Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Review
Final Fantasy XIV is in top-form right now. In a genre flooded with free-to-play games and mobile apps, Square Enix’s premium, subscription-based MMORPG is not only surviving, it’s thriving. In May 2019, the developer announced that FFXIV had surpassed 16 million subscribers. (Ed Note: Mistakenly reported as subscribers; the correct figure is 16 million lifetime players.) For those keeping score, that’s more than World of Warcraft’s reported peak of approximately 12 million subscribers. It’s the kind of turn-around story that any developer could dream of: a game that had a disastrous launch (so much of one that it went free to play while it underwent redevelopment) has now surpassed World of Warcraft’s peak numbers.
Whether you think WoW or FFXIV is the better MMO is a matter of opinion, and my intent here isn’t to cast shade on the former. Instead, it’s to acknowledge that Final Fantasy XIV is currently the most played subscription MMO despite industry trends to different designs and business models. This puts its newest expansion, Shadowbringers, under incredible scrutiny. While the previous expansion, Stormblood, was by no means a bad expansion, it remains the least popular of XIV’s career. Should Shadowbringers follow its example, FFXIV’s recent success would quickly topple.
Thankfully, both for its developers and for the players hoping for an incredible expansion, Shadowbringers has defied expectations.
The Trust System
The first new feature to arrive in Shadowbringers is the Trust system. Like the command squadron system available to players in the Grand Companies, the Trust system allows players to take a party of NPCs with them into dungeons. This avoids the need to partake in the Duty Finder, letting players experience these dungeons solo.
The distinction in the Trust system over squadrons is that it is only available for Shadowbringers duties, and uses the hero’s allies – the Scions of the Seventh Dawn – instead of recruited NPCs. Before the player completes the main storyline (MSQ), these NPCs are automatically at the appropriate level for each instance, making it easy to enjoy the dungeons without waiting for (or relying upon) other players. After the completion of the 5.0 storyline, however, these levels are reset and players must level their companions up from 71 onward.
In theory, this is a great system, and certainly plays out fairly well before completing 5.0. However, there are a few issues with the Trust system. Unlike squadrons, you cannot command your team to engage, disengage, or utilize their limit breaks. While this proves mostly unnecessary as the AI is leaps and bounds better than that of the squadrons, it still takes away control from the players over these elements. This can be confounded by the fact that, while Trust NPCs are good at avoiding mechanics, they also stop doing anything while they are responding to mechanics – meaning they stop DPSing and stop healing while they dodge floor telegraphs, for instance. Finally, they seem absolutely incapable of using AoE DPS abilities, which is particularly frustrating in later instances where many fights are full of five or more enemies. These fights are definitely intended, by design, to have AoE abilities used in standard player practice, but the Trust NPCs continue to single target at a snail’s pace.
Add to these issues the frustration of having to grind levels for Trust NPCs – with a reduced loot penalty beside – and many players are abandoning the system as soon as they’ve completed the MSQ.
Shared FATE System
Also new to Shadowbringers is the Shared FATE system, though it only affects Norvrandt. The FATEs – randomly spawning mini events – remain functionally the same. The rewards for completing them, however, has shifted even more in the player’s favor. Instead of Grand Company seals, Norvrandt FATEs reward bicolor gemstones, a special currency. Each zone has its own rewards vendor, and rewards are offered on a three tier system, requiring 1/6/60 completed fates (for a total of 67 fates per zone). Additional rewards are unlocked in the cities themselves. These rewards include chocobo barding, orchestrions, minipets, zone movement speed, and more. In addition to this, there are special FATE chains and hidden FATEs that offer even more fun, additional rewards, making FATEs far more worth spending time on.
New Races & Classes
Shadowbringers debuted two new races available for player characters: Viera and Hrothgar. The Viera, a leporine race from Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII universes, are tall, rabbit-eared people who are only available to play as females. The Hrothgar, a more bestial feline race akin to the Ronso of Final Fantasy X, are broad-chested, muscular people with stronger feline attributes than the Mi’qote, and are available as male only to players.
There has been considerable debate, emotion, and argument over the decision to gender-lock (though a more appropriate term would be sex-lock) these classes. One side of things points that the lore for these races, even before XIV, pointed to them being extremely gender-skewed. Another side points to the fact that, well, most MMO players detest being ‘forced’ into a single gender choice at character creation, unless the game’s characters are not personalized (such as we see in many RPG brawlers, e.g. Elsword and Closers). The developers, meanwhile, also point out that time and resources are limited, and introducing two new races into the game at this point is extremely intensive due to modeling concerns.
There were many choices that could have been made by Square Enix in regard to these races, and I’m not convinced they made the right one. Quite frankly both races feel ‘tacked on’ in Shadowbringers: Viera have had at least some introduction through the Ivalice line in Stormblood, but Hrothgar were practically dumped upon the world without a passing introduction. It’s jarring to the immersion, and I believe that resources could have been better spent on either making male and female Viera and foregoing Hrothgar (the lore of gender percentages can be ignored; it was, after all, for Mi’qote), or making more androgynous versions of both races so that models could be responsive to certain sex characteristics. Unfortunately the latter is unlikely given Square Enix’s penchant for a binary gender world, but at the very least, Hrothgar are an unnecessary addition for Shadowbringers.
The expansion also introduces two new classes: Gunbreaker and Dancer. We have already reviewed these classes extensively, so read our analysis at these links:
A substantial rework to the battle system was introduced as part of Patch 5.0, which released the Early Access for Shadowbringers. This made significant changes to all classes in combat, though some roles felt this distinction more than others. A few things changed for all classes and roles, however: the removal of the TP system, the introduction of a fixed mana gauge, and a reduced and static list of role abilities depending on class. A host of other small quality of life changes were also added, such as the removal of damage-type debuffs (e.g. “slashing resistance down”).
Tank Role Adjustments
Until this point, tank classes (Warrior, Dark Knight, Paladin, and now Gunbreaker) had what were considered “tank stances” and “DPS stances.” Each tank stance offered increased survivability and threat at the cost of damage done, and each DPS stance increased damage done with no effect on threat. Tanks who wanted to do more damage would drop their tank stance, which was used not only for instances where the tank was not tanking, but also when the tank was tanking and simply wanted to output more damage at the cost of mitigation. Tanks would be encouraged to “stance dance” to maximize their output in end game.
In addition to these stances, tanks had two damage combos (chains): one that dealt additional threat with its attacks, and one that dealt slightly more damage but no threat, and often applied debuffs or DoTs. Combined, this meant tanks had two stances and two combos to juggle at all times.
The Shadowbringers 5.0 patch did away with both of these tank aspects. Instead, all tanks now have built in survivability as a passive bonus to their class, and benefit from this additional damage reduction regardless of what they are doing in battle. Tanks now also only have one stance which offers additional threat to all abilities (at a much higher boost than before) without a reduction to damage done. This stance can be toggled on and off, allowing tanks to simply flip it on when needing to maintain threat and toggle it off when unneeded, with no additional penalties. While some have argued this reduced complexity in battle, the truth is that it only reduced the tank stances to a single button while improving the quality of battle so that tanks did not feel penalized when doing their intended role. What has reduced complexity is the threat modifier itself, which feels perhaps too high at this time to offer any serious threat challenges during battle.
The three tanks before Shadowbringers also had their combos reduced as they no longer need threat built in to their combos. Instead, these classes now have a single damage combo with optional finishers, essentially reducing their combos to a 1, 2, 3 / 1, 2, 4 type choice. However, Gunbreaker does not have this new ‘combo penalty’, as it has an extended six-part damage combo that triggers off its main combos and resource. This feels like a disparity in the “fun” factor between classes, and I would like to see more of a balance toward the Gunbreaker’s chains and resource management instead of the more monotone rhythm of the other tanks.
Healer Role Adjustments
The changes to healer classes and the healer role are nuanced, and I won’t be offering a full in depth analysis of the issues each class (White Mage, Scholar, and Astrologian) faces. It is clear, however, that the healer role is currently facing some struggles, and players are expecting some more in-depth changes in patch 5.05. Until such a time as these things are addressed, healers – particularly Scholar and Astrologian – will find that their role may not be as enjoyable as it used to be.
A few key changes affected all healers. Protect was removed from the game entirely, as damage mitigation was changed around and the spell felt unnecessarily necessary. With static role actions, the fear of leaving Esuna inactive has been eliminated. As mana is now fixed, Piety instead affects mana regeneration rate. Healing threat is also reduced, hopefully meaning we’ll see less White Mages tanking due to Regen. These changes, overall, are fair.
Scholars and Astrologians are also facing significant challenges and disappointments with changes to their class. Scholars, for instance, have lost much control over their healing pet and have poor aetherflow management as aetherflow can no longer be cast out of combat, which cascades into further problems. Astrologians, meanwhile, have had a major change to their card system which reduces some of the nuance and card weaving they had become known so well for.
One of the design goals, it seems, was to increase the need for healers to focus on their primary role (healing) versus their secondary role (DPS). This, however, may have backfired. Healers have less DPS abilities than before, which are more mana intensive. While this may seem like a fair simplification when it comes to healing, consider the effect it has on healers who are soloing, healers who have overgeared content, or healers attempting to assist on burst DPS phases. Scholar, for instance, now only has one DoT, one AoE, and two direct damage spells (one instant, one hard cast). Spamming these skills in a long, healing-light fight such as a FATE boss is absolutely mind-numbing, and has no reward or complexity. Additionally, healing output has scaled down from 71-80, meaning that overall, heals are doing less percentage of a health bar at 80 than they were at 70. The intention behind this appears to be making healing a more intensive and healing-focused role. How it will play out, however, remains to be seen long term.
DPS Role Adjustments
Being the most prolific role in the game, DPS classes did not experience quite as much change tanks and healers did. The removal of TP gave most of the physical damage classes a huge boost when it came to AoE capabilities (which were severely marred by high TP costs before). Ranged physical classes (Bard, Machinist, and now Dancer) saw the removal of Tactician and Refresh, since TP no longer exists, and MP regeneration is handled by the classes that utilize it. Magic DPS classes have the fewest role actions available to them, keeping Lucid Dreaming, Swiftcast, and Surecast, along with Addle to provide some utility.
Ultimately, it opens the door to much more sustained AoE damage across the board, and I imagine there will be many more fights where AoE contribution is mandatory in future content. You can already see the beginnings of this as most dungeons yield larger monster packs to deal with. Overall, it leads to more engagement; DPS players finally get to utilize a larger set of their skills more often than before.
In previous expansions you would tackle a class quest every couple of levels. This, too, has changed in Shadowbringers, wherein you only get a singular class quest on your leveling adventure from 70-80. In fact, that sole class quest requires you to also have completed the main story quest. The MSQ, in turn, requires you to have completed a new feature to Shadowbringers, the Role Quest.
Role quests may as well be called class quests, even if they’re handled differently, let’s be fair. Every even level (72, 74, etc.) you gain access to a new quest that tells the story of one of the fallen Warriors of Darkness you dealt with back near the end of Heavensward. These challenges are broken up into tank, healer, melee DPS, and ranged DPS quests. Clearing these quests grants a good bit of lore, including what brought the WoD team together in the first place. It’s also the key to unlocking your class specific gear. Functionally, just think of these as your class quests, but know you don’t have to do them for every single class you end up leveling (just the four roles mentioned).
Crafters and gatherers aren’t left out of the loop either, as they receive their own set of role quests, too. There are also special achievements and titles available for clearing them all, if you’re motivated by such things.
There’s so much that can be said about the storyline of Shadowbringers, and for this same reason, there’s so little that can be told without spoiling the experience. Very few facts were laid before us at the end of Stormblood, the scantest of bread crumbs to lead us into a new chapter of our hero’s epic. Yes, epic: for the story of Shadowbringers so carefully weaves elements and builds upon past stories that it has now stretched beyond a simple hero’s tale.
Shadowbringers’ story is the best that Final Fantasy XIV has given us to date by far. It proves incredibly difficult to speak of, however, and so I must caution two parts here: there will be some moderate spoilers below for the previous storylines (A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood), and some tiny spoilers for Shadowbringers – the most minimal I can tell to offer some overview of the story.
Over the past few expansions, our hero (the Warrior of Light) has faced many trials that threatened the peace and safety of their world, Hydaelyn. At times throughout these story arcs – most prominently during A Realm Reborn – they have faced against the Ascians, a mysterious group of beings who have been determined to their utmost to bring destruction to the world. It wasn’t until the end of the Stormblood story that the hero discovered just how much a hand the Ascians had in the trials that they had fought; how intimately entwined the beings were with the Garlean Empire.
Yet, only shortly after this revelation, in the midst of facing a renewed war with the Garlean Empire, the Warrior of Light and their allies are called away by a mysterious stranger, soon to be known as the Crystal Exarch. It is here they are asked to be heroes of another world, Norvrandt, one whose fate is bound with Hydaelyn. With little choice, the Warrior of Light and their allies embark on a mission to save a world both strange and familiar – in order to save their own.
What is to follow is a beautiful and emotional tale that staggers into lore far beyond what we have ever known about the Final Fantasy XIV universe. Like most heroic tales, it offers a sense of hope against all odds. Unlike previous story arcs, however, Shadowbringers brings forward a full sense of despair to not only contrast against hope, but at times to nearly swallow it entirely. It nurtures sympathy for the villain, then challenges the hero with questions of moral relativism. It withholds mysteries until the very last, and reveals new truths that could pave the way to even more incredible stories in the future.
Shadowbringers does all of this with the color and charm of a true epic fantasy tale, one that could turn into the kinds of faerie tales we hear as children, but it is more than that. Sure, it weaves in elements of Western fantasy with remarkable homage to some of the deepest myths of Europe. It reaches also to the legends of South and Central America. Yet it also brings in unlikely elements, including science fiction dystopias and nausea inducing horrors; elements which reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus and Silent Hill, among other stories of our time. And Shadowbringers does all this with complete believability. Suffice it to say, this is not a story that should be missed or hastened through.
I’d be remiss to end this review without briefly making mention of the sensory experience of Shadowbringers. As one might expect from a core Final Fantasy game, the graphics and music are exemplary – it’s a standard no one would expect Square Enix to deviate from. Norvrandt is a beautiful world, offering vivid environments from the purple hued forests of Lakeland to the swampy tangles of Rak’tika and beyond. More attention to detail is present in these new areas than those of Stormblood, and as some of them change over time, you can feel the world changing around you as the Warrior of Light fights on in their quest. And there are some surprises I cannot talk about, but let me reiterate: this expansion can stretch far further than simple fantasy.
Likewise, the music is outstanding and so pleasant to listen to on loop, you can almost forget you’re hearing a song play itself on repeat. There are more vocal tracks than before, which gives some areas a truly ethereal presence. Everything pieces together for an immersive experience.
That said, I must fairly point out that some areas of the game are too bright for photosensitive individuals, especially Il Mheg during the early part of the MSQ in that area, and the Mt. Gulg instance’s second half. The brightness in these areas is so bad that players are warning each other before entering, petitioning Square Enix for the ability to adjust brightness or contrast in these areas, and having to take long rests after completing them due to migraines and sickness. The world is covered in Light, yes – but please don’t make players get ill over it.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5 (Great)
Shadowbringers is not a perfect expansion. The balance issues caused by the combat rework stand as proof of that, alongside the disappointment of the Trust system and the rough inclusion of two gender locked races. But Final Fantasy XIV is an MMO, and as history has shown us, Square Enix will at least improve class balance and satisfaction over time. There have also been hints that the team may work on opposite genders for the two races, which just leaves the Trust system to be improved upon or abandoned.
While the combat rework does detract somewhat from the expansion in varying degrees, Shadowbringers remains a stellar experience, the absolute best that Final Fantasy XIV has brought by a long margin. If you’ve never played XIV, now is a great time to get started; and if you put the game aside, it’s a great time to jump back in. Shadowbringers stands as proof that subscription MMOs can still deliver content worth the monetary value, with the right team behind the curtains.
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