(Spoiler alert – there’s a lot of FFXIV spoilers in this post, just in general but specifically for Shadowbringers as a whole and the full patch cycle of content.)
We shall gorge upon their strength, and then, my friend, out contest shall begin anew. – Zenos yae Galvus
Having watched a playthrough of the entire story of FFXIV to date in a few short weeks has refreshed a lot of understanding about the plot and why things are heading the way they are.
One of the bigger questions I found myself with, prior to refreshing on the full Shadowbringers story, is what the re-enactment of the Final Days would actually mean or what purpose it would serve. Obviously, it is apocalyptic and vaguely threatening in its own right, but a cabal of villains with the power to enact the Final Days could just, surely, actually end the world instead. It also feels like an illogical fit for a character like Zenos, whose goal has always been to engage in a final battle with us, to test his strength against ours, as he feels some twisted kinship to us.
However, refreshing on Shadowbringers, knowing what we did not know then, is a particularly enlightening experience (and one that reminds me why I enjoy the storytelling in this particular MMO so much.)
In truth, we already know most of why Zenos wants the Final Days, despite his seeming aloofness to it all as Fandaniel dances and cackles like mad – he wants the world ablaze for our final hunt. However, at the end of the 5.0 MSQ, Zenos delivers the above line, and boy oh boy, did that ever contextualize things for me to be reminded of!
So we know the actual Final Days of Amaurot resulted in the summoning of Zodiark, which led to the counter-summoning of Hydaelyn, which led to the Star being sundered into the Source and it’s 13 reflections. The line from Zenos makes so, so much sense in that context, which then opens up what I think are the actual questions we’ll be waiting to see answers for in Endwalker.
“Gorging on the strength” of Zodiark and Hydaelyn implies a lot of possibilities. Will we simply be hunting them to prevent some kind of additional sundering? Will we literally be consuming their aether and claiming it for our own? In many ways, the journey of Shadowbringers would have an interesting parallel if we were to feat on Hydaelyn’s aether – we did take on large amounts of Light-aspected aether through the base MSQ of Shadowbringers, and it almost unmade us, but we are rejoined to Ardbert now, which fixed the damage that having taken in that aether over the ShB story caused.
One thing that has been a big question is the key art for Endwalker, which is called “Scions” but features Zenos in it. It’s not uncommon for a villain to be in the key art for an expansion – Emet-Selch was in the Shadowbringers piece, after all – but the name and the picture, not to mention leaving Fandaniel out, all raised questions as to the true nature of our relationship to Zenos. We know Zenos sees us as his “first friend” – the only person in the world who understands him, and while I think that idea is…questionable, it creates an interesting read on all of this.
We know that the main Zodiark and Hydaelyn stories are part of the arc that is being resolved in 6.0, and while resolved doesn’t have to mean ended completely, it seems reasonable to think that the two elder Primals will likely meet with some sort of end in Endwalker. We’ve also been setup for years now, but especially in Shadowbringers, to question the benevolence of Hydaelyn – to question the goodness of the light, which has, on the Source, been a pillar belief. Fandaniel is, if we believe his 5.4 quest narration, unconcerned with what happens – he just wants the Final Days to be wrought so that he dies, and while it is folly to simply trust a villain that is clearly raving mad, a part of me believes that. Zenos’ motivations are less clear, but we know he has no fondness for the Ascians, for most life, and thus he has no reverence for Zodiark. He’s also equipped with the secrets of the Ascians, gained when Elidibus was forced to relocate from his body.
So in some ways, I think Zenos is on to something. He clearly wants to feast on aether – he’s talked about it in several of the cutaway scenes that have bookend major patch stories in Shadowbringers, and he’s specifically identified Zodiark as a target all the way back in 5.0. Likewise, we have a lot of questions about Hydaelyn – knowing she’s a Primal goes a long way towards sowing doubt, and seeing what the Light brought about on the first creates more questions. Our fellow Scions are starting to have a lot of the same doubts and so we’re in a situation where all the main supporters of Hydaelyn are left questioning her utility and goodness in the world. Now, that isn’t to say that we’ll brutally murder Hydaelyn in a trial and feast upon her essence, but the possibility does, I suppose, exist.
So all of that leads to my new list of questions specifically on this topic:
Does Just Re-enacting the Final Days Actually Summon Zodiark and Hydaelyn?
The question I asked about the mechanics of the Final Days being re-enacted sort of left this barely touched, so I want to ask it now – if Zenos’ ultimate goal is the summoning (and feasting-upon) of Zodiark and Hydaelyn…how does that happen? We know how Primal summoning works, and we know now that both are just juiced-up Primals, but the bigger question left by this is if we’ll see something akin to the mass sacrifice needed to bring Zodiark to life the first time.
Fandaniel’s True Plans and The Nature of Zodiark
The bigger-bigger question is if this will trigger what the Ascians believed and were working towards, which is that such a summoning would be usable to return the originally-sacrified Amaurotines to life. Through that lens, it raises questions about the true nature of Fandaniel’s goals and if he isn’t just playing a part in a plan to return Ascian civilization to a pre-Final Days state, or if what the Ascians believe about how Zodiark would restore the lives initially lost is true. One of the more interesting points in the FFXIV plotline for me has been how we’re never quite sure of Hydaelyn’s gift and intentions, while the Ascians are fully convinced that Zodiark will give them everything they want and need, and it would be fascinating to see an Ascian bet on that and then have it backfire. In fact, I get the distinct feeling that Hydaelyn’s involvement in this story is going to be seeing her for what she really is, having that be bad, and us needing to end her, while the Ascian that remains commits to summoning Zodiark because “he’ll save us, of course he will!” and then for it to go very, very poorly.
Does The End of the Zodiark/Hydaelyn Saga Mean Both Characters Are Gone?
The assumption I have had, one that seems present throughout the community for FFXIV, is that ending the Z/H saga means that both will be summoned, dealt with, and then we will find ourselves moving on to some other existential threat or idea. However, in this, something that occurs to me is that Hydaelyn has been a going presence in the story. We hear her, we see the Mothercrystal, and while the focus on that has waned a lot since ARR and Heavensward, Hydaelyn’s presence has always loomed large in the story. Meanwhile, Zodiark feels more like a MacGuffin than an entity with presence and agency in the story, and I feel like the end of the Z&H saga doesn’t necessarily have to mean that either disappears from future lore. In fact, both are foundational to understanding the worldbuilding, so while they may no longer be going concerns in the story, they’re very likely to still be mentioned regularly.
But I find the idea of Zodiark sticking around interesting in a different way. I don’t imagine him to be like Hydaelyn was for us, taking up the mantle of the voice in our head, but just the idea of him remaining in the story is an interesting concept, especially if he breaks the expectations of the Ascians.I don’t know if I do expect that or not, but the mystery of it is fun. The other thing, however, is…
Does The “End” Of The Current Narrative Arc Mean Zodiark/Hydaelyn, The Ascians, Or…Something Else?
To close this out, one last question keeps bouncing around in my head. The idea of ending the 1.0-6.0 story is fascinating to me, because from the WoW side of the fence, there is no singular narrative that defines a multi-expansion journey quite like it, because while even individual elements like Sylvanas’ tale or the Iron Horde are brought forward and closed out, sometimes after multiple expansions of building, they don’t feel like the core narrative of the game and it sometimes feels like WoW doesn’t have a strong core narrative. FFXIV has been defined by the Garlean Empire, the Ascians, and the battle of Darkness and Light since 1.0, and so there’s a lot of weight and heft to ending the story – it adds these stakes to the story being told.
Now, the intrigue for me here is this – what is the story they are ending? Because the story of FFXIV has a core plot comprised of subplots that intersect, it is possible that one might end only for another to rise in emphasis and take center stage, or for the others to be left unfulfilled for later. The end of the Garlean Empire seems a given – we’ve been watching Garlemald unravel since Stormblood and we’re going to Garlemald in Endwalker to see it first-hand. The end of the Ascians is something I would gamble on, since Shadowbringers saw his end the remaining unsundered in quick succession and has rapidly provided us with the ones that were missing – Mitron and Loghrif in Eden’s Promise, Venat through the research done in patches 5.2 and 5.3 and the finale of 5.55, and Azem as…well, us since 5.3 but hinted at far before that, including heavily in 5.0 – but then Fandaniel throws a wrench into things and the implication of a sundered Lahabrea in the 8-player raid series for Endwalker also means that Ascian stuff will, at least, be sort of present through the patch cycle of Endwalker.
Then there’s the Zodiark and Hydaelyn story, and well – I could see that ending, but in so doing, a lot of questions are raised about the future, and that leads to my actual closing point….
The Future Is Unknown And That’s Kind of Cool
At this point in the past few expansion cycles, we’ve had a sort of clear-eyed vision of what comes next, and especially once Heavensward and Stormblood set the content template for patch cycles in FFXIV, it made Shadowbringers easy to follow, even if there were some twists and turns and the actual story beats made it more interesting. The thing about the enormity of saying that 6.0 Endwalker ends the current narrative arc and shifts it in a new direction is that it leaves everything past that point completely unknowable at present, and that is fantastic. It doesn’t feel like there’s not a plan, but instead it feels like there is a very specific plan that we’ll get in pieces, and that seems like such a great way to tell the story. One of the things I often dislike about WoW is that stories will feel unplanned – they’ll continue on far too long because a writer thinks they’re cool or that there’s more to explore, even as the game’s story withers on the vine. I think one of the bravest things that the FFXIV team has done here is simply declaring an ending. In an MMO, that feels so hard to do, because you can always keep going as long as the product is commercially viable, and you end up with scope creep or struggling to end a story because the fans just love it so much.
But that’s the thing about the FFXIV team and specifically the praise that can be heaped at the feet of Natsuko Ishikawa – there’s trust from the community that ending the current arc (let’s just say all of it, Ascians, Zodiark and Hydaelyn, the Empire) is going to give way to something equally good, if not better. The team has earned that by keeping things relatively good-to-great for the whole game to date, and so I think that means creatively, it can be more fulfilling – by getting to build to a conclusion, Ishikawa, Yoshida, and team all get to define the game’s future anew, after having paid off the investments of the 1.0 team in their story. It makes so much sense, especially given that Endwalker is an all-FFXIV show – no collaboration raid series (8 or 24-player), no side stories from elsewhere in the FF universe, just a straightforward FFXIV story centered on all the loose ends of FFXIV. We know that throughout Endwalker, past 6.0, we’ll have Pandaemonium chapters to look forward to, still centered (as far as we can tell) on the Ascians and the FFXIV-original components of that story, while the 24-player raid series will be focused on the Twelve, again an all-FFXIV creation focused on the myths and ideas of Eorzea, and we’ll be getting content for two years that dives into that. It makes so much sense – it feels like a reset and recentering, which is so great explicitly because the story of the last two years and change has broadened the scope of FFXIV. While the plot has maintained grounding and hasn’t felt like it has gotten absurd, I think there’s much to be gained from bringing things back to Eorzea, to a focus on new story and a new way forward. Done right, I think it will really take FFXIV to the next level – it’s remarkable how grounded the story has managed to remain, even as the threats have grown larger and more epic, but if you continue on this path…well, you end up fighting Titan world souls and against the very concept of Death, and that’s cool but there’s so little there to pull you in to the story.
For all the epicness of FFXIV’s story, the long-lived Ascians, Sunderings, the fragmented souls of humanity, and the like, it is also a deeply-rooted story, in friendship, in humanity and fighting for what you believe in, and our character, while possessed of immense power, is also a lone actor who is uncertain and not always able to right things in the face of disaster. The Warrior of Light leans on friends and allies and feels like a part of a fully-realized world, and I think that’s what I find I love about its story that I find missing in WoW, as a point of comparison.
And I am so very, very excited to see where it goes from here.