“Final Fantasy XIV is the best story in video games!”
“It’s actually probably the best game ever made!”
We all have a friend who says this endlessly, or at least you’ve seen it repeated online enough to tell you it’s a running theme when ever this game gets mentioned. What they tend to gloss over, or at least underplay, is the time investment required to get to what they can’t stop talking about. I have been experiencing both the good and the bad firsthand in the lead up to Shadowbringers, the game’s third major expansion and let me tell you it’s been quite the journey.
My quest began back in 2016, where I first started hearing rumblings that Heavensward, the first expansion to the game was really fucking good. I had some time to kill so I downloaded the game and jumped it.
I didn’t even make it to level 20.
This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, I overthought my class selection and picked a tank because I know MMOs and wanted fast queue times for group content. The problem was I underestimated my dislike for boring melee classes and how slow the game doles out skills that make your job fun to play, so after a few hours of basically auto attacking with the occasional button press I was bored to tears.
Secondly, the only other MMO I’ve played is WoW. This matters because of the nature of the genre, you really get super familiar with all the mechanics, UI set up and feature set of the game. Stepping into an MMO you’re aren’t familiar with is kinda like stepping into an alternate universe, you recognise the broad strokes but the details are all different. Everything that was different felt wrong, and only time will adjust you to it. All of this added up to me bouncing off the game and I wrote it off as not worth the admission fee to get to the good stuff.
Snap forward to late 2018 and once again I start feeling the itch. In the years since I first tried it, FFXIV had only gotten better. My brother had picked up the game and had nothing but good things to say, and combined with the building hype for the upcoming expansion, Shadowbringers I figured it was a good time to try again. I rolled a new character and this time picked a job that spoke to me more, the Summoner.
I made it to level 40.
Double the progress! This is where we start getting to the core of the issue of the base game, it’s just not very interesting. I don’t think the story of stopping the evil empire from invading your lands is bad, it’s just the sheer amount of groundwork they have to lay during it that gets tedious. Not only are you introduced to all the characters in your organisation with their own motivations and backstories, but also the complex political landscape across the continent you’re defending. All of these factors become super interesting in the expansion’s storylines, but when you’re just having exposition thrown at you it’s overwhelming.
What really stopped me progressing around this level however, was that fact I started needing to grind between story quests. Up until this point I was on a decent roll hopping from quest to quest, but now was forced to find other means to level up. Any FFXIV player will tell you there’s one way to level up; dungeons, dungeons and more dungeons. Side quests, especially in the early game, are poorly designed and unrewarding, so best to be ignored. Queuing up for a bunch of dungeons with my still pretty limited spell rotation was enough to break me, and once again I put the game down.
But this wasn’t the end of my journey! A few months later I was informed that the pre-order edition of Shadowbringers came with an exp boosting accessory designed to speed you towards the new content and armed with that I again jumped back in, sticking with my summoner. I powered my way through to level 50 and after two dungeons with very long unskippable cutscenes and saw credits signalling the end of the first major questline.
I excitedly sent my brother a message, “I saw credits! Now I get to the good stuff right?” Wrong. I was vaguely aware there was some post level cap story missions designed to be played in chunks while waiting for expansions to be released, but figured it was either optional or very minor. In reality there is in fact a required quest line almost as long as the journey to level 50, comprised of some of the most uninspired, run from point to point and back again quest design I’ve ever seen. Whenever I was asked the much meme’d upon request “Pray return to the Walking Sands,” a tiny bit of soul was lost to me forever. I’m honestly glad I kept myself intentionally in the dark about quite how bleak this portion of the game is, because after looking online there are countless forum posts lamenting how bad this part of the game is, and I may have just thrown in the towel for the third time then and there.
But my brother was pretty vague about how long it would take, so along I trudged. After what felt like forever, I checked my current playtime. Over 100 hours! I sent my brother a screenshot and told him what quest I was on. “Oh yeah you’re about half way through,” he told me. I couldn’t believe it. Over 100 hours in and I still had a sizable chunk of quests to do before the good stuff. Now, there is some AFK time added to that, and I certainly wasn’t playing at 100% efficiency, but even if you really speed through the whole thing (which would involve missing most of the story in the process) it’s still asking far more from players than is fair.
As doom and gloom as this all is, there are some positives. This is where the game starts laying the groundwork for the later expansions, and there are moments where it shows signs of the nuanced, engaging storytelling that is to come. There is also both a level and story skip item you can buy from the real money store for varying prices, depending how far ahead you want to jump. This didn’t appeal to me as it’s an inelegant solution and a part of me was desperate to overcome this game that had broken me two times prior.
So I gritted my teeth, threw YouTube up on my other monitor and got it done. Like a light at the end of the tunnel I saw the final (dope) cutscene and entered Heavensward. After playing through almost all of the rest of the main story, it’s totally worth pushing through. There really is a huge increase in quality in storytelling when you reach the expansion content, mainly because they can focus on a small part of the world and tell more personal stories. I’m continually surprised by how often and effectively they throw shades of grey across characters and events of the plot. I’ve found myself feeling pangs of sympathy towards almost all of the antagonists I’ve faced off against, and nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems.
It’s a breath of fresh air compared to recent storytelling in MMO’s like WoW, where they can’t even write a Horde vs Alliance expansion without casting someone as a comically evil villain. Probably the biggest seal of approval I can give the storytelling is that I’d even recommend it to someone who hates MMO’s and only wants to play the main story. Shadowbringers even implemented a system where you can take your NPC buddies into dungeons with you, bringing the required interaction with other real people to an all time low.
It’s kind of perversely appropriate that in a genre famed for the common caveat, “play for 20 hours then it gets good,” that an MMO in the same space should require four or five times that. I can totally understand why it could be a hurdle people just don’t want to overcome, whether that be from time invested or putting down the cash for the skip items. It would be great if they can find a way to go back and squash the post-50 questline into something more manageable, but I understand the endless desire for new content in games like these puts a strain on resources. (Note: Hot off the presses the FFXIV developers have just announced they are officially going to look at condensing this portion of the main quest, so hopefully this becomes a non-issue in the coming months.) Just know your friends aren’t lying to you about how good it gets, and even though the game broke me almost three times, I’m happy I got here.