Alright, so this post will have spoilers for the MSQ story, elements of the alliance raid story, and almost all things to do with 5.3 story. If you haven’t played it and want to, DO NOT READ PAST THE MIDDLE. I’ll drop an alert in the post before spoilers start so feel free to read up until that point!
So, patch 5.3, Reflections in Crystal, dropped today for FFXIV. I couldn’t sleep, woke up at 2 AM, and literally upon my awakening, the servers were live! Given that twist of fate, I logged in and knocked out the full MSQ – and 5 hours later, I had finished the latest story chapter for FFXIV and the functional conclusion of the main Shadowbringers story.
As an MMO content patch, it has something to offer lots of people who play FFXIV. There’s the usual accouterments – new story quests, new raid content via the Alliance Raid for 24 players and a new trial with both Normal and Extreme modes for 8 players, new crafting and gathering content via a set of new recipes and a beast tribe focused on crafting quests, new custom deliveries for both crafting and gathering via a new client, a new dungeon for 4 players and Trust solo play, a variety of sidequest content, and tuning changes to bring jobs more into alignment through small adjustments. It also has the long-awaited A Realm Reborn revamps, shrinking the number of quests needed to complete the story while bringing less-publicized benefits – smoother loot progression, introduction of new dungeon sets at each tier of leveling to keep players progressing and the Heavensward and later system of a bonus piece of loot given to each player at the end of a dungeon for their current job, and flying in ARR zones (minus city-state capitols).
On that note, it is more or less a standard MMO patch – unless you’ve gotten stuck in the starter experience, this patch is largely for people already playing the game and to help those people recruit friends with a more modern and inviting opening experience. It is a great patch for the FFXIV faithful – the content, of which I’ve already played a majority of it, is excellent and offers a lot of diverse and interesting things to do. Shadowbringers has set a high watermark for me on the quality of an MMO expansion, and Reflections in Crystal continues that.
The only complaint I might even entertain quickly right now is that I feel like FFXIV needs better in-game support for players with finding the new content. While I think the WoW Adventure Guide popup on a new patch is too much, having that information and the ability to accept breadcrumb quests that push you to the right places is a good thing and is something I’d like to see FFXIV find a way to get into. The MSQ helper is there and good, though!
Alright, so here’s where the spoilers come in.
If you haven’t played the content yet and want to see it unspoiled, turn away now!
The MSQ of Shadowbringers had an incredibly hot start (one which I documented with glee in one of my most popular posts!), and since then, has been simmering towards a resolution to the core story conflicts. For me, patches 5.1 and 5.2 were slightly weaker in story compared to 5.0, but I do think that it serves a narrative pacing – 5.0 ends incredibly strong and emotionally draining and to build towards the hot ending we all wanted, that buildup was needed. Patch 5.3’s MSQ delivers on this promise in spades, paying off the story the whole game has been building up to, integrating elements of the broader Final Fantasy lore into the game, and making the player question the story.
In 5.0, most of the hype for the expansion release was around our characters being called “Warriors of Darkness.” This has been a leitmotif throughout the content on multiple levels – in a literal sense, we are Warriors of Darkness because we bring darkness to the light-swallowed lands of Norvrandt, but as we meet various NPCs, our lore is spun in a different and interesting way. The core question that drives at this is a reframing of our actions, first as incompetent bumbling by Emet-Selch, and in this patch, as actively evil and senseless by Elidibus.
One of my favorite fantasy trope inversions is this very concept – the fantasy hero is supposed to be a great person acting with moral clarity and a strong sense of right and wrong, but is also often traveling a path of blood and broken bodies. As long as the battle is cast as righteous, this works, but fantasy often benefits from the introspection – am I actually doing a morally good and just thing on this journey? The best thing is that in many cases, that can’t be answered objectively – the author presents you with the context needed to feel good or bad about the journey. FFXIV has made clear that the player character is acting on a just and moral path, but that is purposefully exploited here and turned on its head.
For most of the story of FFXIV since YoshiP took over has been about the fight of light versus darkness, Eorzea against Garlemald, Hydaelyn against Zodiark, mortals facing the Ascian threat. Garlemald is an empire, conquering and casting out the native residents of the places they conquer with their imperialist violence, and testing murderous drugs and magicks on the remaining natives, leaving a trail of tears and blood. Our fight against Garlemald is just, as a result – we seek to liberate, to attain retribution, and to better the world.
The fight against the Ascians and the larger scale implications of the conflict of Hydaelyn and Zodiark as it bears on the Ascian and their characterization, on the other hand, has always been sort of looser. Hydaelyn is light itself, and Her power guides us as her champions, right? Well…
Shadowbringers has been an exploration of this concept and has thoroughly deconstructed this idea on every level. In Eorzea, a realm ruled by Hydaelyn and Her chosen, the force of Light is good and just, and Darkness is evil, malignant, and must be excised. In Norvrandt, however, the opposite is true. When we arrived last year, an abundance of light was threatening to collapse the star and end all life on it, triggering a calamity on the Source as well. We avert this by acting on behalf of darkness, restoring night to the sky and beating back the forces of Light, including those manipulating Light for their own ends, like Emet-Selch. Our moral clarity is present until the very end of the 5.0 story – we restore the balance and avert the plan of Emet-Selch, until we finally go head-to-head with Emet-Selch, and suddenly…everything we know is shaken. Emet-Selch serves Zodiark and the darkness, but yet, his cause and motivation are just. His aim is to restore Amaurotine society – to bring back the lives lost to summon Zodiark and avert the destruction of their world. Emet-Selch’s mistake, such as it is, is to value the lives of his kin over ours and our kin. However…is that not the same mistake we make?
The emotional impact of the character based storytelling hits harder and leaves this revelation stewing in the background, in what I think was a masterstroke. In 5.3, Elidibus, the last of the unsundered Ascians, comes to achieve the things that Emet-Selch could not – justice for his people. He does so through similar means to Emet-Selch, but where Emet-Selch was polite, contrite, and ultimately constrained due to a hinted history with us, Elidibus is direct. Our first solo story trial delivers the guilt trips – Elidibus paints all of our enemies in a sympathetic light, and asks us the question – “was what you did on your path of justice really just?” And, man, that is a tough question, and the game does an excellent job of hitting at that emotion, through both story and gameplay.
In the end, this culminates in a dungeon and trial experience that leverages the core theme of being a “Warrior of Darkness” as Elidibus summons Warriors of Light, their sundered souls, into Norvrandt to oppose us as we, here, are forces of Darkness. This culminates in Elidibus becoming a Warrior of Light, as he pushes harder on that guilt – his mission and goals are just and righteous, and we are a senseless force of violence ripping through the world before us, and even as Elidibus betrays his own doubts and forgetfulness of his original mission as the title of the emissary, he stands resolute before us, convinced of his moral standing and clarity.
And the gameplay here is great, but the story fucking hit me on a huge level – this is one of the best inversions of the fantasy hero trope ever. We’ve spent, at this point, 7 years of ARR convinced that our journey is a path of righteousness to deliver salvation and hope to the troubled peoples of all the places we’ve gone, never once really questioning if this is true. Emet-Selch planted the seed of doubt, but Elidibus watered it, grew it, pruned it, and presented us with the actual point, and it hits like a ton of bricks. As we conclude Shadowbringers, sure, we have done right here in Norvrandt – this world has grown better for our actions, but as we begin to return to Eorzea and deal with the other quests (NieR raid, Sorrow of Werlyt), we are again hammered on that same point. We helped 2P in the Copied Factory so that she could fight against YoRHA and damage us, and as we tackle the Garlean Weapon projects, we have to resolve our feelings about stopping a valid threat to Eorzea that also involves the murder of orphans once raised by Gaius van Baelsar. All roads in this patch lead to moral conflict, it would seem, and this theme makes an impression on the player.
I have to say it really hit me hard in many ways. Outside of the construct of the story itself, the themes hit at something I know I’ve felt and I believe we all feel in different ways – the sense that we are walking a path that feels correct but may not be, making the decisions we feel we must make while discarding other options, causing pain and suffering for ourselves and others when it may not be needed, and thinking of other people’s actions only through the lens of how they apply to our lives and what these actions allow or prevent for us. I ended the patch feeling as though my character felt something I’ve been feeling since becoming unemployed in June – a sort of resolute lost-ness. Determined to move forward and make something out of things, but also not really sure where to start and progressing slowly as a result.
Shadowbringers was a story of greys, introducing doubt to the Warrior of Light as they move on as the Warrior of Darkness, making everything we’ve done in the story to this point feel tainted in a sort of way, and it sets up a lot of interesting potential plotlines going forward. Sure, the immediate future is being pushed as being about a rematch with Zenos and a Garlean empire without unsundered Ascians among us, all the while ramping the challenge to our own ideology of being exposed to the nature of Hydaelyn and Zodiark and finding that perhaps, Hydaelyn is not a noble force herself. All of this imbues the story with depth and intrigue it hasn’t had, leaving the world open to question more and more, on a larger scale than we ever have before.
There was a great tease at the very end that implies that Eorzea might die with the final struggle against Garlemald, which is…a hell of a doozy, but the story of Shadowbringers is effectively concluded minus the remaining chapter of Eden and YoRHA: Dark Apocalypse, which will unfold in the next two patches.
Lastly, going into this patch, something that many of us assumed was that G’raha Tia, the Crystal Exarch, would die, something which was lampshaded in the patch trailer by Square Enix. However, surprise – the story serves very well to imply this and leave us thinking it has happened, only to pull away and make G’raha in the Source a part of the main cast! This rounds out what I absolutely love about the Shadowbringers storytelling – there is darkness, doubt, and uncertainty, but as with human life, we come back to focus on our friends and allies, the people who fill our character’s lives with meaning and light, and it is a happy story, full of redemption and excitement for the path that lay before us. We move on together, still with that doubt in the back of our minds, but with our friends and allies there to help us confront it as best they can.
Excellent, excellent story, well worth the sleeplessness, and I cannot wait to see the way forward from here. Props to Natsuko Ishikawa and the scenario team at Square Enix for this, as the Shadowbringers story remains transcendent within MMOs – a fantastic story that escapes the “good for an MMO” label to just be a great game story and one that is well worth playing. With the extended trial to level 60 and all of Heavensward content and the revamp of ARR content, I highly recommend trying the game – it is much easier to get past the rougher gameplay moments and into the stuff that all of us FFXIV fans have been raving about for over a year now!