Several years ago, I had a brief stint with Final Fantasy XI. I had a group of friends to play with, and despite my relative unease with MMOs, I had a good time for a while. But it was an unwieldy sort of game, and I eventually moved on to other things. When Final Fantasy XIV came out, I was always curious, but never felt like I could invest the time, especially without my old pals. Enter Shadowbringers. By some twist of fate, and this whole job thing, I ended up plonking myself down in front of this game, this massive game with over five years of context and history, and giving it a whirl. I’m hooked. Shadowbringers is the latest expansion to Final Fantasy XIV, and its new tools, features and storytelling make it a tremendous experience for veteran players and newbies alike.
Late to the Party
My experience with Final Fantasy XIV as a player and critic has had two layers. I’ve been playing as both an entirely new character from the ground up, as well as a boosted “toon” that allowed me to immediately jump into Shadowbringers. So this review might feel a bit chunky, but I sort of had two different perspectives on the game happening at once. I’ll be brief with the beginner stuff, but I do want to say that if you’ve been on the fence about Final Fantasy XIV, or curious but haven’t made the jump yet, you totally should. Final Fantasy XIV is the most player-friendly MMO-style game I have ever played.
While Final Fantasy XI was a hardcore MMO in that grouping with other players was paramount to getting anywhere, Final Fantasy XIV leans hard in the opposite direction. Instead, while community and socialization is certainly omnipresent, actually playing with others is more adjacent to the gameplay experience than a core part of it. What that means is that in order to play through the “Main Scenario,” you’ll mostly be running through everything on your own, unless you want to bring others along with you. And even for a major dungeon, or “Duty” in this game’s world, playing with others is as simple as sitting in a matchmaking queue. This is truly a Final Fantasy game, by which I mean it wants you to experience a story above all else, and mess around with its many systems at your leisure. To me, this is Final Fantasy XIV’s core appeal. Despite being on the third expansion, I’m still able to access and enjoy everything from the original Realm Reborn content, including finding friendly players who are still running dungeons through the Roulette feature. And everyone earns proportionate EXP.
Quality of Life for the Warrior of Light
With Shadowbringers, Naoki Yoshida’s team is taking that sense of casual play and streamlining to the next level. While there are plenty of things for seasoned pros to sink their teeth into, including a new raid based on NieR: Automata, many of the new features are oriented towards players who want a more smooth gameplay experience. When I was at the preview event for Shadowbringers earlier this year, it was stressed during the presentation that this expansion was meant to feel like a new, standalone Final Fantasy game. Part of that is the large-scale story that takes enough time to be considered its own game. But another part of that is a set of new features meant to trick you into not realizing you’re playing a MMO.
The most important-feeling is the Trust System. This allows players to jump into certain Duty instances without a single other human player. Story-adjacent NPC characters will join you, and their AI is programmed to meet the needs of their given role. You almost won’t notice you aren’t playing with other people, except they won’t help you figure out how to win fights or spam emotes. They will still speak however, often adding some supplemental dialogue fleshing out a Duty’s narrative context. Overall the Trust System allows players to mainline Shadowbringers playing almost entirely solo. That seems strange considering this is a MMO game, but the truth is there are plenty of Final Fantasy fans that just want to experience the story and bounce. This caters to them, and perhaps is intended as a tool to keep them around longer. For the rest of us, it’s neat and fleshes out the characters a bit more.
The second major addition is the World Visit System. One of the biggest problems with getting into MMOs with friends is server restriction. Not being able to play with a friend because their server is full is frustrating and discouraging, and the World Visit System is here to alleviate some of that pain. Now, as long as you’re on the same Data Center, friends in disparate worlds can pop in to visit, hang out, run Duties together and more. The final big new addition is a New Game Plus, which lets you replay the main scenario content. Previously, you could re-watch cutscenes, but now you can go back and do it all over again if you want, without making a new character. Just like a “real” JRPG!
And hey, if you’re curious about the new jobs, you can check out my preview feature on Dancer and Gunbreaker. Both of these jobs are great additions, with Gunbreaker in particular standing out as a unique take on the usual tank gameplay loop. Using gunblades is also, admittedly, cool. Dancer is a more familiar sort of character, but since it utilizes random elements and constant movement, it makes DPS combat a bit more active than looping through combo indicators.
Cancelling the Apocalypse
Okay, it’s finally time to talk about the story here. Shadowbringers largely functions well as a standalone story, allowing more eager players to utilize skip items if they want to get right to the new stuff. While there are several characters you won’t recognize, and allusions to things that happened before, the whole setup here is the Warrior of Light (the player) being yanked into a parallel world. Since you’re in a totally different place from Eorzea, facing a totally distinct scenario (for the most part), it’s totally cool to just jump in.
This world, called The First, is essentially Final Fantasy XIV’s Bizarro World. Everything is topsy-turvy here, from the black, demonic-looking bird monsters replacing Chocobos, different names for the game’s races, extremely purple and pink trees, and of course the world’s elemental balance. While Darkness is the main threat in Eorzea, here in The First, the world has been all but destroyed by an explosion of Light. Not only has the Light consumed most of civilization and totally removed night time, but regular people are slowly being turned into Sin Eaters, horrifying angel-like creatures with porcelain faces. As the Warrior of Light, you are summoned to The First to save what’s left, and rebranded as the Warrior of Darkness in the process.
You’re pretty much in the thick of it from the get-go. After all, there ain’t much left but Sin Eaters, monsters, and a few outcroppings of survivors. Your home base is the Crystarium, a socialist utopia full of refugees working together to survive and maybe even prosper. The other major settlement is Eulmore, a mysterious city running on wealth and excess, which immediately reminded me of Fiddler’s Green from George Romero’s Land of the Dead. In Eulmore, the outside destruction doesn’t matter, and the wealthy class from before the apocalypse preserves their extravagant way of life from before the Light took over. The areas surrounding Eulmore are full of impoverished survivors, desperate to be allowed inside as servants.
In addition to restoring balance to The First and fighting off the Sin Eaters, the political tension between the Crystarium and Eulmore drives much of Shadowbringers’ story. This clash between refugees working together to survive peacefully, and the shortsighted excess of the wealthy class sustaining itself on the backs of the poor has a contemporary, real world sting to it that only becomes more readable as a commentary on the modern class divide as the story progresses. This, combined with the supernatural spectacle and body horror of the Sin Eaters, some well-developed character moments, and the fantastical, unreal vibe of The First, make Shadowbringers’ story an assault on the senses that yanks you in and makes you want to stay until it’s over. It also helps that this candy-colored post-apocalyptic, Bizarro World aesthetic is paired with some gloriously cheesy, guitar-driven tracks from sound director Masayoshi Soken and his team. The overall vibe has this otherworldly kick to it that really helps Shadowbringers stand out and feel different.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a pretty cool game. Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is an awesome extension of it, adding features that further distills the game’s core appeal and adds an entire new game of shockingly excellent storytelling in terms of scale and quality. I don’t really know what happens between those two points yet, and I have a long road of Final Fantasy XIV ahead of me yet. But after my experiences so far in learning the game, experiencing its latest expansion, and seeing just how much I have left to see and do, well, I’m in it for the long haul.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers review code provided by publisher. Version 7.87 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.