Prelude in Violet
Final Fantasy XIV waxes and wanes like a patch in a wind. Translation: some eras are better than others. While I generally go all-out on endgame-heavy even number patches with my Paladin, Bard, and Scholar: odd numbers (called “catch-up patches”) are often a source of respite.
Thus has been my journey through Final Fantasy XIV‘s Stormblood expansion so far. With 4.4 out and about I’m back at it again, though I hope some major progression changes are in store for the next era of the game.
Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood (PC, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
MSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)
Released: June 20, 2017
When a new FFXIV patch hits it’s almost like waking up to a brand new game. For those of you who don’t play, Square Enix does a fantastic job of packing in tons of stuff in patches: a principle that extends beyond content into sweeping quality of life changes. As for 4.4 the main events are a new campaign questline, another trial (boss fight), a full and final Omega raid tier, several side stories, and two dungeons (The Burn and Saint Mocianne’s Arboretum Hard). There’s also a whole heap of cosmetic and profession additions, new treasure hunting zones, myriad role-playing concessions, and more addictive loot like mounts and minions. In case you’re not convinced they think of everything for numbered patch days: they made Behemoths fly in 4.4 at the request of the community. Okay the list is out of the way, let’s talk about it.
Final Fantasy XIV handles a story campaign better than most MMOs that have been released to date. It’s a full-on JRPG packed with tons of nail-biting cutscenes, many of which require some form of emotional investment from the player. While the truncated 4.4 quests are like a prelude for what’s to come (the upcoming lead-in for the next expansion) they never felt like a slog. The trend of allowing direct control of guest story characters is also welcome. It’s something that’s been done before, but still fun in the context of the universe Final Fantasy XIV has created.
The best way to describe Hells’ Kier, the new trial? Stunning. I mean Square Enix really outdo themselves with practically every non-dungeon boss fight, but damn, the amount of work that goes into these things is insane. The entire trial soundtrack could be worked into any Final Fantasy concert (and often is at Fan Fest events with the in-house band, The Primals) and the visuals are consistently meticulous and beautiful. Light puzzle elements and even a touch of DDR somehow fit. And the voice acting! Square Enix has set a new bar.
4.4’s raid tier, Alphascape, is just as awe-inspiring. When you start with a bout with the last boss of Final Fantasy 1 you know you’re in for a good time. It only goes up from there, and for once, the normal difficulty setting is semi-challenging (I hope you memorized your ship directions!). No part of this tier feels wasted or like a throwaway fight, and very few games can pull off soothing piano music in an intense, demanding raid. I destroyed the last raid tier with my Paladin for weeks at a time, earning a full 370 raid set: and I suspect I’ll be doing the same thing here. If the raid team hasn’t gotten a raise yet it deserves it.
But all of the above pieces of the puzzle have pretty much always been on point, so for active players none of this is a surprise. Conversely, several areas have been downhill since Heavensward — namely, dungeons. The Burn, the new locale for the patch, is pretty much a straight line until a decent jaw-dropping payoff at the end. Saint Mocianne’s Arboretum Hard is equally as impressive visually, but the “hard” moniker mainly just refers to “remixed.” We need additional difficulty levels to prevent dungeon content from becoming stale: reduced to mere spam to earn gear tokens. About that.
Unless you’re a hardcore raider you might start to feel fatigue in 4.4, if you haven’t already: some of the paint is chipping in specific areas of this pristine manor. It’s at this point, over five years since Final Fantasy XIV relaunched as A Realm Reborn, that I’m starting to fully revolt against the token/tomestone system. In short, endgame progress outside of hardcore raiding is mostly measured in gear earned by tomestones, which are netted by grinding out content like dungeons or other instanced activities.
Tokens are a tried and true MMO concept and are fine in theory (it’s nice to eventually get an exact piece of gear you want if you fail to please the RNG Gods), but FFXIV leans too heavily on them to prop up long term play. Although Square Enix is probably finished with much of the next expansion (5.0) already, I really hope we get to see a big shakeup that involves making more activities viable for earning quality gear. Even the weekly loot lockouts are starting to grate as the system actively impedes the gearing of alts.
Final Fantasy XIV is still ahead of the curve in many ways, with the extremely alt-friendly system of swapping jobs (classes) on a whim: all while retaining the reputation grinds and quest progress on the same character (an issue that becomes increasingly contentious in the World of Warcraft community with each patch). But they could stand to really shape up as the MMO landscape (subscription-based and free-to-play) evolves around them.
If you haven’t played Final Fantasy XIV yet I wholeheartedly recommend it. Four years of content drops have really added up, and even if the way some of that content is presented is questionable it’s still coming in steadily enough to warrant its entry fee. For all you lapsed players, 4.4 continues the good will Square Enix has garnered since Heavensward. It’s still one of the most polished games on the market right now by any metric, and even if you don’t stick around forever you’ll get something out of it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. It primarily covers the PVE elements of the game.]