The living role-playing game has become somewhat of a myth of the past. Smaller, faster and more action-packed hybrid role-playing games such as Warframe, Destiny and The Division 2 have all pushed aside the classic MMORPGs that once ruled the gaming world. Of course, the MMORPG giant World of Warcraft is still very much alive, but it's not flourishing in the way it used to. Despite a very dedicated fan base, The Elder Scrolls Online has also been suffering a bit in recent years. The genre is undoubtedly slowing down, but one game that seems to stand tall through it all is Final Fantasy XIV - one of the few online role-playing games to not only stand its ground amidst the storm that's wrecking its competition but that also appears to be ever-growing. The latest expansion, Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, builds upon this optimism and delivers one of the most well thought out stories in the game's history. It also offers an exciting new, expanded world to explore and some additions to the game's mechanics.
Eorzea, the source of the universe in which Final Fantasy XIV takes place, is on the brink of war. The empire Garlemald and the Alliance of Free Nations have formed a strong presence on the battlefield with the help of the newly-liberated Eastern States, showing that they're not to be messed with. Meanwhile, the player-controlled character, the Warrior of Light, has been taken to a new world, The First, to avert an interdimensional disaster. The impression of the main story in this expansion is, at first, that it acts as a pause in the narrative to prolong the game's lifespan. However, it soon becomes clear that the events in The First are carefully integrated into the story of Garlemald, the mysterious Ascians, and even the gods Zodiark and Hydaelyn and their continued struggle.
Stormblood ended up falling a bit flat on its metaphorical face with a number of major events being compressed into short stories (the liberation of Ala Mhigo and the launch of the war against Garlemald, specifically), and its areas did not offer enough to remain interesting. Square Enix seems to be aware of this, as Shadowbringers not only offers colourful areas such as Il Mheg and Lakeland, a brand new soundtrack where distorted guitar tunes are played instead of bombastic orchestral arrangements, and a story that goes beyond what we'd expect. The expansion turns the tide narrative-wise, portraying the worship of Hydaelyn and the light as something a lot more sinister than initially thought, and ends the Warriors of Darkness story arc that began between Heavensward and Stormblood. We'd go so far as to say that the Shadowbringers story is one of the best in an online role-playing game since the gilded times of World of Warcraft.
A number of classic characters also get the chance to really shine. The twins Alisae and Alphinaud aside, Urianger and Y'shtola are pushed to the forefront and are back in roles showcasing their magical ability and knowledge really well. We were especially drawn to the more rebellious attitude that the latter displayed. In addition, Shadowbringers also manages to add to the game in a way Stormblood never did - there aren't only one or even two villains, there are three and they're all well-written. These villains all have depth and the player can, in many ways, understand their actions and motives. We quickly found a favourite in general Ran'jit, a war veteran with incredible abilities, who in many ways reminded us of a wise but arrogant kung-fu B-movie villain as he kept his hands tucked behind his back and showed off some wild Matrix-like moves in battle. What Stormblood didn't offer, Shadowbringers does and the extended story coming with future 5.x updates is yet to release.
An extension that only adds a single story would not be quite enough to save the game from its stagnation, however, there's plenty more content to be found. The job system has been given a major overhaul beyond the addition of the tank role (Gunbreaker) and the new ranged DPS role (Dancer) and has been improved in almost every way. We'd rather not call it simplified, as there's enough mechanical depth for each role that it never gets tedious or boring to play. It has also become easier to separate the good players from the bad as a bystander. We played as a tank character primarily and this role has become more manageable, especially as a Paladin, after the 5.0 update. For example, a number of situational abilities, such as Sword Oath and Flash have gained more dynamic substitutions in Iron Will and Total Eclipse. To add to this, the Monk role counters the "simplification" statement some have made. The Monk can run in at the end of a battle with a skill-rotation that uses an opening with no less than 20 abilities that must be used in an awkward order in relation to how they combine. However, after the changes that took place in Stormblood, we'd say that Monk deserved some love.
The new classes Gunbreaker and Dancer are not as satisfying to play as we had assumed they'd be. Dancer takes over the Bard's DPS role as the primary handler of buffs instead of pure damage, but the class lacks exciting opportunities. The Gunbreaker is visually different but otherwise much like most other tank classes. We should state that we have not had the opportunity to play around with the classes through the entire endgame to give a set-in-stone opinion and there are probably a lot of talented players who have found a fun ability rotation to use that we haven't discovered, so don't write off the two new jobs just yet. The new jobs, of course, have plenty of glorious armour sets for you to deck them out, so visually they are just as appealing. Shadowbringers also adds the Trust system (Final Fantasy XI fans will most likely nod in recognition). The system adds the ability for you to collect a number of computer-controlled characters to take on dungeons that match the level of these characters. During the main story, you even get the opportunity to take some famous characters such as Thancred, Urianger and Alphinaud down into the unexplored depths.
We weren't exactly thrilled about the concept at first, but the more we explored it, the more we realised that instead of killing the player-to-player interaction of the game, it actually helped new players to understand mechanics and team composition, and it offered a space to try out new things. You also won't risk getting an angry comment thrown at you for making a mistake in battle, which is nice. The Trust system also adds a very interesting manager mini-game to the barracks you are assigned as part of your chosen Grand Company. Suddenly it makes sense to select specific teammates and train them in specific teams, as you can now lead them on dungeon expeditions across Eorzea and The First. Previously it was just a way to get some extra Seals but now it actually makes sense. As such, after the release of Shadowbringers, Final Fantasy XIV is bursting with content in every possible way.
However, there's something missing. Square has eliminated specific job-based missions in favour of role-based missions. In the past, Paladin, for example, had a story that coincided with the main story from Level 1 through Level 70. In Shadowbringers, this has been removed in favour of so-called Role Quests that take your role into account instead of your chosen job. The Paladin can now only partake in the story that addresses the tank role. From a logistical point of view, the changes are understandable, but as players, we can't help but feel like the amazing storytelling will be lost a bit. These new stories do, however, explore the fate of a favourite of ours, the Warriors of Darkness.
As a package, Shadowbringers adds to the changes Stormblood put into motion and offers new, challenging (and very good) dungeons and trials, an interdimensional narrative and a general, solid overhaul to the game that should stand the test of time. We are sold and any fan of online role-playing should get excited. Hit pause on your World of Warcraft subscription for a moment, and take a trip over to Eorzea and The First, at least until WoW Classic launches. This is where things are happening in the genre right now and there's more to come with the next patch updates, adding New Game Plus and with the crossover raid with NieR: Automata coming up. There's never been a better time for MMORPG fans to embrace the title of Warrior of Light. Will we see you on the battlefield? We hope so.