Almost four years have passed since the release of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. I will admit that I always felt an emotional connection to the game.
Having played since the disastrous launch of the 1.0 version in 2010, I witnessed the work of Producer and Director Naoki Yoshida and his team, as they painstakingly patched a sinking ship and eventually steered it in the right direction. This means that I also lived through the story of 1.0, which led to the fall of Dalamud that coincided with the closure of the old game, as we waited for the new one that would come in the summer of 2013.
The rebirth of Final Fantasy XIV has been one of the most positive stories I ever had the chance to write, and thinking about it still makes me smile to this day.
It should come as no surprise for anyone that I am excited for the new expansion, Stormblood. Considering how engaging the story of Final Fantasy XIV has been; after stalling the Garlean offensive at home, and winning the Dragonsong War in Ishgard, it’s finally time to set foot past Baelsar’s Wall to liberate Ala Mhigo and kick the Empire’s armored butt all the way to Doma and beyond.
Final Fantasy XIV players have been in intimate contact with the plight of the Ala Mhigan refugees for seven years, and we’re finally going to be able to do something about it. That’s certainly one hell of a buildup.
The preview version that I tried during the Media Tour in Hamburg included the new city of Kugane, a couple additional areas, and one of the first dungeons of the expansion, the Shisui of the Violet Tides. It was a lot of ground to cover, but it’s just a fraction of what the expansion will include.
Stormblood also comes with two new jobs, Red Mage and Samurai. They’re extremely different from each other, but they both appear to follow the same overall philosophy of being rather easy to pick up, but quite hard to master and unleash their full potential in battle.
On the other hand, I decided to stick with Paladin for most of my preview time. Admittedly, I’m notoriously bad at playing anything other than tanks. Everyone else playing with me at the event wanted to play red mage and samurai, so someone had to do it anyway.
As soon as I sat at the familiar controls of my beloved meat shield, I immediately noticed the effect of the action streamlining operated by the development team. It’s not that we lost many skills, and the overall number at level 70 isn’t very different from what we needed to handle at 60. However, everything was very manageable and fairly easy to pick up, even if I didn’t have my action bar setup, keyboard mouse equipped with a gazillion buttons (a situation that can prove really awkward when playing a MMORPG).
This doesn’t really mean that the game has been dumbed down. Complexity and strategy are still there, but battle definitely felt more intuitive, with more meaningful actions and leaner controls.
Evidence of the success (at least from what I could see without touching the new endgame) of this partial reform came when I tried to tackle the dungeon. It definitely isn’t rare to meet reporters that never played the game at this kind of event, and at times you find some that aren’t familiar with the entire genre of MMORPGs either. This was precisely the case with one of my-newly met adventuring companions, and since everyone wanted to play red mage, she happened to be handed the task to play our healer.
While white mage is probably the easiest among the healing jobs, anyone who plays Final Fantasy XIV probably knows that going into an unknown dungeon with a complete novice as the healer is close to a recipe for disaster. Yet, she managed to pick up her role fairly quickly, and we beat the dungeons without too much pain. Of course, part of this is probably due to the resourcefulness of the lady herself, but the redesigned system most probably helped a lot as well.
Boss fights in the dungeon were all quite interesting, mostly steering clear of straight tank and spank. They all came with mechanics that required a level of understanding and kept things diverse, while remaining fairly intuitive in what each player had to do. It’s always difficult to find a good balance between too easy and having to go find a guide on the internet (which we obviously didn’t have), and Shisui of the Violet Tides hits that sweet spot really well for being one of the first challenges provided by an expansion.
Paladins had their ability to establish and hold enmity (basically the level of aggression of each enemy towards you) with large groups of critters buffed rather considerably on par with other tanks, due to a point-blank circular attack that hits everything around you in a rather wide area. That’s definitely a welcome addition to the job’s toolset.
Unfortunately, the dungeon capped our level at 63, so we couldn’t try the most advanced techniques in a party situation, but there are some definitely intriguing ones, like Passage of Arms, which isn’t just visually spectacular, but will prompt paladins to walk (figuratively, since you’re actually required to stay stationary) a fine line between holding aggro and protecting themselves and the party.
Another relevant addition to the game’s book of tricks is underwater content. Swimming and diving feels really great both on one’s own or on a mount, adding an entirely new dimension to the game. The Ruby Sea area included underwater settlements built under domes of air, and I personally can’t wait to explore and learn more about them.
The only thing that felt a bit less seamless than what I had hoped was the transition between swimming and walking, but I’m guessing the development team did what was possible within the engine’s limitations.
Speaking of dimensions and layers, the areas were absolutely lovely in their design, full of verticality and landmarks to explore. The city of Kugane is a prime example, as players feeling adventurous will find plenty of ways to reach rooftop areas. There are actually quite a lot of platforming elements that require precision jumping in order to reach the highest perches.
The whole city is simply a joy for the eyes, with a level of detail unprecedented in Final Fantasy XIV, expressing the new Far Eastern culture introduced in the game with rich visuals and beautiful vistas. From training grounds of what appeared to be a group similar to the historical Shinsengumi, to the traditional open-air public baths, passing by the embassy district providing a small foreign touch, Kugane is without a doubt the part of Stormblood that I am most eager to explore further.
Visuals are certainly not the only top-notch aspect of the production values of the expansion, as the sound team did an amazing job with music, conveying the atmosphere of each area, above and below water, during the day or the night, in a masterful way. If what I heard is any indication of the overall level of the Stormblood‘s soundtrack, we’re in for a real treat.
In conclusion, Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood is a very promising expansion. Not only it brings what appears to be a well balanced reform to the game’s battle system, but the team seems to have pushed the game’s existing qualities even further, topped by lovely areas, a beautiful city, emotional music and a ton of content.
Paired with the perspective of multiple plotlines finally coming to fruition after years of buildup, I can’t wait to set foot in this brave new world with my own character when early access will begin on June 16th.