By William Haderlie / August 8th, 2019
Your initial task is to find your erstwhile friends and to discover what they have been doing for all this time on the First. Of course they are all doing what they do best, mostly investigating what caused the Flood, how to reverse it, and protecting the people from its effects. The Scions have always been a highlight of Final Fantasy XIV, ever since the game was relaunched in A Realm Reborn. With Shadowbringers, they become even more prevalent in the story and become far more of what you would call Party Members in any standard RPG. In this new world, they are given new chances to show character development and to also fine tune what they each do best. And through trials they all become a lot closer to each other and to the Warrior of Light, who in this world becomes the Warrior of Darkness. It turns out that they have indeed discovered that there is a specific sin eater in each region that is causing the oppressive Light Ether to overwhelm and unbalance all else, and they are called the Lightwardens. Unfortunately, they have not found a way to do anything about this because at present whenever a Lightwarden is defeated, its Light Ether just enters the person who defeated them and that person becomes the new Warden, even more powerful than it was before. As the Warrior of Light, and chosen of Hydlean, it does seem like you have some resistance to this conundrum. And as such you start your mission to destroy all the Lightwardens. Of course, it doesn’t mean you have full immunity, and things start to go very wrong soon after you start giving people hope and after they see the night’s sky again for the first time in over a century.
There was an initial concern that by taking the fight to an entirely knew world, it would not progress the overall narrative of the game very much. However, that turned out not to be the case. The primary antagonists for the entire game, in every expansion, have always been the Ascians. They are a group of masked individuals that are able to possess people and discard that shell when it has fulfilled its use. Not only have they been the puppet masters behind the scene in every conflict, but you learn in Stormblood that a particular Ascian named Emet-Selch was the founder of the Garlean Empire. It turns out that the Ascians are also involved in the First, but to a surprising degree. Not only does your conflict with them continue, but it alters significantly. You are able to learn far more about them in Shadowbringers than ever before. They had their moments in the story thus far, but Emet-Selch in particular shines in this expansion. He is the current leader of the Ascians and is just as close to Zodiark (the Crystal of Darkness) as you are to Hydaelyn. It is difficult to talk about him and the Ascians much without engaging in major spoilers, but for many people his story beats were the highlight of the game thus far.
While the world of the First mirrors the Source in many ways, it is also extremely different in other ways. Obviously the monsters are a lot more powerful, as you would expect in an expansion and with what has happened to this world story-wise. But the races of people are also called different things. One nice result of this is bringing back many aspects of Final Fantasy series history. For instance, all Lalafells in this world wear horned hats and beards (no matter their gender) and you never see their face. In this world they are called Dwarves (Lali-Ho), a clear reference to the classic Final Fantasy race, especially IV. Also the new Hrothgar male race is called the Ronso in the First, whereas the Viera have their Final Fantasy XII and Tactics names in the Source because that world is actually Ivalice (an aspect of the game that was explored thoroughly in the Stormblood 24-man raid series). But even beyond the change in races, and the addition of some new ones like the Faeries, one of the largest changes is in how each of the zones have reacted to the Flood. There is much more of a high fantasy vibe in the world of the First, and for myself it makes the zones themselves more fun to quest and hang out in. There was a few people who felt that the zones in Stormblood felt a bit lackluster compared to Heavensward, and it is more than apparent that the team was listening to the feedback.
Not only are the zones themselves very arresting, but the dungeons within them are even a step up from there. Out of the 8 dungeons added in the initial launch, not a single one of them feels like filler or just a rehash of previous content. All of them are visually interesting and have quite impressive boss fights featuring many mechanics that are either shifted from previous content or are entirely new. Much like in the previous two expansions, dungeons start on the level after the previous maximum (in this case level 71) and then appear every odd level after that. Then at 80 there is a final story dungeon and two post story additional dungeons. That is actually 1 more than the previous two expansions, which started out with 7 dungeons each, but they all stand out as their own singular experience and are a joy to run even beyond the fact that it is where you will want to go for your new gear as you level up. It should be noted that these new dungeons are quite reliant on player experience, and feature mechanics that can really punish your whole group if enough people (especially the tank and healer) don’t know what they are doing. So you will need to make sure you know your class well before entering the dungeon, not learning on the fly while you are in there. But that mostly applies to people who use an item to skip previous content (something that Square Enix sells separately), if you have gotten to 70 the normal way you should have more than enough skill to make it through.
Of course, if you are going to enter those dungeons, you will need to either form a pre-made group from your Free Company (think Guilds from other MMORPGs), finding people using the realm wide Party Finder, or just queuing up for a Pick-Up Group. PUGs are my general way of going into dungeons, and that is true for most people that play the game with anything but the really high level content. Unfortunately because DPS is what the lion’s share of players want to do in any MMORPG, the queue times to find a party can be excessively long. Shadowbringers presents a new way to tackle this issue with the Trust system. As you move along the story, you are able to invite Scions you have met (as well as a few locals from the First that you have particularly strong connections with) into a dungeon with you. There is usually one tank, one or two healers, and a few DPS that you can choose from. That allows you to be able to enter any dungeon along the story solo and just engage with the new content that way. There is a little less loot (any chest that normally gives two items, now only gives one), but you automatically obtain any loot without having to roll for it against anyone else. This new system allows people who don’t have the time or patience for queues to bypass them, but it also allows people with anti-social personalities or communication problems (like myself) to not have to engage with other people quite as much. Of course, not everything is sunshine and rainbows with this new system, as you would expect so that not everyone just forgoes regular Party Finder. The first major stipulation is that your Trust members do not do nearly as much damage as a standard party does, so the dungeon will take you about twice as long as normal to complete. The other roadblock is that when you reach the end of the story, you cannot use Trusts for any level 80 dungeons and they also revert all the way back to level 71. From there you will actually have to level them up by taking them into dungeons before you can engage in anything higher than the first dungeon of the expansion with your fellow Scions.
During the progress of the story, you will also eventually meet up against three different Trials. Trials are 8-person Raids, and as such cannot be confronted with your Trusts. They are single boss fights that all have a strong story resonance, two being Lightwardens and the third being a massive spoiler. What they lack in dungeon length, they more than make up for in complexity of fighting mechanics. People have learned their mechanics pretty well by now, but it is still not uncommon to wipe on any of these three bosses. Many of their mechanics are either entirely new, or were only featured on some of the very high end content previously. Also they are all graphically outstanding, even compared to how stunning the regular dungeons are, and I couldn’t help but think that the dropping of PlayStation 3 support entirely was truly felt with this expansion (even though it happened a few years ago). Extreme versions of the first two Trials are already available at launch for when you reach level 80. Defeating Titania Extreme requires a much more skilled and coordinated group, but the result is some very nice weapons, and defeating Innocence Extreme nets you upgraded Accessories from what you can normally get at 80. The third Trial won’t have an Extreme mode until a later patch, but there is already a lot of anticipation for that due to how fantastic that fight is even at normal strength.
Stay tuned later this week for Part 2 of this review, including the score
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