(SPOILER ALERT: While at first, I wanted to write this as a non-spoiler roundup and retrospective on my time so far in Shadowbringers, I couldn’t do it in a meaningful way. Therefore, I’ve decided instead that this will be a spoiler post. If you haven’t finished the main scenario quest of FFXIV and plan to, I would encourage you revisit this post once you have!)
In patch 3.1 of Final Fantasy XIV, the first major patch of Heavensward, the game introduces us fully to the Warriors of Darkness, a group of adventurers from the First. The quest series that introduces them feels awkward, almost out of place. It is the payoff of a post-credits teaser from the MSQ in 3.0, a moon scene with Elidibus, chief Ascian, talking to Ardbert, the leading Warrior of Darkness.
The patch story was slightly less than expected – when I played through it in 2017 on my way to finishing Heavensward content in order to start progressing through Stormblood, it felt slightly lackluster to me. The big payoff to the quest chain is that Minfilia, leader of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, is offered to the first by Hydaelyn, and at the time of that patch, that was the last we saw of Minfilia. The struggle they faced was somewhat highlighted, but in a way that suggested that it was done and dealt with offscreen.
Boy, was that a wrong read.
Shadowbringers, the newest expansion for Final Fantasy XIV, does something I didn’t really expect it to do. While I was excited for the expansion – quite excited, actually – I had tempered my expectations in several ways. I expected a good story – but I was wary of the world-hopping core concept. I expected a high standard of strategic gameplay, slower paced from what I have grown used to in World of Warcraft, but more thoughtful and interesting for it. I expected a visual powerhouse with gorgeous landscapes and surreal fantasy elements.
However, all of my expectations were tempered by a common phrase that those of who love MMOs often use – that it would be “great for an MMO.” I think we all do this subconsciously as MMO fans, but the perception exists that individual elements of an MMO cannot be as good as a standard game – that in order to become an MMO, some elements of quality must be stripped down or reduced.
Shadowbringers is, in nearly all regards, great – period. It transcends the MMO “expectation” to deliver what is, in my opinion, one of the best Final Fantasy stories in nearly a decade. It’s MMO fundamentals – dungeon gameplay, raid design (via trials at least as the Eden raid is not open for another week and a half as I write this and YorHA Dark Apocalypse does not release until 5.1 in the fall), and class balance – are mostly skillfully executed (we’ll revisit the class topic in a future post). The presentation of its world is masterful, with gorgeously varied landscapes that do a lot to sell the core theme of the expansion, with the everpresent Light of the First bathing the world in an unnatural, oversaturated yellow that serves as a horrible reminder of the threat to the world.
Mostly, though, today’s post is going to focus on the story, and what a story it is.
Shadowbringers is the absolute pinnacle of MMO storytelling, as far as I am concerned, and it beats a lot of single player games I have played in my life in terms of the emotional investment, raw humanity, and impact on display. Before diving into the Shadowbringers specific elements I want to really hit on here, it is worth saying this – Shadowbringers relies on elements of plot established years ago in the game, with elements from as far back as the original A Realm Reborn (and even a bit of 1.x, primarily those elements added in through the ARR story and retelling of events). The truth of the matter is that opinions of the MSQ in the earlier parts of the game vary, but I think it is worth saying this – my opinion of the 2.x quests in the story is that there are a lot of moments where the story drags, and where the gameplay tied to that story is tedious and chore-like. It is a point where many people start to check out even if they are invested in the early part of the game, and I know it is where I checked out until my interest in the Stormblood content pushed me through to finish it. Despite saying this, I will also suggest not using a story skip potion to bypass it – having this information pays off and makes Shadowbringers even more poignant and interesting. It won’t necessarily ruin your enjoyment, and I think that the Shadowbringers story is strong enough to stand alone, but I would suggest playing the full ARR MSQ, at your own pace, and watching the cutscenes and various bits of lore presented.
As for Shadowbringers, a worry I had early on is that the MSQ would drag because of the need to introduce the new world of the First, to fill us in on the minutiae of the world’s history, the Flood of Light, and to bring our role in this conflict into focus. It is true that you’ll likely hit level 71 just by talking with NPCs and gaining this worldbuilding, but it doesn’t feel drawn out or abridged – it is just the right amount of content. To summarize – the First is about to be destroyed by the overabundance of Light and the complete absence of Darkness from the world, and we learn that the reason this is important to us is that as residents of the Source (the main world from which the thirteen shards including the First were derived), the mechanism that maintains the balance of the worlds would flood ours with the aether of this death, with catastrophic events to ensue – this is, in fact, how the lore-based Calamities happen.
With that understanding, and the knowledge that our fellow Scions have all wound up here as well via the passing-out they did in the 4.x patch cycle stories, we set out to find them, starting with the Leveilleur twins. A fun mechanism to alleviate the congestion the game had with Stormblood – the search for Alphinaud and Alisaie takes place in two zones and you can choose to do one or the other first, naturally splitting the player base in two, although you will do both prior to moving on in the story. Alphinaud’s story sets up the human aspect of the story – taking place outside of the apocalypse-awaiting rich city Eulmore, we see the paupers begging to gain entrance to the city for protection from the Sin Eaters, while being fed small loaves of food called Meol. It is a grotesque system that leaves those in the shadow of the city in perpetual hope and despair cycles – desperately wanting to be in Eulmore for the protection and comfort it offers, but being constantly turned down, fed the scraps, and waiting for their next chance to hopefully gain admission. We also see the downside for those given access to the city – you’re subject to the whims and mercies of the people you serve, who will often dismiss you in brutal ways, taking delight in throwing people from the high-cities balconies to the water below to die. Worse still – the hints that “while many enter Eulmore, none ever leave.” We are then introduced to Lord Vauthry, a tempermental obese man whose appearance indicates a lack of humanity, but is able to control the Sin Eaters (making Eulmore the safest place in Norvrandt currently). We see his evil, as he forces a character we met in prior questing to carve his own flesh as punishment for his falsified admission to the city, and when we save him, he has a literal temper tantrum, putting us on his enemies list and siccing the might of the Eulmore army on us.
Alisaie’s story has a similar tail, focusing on the human conditions under the thumb of the Sin Eaters, while showing more of what the Sin Eaters are. We learn humans can turn to them, and watch as a character we grow close to during the questing in the zone care for those turning by poisoning them, giving them a peaceful death rather than the painful, sickening transformation into Sin Eaters. We then see this character murdered by a Sin Eater, turning her into one, and leading to one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen in any game, much less an MMO, and creating a theme of the kinds of human stories we are going to see throughout the expansion.
I won’t be summarizing much of the rest of the story, but I want to stop here for a moment to emphasize that these quests do much to build the lore of the world. Humans are effectively checked out of their fight against the Sin Eaters and the Light, as the hopelessness of the situation at hand has given them no reason to fight. The early lore shows us brutally, as people are continually cut down, fail to gain any ground against the Light, and are beaten free of any hope they may have had.
With the early part of our team assembled, we now have the fundamentals we need for the core plot – the Crystal Exarch, master of the Crystal Tower in the First, has brought us here with purpose – our power as the Warrior of Light means that we should be able to slay the Lightwardens, the most powerful Sin Eaters, and do something no other can – absorb their aether. When killed without this power available, the aether simply possesses another person, transforming them and delivering a new Lightwarden, maintaining their power. Our goal through the game, with nearly every dungeon’s end-boss and the two leveling trials on offer presenting us with these foes, is simple – we kill them, absorb their aether, and through that, restore darkness to the zones they were warding over. This serves as a fun mechanic, as progressing the story unlocks day/night cycles in each zone (and also means screenshots of the zones at night are spoilers!) and through this act, restore hope and the will to fight to the people of Norvrandt.
Throughout the story, Ardbert, leader of those old Warriors of Darkness, fills us in on what happened in this world after the patch 3.1 events. Minfilia stabilized the Flood of Light, leading to the impressive looking wall on the southside of Ahm Araeng, and it cost the lives of the Warriors of Darkness – except for Ardbert. His spirit lingers with us, not quite dead, but basically a ghost, waiting to fulfill what Minfilia said would be his true purpose.
As we kill Lightwardens, we meet more of our Scions, until eventually, the whole crew including Minfilia (as a little girl due to a reincarnation cycle of children in this world born with her powers) are assembled, but there are problems. Firstly, Solus zos Galvus, the Garlean ancestor and Ascian (real name Emet-Selch) introduced in the Stormblood post-cap story, is present on the First, and clearly scheming, although he is an odd sort of frenemy to us, allying with us, helping through certain obstacles, and basically challenging us to set right the Flood – although his ultimate goal is to encourage the Rejoining, bringing the First into the Source as a means to summon Zodiark, the god of darkness. Secondly, the Eulmore army, allied with Sin Eaters as they are, is chasing after us as they come to understand that we are killing Lightwardens, and by the third act of the MSQ, we understand why – Vauthry is himself a Sin Eater and a Lightwarden, having been imbued with those powers by Emet-Selch, and so our march against the Lightwardens means we will inevitably turn our blades on Vauthry. Thirdly, our character begins breaking down from the flood of Light aether we have taken on, leading to moments of weakness, until we reach the final Lightwarden and fail to restore Darkness so badly that the instability of our spirit causes the return of Light to the whole world.
It is from there that we discover the true cost of our actions – we have been unable to restore the darkness to the world, Emet-Selch shoots and captures the Crystal Exarch, and we find out that the Crystal Tower of the First is just the Crystal Tower, and the Exarch the G’raha Tia, the very same miqo’te adventurer with royal Allagan blood we helped explore and seal the tower in the 2.x Alliance Raid series. There is a moment of untold hopelessness, as we wake from a slumber after the last leveling trial, where we have no idea how to proceed, but only a clue from Emet-Selch – meet him in the Tempest.
This leads to one of the most epic last zone reveals in the entire history of the game, where this never-discussed sixth zone comes into focus. We ride on the back of the First’s Bismarck, who clears the sea floor, giving us an air bubble over the zone that allows us to plumb the depths to discover why Emet-Selch is here, and then we find it – an entire, projected recreation of the Ascian city of Amaurot, one of the single most beautiful things the game has ever shown, and as a Bioshock fan, oh man, the interest I had in this zone could not have been higher!
We discover the truth of many things – Emet-Selch is the main emissary of Zodiark, and on the original star, the world prior to the Source being split, the Ascians were immensely powerful and peaceful beings who could will anything into creation. Zodiark and Hydaelyn are effectively primals, having been summoned by the people of the star – Zodiark in particular being summoned by the Ascians through the sacrifice of half of their population, which Emet-Selch means to undo with the Rejoining, using the survivors of the Eighth Umbral Calamity on the Source instead to summon Zodiark and restore the Ascians killed for that initial summoning. It is implied that the Ascians, through learning of fear, brought about their own doom, as their now-overactive imaginations summoned the monstrosities that ended them. Lastly, we discover that our soul is in-fact a fragment (heavily implied to be Ascian in origin) and that we have been rejoined to with the calamities in question – eight times, in fact, and that Ardbert is a fragment of that very same soul. The last fight rejoins him to us, stabilizing the light aether flooding our being, and we strike at Emet-Selch in his ultimate form, ending his life as he pleas that we simply remember the Ascians and remember their existence.
From start to finish, the story of the expansion is on a high pace (minus one bit of questing involving a trolley!) and the story it tells, while filled with high-fantasy elements, is also deeply human and speaks to themes and emotions I think we all can relate to. From the hopelessness of the citizens of the First, resigned to their fates in the Light and their slow growth of hope as they realize they will be able to take back their world, to the moments of despair woven in, to the whole saga of Emet-Selch – the core of the story is rooted in humanity. Emet-Selch isn’t just an evil asshole bent on destroying the Source and murdering everyone there – he wants to do that because it will bring those he loves back from the dead, and until that time, he lives in a projected version of the world as he remembers it, constantly reminding himself of what he lost. For any story’s villain, that is deep, and his last breaths before passing on echo another common sentiment – that he and his people not be forgotten. Many of us often fear death for the reason that if we do not exist, no one will think of us – and Emet-Selch has seen that, foreshadowed masterfully in the Stormblood story sequences with him. The very nature of his existence and that of the Garlean Empire is forgotten, and so he has every reason to believe that should he and Elidibus die, no one will speak of the Ascians ever again. The people of the First land in their initial hopelessness the way many real people do – the circumstances of the world around them are unmoving despite their efforts to influence positive change, and so they give up, resigned to the world as it is. Eulmore reflects the overindulgence of those with capital and resources, at the cost of those without – and serves as one of the more strikingly real metaphors of capitalism I’ve ever seen in a fictional story.
Shadowbringers does this better than most games by placing a very strong emphasis on your character as the bringer of this change and the paragon by which people compare to. Lyna, the guard captain of the Crystarium, has a particularly poignant moment where she expresses her utter disappointment in herself for the way a battle in the story went, looking at you as the representative of success in the face of her failure, and you feel a deep sorrow in her character knowing that in lore, your standard is simply higher. While FFXIV uses cutscenes heavily, they are not pre-rendered and so your character is always involved, and while the range of animations aren’t always perfectly suited to covering the emotions conveyed, the team at Square Enix has done more with less, as the animations used for your character convey so much without many words, and you get several dialogue choices which imbue the story with flavor, changing the responses of the NPCs involved.
By the end of the story, you even have a moment of despair – with Light restored to the world in the face of your efforts, you see the people of Norvrandt losing hope, feeling down and ready to give up, confused by the progression of events. Your character and the Scions around you, likewise, defeated, feeling like their impossible journey will never pay off, and you personally feel that. The cutscenes around this moment focus on you, with your character making dejected faces and quite obviously distraught, and that feeling transposes onto you as the player damn near perfectly.
Shadowbringers did so much to evoke emotion in me – I cried (actually!), I laughed, I felt deeply moved by many of the (fictional) events progressing before my eyes, and I felt like the story served as a well-delivered tale around the power of perseverance and the fragile nature of human life. The forethought in the game’s writing and lore is apparent through many details in Shadowbringers, as many plot elements from as far back as 1.0 are addressed and paid off in this story, and none of it feels backdoored into the game to satisfy a need to make everything relevant.
In short, Shadowbringers exposes the lack of continuity I often dislike in WoW’s lore – where things in WoW seem purpose-built for the short-term, current expansion gameplay, FFXIV builds long-term plots that pay off hugely. The Ascian story went from cartoon villain to deeply nuanced and fascinating.
And now, I can see the genius in patch 3.1 – a seemingly thrown-away plot point designed to move Minfilia out of the story and raise the stakes actually had a long-term plan and a meaningful path forward, and it makes me far more excited for the future of this game.
What other plot elements that seemed throwaway in the past of the game will come back as we move forward, I wonder?