Last week I reviewed Stormblood for MMORPG.com and had a long list of good things to say about it. But I couldn’t talk too much about the story for fear of spoiling it for people who were still on the fence about buying the expansion or who hadn’t yet completed it.
Now Omega has been released and most people have hit max level, I figured I could go all out on the spoilers in a separate column and put down some of my thoughts. Be warned: from here on out, nothing is sacred, so make sure you’ve finished the main scenario quests. Furthermore, I’ll be relying on you knowing what happened, too, so it won’t make any sense if you haven’t. If you haven’t seen the story through to the end, then do so — it’s really good.
MMO stories are hard, and I don’t think many are harder to pull off than a Final Fantasy story. This is a franchise which pushed narratives in games forward in its early years — and also a franchise in which the stories it has told haven’t been particularly well-received in a decade or so. The tales that drive FFXIII and FFXV were average at best, and FFXIV has probably told the series’s greatest story since FFX came out, if not before.
I’m glad to be able to say that Stormblood really carries that work forward. Even after letting some time pass, I stand by what I said in my review about it being significantly better than Heavensward on release (later patches were brilliant). The cast of characters is really good this time around; I didn’t really buy into the whole “Yda is actually someone else called Lyse” thing at the end of patch 3.55, and I was also fairly skeptical of her presence as a narrator. But she (and, indeed, the rest of the cast) really shine. Nobody is really two-dimensional, even the NPCs you come across.
Nowhere is that more emphasised than during the player’s sojourn to the Azim Steppe, which is constantly breathtaking. Tribal communities in video games, and especially MMOs, rarely have any meaningful differences; this group is friendly, that one isn’t. But a huge amount of work went into building the lore behind the region, and each group you encounter genuinely feels like it has its own culture, because they developers actually took the time to show it to you. The region’s story arc helps, and participating in the Nadaam, the Steppe warriors’ annual battle royale, is an excellent finale.
But it’s the little details that set it apart. There’s a sidequest for the Dotharl (the tribe who believe they reincarnate after dying in battle) that takes you to The House of the Crooked Coin, where Dotharl who don’t wish to be reborn jump to their deaths in order to break the cycle of reincarnation — something you only discover after escorting someone there. The expansion is full of surprises like this, where small moments reveal huge amounts about the world and the people who live in it, and, as harrowing as the conclusion to that quest might be, it serves as an example of how far the team is willing to go to build the world you’re saving.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Stormblood’s greatest flaw is that it pulls punches too often. While there are plenty of isolated moments that hit really hard, the greatest story beats are often undermined later. There are a huge number of oh-shit-are-they-dead moments... that inevitably conclude with everyone being happy and alive shortly afterward. I can’t be the only one that was dumbstruck when Gosetsu and Yotsuyu were shown to still be alive after the credits. I really, really liked Gosetsu... But couldn’t they just let him have his moment and move on?
It’s precisely because so many people escape death without giving it too much thought that this is so egregious, because Gosetsu seemed like one of the few characters they were seriously willing to kill off. But no, he’s on a desert island with everyone’s favorite sadistic viceroy. I had suspected he might still be alive when the Kojin said they couldn’t find his corpse, but I didn’t really think they had the audacity to actually go through with that, and it means that it’ll be hard to take anybody else’s deaths seriously going forward.
It’s not just that post-credits scene that disappointed me. The final dungeon and Shinryu were fantastic, but what followed was kinda… I dunno. Like, just as Zenos was becoming an interesting character — he said the player was his first friend! — he kills himself before that can be explored, wrapping everything up a little too cleanly, to the point that it’s a little anticlimactic.
I expect what will follow in subsequent patches will be much more interesting, as Gyr Abania’s natives try and thrash out what kind of future they want. But Zenos’ quick exit, coupled with Gosetsu and Yotsuyu’s incredible survival act, is an awkward end to a campaign that’s otherwise pretty brilliant; these moments pale in comparison to those that come before, such as the empire’s raid on Rhalgr’s Reach.
I suppose a lot of this comes down to the fact that FFXIV’s story won’t end the way a triple-A console game would. The ending can’t feel completely final, or else it wouldn’t keep anybody’s interest for subsequent patches. But I can’t shake the feeling that the campaign’s final moments are its weakest.
Just as a final note: I really like Fordola and the skulls, and I’m impressed how willing SE was to make the reality of the occupation less than black and white. It’s not just a band of heroes against the evil empire; in some cases, you’re dealing with collaborators who are just trying to make the best of the situation they’re in. There’s another quest towards the latter stages of the MSQ that does an excellent job of illustrating this, in which a villager warns you that it’s the young ones you had to be afraid of the most, for they know nothing other than the empire’s occupation — they have no idea what a free Ala Mhigo looks like, so why would they be sympathetic towards somebody fighting for it?
Sure, Fordola’s rotten. But you can’t help but feel like there’s a logic to her actions, awful as they are. There’s a human depth to her that makes her at once both sympathetic and easy to dislike. It’s this human depth that I felt was missing in Heavensward, and it’s what puts it a cut above what was in the game before now. My criticisms of the ending aside — which is just setting the stage for future patches anyway — there’s a lot that’s really, really good here, and if it grows the way Heavensward did in future patches, then I’m really excited. Just please don’t bring anyone else back from the dead.