Stormblood: Yes, It’s a Great Final Fantasy

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Final Fantasy XIV and its long-running spiritual predecessor Final Fantasy XI are in an interesting and slightly awkward position.

They’re numbered mainline installments of the long-running Final Fantasy series, which, in theory, should attract series veterans, but they’re also massively multiplayer online role-playing games. The latter is a genre typically (and not necessarily correctly or fairly) associated with being time-consuming, challenging and dependent on playing alongside other people — and thus not especially attractive to those who prefer to play games solo, concentrate on story or take things at their own pace.

What we’re going to talk about today is how Final Fantasy XIV is as much a good Final Fantasy as it is a good MMO — and why you shouldn’t sleep on it if you’re a Final Fantasy fan who doesn’t typically go in for online games.

While it’s true that Final Fantasy XIV certainly does have its aspects that are time-consuming, challenging and dependent on playing alongside other people, it’s worth noting that a significant portion of the experience is both solo-friendly and based on the core of what has made Final Fantasy such a beloved series for so many people over the years.

Specifically, the process of levelling a character through A Realm Reborn and the two expansion packs Heavensward and Stormblood involves travelling the world on an epic quest, meeting new allies along the way, fighting alongside them and defeating foul foes that threaten the realm — just like a “real” RPG. More specifically, and the thing that will make the experience most attractive to the Final Fantasy fan who does not typically gravitate towards multiplayer games, is the fact that Final Fantasy XIV places a very, very strong emphasis on narrative.

Core to the experience of Final Fantasy XIV prior to reaching the level cap and engaging in endgame activities is the Main Scenario Quest, often simply abbreviated to MSQ by players. By following the MSQ — and you’ll need to if you want to unlock all the content in the game — you’re simply going through a linear story, just as you would in an offline Final Fantasy. You’ll go from humble beginnings at the start of A Realm Reborn through confronting various iconic Final Fantasy foes in dungeons and trials, to saving the realm of Eorzea from Ultima Weapon, the evil Imperials and the seemingly never-ending threat of groups of Bad People and/or Things Summoning Giant Monsters.

When you reach Heavensward’s main scenario, you’re already a hero, acknowledged as the Warrior of Light and saviour of the realm, at which point you journey to the land of Ishgard, long closed off to outsiders, and perpetually besieged by dragons. There then follows a somewhat darker, epic and rather Western fantasy-inspired tale as you attempt to bring the “Dragonsong War” to a conclusion — you are the Warrior of Light, after all, so of course you feel you’re the right person to fix this problem that has been plaguing the land for generations — and, in the process, help the people of Ishgard realise that blind reliance on religious faith is not necessarily the best way to build a society, particularly when your Pope-equivalent has quite clearly gone off his rocker.

And then we come to Stormblood, a narrative that has, in terms of Final Fantasy XIV’s overall story, been a long time coming. In A Realm Reborn’s MSQ, you visit the desert settlement of Little Ala Mhigo, a cave filled with refugees from an Imperial-occupied city in the region to the east of Eorzea. In the content patches that continued A Realm Reborn’s story after its original finale, we met the character Yugiri, and learned of the far eastern land of Doma, which had likewise been suffering under Imperial oppression for more than two decades. In Stormblood, it is finally time to liberate both of these lands.

Stormblood’s core narrative concept is particularly powerful to those who have been playing A Realm Reborn since its launch in 2013, but it has no less impact for someone who started playing more recently, and who has played through the entirety of A Realm Reborn, Heavensward and their content patches. Your stated mission may be seemingly simple on paper, but it has meaning, and succeeding in that regard would lead to a significant shift in the overall politics of the game world.

Herein lies one of the most interesting challenges Final Fantasy XIV’s creators have been confronted with since the beginning: how to provide the feeling of a dynamic, changing world where the player’s actions as part of the story have genuine meaning, while simultaneously allowing large numbers of players — many of whom will be at completely different stages in the MSQ — to inhabit this game world.

This is something that many MMOs have struggled with over the years, with early-era World of Warcraft being a particularly good example. In that game, you could complete quests, topple tyrants and defeat demons, but none of these seemed to have lasting consequences; nothing you did ever really felt like it had a permanent effect on the world, which hurt the feeling of immersion for those who were playing the game for the narrative experience.

Final Fantasy XIV, meanwhile, like later incarnations of World of Warcraft and other, more recent MMOs such as Guild Wars 2, makes use of a variety of techniques to make you feel like you are important — that you are the one and only Warrior of Light, and every other player you see wandering around just happens to be some random adventurer doing their daily good deeds.

First and foremost is how the MSQ is handled. From the beginning of A Realm Reborn right through to the end of Stormblood, the MSQ is designed to guide you around the game world to zones of an appropriate level for you, and give you ample time to get to know these areas through sidequests. Typically, the flow of gameplay when levelling a character for the first time sees you following the MSQ until it takes you to a new location, at which point a wide variety of other activities will open up, allowing you to interact with the people of the area and explore local subplots, completely incidental to your main quest.

Completing sidequests is always completely optional — though in both Heavensward and Stormblood the ability to fly in a zone is tied to completing at least some of them — but if your enjoyment of Final Fantasy is down to worldbuilding and characterisation, you’re going to want to complete them. You’ll meet new characters and get to know them, and you’ll often find out additional context about what is going on alongside the main story — or perhaps even the consequences of the things you’ve done previously. Minor changes in dialogue according to things you have done in the past acknowledge your achievements and help your journey feel a lot more “personal” rather than just ticking items off a checklist.

There are even sidequests designed specifically for narrative purposes and little else. The level 50 “Postmoogle” quests, for example, see you helping out the world’s mail delivery service and following a variety of weird and wonderful subplots in the process. These quests are entirely dialogue-based and have no meaningful rewards other than some achievements and vanity items, but they’re a great way for those who find the world of Eorzea appealing to explore it further. They even go so far as to develop the relationships, personalities and backstories of characters who, prior to the addition of these quests, had appeared in the game as nothing more than incidental NPCs or random allies who showed up in the game’s open-world “FATE” battles.

Alongside the fact that everything in the game — even the high difficulty endgame raid battles or the grind-heavy “Relic” questlines to acquire the game’s best weapons — has a narrative context, Final Fantasy XIV also makes clever use of a technique called phasing to make areas subtly different for players according to where they are in the story.

Phasing was a concept introduced by World of Warcraft’s expansion Wrath of the Lich King, and it was intended to tackle the narrative problem described above: the feeling of your actions feeling insignificant, and that they didn’t really “matter”. The basic idea is to make subtle changes to an area based on a player’s prior actions — usually completed quests — in such a way that no-one notices that things are different from how they “should” be.

In other words, this means that there’s usually nothing as drastic as zone geometry radically changing according to the things you do, but it might mean things like areas that were once inaccessible become reachable, gates that were locked open for you, or characters that are relevant to that particular moment in the story are present at a particular location rather than just standing around rooted to the spot in a single place.

This latter aspect is used heavily throughout both Final Fantasy XIV’s MSQ and its sidequests, and it helps the world feel much more dynamic and alive. There are still plenty of NPCs who hang around and do nothing for the whole game, sure, but the same can be said of offline RPGs, too; the important characters in the story, however, make the journey around the game world alongside you, giving you that typical JRPG feeling of building up your party and developing your relationships with your allies. And in the case of sidequests, something as simple as a character moving from one town to another can be a straightforward but surprisingly powerful means of showing that you have affected their life in some way or another.

This idea carries across into mobility around the game world, too. A Realm Reborn’s zones were carefully designed to give the appearance of being “open world” but actually, rather like how Nier: Automata does things, they had very clear set pathways for you to follow, meaning that you couldn’t really get “lost” or find yourself Elder Scrolls-style halfway up the side of a mountain you weren’t really supposed to be able to climb. From Heavensward onwards, however, the addition of the ability to fly had the potential to spoil these carefully crafted, intricately designed pathways and vistas; why pay attention to the scenery if you can simply go as the chocobo flies? Or, indeed, from a story perspective, why would you feel there’s a problem approaching the supposedly impenetrable fortress at one end of the map if you can simply hop on your chocobo and swoop in from above?

Final Fantasy XIV’s way of preventing this unfortunate eventuality (and slap in the face to the level designers) is to prevent you from flying until it’s damn well made sure that you’ve explored the whole place on foot first. It does this in two ways: firstly, each zone has five quests (at least one of which is usually a MSQ, meaning that you usually can’t fly until the central narrative for that zone is all but complete) that must be completed. On top of that, you have to track down ten additional “aether currents” that are scattered around the zone, usually in rather awkward to reach locations, before you can finally take to the skies.

The addition of this system proved divisive to the hardcore MMO-ers who just wanted to blaze through the levelling content and reach endgame as quickly as possible, but from a narrative perspective, it makes perfect sense. It means that you get an excellent idea of the scale of a zone by seeing it from down on the ground, and also a great feeling of different locations’ context in relation to one another. The positioning of the aether currents also encourages you to explore areas of the map that aren’t necessarily directly relevant to the MSQ or sidequests, sometimes coming across spectacular vistas or hidden NPCs to chat with in the process.

It also gives the game a great feeling of progression from something other than experience points and unlocking abilities. Both Heavensward and Stormblood feature zones that, on your first visit, have areas that are seemingly completely unreachable without the ability to fly — which, of course, you wouldn’t be able to get without reaching these unreachable areas first. In both cases, though, you’ll revisit these zones later in the narrative, perhaps coming into them from a different direction or via a different means of transportation, and you’ll understand why you weren’t able to get there sooner: it wouldn’t have made narrative sense for you to be there.

There’s one additional way that Final Fantasy XIV distinguishes its narrative content from its peers and makes you feel like the “main character”: the use of single-player instances. What this means is that for particularly important narrative moments, instead of occupying the open world alongside other players — who could potentially just come along and flatten an enemy you’re having trouble with if they’re considerably higher level or better geared than you — you, and often some companion NPCs, are put into your own personal version of an area, sometimes even a unique mini-dungeon, to follow a more tightly scripted experience where things happen that wouldn’t be possible out in the open world.

This feature is most commonly used for important narrative boss fights where you’re not expected to bring along other players. Stormblood in particular is full of these, including, unusually for an MMO, the JRPG mainstay of the “undefeatable boss”. These battles are every bit as challenging and dramatic as the multiplayer dungeons and trials you’ll face in your adventuring career, only here you don’t have to worry about other people. It’s just you, the boss, and perhaps some of your comrades from the narrative backing you up with healing , tanking or additional damage.

This sounds like a very simple feature, but it’s arguably this aspect more than anything that helps make Final Fantasy XIV feel like a “real” Final Fantasy. By fighting alongside the important characters of the narrative rather than them just waiting back at base for you to finish doing their dirty work, you’re again presented with another way in which you are made to feel like “the main character” — even though everyone else playing the game has either already gone through or will go through the same thing. For those moments where you support your NPC allies as they assault an enemy location, or duel against a powerful foe one-on-one, it’s easy to forget you’re playing an online game at all; you’re just playing Final Fantasy. And it’s wonderful.

While it is important at this point to be realistic and note that you can’t complete all of Final Fantasy XIV by yourself — from level 15 onwards, you’ll start encountering four-player dungeons every few levels as part of the MSQ, and from level 50 onwards you’ll encounter eight-player trials and 24-player raids — it is also worth noting that these multiplayer components in no way diminish the “Final Fantasy-ness” of the overall experience. In fact, the trials in particular provide some of the most spectacular moments in the game, especially with late-era Heavensward’s addition of unique “Active Time Maneuver” interactions during mid-battle cutscenes, and Stormblood’s addition of encounter-specific actions outside of your job’s main lineup of abilities.

In other words, while it can be a daunting prospect to contemplate taking on powerful foes alongside up to 23 other people, don’t let this put you off experiencing the narratives of what is, at the time of writing, essentially three full Final Fantasy games, each with their own very distinctive aesthetic and themes to them. In fact, in many ways, the multiplayer story content is easier than the single-player instanced battles, because rather than having to worry about everything, you can simply concentrate on what your job is good at, be it tanking, healing or dealing damage. Just make sure you know and play your role.

To put it another way, it’s perfectly valid to enjoy Final Fantasy XIV purely as a narrative-centric RPG, working your way through A Realm Reborn, Heavensward and Stormblood’s MSQs until you topple their respective final bosses, then set the game aside until either a content patch or the next full expansion. There is, of course, as we’ll explore in the next article, a substantial multiplayer-centric endgame for those who wish to continue their experience after the main story is complete, but there’s no obligation to participate in it at all if you have no desire to engage with this part of the game. By the time you reach that stage, you’ll have been playing for the length of a “normal” RPG anyway, so you’ll have certainly got your money’s worth as well as having a good idea as to whether or not you want to carry on.

So if you’re a Final Fantasy fan and have previously been put off playing Final Fantasy XIV due to its online nature, rest assured: this is very much an authentic mainline Final Fantasy at its core, featuring memorable characters, spectacular encounters and a wonderfully realised game world; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that in narrative terms, it’s absolutely one of the best Final Fantasy games there has ever been.

So don’t sleep on trying it for yourself; while the game is certainly very healthy and likely to be around for a good few more years at the time of writing, it’s worth noting that, as an online game, it has an inherent “expiry date” at some indefinite point in the future, after which no-one else will be able to experience this game’s story first-hand again.

And you wouldn’t want to miss out on a numbered mainline Final Fantasy now, would you…?

More about Stormblood
More about Final Fantasy XIV

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