A storm well worth weathering.
A woman in a striking kimono asks a band of Othardian peasants to prove their loyalty to the Garlean Empire and only one — citing a need to feed his family — heeds the call. It turns out to be a greater sacrifice than he imagined. She tosses a baroquely engraved pistol at his feet and commands him to shoot one of his friends. Trembling violently, he complies. But she’s not done yet. She then orders him to kill his parents, claiming they drain the empire’s resources. He refuses, and her goons cut him down. And as for me? I watch all this from behind a rock. I do nothing. Famous god-slaying hero or no, I know that any immediate revenge would bring down more hells on the sorry lot. It’s tragic, but it’s also fairly realistic.
Worse things happen in Stormblood, the latest expansion for the MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV, but cruel moments sculpt the overarching narrative into one of the finest stories of the brutality of war and tyranny since The Witcher 3. It bravely ventures into places where brightly colored fantasy epics like this too often fear to tread, such as sad villages where the locals tremble at the thought of resisting oppressors who’ve abused them for more than two decades. It shows us traitors who’ve deluded themselves into believing they’re fighting for the same reason as freedom-minded rebels. The basic structure of dungeons, quests, and trials hasn’t changed much since 2015’s Heavensward expansion, but almost everything about Stormblood is worth experiencing, whether it’s the new lands, the two new classes, of the fantastic tale that unfolds over the full span of this war-ridden world.
Here, at last, the story shows us the sandy battlefields of beleaguered Ala Mhigo, which we’ve never seen since Final Fantasy XIV’s 2013 relaunch, even though it’s been the subject of frequent name-drops from the cast. The zone bookends the long leveling experience from levels 60 to 70, but in many ways it’s a sideshow to the stuffing in between. Stormblood is Final Fantasy XIV’s “Asian” expansion, and the shift in setting and culture seems to have spurred developer Square Enix to new heights of creativity. I saw the fruits of this creativity in the wild plains of the Azim Steppe, where tribes of Au Ra battled in the Mongolian-inspired Naadam to choose their ruler for the next year. I saw them in the towers and busy markets of the Japanese-inspired port of Kagane, the only port in the country open to foreigners.
Again and again Stormblood surprised me with new wonders.
Again and again Stormblood surprised me with new wonders, whether in haunting erhu music in the Chinese-inspired zone of Yanxia or the phenomenal voice acting and facial animations woven through every cutscene. Once, while watching group of imperial soldiers kick an Ala Mhigan commoner on the ground and spit curses in his face, I found myself looking briefly away as the raw emotion from one of the assailants was almost too much to bear. MMORPGs almost never achieve such emotional intensity.
Sometimes the surprise washes away fairly quickly. Underwater exploration is one of Stormblood’s flashy new features, complete with mounts that let you hobnob with the fishes and ninja turtle-like denizens of the deep. It’s initially amazing, at least for as long as I can hold my breath here in the real world. All too soon, though, novelty wears off once it’s clear that there’s no specialized underwater combat and that there’s little more beneath the waves besides skyscraper-sized stalks of seaweed.
I experienced all this as a Samurai, which required leveling 10 more levels up from 50 in order to experience the new content. It was worth it. Along with Red Mage, it’s one of the two new jobs for Stormblood for players who’ve reached level 60 and finished the main scenario quests through Heavensward. (You can bypass all these restrictions with a new, pricey option to immediately level a pre-Stormblood job to 60 for 25 bucks and complete all story quests through Heavensward for another 25 bucks.) Frankly, I love it. The Samurai’s the kind of damage-oriented melee class I’ve always wanted to play in Final Fantasy XIV, even if it’s kind of awful in PvP. Not only is the class ridiculously effective as a damage-dealer in dungeons — what with its highly dangerous combos and cooldowns — but it also boasts one of the better job stories. The Red Mage is arguably more popular, with its players highlighting its ability to switch between spellcasting and melee as its chief strength.
The new combat gauges inject some clear meaning into the ability rotations for both classes. All classes have them now, but it’s clear that Square Enix spent the bulk of its creative resources on the Samurai and Red Mage. (I found my Monk’s gauges rather boring by comparison.) In the case of the Samurai, perfectly executing three sets of combos lights up three icons on the screen, which then signal that it’s time to unleash a devastating single-target attack that chops away huge chunks of enemy health.
Stormblood includes some of FFXIV’s best encounters to date.
I especially like the system as it essentially becomes a game in itself, particularly when I’m trying to pull off the combos in the brilliant new dungeons and primal fights where success demands constant complicated dances. They’re some of Final Fantasy XIV’s best encounters to date, as they shake up the standard formula with elements like a boss that doesn’t really attack you but instead requires careful placement and dodging decisions. There’s a visually stunning Primal fight with a god who slams a train-sized sword down on the main tank, who must pull off a QTE event while the rest of the group tries to knock the sword off him or her. Elsewhere I ran through a besieged castle while mortars rained down around us and later fought against a gorgeous goddess who tried to tried to smother us with love. Or something like that.
It’s the finest execution of the template Square Enix has largely followed to the better for half a decade now. Of course, a little unfortunately, it’s still that same template. You’ll still eventually find yourself gated out of main scenario quests until you unlock them by leveling up, which generally requires grinding your way through the (thankfully enjoyable) dungeons or by jumping in the PvP battlegrounds (which grant a ton of XP and quite quickly). There’s also a mass of sidequests but they’re rarely worthy of the time and effort needed to secure their meager rewards. Most of the time they sent me trotting miles across the map only to dig in some dirt or to chat with some chap, and in almost every case these encounters lacked a fraction of the punch of the main story. Along with the underwater content, they’re the only elements of Stormblood that ever bored me.
Thankfully they’re but small blemishes on a golden package. I say without hesitation that this is one of the finest Final Fantasy games to date. There are deaths here, as Square Enix is careful to drive home the lesson that war is just as much about loss as it is about triumph. There are transformations, particularly in the form of a relatively minor character who believably becomes an inspiring leader. I care about these characters. I felt sympathy for the villains. I admired its notion that a single heroic act could wash away the pain and regret of a lifetime of screw-ups. There’s little that’s final about this fantasy. It’s a tale that will endure.