Well, I’ve just finished the latest expansion for Final Fantasy XIV. Since it came out almost a year ago now, I know this isn’t really breaking news, but if you haven’t gotten around to it yet, or want an outside impression, I’ve got you covered.
First of all, more by accident than design, I ended up hitting the new level cap of 70 before even starting the story of Stormblood. I’d been out of the game for a few months, so I actually spent those ten levels reacquainting myself with the game, getting my gear’s item level up by dungeoning, and trying out the Palace of the Dead, which it turned out I loved. Once I was caught up on gear, I was level 70, so I didn’t ever have to pause in the story quests to level up.
I am convinced, at least for me, that this is the way to go from now on. There’s lots to love about Final Fantasy XIV, lots of different ways to play it and different things to do. I am certainly not the first to say it’s probably among the best, if not the best, MMO on the market right now. This, of course, includes the story, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting immersed in the main plot . . . and then all of a sudden finding you can’t take the next quest because you’re not a high enough level.
Not that there’s anything wrong with side quests, dungeons, raids, trials, or whatever floats your boat when it comes to leveling, but it breaks up the flow of a story, especially when you happen to be at a dramatic moment. The whole enterprise you’re undertaking is in peril, the evil Empire threatens to destroy everything you’ve worked for and care about . . . but hey, it can wait until you grind out another level, apparently.
That’s not a dig, by the way. It would be pretty annoying to not have level requirements and then get destroyed by whatever lieutenant the bad guys throw at you because you’re not strong enough. Also, sometimes it’s really satisfying to stop in whatever hamlet you happen to be in for a while, do some quests and see just how oppressed the people are, hear their stories about how Imperial occupation has darkened their lives. Sometimes, it makes sense in the story to do that. Sometimes, the situation is more urgent.
Anyway, it was nice to be able to focus on the main story, and side quest when and if I wanted to. And I just have this to say about it.
Now, it’s no secret I am a long time fan of Square. Chrono Trigger is my favorite game of all time. Other favorites are Secret of Mana, Final Fantasies IV, VI, and VII, Secret of Evermore, Breath of Fire (I know Capcom developed it, but SquareSoft localized and promoted it in the US), Final Fantasy Tactics, and the Kingdom Hearts series. I am a fangirl, granted.
Even so, I think I can objectively say Stormblood’s story was the best main plot story I’ve ever experienced in an MMO. More importantly, Final Fantasy XIV’s stories just seem to keep getting better. After a Realm Reborn, I definitely felt like the hero of the continent of Eorzea, not just because I had the levels to beat all the monsters and villains, but because the plot made me feel like that hero. The leaders of Eorzea acknowledge your contributions repeatedly, and your plot-relevant deeds are satisfying and worthwhile. You spend this story building your reputation as a hero, an adventurer of legend.
After Heavensward, I felt not only powerful, but both matured (because it’s not always as simple as slaying the bad guy, as we see in this story) and redeemed. A Realm Reborn– to keep things as vague as possible in case you haven’t played it and would like to– ends in a betrayal that forces you into exile. While exiled in distant and insular Ishgard, you not only manage to clear your name back home, but be instrumental in ending the Dragonsong War, a war between the Ishgardians and the dragons so fierce and terrible it has literally gone on for a thousand years and completely dominated– and tainted– the cultures of both peoples. Oh, and you also bring the Ishgardians back into the fold of Eorzea, getting them to join in the fight against the Garlean Empire that was the whole point of A Realm Reborn. That’s pretty awesome, right?
If I felt like a powerful, legendary, benevolent hero after those two stories . . . after Stormblood, I basically felt like a god. It’s not exactly spoilers to say it’s about the Resistances of two countries that have already fallen under the yoke of the Empire within the last twenty five years. Yes, there are the normal things a hero of your stature has to contend with, monsters, mechs, primals, and the like. But the stories of these people, the knowledge of what will befall Eorzea if the Empire’s spread continues unabated . . .
And the villain. Yikes. Zenos is not only cruel and sinister, he’s crazy. Like, Kefka from Final Fantasy VI crazy, but instead of “I want to watch the world burn” it’s “the hunt/death/danger is the only thing that makes me feel alive and I need to feel alive no matter the cost,” coupled with all the normal Garlean superiority. He comes to see your character as a rival of sorts– and his obsession gets satisfyingly intense. He has no conscience, the only morality he cares about is his own: man’s unique ability and willingness to fight and be made to fight. The man is not only a psychopath, he’s a well written psychopath. At times it’s downright chilling.
The supporting cast of villains also is well-developed and intensely interesting. Their stories are stories of survival, and willingness to sacrifice everything to do it. One is desperate to do anything to save her people, which sounds pretty noble until you see she’s willing to kill anyone and everyone (including and especially her people) and be a traitor to her country in order to accomplish it. Another has survived terrible things and betrays her people as well because the thrill of the pain of others– especially those that left her to her youthful torment– makes her survival worthwhile.
The cast of heroes is also wonderful. The young lord of Doma is noble, honorable, down-to-earth, and refreshingly optimistic without being naive. You can see why his retainers long to find him and keep him safe so badly (speaking of which, remember Yugiri? We finally learn more about her!). The heroic supporting cast is similarly nuanced and often dynamic, right down to the story of a farm boy, a rather minor character, really, who practically runs you out of town when you arrive, insistent he and his people will have nothing to do with you because they’ve already suffered enough.
Though you end up helping the Resistances of two very different nations by the end of the story, it never feels lazy or cookie cutter. Their situations are both heartbreakingly similar– the horrors and humiliations of Garlean occupation– and markedly different in thought-provoking ways.
And when you’re getting up to the final battle . . . oh, boy. I won’t spoil it for you, but everything you’ve done matters, everyone you’ve helped has answered the call to arms, and when Pipin calls for the thaumaturges to bring “Ifrit’s bloody inferno” on the enemy’s gates– well, I’m surprised I didn’t wake BabyGMR up from her nap, because I cheered aloud.
The music, needless to say, was crucial to assist in this reaction along with many others. The legendary Nobuo Uematsu, the “Beethoven of games music” (believe it or not, not my name for him, though I agree!), was in charge of the music for Stormblood, and it is fantastic. The final scene before the credits . . . my heart just soared.
Watch the credits to the end, because the scenes that come after are important! And add a few cliffhangers, of course. Remember the Ascians? Yes, they’re still working . . . whatever their scheme is. Questions are raised for what comes next after the Empire has suffered all these setbacks in quick succession, and the fates of some characters honestly surprised me.
I’m now in the post-Stormblood content, which begins to deal with the aftermath as these nations start to try and stabilize after all this upheaval. I’m unlocking all the level 70 dungeons now, and if you played and loved Final Fantasy Tactics for the love of all all that is holy go unlock the Royal City of Rabanastre raid. I’ve squealed aloud with glee and nostalgia-happies more than once during the story so far.
It’s not all recycling and nostalgia from SquareEnix, though, as I hope I’ve made clear. Do we get our Easter eggs and nostalgia moments? Absolutely. But Stormblood is so much more than that. Even without all the references and call-outs for the loyal fanboys and fangirls, Stormblood is a deep, nuanced, and satisfying story in its own right, and if you decide to jump in, I think you won’t be disappointed.
Picture credit: Obviously it’s from FFXIV, but I found it here if anyone wants to read someone else’s review!