Editors’ Choice: FFXIV Shadowbringers Takes the MMO to New Heights

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Editors’ Choice: FFXIV Shadowbringers Takes the MMO to New Heights

With an enthralling story that stands among the best in the series' decades-long history.

Hi, I’m Justin Massongill, and I love Final Fantasy XIV.

I started playing five years ago and was instantly hooked by Square Enix’s innovative approach to controller-based MMO combat, Masayoshi Soken’s intoxicating soundtrack, the fact that I could level up every class and job on the same character, and the far-reaching — yet surprisingly friendly and welcoming — community.

But you’ve probably already heard the tale of the game’s metamorphosis into one of the most respected MMOs on the market, so I won’t get into that here. What I will get into is why FFXIV’s newest expansion, Shadowbringers, catapults this fourteenth mainline entry into the upper echelons of Final Fantasy history. Put plainly: Shadowbringers is one of the best Final Fantasy games ever. Yeah, I said it.

Try to watch any FFXIV opening cinematic without getting goosebumps, I dare you.

The story of Shadowbringers sees your hero teleported to a new dimension (a Shard, in the game’s parlance) called the First. It seems their version of the Warriors of Light did perhaps too good a job eradicating the forces of darkness, and their world has been all but consumed by a torrent of unceasing, deadly light.

This premise sets some interesting narrative stakes: while you’ve built a reputation as a god-slaying, regime-toppling hero back home, this new dimension’s citizens have never heard of you. This is a refreshing change of pace from the borderline deistic reverence with which NPCs usually treat you, and it lets the story play out at a more personal level. Instead of simply nodding along as the story happens around you, your character’s own desires and motivations finally come into play.

A few shots I snapped using FFXIV’s robust photo mode

Your longtime comrades — the Scions of the Seventh Dawn — have been summoned to the First, too, and they have their own challenges to overcome. One seeks to uncover the sordid secrets of a too-good-to-be-true utopian city. Another finds himself at odds with the opposing ideas of living up to the responsibilities of fatherhood and ensuring his the girl he’s sworn to protect is able to fulfill her destiny.

The story of Shadowbringers plays out over around 50 or 60 hours, and is punctuated by appearances from some of the most “Final Fantasy”-ish villains the series has seen since the silver-haired Sephiroth graced our CRTs. One in particular — no spoilers — is written so effectively that it’s hard not to feel a sense of empathy for them by the time things comes to a head… I still feel a tinge of regret that we couldn’t have ended our time together on more amicable terms. Sigh.

While the story is what impressed me most about Shadowbringers, the core systems at play continue to provide a solid foundation that can support the dozens (hundreds (thousands?)?) of hours you’ll spend experiencing these stories. Many of the playable jobs have been changed, ranging from small tweaks to full-on overhauls, and they have generally been received well by the FFXIV community (especially after the recent 5.05 patch, which addressed some balance issues between the three available Healer jobs). The new Dancer and Gunbreaker jobs are highlights, providing the game’s most support-based job yet and a surprisingly active tank role, respectively. I main Black Mage and I’m over the moon with my level 80 rotation — it’s not a huge departure from the level 70 kit, but it’s been smoothed out and optimized in enough ways that it feels substantially more powerful. Explosions everywhere!

A legendary Guardian Force from Final Fantasy VIII makes an impressive return in FFXIV’s newest raid.

Two weeks after Shadowbringers launched, the new “Eden’s Gate” raid was unleashed upon players who had finished the expansion’s main story quest. I won’t get into the story details of this raid here, but there is one particularly breathtaking sequence in its first fight that I wrote about , if you don’t mind being spoiled on it. The loot system for this raid has been adjusted, too: long story short, drops are more plentiful so it’s far easier to get your hands on the specific piece of gear you’re chasing. There’s also a new 24-player raid on the way, which is based on the world of NieR and NieR Automata, and is being developed in collaboration with Yoko Taro and Yosuke Saito. It’s gonna be weird.

Shadowbringers’ soundtrack is, as always, a highlight. The drastically different setting for this expansion gave Soken an opportunity to branch out and take the game’s soundtrack in some interesting new directions, masterfully invoking myriad genres that fit their respective areas and encounters like a glove (or, more appropriately, a really comfy pair of headphones). He also continues to expertly harness the emotional power of leitmotif, aiming to jerk a tear from all but the driest eyes.

Semi-related note: Square Enix recently made a ton of their soundtracks available on streaming services, including Spotify. The OST for Shadowbringers isn’t out yet, but you can listen to hundreds of earlier FFXIV tracks there right now.

I grew up with this series. It’s been a part of my life for nearly 30 years, introducing me to the concept of role-playing games for the first time. Never did I imagine that the story of any MMO would stand toe-to-toe with those of FF’s 16/32-bit golden era. But Naoki Yoshida and team are not content to build merely the best MMO on the market. As far as I’m concerned, Shadowbringers is the new final word in fantasy.

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