Lyna in Shadowbringers. Image courtesy of Square Enix.

Hoo boy. Here we go! Those of you that know me, know that I’ve got a long and complicated history with Square Enix and specifically with the Final Fantasy franchise. In a past performing life, I was a host on a Final Fantasy XIV podcast that was, shall we say, contentious. We were known for stirring the pot and certainly did not make many friends at Square Enix. (Except their community team, many of whom I consider friends to this day.) In my time at CheckpointXP, I’ve avoided writing about Final Fantasy XIV, partially because I lived and breathed it for almost 6 years. But my recent return to the game has forced my hand. I have to talk about Final Fantasy XIV – Shadowbringers.

A Rocky History

Before you go any further, I will be sharing some spoilers for the main story (pre-patch 5.1), so consider yourself warned. To talk about Final Fantasy XIV – Shadowbringers, we first need to look back to where it came from. FFXIV has had a bit of a rocky history. The original launch of the game was an unmitigated disaster, which culminated in most of the development team being either fired or reassigned. Enter Naoki Yoshida, who took the reigns of the project and made one of the boldest decisions in the history of MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) titles.

Concept art of the flood in Shadowbringers.
Image courtesy of Square Enix

Yoshida, or as many call him Yoshi-P, effectively nuked the game and rebuilt it. They spent an additional year redesigning, and when Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn launched, it was a massive hit. While the story is a bit stale now, it was unlike anything I’d seen in an MMO to that point. Square-Enix doubled down on that with the lead up to the first expansion, Heavensward. Leading up to the first expansion, the player (also known as The Warrior of Light) is betrayed by their allies, framed for regicide, and has to flee the country while their companions stay behind to ensure their escape.

To say this was a bold call is saying the least of it. We literally watched all our hard work undone before our eyes, and it really was crushing at the time. I spoke glowingly about that moment, and that only made it all the worse when Heavensward back-pedaled on much of that. Of course, the player gets their name cleared, that’s necessary for the story to continue. However, most of the characters who supposedly perished are all brought back and it felt like a pulled punch.

But wait, it gets worse.

And that leads us to the second expansion, Stormblood. In my opinion, this is where the wheels came off. Let me be very clear when I say the story, in theory, is solid. In Stormblood, you help an occupied nation rise up and gain their independence against the evil Garlean Empire. It’s a concept whose simplicity is mirrored only by its power. Unfortunately, the whole thing becomes weighed down by a diversion to a completely different area with new characters and storylines that takes up half the expansion.

The Warrior of Light arrives in Norvrandt.
Image courtesy of Square Enix

I truly don’t know what happened. Did Square-Enix second guess whether their story was good enough to carry an expansion? Did they just want to also hurry and cover what was happening in Doma? The concept for the expansion was great! It feels like they waffled on letting Ala Mhigo carry the expansion, and the story suffered for it. The diversion to Doma to get help was okay, but it simply had no business eating half of the story. Huge misstep. Which brings us to Shadowbringers.

Final Fantasy XIV – Shadowbringers. Greatness at last.

I left Final Fantasy XIV shortly after Stormblood, as my career with CheckpointXP really began to take off. To be clear, I was burned out and frustrated with the game. And so, even as Shadowbringers was announced, I was checked out and didn’t care. Even as people heralded it as the greatest story the game had done so far, I ignored it. And even as they tried to bait me in with the raid being Final Fantasy VIII themed, I resisted. However, with COVID going full force, I could resist no longer.

Wow. Bravo Square-Enix. Shadowbringers is every bit the gem people are saying it is. The story sees the Warrior of Light travel to another dimension where-in the good guys have already achieved victory. In fact, they were so victorious that the balance between light and dark tipped too far in favor of the light. What remains is a stagnant, unchanging world, bathed in oppressive never-ending light. And so, the player dons the mantle of the Warrior of Darkness and gets to work.

The Crystarium under attack in Shadowbringers.
Image courtesy of Square Enix

There’s a lot of great things to hit on here. The music as always is spectacular. The villain this time around is Emet-Selch and he’s AMAZING. But my favorite thing about this expansion is how you fit into it. The Warrior of Light has always been kind of this divine force who can do no wrong. There’s a degree of almost perverse hero-worship in the Warrior of Light’s tale. While that still very much exists in Shadowbringers, the expansion does a masterful job of exploring what that actually means. Though the outside world continues to treat you as this grand savior, the expansion very poignantly is about the Warrior of Light’s mortality. You don’t feel like an invincible demi-god this time around.

Real and gritty

Not every story needs to be a happy one. This was the motto of A Realm Reborn that drew me to the game and got me to really buy-in. Now yes, stories do need to pay off in some way. Especially in an MMO, getting a sense of satisfaction out of what you’re doing is what gets you to pay that monthly subscription fee. Shadowbringers remembers that the truest telling of the hero’s journey requires the hero to journey through hell before emerging triumphant. And so, Shadowbringers is not shy about dealing with the concept that what you’re doing to help the world is actually killing you.

Gaius van Baelsar in Shadowbringers
Image courtesy of Square Enix

Now, of course, murdering the player character would be the end of the MMO, so you do escape your fate. However, they found a satisfying way to have you do so that doesn’t feel cheap. The scene where you get back to your feet and challenge Emet-Selch is bar none my favorite cut-scene in all of FFXIV. Yes, there’s plenty of things about the expansion that I think are stupid. No, I don’t like the Nier crossover raid. I don’t need that in my Final Fantasy MMO. However, the good news is that I don’t need material for a weekly podcast anymore. If I think something is dumb, I can just skip it and focus on the content that I enjoy.

Overall, I’m beyond impressed by Final Fantasy XIV – Shadowbringers. They’ve got my sub fee at least until the next expansion and I can’t wait to see what happens in patch 5.3. To my fellow disaffected FFXIV players out there, if you want to get back in you can pick up Shadowbringers on Steam. Bravo Square-Enix! Now maybe start taking my calls, yea?

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Lead image courtesy of Square Enix