Normally I wouldn’t review a game twice; but after writing my review-in-progress previously, there was so much left to discuss, which was only added to by the remainder of the expansion. So, having finished the entire Main Scenario of the expansion, as well as the optional dungeons and Raid content, I wanted to review the “full” Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers experience.
As I mentioned before, the story of Shadowbringers is easily the best yet, with some of the most intricately crafted character moments in gaming. It’s more than this though as the narrative on this expansion builds so successfully on the previous story beats, whilst bringing in new threads to progress the plot. Needless to say, and I’ll say this right now in bold capitals so you all know …
We depart to the First, one of the reflections of the Source, to see the devastation inflicted by the success of the Warriors of Light for ourselves; a disaster that we previously heard about in the Heavensward post-game. The Warriors all finally fell to stop the encroaching light, their aether sacrificed by Minfilia, despite knowing that their last acts could not hold the tide forever.
This feeling of despair is fundamental to the plot throughout Shadowbringers and is felt in every inch of the world. Every character and plot thread revolves around despair of some sort, either relating to the Light itself or the consequences of it. This leads to this section of the story being the darkest and most hard-hitting yet – with a large focus on dealing with severe grief.
As the timing of travelling to the First has messed with things, your arrival is some time after your fallen friends in the Scions of the Seventh Dawn. As such, they have a personal stake in the story now, a stake that impacts all of their decisions in the First. It serves to keep the story grounded, even whilst dealing with much larger issues. Shadowbringers remains a very human story.
Well, mostly human, if you don’t count the monstrous Lord Vauthry. This character and the plot that circulates him (manipulation, poisoning, all the fun stuff) is a horror-like narrative similar to what we’ve seen in some dungeons in previous content. Vauthry is an unsettling presence whenever he is on screen, and it really works in the context of the horrifying Eulmore.
Of course, Shadowbringers is not without the intense revelations that Final Fantasy XIV has had in the past, this time taking a moment to explain the past of Hydaelyn and Zodiark, and their nature as the most ancient of Primals. Then there’s the reveal that various potentially world-ending calamities that have occurred in the past, were all orchestrated by the Ascians in some way.
Speaking of which, the key Ascian of this tale, the previously more enigmatic Emet-Selch is incredible. The charismatic gent is not only another in a long line of previously compelling villains in Final Fantasy XIV, but also arguably exceeds all of them. Emet-Selch is portrayed and written to be keenly relatable, leading to myself (and many others) really empathising with his views.
It can’t all be set in the First either, as the war between the Alliance and the Empire is still ongoing during your journey, and the key pieces are beginning to make their move. The threat of Black Rose is encroaching ever further, with Estinien and Gaius trying to stop it, and the power struggle between the Emperor and Elidibus (in the body of his son, Zenos) reaches fever pitch.
Then, last but not least, there’s the fantastic lore that can be garnered from everywhere in the expansion, right up to the post-game. These not only reveal the despair of the people in the Source after your death in the other timeline, but the fantastic things that they achieved in trying to avert that disaster. Also, the final boss of The Twinning in particular is a glorious callback.
Shadowbringers only has one downside here, which is the fact that it does rely a lot on prior knowledge of the story and characters (the Crystal Tower storyline from A Realm Reborn – hint hint). The writers do an excellent job of making the story understandable for players that just jump in from here, but some of the plot points won’t have the same impact without context.
SPOILERS. OVER. (MOSTLY).
Most of the gameplay changes of Shadowbringers you might know already, as there was a largely talked about and significant reshuffle of how the Jobs worked, especially with relation to the Tank and Healer Jobs. This has made all of the Jobs both easier to play, whilst also levelling the playing field across the different roles, making the experience more streamlined for everyone.
From here, most of the changes with the gameplay are subtle but massively beneficial changes. Markers for area of effect attacks are more clear, there’s now a light palette for all of the menus, all of the side quests are level locked to aid levelling alternate jobs, and the FATEs now all work into a system to unlock faster mount speeds in the areas, as well as several other bonuses.
I say most, but then there’s the Trust System and the Job Quests. The Trust System essentially allows you to circumvent the stress of dealing with other people for dungeons by taking NPCs in with you instead. Not only does this avoid “elite” player salt, but also gives you more insight into the characters we already know and love through their dialogue during the dungeons.
The Job Quests take a different format this time as Role Quests, with the player joining a fledgling hero on a quest to find one of the fallen Warriors of Light of the First. So, as either Healer, Tank, Physical DPS, or Magical DPS, you aid your companion through their ventures. Also, at least one of these quest lines need to be finished to complete the main story, so hunt them out!
Visually, Shadowbringers is absolutely breathtaking. With the world flooded with Light, there is a brilliant and oppressive glare, giving every location a scorched and fragile beauty. There’s an incredible amount of variety in your surroundings too, with the desolated desert of Ahm Araeng providing a stark contrast to the colourful fields of flowers of Il Mheg, the Fae Kingdom.
Then there’s the enemy designs, which are beyond a doubt better than anything that Final Fantasy XIV has ever had before. The Sin Eaters are both visually striking and also cohesive with one another, perfectly fitting in with the horror leanings of Vauthry and the nature of the creatures themselves. This cohesion then incredibly extends to every boss and enemy in the expansion.
Final Fantasy XIV has had a reputation for a while of having phenomenal music, but Masayoshi Soken has completely surpassed himself this time. Every theme is incredible, with astounding genre variety, and a strong usage of leitmotifs throughout. Then there’s the dungeon boss theme, which is a tour-de-force balance of determined energy and over-powering desperation.
Something that I wouldn’t normally rave about but definitely deserves focus with Shadowbringers is the vocal performances. There’s so much more vocal work in the expansion than in previous instalments, and it works with the music, visuals, and story to really build the world of the First. It’s definitely clear that the actors are settling into their roles, and starting to enjoy themselves.
Really, I cannot recommend Shadowbringers more. The story, visuals, music, vocal performances, and gameplay all combine together to create a phenomenal gaming experience. Final Fantasy XIV has only gotten better over time, and after playing Shadowbringers I have simply no idea how they are going to better this expansion in the future. It really and truly is that good.
As I’ve gushed about it at length (twice) now, it’s probably safe to assume that Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is an incredible game. The story is engaging and emotional, the gameplay feels the best it ever has, all of the dungeons and instances are well designed. The entire expansion is just so cohesive and full of content that it’s more than worth the price and time commitment.
Not only that but the game is continually being expanded with the addition of the Eden’s Gate raids, and last week saw the addition of Savage difficulty for Eden. Then we have the YorHa Dark Apocalypse raid to come, and more post-game story content before the next expansion. It has never been a better time to jump into XIV, and you can try it for free. What are you waiting for?