One brings shadow, one brings light: Some words about Shadowbringers

One brings shadow, one brings light: Some words about Shadowbringers

Image for postMy character Ariyon Cyranuce standing in Il Mheg

The first thing that stood out to me about Shadowbringers was the music. Final Fantasy XIV?s main composer Masayoshi Soken has been knocking this game?s soundtrack out of the park for years now, so it?s not so much surprising that the soundtrack is good. Which make no mistake, Shadowbringers soundtrack is among the best we?ve seen so far. But I think the thing that really got to me this time was just how effective the game?s main theme song ?Shadowbringers? is. There are three distinct occasions that I can think of off the top of my head where this song really got to me. The first time was when I think most people heard the song for the first time, the trailer during Square Enix?s E3 presentation. That trailer, which is essentially the opening cinematic for the game is so god damn powerful. Right away it sets the tone of this expansion. We see the Warrior of Light, the generic stand-in for your player character cycling through his many different jobs in a desperate struggle against one of the game?s new enemies, a sin eater. We also see glimpses of the Scions who we lost contact with back in Stormblood. A flash of things to come? Not quite. The trailer is also narrated by an at-the-time unfamiliar voice. We watch as the WoL is beaten down. ?Become what you must? And so we become the Warrior of Darkness. That shit is so powerful. It gave me goosebumps at the time, and tears later on. My wife and I would rewatch the opening a few times during our playthrough of Shadowbringers and each time I think we got more and more choked up from the pure excitement of it all. The second time that the song really got to me was when I was looking it up on YouTube one night. There was a really incredible lyrics video that helped me understand what was actually being said in the song. Unfortunately it?s not around anymore, as Square Enix has apparently been quite liberal with take-down strikes on these videos. But the lyrics of the song, I realized about 1/3 of the way into the expansion, are actually relevant to what?s going on in the story. It really brought tears to my eyes, again in that ?building hype? sort of way that?s common with things like shonen anime. The third, and most recent time the song got to me? Well, I?ll talk about that a bit later. SPOILER WARNING: For the first half of this article I?m not really going to have any sort of spoilers for Shadowbringers that aren?t mechanical in nature. But later on I will be talking openly about the expansion?s story and the locations you visit. Just giving you a heads up now, and another one before that part of this story.

Image for postThancred sees how many words are about to spew out all over this page and he?s not amused.

Before I really get into what I think about Shadowbringers, let me do a little house cleaning. A couple years ago I wrote a short ?review? of sorts about FFXIV?s previous expansion Stormblood. Looking at it again now, I can tell I was still feeling positive from that ?new expansion? feel, but I can tell even looking back at it that I wasn?t in love with Stormblood. After my wife and I finished the Stormblood MSQ back when it launched, we put the game down and basically didn?t touch it again until a few months ago. So that?s pretty much two years where we were like ?Nah, we?re good.? To be fair, that?s not entirely Stormblood?s fault. Life kind of got in the way of us playing it. But even going back to it and catching up before Shadowbringers, I could tell that while we both enjoyed the content to some extent, we still didn?t feel nearly as strongly about it as we did with Heavensward. For a while now I?ve been saying FFXIV is my favorite MMO now. It?s gotten even easier to say that as times has gone on, considering it?s main competitor World of Warcraft has seen better days. Battle For Azeroth, the latest WoW expansion is the first time I?ve skipped a WoW release since Vanilla. And I honestly don?t know if I?ll ever go back. Meanwhile FFXIV continues to build on, and improve the things that are great about it. And six years in, you could say I?m pretty invested. So while I wouldn?t say Stormblood was a bad period for the game, it just felt kind of underwhelming. There were good moments in the story, and some great characters introduced. But the overall story of Stormblood took away from one of FFXIV?s strongest elements. The focus on your player character. The Warrior of Light kind of took a backseat in Stormblood as the large conflicts were centered more on liberating nations from imperial rule. And yeah, we were there kicking ass like we do, but it felt far less personal. Shadowbringers said ?Fuck all that noise!?

Image for postAriyon Cyrance: ?Fuck all that noise!?

Before I get into any sort of spoilerific details of Shadowbringers, I?d like to just briefly talk about how I think the actual mechanics of the game, and some of its features have been dramatically improved with this expansion. For starters, one of the things I did when I got back into FFXIV a few months ago was to transition from using Mouse/Keyboard on a PC, to using a Gamepad on PS4. The reason for getting into the PS4 version had more to do with making it possible for my wife and I to play the game together again, but also I wanted to see how I?d take to controller support since I?ve long since struggled with clumsily hand dancing across the keyboard in this game. I won?t lie. It definitely took some getting used to, but the end result is that I?m more comfortable and confident in playing this game than I have ever been in the past. Everything feels much more natural, and I feel like I spend less time fucking up on the execution of things, which obviously gives me far more room to deal with the mechanics of a given fight. In addition to the switch to controller, some of the changes made in Shadowbringers specifically have helped out quite a bit too. The most obvious thing being the current state of tanks and healers. Back in 2.0 I played a Paladin up to 50, but tanking anxiety lead me to picking up Dragoon instead for post-patch content. Now I?ve been leveling up my Paladin again (Just got to 70 actually) and the changes made to enmity generation, as well as the reduction of overall defensive cooldowns, and a streamlining of combos has made Paladin a blast to play. I?m still not confident about doing any sort of endgame tanking yet, but for leveling it up? I?ll happily tank. Healers on the other hand are a little more controversial. FFXIV has long been a game where even though it abides by the ?holy trinity? of MMO roles ? Tank, Healer, DPS ? the other two roles that didn?t specifically have ?damage? in the name were also expected to contribute with damage. This is fairly different than some other MMOs (namely WoW) where you wouldn?t expect a Tank or a Healer to contribute greatly to the overall DPS. While Tanks saw new streamlines combos that focused more on dealing out damage full-time now, Healers kind of seem to be in a place where the XIV team just wants you to focus on healing. All three healers still have both single target and area of effect damage abilities they?re expected to use, but there?s a much larger focus on trying to keep party members alive all the time. This seems to have made the job a lot easier actually, to the point of boredom to some? Particularly Scholar players seem to be the least happy players in the expansion. While White Mage has seen some major improvements over Stormblood. Balancing talk aside, It?s actually made me pick up and try healing for the first time since I?ve started playing the game. And while my Conjurer (White Mage) is only level 28, I?ve actually been having a really great time with that too? So, neat! As for my main job, I switched to Samurai to do the post-patch Stormblood content and found the class to be greatly to my liking. However Shadowbringers has made the job even fucking better than it was before. Giving us Samurai some great quality of life features, while also doubling down on what makes the job so fun ? huge fucking damage! The only bad thing I?ll say about 5.0 Samurai is that your reward for getting to level 80 is an incredibly underwhelming ability that I doubt will get much use. It just kind of sucks ass. Meanwhile, my wife?s main job Black Mage is arguably the most improved job in the game. The quality of life features for Black Mage alone are enough to make the job two to three times better than it was before. She absolutely loves it, and so do 80% of Black Mage players in the game apparently according to a recent poll. In addition to some really solid improvements in combat and class design, the game also has a couple of noteworthy features I?d like to call attention to. First is the new ?Trust? system. I figure a lot of people are probably wondering where the fuck the name ?Trust? comes from, but I can tell you it?s the single greatest feature that they?ve ever added to Final Fantasy XI. FFXI, the previous Final Fantasy MMO, was notoriously hardcore back in the day, when it came out, nearly 20 years ago? (God, I?m old) Ever since then, Square Enix has made drastic improvements to make that game more accessible for anyone looking for a history lesson, and none of them more so than the Trust system. The Trust system in FFXI let you recruit famous NPCs from throughout the game?s story to fight alongside you in battle. It essentially turned a very multiplayer focused game into one that you can easily solo most of the content in the game with. When the XIV team introduced the Squadron system back in the latter half of Heavensward?s post-patch content it gave me a small glimpse of hope that one day they might be able to introduce Trust into XIV. And here we are several years later with a pretty god damn excellent execution of the idea. Throughout the MSQ, whenever you hit a story related dungeon in Shadowbringers, you can choose from a selection of story relevant NPCs to bring with you and run these dungeons. And unlike Squadrons the Trust NPCs are actually competent at their jobs, and capable of taking care of everything completely automatically. No matter what job you play, there?s a tank, healers, or DPS to fill the other three slots in your party. And the best part is you can keep utilizing the Trust system after clearing a dungeon too. Unfortunately for reasons I?m still not entirely sure of, once you finish Shadowbringers MSQ, you then have to actually level up these NPCs by running the lower level Shadowbringers dungeons over and over. Which, yeah, kind of sucks, but still. The best part about the Trust system though is that it helps provide a lot for many different kinds of players. FFXIV a very appealing game at this point, but the sad reality is that social anxiety still exists, and people can be assholes online. So it can sometimes be hard to commit yourself to running content with random strangers. The Trust system helps alleviate some of that frustration, while still requiring the player to sometimes still have to seek out additional players. The other really great, hidden benefit of the Trust system is that it allows the player a great way of learning these handful of dungeons. Not only does it take that pressure to perform in front of your peers away, but funnily enough the Trust NPCs are programmed to execute each fight pretty much perfectly on their part. So, if you?re ever not sure how to avoid something during a fight? Just stack onto one of your Trust NPCs, cause they ain?t getting hit by that shit. SPOILER WARNING: HEAVY SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

Image for posttHe SpOiLeRs BuRn Us!!!

Now I?d like to spend some time talking about things that are going to require me to dip into spoilers. Even though I guess you could label this article as a ?review? it also serves as a way for me to gush about the amazing game I just finished, so of course I?m going to talk about some of the coolest shit. For starters, The First, the world that the expansion takes place in is a fascinating collection of zones, and dungeons that help deliver the game?s incredible story. At the beginning of the expansion we?re brought to the beautiful forested area of Lakeland which we return to a little later in the expansion, but the deceptively pretty color pallet of this area does little to prepare you for how grim the following expansion will be. The two main hub areas in Shadowbringers are The Crystarium and the eccentric city of pleasure, Eulmore. The Crystarium is your main base of operations in the expansion, and is a bustling city with the iconic Crystal Tower as its centerpiece. Eulmore on the other hand is a city where some very dark shit happens early in the story, but it also has a strip club inside complete with pole dancers, so it?s a very interesting city to say the least. Early on the player has a choice between two zones, Kholusia, and Amh Araeng. You eventually have to go to both areas, but it?s nice having a choice. We went with Kholusia and it was kind of a mistake. The first half of Kholusia which you experience early on in the game is a good indication of how grim the tone of the expansion can be. As well as a bit of social commentary that I?m sure the ?Keep politics out of my video games? crowd adores. Basically it?s the region where the city of Eulmore is located, and Eulmore is a city run by the rich and powerful that preys on the weak and poor. There?s even a pretty direct reference to Soylent Green going on here. (Or is it a Xenogears reference? Oh SNAP!) Unfortunately the zone is visually dull, and the bleak atmosphere reminds me of Final Fantasy VI?s World of Ruin. It?s never bad to be compared to FFVI, but it?s maybe not the best first impression of an expansion. Amh Araeng seems like a better choice to start with if you ask me. Yes, it?s another desert locale, but the soundtrack for the area is extremely chill. It?s home to those grotesque, wacky Cactuar mutants, and is the first and finest example of this expansion borrowing heavily from FFXI with its monsters. The best part about it though is that it?s a much better introduction to how fucked up this expansion?s story is because of an early cinematic that depicts a woman turning into a sin eater in a very graphic and horrific nightmare fuel kind of way. Yes, in some ways Shadowbringers is a horror MMO, and that?s just kind of bad ass, you know? Later on you return to Lakeland, which, while very pretty is probably the least interesting, and shortest zone of the expansion. It makes up for it somewhat by having the first dungeon you encounter in the expansion, as well as the heart pumping ending sequence for the zone. But after that we get to the real star of the expansion?s zones, Il Mheg. Il Mheg is easily one of the best zones in the entire game of Final Fantasy XIV. It?s an extremely gorgeous zone, it has an amazing, not to mention hilarious storyline that you follow throughout the zone, and its simultaneously the home for three of the expansion?s new race of creatures. Pixies, Nu Mou, and Amaros. The Nu Mou, which you might recognize from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and A2 are my least favorite of the three, but they still have some charm to them. Especially their adorable flying pig familiars the Porxies, which my wife is dying to get her hands on a minion of. The Amaro are a race of grandpa bird dragons that are somehow extremely adorable with their cute little chewing animations, and they seriously remind me of Falkor from The Neverending Story. Finally we have the Pixies, and oh my god do I love these little bastards. The Pixies in FFXIV are a race of devious little fae folk that love to be annoying as shit and play tricks on everyone around them. They somehow remind me of the elves in Berserk mixed with Excalibur from Soul Eater. And that?s a hilarious combo. Their town is also home to one of my favorite songs from the expansion, an endearingly grating rendition of what can best be described as someone falling up the stairs while farting, but if that were somehow music. And the whole Giant Beaver thing is fucking AMAZING!

Image for postThis crazy bitch was easily the hardest part of the expansion so far.

If that weren?t enough, Il Mheg is also home to the first trial fight of the game against the King of the fae folk, Titania. Who is equal parts beautiful and creepy. And while that fight is fucking balls hard, it was also a very cool fight. And helps lead into the amazing conclusion to that zone?s storyline. Next up is The Great Rat?Tika Greatwood, which is my personal second favorite zone of the game. While this zone clearly doesn?t reach the same heights as Il Mheg does, it is a very visually appealing (and sounding ? love that area music!) zone that finally brings the whole band back together, and has two really great factions within the expansion. Finally, there?s the last area, which hearkens back to Heavensward?s last area, in so much that it?s kind of a surprise at least. Thankfully a much better zone than Azys Lla is. Thankfully. The Tempest is a sprawling underwater area that ends off at one of the most awe inspiring locales in entire game with a vast underwater city that serves as the final location of the expansion. The city of Amaurot reminded me of a great many things. Kingdom Hearts, NieR Automata, and especially Chrono Cross. Also, the final story dungeon, trial, and scenes are all fucking incredible!

Image for postThe best and possibly only truly great Final Fantasy XIV villain?

With that, I?ll wrap this whole thing up by talking about Shadowbringers? story, and my overall feelings on the expansion, and Final Fantasy XIV as a whole. I mentioned previously that Stormblood kind of had the Warrior of Light taking a backseat right? Well Shadowbringers answer to that is to make the entire expansion revolve around you. I don?t need to go into every specific detail of the expansion?s story, but this is a story of you and your friends arriving in a parallel world to your own, finding out that this world is extremely fucked up, and that saving it is the only way you can save your own world. Throughout Final Fantasy XIV?s lifetime, even including 1.0, the lore has been there to support plot points brought up in this expansion. We finally have an answer (of sorts) as to who Hydaelyn, the goddess, and in fact the very world of the Source that we?ve spent our entire time playing the game with, is. As well as who Zodiark is, and what?s really up with those gods damned Ascians. If I?m being honest, I?ve never been the biggest fan of the Ascians. Throughout the story of FFXIV they?ve showed up as the mysterious organization responsible for orchestrating things from behind the scenes. In a lot of ways these masked pests were kind of like a budget version of Kingdom Heart?s Organization XIII. Sure, they?re bad dudes, they?ve done bad shit. But we were never really sure why, or for what purpose. Oddly enough they weren?t even really included in Stormblood much at all. But Shadowbringers finally gives us a lot of the answers for questions that have gone unanswered for years. Emet-Selch is the new Ascian on the block, one who is introduced as the founding Emperor of Garlemald in the Stormblood post-patch content. Right away he?s a much more interesting character than any of the other Ascians have actually been before. His unhinged nature and mannerism reminding me a lot of Micolash from Bloodborne actually. Even the voice is similar! Emet-Selch?s role in this story is one that is equal parts sinister and deceptive as it is tragic and sympathetic. This one character almost singlehadnedly redeems the Ascians in my eyes, as it really makes it clear about their plight. The game?s final dungeon hits this point home, as you make your way through a construction of the Ascian?s world right as its being destroyed my horrific otherworldly forces. The narration and music for the dungeon go a long way to providing the right tone for what this is, and it?s incredibly effective. It?s also great to be reunited with the Scions once more after being away from some of them for so long. Characters like Thancred, Urianger, and even the newcomer Ryne see some fantastic character development in this expansion, and it?s great that they?re basically alongside you the entire time, even able to join you in dungeons thanks to the Trust system. Another really great thing about this expansion is the primary enemies you?re going up against. The Sin Eaters, and the five Light Wardens that accompany five of the six story dungeons. The Sin Eaters themselves are very disturbing in nature, thanks in no small part to the incredibly talented art team working on this expansion. The nature of Sin Eaters, how they?re created, and how they came to be is equally horrific, reminding me at times of something you?d find in the latter ending of the first Drakengard (funny how Yoko Taro games keep coming up, huh?) The Lightwardens in particular make for excellent final bosses in the game?s main story dungeons. For once there?s a real meaningful encounter at the end of each one of these dungeons, and the accompanying boss music is among my favorite tracks in the game. Finally we have the Warrior of Light?s bros. The mysterious Crystal Exarch. And The Warrior of Darkness, Ardbert. The Crystal Exarch is the perfect example of one of the greatest strengths a game like Final Fantasy XIV has going for it. The identity and origins of the Exarch can be deduced by the player if they?ve been rigorous with clearing optional content in the game, dating back to A Realm Reborn, as well as paying attention to the game?s story over the years. I actually figured out what was going on, on my own, a few hours into the expansion. I won?t spoil the reveal, but it was an extremely satisfying moment when it clicked, and I kept getting more and more excited as the expansion kept going, and pushed further into supporting my theory. The events surrounding The Crystal Exarch near the end of the game become even more impactful if you have the context for who he is. Which honestly, is a really cool things that a lot of games just wouldn?t be able to pull off.

Image for postI?m already crying again.

As for The Warrior of Darkness. Man, Ardbert really stole the show a lot of the time. Again, calling back to events that happened way back in the post-patch content of Heavensward (in 2016!) we see the return of The Warrior of Darkness. And much of this expansion finally pays off the crazy events of that point in time of the story. Throughout the events in Shadowbringers your character forges an unshakable bond with Ardbert that I don?t think we?ll soon forget. His story is tragic, and I never felt like I could love a basic ass male Hyur/Hume/Human this much. But gods dammit I do. I mentioned the final dungeon previously, as well as that third and final time the expansion?s theme music got to me right? As it turns out all of that is relevant to much of what I?ve said in these past few paragraphs. The culmination of Emet-Selch?s, The Crystal Exarch, and Ardbert?s story play into the final sequences of the game. In a moment where our character is on the ropes, and all hope seems lost, one of the coolest, most bad ass, hypest mother fucking moments in any game happens, as you and Ardbert come together, while the Shadowbringers theme is playing, to kick some Ascian ass alongside seven of your closest buds. It?s a phenomenally exciting scene. Followed by an amazing last boss fight. And a real fucking gut punch, tearjerker of an ending. Seeing the conclusion to Emet-Selch, The Crystal Exarch, and Ardbert?s story is the right type of 1?2?3 punch combo to beat the shit out of you, and leave you weeping in your wife?s arms as the two of you cry about the story in a fucking MMORPG, AGAIN. And that?s really what it comes down to in the end. Make no mistake about it, Final Fantasy XIV is an expertly crafted game from a mechanics perspective. It offers some of the best MMO combat out there, with a huge amount of fun and challenging content for you to play with. An ever increasing abundance of quality of life features, and optional events and activities that give a wide variety of players different ways to play this wonderful game. FFXIV has one of the best soundtracks out there, and it?s also probably the best looking MMORPG out there, or at least the most stable one that doesn?t run like complete dog shit of fall apart at the drop of a hat. FFXIV has one of the most fascinating, if not the best redemptive, real life story about a game that failed so fucking badly, only to rise like a Phoenix from its ashes thanks in no small part to an extremely passionate and competent producer/director that took a steaming pile of shit and spun it into gold. Hell, to some extent it isn?t even about how god damn well the story is written, or the way that the team smartly integrates aspects of every Final Fantasy game into it, but more importantly it?s how the game accomplishes the impossible task of making you care about these characters, these stories, this world on an extremely personal level. Because much like Shadowbringers itself, Final Fantasy XIV is a game about you, the player, or at least the version of yourself that exists within this game. Not everyone will feel the same way about their characters as I do about mine. But I?ve put 107 days of actual playtime into this game. Almost a third of a year of real life time. Throughout those 107 days I?ve struggled to play the game at times, had a blast during other times. I?ve been frustrated about things, and incredibly happy about others. I?ve built bonds with not only the fictional people of these worlds, but also real life people in ours. I?ve played 95% of this game alongside my wife, our characters have gotten married twice in this game to each other, I even write her fanfic about our characters. We have headcanons about our characters actually being from Vana?diel, because we based them on our characters in Final Fantasy XI. We?ve laughed and cried at this game in equal measure. We?ve felt happy and sad, and excited while playing through these wonderful stories. Final Fantasy XIV is a game that encourages the player to ?see and do everything? all on one character. I?m sure most people have alts, but there?s such an investment involved in a single character that it?s really hard to justify doing everything again multiple times. This has the effect of making you really attached to your main character. And all the shit you?ve done. But it also has the effect, in a story sense, of making your character The Warrior of Light. I know at this point in the game, in the story, that when I see my character in these cutscenes. He?s the main character. Ariyon Cyranuce is the main character of the fourteenth Final Fantasy game. Seeing someone else in that role feels weird, and wrong, and fucked up. And that, ladies and gentleman, is why this game is so fucking special. Because I feel like I have a real place in this world. Game of the Year? Sure fucking looks like it.

Image for postDid I leave anything to write about for GOTY? Hm.

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