We march heavens-ward.
It makes me feel old when I think of the fact that I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIV since mid-2010. It seems like it released just yesterday, and although its launch was anything but triumphant, the introduction of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in 2013 transformed the game into one of the most compelling MMORPGs in existence. It wasn’t without its shortcomings, but as a fan of Final Fantasy and especially Final Fantasy XI, I found myself overlooking its faults to enjoy its unique qualities. Apparently I wasn’t alone, as FFXIV has remained one of a very few healthy subscriber-based MMOs on the market.
Just under two years after launch FFXIV has received its first expansion: Heavensward. It is said to improve upon the original experience with all-new content and an increased level cap. As a fan with four level capped jobs (Paladin, Ninja, Dragoon, and Black Mage), I was sold the moment it was announced. Beginning my adventure on Early Access, I quickly found myself immersed in the experience, and have since leveled Astrologian to 60 and Dark Knight to 54.
Heavensward makes a great first impression with its zone design. The first zone you enter is Ishgard, the expansion’s capital city, an area with beautiful architecture blanketed in snowfall. As you step out into the world, you’ll notice that FFXIV’s new areas are no longer laden with tunnel-like paths that invoke claustrophobia. The zones have been designed to invite exploration with more traditional open-world structure, although there are still loading screens that separate zones. Several of the new zones, especially The Sea of Clouds and Azys Lla, are the best that the game has to offer, far surpassing the best of A Realm Reborn.
As you venture from 50 to the new level cap of 60, you engage in a story that moves directly forward from where A Realm Reborn left off. As a matter of fact, before you can enjoy anything that Heavensward has to offer, first you must complete the level 1 to 50 story through 2.55. This is a design decision that Producer Naoki Yoshida states is meant to ensure that all players digest the story and are up-to-speed before playing the expansion. While for most players it’s of no concern given FFXIV’s story-driven nature, those who play for other reasons and aren’t interested in completing over 25 hours of main story missions at level 50 may be turned away before they ever get to Heavensward's content. This requirement isn’t stated anywhere on the product, so some new and returning players will likely be in for a surprise.
The story delivered in Heavensward has a wealth of exciting moments and plot-critical progression. It features a long-waged rivalry between the people of Ishgard and iconic dragons that you may recognize from other Final Fantasy games. It does contain its share of lulls, but interweaves major story components often enough to keep you hooked. These components usually come in the form of the introduction of a new dungeon, or a battle between you and seven others against one of the two new primals—Ravana is amazing—introduced in Heavensward. The duty experience is truly outstanding, with dungeons such as The Vault and The Great Gubal Library being rich in atmosphere and equipped with memorable boss battles. Grouping with others to complete content is rarely this satisfying in an MMO.
The leveling experience benefits greatly from the occasional surge of excitement and introduction of group-related content, as the other means of acquiring experience is often times monotonous. The large zones and low experience rewards for FATEs has resulted in FATE grinding becoming an irrelevant way to level up. Sadly, many players have returned to North Thanalan for its dense population of rewarding FATEs, a testament to the poor design of Heavensward.
Made worse, the quest design in Heavensward hasn’t evolved whatsoever from A Realm Reborn. Nearly every quest relies on you simply clicking on objects in the game world or killing enemies in standard fashion. While many other MMOs have found ways to usher diversity to the questing experience with unique instruments and world interactions, FFXIV seems content with dwelling in a dated habitat. The story will play a large role in whether or not you remain interested during the journey.
The large, multi-level zones coupled with quests sending you back and forth between long distances makes you crave the ability to fly in each zone. Typically, after completing around 80% of a zone, you'll meet the quest requirements to be able to fly—you'll also need to gather 10 aether currents. Flight has been implemented in a thoughtful manner, allowing you to easily take to the skies and cover large distances in short order. Being able to fly before level cap is welcomed.
Heavensward features some of the best storytelling in MMO history, delivering a thunderous presentation that brings the cinematics, characters, and gameplay together in a way that few online games are able to. The final moments highlight the talent of the new voice actors, as well as the expansion’s strong musical score. Assuming you are able to deal with the occasional drudgery of leveling, you are rewarded with a climax that you won't soon forget.
The three new jobs bring welcome diversity to the FFXIV climate. The Dark Knight is an appealing tank that uses a greatsword and magic attacks to draw the attention of enemies. The Astrologian is best served as a buffer, enhancing the actions of others with an RNG-based card system while providing beneficial healing to allies. The Machinist fits a role similar to the Bard, supporting teammates while dishing moderate DPS to enemies. The Dark Knight and Astrologian in particular are well-designed, differentiating themselves from existing jobs and equipped with visually prominent skills.
Unfortunately, all three jobs are presently in a bad spot in terms of balance, outperformed by other jobs at their same role. Speaking of which, balance isn't FFXIV's strong suit right now. For many players—sorry, Bards—it's going to be a frustrating initial month of running Alexander (the first raid) while waiting for Square Enix to sort things out. If only there was a beta to pre-test everything.
Several of the issues that affected A Realm Reborn remain, and they regularly get in the way of fun. For one, Duties—FFXIV’s name for instanced group activities—are still host on an isolated server. While running dungeons and raids you aren’t able to receive or send private messages to anyone. Also, you can’t queue up for a duty with a chocobo companion out, which can be problematic when queues are lengthy. Actually, you can’t perform many interactions with your handy chocobo companion out, such as utilizing porters or accepting invitations from a group.
In addition, the network side of FFXIV hasn’t been improved much if at all since A Realm Reborn. Many players—including myself and others on California's Verizon FiOS—find themselves with routes that leave them with a higher ping than they should, and significant spike lag during primetime (the only solution I’ve found is to pay for a proxy service). At least the expansion's launch was relatively sound.
For what Heavensward gets wrong, it gets many things right, especially when it comes to presentation. This is still the beautiful MMO that Final Fantasy fans have been posting screenshots of for years. It's just now there's even more to marvel at, with greater zone diversity and increasingly gorgeous armor and weapon design. Beauty across the board has been improved with support for DirectX 11, too. This great presentation is supported by a tremendously well-conceived musical score. It's easy to be drawn into the experience.
In most regards, Heavensward is an outstanding improvement upon the original Final Fantasy XIV experience. Its world has been expanded with new areas, enemies, and group content that surpass much of what the original game offered. Leveling suffers from repetitive quest design and its zones are troublesome to traverse until you can fly, but these issues are soon left in history as you plunge into Heavensward’s magnificent story conclusion, and engage in its wonderfully composed group content.