After stumbling through its launch, Final Fantasy 14 has been made anew by director Naoki Yoshida. It has evolved from a punchline to a fan favorite to one of the biggest MMOs on the market. The latest expansion, Shadowbringers, feels like its overdue victory lap.
Final Fantasy 14 has become one of the best stories in the franchise. It’s also one of the longest. While the latest expansionis a feast for all Final Fantasyfans, its twists, turns, and character growth will resonate best with those who’ve played all the earlier expansions.
And yet, this is still the best time for newcomers to jump onboard. Whether they should skip to the latest expansion or work through the tons of quests and story that build to this moment is a tricky question to answer. It will depend on what you’re willing to sacrifice: time or story.
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Shadowbringers finally brings the Scions into the spotlight, rather than shoving the focus of the expansion onto new characters. We learn about the new Minfilia. And if this sounds like nonsense, then I recommend, at the very least, a deep dive through fan wikis.
Natsuko Ishikawa handled the writing on Shadowbringers, following her highly praised work on the Dark Knight job quests, Rogue class quests, and the Azim Steppe arc of the Stormblood expansion. Shadowbringers’ story is a little predictable, but no less affecting. Our heroes’ longtime allies, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, are all bedridden, mysteriously unresponsive. As the Warrior of Light, we’re summoned to another world, The First, as our friends are spiritually stuck there. In this new world, it’s not the typical darkness that destroys life, but an abundance of light. Now we must fight against light-powered seraphic creatures plaguing the world.
To get into more specific would risk spoiling the plot for fans and totally losing newcomers.
The new areas of this planet are beautiful, with some standing out more than others. Il Mheg is flowery and whimsical, and doesn’t look like anything else we’ve seen in Final Fantasy 14. One of the new cities, Eulmore, is a fun version of Final Fantasy 7’s Midgar, with a similar dynamic. The city is beautiful, and its citizens seem to be enjoying themselves feasting on good food, spending time at burlesque clubs, or just hanging out around plentiful resources. But the colorful city contrasts with the barren wasteland below it, which is filled with people living in scrappy houses, hoping to one day be let into the city above them.
Shadowbringers’ composer, Masayoshi Soken, has managed to make my heart swell with each song in the game, the same way that legendary Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu did when I heard the first few notes of the Final Fantasy 7 opening as a kid. Every time I loaded into a new dungeon — including the two that are outside of the main scenario quests — I’d take a moment to appreciate its unique theme.
Everything looks, sounds, and feels carefully considered, and appropriately spectacular for such a big update. The past two expansions felt like mere extensions of the original game. But something about Shadowbringers’ story feels like a genuine sequel. It’s grander and more ambitious, taking the characters and ideas in new directions.
The only bit that throws a wrench into the flow of the game is the need to complete fights as NPCs, forcing you to sit and press one or two buttons for 10 to 15 minutes. These battles are designed to remind players how strong they are in comparison to their NPC allies, but they always seem to drag on for way too long.
Shadowbringers also includes significant changes that make for a more polished and accommodating experience. My favorite new feature of the expansion is the Trust System, which allows players to complete main story dungeons with NPCs as their party members, instead of random players. The idea of running dungeons or story points with NPCs isn’t completely new to Final Fantasy 14; players had their beloved NPC friends take part in dungeons during the Stormblood expansion. However, completing an entire dungeon for the first time while your allies talk about the various bosses they see, along with the environments, creates a magical feeling.
It feels natural and familiar, as if I’m playing a regular JRPG when I’m running the dungeons with the rest of the Scions. They move like expert players, dodging big attacks and casting their abilities fairly well. (But I’m squinting at all the DPS options, who refuse to use any area-of-effect abilities.) While this system is slower than running with real people, I definitely recommend it for your first run of each dungeon.
The flavor text between the characters in each dungeon is small, but meaningful. As somebody who thirsts for character interaction, especially in casual settings outside of rigid cutscenes, I want to run each dungeon with every character I possibly can, just to see what they’ll say. Each NPC has their own set play style, to an extent. Alisae will always blow Limit Break when it’s up, even on a single target. Y’shtola will never cast hers, as she thinks it’s a DPS loss. Minfilia won’t cast hers, either; she’s much too shy.
If you’re a Final Fantasy 14 fan, the choice here is easy: Yes, play this game if you somehow haven’t already dived in.
As for newcomers: Getting into Final Fantasy 14 with no level or story skips is a daunting task. My co-workers have given me side eye whenever I bring up the fact that they should play the game, and I don’t blame them for it. Anyone looking to get into Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers is expected to invest well over 100 hours, and that’s without getting sidetracked by all the glorious optional content. But those hours aren’t spent in a miserable grind. The base game is good, even if it does take some time to get going. Playing through the whole adventure, you can feel the game’s creators discover what makes this game special, you can sense them finding its rhythm.
Skipping straight to Shadowbringers will save time, but at the expense of enjoying the story. If you have the time, resist the urge to start with the shiny, new stuff. Experience this journey in full. Shadowbringers is a thrilling experience, but one that benefits from all the adventures that came before it.
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