Shadowbringers Is Dead, Long Live Shadowbringers

I logged off of Final Fantasy XIV for my last time before Endwalker at 12:43 AM PST on 12/2/2021, 17 minutes before the servers were scheduled to come down for maintenance.

The last experiences I had in Shadowbringers were a perfect encapsulation of what I enjoy about Final Fantasy XIV and what I am looking forward to in Endwalker.

I started the day rough, after writing about the preliminary patch notes, I decided to try trials roulette and the Alliance Raid roulette. I got Seat of Sacrifice and a group that had tanks that both failed the QTE transition phase of the fight, wiping us, and failed the Tank Limit Break requirement to meet the incoming damage by missing the timer, either drastically undershooting the ability or overshooting it. It took 35 minutes for a fight I’ve been doing in 5 minutes lately, including one great run previously where the tanks failed to LB the transition and the other healer and I covered it with mitigation of our own anyways! The Alliance Raid I got was the Royal City of Rabanastre, and the mechanical cohesion of the group was pretty bad, so I was getting frustrated. Yet, the groups did not fall apart or descend into petty squabbling, and both runs were completed.

I logged off for dinner and a break, and came back to run dungeons with some friends. We had a great time with chat banter and breezing through the Vault, just having a great time dragging a PUG along with us.

My final experience of Shadowbringers is one that encapsulates what I feel is so damn special about FFXIV, however.

I had put off doing the Crystalline Mean quests and only completed two of the facets, but I decided after the runs with my friends that I wanted to run through the remaining quests and the capstone experience before the servers went down. I did exactly that, finishing with fishing, goldsmithing, and mining before doing the capstone quest for having done all 5. In that quest, the proprietor of the Mean, Katliss, tells you that she started it to distract her from having lost her husband and child to the conflicts on Norvrandt, and she makes a stoic face before resolving that they would be happy to see what has come of the world, and it so perfectly capped off my Shadowbringers experience.

Over the last two years and change, since I’ve seriously added FFXIV discussion to my repertoire of posts here, it has often been difficult to succinctly describe what it is that I love about FFXIV so much. The game is a tapestry of so many things, and I often describe what I love (and don’t like so much) about FFXIV through a gameplay lens, talking about endgame content, group content, community interactions, and the like. The story is so hard to talk about without spoiling it, and it does a disservice to people who might want to try the game out for me to spill the beans about specific plot beats in service of a post that someone who hasn’t played FFXIV would read.

Yet this side-quest moment gives me a perfect opportunity to do so. FFXIV is such an incredible experience because it is human, because for all the tales of crystals, realm-crossing, immense beings powered by faith and prayer, and a forthcoming expansion defined by a literal world-ending event, the story is deeply rooted in humanity. You’re not asked to extrapolate the cosmos or project your feelings onto an NPC who you may feel rather conflicted about – you are the main character and the lens through which you view the vast majority of the story is one about very human things that most of us go through and understand on some level. Of course, the cosmic-level understanding is in the world-building and plot when it needs to be, but it is rarely invoked at such a high level – it is instead brought down to us, for us to see how it impacts the people in these worlds and how our actions create a new tomorrow that is better for them.

The Crystalline Mean capstone was deeply resonant for me as someone who lost their father at 11. I’d like to think that he’d be proud of the person I’ve become, 25 years after his death. I’d like to think that we’d get along great and that I would have lots of opportunities to visit him and learn more about the large question mark that is his life. Of course, that ship sailed in 1996 and there is no way for me to know – and that is something that I will grapple with, in moments small and large, for the rest of my life, however long or short that is.

Final Fantasy XIV is such a great game because it wraps up a fundamentally sound and good MMO gameplay experience in a story that makes me contemplate the nature of my own life, that gives me these moments of mirrored experience where a fictional character lives an all-too-familiar moment of pained joy – of feeling progress and knowing it is bittersweet because it will never be what you want it to be. In moments across the game, there are these touches on so many different levels – fear of being a good parent, reconciling with loss, finding your own way forward, and dealing with the ways in which society can be a force for good and ill and how you carve your own space out in that.

Today, I went from frustration with my fellow humans to thinking about MMO systems and gameplay to crafting 500k gil worth of Coffee Biscuits to getting misty eyed thinking about how my father would feel about the life I live now, and all of that was in a pretty standard set of gameplay scenarios. I don’t need to anchor this to any other game or discussion of any other community to tell you that all on its own, FFXIV is a very special media franchise, and I know that comes across as fanboyism to an extreme, but I stand by it. Very few games, narrative driven or not, have given me that range of emotional responses and allowed me to keep a steady grounding where the threats I face as the Warrior of Light are both horrifyingly large in scale and scope and yet narratively simple to understand and find relatable.

Shadowbringers has been the FFXIV team’s best work in this ongoing property, as they’ve taken the lessons learned from the story beats of ARR, Heavensward, and Stormblood to make something that transcended the MMO genre to be a legitimately great narrative-driven game experience, to refine and deliver a strong core MMO experience on the gameplay front, and to catch fire and find a massive influx of players. So much of the thinkpiece scene of late is filled with writing that attributes that success to the failures of World of Warcraft – and while that is partially the case, it should be said more that FFXIV has earned the admiration it receives. As a start-to-finish experience, Shadowbringers has been one of FFXIV’s best expansions, and for me it is a clear number 1, as the gameplay has hit a stride here that accompanies the continuing advancements in storytelling and worldbuilding the game has been making over much of the last decade.

I am unfathomably excited for Endwalker, so much so that I fear a bit in the back of my head that it may not meet the standard that Shadowbringers has set – not that it would be innately disappointing, mind you, but that it’ll hit a solid 90% of the emotional resonance that Shadowbringers did. Yet that fear does not deter me from planning an early wakeup to meet the servers as they go live, to consume as much of the main scenario quest as I can in a single sitting (minus stretch, meal, and bathroom breaks, of course), and having a degree of excitement and preparedness for this launch that I have not had for an MMO launch in ages (yes, not even WoW).

The Shadowbringers chapter is closed, and in an MMO, that doesn’t mean much. Norvrandt will still be there, players will still occupy the tight top level of Eulmore and run around the sprawl of the Crystarium. Roulettes will fill with players still working through that era of the game, and those dungeons, trials, and raids will continue to see play for years and years yet. Square Enix has a lot of eyes on them and a lot of pressure to meet the moment, as they will see record-breaking day 1 numbers and a level of visibility that the game has not yet had for any prior expansion launch, as the game has cast aside the shadow of WoW and stepped into light of its own making.

But I still logged out sort of wistfully, with this feeling of excitement tempered by a little anxiety to leave this fictional world behind to return to the Source of the game’s setting. Eulmore was emptier than usual by a lot as I whittled down my belts and used my remaining Yellow Gathering Scrips to buy some retainer gear to prepare for fresh ventures on the other side of the daylong maintenance that now faces us. I took two screenshots as I wound down and prepared to exit the game for the final time in the Shadowbringers era – one of Eulmore, empty of nearly all players and the quietest I have ever seen it, and a shot of the Rising Stones and the Scions of the Seventh Dawn as I logged out, the gang all there and (likely because we still don’t know where the MSQ starts!) ready to journey into the final days, whatever they may bring.

Shadowbringers is dead. Long live Shadowbringers. Bring on Endwalker.

(As a smidge of scheduling planning here, I expect to write a fairly long WoW post tomorrow given that FFXIV maintenance, and I’ll likely then be radio-silent for a few days as I play through the Endwalker experience. I plan to document it very similarly to that of Shadowbringers, which is to say not at all until I’m done and can share my full, beginning-to-end thoughts on it. That post will be spoiler-tagged to death and will have a full and frank discussion of the MSQ and my experiences with it! Outside of the post I’ll write on the other side of sleep, this space is likely to be WoW-free for a couple of weeks. Not forever, but I haven’t played in about two weeks and frankly there’s no actual reason to right now. I had originally planned a Mage Tower writeup, but to be honest, Wowhead has a better gearing and consumables guide up as-is and I am not terribly interested in engaging that much with WoW right now, which tomorrow’s post will touch upon in more detail!)

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