Par for the heavens
The story of how Square Enix turned Final Fantasy XIV around is still incredible to me. I always tell people about playing it at E3 in 2010 for the very first time, pre-Realm Reborn, and how it was one of the least fun MMOs I’ve ever experienced. Now here I am years later, after the relaunch, with the Heavensward expansion as one of my most anticipated games of 2015.
So far, I haven’t been disappointed.
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
MSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)
Released: June 19, 2015 (Early Access), June 23, 2015
Picking up directly where the last campaign left off, the first quest of Heavensward is located in the Coerthas Central Highlands, directing you to Ishgard. Yep, you heard that right — it continues the story of the core game, so you’ll need to complete the main campaign (ending with “Before the Dawn”) and reach level 50 first. Newer players will find at least double the experience from the original vanilla quests to help boost them up a bit.
According to Square Enix, the new Heavensward story is roughly 50 hours, and based on my pace so far in at 10, that’s fairly accurate. It’s about the same length as the original game, which is quite a feat, and about the sweet spot for a campaign in my mind. There’s so much other stuff to do to keep you busy at this point. The flow of the process is to get from levels 50 to 60 with mostly story quests, which has worked out for the most part with my first character — so far, I’m level 53 and counting.
I decided to take on the leveling process with my trusty Paladin, who would be able to jump into queues at a moment’s notice. Most classes have a handful of new abilities, and in the Paladin’s case, there are five in total. I’ve acquired one so far — the power to use a pinch block ability to give him some extra durability. There are a few new combo abilities that mix up your rotation quite a bit, as well as a few tweaks (like an accuracy buff to Shield Oath). It’s just enough to keep you on your toes and get you interested in leveling without making things too tricky.
Ishgard is the new capital city and the expansion hosts nine new locations, all of which are much larger than the original zones in A Realm Reborn. This is mostly because they now support flying mounts, a brand new mechanic in Heavensward. You can’t just fly right off the bat, though — you’ll have to attune to each zone through a combination of locating aether and completing key quests. The idea is that you’ll have fully explored the area by the time you’re done, opening up a more vertical approach later on.
It sounds like it could be annoying, but you’ll get a compass item that will help you find said aether currents with instructions that aren’t too vague and aren’t on-the-nose either. It’s a fun mechanic that reminds me a lot of the same design philosophies found in Guild Wars 2. Some of the currents are even built around jumping puzzles. Flying isn’t as glorious as in, say, Aion, but it’s very fun to soar about when tracking down hunt targets. I can see Square Enix doing a lot of cool things with future updates like hidden areas and quests; there’s some of that already now. Speaking of flying, your personal Chocobo will allow you to do just that at a certain point in the story, so everyone can easily get on track and enjoy the ride.
Having said that, the PlayStation 4 version is starting to show its age already. Although this is launch so there’s lots more people concentrated in specific areas, the frame rate crawls a bit more than it used to in vanilla Realm Reborn, especially since most of these zones are so much bigger. It’s not game-breaking, but it is odd. The PS4 was previously a powerhouse and nearly on par with the PC. I haven’t tested it for that long, but the newly minted DirectX 11 engine on PC (that also released today) is drastically better than ever before, alleviating nearly all of my concerns. I’ll provide more information on this in the future.
The quality of the story is improved overall, drawing from what the development team learned from all of the superior updates. It deals with a thousand-year conflict between Ishgard and Dravania. I’m interested in seeing where this goes, and I’ll provide a spoiler-free update when I complete it. The actual quests haven’t been any better or worse than A Realm Reborn, and so far, the theme of the expansion seems to be “more of a good thing, without re-inventing the wheel.” There are two starting zones to alleviate the congestion, which have worked, on top of the fact that roughly half of the post-level-50 community is going back to the old content with the new jobs anyway.
As for other content, there are a handful of new dungeons, one of which I’ve tried out already called Dusk Vigil. It’s about on par with the recent additions in the newer updates. That is to say they’re very flashy, filled with their own lore bits, and while they cut down on exploration quite a bit, they’re all designed to be completed casually with the occasional peppering of a challenge. The pacing is spot on, and they don’t drag like a few of the vanilla dungeons. The same goes for the first hard mode trial (read: group instanced boss) I’ve encountered, which features a really badass bug that I don’t want to spoil here. Suffice to say, it’s a little more interesting than the initial Primals you meet in A Realm Reborn.
Several other classes have gotten a few major shakeups, like the Bard, who now has a DPS-based Limit Break, and the Black Mage, which must stay within Ley Lines, a magical circle, to gain extra damage by way of haste. Every class now has a unique level-three Limit Break animation, which is great. All of these changes help make your job feel more unique and make Final Fantasy XIV a more well-rounded MMO as a whole. Switching to my other jobs for a few moments felt different, especially the Bard. You can really notice even just a few extra skills in dungeon runs.
As for the three new jobs, I had a chance to try out Dark Knight, but there’s also the Astrologian and Machinist. Unlocking them is as easy as reaching Ishgard and talking to a specific quest starter in town, then doing a 10-minute quest for each — that’s it! They all start at level 30, and come equipped with a few pieces of gear and roughly 10 skills each at first. It’s perfect, as there’s just enough there to give you plenty to do right away, but not so much that you’re overwhelmed. While I need more time to test them, I think they all bring something unique to the table, and I love the Dark Knight’s risk-reward mechanic. It’s the freshest take on tanking yet.
Other extras that I still need to dig into include the all new Au Ra race, the DirectX11 visual upgrade on PC, new hunt targets, a more comprehensive loot system for raids, the power to queue for dungeons with less than five players, Free Company (guild) upgrades like Workshops and Airships, crafting upgrades, Bismarck and Ravana as new Primals, more Triple Triad cards, a future new Frontlines PVP map, an all-new Relic questline set to debut in 3.1, and a new Alexander raid, which will unlock at a later date.
Stay tuned as I continue to play through Heavensward, work my way up to level 60, and try out the new classes. Only then will I provide my full review for the expansion.+
[This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]