, it did.
Ending things is hard, especially nowadays if feels like no story ever manages to end in a way that satisfies longtime players or viewers. So when Final Fantasy XIV announced that Endwalker would be the end to the Hydaelyn and Zodiark Saga some of us felt like this was pulling the trigger a little early. But after Shadowbringers there is only so much higher you can go until you'll eventually hit the roof.
New jobs and more combat enhancements got announced and again just like Heavensward felt to ARR, Endwalker felt like the logical step forward after Shadowbringers combat-wise. Party synergy was more encouraged more than ever, most jobs now clicked very well with one another naturally with the small sacrifice that all of them would not run on a two-minute buff timer. For some players felt like they took away the fun of picking the right job combinations and modifying your play to compensate in order to make the game more accessible.
This had, of course, its drawbacks by making high-end content a little staler, but in turn, encounters in Endwalker, especially the harder ones tend to be even more involved now. In general most of Final Fantasy XIVs Endwalker content feels faster and demands heaps more attention from the player than ever before. And the presentation of fights also kicked up a notch, stages transforming mid-fight became more common and even dungeon bosses now come with the level of detail you'd expect from a trial.
Endwalkers 6.0 content feels definitely like a game that is in dire need to over-deliver on everything it promises. By the time you finish the third zone and reach the first trial, it already feels like you've lived through an entire expansion worth of drama and story. There are definitely some players who complain about the pacing, but Endwalker really takes its time to explore the kind of tale it wants to tell. A story about the many endings a story can tell. It even starts to border on being a little too meta at times but after 11 years worth of MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV is allowed to be self-indulgent.
And you know you're in for a treat when one of the first cut scenes recreates one of the three intros from the now defunct 1.0 version. If you have played Final Fantasy XIV to this point, you'll get the full package of fan service and self-referential storytelling. Something as minor as an offhand joke about grapes from one of the side stories Square Enix publishes on their website from time to time even sneaks its way into this tale.
By the time things actually come to a close, I don't think anyone was left unsatisfied. Endwalker felt in many ways like a final hurrah again. Just like the final days of 1.0, it was an overdramatic celebration of everything the game had achieved. I could go on and analyze the story further but the game put it best. It's been a gripping tale. Unbreakable bonds, and noble sacrifice, sprinkled with moments of levity to counterbalance the pathos. It's got it all. And if this would've been the end of Final Fantasy XIV, this was probably the most satisfying way to do it. However…
The Journey Will Never End
We're not living in the post-Endwalker world of Final Fantasy XIV content and so far every patch just seemed grander than the last. It feels more than ever like now that they got Endwalker out of the way Naoki Yoshida and his team have dropped a terrible weight from their shoulders. Besides developing another AAA video game on the side. The wealth of content so far has been insane and the new raid content counts among some of the best the game has ever seen.
The new dungeons feel fresh and exhilarating and the brand-new Ultimate fight is probably some of the best-designed content I've ever seen in a video game. And that is not to mention the wealth of optional content we've gotten as well. The latest patch saw the integration of the Island Sanctuary, a neat piece of side content that has players take care of a small island and manage it into a money-making empire. The optional Sidequests that are supposed to substitute Endwalker's finality, are some of the best-written quests in the game yet.
And the new story content picks up stray threads of lore and weaves them into a gripping tale with new and old characters. For the first time, in a long time, it feels like we're on an adventure again and aren't struggling against fate itself with the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Because Final Fantasy XIV seems to understand that after you saved the lands, the world, and its people. Maybe you should take a break and try to escalate things further, just explore the world you've built and have fun with it. Final Fantasy XIVs lore still offers so many places we've yet to visit and so many stories left untold. And Director and Producer Naoki Yoshida has vowed that they'll keep Final Fantasy XIV going for at least another 10 years.
To keep that promise, huge efforts have been made to future-proof Final Fantasy XIVs promise. While there is currently no plan to allow players to just start where Endwalker left us off, older parts of the story are being overhauled completely. Dungeons are being remade to bring them up to the current standard both mechanically and visually. You can also venture through them with AI companions if you'd like to take it slow or can't find a group.
And with 7.0 there seems to be another big change on the horizon. Final Fantasy XIV is going to receive a complete visual overhaul to upgrade its graphics and smooth out performance while also staying true to what the title has done so far. Of course, it's left to be seen how grand these changes will end up being looking back at the past 12 years, I'd like to think the critically acclaimed MMORPG is in very good hands.
Now thank you very much for indulging in this extended venture through Final Fantasy XIVs history from a player's perspective. If you still haven't tried the game yet, please my friend it is free to play up till the end of the award-winning Heavensward expansion. It is probably one of the greatest pieces of media and definitely one of the greatest games ever made. Even if you aren't a fan of MMORPGs or Japanese video games, you're missing out.
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