Endwalker’s early access window is coming up this week, and with maintenance scheduled and ready, everyone’s hype levels are rising to uncontrollable levels – mine included.
One of the things I find interesting is the way in which FFXIV is sometimes criticized as being “predictable” – that its content cadence, delivery, and patch content are all pretty straightforward and predictable and you can basically have a set expectation going into an FFXIV expansion on what is going to be there.
And…there’s some truth to that, but while such a thing is usually lobbed at the game as a complaint, I want to remark today on how I find that predictability to be a good thing, from a couple of angles.
Firstly, the obvious and non-spoiler one – predictability in a subscription based game is a blessing of sorts. Knowing that the game has a content plan that is reliably delivered on means that there is some security in a subscription and some value in it, because you know that each patch will bring a certain amount of content and give you reason to subscribe. WoW patches are all over the place in terms of timing, content, and overall value – and while there is a formula in some ways, it has enough exceptions to all noted patterns that nearly no pattern holds true enough to depend upon.
Secondly, however, and the actual meat of this post today, is this – setting expectations and then leaving out enough critical info or details can create real, meaningful surprises and build expectation in players, which, when paid off, has a multiplier effect on players’ enjoyment of the game. Something I noticed about Endwalker is that our expectations have been played with quite masterfully on a couple of levels, and until Friday when my trust is affirmed or broken, I believe that this is being done deliberately to some ends.
From here on out, there will be light spoilers. The first point will only name a secret zone from the end of Shadowbringers, so if you’ve done 5.0, you’re good there. The remaining points will dive into Endwalker Media Tour content and speculation, so be warned!
Theory The First: How Many Zones In Endwalker?
The pattern in every FFXIV expansion for zone count has been six total zones, not counting capitols or patch-added content like Diadem, Eureka, and Bozja. More often than not, the final zone of an expansion is kept a secret until launch and either not mentioned at all (The Tempest) or briefly teased with no name or other details (Azys Lla). Stormblood had no secret endgame zone, although it could be argued that the level 70 dungeon was a fun surprise in a similar vein although it was also the logical conclusion-point for the story being told.
Now, let’s look at Endwalker. We know of 4 named non-capitol zones: Thavnair, Garlemald, Labyrinthos, and Mare Lamentorum, and we’ve seen an unnamed 5th zone through concept art and what appears to be a very brief, tightly-focused shot in the Job Action Trailer. Right away, that should be an interesting twist – 5 zones is different from literally every other expansion, so what does it mean?
Well, there are basically two paths this could mean, and I have a clear preference for the one I’ll detail to close this section.
The first possibility is that we simply only get 5 zones in Endwalker, because the zones are really themselves vessels for the story and gameplay and so sticking to a strict number isn’t really necessary. Consistency is only a constant when it is held consistently, after all. Really, for the most part, the balance of gameplay in FFXIV doesn’t rely on world zones being precisely six in number for a given content release, so having only 5 zones itself isn’t a sign of much of anything.
My theory, however, is that there is a sixth zone, and similar to the Tempest of Shadowbringers, the zone will be so pivotal to the story being told and to where it goes from here that we simply cannot be shown it in advance in any capacity. That idea alone is quite exciting, given that the unnamed 5th zone we’ve only been shown tidbits of seems to be a flying Amaurotine city, and if that isn’t the best and coolest zone of the expansion, then, well, holy shit!
So put me down for six zones, with another one that will blow our minds so incredibly that we can’t even have a clue about it yet.
Theory the Second: What Are Our Trials?
Trials are a key part of the gameplay structure of Final Fantasy XIV, and Endwalker has a huge wrinkle – we don’t actually know what the trials are to come.
Sure, you might look back at the initial unveiling in February of this year and point at the Magus Sisters and Anima, with a third unnamed trial as always being our capstone to the MSQ, and I would have agreed with you until the Media Tour.
There, a big challenge to that theory was thrown in – the Magus Sisters are all present and bosses in the first dungeon, Tower of Zot, at level 81. On the surface, this challenges the idea that the Magus Sisters would be a trial at all, then – it has never been the case in FFXIV that a trial boss has also been present in a dungeon.
This again puts two paths in front of us on the Magus Sisters – they could still be a trial through some story twist, or they could not be.
Anima seems a bit more buttoned-up to be a trial, and if we assume that the Magus Sisters will not be one, that leaves two open trial slots – one we all expect will be some sort of climactic showdown with Zodiark, and another that many suspect would be Hydaelyn, as our unsundered self was Azem, the ancient who chose their own way split from the paths of both Zodiark and Hydaelyn.
There’s just one twist, however – an incredible amount of control has been taken to avoid calling Anima a trial in any official materials on the expansion. At the February unveiling, Anima was shown in concept art but was not called a trial, and in the live letter focused on combat back in October, no trials were named. This alone isn’t much to go on, but in contrast, we had the names of both Titania and Innocence heading into Shadowbringers, while the context under which we came to face them was left unknown for launch. The fact that no trials have been shared and the announcement of trials at the recent live letter was all question marks and mystery leads me to believe that not only are the Magus Sisters not a trial, but neither is Anima. That then makes Anima a big question mark in terms of how we come to face her, but there are a lot of ways in which that could happen without a trial.
And in that case, that then leaves us with another interesting question – if all 3 trials are question marks for launch, who in the hell are we fighting? If we assume Hydaelyn and Zodiark in separate trials, that leaves an opening. If we assume only Zodiark, that leaves two. In any of the scenarios I’ve just laid out in this section, there is a lot to chew on and think about before launch!
Theory the Second and a Half: What Is The Purpose of the (Potential) Secret Zone?
If we assume my first theory is sound and that there is a sixth, fully-hidden zone waiting for us in Endwalker, what does it mean?
By normal FFXIV logic, it would be the endpoint of the expansion’s base story and the place in which we conclude things. Given that, it makes sense for it to be some sweeping place of intrigue – the inner core of the Moon, or some Ascian relic, etc.
What if I told you it might be something totally new to FFXIV?
Think about it this way – Endwalker’s story arc starts and concludes in 6.0, with a new story going forward. In the past, the use and reuse of existing zones from an expansion made sense for the stories being told, but will that hold true for Endwalker? I would argue that it could, and I can see a way forward, but that there’s something more interesting possible – that the sixth zone is actually a post-MSQ zone, one in which the seeds for the new story arc of FFXIV are planted.
FFXIV rarely adds regular world zones in patches – in fact, they never do. The Diadem, Eureka’s various regions, and Bozja/Zadnor were all zones with specific purposes for gameplay elements and not really meant to be standalone content. You don’t get Hunts in them, can’t use standard Aetheryte teleportation to get to them, and they are built and intended for very specific slivers of content, nothing more.
Having said that, the potential is there for them to add a normal zone during Endwalker patches, if only because it would give a new place to set the stage for what is to come, but the alternative is that they could quite easily build a zone for launch that would allow for that same worldbuilding to happen earlier. I call this a half-theory because to be honest, I’m not sure how a zone that is chronologically after the rest of the expansion content would even work or be presented in-game, and if the intention is to start the next saga in 6.1 and beyond, then it doesn’t even really make sense to have now. There’s also a lot that can be done with the zones we do know about from launch – we’re likely to be working on the nature of the Ancient’s civilization for a while yet, and in the core of our world, we have Garlemald, Thavnair, and Labyrinthos all set up and capable of that storytelling. In fact, one of my hunches about the future direction of the story involves continuing whatever we get up to in Sharlayan, especially since their lack of assistance to us and dismissal of the Final Days seems incredibly suspect and like something we’ll be exploring a lot (Labyrinthos is readily described as an underground zone on the Endwalker special site and that raises a lot of additional suspicion about why the Sharlayans have such a place if the concept of the Final Days is truly as absurd as they seem to believe!).
At the same time, however, it would be pretty cool to see the story wrap up and for a new battlefield to open up nearly immediately, to give us some additional sights to see and places to be.
Either way, we don’t have very long left to wait to find out!