Final Fantasy XIV is truly a success story for the ages. After a disastrous launch back in 2010 – albeit one that still has its adherents to this day – producer Naoki Yoshida was brought on board to salvage the sinking ship. His solution was to revamp the entire FFXIV experience, turning it into something more akin to other modern MMORPGs but with a Final Fantasy-themed twist. The transition was rampantly successful, with the resulting product, A Realm Reborn, turning the game’s fortunes around in a single swoop.
Critical acclaim would follow, with three excellent expansions (well, two excellent expansions and one pretty good one) following on from A Realm Reborn. Of those expansions, 2019’s Shadowbringers is the one that looms large over the whole endeavour. Shadowbringers set the standard for Final Fantasy storytelling; it’s often regarded as one of the best stories in the entire series. With that in mind, new expansion Endwalker has some pretty big shoes to fill. Can it live up to the legacy of Shadowbringers or is it destined to be another Stormblood?
The story opens with the Scions of the Seventh Dawn taking a trip to the far-off land of Sharlayan in an attempt to convince its scholars to help them tackle the oncoming Final Days, a foretold apocalypse that will rend the world asunder. Sharlayan’s scholars refuse to help, but they seem to have a secret purpose of their own. Meanwhile, the Warrior of Light – that’s you – has their own battles to attend to, including one that will pit them against an old adversary threatening to undo everything they’ve achieved thus far.
I won’t spoil any further story details, but suffice it to say that if you don’t have any investment in Final Fantasy XIV’s story, you won’t get anything out of Endwalker. Square Enix is currently selling level skip potions that allow you to jump to level 80 so you can experience Endwalker afresh, but buying these is very much the wrong attitude. It’s best to think of XIV as a story experience first and an MMORPG second; this isn’t a World of Warcraft grindathon, it’s a lengthy, rich narrative game that just happens to have other players in it. If that doesn’t appeal to you, Endwalker won’t change your mind.
For the faithful, however, Endwalker delivers some pretty staggering payoffs. There are some unexpected surprises in the story that will knock you for six. Without wishing to spoil, Endwalker’s final area reduced me to a juddering wreck; I had to walk away from the game for a few minutes once I pieced together what it was trying to do. If you do have investment in the Scions’ journey, then Endwalker’s finale will ruin you as it did me. The writing is going from strength to strength in FFXIV’s expansions, and it will be interesting to see where Square Enix goes next.
From a gameplay perspective, there are some fun new changes, too. Several jobs have had their skills and traits consolidated, making them a little less cluttered and a little more fun to play. The new Sage and Reaper jobs slot in nicely next to the existing lineup. Sage is a shield-based healer with lots of mitigation and preparation skills, but not much in the way of sudden panic heals. Reaper, meanwhile, is a hyper-agile scythe-wielding DPS class that can zip around the battlefield and dish out damage on a devastating scale. They’re both enjoyable and interesting to play, and they add a lot to FFXIV’s job canon.
The new areas are satisfying and fun to explore, too. There are eight new dungeons in total, as well as raids that are continually being updated and added to. These dungeons don’t amount to much more than straight lines punctuated by boss battles; one of the minor disappointments of Endwalker is that its dungeons aren’t a little more exploration-based. It’s understandable, though, given that they have to accommodate the endgame grind, and battling bosses is satisfying thanks to a range of unique and fun mechanics to grapple with.
If I have a gripe with Endwalker – and I have to try to come up with one, otherwise this review is essentially just going to be a hagiographic love-in – it’s the cutscenes. Don’t get me wrong; Final Fantasy XIV’s cutscenes are extremely well-written, well-acted pieces of drama that further the narrative in satisfying ways. It’s just that there are so, so many of them. This isn’t really a game you can dip in and out of. It’s a game Square Enix seems to want you to play for hours at a time, soaking up the rich dialogue and character detail in its cutscenes. This is fine, but the sheer number of cutscenes does start to weigh on you after a while.
There’s one aspect of Endwalker that deserves special mention, and that’s the music. Composer Masayoshi Soken was recovering from cancer while writing the soundtrack for Endwalker, and it’s an absolute triumph. The music in this expansion is excellent; Soken has outdone himself even above and beyond the brilliant Shadowbringers expansion. Almost every piece of music is memorable, and there are some clever subversions and twists on classic themes (Garlemald, anyone?). Soken is really shaping up to be a talent equivalent to (if not, whisper it, superior to) Nobuo Uematsu.
By and large, Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker is a triumph. It’s an excellent conclusion to the Hydaelyn arc of the MMO, and with that wrapped up neatly, it’ll be interesting to see where Naoki Yoshida and his merry band get up to next. If I had any say, I would like to see the successor to Endwalker go somewhere a little more light-hearted and adventurous. Endwalker is an emotionally devastating rollercoaster ride, and it would be lovely to see XIV get back to its adventurous roots of derring-do and heroism. Whatever this team does next, though, Endwalker fills me with faith that it will be brilliant.