Now that the expansion is actually playable thanks to getting past the numerous solo duty walls (almost one for each level and each of them are like 8 to 10 minutes long not including cutscenes, which has been the source of all of Square-Enix's problems with this expansion), I can finally talk about this game. There are still issues with instances like dungeons and PvP as of writing this review, but I have not used it against the game. I'll try to update with screenshots, but I don't have many good ones since i play a tank right now...
The game continues from the end of Heavensward, where the man by the name of "The Griffin" essentially triggers a reactionary declaration of war against the empire by Eorzea. This is immediately an epic fail as Zenos yae Galvus comes in to wipe out the rebels before they can build up. However, before the Warrior of Light can be finished off, Zenos says that he has orders to keep the Warrior of Light alive. This leads to various attempts to unite the people of Ala Mhigo, Rhalgr's Reach, and the other surrounding areas together. Eventually, the rebellion is rebuilt and a massive offensive is launched against the empire, pushing them back and taking some of their key bases. It is here that we start seeing the other side of the rebellion, and the ones who support it. There are people who willingly give their lives to the Garlean Empire because of how they have been treated. Even though there are some bad people, there are people who are just as bad if not worse elsewhere. We have people who fear Eorzea because of their ability to channel aether and use magic compared to those who cannot. However, this does not stop the Warrior of Light from uniting all their allies and some past enemies against Zenos. In response to his loss, Zenos reveals that he has the captured Shinryu, using the aether enhancements developed by the empire to take control of it. Eventually, victory brings Ala Mhigo freedom after twenty years of rule. In the end, Lyse begins to question what freedom really is and the cost of it. She ultimately decides to leave the Scions to help rebuild Ala Mhigo, but the other Scions say that if she ever needs help, they will come. But, at the site of the final battle, Estinien returns, destroying Nidhogg's now aether depleted eyes. Elsewhere, Varis zos Galvus, Emperor of the Garlean Empire does not mourn the loss of his son and speaks to Elidibus, the White Robed Ascian, who unmasks himself and surprises Varis, but leaves the player guessing to his true identity. In the epilogue, Cid discovers Omega Weapon, which was lost in the previous conflict between Shinryu and Omega, and is disappointed that he has to work with Nero tol Scaeva.
One of the unique things about this expansion is that it focuses on sort of a new character, Lyse, and the return of an old character, Yugiri. The two of them are responsible for the most important events in the story and get a lot of good character moments, something that was largely ignored in Heavensward as new characters quickly overshadowed old ones. Stormblood does a good job of moving away from this and does more to bring all the old characters together with the new ones.
There is a massive graphical improvement when it comes to the primals and environments this time around. The character models remain the same. They diverse range of environments you encounter in Stormblood reinforces this even more. By limiting the character draw limit, they are able to prevent slowdowns from occurring when too many people are in the same area. This is one thing that many other MMOs have failed to pick up on as something that they can do. It does create some problems in crowded areas though, making it difficult to find NPCs because they count towards the same limit. Even the number of ground area of effect markers have increased and comes with more variety than before. There are also fewer reused enemy models and even the ones that are reused look very different. You could not tell the difference until you memorize their attacks. The laziness this time around though, comes from equipment. A lot of equipment are just recolored versions of the equipment from before. The new armors do not appear until the high 60s. Luckily though, you can dye everything to at least make yourself look a little different. Each piece of different equipment allows for more customization through the glamour feature and I was a little disappointed that most glamours remain bound to the cash shop for the massive price of $18 a set. That is quite expensive for a pay to play game.
There are many major changes in Stormblood. Many of them are quality of life changes, but character class changes vary wildly and some people are fans of it, while others are not. The biggest shift are towards the new gauges. Many job skills no longer require quests to learn and are learned upon reaching the designated level. Many classes had their skills overhauled, but it leads to a bit of a problem in the form of uptime. A lot of classes in FF14 have special skills that need to be activated in order for them to use their special skills. For example, Monks still need Greased Lightning and Chakra. Summoners still need Aetherflow and Dreadwyrm Stance. These restrictions are what determine whether most character classes are good or bad. In my opinion, Summoners and Scholars took the biggest hit because damage over time abilities were nerfed and they no longer allow people to stack Aetherflow stacks. After using three Aetherflow stacks, you are forced into Dreadwyrm if you want to get more Aetherflow. Overall, this seemed like a massive hit to them. Dragoons got a massive boost to their overall damage in the form of line area skills and shared damage with an ally. Some healers got a decent quality of life buff because their overall magic damage was increased with Cleric Stance now being an active that increases your magic damage even further. They are no longer as bad as they were before. Ultimately, a job's up time determines how significant they are. If they are reliant on special limited skills, they tend to be weaker this patch. Those that do not rely on this become stronger as it increases the overall uptime of their strongest skills.
The new classes of Samurai and Red Mage do offer new mechanics though. Samurai has to be a lot more careful with their rotations for maximum damage, but feels a bit like a Monk, except better. They do not have to stack Greased Lightning, but instead have Kenki as their special resource, which then allows them to use powerful attacks. They can even convert othrer resources to Kenki. Monks on the other hand consume their Greased Lightning for Tornado Kick or their chakras for Forbidden Chakra, which has longer prep times and lower up time compared to Samurais. Red Mage is a mix of melee, ranged, and support. They do not excel at all of them, but are still very good. It just takes time to get used to it, but once you do, it is excellent and will probably get a nerf in the future because of their ability to increase enemy vulnerability, increasing everyone's overall damge against a single target. This feels like a balance issue that needs to be addressed.
There are other big changes to the game. Quests now have more strange features. For example, during part of the story, there's a dart shooting mechanic. There's a part of the game where you have to sneak around without being caught (they are quite leniant on this). A few boss battles now even have quick time events. You better know who does what if you do not want to die. Most of these are interesting rather than annoying. The most annoying thing still remains finding Aether Currents so that you can fly in a zone (the ones they have are more annoying than the ones in Heavensward) as three of the maps are intentionally designed to mislead you on multiple occasions by clearly separating everything into a northern and southern half while ensuring you cannot access the other half until like 5 levels later.
The biggest changes in the game's story mode is the heavy reliance on instanced solo duties, which is what led to the problem the expansion had at the beginning. Nearly every level of the game's expansion requires a solo dungeon. If too many people have one active, then you cannot start one up. I believe that I had eight over the main story and I am not counting the class quests. Each story one is about eight to ten minutes long and often involves a boss battle where you aim to get the enemy's health to a certain point, then triggering the instant win condition. The fights become long and drawn out as a result. The class quests had three more solo duties. This was a problem in the game's design that they have forgotten since around level 10 in A Realm Reborn. It once more rears its ugly head up here. However, the cost of this is the reduced length of dungeons in the duty finder. There are three trials over the course of the main story (normal) and 6 story dungeons. Many of them can now be completed in fifteen minutes without much trouble. However, those who think they can just charge through with all the mobs are in for a surprise. My favorite dungeon so far is the post story dungeon of Kugane Castle, where Yojimbo from Final Fantasy 10 makes his appearance. It's hilarious to watch as the castle's owner throws coins on the field and you have to collect them before Yojimbo otherwise he triggers his instant death effect.
The best part is that the game does not make the instant deaths a big part of the dungeons with a few exceptions compared to what Heavensward and A Realm Reborn did. Most of the bosses feature different mechanics. Not all bosses feature instant deaths that knock you off the arena. For example, it used to be just look away from the boss. Now, one boss has a mechanic where it could make you run away or towards it. Others mostly focus on maneuvering, but there is one unique one in a trial where someone has to "catch" the sword that the boss swings at you and everyone else has to repel it while damaging orbs need to be intercepted. There is a boss that literally pushes your spirit out of your body and you have to run back towards it while slowed. These changes are nice as they make battles feel a little more unique. But again, there are several bosses that have the ability to knock you out of the arena, but not all result in instant death. Each dungeon is about fifteen to twenty minutes in length, shorter than the others. But, they feel more challenging because there are more surprises and is less about gathering all the mobs together to kill ASAP for now. They feature things like suicide bombers, reinforcement soldiers, ninja summoners, cannons that shoot at you from a distance, and gates that need to be broken.
Another big change is the reduced grind. Frontline PvP gives massive amounts of experience (something like 558k at lvl 60+ and you can literally grind to 70 on it). Palace of the Dead gives fixed percentage of experience (same experience as PvP, but takes longer). FATEs now give more experience and if people have not done the FATE in a while, it too will give bonus experience. There are also rare FATEs with special rewards, like songs, minions, and rare clothing items (the fox ears are very popular right now as people freak out on how to trigger the boss to spawn). The main story quest combined with the side quests gives you enough to hit 70 for a class with a few daily roulettes. Dungeons give far more experience than before even though they are shorter in length. You are also guaranteed at least one drop for your class each run. If you do not get one, finishing the boss will automatically give you one. This reduced grind is great for getting a character to 70 and to enjoy the end game content before the stupid weekly caps are implemented once more (there are currently no item drop limits or tomestone earning caps and will likely remain this way for a month). The enemies in Stormblood are also not as damaging or high in health as the Heavensward enemies, which balances itself for a longer and more balanced fight rather than massive spikes. The bosses though are the ones that usually have spike damage, trading low sustained damage for higher output than normal. Yet, many of them lose some instant death mechanics in exchange, making the Extreme versions of the two available primals quite easy compared to the other primals in Heavensward or A Realm Reborn when they were first introduced. This allows for easier entrance into raids than before. But when the tomestone limit returns, this benefit will be gone once more as players are forced into once a week drops again.
One annoying feature is swimming and diving that has been added to the game. Once you progress into the story, the turtle people will teach you to dive. You can ride a mount underwater and it is quite faster than moving around on the land. The problem is that you cannot be mounted while on the water, so you have to dive, then mount. This is annoying sice once you can fly in a region, you can dive straight from air to water, but if you do not go in at a high enough angle, you have to dive, then mount it again. It would just be nice if there was a better transition between land, sea, and air. It also sometimes brings back the problem with vertical height for quests. This was annoying with the Moogle side quests in Heavensward. It is not as bad in Stormblood because it gives you a much smaller area to search and most items are viewable without playing tricks on you with your camera. They still do tricks a few times, once in a solo duty as well where I spent like five minutes not being able to find the object before I turned my camera in every direction possible to find it because it was hidden at the very edge of the circle and you had to turn your camera in a very specific way to see it. Luckily, the only tricks they play with you in the air are Aether Currents and they have few searching quests that force you into the air. Most force you underwater, and it is not as big of a problem as in Heavensward. Most of the Aether Currents that do play with height are at least visible once you are around it. The trick is figuring out to reach it.
Another thing I would like to see is greater incentives to deal with the large imbalance in the player base. Most people play DPS classes and that's normal, but there is often a severe shortage of tanks and a slightly less severe shortage of healers. This expansion made it worse by introducing two more damage based classes. It is very difficult for damage based classes to find parties for dungeons because of it. The bonus experience is very small for your level and the small gil rewards (considering most enemies in dungeons no longer drop it) only makes it worse. But in the end, the difference is so small that it might as well be insignificant. Right now, queue for a higher level dungeon that is needed for story progression can take upwards of 40 minutes. It might get better once the player base spreads out, but it could also get worse due to the sheer number of people who are all trying to queue for the same thing or some people only wanting to queue for the highest level areas (far more likely).
EDIT: This section is an update now that the game has been out for a while. Now that the new content is out, I can finally talk about Shinryu, the final boss of the main story of Stormblood. Shinryu is the epitome of everything that is wrong with FF14 in design. It is a boss battle that heavily focuses on mechanics that force you to memorize a long chain of attacks if you want to win. The only difference it is from an Extreme Trial or a Savage Raid is that it is not as punishing for failure. There are at least ways to recover from instant deaths and near wipes. However, the fact that there are something like a dozen instant wipe mechanics with poor indicators does not help. The list includes: Waterfall, Quick Time Event, Ank Morn for tanks to stack, Fire Chains, Comets, Unmatching Elements, Shinryu's tail, Shinryu's transition, tornado, Diamonddust, and Shinryu's dive. The entire difficulty of the fight is based on one hit kill mechanics that are made especially hard to see. Without them, the game would not be difficult at all, just like before. There is a serious problem with the game when the only thing you can think of to make things hard is to load an enemy up with instant kills. Instant kills do not make a game hard, they make it into a joke. Normally, indicators are bright orange, telling you where something is. Instead here, we have faint orange, green, red, and gray marks on the ground and tons of crap going on at once. The only way I managed to put up with it was for the first time since I started playing this game, literally turn off every single effect I could so that I could at least tell what was going on. To make matters worse, this fight is required if you want to make it to end game progression. You cannot unlock the expert dungeons without completing the main story first, another highly problematic feature of the game. They now sell jump potions that allow you to skip up to level 60 and most of the main story up to that point if you buy it from the cash shop, but it does nothing to fix the actual problems of having something like 700 Main Story Quests now.
Stormblood is a massive improvement from Heavensward overall. However, it feels like select classes suffer from the new changes. They try to make up for it with other changes, such as changing cooldowns, but it definitely feels like Summoners and Scholars lost out big this time around. There are a lot of positive changes to the game, but some of the annoying features from the past still make themselves well known, like annoying instant death conditions and tricky Aether Currents that they make you think is reachable, but not really due to the split maps. Dungeons and FATEs are much more enjoyable and rewarding this time around. Dungeons have more variety. The story is still mediocre, but an overall improvement with the new focus on individual characters. The de-emphasis on gathering up as many enemies as you can to nuke them all down at once is also another improvement with th focus on being smaller groups now and overall shorter dungeons with unique mechanics. The game desperately needs to stop monetizing when they are already a pay to play game. Like I said before, a good game cannot have it both ways. You either have the cash shop or the pay to play features. You try to deliver both and you only give an even worse deal than before, which is what ultimately drags Stormblood down so much.