In the early hours of Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion, Endwalker, a character listens to a tale of the many ordeals her friends had gone through while she was away. Trembling with emotion, she says through tears, “It was worth it. It was all worth it.” I’m maybe halfway through Endwalker’s story and at level 88 out of the new level cap of 90 so far, but that’s about how I’m feeling right now, too.
Somehow, Final Fantasy XIV only continues to get better after its 2013 reboot, and the stories I’ve witnessed over the last two days do much to justify the eight years I’ve spent with Eorzea’s merry band of adventurers. Having gasped, cried, and laughed my way through much of the main quest, I’m ready to believe I’ll still be saying all those hours were worth it when I reach Endwalker’s conclusion sometime this weekend. (But let’s not jump to that conclusion just yet: I’m still burned by Season 8 of Game of Thrones.) I do wish I were a little farther along, but Square Enix’s decision to delay the official launch of Endwalker, combined with conflicts in my own holiday schedule, means I still have a lot of walking to do before I reach the end of my leveling journey.
By some measures I certainly could have been further behind, but luckily I’ve dodged most of the stunningly long queue times that have been shared recently on social media. I log on early and play late, so the worst I’ve seen for my home server of Ultros is around 1,500, save for one incident when the whole server briefly went down at prime time. Afterward, I managed to log on while the queue was still at a relatively agreeable 2,000, but some members of my free company (or “guild,” if you prefer) had to wade through an 8,500-person queue for hours. I thought about logging off then just so I could get video footage of that number for the final review but decided against it. No regrets.
At least it’s easy to see why so many people are scrambling to log on. 2019’s Shadowbringers expansion definitively proved that FFXIV deserves to be taken as seriously as any mainline Final Fantasy game, and from what I’ve seen of Endwalker’s story so far, it’s well on track to be Shadowbringers’ equal. (I currently hesitate to say it surpasses it just yet, although several members of my free company have no qualms about making such claims.)
Square Enix seems to have interpreted Shadowbringers’ success as proof that its players are interested in a good story above all else, and it shows in Endwalker. Frankly, I’ve spent most of the last two days sitting through cutscenes – I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I probably only went into combat around 15 times from levels 80 to 83 aside from my daily dungeon roulettes, and even then I was usually only tasked with dispatching a handful of popup enemies on my way to somewhere else. The total running time of these cutscenes already outpaces entire seasons of some popular TV shows, and now, at level 88, I get the feeling that I’m not even halfway done with the story.
While this might sound excessive on paper, it actually largely works in practice. It’s such a flex because no other MMORPG could pull this off so successfully. The best storylines of its competitors often earn damning praise along the lines of “It’s good for an MMO,” but Final Fantasy XIV – especially in its latest expansions – manages to deliver an ongoing story that even outclasses many stellar single-player games. And although you have the option to skip over some of Endwalker’s cutscenes, I have to wonder why you’re really playing FFXIV in the first place if you do.
As a reminder, unless you’ve paid for a booster from the cash shop, you can only progress through FFXIV’s story if you’ve played through the entire main storyline that came before it. Square Enix knows that if you’ve made it this far – literally hundreds of hours later – you’re invested in these characters. And with the phenomenal writing of Natsuko Ishikawa back on board after Shadowbringers, Square Enix is making sure that journey has been worth it.
In Endwalker, I’m seeing plotlines that have been in motion for the better part of a decade resolved and extended and in ways that leave me craving more. As but one example, Endwalker features an annoyingly one-note antagonist known from other expansions who tends to leave me rolling my eyes whenever he appears. Here, for the span of an hour or two, I was truly terrified of him in a quest that turned FFXIV’s usual dynamic on its head.
At the most basic, Endwalker’s tale centers on FFXIV’s main characters as they continue to investigate forboding towers popping up across the planet while trying to thwart the Ascians in their goal to destroy the world. The story follows Shadowbringers’ so organically that I sometimes feel it’s better described as a massive patch expanding that story and answers many of the questions it raised – perhaps too well, at that. In fact, I’m a little worried, as the story so far implies that all the constants that have defined FFXIV story until now are rolling to a halt, which raises the question: Where does FFXIV go from here? World of Warcraft faced a similar ordeal in the aftermath of its otherwise excellent Legion expansion, and at this point I think it’s safe to say that it’s still struggling to recover.
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Part of Endwalker’s narrative strength lies in the fact that there are simply some great moments between key characters here. The story so far emphasizes the timely importance of working together for the common good, but it’s also mature enough to step back from rah-rah optimism and show the darker sides of that approach. Without spilling spoilers, though, I’ll say that I’m currently questioning if certain characters are being used to best effect, but I’ll wait until I’ve reached the story’s end before making that judgment.
But more importantly, Endwalker’s cutscene-heavy approach works so well because it avoids some of the ridiculous scenarios MMORPGs like World of Warcraft often come up with to justify slaughtering everything in sight. It succeeds in part because it lets us see these characters as real people who have believable spats with their parents or who refuse to believe there’s no ulterior motive for some acts of kindness. Mindless fetch quests are almost entirely absent; Endwalker instead is (perhaps overly) fond of quests in which you follow NPCs without being noticed. When you fight, there’s usually a good reason for it. When it does ask you to search for something, it feels necessary.
And to my shock, Endwalker consistently comes up with new ways to keep all this interesting. Just when I think everything’s going to be okay for our little band of heroes for a bit, Endwalker drops a twist that sometimes leaves me saying, “Oh, damn!” It’s like Square Enix is daring you to skip out of some of its 20-minute-plus cutscenes without seeing what happens at the end. If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll leave while seeing happy, smiling faces and reenter the world to find yourself smack in the middle of a calamity with no idea of how you got there.
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So much happens in Endwalker, in fact, that mentioning any of the new zones aside from widely known locales like Sharlayan and Thavnair feels like a spoiler. (I’m honestly a little stressed thinking about how I’m going to make a good video review without ruining too many surprises.) It’s almost as though Square Enix looked at a list of places that had been mentioned in the story but never visited and decided to tick all those boxes. As always, FFXIV managed to make good use of its aging graphical foundations to make these new zones impressive, but as befits an MMORPG that’s heavier on the RPG side than MMO side, it paints the best understanding of these locales through interactions with their inhabitants.
I’m excited to get back to them and continue enjoying the unforgettable world Square Enix has created here. I’m especially fond of all the quality of life changes, including a less annoying rotation for my Samurai’s AOE abilities and the inclusion of minimaps for city aethernet networks. I still need to finish the story, and I haven’t had a chance to try out the new Reaper and Sage combat jobs yet aside from grouping with people who play them in dungeons.
But for now, I’m happy to see that Endwalker’s heavy emphasis on spinning a good yarn hasn’t come at the expense of making dungeons and trials too easy. I’ll be back with my full thoughts about Endwalker in the next week or two once I earn the right to fly through the new zones, level crafting skills, and try to figure out just what the heck is going on with the ability rotation for the new Sage job. Judging from the threads I’ve read, you have to be a real sage to play it.