It’s bittersweet and difficult to come to the end of a tale, especially if you’ve been following it for over a decade. Doing so must have been especially for the team behind Final Fantasy 14, which ends the current core story arc in Endwalker, its latest expansion, released officially on December 7 (and with early access on the 3rd).
Final Fantasy 14 Online: A Realm Reborn has traveled a treacherous ten-year journey, with a tale that any gaming fan with their ear on the ground has likely heard by now. It started with a failed 1.0 launch in 2011, then rebooted with a new director and better success in 2013 The community has grown steadily as the game held up with consistently well-received expansions. In 2021, FFXIV’s growth came to a peak, as pandemic players continued to wander in, memes and word of mouth brought further crowds, and players leaving other games, especially MMORPGs, found refuge in Eorzea.
When Creative Business Unit 3, under Square Enix, formally announced Endwalker earlier this year, one could practically feel the energy in the gaming space intensify. In wake of this anticipation, Endwalker needed to at least come close to the praise that the prior expansion, Shadowbringers garnered as one of the best Final Fantasy games in years. Fans held onto the hope that this new expansion took the good lessons from A Realm Reborn’s growth and evolved from its most warranted criticisms.
So how does Endwalker hold up against these high expectations? If you’re willing to put as much of your heart as the team has all these years, it’s a hell of a ride.
Usually, I’m the friend who doesn’t care about spoilers…? But Endwalker delivers on its twists strikingly enough that I really recommend bowing out if you’re not interested in hearing any.
Last chance to turn back.
An Intense Journey
From the very start, Endwalker’s story hits the ground running and shows little sign of stopping. You need to take down the towers across the world and hopefully stop the End of Days as orchestrated by Fandaniel and Zenos. While enough to keep one winded, it’s exhilarating all the same. And to be fair, yes, that’s pretty urgent.
The intense pacing is no surprise. Endwalker aims to wrap up a lot of threads, whether left from the post-Shadowbringers plots, or in exploring deeper mysteries that have stood since the original 1.0 launch. Endwalker packs in so much action and information that by the time you’re already staring at what was assumed to be the endgame of FFXIV’s ten-year journey so far, you look at your level and go, “oh no.”
While there’s some divisive downtime, any uptime brings plenty of action. One solo duty, “In From the Cold,” is a personal favorite, and not just because I love anything involving Zenos. In this duty, Zenos uses his Resonance to swap your soul into that of a Garlean soldier, and you’re left struggling to reach your friends before Zenos uses your body to do… who knows what. It’s a rare opportunity to show us what kind of power we’ve taken for granted versus what kinds of opponents we’ve quite literally slaughtered along the way. And once you have that weighed out, you realize exactly how bad it is that this asshole’s taking your body for a joyride.
A lot of the gameplay in Endwalker does continue that trend of integrating more story into its gameplay. In the level 85 Vanaspati dungeon, you watch a whole family turn into monsters that you, sadly, have no choice but to put down. The final protagonist, in another, takes you through the story of three worlds that essentially begged for death until their civilizations’ literal last breaths.
Speaking of dungeons, here is my opportunity to fully admit that the gear the game rewards you with is mostly visually underwhelming, including quite a few recolors. The most notable exception is Vanaspati, which has some gorgeous Thavnarian-themed gear, influenced by South Asian culture. While “glamour is the endgame,” though, the game rewards you with enough of it that there should be little worry about practical progression, as FFXIV tends to do well. It’s not quite “hand-holding” so much as the game’s usual desire to get you through things apace.
My more primary frustration with Endwalker lies right after the first climax, around level 84. Once you’ve gone and beat up what you assume is The Big Bad, everyone seems to slump their shoulders and relax, despite some pretty devastating prophecies ahead. It happens again towards level 88 and 89, when you’re prepping to literally traverse the universe and stop a world-ending birdgirl. Unfortunately, the Lopprits, which were a huge point of excitement for dev team Creative Business Unit 3 in the game’s promotion, are primarily responsible for most of this drag in both spots.
It’s almost frustrating how cute and bouncy personality-wise they are, because they prove their own point: Yeah, you know what? You’re cute. You’re doing your best. Screw it. I’m helping you build this. Lopprits are actually genuinely freaking adorable, and I wish my time with them weren’t punctuated by the End of Days and the plot’s willingness to drag out my forced time with them. That’s the irony of it all, I guess. Yet, it has a purpose, and both have lovely points of development for Urianger, who frankly has deserved as much for many years.
Throughout the story, there are plenty of similarly corny bits that feel like an Avengers movie rehashed, recalling old faces that wish you well (including special dialogue for non-essential quests being completed). It does feel necessary, though it’s easy to cringe after it’s done for the fifth time or so. Still, given the situation at hand, sometimes it’s nice to see a familiar face or few. Again. And again.
Some new quest mechanics were also received by the community as dragged-out, specifically stealth modes and NPC follow system. Personally, I found their implementations to be fair and interesting, though it does kind of suck sometimes to teleport by instinct through a Mini Aetheryte and lose the NPC. I did get annoyed by the stealth systems by the end, but I loved the final use of the NPC follow system in Ultima Thule. It really hit me to be followed by the last two people who haven’t sacrificed themselves (yet), and perhaps that’s because we’ve always had them with us, even when the stakes escalated ever higher, as they once did in Heavensward.
Regardless of any frustrations in pacing and mechanics, Endwalker is a joy to explore. The new areas are gorgeous and convey their purpose well. I’ve personally enjoyed the level design of this expansion and Shadowbringers, where the map unveils itself slowly as you level, leaving some mystery for later. It’s a common tactic in game design, but especially in Ultima Thule, where the last areas are simultaneously present and well-hidden by the map, it deserves a mention.
The music continues to earn its praise, too. Masayoshi Soken, the main sound director and composer, has earned a reputation from effective reuse of melodic motifs and working across a massive breadth of genres and aesthetics. I personally adore Labyrinthos’s daytime theme, which utilizes what many lovingly call “frog MIDI” to match the mood of curiosity and exploration the area invokes. The music for both phases of the final trial deserves a shout-out, too, as the medley of FFXIV boss themes feels truly epic, but there’s going to be little like hearing the second phase’s empowering rock theme for the first time, after the melody was teased throughout the expansion and in the Footfalls theme. (No, like, really, I almost screamed in delight.) The soundtrack mostly did a great job in working side-by-side with the rest of the gameplay to convey the weight of the story.
Weighty, Risky Narrative That Works
The heaviness of Endwalker’s narrative comes in not only the pacing of what happens, but the tone and topics that are covered. A lot of risks are taken in this regard, but perhaps because of what Final Fantasy 14 is and stands for, they land splendidly.
Endwalker does fumble a bit on its earlier themes, especially bits such as kindness towards one’s enemies such as, and especially in, Garlemald. I’ve always felt FFXIV is a bit optimistic in conveying human nature, especially when it comes to change and doing the right thing. But given how quickly Endwalker speeds along, for better or worse it becomes a forgivable flaw as the expedited inflection serves the narrative well enough.
But later, conundrums and questions arise that feel more urgent and genuine. Sentiments of despair in the face of tragedy evolve into asking why life requires suffering, which then evolves into asking, quite literally, the meaning of life. That’s not only not an exaggeration; it’s what the major antagonist of the expansion posits to literally every civilization it could find, as she unveils in the ancient land of Elpis, where she was created to do such. And then we learn that our world as we know it was created as a flawed entity by Hydaelyn for us to confront that question. One may even say, it was to seek Answers. (Hah.)
In this creation story of sorts that Endwalker weaves, there are flawed answers and protagonists and anti-heroes. As if the Greek-inspired time travel doesn’t drive the point home in calling back ancient mythology by names, pushing on despite those flaws is really the point of both the expansion and FFXIV in general. Where any story risks being messy and disorganized in such a premise, the strong characterization that’s made FFXIV a beloved MMORPG instead turns the story into a proper tragedy, and then a hero’s tale.
That characterization helps Endwalker confront the larger existential crisis that it could easily induct into the player. In fact, knowing the playerbase, it’s likely a crisis that many have stared at eye-to-eye. But Endwalker posits that there’s no correct answer, that while there perhaps shouldn’t be suffering, joy and meaning are different to everyone, and that’s what makes life wonderful.
Interestingly, the lovely piece of shit Zenos beats the Scions to this answer, finding meaning in life through something as simple as “beating up the protagonist.” And you know what? Good for him. This is one correct answer, in the grand scheme of it all. This is where I have the chance to commend the team for its final sequence, where Zenos, who has traveled the literal universe to find you, basically calls out the bloodthirst that may or may not accompany being the god-slaying adventurer. In my case – yeah, he’s got a point there, too. And to be fair, that’s one drive to literally fight on, is it not?
When a team like Creative Business Unit 3 comes forward and tells a tale of hope, despair, and fumbling along the way, it comes across as heartfelt and genuine. It’s no secret that the FFXIV team has been through a lot, from the mixed 1.0 release and its subsequent rocky launches onward. But much of what’s kept players around is the authentic feel that the team and game have carried through the years, and more of it as the years go on. Much like the rest of the industry, neither the game nor team are perfect, but then again neither is anyone. Honesty with that fact is why many players refuse to let go of this game.
It’s what allows Endwalker to stick this landing. This story takes a lot of risks for the purpose of conveying pretty heavy emotional and philosophical topics that, again, could feel less weighty and more corny with the wrong presentation. The difference is, Endwalker trusts you’ve put as much heart into reaching this point as they have in bringing you here so that it could bring you into this earnest conversation, one that maybe you’d only have otherwise with a close friend or in your journal.
Endwalker broaches a lofty subject, where having the talk at all needs to be commended, but in a medium in which stories can easily leave out the answer, finding purpose in that answer is a feat.
If It Ain’t Broke
It’s clear that the story is the core of Endwalker’s appeal, as FFXIV’s reputation has it. The rest of the changes, or choices not to change things, so far have also been pretty solid. Full disclosure: a lot of these observations are from scraping the basics and keeping an ear on the ground otherwise, as there’s a lot to take in and I haven’t quite had the time.
There aren’t any real major changes to systems like FATEs, questing, raids and Extreme trials, which is good. Frankly, don’t fix what isn't broken; and to me, honestly, it’s completely fine so far that nothing extraordinarily revolutionary’s been introduced in these regards. Final Fantasy 14 already has a lot of systems going on that show clear changes as each expac progresses, and it’s good to be able to just grind that out. I found the FATEs’ Bicolor Gemstone swap jarring in Shadowbringers, but now that I’m used to it, it makes plenty of sense.
Crafting and gathering also seem to have mostly the same approach as most of the other systems: it’s largely fine, but the non-combat team clearly saw a bit of room for improvement. Endwalker saw the removal of high-quality gathered ingredients in favor of a chance of getting more of the same item to remove inventory bloat, and crafting has been tweaked in order to adapt. However, once you get used to this change, everything else falls into place. The storylines for different groups of Disciple of Land/Hand return in Old Sharlayan, and plenty of players are already crafting away their levequests, custom deliveries and good ol’ raid food. It’s actually pretty easy to level up to 90, it seems, if you’re persistent enough.
Of course, there are the new jobs: Sage and Reaper seem like an absolute blast so far. Particularly, Sage sounds like it’s a challenge to keep up with large damage, a predictive healer class in this new “barrier healer” characterization as opposed to a “pure healer” as one would know White Mage as. I’ll admit I didn’t chase it very much, as I tried it at the Media Tour and found it to be too complex, which means I send my kudos to anyone who’s mastered it already. I did get my hands on Reaper more in-depth, though, and it’s been a ton of fun, as is the story.
New classes aside, it seems the changes to the other jobs are relatively well received; as in, there haven’t been any major complaints, far as I’ve parsed from friends and the like. I don’t think I’m biased because I’m a Black Mage main. Though, I could be biased because I’m a Black Mage main and Paradox is such a good addition to my lineup and I’m pleased I never have to touch Enochian again. But basically, I haven’t heard any complaints so devastating that they’ve ruined a class.
Since starting this review, the first set of new raids, Pandaemonium, has also come out, and I’m personally loving them. It’s very Castlevania-influenced. Like, almost frighteningly so. However, I can see why some people aren’t a fan; they do drag on a little bit, the music’s very over-the-top orchestral (which is jarring after Endwalker’s nifty little tunes), and the bosses are quite forgettable. Hopefully the Savage fights, due to drop in about two weeks, should be better.
I’ve also gone ahead and managed to learn the new Extreme fights, which are a load of fun. My tip for those is to group up with someone who either shotcalls on Discord or is a very good Danger Dorito. If you know, you know. This is a great set of high-end fights to start off with if you’ve never done them before.
There is, of course, the elephant in the room regarding Endwalker’s release: server congestion. I don’t believe you can really talk about Endwalker without that, because that’s really been an unavoidable situation if you have any hope of playing the game. After all, this is a live service game.
The popularity of both Final Fantasy 14 and this new expansion drove already-high server waits up higher than ever; to this day, if you log in during your region’s “peak” hours (after work, typically), you may expect to wait in queue for at least 90 minutes. The new expansion did promise new servers in the Oceania region, too, which meant possibly new servers
I do agree that the ordeal is frustrating, and any praise regarding the development team comes with that caveat. As someone with a daytime job myself, it’s a sore point to return home and have to worry about whether or not I’ll be able to join my friends and continue enjoying what Endwalker has to offer. Those working even more traditional jobs than mine don’t have the luxury to adjust their schedules to the FFXIV “off-peak” hours.
That said, there is praise to be had. I don’t believe I’ve seen a response as extensive, far less generous as that of Creative Business Unit 3. As of last December 16th, the team has provided 21 days of extra subscription time to anyone that has an active subscription: seven initially, and an extra 14 as of last night. In-game, the timer on auto-demolitions for those who have estates has been halted. Most famously, the team halted sales altogether of new games, plus unallowed registration for the MMORPG’s now-infamous extended free trial.
Granted, FFXIV is a game that can afford this. It’s owned by Square-freakin’-Enix. Plus, in the past, the team has said “optional items” (glamours, emotes, mounts, etc.) goes directly back into FFXIV development, and I get the feeling we’re seeing a rainy day fund broken out.
It seems their apology fund doesn’t tap into their server funds, though as in the same latest server announcement, the team announced more servers are being negotiated. Creative Business Unit 3 claims they’ll let us know about server news in January. Perhaps next month there’ll be more to say. For now, the annoyances remain.
Also released was a patch fix for a well-known error, 2002, which turned out to be a 1.0 server lobby bug that carried over because the game had never grown so big as to really tick off this bug. Kudos for that fix, and also it’s kind of a hilarious one all things considered. But it did suck. Ah well.
Is Endwalker Worth The Travel?
I could spend a long time trying to justify the road to Endwalker, which a lot of fans roughly estimate to be about 200 hours of gameplay. Honestly, I almost spent 700 words on this justification. I’m not going to do that, though, because here’s the thing: if FFXIV isn’t for you, then Endwalker isn’t for you. That should be common sense in regards to a late-story MMORPG review, but I just mostly praised this expansion for over 2,000 words, and I feel like it comes with this caveat.
If the free trial, especially Heavensward (which really is that good), doesn’t leave you wanting to chase the Final Fantasy 14 saga to the end, then there’s no need to do so. Seriously, you don’t need to chase every good game out there. There’s no reason I should make you sit and make you play upwards of 200 hours for this, as good as I’m going to make it sound, if you’re not interested.
It’s especially the case because Endwalker repeatedly asks you to look back at what came before for your Warrior of Light, and it’s interesting to do so in a “meta” sense as well. Not the least of its considerations is how it needed to renovate its universe, per se, from a rocky 1.0 start; and if you ask any player overly invested in lore, you can find overwhelming carry-overs and soft retcons.
That said, if you believe you do want to see this through to Endwalker, then absolutely do it. I don’t know a single person in my life that hasn’t been positively changed by FFXIV in some regard. It’s a great game with a relatively lovely community and plenty to do. It’s well worth your time, until you’re ready to move onto the next game.
Endwalker isn’t a conclusion to the Final Fantasy 14 saga by any means, as the team has previously expressed. It’s an intense and heartfelt “thank-you” letter to the fans who have put time, money, and heart into the MMORPG all these years. This expansion is a lofty, ambitious epic that ties together story threads, characters, and powerful themes in a way that only a story so trusting of its players can pull off. It’s not perfect, but Endwalker’s tale feels so authentically conveyed, even despite how big FFXIV has become, that many players will feel like it might as well be.