More than 10 years after its disastrous launch, Final Fantasy XIV is now one of the most talked about MMORPGs in the world. The story, forged from the ashes of its very public collapse, is expected to end in a few weeks with the release of the Endwalker expansion. Planned to take the original inhabitants of Eorzea even further into the world, this is the game’s biggest launch since its rebirth in 2013. It has some great shoes to fill, and so my experience diluted with a preview release is something to do, I’m sure now more than ever that what makes the game is not the exploration of the world, but those that exist there.
Although the strange company of Emet-Selch – the latest in a long line of Ascian adversaries – throughout Shadowbringer refreshed our tolerance for the bad guys we repeatedly beat, the patches that came after started pulling on rusty strings. By making sure that the Endwalker the launch is just that (the end of one arc and the first steps towards another), I’m confident the team has the pace for this one. They could have pulled things right in another two-year patch cycle, but it will all come to an end with this launch, leaving preparation for the next expansion to set the stage for another potential 10 years of new stories – hopefully. -the one without Ascien in sight.
A stroll in the neighborhood
Everything in my one-day tour of Endwalker happened without context. It was not a glimpse of history. He was laid bare. Spoiler alert for those who keep crossing Shadowbringer, but the end of the set gives us a good reason to knock on the door of Old Sharlayan, a place of scholars who rarely want to have anything to do with the rest of the world. The connection to the university town showed a place that was unsurprisingly architecturally similar to the ramshackle ruins of the Dravanian hinterland, and virtually every bit as sad to see at that time.
I spent a good deal of my time enjoying the little stone paths and gigantic doors, but beyond the gimmick of seeing it before release, there was little reason to hang around. The NPCs were, unless we befriended them as soon as we arrived, far too cheerful; everyone wished me a quick “hello” (or something along those lines) before walking away. It was clearly placeholder text, but that wasn’t how I expected my first time in this part of the world to be.
While it was certainly a pleasure to walk the halls that many of the best and brightest Final Fantasy XIV characters used to call home, the glaring omission of any key world-building details on my first trip there was admittedly a bit of a wet towel on an otherwise exciting day with the future of the game. And the other two zones, Thavnair and Garlemald, echoed this experience. Without any sort of world-building, it’s just big, empty envelopes for the most part that ultimately show the age of the game more than we are often willing to admit. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel – my first taste of the contents of the battle.
Present in the preview was the first Endwalker dungeon, La Tour de Zot. If you have played Final Fantasy IV, you will recognize this as the name of a place with very little tradition behind it. Final Fantasy XIV wants to fix this. And we already know a lot about his place in this world. Standing above Thavnair, this glowing ziggurat is just one of many that sprouted across Eorzea as a Shadowbringer story began to sing its swan song. It’s not the most exciting dungeon in the world, and it certainly doesn’t look solemn and urgent its counterpart from the previous expansion had, but it did offer a good taste of how the experience of levels 80 to 90 could be trying.
Some will be sad to see a certain group of enemies sent out so early in history (assuming this is the last one we see), but they fought well, weaving their abilities together for a final showdown that adheres to the game design 101 teaching lesson before the test. Again, not the most exciting place to be without proper context and closing cutscenes, but doing one run with my new preview buddies and another with Trusts, the game’s AI companions. I was really looking forward to relaunching it with those who wanted to try new jobs and new abilities. I just didn’t have the time.
By far the main reason for the preview was to test out the game’s new jobs and all of the new abilities and gameplay changes to its already huge class offering. Having played a White Mage from the very beginning, this was my first stopover and my first source of conflicting emotions.
On paper, Endwalker doesn’t make a lot of major changes to what Shadowbringer brought before her. The class-specific work gauge will forever be the biggest example, and this expansion follows suit. Most of the classes have been tweaked slightly instead of reworking, mostly to incorporate a new skill or two into their rotation.
The White Mage’s daily job has barely changed beyond a skill that leaves a triggerable healing field at a selected location to recharge distant teammates and the ability to store uses of certain skills like his divine Benison which grants a shield. These are welcome additions, but not very exciting. And playing other classes like Astrologian, Scholar, and Red Mage, the same was also true there. We’ve had some bigger class tweaks and rework in the post-launch fixes. If you were expecting your classroom to feel brand new in a few weeks, you might want to lower those expectations.
What surprised me pleasantly, however, were the two main classes: Reaper that deals damage and Sage that grants barriers. The first one completely lost me. It’s hard to master two dozen new skills within a time limit. But whenever I mashed his buttons enough to maximize his gauge, he grew into an incredibly fast, fluid, and flashy edge lord that I suspect we’ll see a lot soon. As for Sage, a class in a role that I understand more intimately, he didn’t perform at all as I expected.
It took what seemed like years for White Mage to acquire abilities to weave between spells, but that’s all Sage is – a spellweaver rather than a slinger. Most of his kit is about using one skill to increase a bunch of others, and then using them in specific situations to craft other context-based healing, shield, and buff sets. It’s incredibly mobile and very refreshing. There has long been a disagreement between veterans and newcomers that a healer should help deal damage when he can, and Sage is looking to end this debate with a buff that allows him to heal a selected member of the group by dealing damage to the enemy.
While my six-hour stint in the most recent accessible areas of one of my all-time favorite MMOs wasn’t as captivating as I had hoped, it made me reconsider how the game m ‘drew for the first time, and how he should have no problem doing it again in just a few weeks.
Having been developed to run on the now virtually retro PlayStation 3, Final Fantasy XIV is indebted to these early design decisions. As the areas got larger they started to feel largely hollow from the first few days. Flying mounts play a big part in my opinion, but they are absolutely essential in a game of this size with content appearing here, there and everywhere. But by making the preview areas completely devoid of NPCs telling stories to talk to, I was left with little choice but to just take in the scenery from the sky. And that didn’t really bring me much.
Outside of the main story content, I can’t really remember the last time I really enjoyed taking on the world of Final Fantasy XIV like I did in the early years. The main cities will always be fun to visit. Especially since they benefit from the same facilities as the hubs of late-game players. But roaming around Dravania, Gyr Abania or even Kholusia has, in hindsight, never managed to regain the original sense of wonder and belonging that Camp Tranquil, Bronze Lake or Vesper Bay all did ago. these years.
As it stands after the preview event, I’m not sure how Endwalker will turn out to be anyone else in the world right now. Just like I was for Shadowbringer. And while the latest expansion proved anything, the game’s strengths lie less in the world than in the story told within. Endwalker should be the best of both worlds: a satisfying conclusion to a decade-long story arc at launch, and the foundation for the next 10 years.
It’s unclear what the future holds, but as long as it sticks to the landing at launch, having a conclusion just around the corner makes the more dated aspects of the game less of a concern. There’s a lot to wrap up in a short amount of time, and while it may end up feeling rushed, it’s sure to be a hell of a roller coaster ride.
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker launches November 23 for PlayStation 4, PS5, and PC.