Another two years, another FF14 expansion. But, this is the best one so far in terms of story. However, classes are a different story. Also, there is a bit of horror in this game as the conversion from human to Sin Eater is not pleasant as a cutscene will show. BE WARNED IT IS THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARE FUEL.
EDIT: Edited out picture of final boss.
EDIT 2: Updated for Patch 5.01
The game's is divided into two parts: the main scenario quests and the job quests. Unlike before, both are integrated as the main story follows Ardbert (The Warrior of Darkness) and the job quests each follow one of his companions. I played Summoner for the story quest, so I got Nyelbert. You will need to get at least one of each type of class (Tank, Physical DPS, Magical DPS, and Healer) to level 80 to get the complete story. Over the course of the story, the past of each and the fate of each of them is revealed and cumulates in a final battle against a light corrupted version of each of the Warriors of Darkness. There are some differences in dialogue depending on which class you played.
At the beginning of Shadowbringers, the Warrior of Light (you, the player) is called to the Crystal Tower where they are summoned to the First, one of the other worlds of Final Fantasy 14. The First is where the Warriors of Darkness are from and time flows differently here. In fact, a hundred years has passed since Ardbert's return. It is immediately revealed that The Warriors of Darkness and Minfilia have failed and things get dark real fast as strange creatures known as Sin Eaters plague the land. Those known as the Lightbringers are responsible for this. In total, there are five of them that must be defeated, two of which are Primals.
A man known as Ran'jit with a pet dragon that can transform into a scythe and scarf for him is the primary antagonist through most of the story. His goal is to keep Minfilia trapped and make sure that nothing changes. He willingly chooses to continue to live in this world and enforce its order, unlike many others who are corrupted by the light and do so unwillingly. However, he is bested each time whether it is through outside interference from a third party (like the Crystal Exarch) or someone who just wants it that much more (Thancred, who you have an almost 10 minute long fight using his simplified Gunbreaker class). Y'shtola dies to get an antidote for some people and is immediately brought back from the Lifestream again by Emet Selch, an Ascian who happens to be on your side. Oh and the Empire realizes that the Scions are not in the front lines.
After the defeat of the last Lightbringer, Innocence, who goes full final boss mode on you, it is revealed that the plan of the Ascians was to turn the First into a world of pure light since their world is a world of pure darkness in order to bring about the Rejoining in order to restore their lost home, which one remains underwater in the First. However, your character is unable to bear the burden of the full power of light. The Crystal Exarch sacrifices himself in order to try to bring that light into the void between worlds to have it destroyed, and Urianger knew about this the whole time because the Crystal Exarch is actually G'raha Tia, a male Miqote from the Crystal Tower raids. Sadly, the Crystal Exarch is captured by Emet Selch so that the Ascians can learn how to better traverse worlds before he can finish his job and is satisfied knowing that your character will turn into a Sin Eater.
The populace realized that the light returns wherever the player character goes, but stands with you due to the fact that you have given them hope. The team travels to The Tempest, a place underwater in order to pursue Emet Selch with the help of some other primals. Here, the team learns that the Ascians that we have met so far are part of the Fourteen, a council that was meant to prepare for the end of the world known as the Final Days. In the land of the Asicans, everyone mistakes you and your friends for children because they are all giants and you have to fill out a visitor's writ to see Emet Selch, complete with paperwork and waiting.
During the wait, an Ascian by the name of Hythlodaeus revealed what happened with the Ascians. Some sacrificed themselves to stop the Final Days, others to restore life to their world. Those who opposed this plan created Hydaelyn with their sacrifice because the Rejoining would only be the beginning. Zodiark would likely eat the souls in the Source too. With the final battle, the Light within your character is spent to defeat Emet Selch, bringing the balance back to you and the First. However, not everything goes as planned. Many of the Scions are still trapped in the First with no way home because they cannot use the same method as your character. Thancred and Ryne now seek to reclaim the areas that have been lost to the Light, which has been completely bleached white. Tataru hints of aid from another in the war against the Empire.
Elidibus is the one that remains now who plans to keep everyone in the First. He speaks of Hydaelyn and others keeping everyone ignorant and desires to call upon a new Warrior of Light, one who will defeat your player character.
Meanwhile, Estinien and Gaius arrive in the palace to see numerous dead people who were all dead from a single blow. Zenos (not Elidibus) is revealed to be killing everyone, including the Emperor. He also implies that there is another besides Hydaelyn and Zodiark (at least, that is what he implies by wanting to feed on their strength).
This below is my favorite part of the game's story.
It is straight out of Gurren Lagaan
The envrionment of Shadowbringers is a massive improvement in terms of diversity. There are lush fields of strangely colored flowers due to the effects of the Light down to modern looking cities. There is quite a diversity in terms of cast and of enemies. Some are recycled, but there are many uniquely designed areas and most importantly of all, these environments move on their own. This is especially noticeable in Mount Gulg, where it resembles the opening scene of a certain God of War game that features a living mountain. From there, the environment becomes more and more angelic in nature. The last story dungeon features a dying city as you relive its final moments. Rubble from the falling buildings enter the battlefield.
The only issue here I had was with an area with a white fog that disappears after a story quest and Mount Gulg. The angelic appearance of white and gold on the ground makes it really hard to see the orange indicators on the ground for some attacks.
I'm going to cover only the major changes here. First and foremost are the class changes. A lot of skills got condensed in order to prevent bloat. Unfortunately, the ones that suffer the most are the Healer classes. They each feel much more limited due to the removal of old spells like Shadow Flare. Scholar is even limited to one damage over time now. Astrologians have a lot more utility buffs, but lost out on some of their cards in order to reduce the RNG factor a bit. A ressurection costs about a quarter of your max MP, making it more costly than before and is something that should be delegated to the damage based classes when possible. Shielding now appears as a separate orange bar, but it extends into a second bar when it goes over the max health of the target and ends up messing up the party UI a bit.
Most of the damage classes focus on upgrading existing skills and increasing their overall potency as to introducing new skills. Those that do get new skills are mostly done as a form of balance. With the removal of TP, area of effect skills by physical damage classes are extremely powerful due to having zero MP cost. My favorite new skills are two of the Monk's that finally does something about resetting Greased Lightning cooldown. Their level 78 skill allows you to increase your stacks and freeze its timer while their level 80 pushes the timer to maximum. Mechanist also has a massive overhaul of their skills with the auto turrets being something that you want to keep up consistently, but is no longer permanently up like an immobile pet. Overall, most of the DPS classes see big improvements despite an overall lack of new abilities at higher levels.
Tanks now have a tank stance only that increases the enmity they generate without a penalty. No longer do they need to worry about switching between a damage stance and a defensive stance to maximize damage output. Damage stance has been relegated to passives that allow them to use more damaging attacks consecutively. This is a skill that is shared with some other classes too though (Samurai is a big one that uses something similar). The new Gunbreaker class is ridiculously overpowered in lower level dungeons due to their high potency skills. The level 71+ dungeons have higher health that seems to be trying to offset the wall to wall pulls. A few areas only have mobs appear in phases instead of all at once too. But, it has just led to tanks running in small circles to offset melee attacks to tank.
For those who have been used to the previous expansions, be warned that there is heavy use of non-standard indicators. You have to keep an eye on your enemy more than the ground or yourself. A example of this is a wall boss that is essentially a giant rubix cube. You have to watch how the pieces align in order to tell where some of its attacks will land.
Once again, some of these indicators will not appear until the very last moment when the skill is used, making it quite deceptive. Others will just show something on the boss, like cones and you have to tell which direction they are facing to avoid them. This makes these dungeons a lot harder than the previous ones due to the lack of clear indicators. If you have not played FF14 in a while or are new to the game and decided to skip ahead to play with your friends, this will prove to be a big challenge. It also once again gives a massive advantage to ranged classes since they always have more room for error.
A major change that comes in Shadowbringers areas are the FATEs. They now provide a currency that can be used to trade for items much like a Beast Tribe. You will have to grind out the FATEs in each area to increase their ranks and unlock more items to purchase from the NPCs. It is a nice change of pace that makes FATEs relevant again. In addition, the FATEs in the new area scale according to the number of players present, so you no longer have to worry as much about the big FATEs as you did before. Just like before, some areas are divided into a low level and high level area that are physically separated until you reach far enough in the story. For the most part, more people are doing them again, but if the expansion's relics are tied to special zones like Eureka again, then most of it will be pointless.
Quests level 70+ also now scale to give increased rewards so that people do not just dungeon grind. The FATEs are probably meant to do that as well. It is a nice incentive, but it also comes at the cost of lower overall dungeon rewards. They are not as good for leveling any more and it could result in the queues suffering in the long run. The level 71 to 75 dungeons are already starting to see a noticeable increase in queue times despite it only being out for three days.
Sadly, in about a few weeks, the game will return to the classic tomestone cycle like before. You will be forced to pick two classes to gear up. One will be geared up through tomestones and the other will be through the weekly raids. If you miss it, you will be left behind until a new gear cycle begins.
EDIT: Patch 5.01
Here we are again. Two weeks into the expansion and the new patch with the first set of raids has dropped. This time, the raid of Eden ties directly into the story. While Omega Weapon was sort of a follow up to what happened to it after its initial battle with Shinryu, Eden deals with the restoration of the other elements to the First since Light kind of overtook everything.
If I had to summarize the battles, it's mildly interesting. The first boss feels a lot more typical with a lot of your standard attacks. It also has the signature Eden Guardian Force attack from FF8. The second one is where things get interesting. Your boss looks like a Sin Eater holding onto a suit of armor. This is where falling off and dying is suddenly a thing again. The time delayed attacks definitely provides a bit of a twist on your typical boss. The third one is where things start to get into the frustrating part because like most raid mechanics of FF14, it relies on your lack of knowledge to be challenging. It just has a cheap trick of a delayed attack indicator that destroys the platforms you stand on for instant death. After the first time, you will probably get the hang of it and it won't be much of a challenge anymore. The final boss of the first raid is similar except it comes with a tank swap and several instant death mechanics.
The good thing this time is that every boss can drop every piece of loot and have a total of eight loot pieces, so you no longer have to farm the fourth raid over and over again to try to get the body piece. The problem remains the same though, you can only farm one item from each raid boss a week. Once again, the player base that doesn't engage in the Extreme Trials get screwed for no apparent reason and end game progression is time gated while devaluing all of the other content in the game. It's a system that I wish MMOs would change, but I guess FF14 is not going to be the one to bring that change and the gear cycle is going to continue to have the same problems as it did before.
Final Score: 7/10
The game's story and design are much improved compared to the previous expansions. There's no more "sidetracking" done in the story and the primals are integrated directly into the main story this time. The problem comes with the redesign of the healer classes, which suffer immensely and have much less offensive capabilities. The damage classes benefit a lot, especially the physical ones which are now free to spam area skills endlessly. They put in more effort with the FATEs and scaling quests to try to make it rewarding, but unless the relics of this expansion keep people around, it won't do much unless there is no other way to get more crafting materials. Overall, it is by far the best of the FF14 expansions if you do not mind the fact that there are not many new skills to play with.