Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Hands-On Preview – Bunnies, Buttrock and Bullets

Last week, Square Enix invited PlayStation Lifestyle to an event in San Francisco, to be among the first to get hands on the upcoming third expansion to Final Fantasy XIV. Shadowbringers introduces a ton of new content to the long-running MMORPG, from massive new balancing changes, to new character races, and of course a couple of new jobs. On top of all that, Shadowbringers even takes players to an entirely new world, a massive new open world full of new quests, duties, and even a raid based on NieR: Automata. I didn’t get to try everything out, but as part of the several hour demo I got to try out one of the new duty missions, the Trust System, the new races, and especially the two new jobs: Dancer and Gunbreaker. I’m still personally cutting my teeth on Final Fantasy XIV, but after getting a taste of what’s to come this summer, I’m ready to go all in on this thing.

Kicking Ass on the Eorzean Dance Floor

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After a presentation from director Naoki Yoshida on the nuts and bolts sort of changes coming to Final Fantasy XIV, I sat down to try my hand at Shadowbringers by literal candlelight. Fueled by a toxic mixture of jetlag and coffee, I immediately dove into the new Gunbreaker job. I also built a Viera character, since I’m actually running through Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age right now, and the bunny people are fresh on my mind. In the demo, our characters were maxed out at the new level cap (80), and kitted out in each job’s fancy, unique gear. The Gunbreaker has a neat, dark blue cloak/duster sort of gimmick, and wields the Gunblade, the classic weapon used by Squall in Final Fantasy VIII. Much like Squall, despite the weapon being part gun, most of the Gunbreaker’s combat is up close and personal.

That totally makes sense, as Gunbreaker is a new tank class. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy XIV, playing a tank is all about putting yourself in the mix and drawing as much attention to yourself as possible. Especially with some of the new balance changes, tanks are all about drawing “enmity,” or aggro from mobs, to use MMO lingo. Gunbreaker certainly has weapon skills that generate bonus enmity, but the real name of the game is chaining combos together. Every job has combos, but Gunbreaker in particular has strikingly long combos chains, including a weapon skill that actually transforms a few times when you activate its particular combo chain. In addition to the long combo strings you can put together, Gunbreaker also has a unique meter that looks like the Gunblade’s chamber, and certain skills will pocket bullets into the meter’s slots. Those bullets can be cashed in for an extra burst of damage from a couple of other skills that only become available once you have a bullet.

The gameplay loop of Gunbreaker is a blast, because the bullet skills and long combo strings work together in a way that ensures you’re always doing. Sometimes being a tank can feel a little more passive than playing healer or DPS, since you’re more trying to manage enmity and absorb damage. But with Gunbreaker, you’re doing some fancier footwork and moving from your long combos to the bullet skills. It feels more active, as you dance across your range of skills constantly in order to keep up your momentum. It also goes really well with the soundtrack for the new regions of Shadowbringers, which is some really great buttrock sort of stuff with cheesy guitar riffs pushing you to kick as much ass as you can.

Speaking of music and kicking ass, let’s talk about Dancer. If Gunbreaker is all about getting in faces and planning your combo moves, Dancer is almost the opposite. With Dancer, I found myself running around the perimeter of the action, and the skill set is about playing with random chances, meaning there’s an element of adaptation to what you have available at any given moment. The dancer has two major gameplay components, jumping back and forth between attacking and dancing. Dances have their own combo chains, with the biggest one giving you a huge buff when you complete the chain, but a huge cooldown means you need to plan around it. The smaller chains are more readily available, and pulling off a dance combo is always fun because of all the visual flair.

Meanwhile, combat involves using basic moves, which have a chance of triggering stronger skills that do more damage. These only pop up part of the time, so you’re always looking for the next attack in order to push those stronger ones out. There’s a unique meter that fills up as you dance, which makes even stronger moves available as it fills. You can also bank “feathers” randomly from certain skills, and having feathers opens up another set of highly damaging skills. Dancer can also use a skill that picks another party member to be their dance partner, and shares the benefits of dances with them. That skill feels like more of a side attraction you have to remember to pop off, but perhaps with more time the benefits there will become more immediately apparent.

In NPCs We Trust

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So while Gunbreaker is about knowing your moves and figuring out your order of operations for static combos, Dancer is more about paying close attention to what you can do at any given moment because your options change quite often. Both of them are a lot of fun to play moment to moment, and lend themselves quite well to custom control setups. Being able to use these jobs’ skills effectively and efficiently is crucial, as maintaining that momentum I mentioned earlier is needed in order to take down bosses. To that end, I was able to play one duty in the demo, a level 73 duty called Dohn Mheg, located in one of the new Shadowbringers regions known as Il Mheg.

In playing this duty mission, I was able to try out the new Trust System. With the Trust System, players can run duty missions (certain ones, generally main scenario-adjacent) with a group of NPC partners in lieu of using the standard matchmaking. These NPCs are characters involved in the plot, and they will occasionally have moments of dialogue during the missions to flesh out their characters. In addition, as Yoshida explained in the presentation, the AI for these characters is programmed in certain ways, to make these characters feel more like characters than player replacements.

Frankly, as someone still new to Final Fantasy XIV, I struggled to determine what that meant during gameplay. However, the Trust System is still really neat, as the partner NPCs are absolutely effective within their roles, and completing the duty mission was nice and smooth as long as I played my role properly. There were some miniboss gimmicks that could cause an instant wipe if I messed them up, as is pretty familiar boss practice for Final Fantasy XIV veterans. But other than that, the duty was a lot of fun, especially since the scenery changed in the middle of it, and the encounters within were all challenging enough to make me pay attention, but never felt too easy.

There’s a lot more to look forward to in Shadowbringers, some of which is admittedly over my head as a novice player. For the real nitty gritty, you can refer to Naoki Yoshida’s recent livestream, which details all the new changes coming to old jobs, such as updates to the healers and a near total overhaul of the Machinist. My experience with the Shadowbringers demo was mostly focused on playing Dancer and Gunbreakers, both of which I had a ton of fun with. Both jobs have a big focus on quickly moving around your collection of skills, making the guitar-shredding battles feel action-packed. Pulling off combos in combat is one of the best parts of Final Fantasy XIV to me in general, so having two new jobs with so much of that packed in was exhilarating. I made multiple runs through the one duty available in the demo, simply because I was having so much fun. With the Trust System in place to help more solo-oriented players get through the new scenarios, even players looking for a more traditional-feeling RPG experience will have a lot to do here. Now I just have to make sure I’m ready to hop in by the time Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers drops on July 2, 2019.

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