There has been many cases of failures throughout the video game industry; some of a higher profile than others—especially in the MMO market and its desire to replicate World of Warcraft’s original success. However, there’s so few cases of a product rising from the ashes of its monumental failure and achieving a rebirth and redemption unlike any other, such is the tale of Final Fantasy XIV.

Its third and latest expansion: Shadowbringers, was launched three weeks ago to great success. The story, the presentation, the award-winning soundtrack, and the graphical spectacle that have been present in FFXIV ever since it was relaunched with A Realm Reborn have all been dialed to eleven, they are what carry the core of this otherwise very structured MMO game.

This is their third rodeo at an expansion pack, a much-needed breath of fresh air in a genre that has been going through a very long twilight period; by now the team led by Naoki Yoshida knows which cards are the strongest in their deck, and know how to play them to their fullest—which is what they just did, the result is an extremely fantastic and engaging experience.

Now, MMOs (and their expansions) are often tricky to review when they’ve only been out for a couple days/weeks; I’m no video game journalist (thankfully) but if you were to ask me, you’d ideally want to check them out at launch, throughout the middle, and wrapping it up towards the end or at the eve of a new expansion.

With the short amount of time that Shadowbringers has been online in mind, this will be a very “initial” review of the expansion itself. If you happen to be interested in the nuances of the game (from the perspective of one of the so-called “WoW refugees”) then please consider checking out this previous entry.

I will keep this spoiler-free, given that Final Fantasy XIV’s story is one of the most fundamental pillars of its experience. Without further ado, here’s my Shadowbringers impressions after its first three weeks:

A doomed world

Heavensward told you a tale of political intrigue, secrecy, and betrayals, placing you in the middle of an ongoing war between men and dragon that have spawned millennia; Stormblood focused on the revolutionary fight against the Garlean Empire and the liberation of Ala Mhigo and Doma. Shadowbringers instead transports the player and its allies into an alternate world known as The First. Your task is simple yet rather daunting: Save this doomed world, in doing so, you’ll be saving yours as well.

…And then came the Light─a flood of pure, blinding radiance, annihilating shadow and color and life itself. Ere long, it will consume our world, leaving naught in its wake but blank perfection.
—Arbert

If you played through one of Heavensward post-launch patches, you should remember the Warriors of Darkness and the state of the world they hailed from, their plea, and thus the justification for their actions. This arc serves as a crucial backbone to the story of Shadowbringers

A series of events towards the end of Stormblood’s story set in motion your arrival into this world, and thus begins your journey towards saving a world that was all but done for, where some of its inhabitants refuse to give up and fight to defend what’s left in order live another day—while others have given up and instead chosen a hedonistic life full of decadence, waiting for the world to end.

The region of Norvrandt, all that remains of The First.

This is a Final Fantasy game, it expects you to engage with the story and immerse yourself into it to the best of your ability (and attention span); this one is very worth paying attention to—I’d go as far as say that this is the best Final Fantasy story in over a decade, a classic good versus evil setting, a light versus dark main course with all the right ingredients, cooked to perfection, and presented to you in a very nice plate.

This time, Natsuko Ishikawa was put at the head of the Main Scenario Quest and boy, she did an astounding job; heck, I’d say you might want to treat your journey through the story content as a single-player RPG first and MMO later—you won’t be disappointed if you take this approach.

When you first arrive into the world of the First you’ll immediately notice that a perpetual and everlasting light plagues the skies—beautiful yet abnormal, it’s a sight to behold and certainly does radiate a peaceful aura. It is also a reminder that this is a world deprived of night, stuck in a perpetual portrait that depicts the impending end of days.

And so it falls to you, the Warrior of Light, to become what you must and take up the mantle of the Warrior of Darkness in order to save this doomed world from the clutches of the vile creatures known as the Sin Eaters.

I don’t want to say much about it, but you will cross paths with one of the best written villains in Final Fantasy history (which itself isn’t saying much, but that doesn’t remove any merit in its writing); Shadowbringers also pushes the lore forward, answering a few questions and slapping you with some shocking revelations while at it.

Without spoiling much, there is a dungeon towards the end of the story quests that conveys a narrative to you as you progress forward through its rather linear layout, to the point that each named section of the map is itself a sentence related to the tale the dungeon is telling you—all of them forming a single paragraph.

All brakes are loose in the end, your journey culminates with a bang unlike any other in this game’s past. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the story content, something I can rarely concede to these days, given the state of the video game industry and my personal life as well.

A reflection of your home

The world of The First lives up to the fact that it’s a reflection of the one you hail from, you will immediately realize that some of the zones are alternate versions of the initial A Realm Reborn areas (La Noscea, Gridania, Thanalan, Mor Dhona). The whole “alternate world that kinda resembles yours” trope was beautifully executed here.

Similar yet very different, this world has developed a culture of its own, which in turn causes certain differences when it comes to races, including their names. I’m quite fond of the fact that the game dedicates a few minutes of your initial moments in The First to explain why you’re able to trade with the same coin, why you’re able to access your retainers, move back and forth between worlds, and many other elements that you could’ve just suspended your disbelief for the sake of gameplay mechanics.

Yes, they have Allagan Tomestones in this world too...

Soken, unleashed

Masayoshi Soken has once again outdone himself with Shadowbringers’ soundtrack, his characteristic use of leitmotifs is once again present. I’m just a few days into this expansion and I’m already in love with its soundtrack—it is, after all, the main aspect of this game that initially drew my attention towards it.

The varied assortment of genres that you’ll find in the soundtrack is a journey of its own and serves to enhance the overall story experience. When I first entered the Rak’tika Greatwood I wasn’t prepared for the audible bliss of its track: Civilizations, it’s one of the most beautiful tracks I’ve had the pleasure of listen to in a video game.

As I mentioned in my previous FFXIV-related entry, even if you’re not a fan of Final Fantasy XIV (or MMOs for that matter) I strongly suggest you listen to this game’s vast soundtrack at least once, you’ll rapidly get fond of a handful of tracks at the very least.

You can find almost all of it in your favorite music streaming service, just a heads up.

Gameplay Changes

The game’s core concepts remain unchanged, the structured (and predictable) way they’ve been doing things ever since the game was relaunched remain intact, down to the way endgame progression is handled. However, that doesn’t mean that Shadowbringers didn’t bring some much-needed changes and improvements when it comes to combat.

Many of the most superfluous and situational abilities were wiped across the board, a handful more were removed or its effects were baked in into other abilities—thus eliminating a potential skill bloat problem and allowing room for the new abilities that come with the increased level cap.

Overall, the total number of abilities at max level remained relatively similar when compared to Stormblood.

“Interrupt” mechanics (abilities that prevent an enemy from successfully casting a spell, stop it or you’ll have a bad time), which became very prevalent in World of Warcraft throughout the years have made a more formal debut in Shadowbringers. While not to the level of importance that I’ve come to known from WoW, the mechanic is there—with a shy initial approach to it.

It remains to be seen how important it’ll become in some of the boss fights that’ll get added throughout the expansion, this is a responsibility shared by tank and physical range DPS classes. 

When it comes to the tanking classes, their toolkits have been normalized across the board without removing an inch of their core identity. This means that all tank classes can fulfill the “Main tank” or “Off tank” roles in a raid with ease. The difference is the level they receive these, which in turn makes it so that some tanks feel more complete than others at earlier levels; it doesn’t matter at the level cap since they’ll all have the complete basic tools by then.

Dark Knight, the class I’ve been playing the most, received a much needed overhaul; many of its former abilities were removed and replaced—I’m still rejoicing at the fact that having to spam your Dark Arts button is no longer a thing. Machinist was another job that received the most amount of changes, it went from the worst designed class to one of the most fun (and busiest) to play as, using all sorts of tools—even summoning your own robot at level 80.

Dark Knight's new secondary job gauge

Other classes, such as Dragoon, Samurai, and Black Mage, remained largely unchanged, but not without their fair share of quality of life improvements. For example, Dragoon plays the same but it is substantially less clunky than before, no longer being tied to a very rigid rotation makes up for a more enjoyable experience and adaptability.

All of the class changes aren’t all perfect though, from what I’ve gathered, monk has a very tight opener right now that pretty much requires the use of a third party tool to flawlessly execute and Summoners can get pretty hectic with their button mashing.

Some of the new skill additions feel lackluster though, for instance, the final Samurai skill, and one of the Red Mage’s new abilities are very, very situational and see little use in combat.

In the case of the three healer classes, yeah—they got shafted with the worst end of the deal this time around. The Astrologian’s card system was shafted and replaced with a simplistic design; I was very fond of the old system, since its something that I hadn’t found in other MMO healer classes before—now its just straight damage buffs with a “match three” kinda minigame baked into it.

Be mindful that this was written before Shadowbringers received its first balance patch, so there’s still plenty of time to tweak things around and hopefully make the necessary adjustments to the classes—especially in the Healer side of things.

In any case, I personally feel like combat is more engaging and fluid now when comared to Stormblood, a fundamental pillar of enjoying an MMO is having an engaging and fun combat system, and that’s something you’ll find in Shadowbringers.

The New Jobs

As with every expansion before it, Shadowbringers comes with new playable Jobs, two this time around: The Gunbreaker and Dancer jobs. Both of these easily unlocked and start at level 60.

Gunbreaker

According to legend, there can only be ten* Final Fantasy VIII fans at any given point in time, when one dies, another is immediately chosen with the blessingburden of being a Final Fantasy VIII fan in a world that will never fully accept you—a world full of Clouds, Aeriths, Tifas, and xXxSephirothxXxs. 

I happen to be one of those misunderstood FFVIII fans.

No one knows what will happen should we all convey in a single room—a portal to Balamb Garden might open perhaps, we don’t know, the answer has been lost in time.

Naturally, as soon as a Gunblade-wielding tank class was confirmed, I immediately made it a personal goal to play it, I mean, come on, Gunblades, man.

"Whatever."

The Gunbreaker is the fourth and newest tank class added to the game, the first one since Dark Knight was introduced in Heavensward in 2015.

You can tell it was designed with the aforementioned class changes in mind, this class is quite fun, fast paced, and engaging to play as. It almost feels like a DPS class that happens to have tank abilities, it does manage to blur the lines between roles without violating the sacrosanct MMO trinity.

Their skillset boasts a gratuitous amount of FFVIII references, Fated Circle, Rough Divide, Blasting Zone, et al. Once I actually get to level it to max it’ll become my de-facto main class for sure, it’s been twenty years since I first played FFVIII so it’s going full circle.

The fact that it starts with the sheer majority of its toolkit from the get-go is both good and bad, good in the sense that you get to play a very fun tank class with most of its skillset right off the bat—bad in the sense that it doesn’t change much between level 70 and 80.

*turns out there can actually be more than ten FFVIII fans at any given point in time, the actual maximum possible amount is yet to be confirmed—this changes everything.

Dancer

Dancer is the third physical range DPS class, the newest since Machinist was added in Heavensward. Their damage its on the lowest end of the spectrum because it’s very oriented towards a supportive role; it’s very accesible to newcomers due to its simplicity.

It is a very proc-reliant class, which means that at times you will be blessed by RNG and have a long streak of procs and you get to do all sorts of flashy skills, but sometimes you’ll have a drought of procs that locks you down to your basic 1-2 combo for a bit.

Most of its support comes from the dance mechanics, by pressing one of the two “step” abilities, your basic four damage-dealing skills are replaced with color coded steps, you must complete the indicated sequence in order to successfully deal damage and apply a damage increasing buff to yourself and to your designated partner.

Female Dancer
Male Dancer

I haven’t had much time with it beyond an initial test spin, it’s a very fun class of its own and its abilities are very visually appealing. If it had been up to me though, I would’ve designed Dancer as a healing class with a “dance and deal damage to heal” system of sorts.

If you’re not about doing big damage numbers and instead prefer to be “credit to team” while being all flashy and whatnot then yeah, this class might be for you.

Trusts

Trusts is a new system added in Shadowbringers, it’s name and features are inspired by a similar feature found in Final Fantasy XI. It allows you to clear the expansion’s dungeons (which are mandatory to do if you want to clear the story quests) using a group up of NPC companions—you know, for those that don’t want to party up with people in a MMO game. 

Clearing dungeons with Trust is considerably slower than with a full group of players since Trust won’t AoE enemies and aren’t as powerful all things considered; they’re great if you want to try out a new class in a rather controlled environment.

They might be slower than players, but they’re not without their fair share of charm, they have plenty of pre-programmed interactions and conversations with one another, they tackle certain boss mechanics in their own way, and some will only do certain things when the right person is also in your group.

During your first run at the story, they will always have the appropriate level for any given dungeon, however, once you clear the Main Scenario Quest they will reset to level 71 and you must level them up—a rather daunting and grindy task since they earn exp at a fixed rate.

It’s a very nice addition that certainly is not for everyone, but you’re not obligated to partake in it. It’s just there for those that want/need to use it.

Endgame

The other side of the MMO experience: the endgame.

Shadowbringers will continue to use the same structure of past expansions when it comes to endgame, which will be split in the following:

Trials: Single encounters with an optional Extreme difficulty mode that generally awards weapons. As of right now, only two extreme trials have been released: Titania and Innocence.

I finally had time to sit down and clear both of these, these encounters have a fair share of unforgiving mechanics that might take a bit to get used to via trial and error, but the encounters themselves are a blast to play.

Raids: A series of twelve encounters with a unified narrative theme, released in sets of three, all with a Savage mode difficulty that yields better rewards. 

The theme of Shadowbringers’ raids will be Final Fantasy VIII’s Eden. As of the time of writing this the first part, Eden’s Gate, has been opened, and the Final Fantasy VIII references have begun to be unleashed, much to my enjoyment.

Featuring Eden from the Final Fantasy VIII series

Alliance Raids: 24-man series that are less difficult than Extreme or Savage encounters, also released into three parts and with a theme and story of their own. 

The one from Shadowbringers is going to be a special one, it’ll feature a NieR Automata themed series of raids called “Yorha: Dark Apocalypse” and it’ll feature Yoko Taro as guest writer, expect a wild ride for sure. These will start to be unlocked at a later time.

As for Ultimate encounters, the crème de la crème of difficulty, nothing has been said yet. If Stormblood was any indication, expect two extremely difficult versions of past encounters that won’t be for the faint of heart. My money is on Heavensward’s Alexander.

Wrapping up

Shadowbringers doesn’t reinvent the FFXIV wheel, nor does it try to fix what isn’t broken, this isn’t bad per se but it can make feel people a bit stagnated and burn out of the formula (endgame most of all). 

It does refines everything that the game has been doing right, provides you with an amazing setting and story, and the changes to the gameplay allow for a more flowing and entertaining combat. It’s the best Final Fantasy XIV has been and I very much recommend playing it if you’re fond of the MMO genre as a whole.

The expansion is getting much praise, and rightfully so, its a fantastic ride from start to finish. The only downside is that it requires a considerable amount of time before you’re able to reach Shadowbringers content, sure, you can pay to skip large chunks of FFXIV’s story, but why in the world would you do that?

On the plus side, it doesn’t force you to stay subscribed to it for every single day, you can easily drop out and come back after every major content patch if you prefer, it’s how the game is designed to anyways.

Wait a minute, is that...

The upcoming content patches have a chance to contain a surprise or two, but endgame will surely follow the same structure of Heavensward and Stormblood. 

That being said, it is one of the fresher airs in a eroded and battered genre. Depending on how things unfold in my life, I would very much like to do a second Shadowbringers entry towards its halfway point, and one towards the end of its run.

I don’t have much time these days, and I don’t have much people to tackle endgame content with, but feel free to hit me up if you want to do stuff, always up to help others and just have a good time ingame. You can find me at Kaleb Isthal, Cactuar server, Aether Data Center. Or if you fancy, you’re more than welcome to join our FC: Imagine Dragoons.

-Kal


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