Stormblood Review - Heed the Call to Arms
Stormblood is the second expansion for Final Fantasy XIV and follows 2015’s Heavensward. Boasting a new adventure across two continents, new jobs, dungeons and gear, the latest instalment promises to build upon one the ongoing legacy of the most successful MMOs in recent years. Set just after The Far Edge of Fate, the last patch, the Warrior of the Light and their Eorzean allies embark on a journey to the arid nation of Ala Mhigo, and to the before-unseen continent of Othard.
The game has long been renowned for its rich story, engaging combat and encounter design, but expansions are rough territory for any MMO. Change too little and you’re accused of releasing a paid-for patch, but change too much and you risk fixing something that isn’t broken and alienating your subscribers. Fortunately, Stormblood is a brilliant demonstration of how to ace a release like this, threading the needle between the two extremes with ease.
The expansion’s storyline is vastly superior to what has come before. While Heavensward improved immensely with subsequent patches, what Stormblood offers on release carries all of that momentum forward and more. Gone are the days of navel-gazing about dragons and heretics; Stormblood’s narrative is much more down to earth, grounded in human drama while steering clear of arcane nonsense where possible.
True, this is a universe where desperate people can summon gods when pushed far enough, and where ancient technology often arises just when the plot needs it. But that hardly seems to matter in Stormblood, because what sets the narrative apart is not what happens, but the people behind it. There are far fewer magic plot twists here, and less evil for the sake of evil; instead, complex individuals drive the story forward, sometimes with their triumphs, and sometimes with their flaws. Even side characters feel like they have their moments, and could, by themselves, be protagonists in other stories. It’s different from the average Final Fantasy game, that so-often devolves into ‘find or do the special thing that lets us banish the bad dudes’, and it’s all the better for it.
Cutscenes, too, are a treat. The action choreography is many steps ahead of anything I’ve seen in another game in the genre, and amazingly it’s all rendered in-engine. Characters who used to look awkward just standing still now move naturally and look each other in the eyes. What results is more immersive — However, some pitfalls that have dogged the game from day one persist and are all the more noticeable for the improvements elsewhere. Sound design is still lacking in places. A short way into the main scenario, players are treated to a fight that looks fantastic… but for some reason, there are almost no sound effects. It’s bizarre, because the noises your abilities make are excellent, so it’s not like those sounds don’t exist.
On the flip side, FFXIV remains the king of MMO music. Masayoshi Soken has produced track after track of instant classics across a swathe of genres. You travel across the world in FFXIV, and that’s really reflected in the soundtrack, which dabbles in the Far Eastern sounds one moment and lonely piano soliloquies the next. The English voice track remains absolutely excellent, with performances that consistently match the game’s best throughout.
The battle system has been revitalised, with all jobs being tweaked from the ground up. The skill bloat that followed Heavensward’s release has been rolled back, to the extent that playing a class well is far less reliant on lining up cooldowns and micromanaging abilities with less-than-obvious uses. Various UI elements have been added to every job, and, while some aren’t the prettiest, they are a leap ahead of the era when players were forced to squint at postage stamp-sized buff timers to figure out how far away they were from burning out. Swimming has been introduced, too, but thankfully there is no underwater combat; diving is essentially just for exploration purposes, providing some roleplay and screenshot fodder. It’s not forced on players (I think I’ve only spent half an hour in the water), and in my experience that’s the best way to implement it.
PVE encounters are significantly better scripted, with story missions that break conventions the game established years ago and boss fights that feel like boss fights. One such encounter has you running across grasslands in a desperate game of king of the hill, flanked by various NPCs as you battle warring tribes for supremacy. Done poorly, it could be a notorious slog that ruined the drama, but not only does the mission work, it’s one of the expansion’s most memorable encounters.
Dungeons are also much more ambitious, frequently foregoing tank-and-spank encounters in place of mechanics that make you think and move more. Nothing exemplifies this more than the final dungeon and subsequent boss encounter, which both serve as a brilliant crescendo to a campaign that presents players with high point after high point. In PVE terms, the overall structure of the expansion is much the same as before — a handful of endgame dungeons, an upcoming raid and some boss fights — but everything fits together exceptionally well. It won’t do much for people that felt Heavensward didn’t keep their interest, but for fans of the series or just casual admirers, this is the game at its best.
The new combat jobs are a huge plus. Both Samurai and Red Mage are fantastic additions, and already feel essential. The latter of the two is fundamentally different from any caster I’ve played in other games, leaping into and out of combat with flair. I haven’t had the chance to level RDM to 70 yet, but I played through the main scenario all the way to max level as a Samurai, and it was bliss. It’s clear that both classes were designed at a time when Square Enix was rewriting the rules for the other jobs too, because they fit in far more naturally than Machinist and Astrologian did when they were released.
However, adding two DPS classes to a game where healers and tanks were already in short supply seems like a critical misstep. Yes, it’s hard to reinvent the wheel when it comes to support jobs, given that both healing and tanking has evolved over generations of games. But there aren’t enough measures to encourage people to stick with support classes, and frequent half-hour long queues effectively punish people for trying new jobs or sticking to a DPS role they already play.
And that’s to say nothing of the server issues that plagued the launch. Players faced the worst of all worlds, confined to individual servers with huge queues, which were themselves divided into various instances. The experience of playing the game has been fantastic — but sadly so much of the first week was spent waiting around that for some people, staring at queues and error screens was the experience.
Still, these are things that will iron out in time, and the things that aren’t subject to change — the gameplay, the story, the world itself — are excellent. Naoki Yoshida and his team are at the top of their game here, producing something that is at both worthy of the Final Fantasy name and carrying on the astonishing work of A Realm Reborn’s turnaround. More than that, it’s a magnificent foundation for the coming months of patches. Long may it continue.