Shadowbringers Review — Lions and Rabbits and Sin Eaters, Oh My!

Become the Warrior of Darkness in Final Fantasy XIV’s most epic expansion yet.

The life cycle of an MMORPG grows increasingly complex the older they become. With each additional expansion, the bar is expected to raise the quality of content delivered. Upon Final Fantasy XIV’s original release in 2010, which was notoriously wracked with issues bordering on the game barely qualifying as playable, Square Enix (or more specifically, producer Naoki Yoshida, lovingly called Yoshi P) took great strides to convalesce the experience offered to players, and re-released the game as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in 2013. Met with renewed success, Square has released a new addition to the game every two years thereafter with 2015’s Heavensward, and in 2017, Stormblood.

Each expansion has not only followed a generalized content structure to improve and build upon the base game, but also includes its own unique additions. From jobs, new races, combat instances, areas, lore and most importantly, a brand new story for players to immerse themselves in as their very own “Warrior of Light.” Upon this summer’s release of Shadowbringers however, we find ourselves with a brand new legacy to create, this time as the “Warrior of Darkness.”

One of the things that has always impressed me the most with any online Final Fantasy title (going as far back as Final Fantasy XI) is that Square Enix has always created story content usually absent from many MMORPGs that feels absolutely worthy of the esteemed reputation of most traditional Final Fantasy titles. Shadowbringers is no exception to this; for the first time ever your character is transported out of Eorzea, and to another plane of existence called “The First.” Here you find yourself entrenched in a world without night. You quickly begin your journey and discover that the state of eternal daylight is tied to powerful beings called “Sin Eaters.” Your A-Team of Scions (my personal favorites being Y’shtola and Alisae) from the previous expansions are adventuring around The First as well, and will join your character on their mission to restore night to each of The First’s regions by defeating the respective “Light Wardens” that prevent nightfall from returning, whom also control the Sin Eaters terrorizing the local populace.

Early on, your travels will lead you to the first new major hub city, The Crystarium, lead by the mysterious, benevolent Crystal Exarch. With his help, you track down your Scion companions one-by-one and encounter a plethora of new characters along the way. The flow of the story also follows the pursuits of Garleans, Gaius van Baelsar, and Emet-Selch (two characters you’ll be very familiar with if you’ve been playing since the previous expansions), from where the story left off during Stormblood.

The secondary hub world is the city of Eulmore—a heavily class divided region which is stunningly decadent on its upper levels, and a literal slum on its lowest one. Both hub worlds have a gorgeous design, with the feel of the Crystarium being a wonderful contrast to Eulmore—an educational city progressively accepting everyone, reminiscent of areas you’d find in high fantasy work. Buildings roofed with stunning crystalline domes, ethereal purple trees cover the landscape, with a neon floral garden in the lower level of the town—making the Crystarium the most beautiful city ever realized in the game for me, personally. Eulmore, ruled by a corpulent Jabba-esque tyrant named Vauthry, feels like a mash-up of a Victoria’s Secret dressing room and the Sector 7 slums from Final Fantasy VII. All the more interesting is that Eulmore has a strip club as well, ironically called The Beehive, in a nod to the series’ most successful gameFinal Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Review —  Lions and Rabbits and Sin Eaters, Oh My!

As the story unfolds, your Warrior of Darkness will continue their pilgrimage through a series of new areas. Following the trend from previous expansions, players will have six new regions to explore—Lakeland, Ahm Araeng, Kholusia, Il-Mheg, The Rak-tika Greatwood, and The Tempest. Across these six new continents, are eight brand new dungeons, and three new trials (the first two, per the usual content structure, having an Extreme version for more seasoned players to attempt). Each is unlocked in staggered level ranges as you progress from Level 70 to the new cap of Level 80.

Shadowbringers truly brings the fantasy back to Final Fantasy with each of its new areas. Each new zone is a welcome addition to the game with an ultra-fantasy vibe, and is a departure from the more realistic looking zones from the prior two expansions. Ranging from colorful, surreal forests of Lakeland to the shadowy depths of The Tempest, it offers a wide variety of visual updates the game was definitely in need of. Il-Mheg being a personal favorite of mine, is literally faerie land—littered with pink flowers, faerie houses and a fae castle at the center of the zone. Each region is enormous and can fully be explored via ground or air. The Rak-tika Greatwood is a sprawling forest with waterfalls and a canopy city a comparable to Final Fantasy XII’s Eruyt Village, home of the Viera.

Initially introduced via Fran during Stormblood’s Ivalice campaign, Shadowbringers gives us two new playable races in one expansion for the first time ever; the Viera and the Hrothgar–the latter being based on Final Fantasy X’s Ronso race. Something to be aware for anyone considering Fantasia’ing their character is that both races are currently gender locked, which caused quite a bit of controversy upon its initial announcement. Viera are female only, and Hrothgar can only be males. As the implementation of a new race into the massive scope of an MMORPG is quite an undertaking, neither race is fully finished at this time either; standard hats do not appear on either. Only circlets, glasses, headbands and the like will appear on anyone selecting these races as of Patch 5.0.

At this time, you also can’t Aesthetician your hair into any previously unlocked hairstyles; only the races’ default hair choices can be selected. Regardless of this, I feel that both races do quite a bit to flesh out the world in tandem with the history of the Final Fantasy series and are more than a welcomed addition to the game. The lack of gender options and unfinished head equipment was not a deterrent for me at all; I Fantasia’ed my Miqote into a Viera and found the customization options to be diverse and stellar. Both character models have an extensive amount of detail and care put into them, and I surmise releasing both genders for each of the aforementioned races on the quality level they released on would have taken an enormous amount of time.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Review —  Lions and Rabbits and Sin Eaters, Oh My!

The other focal point of any MMORPG expansion is not only class-balancing, but the addition of new jobs. Shadowbringers gives players two new jobs to get their feet wet with; Dancer and Gunbreaker. Dancer, finally brought into the world of FFXIV after being in so many other titles, is a physical ranged DPS job, welding dual chakrams and boasting the heaviest arsenal of support that any non-healer job to date has been implemented with. Partnering up with another party member (typically another DPS) for a damage boost, and sharing in Curing Waltz, Devilment, and Standard Finish ability for both characters. The animations of the job are absolutely stunning.

Gunbreaker is a tank, bringing the total of tanks in the game to four, and throwing off the traditional healer/tank balance of 1:1 that has been consistent throughout the series thus far. Gunbreaker, naturally welding a gunblade, is a major nod to Squall Leonhart (and rival Seifer Almasy as well) from Final Fantasy VIII, right down to several of the ability names; Rough Divide, Fated Circle, Blasting Zone, and Demon Slice. Both jobs, like most of the newer classes implemented later into the game’s lifespan, feel more complete upon reaching max level, and boasts robust tool kits that feel different enough from their counterparts (Bard and Machinist for Dancer, Warrior, Paladin and Dark Knight for Gunbreaker) yet blur the line of the classic MMORPG role trifecta we’ve all become so accustomed to. Like Dancer, Gunbreaker is highly supportive—a tank with a heal, and two defensive party buffs. Both jobs feel powerful and well designed, and complement party play quite nicely. It’s nice to see Square Enix expanding on supportive abilities again, and both jobs are highly polished and fun to play.

Shadowbringers brings the most prolific job-balancing adjustments to the game ever seen since the launch of A Realm Reborn. The largest part of this is the removal of the TP gauge, and combining it with the MP gauge. Every job in the game was re-balanced around this, for a more cohesive experience as you switch between classes. This current patch also removed quite a bit of button bloat as with an increased level cap, newer abilities were added also. As a Red Mage main, I can personally say I think my balancing adjustments were an improvement overall, albeit still in need of a slight potency boost.

Specific jobs received a larger overhaul than others—based around player feedback and usability/preference from the previous expansion. Some of the jobs in the direst need of change were Machinist, White Mage, and Dark Knight, which were addressed and seem far more efficient than they were in the previous expansion. However, jobs such as Scholar, (my personal choice of healer and the very first job I played) Astrologian, and Monk feel like they need some minor tuning still. As is always the case, it’s impossible to please everyone, and Yoshi P and his team have genuinely tried to do this since putting A Realm Reborn back on track. Class adjustments will always be an ongoing process met with much controversy in any MMORPG you play, with an ever-evolving series of modifications to improve and balance the experience for every player as a whole.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Review —  Lions and Rabbits and Sin Eaters, Oh My!

Per the norm in modern MMORPGs, most vital content is focused in instanced dungeons and trials where you queue in with either random or fixed players of your choosing. The only available “overworld” content besides personal quests being the FATE system—battles that spawn in varous areas of the world map in timed intervals that any player can choose to participate in. Partaking in FATEs in The First will help to restore order to each area; each one having its own unique progression meter to unlock various rewards. Originally not being a fan of the FATE system during A Realm Reborn, Square has come a long way in improving the flow and feel of them, and the accessibility with smaller parties, or even alone. Most FATEs in The First can casually be soloed, giving you a nice relaxing way of leveling while you chat with others.

The other section of content that you can experience with not only players on your own server, but your entire data center as of Patch 4.57—Clan Nutsy’s (moving away from Clan Centurio’s Hunts in HW and SB, and a nod to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance) Hunt. Hunt targets are specific enemies structured by tiers, ranging from minor targets up to Rank B, in which you accept bills for and earn “Nutsacks.” Rank A and S, the highest tiers award more Nutsacks, Goetia tomes (used to reach the current standard of gear progression in terms of iLevel) and clusters that can be exchanged for various kinds of Materia. Materia VII and VIII have been implemented as an upgrade ever increasing stats.

Hunts are far and wide the most efficient way to quickly progress your character to the current highest tier of equipment. As such, the traditional approach organized by the Hunt Communities on respective servers to down these targets in an organized, well-communicated fashion is great—though it comes with its own test in patience, as well. Due to the game’s popularity and growing to its largest player base ever, there are fairly potent congestion issues that can cause loading issues for players with less robust PC’s and for those of on us the PS4 (4especially on an older stock model PS4, and not a Pro). In an effort to alleviate the congestion, there are three active instances at any given time for each of the new areas. And while it’s great when early loaders and people with powerhouse PC’s wait patiently for everyone to load in and reach the Hunt target, people are frequently left behind when others choose to be impatient.

I have personally experienced some issues with this myself, but nothing extensive, as I play on a PS4 Pro. Due to loading priority on the A rank targets, some players have been left in a sea of hundreds of people quickly destroying a Hunt target’s health only to never have it load in time to get credit for themselves. This has deterred quite a few players from being able to participate—and should probably be addressed in quality of life change while the player base is at its peak. Even a simple fix such as giving the A rank targets a higher loading priority-similar to the epic S rank ones could do much to remedy it for many players. Further, creating an additional, temporary A-Rank once per day Hunt bill (similar to that of the weekly B rank) could offer an alternative to players who feel shut out of this community. One change I did notice, however, is that healing a party member now counts as a contribution for defeating the target—previously, even a healer would have to “tag” the enemy with some kind of attack to get credit.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Review —  Lions and Rabbits and Sin Eaters, Oh My!

Fortunately, for more introverted players who may find the community overwhelming at times, Shadowbringers introduces us to the “Trust” system. Allowing you to opt out of queuing into a dungeon with other players, for the first time ever you can choose to go with NPCs from the story, with each role type available depending on what job you’re playing yourself. Currently, the party members you can select are Thancred, Y’shtola, Alphinaud, Alisae, Urianger, and Minfilia. Similar to the inclusion of the Squadron from Stormblood, recruitable NPCs you can send on missions, or run specified dungeons with. This system can not only spare you from very long queue times, but one of the things I found deeply impressive was the AI for each and every role type; they all perform combat mechanics flawlessly. I think this would be even more appealing to newer players to the series who are still in the learning process; the ability to learn mechanics by observing how AI responds to them, and emulating it themselves.

Further, it can spare people the angst and salt of having to get called out by your party for making a mistake. Completing dungeons via the Trust system awards fewer experience points than completing it with other players (being an MMORPG, this shouldn’t be surprising). Your NPC companions must also be leveled in order to use them on higher level dungeons. Currently, the dungeons they can be utilized in are the MSQ 5.0 dungeons. I think this is a fantastic addition to the game and would love to see it expanded upon.

As you round out your journey through Shadowbringers, gearing up your Warrior of Darkness to take on it’s most challenging trials, you’ll find yourself continually captivated by the quality of the story. Thematically, it deals with class struggles, the pain of loss, and the nature in how we all overcome adversity in our own unique ways. And of course, dealing with otherworldly beings on a mission to save the world of The First and prevent the 8th Umbral Calamity. You’ll see a more morally grey version of the characters you already know, and a villain who does not immediately reveal themselves with more complex motives. Written by Natsuko Ishikawa, it serves to unify the series as a whole, interweaving characters from previous expansions to the narrative together in its most cohesive fashion yet.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Review —  Lions and Rabbits and Sin Eaters, Oh My!

The music, composed by Masayoshi Soken is some of the best added to the series to date. Ranging from haunting dungeon melodies to atmospheric regional tunes that set the tone and vibe for each area, and of course tunes on a more epic scale for boss themes, that hold up extremely well to the series’ famously impeccable soundtracks. The voice acting was absolutely stellar, including Games of Thrones alumni such as Joe Dempsie as Ardbert, and Michael McElhatton as Gaius Van Baelsar.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy XIV has moved into the best place it has ever been. With the widest array of content yet for players of varying skill levels and a brand new story which is not only it’s best yet—but adds further addendum to previous lore and expansions, Shadowbringers feels like the definitive version of the game. With its largest community ever, Final Fantasy XIV easily holds the crown as the best MMORPG this generation.

Shadowbringers has set quite a standard in quality of content delivered and how Yoshi P and his team respond positively to community feedback for further updates. While there are some flaws to be addressed still, many of these are due to how ambitious in nature Shadowbringers is in every category. With an outline of future content roll-outs that includes a Nier: Automata YoRHa series of raids, more notoriously difficult Savage difficulty trials, housing updates, and an ever-expanding story, there’s even more to look forward to down the road with Shadowbringers.

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