Holy fucking shit. What a ride.
At 6 AM and change yesterday, I finished the main story of Endwalker, the fourth expansion to Final Fantasy XIV, rolled the credits, and took a moment to relax.
What an incredible game.
This post will not have any story content in it, because it is unfair given the lobby server errors and various other issues to get ahead of everyone with that content. Also, the game isn’t even technically launched until today! That post will come Friday, as I will spend most of this week drafting a spoiler-laden discussion post of just why I loved this expansion so fucking much.
All I will say about the story for now is this – it is the best FFXIV expansion story, in my opinion, by a mile, and for as much as I loved Shadowbringers and questioned prior to launch if this story would top it, it did so rather easily. It is a damn-near perfect conclusion to the narrative arc that FFXIV has set in motion so far, and that’s all I can really say without gushing over the story or putting seeds of spoilers into the world.
So let’s dive in, shall we?
For an MMO, the biggest thing to pay attention to in the long-term is the gameplay direction that content and job design takes, as after the glow of the story begins to fade, what is left is the core combat and design of the gameplay.
Final Fantasy XIV absolutely has a formula, and part of its success as a product is that it does not make major deviations from that formula. In many ways, Endwalker represents the continued success of that formula – a slow GCD that prioritizes weaving abilities off that global cooldown to create efficiencies and gameplay excitement, a dungeon, trial, and raid roadmap that is rock-solid and predictable prior to launch (at least in terms of pacing and delivery of content), and content that is friendly and casually-accessible while also having something to reflect the growth in your player skills from beginning to present.
Endwalker does not deviate in any really substantial ways from this save for one, and it is worth discussion – dungeon and trial difficulty. In FFXIV, the game’s normal gameplay of dungeons and raids are very friendly, with large, bright orange circles telling you what is coming to dodge and player markers that are standardized to a point in order to make text-only comms in a party work exceptionally well. Endwalker is…more difficult.
In my day 1 post, I put forward that the dungeons I had experienced to that point were still doable blind, and I believe that – I did all of the dungeons and all of the trials (non-EX) without knowing the mechanics beforehand and with groups where no one knew the mechanics going in, or at least if someone did, they kept their mouths shut! Having said that, it is a lot more obvious when someone is not paying attention to mechanics, especially from the healer’s perspective – which is mine, and so I found some frustration at points. Particularly, the capstone trial of the story – my group had a Samurai player who, no joke, died 14 times to basic, dodge-able mechanics.
Now, all of that is not to say that the game is suddenly World of Warcraft or focused on an eSports level of precise play. What can be said fairly is that the game uses tells much more sparingly to keep you on your toes, and you must not only watch for orange circles but also for what causes them, as the orange circles on most pivotal mechanics don’t appear until it is too late. Tanks in the new dungeons must do better at cycling defensives and managing pulls better – hesitation in a wall-to-wall train or sprinting off ahead of your healer, which was dicey in the first place unless you were a reasonably good tank, will get you killed most of the time in Endwalker content, at least for now. There are some fun standouts I can call out without spoilers – the first boss of the level 87 dungeon burrows and then does a full room frontal attack when he emerges, but you can follow their footprints in the ground to see where they went to and know where they will emerge as a result, so you can be behind them and not get hit. The final trial has a room line AoE sequence that can hit center or both sides, and has a tell visually (but not the orange no-no zones!) for where it will cast that you need to watch for.
Endwalker dungeons also have layers of overlapping mechanics that can be stressing, but are usually done in short bursts of excitement. The level 81 dungeon introduces this quickly and most of the remainder of the dungeons keep this as a theme. The only dungeon that I found exceptionally straightforward and simple, in line with older dungeons, was the level 83 dungeon, which was very simple mechanically.
In the trials, the interesting thing is that I would put the first trial at level 83 as the most difficult of them. The level 89 trial is straightforward to a point and while it has a lot of things happening, all of them are manageable. The capstone trial of the story fits somewhere between them – closer in difficulty to the level 83 trial, but I would still put 83 forward as the hardest of them. Generally, however, the rules stay the same – a modicum of attention paid will get you through fine, and most individual mechanics can only kill you if you’ve been messing up before that point and have Vulnerability Up stacks from that.
The layout, design, and overall gameplay space of Endwalker is great. Zones are larger than even before and the expansion, in spite of its theme, has a large variance in zone looks and color palettes. The two secret zones manage to both be impressive in their own ways, which, given that the moon is a zone, is quite a feat, but my god they did it. I will say that this is the most fragmented an expansion layout has ever felt in terms of where zones connect – they do connect through various means, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a strong sense of place. That being said, the expansion having zones spread so far across Eorzea and elsewhere is in service of the narrative and theme of the expansion, and in that regard, the decision was very well made.
Dungeon and trial-wise, so far, everything is full of visual splendor and varied environments. I had some measure of suspicion that the dungeons might suffer for the theme and setup of the expansion, but…well, they certainly didn’t. The variety is excellent and the themes are represented in many different ways, all of which capture the eye. They’ve certainly played a bit with the design space of “apocalypse” and I enjoyed them all.
Pacing and Expansion Main Scenario Flow
One thing that past FFXIV expansions have suffered from slightly, in my opinion, is pacing. The story is locked to an experience curve and requirement that allows players, traditionally, to do their daily roulettes to keep the game flowing without getting super far ahead of the content, in spite of the fact that the world zones and their combat are the least-substantial part of the MSQ gameplay experience.
Endwalker did not suffer from this in my experience, and it is far, far better as a whole experience for it. In past expansions, that pacing wall was usually a late level in the 10 level jump, where the story is getting good and you are then forced to grind EXP to get up to a given level. If that happened in the back-half of Endwalker, it would make the experience worse, because the plot at those moments is getting heavy and substantial, and needing to break to grind out a level would suck, frankly.
My leveling of White Mage to 90 was done with no rested experience, the rank 3 Heat of Battle Free Company action, and occasional food buffs for 3% more EXP. I did one day’s worth of roulettes, plus a second round of just Trial and Normal Raid roulette, one Wondrous Tales turn-in for EXP around level 84, and I was consistently 1-4 levels ahead of the content. The Heat of Battle action is a substantial boost, mind you, but my FC had done the same in Shadowbringers and I still walled around 78-79 there.
If you enjoy doing Roulettes while leveling through new expansion content, it works fine enough, but you could be in the situation one of my friends is, where the roulettes are taking him out of the main story because of limited playtime and he’s consistently 2 levels ahead of even the basic content early on. I’d recommend getting a strong base and doing roulettes as a means of testing your job toolkit post-6.0, but once you have your feet under you, get on that MSQ – there’s no need to excessively farm!
On the story front, all I can say while staying spoiler-free is that the pacing is more brisk early on than Shadowbringers was, and it is really brisk once you hit the downward slope around level 87 content, where everything starts ramping up to the big finale.
Systems – FATEs, Hunts, and Currencies
FFXIV has very steady systems, and these have not changed drastically going into Endwalker. FATEs remain as they have since Shadowbringers – bicolored gemstones for rewards like zone trade materials, orchestrions, and ground speed riding maps, with bonus EXP FATEs spawning regularly. Hunts remain the same as well – a 4 tier unlock as you level that first job with a weekly Elite mark and world boss-level S and A ranks around each zone, and the huntmaster in Old Sharlayan also rewards Sacks of Nuts like in Shadowbringers, so if you stockpiled some Nuts on the First, you can get some immediate rewards, like the cute Nagxian Cat minion or the Diabolos Wings fashion accessory, which looks great!
Aether Currents in Endwalker zones follow the prior template (and not the reduced-density one of old content in 6.0) so there is a lot of running to do and a handful of quests. Having said that, the lesson of The Lochs in Stormblood looms and the ACs in Endwalker zones are relatively near questing you’ll do in the MSQ, so there is a benefit to chasing them down while you’re out doing MSQ objectives.
Graphics and Sound
The game always looks pretty good, at least to me, and sounds amazing, and that artistry reaches a new pinnacle in Endwalker. Zones are massive, well-designed and modeled, with more detailed and sharper textures and gear having noticeably less of the awful pixelated normal mapping for texture detail compared to prior expansion content. Lighting and weather effects in the new zones are particularly great and really reflect a degree of craftsmanship that Square Enix has always prided themselves on.
Soundwise, there is much to say about Soken’s score in Endwalker and much to love. The expansion theme is a leitmotif used over and over in zone themes, dungeon themes, and trial themes, and so there are fewer standout individual tracks compared to Shadowbringers, where Rak’Tika Greatwood’s theme and Neath Dark Waters were incredible individual tracks, particularly the latter which was a foundational piece for a lot of themes that followed. I lead with that because I really enjoy when Soken gets more crazy with things, thinking back to how often I kept the Titania theme on loop after that trial in Shadowbringers.
Having said that, don’t let that for a second sound like the soundtrack is lacking, because the use of the leitmotifs throughout is in service of the overall package, and Endwalker has a first for me from a game – a zone theme that got me to tear up outside the game just from listening to it. It’s incredible, and I cannot say enough good things about the work done on the musical scoring of this expansion. Everything is poignant, deep, and infused with meaning from the content you hear it during. A masterpiece, which will be a running theme for my discussion of the expansion overall.
A Non-Spoiler Quick Analysis Of the Story
I want to include this here because an FFXIV expansion launch and the quality and ranking of expansions is based heavily on the MSQ.
Endwalker is an expansion of shattered expectations in the best way. The early previews and announcements, the live letters, and the trailers all presented us with a very accurate view of the expansion that also completely misdirects you. The only reservation I had going into Endwalker was that the story would not, could not live up to my expectations in a world post-Shadowbringers, and I am so incredibly glad to have been wrong about that.
As a chapter end in the game, it could not do better in terms of references, character growth, plot advancement and loose-end tying, and it sets a lot of possible stages for where we go next.
Emotionally, the game is powerful and poignant, with a simple and clear central message that is reiterated throughout and which is used to take the massive scale of everything and bring it to you in a way that makes everything tie together so well. Natusko Ishikawa is an artisan and everything I would aspire to be as a fiction writer, and she has done it under the tight timelines and collaborative nature of a video game.
The final stretch of the MSQ in particular hits so many deep veins of emotion, and I spent the last 5 hours of the MSQ with tears in my eyes before the finale put the biggest, dumbest smile on my face. It is masterfully crafted, beautiful in the way it brings simplicity and grounding to an epic tale that spans worlds and space, and the team is quite clearly self-aware enough to address some potential critiques that could have weighed down the expansion from early previews in-universe. It’s heavy, heavy stuff, but it has so much light, levity, and fun that I can not do it justice here without going for my spoilers or writing too much. It did all of this to me in spite of the fact that I fully spoiled the plot going into the launch, and that speaks to how wondrous the world of FFXIV is and how good the late writing has been specifically.
For me, I wanted it to top Shadowbringers, and it absolutely has, far better than I imagined. It is exceptional, and I love the story of this expansion so much that typing any more risks a spoiler-laden dissertation, so I will conclude this section here.
The Downsides – Servers, Comms, and Growing Pains
FFXIV has been the beneficiary of a huge influx of players, those leaving WoW, looking to supplement it, or people being swayed by media personalities and content creators who fit the prior categories. This has made the game struggle to keep up, as the global chip crisis has made adding servers difficult, even impossible, with the planned Oceania data center not opening until February.
That being said, I must continue to stress that the 2002 errors from login make trying to play or recommending the game right now a challenge. The handling of it is reasonable to a point – they did post in advance that Endwalker was expected to be a nightmare of congestion and that new servers could not be added in time, and that is understandable. However, the team did not present all possible solutions from even this layman’s perspective, and while I’m sure they probably did evaluate many of the things I mentioned previously (cloud service provider scaling, allocation of data center capacity from other Square Enix titles, etc), I would have liked more transparency on those ideas and what the limits were as they saw them.
I also found the communication blaming some players for their own 2002 errors to be misguided, as the “just plug in to Ethernet” solution isn’t really one. I have a gigabit home internet connection, gigabit wired Ethernet in the same room as my PC, and have not had a single disconnection all weekend once in the game, and yet I’ve still had about forty (!) 2002 errors in just 5 login attempts. Each time, I got in to the game eventually, after a handful of such errors, and I was only booted to the back of the line due to a 2002 error one time, so I was lucky – but this should not be a thing and blaming players isn’t a good look.
The community response has been understandable, with the exception of overly defensive fans who blame players for impatience instead of casting a critical eye at Square Enix and the FFXIV team for the issue. In my last post, I called it a manifestation of the somewhat-common toxic positivity of the FFXIV fanbase, and I stand by that, even as some of those people in other discussion forums have gotten toxic negative over being called toxic positive (what a sentence). It isn’t negative to wonder aloud if this could have been done better, to point out potential options that were not discussed publicly, and to rightly say that this rests on Square Enix and the FFXIV team and it has tarnished the launch for a lot of people. A queue is fine – and I certainly won’t ask the FFXIV team to add a bunch of new servers that will sit unused in a few months as people drift away and complete their goals, but a queue that cannot be held reliably for players is a disservice to players, period.
That all being said, the experience of Endwalker has been so exceptional outside of that queueing problem that any apprehension about it goes away the second I get in the game, because it is such pure joy to play and behold that the wait is worth it, to me at least. A big part of that is that the servers are rock solid and mostly stable once in the actual game, and I’ve only seen a couple reports of actual server crashes or players being pushed out due to server-side issues. If the compromise of launch was to ensure the game ran smoothly with a bigger line, then it might have been worth it. 7 days of free game time is a good boost and leaving the possibility of more depending on the actual launch queues this week is also wise and feels good. It’s also not the worst MMO launch I’ve ever played firsthand (WoW’s Warlords of Draenor still holds that crown, for long queues, errors, and a lot of things that would disconnect you and shunt you to the back of the line while in-game!).
I do hope that the next live letter has more concrete details on a plan to move away from these issues in the future, as the error 2002 problem seems to be a coded limitation (17,000 players in line for a datacenter, they say) and one that is being too easily met now (my server alone has a nearly 8,000 person line around prime time, which represents nearly half of the cap as described by Square Enix for a whole datacenter!). The 2002 error, designed to help prevent a DDoS or similar styles of traffic, has other solutions – and I would like to see some discussion of what the mitigation strategy looks like going forward if new servers aren’t happening past the Oceania data center in February. These issues are grinding away at players with limited time and I think that Endwalker is too good of a total experience outside of that for it to be marred by something that seems like it could be fixed or mitigated in other ways.
Anecdotally, today my friends and I had far fewer 2002 errors when getting in and it seems like they may very well be working to prevent such issues, and I would be delighted to hear that. But it remains a valid concern and one that should be discussed and with some rightful criticism laid at the team’s feet.
It’s been such an absolute joy to play FFXIV in the Endwalker era to start. Shadowbringers hooked me into the game fully after a sort of on-again off-again play experience since 2014, and with the changes made to PvE content in Endwalker, I am strongly considering dropping World of Warcraft to focus in fully on FFXIV.
As a story, it is the perfect capstone to the plot that has been in motion since 1.0. As a game, it iterates on the solid core MMO gameplay of FFXIV in thoughtful and exciting ways that strike a balance between what the FFXIV long-term audience likes in it and what the expats from WoW might want (more challenging dungeons being a big leap towards eating even more of Blizzard’s lunch). As a work of art in totality, it is a masterpiece – beautifully touching, able to evoke a wide range of emotions from violent sobs to belly-laughs to incredibly large grins of excitement. As an MMO, it has design thought put into nearly the full range of things you’d want, from small and large groups, solo gameplay, crafting and gathering, gameplay variety via jobs, and the ability to just linger in the spaces it gives you with other people all sharing in this common interest (PvP in FFXIV remains meh, but that’s it and even that gets some attention in 6.1). Nothing about it threatens to waste my time or makes me jump through excessive hoops to get where I want to go (save for the lobby servers!) – it is a pure experience of fun and joy that is hard to capture in simple words.
Is that fanboy talk? Sort of and kind of, but also not as much as you might think. Endwalker is really that good, and should you doubt that the story can be that, I’ll have much more to discuss when we unpack spoilers later this week!
If you are an FFXIV player already, this is an easy recommend, and if you have never played FFXIV, I still suggest that you get it and get on that story. With Endwalker, I think I would feel comfortable in saying that FFXIV is, overall, the best Final Fantasy narrative, period. It’s the best story in the MMO space by lightyears, one of the best RPG stories in my estimation, and a work of art that has so much for everyone to experience.
Holy shit, what a game. What an experience.