Stormblood: It’s a Great MMO, Too

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We’ve already discussed how, despite its massively multiplayer online nature, Final Fantasy XIV as a whole is very much an authentic Final Fantasy experience in its own right. But is the opposite true?

If you’ve read the headline you’ll already know that yes, of course it is. But one of the most interesting things about the game as a whole as it has developed from its disastrous 1.0 incarnation through A Realm Reborn and Heavensward into Stormblood is how well it has managed to balance these two seemingly disparate aspects: the strong narrative of the Final Fantasy series, and the sheer amount of things to do and quality of life features that a hardcore MMO player expects from a game like this.

Today we’re going to examine that latter aspect in detail.

Let’s start with the basics. Final Fantasy XIV as a whole is as social as you want it to be. While you are obliged to participate in some multiplayer content in order to advance the main story and complete some sidequests, the rest of the game leaves it up to you as to whether you bring along friends or tackle things by yourself.

In fact, much of the game seems to assume that you will be tackling things by yourself; the open world areas of the game are populated mostly by enemies that can be easily dispatched by a single character of an appropriate level — there are no World of Warcraft-style “Elite” enemies — and the main scenario, as we’ve already discussed, is full of single-player instanced battles where you are the star.

But you’re not playing a single-player game that happens to have standalone multiplayer missions. One of the core features of the open-world gameplay is the “Full Active Time Event” or “FATE” system, whereby special events spawn regularly around each map, bringing with them time-limited objectives to accomplish such as defeating swarms of trash enemies, taking down a powerful boss or collecting a certain number of items.

FATEs always offered a generous amount of experience points for the amount of time they take — “FATE parties” have been a thing pretty much since A Realm Reborn launched — but Stormblood adds a couple of new aspects to this system that has previously remained largely unchanged since 2.0.

Firstly, throughout Stormblood’s six new zones, FATEs are randomly chosen to have experience point bonuses applied to them. These bonuses can make quite a significant difference, so if you’re looking to level quickly it pays to follow the FATEs with the bonus around the map.

Alongside this, participating in a FATE in Stormblood also carries with it the possibility of spawning a special enemy called a Forlorn Maiden. Defeating this opponent and then completing the FATE in which it appeared rewards you with a temporary buff called “Twist of Fate” that significantly increases the amount of experience points you earn in the next FATE you participate in, so long as you don’t leave the zone. Combine this with a FATE with the experience bonus applied and you can rack up the levels surprisingly quickly — great for levelling alt classes once you’ve cleared the main story.

FATEs are a thing throughout the entirety of Final Fantasy XIV right from the very outset, and they’re kept relevant by a variety of endgame quests that encourage veteran players to help out those of lower level. Most notably, the level 50 Zodiac Weapon and level 60 Anima Weapon quests feature a significant component that requires you to participate in FATEs in order to collect random drops — and we can expect something similar from Stormblood, too, though at the time of writing the new equivalent to these questlines hasn’t yet gotten underway.

The idea of all content remaining relevant is clearly part of Final Fantasy XIV’s core design throughout the entire game, including its instanced content as well as in the open world. Players are encouraged to revisit four-player dungeons, eight-player trials and 24-player raids through various quests as well as daily “Roulettes” that provide substantial, meaningful rewards for endgame players. Entering a piece of content when you overlevel or outgear it causes you to be “synced” to be more in line with your comrades; in this way, there’s no real way of “carrying” people through levelling content in particular, which helps the less experienced develop their confidence rather than relying on others.

In narrative terms, the player is assumed to have only run each dungeon once, with future attempts being explained as you “reliving your memories”; in mechanical terms, however, there is no limit to how much you run any piece of multiplayer content in the game, whether you do so in order to get gear or earn tokens, or simply because you want to replay a favourite fight.

In fact, the only pieces of content which can be argued to have stagnated somewhat since its original addition to the game are the “Extreme” difficulty incarnations of the eight-player trials, which are much more mechanics-intensive versions of the battles players participate in as part of the main storyline. With the addition of HeavenswardA Realm Reborn’s Extreme trials became largely irrelevant aside from some vanity items such as mounts and achievements; likewise, with the advent of StormbloodHeavensward’s Extreme trials have declined in their relevance — though again, there are vanity items on offer for those who desire them, and the ability to run old content without using the game’s Level Sync feature means that much of A Realm Reborn’s former endgame encounters can now be played solo without too much difficulty.

But what of the actual, current endgame — the part of the experience that for many dedicated MMO players is the whole point? Well, at the time of writing Stormblood’s endgame is relatively bare-bones, but we can look at how A Realm Reborn and Heavensward developed as well as what producer Naoki Yoshida and his team have already told us to predict what is coming down the line.

Stormblood launched with three level 70 four-player dungeons — the final story dungeon and two sidequest dungeons that can only be unlocked after beating the final boss. All of these drop gear, in contrast to both Heavensward and A Realm Reborn, in which their respective final story dungeons had no mechanical purpose and were simply there to bring some closure to the narrative.

Shortly after launch, the first tier of the new eight-player raid, the Deltascape, was added. This series of four encounters pits players against a series of enemies from Final Fantasy V, and awards special tokens that can be exchanged in various combinations to acquire powerful gear — though there’s a limit to how many tokens you can acquire per week. There’s also a narrative to follow through these four battles, and like Heavensward there is a “normal” difficulty version for most players, and a subsequently added “Savage” version, the latter of which is geared towards the hardcore raiding community — but which actually ended up being cleared rather quickly by veteran raid groups. We’re also expecting a “Super Savage” fight at some point in the near future, but no word on what that might be just yet.

From here on is pure conjecture, but based on A Realm Reborn and Heavensward we can expect more dungeons (though the team has said these will only be a major focus every other major content patch now, rather than every patch — meaning in practice that patches will alternate between adding one and two new four-player dungeons at three-month intervals) and trials that advance the story, together with Extreme counterparts of the latter. Every other patch will most likely introduce a new “tier” of gear, with the previous “best” gear in the game becoming significantly easier to acquire.

The next major content patch should add the first 24-player raid, which is supposedly themed around Ivalice. While you might expect a raid with that many players to be a nightmare to handle, Final Fantasy XIV’s 24-player content has always been designed to be a more casual, accessible approach to raiding; by splitting the 24 players into three parties of eight members each, there is a fair amount of redundancy of job roles, meaning there’s a lot more margin for error if, say, the main tank dies, or the healers make a mistake. That’s not to say people are left twiddling their thumbs, mind; most encounters in these raids have something for everyone to do, even if it’s just wailing on the boss to do as much damage as possible as quickly as possible.

From there, the major content patches every three months will alternate between the more hardcore eight-player raids and the casual-friendly 24-player scenarios, each of which has their own ongoing story arc to tie them all together. New tiers of eight-player content will typically also include a Savage incarnation for those with the best gear and skills to challenge, while the 24-player raids are, mechanically speaking, primarily there to help people “catch up” in between new tiers of gear.

That was pretty much where A Realm Reborn left its endgame outside of its lengthy, grind-heavy Zodiac Weapon quest, an ongoing and regularly expanded quest that required you to replay a lot of old content in order to acquire arguably the best weapon in the game at the time. The intention behind this quest — and Heavensward’s version of it, the Anima Weapon quest — was to allow people who didn’t raid to acquire top-end equipment, but with their time being the price for it. The theory was that someone going for a Zodiac or Anima weapon would spend as much time grinding for it as a raider would mastering an encounter, though this didn’t always quite prove to be the case!

Heavensward got a lot more experimental with its endgame content, adding a wider variety of things for players to do in order to keep things from becoming too stale and predictable. Of particular note was the addition of Palace of the Dead, a 200-floor randomly generated dungeon that between one and four players could challenge at once, featuring its own progression system, the removal of all class restrictions (meaning you could potentially end up in a run with four tanks and no healer, but still survive the experience) and the opportunity to acquire a powerful weapon with enough grinding.

Palace of the Dead proved popular for a variety of reasons: it proved to be a good source of experience points for those levelling alt classes, it could be soloed, it rewarded players with powerful equipment (at least at the time it first launched) and it provided an interesting new challenge unlike anything else in the game. It also features a neat “high score” system with web-based leaderboards, though the actual formula behind calculating your final score remains a bit of a mystery. The intention appears to be for a new “Deep Dungeon”, as Palace of the Dead was also known, to be added to Stormblood at some point, though we have no details on this as yet.

A less successful experiment in Heavensward was the addition of The Diadem, an archipelago of floating islands that up to 72 players could visit at once. The smaller parties that the overall group of 72 was divided into were given objectives to accomplish that would reward endgame currency when completed, and the remainder of your time in the zone was intended to be spent fighting powerful monsters in the hope that the randomised loot they dropped would be good equipment. It was an ambitious idea that didn’t really work; the objectives were much too easy to complete, leaving the rest of the experience feeling rather aimless and boring as you simply hacked and slashed through endless monsters until you either got bored and left or the time limit expired. The Diadem was later revamped significantly, but many of its core problems remained, so it would be surprising to see a similar piece of content in Stormblood without a significant rethink.

Later in Heavensward’s life, we saw the addition of the now-beloved NPC Khloe Aliapoh and her never-ending quest to fill her books with Wondrous Tails. These journals, which can be acquired weekly, consist of a bingo-style sticker board, with stickers being randomly awarded for completing pieces of content ranging from dungeon roulettes to specific Extreme-level trials or raids. Completing one, two or three lines of stickers provides different rewards each week, and “Second Chance” points acquired through completing content alongside a newcomer allows you to shuffle your stickers for a better chance at a winning arrangement, or replay a favourite piece of completed content rather than being obliged to challenge something you dislike or find difficult.

Then, of course, there is what many players refer to jokingly as “the true endgame”: glamour. The addition of “glamour prisms” to the game early in A Realm Reborn’s lifespan allowed you to change any item of equipment to look like another, so long as the image you were projecting was of a lower level that what you were actually wearing. Naturally, this led to many virtual adventurers starting to assemble a variety of creative outfits, and Yoshi-P and the team have fully embraced this aspect of the game with regular events and sidequests that award otherwise useless gear purely for glamouring purposes.

That about covers it for battle content in Final Fantasy XIV at the time of writing, but there are two significant components to gameplay that we haven’t touched on yet: crafting and gathering.

Crafting and gathering are treated as character classes just like the battle jobs; each of the disciplines has its own experience level, gear and swathe of things to do. And, while A Realm Reborn lacked a real “endgame” for crafters and gatherers outside of simply being able to make or acquire valuable items that would sell for a tidy profit on the game’s Market Boards, Heavensward added endgame currencies specifically for crafters and gatherers, along with gear progression and an ever-expanding list of recipes to make and items to acquire.

What’s interesting about crafting and gathering is that they’re treated with as much mechanical depth as the battle classes. As you level them, you unlock abilities to put on your hotbar, and you’ll need to make effective use of “rotations” in order to get the best results from your efforts. At higher levels, both crafters and gatherers have the opportunity to make or acquire items specifically as “collectibles”, which can be presented to particular NPCs for significant rewards of experience points and endgame currency. In many cases, acquiring an item of sufficient collectability is quite a challenge, providing the crafting and gathering equivalent of endgame dungeons and trials — and rewarding those who participate in these activities accordingly.

There is, of course, no obligation to take part in crafting or gathering at all if you don’t want to — though for those who want to see all the story the game has to offer, it’s worth noting that levelling these classes is no exception to the rule that everything in Final Fantasy XIV has some sort of narrative context — but it’s a whole other world of mechanics to discover for those who are so inclined, and a great gil-making opportunity for those willing to put in the time and effort.

Doubtless Stormblood, like Heavensward before it, will experiment further with game structure and types of content in order to provide players with a wide variety of things to do and keep the game interesting in the intervening months between major patches, but it remains to be seen exactly what form these new pieces of content will actually take. One thing’s for sure, though; this is a game that is never standing still.

And that’s why it’s such a good MMO. While it is possible to romp through the main story content relatively quickly, the substantial endgame offering provides those who want more from the game to work alongside other players, take on signficant challenges and truly test their skills… and patience, in more than a few cases!

Final Fantasy XIV remains one of the healthiest examples of the subscription-based MMO today because Yoshi-P and his team don’t rest on their laurels. They’re continually listening to player feedback and coming up with their own ideas to make the game better, and we’re at a point now where, if you’re so inclined, Final Fantasy XIV can be the only game you play and you’ll still have a varied, satisfying experience — but at the same time, the game structure is such that you never feel like you’re punished or having a somehow “inferior” experience for not wanting to, say, raid, craft, gather or challenge Deep Dungeons.

And there we have why Final Fantasy is not only a good Final Fantasy, not only a good MMO… but quite simply, a damn good game, full stop.

More about Stormblood
More about Final Fantasy XIV

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