The Spoiler-Laden Review of Endwalker

I’ve done four drafts of this post, trying to make a clear, concise outline to why Endwalker blew my mind.

Endwalker as a story is a piece of media that will linger in my brain fondly for decades to come. As a story, it is the beneficiary of years of prior storytelling building a strong foundation on which the expansion can be built and rest upon. In my last post, I talked about some of the gameplay reasons why I felt so absolutely satisfied with this expansion, and as promised, today is the lore discussion.

I’m going to split this across the post into 3 parts – my expectations around the announcement of Endwalker, my expectations shifting after Media Tour and the combat Live Letter, and then go into launch. I’m going to try to keep things high-level – not for the sake of spoilers but because I have a bad habit of drifting into recapping and plot synopses over actual analysis. Oops!

I can say this up top, in the part that is likely to end up in feed readers and notification emails – Endwalker is probably the best MMO story I’ve ever played, I found it stronger than Shadowbringers and overall it makes FFXIV, for me, probably the best Final Fantasy story of all time and a pretty high-up contender for best story I’ve seen, period. Having said that, Endwalker is not perfect as a story, and there are elements worth discussing that may end up being polarizing or otherwise damper some people’s enjoyment.

Make no mistake, however – this was such a transcendentally good story for me that I will easily recommend that you play it if you haven’t, and it makes the canon of Final Fantasy XIV from 1.0 to now stronger for the way it pays off the plots of what came before.

Here are some spoiler-free screenshots to throw the feed readers before we dive in.

Let’s begin.

My Expectations At Announcement

In February 2021 and May 2021, the initial announcement and online Fan Fest, respectively, I was hyped for Endwalker but envisioned it being a standard FFXIV expansion. We had trials – Anima and the Magus Sisters. We had our main villains – Zenos and Fandaniel. We had our zones outlined – Old Sharlayan, Thavnair, Garlemald, and the moon, and I suspected we’d get subzones for a couple of those like Stormblood to round out our 6 zones. I could see a pretty standard FFXIV arc unfolding in my head – we’d chase the towers, blast through Anima and the Magus Sisters and a handful of dungeons at odd level intervals with our story capstone at 90 with a dungeon and trial, which seemed like a slam dunk for the moon and Zodiark, and credits roll, pretty okay. I found myself sort of not that excited – it was good on paper, don’t get me wrong, but in my head, this felt like a pretty standard FFXIV expansion and not something that would exceed the high watermark of Shadowbringers or feel like the epic conclusion they were pitching.

Still, I waited for more details – excited, but reservedly so. Not fully hyped yet.

The Media Tour Reveals Subterfuge

A big part of what makes FFXIV easy to write about prior to releases is that it has a pretty standard template from which expansions are drawn. You get a dungeon on every odd level number in the new cap, you get a trial at the 3rd and between the 7th and 9th levels, with the story capstone from launch at the new level cap with a paired dungeon and trial that feed into each other. 8-player raids happen over here with 4 bosses per release on even-numbered patches and the 24-player Alliance raids go here in the odd numbered patches, with around 4 boss fights and some trash fights in each.

Endwalker felt like that formula was going to happen as I first thought, but then the Media Tour hit.

The Magus Sisters were the level 81 dungeon boss. Okay, so Anima and two trials – Zodiark and Hydaelyn, I thought. Seems simple enough, we’ve been pitched that Hydaelyn is a primal as well and it doesn’t make sense to leave her be while picking on Zodiark, perhaps.

But then the live letter in early October showed trials as a big question mark – no announcements.

In the past, if they’ve shared a trial boss, we’ve at least gotten a trial name and setup in the live letter. It’s one thing to know that Titania is a trial, but quite another to know the story setup and circumstances around how we arrive at this fight. So despite knowing about Anima and the Magus Sisters (who we knew then were dungeon bosses and likely not trials as a result), there was no trial news to share prior to launch. Immediately, my brain lit up with excitement at this. They used our expectations against us, and then purposefully showed what they showed at Media Tour in order to subvert them.

Then, I started noticing the other bits that were left out. We had 4 zones confirmed, with a 5th zone in concept art form. FFXIV expansions are 6 zones, and if they were going to do the subzone thing for either of the island nations we’d be journeying, then they would show that as they did in Stormblood. No such showoff came. I speculated that the 6th zone was likely the standard surprise zone we’ve gotten more often than not in prior expansions, but maybe it could be a new foundation for story to come (spoiler alert: probably not lol).

My hype grew – what could the third secret trial be? What’s this floating Amaurot zone? What’s the 6th zone? We got the launch trailer and it’s so great because it was accurate in two ways – it played right into our expectations but had a full preview of the expansion content, with things cut carefully together to create the illusion that all of the mystery was within the confines of our expectations. My waiting grew impatient, and my hype was too large and unsustainable – I was eager for this content after all of this.

So, how’d they do?

The Actual Launch Content of Endwalker

Endwalker was, as I have been saying since Monday when I finished the MSQ, fucking brilliant.

The expansion has 3 completely different story arcs as the act structure, each building on what came before while going in crazy new directions at the same time.

The first act was my expectations for the full expansion in microcosm – we solve local problems in Thavnair while investigating the Forum in Labyrinthos and Old Sharlayan, before we are pushed towards the Tower of Zot in Thavnair to face the Magus Sisters. We head to Garlemald and deal with Anima by 83, and then teleport to the moon (thanks Fandaniel). Then, when the 83 trial showed up – holy shit, that is when I knew that everything I expected was going to be shattered (at least my early expectations). Zodiark…at level 83!

The second act goes into the Final Days quite organically, and sets up the ending quite well. We need to understand why things are happening as they are, so based on some hunches, we end up realm-hopping to the First for a check-in before Elidibus uses the Crystal Tower to send us to the past, to a place where the ancients tested creations called Elpis (the floating city zone). We get to see pre-sundering times, learn the planet’s true name of Etheriys, and meet up with Venat, Hythlodaeus (oh no, he’s hot), and Emet-Selch! We find the man in that time who assumed the seat and memories of Fandaniel – Hermes was his name prior to assuming the seat on the Convocation, and that creates a fun paradox as we face Fandaniel 3 times in the MSQ – when he takes over Zodiark, in Elpis’ Ktsis Hyperboreia dungeon as Hermes, and in the Aitiascope dungeon in the Aetherial Sea as Amon (because Fandaniel took over Amon, the very same from Syrcus Tower, which was the early Fandaniel lore bomb of the expansion). Hermes has a creation that he is quite fond of – a bird-girl named Meteion, who is tasked with Hermes to fly into the universe and find out what makes life worth living on different worlds. There are multiple Meteia, and they all fly off and find the same thing – suffering makes life painful, and given the flawed premise of Hermes’ question, the Meteia end up singing a song of sorrow to bring about the end – thus, the Noise that led to Zodiark and the current Final Days.

Furthermore, we learn that Meteion is powered not by aether, but Dynamis, the energy of emotions (and also what powers Limit Breaks!). It is weaker than aether and difficult if not impossible to see expressed in a normal being with aether, especially in the Ancients’ time as they had an abundance of aether, but Dynamis is what allows Meteion to travel through space, and what makes the song of the Final Days resonate – empowering the Dynamis of all who hear the song with despair unending until they are transformed for it or forced to channel the despair in creation magic, as the Ancients were.

The time-travel of Elpis is neatly cutoff with a plot device which averts my pet hate in fiction of time travel plots and the sticky consequences of them not being addressed, and we come back with knowledge of Hermes, Meteion, and the true cause of the Final Days. Venat, conveniently, did not have her memory wiped and so we have an ally working across time to bring us to our present day, where Venat, now Hydaelyn, has called us to duty. She tests our wills, and we win, ending her and gaining the power of the Mothercrystal and her blessing to reach the far edge of the universe, to challenge Meteion at her nest to put a stop to the Final Days, rather than Hydaelyn (and the Sharlayan Forum’s) original plan, which was to evacuate humanity to the moon with the help of the Loporrits that live there, flying the moon (itself an artificial construct from Hydaelyn herself) to find a new star to inhabit. However, dooming Etheriys also dooms the reflections, so the stakes are high, as the people of the First we just spent two years getting close to and those of all the other reflections are in jeopardy as well.

We take the ark the Sharlayans were making in secret – a spaceship now christened Ragnarok – to the edge of the universe, to a realm made of the manifestation of despair – Ultima Thule. There, our friends sacrifice in turn to clear the way through the despair, opening up paths through the disconnected lands of despair until we can finally challenge Meteion. However, her nest remains out of reach, until we use the power of Creation given to us via Azem’s crystal by Hydaelyn to summon…Emet-Selch and Hythlodaeus, who use their creation magicks to create a field of Elpis Flowers, creating vast internal conflict for Meteion who breaks and clears the way, which also allows us to return our friends to life. The fakeout done, we run through the tales of civilizations given in to despair before challenging the flock of Meteia, coalesced together into the Endsinger, with the help of Zenos (!) who transformed into Shinryu once more to meet us at the edge of existence.

Meteion falls, singing a song of hope (the very same that the lyrics of the expansion theme were referencing!) and we finally answer Zenos’ challenge, defeating him in 1v1 combat and bringing his tortured existence to peace at last, the sun rising on a new dawn for all of creation and for our star.

Start to finish, the expansion was incredible to me, but I provide this synopsis not just out of bad habits in writing about this story. Let’s use the back half of this post to discuss the elements that stood out to me.

The Good

The Narrative Comes Together with Respect for the Past

Endwalker could have retconned or withheld elements from the distant past that players may have forgotten, but it leans into the strength of having nearly a decade-long running narrative (just over a decade counting 1.0) by bringing back nearly every plot point in some fashion. We get the early Garlean leaders via the Aetherial Sea and the Aitiascope dungeon, we deal with characters from the early leaders in the original city states through to Emet-Selch, we get a touching ensemble moment where all of our friends from the journey meet us to help us meet the challenge of making a spaceship that can reach the edge of the universe, and it really feels throughout like the population of Etheriys as a whole rise up together to meet the challenge of the Final Days.

The foundational elements of worldbuilding remain intact throughout, and it makes paying attention to the lore and story from earlier on in the game’s history worth it. You’ll see so many little bits that hit so hard if you paid even just a smidge of attention, and not even just in the MSQ – there is a sidequest where what seems like an innocent ask is made of you…by Papylymo’s father, who tells you how proud he was of his son and how glad he is to know that his life found meaning with a comrade like you.

There were two big moments of the MSQ that broke me with tears in particular that fit this mold – the first is late in the MSQ, where Urianger runs into Moenbryda’s parents, and they just share in their suffering and loss together for a moment, and it feels so poignant and human – Urianger’s loss of a woman he loved is felt so deeply through this moment and the pain and suffering of parents having lost a child before their time is felt as well. It was so emotionally affecting that I am fighting tears back right now just thinking about it as I type this.

The second is the leadup to the finale, which I will discuss on its own.

The Pacing of Most of the Story Is Exceptional

An MMO expansion as I’m used to it, from the WoW side, would be a world already set into disarray by the events we’re dealing with. In Endwalker, this is averted by the fakeouts of early on – the Final Days aren’t just suddenly there when you log in to 6.0, but rather they happen for a very clear reason and when they begin, the stakes raise significantly. Once we get to the moon, the story is packed and yet never feels too overwhelming – there’s some dense moments of plot happening, but they’re well-explained and the pacing never feels rushed for it, at least from Mare Lamentorum forward, with a couple exception moments I’ll discuss later.

The Grounding of the Story is Superb

Endwalker, from the outside, sounds like a potential impenetrable mess of gods, mythical entities that were the foundation of a world for generations, and overwrought conflicts spanning eons. However, what makes FFXIV so fucking good as a story overall is how these things are brought to us. The cosmic scale is made understandable and brought to meet us in the middle, instead of remaining an impenetrable mess that lingers far above. Hydaelyn is a being manifested of light, but she is also Venat, the woman, with her flaws and imperfections imprinted deeply. Zodiark is a dark god of unfathomable power, but that power is rooted in the despair of the Ancients as they watched their world turn to ash and is thus brought to a human scale. Meteion is a bird-woman powered by the energy of emotions, but she’s brought to evil by the understandable nature of her as a childlike mind learning about all of the universe in brief journeys and being broken by that knowledge.

I come back to this theme with FFXIV a lot because it holds true constantly – the strength of FFXIV as a narrative is that it makes the incomprehensible understandable, takes massive entities of unfathomable power and brings them to a distillation of human events, feelings, and understanding – making them relatable and interesting. This expansion could have buckled under the weight of its sheer scope and ambition, but the writing manages to support all of it well and makes it impactful.

The Finale Is, Bar None, The Single Best Storytelling Moment I Have Seen In My Life

Ultima Thule as a zone is a hopeless place, the literal manifestation of despair. Our journey through it starts shrouded in darkness, living the lamentations of each of the 3 races that occupy the space, the baseline music distorted, obscured and distant. One by one, the Scions give their lives to clear the way for us, banishing despair point by point and manifesting the light of hope in the zone as the means to bring us forward. Each death is a gut punch, even knowing that they’ll be undone, and each death clarifies the music little by little, until Close in the Distance is playing at full volume and detail, the first world zone theme in FFXIV with lyrics. The lyrics, the music, the pure atmosphere – all of it hits you until you are left alone, and in the last quest before the main gameplay sequence, forced to RP walk past the spirits of other companions, with voiceovers from every era of FFXIV playing as you pass each one, encouraging you to push on and discussing the painful journey you are taking.

This moment is something that can only work in video games as a narrative medium – it is so impactful and tear-producing because you, actually you, was there for the journey, and you’re not reliving some random events in each character’s past through their voiceover, but moments you were there for – things where you alleviated their burdens or where your mission didn’t quite pan out and they believed in you anyways, knew you would make it right. It brings the whole story to a close in an immensely satisfying way, and it works so well because you have to carry that weight and you were there for all of those moments. A movie or book cannot do the same, because you don’t have that direct avatar in the action, and expert cinematography can only portray the look of that march, alone but not forgotten, surrounded by the voices that guided you to this point. It’s the single best use of a forced RP walk in any game, and my god my face hurt when I made it to the top of the path paved by the Scion’s sacrifice.

Then we get the return of Emet-Selch and Hythlodaeus, and the refutation of despair, and the moment is beautiful because it reflects the journey. You get your friends back! Emet-Selch acknowledges that living in the past is why he lost and that your fight, which he supports, is for the future. You refute Meteion’s flawed premise of life not with monologues or violence, but with the Elpis blooms illuminated in brilliant light with hope, even in that dark place. It is a beautiful moment, because Meteion is not an all-knowing cosmic entity – she’s a flawed creation built on a broken premise and on some level, she knows that too, and we leverage that to pave our way forward.

On an artistic level, everything about this sequence was obviously painstakingly crafted and it benefits heavily from it. The pacing of the cinematic dialogue, the RP walk sequence, the use of the song, it all feeds in so well to create an experience that I cannot do justice to. I will think about that sequence until I die, because it was just such a beautiful, surreal moment of reckoning with the human condition – being left alone, dealing with despair, sacrificing to remedy that despair for others, and the revelation that you aren’t alone and there is always someone there for you. Just…wow. Easily one of the best moments in a fictional narrative period, and for me, an easy ranking at the top of moments in stories.

The Seeds of the Future Are Planted

Obviously, while Endwalker represents an end to the narrative that has defined the initial arc of FFXIV, it is not the end of the game, and what comes next needed to be setup. Emet-Selch hits us with a huge list of stuff we could do on Etheriys, along with visiting the other reflections besides the First (is it possible?). The earlier parts of the MSQ do a lot to setup Corvos, an island nation that G’raha Tia was born on and was the original home of the Garlean Empire before they were pushed into the icy wastes of northern Ilsabard, and to me that feels like a huge flag that our Endwalker Relic Weapon chain will be centered on it, likely with involvement from G’raha and the Leveilleur twins (G’raha because birthplace and the twins because of their stationing in Garlemald with the survivors there).

Having the seeds planted so early on is vital because it gives a shape and boundary to what can come next, and it very much felt like the developers breaking the fourth wall to tell us quite explicitly some of what to expect in the near future. I suspect that Meracydia would be the next big moment for us in 7.x, mainly because it dovetails nicely with the view of the dragons we get via Ultima Thule (and also, y’all notice how the main Terminus beast looks like a horrific version of Midgardsormr? Hmm…). Whatever may come, at least the parameters are defined and relatively clear – and I don’t suspect this is a misdirect so much as a “please look forward to it” in game form. Speaking of the game being a bit cheeky and self-referential, though…

They Acknowledge Zenos’ Standing With Fans And It Works

Early on in the story, after a contentious duty where you don’t play as yourself, Alisaie delivers a scathing monologue to Zenos – his journey is tedious, no one wants to engage with him because he’s single minded and completely non-altruistic, and he’s dull and destined to suffer alone for it. A vicious verbal attack from her, which is correct…and also things fans of the game have said about Zenos!

Zenos being in Endwalker in a focused role seemed like it would be an albatross on the neck of the expansion – as a character, I don’t know anyone who is particularly fond of him. What I loved about his arc in Endwalker is that the game acknowledges this via Alisaie, addressing him with the very same critiques many players have, and it gives him pause. He disappears to ponder what was said to him, about him, and while he appears briefly here and there, he’s really not a force for most of the story. Indeed, his role was really enabling Fandaniel in service of getting a fight with us – he has no interest in the Final Days and no real investment in anything but his rematch with us. He grows as a character for this realization, and ends up being the force that helps us during the final trial, giving us his back as Shinryu to ride on as we face the Endsinger. In exchange, he finally gets his 1v1 battle, and I loved it so much because it fits, narratively. He grows as a character, not to be a good person or redeemed, but simply learns altruism and demonstrates it by helping us, no strings attached. We grant him battle in kind as repayment, and the fight duty is epic and insane, culminating in an anime punch battle before we finally end him.

Zenos’ arc was mostly not good, and I would put him down as one of the weaker new characters from the Stormblood era forward, but Endwalker gives him depth and dimensionality he previously was seriously lacking. He becomes a complete character to get the battle he wants – not redeemed, but at peace with himself and the world. He got his fight and he lost it again, and he can die peacefully. Given how his Resonant power seemed to work in Stormblood (possessing a nearby body), I’d suspect we won’t see him going forward as he died on the edge of the universe, stripped of the power that enabled him to travel there alone in the first place by his crushing defeat at our hands. I hope we don’t see him going forward, as his ending in this fight was beautiful and gave us one last analytical look at the nature of life and suffering before the curtain fell on the MSQ. I trust the writers of this game to know that and to not bring him back, so unlike with WoW, I don’t have the apprehension that he’ll be back in a couple of patches!

The Wide Array Of Thematic Influences on The Story

Endwalker is a tale about how suffering enriches joy by being the contrast to make joy all that much sweeter. It’s also a coming of age tale about how the decisions you make can change your fate for better or worse and how you can redefine yourself with appropriate effort. It’s a story about parenting, about learning to accept your children for who they are and cherish them while they are here and to not take that for granted. It’s a tale about the power of friendship and how humans group together and pick each other up. It’s a saga about how the differences that separate people are man-made and defined and we can choose to not split or separate but to instead share in our human condition together as one. It is also a story of sacrifice, of giving of oneself to achieve a noble goal, even if you may not see that goal reached yourself.

The sheer breadth of the story is fascinating, and what made me feel so emotionally connected to it is that none of the themes really stick out poorly. They all feel tightly woven and integrated together, and the story excels for it. The main theme about suffering being a component of life we cannot avoid is sometimes a little over-emphasized, in that characters will often state as much directly rather than letting the theme speak for itself, but that is a minor quibble.

The Iffy

The First Chapter of the Story and the Finale Setup Are A Bit Rushed

This stands out because the pacing of the rest of the story is exceptionally great, but the opening stretch feels like a huge chunk of a normal FFXIV expansion was compacted into the first 3 levels and it does a bit of disservice to those elements to rush them. We meet the Matanga of Thavnair through a couple of standout NPCs but then quickly head back to Old Sharlayan. We meet the gleaners of Sharlayan in Labyrinthos and speedrun their backstory to build up for later. The thing that sticks out the most to me in the narrative is that Labyrinthos as a zone is done a disservice on both sides of leveling, as in the opening stretch, you barely see it and are pushed away by the Forum, and then on the tail end you quickly move through the inner circuit region to figure out how to fix the aetherburners on the Ragnarok to make the journey to Ultima Thule. There’s story to be had here (the seeds of Fourchenault Leveilleur realizing the maturity and intelligence of his children are planted, and the Urianger/Moenbryda grief happens in this stretch too), but those are standout moments in the midst of fetch quests, and while those quests all logically fit within the narrative, it feels a little weak.

That isn’t to say they’re bad, because they aren’t – they just feel like they could have been more, if that makes sense.

Elpis Will Be Polarizing and Has Some Pacing Flaws of Its Own

When I spoiled myself on the story to come last Thursday, Elpis seemed like it might take the shine off the expansion for me. I hate time travel plots – Dragon Soul in WoW, WOD in WoW (actually, just any time WoW does time travel, guaranteed awfulness), Avengers Endgame – it always reeks of desperation and creates myriad paradoxes that writers so often fail to tie up or pay off. So the idea that we get sent back to Elpis, to this time before the world was sundered – initially, I was pretty inclined to worry.

I’d argue that the paradoxes are pretty well wrapped up, as in-universe, everything gets neatly explained. There is one exception that is handled pretty well in the game – our going back in time and Venat’s memory of us from that not being erased creates an interesting causal loop, where Venat’s faith in humanity is heavily enriched by having met us, traveling backwards to meet her and find the information we need to avert catastrophe. That being said, this is the part of the story I find is a sticking point in discussions I have seen online, as it feels a little loose and ill-defined in game and the setup of how we get to Elpis is likewise slightly contrived (we have to use the Crystal Tower, but not ours, because it doesn’t have Elidibus juice to pinpoint Elpis with, so we go to the First to use that one, because it has what we need), but at the same time, I liked that they integrated the First back into the story instead of just ditching it.

I’ll also agree with Gnomecore on the pacing of Elpis. While I loved the zone and the story it told overall, the middle does drag a little bit, because the questing has to establish both Hermes and Meteion as characters, expand upon Emet-Selch, Hythlodaeus, and Venat, and give us a satisfying taste of pre-sundering Ancient culture and society so that the stakes that Emet-Selch fought for are given new context and life in the game. It’s dense with exposition and while the role it serves is valuable, it also starts to feel a little overlong, especially given how little time you spend in both Labyrinthos and Thavnair compared to it. I loved it overall, but in the moments in the middle of the questing it was a smidge frustratingly paced.

Also, while I loved the Venat cutscene that closes the zone out, I think it uses a lot of visual metaphors that match plot events and confuse matters. I’ve seen some tense debates about people suggesting that Venat sundered the reflections pre-Hydaelyn because of the cinematic, when I think that the cinematic is intended to be a visual metaphor for the horrors of the Final Days as seen through Venat’s eyes and not a literal portrayal of events. Given those elements together, I think Elpis will be divisive for some.

Also, I have a bit of fear in me that the raid series may upend the carefully-crafted lack of paradoxes here, as Pandaemonium is confirmed in the post-credits sequence to be taking place in Elpis, with pre-sundering Elidibus as our NPC guide into the zone. I trust this team to get it right, especially given how gracefully they stuck the landing on Elpis in the first place, but the apprehension will remain until later this month when we get the raid series beginning.

The Bad

The Non-You Duties

Here’s the thing about an MMO and especially about FFXIV for me from a story perspective – I play to be my character. I dislike vehicle quests in WoW, and I dislike when FFXIV asks us to play another character besides ourselves. Endwalker loads this up in two ways – a bevy of Scion control quests including a stealth mission with Thancred and a story mission where we are locked into a Garlean soldier’s body while Zenos takes ours.

The kicker for me is this – I didn’t mind these sequences that much from a gameplay perspective, and the storytelling enabled by the Zenos sequence in particular was great. However, the mechanics could do with a lot of added clarity. Thancred’s stealth controls and vanishing act were somewhat difficult to wrap my head around, but I didn’t fail the mission and passed it in one shot. The Zenos mission was a struggle, as the map layout was confusingly walled off in weird ways and required a lot of backtracking which was a nuisance at best. They served their purpose in the story, so like, okay, it’s fine in that I didn’t hate the expansion for them and they end relatively quickly, but they also stuck out like sore thumbs and the most negative feedback I’ve seen about the expansion on a content basis is these scenarios.

It hits hard because the ending of the expansion story so clearly knows that a big part of what makes an MMO story special is us controlling an avatar of our own creation, so…why do we spend a chunk of time as not-us? The Zenos one gets the most hate from others I’ve seen, which I find interesting because I liked it on a story basis because of what it says about us versus Zenos and how it builds tension in that story, along with how our friends are not stupid and quickly realize what is happening. The Scion control ones, easy or not gameplay-wise, though, I agree – I found them tedious and distracting rather than enriching.

Stealth Follow Quests

This is one aspect of the expansion that I think has been universally panned and for good reason.

In an MMO where other players coexist with me in a shared world, with enemies around that can aggro us, having to sneak a safe distance behind an NPC sucks. From a gameplay perspective, it’s dull, from a story perspective, in most cases it tells us very little about the events unfolding and sets up almost nothing (in one case, you sneak follow Urianger even though he wants you to follow him, because…I don’t fucking know why), and in the cases where there even is a story payoff to be had, it’s minor and the gameplay tied to it is still tedious as hell.

It feels like in the design process for the game, someone at CBUIII made a stealth engine to make the quests work and the programming effort put into it necessitated using it frequently to get the value out of it. For how tight and well-built the rest of the expansion is, these quests feel like a step back, and they are points where I could have gotten annoyed enough to log out for a minute, if the servers weren’t going to prevent me from coming back in a timely manner thus forcing me to stay the path. Again, it’s minor and I won’t say they ruin the expansion or anything, because they certainly don’t – but it is a moment of irritation in an otherwise sublime experience.

The Servers

This point has been hit a lot and I don’t want to spend much time on it, especially because the debate around it online has grown exceedingly tedious. It sucks and was predictable that the game would be hit with unprecedented demand, but hardware solutions to the problem were unavailable for the most part. I found the argument that the team had done everything they could empty when they then deployed development servers as a backup means to keep the game running well, and I think that there’s an inflamed emotional response to people pointing out that Square Enix bears some responsibility for the mess when it is true. It gets overblown to the point of comedy when the stans get involved in defending the billion-dollar corporation from legitimate criticisms of their handling of the issue. Ultimately, none of us are network engineers on that kind of level and scale to know what could or could not be done, so the frustration on both sides comes from understandable places – waiting in the lines and thinking that Square Enix did everything possible and is being unfairly attacked, and waiting in the lines thinking that there must be some possible solution that could have been rolled out with the months of preparation they did have, knowing that the major influx started in the spring by the team’s own admission.

Again though, it must be said that once the login queue is done, the experience in the game I’ve had has been rock-solid and unwavering, and I accept that wait time for content that is worthwhile, deeply impactful, and for servers that don’t buckle under standard gameplay. What I find bad is an error that means I don’t just have to wait in line, but need to babysit and mind the game for multiple hours at a sitting to just play and not lose my spot in line. I’m hopeful that the team will revisit this topic and find ways to solve it, and the login server maintenance has seemed to reduce the 2002 errors I’ve experienced, such that I had none yesterday during a 2 hour wait to play and am sitting with the client in queue as I write this with no errors after 2 hours of wait.

It’s been a shitshow, but an understandable one to a point, and my hope is that this experience leads the team to make changes under the hood to how the game handles queuing and the like to reduce these errors to an absolute minimum. Long-term, I hope this is a Warlords of Draenor launch moment – when WoW buckled under the logins at WoD launch, the server structure of the entire Battle.net platform was homogenized and made to be elastic to a point so that Blizzard’s games can flex demand up or down, taking server capacity from a shared pool for all games. I don’t suspect that Square Enix will fully do that (they have a lot of games made by a big handful of studios across the world), but with FFXIV the company’s undisputed number one moneymaker right now, it feels like an investment into shared infrastructure would be worthwhile.

In Closing

With Endwalker, Square Enix has taken Final Fantasy XIV to new heights and met the lofty goal of exceeding the quality of Shadowbringers narrative while making a lot of adjustments to keep the game interesting and exciting for the long-term. I’m very happy to have experienced it and it gave me so much to chew on and think about that was deeply relatable to my daily life, despite coming from a fantasy/sci-fi epic that spans the universe and deals with gods, life energy, and the nature of creation and existence.

In the MMO space, it is quite clear now that FFXIV is the number one game in the space, due largely to crowd-pleasing expansions like Endwalker that build upon the solid foundation that A Realm Reborn laid for the game back in 2013 and the reinforcements to that foundation that have come in subsequent expansions.

As a standalone narrative, Endwalker is dense and fast-paced but exciting and clear, and rarely loses focus or confuses. As a chapter-defining ending to an 11 year saga that started with FFXIV 1.0 back in 2010, Endwalker is transcendent – a solid ending that greets us with all the old familiar faces and places before shattering our expectations of what can be done in a game narrative in the best ways. As an MMO, the game has a comfortable formula it continues to make meaningful additions to, rather than subtractions, and the game is far better for it. As a media property as a whole, my life has been made better for the addition of Final Fantasy XIV – the lessons embedded in its narrative, the sweeping beauty of its world and characters, and the way in which all of it speaks to the human condition we all share in.

It sounds like hyperbole or the ramblings of an obsessed fan boy, and at this point, yeah maybe – Endwalker has been so good that I’ve been obsessed, although not to the level of tearing my family apart (here’s the Reddit thread that is referencing if you somehow missed it). FFXIV has earned its place atop the MMO stack for a lot of reasons, and Endwalker is a sprint through many of them. It is not perfect, but no work of media could ever be and the game itself knows this. The FFXIV team masterfully played with our expectations and built something very special in the process, and my sincere gratitude goes to the team that made it for enriching my life with it.

If you aren’t playing FFXIV at this point, we’ve now reached critical mass where you are Missing Out(tm).

Oh, and after you ride your nemesis as a dragon into a battle with the literal embodiment of despair at the edge of the universe, you are rewarded by getting to ride a dog into battle.

What a game.

(Also, I’m very mad that the team has had Meteion snuck into promotional materials since the spring without anyone noticing or calling it out until now! They’re so good at being sneaky!)

14 thoughts on “The Spoiler-Laden Review of Endwalker

  1. I rage quit the duty with the unknown imperial soldier vehicle. I didn’t have a problem with the controlling another character, as we’ve done that before and this one was a neat change being that it was a weakling we were controlling. I was angry that I’d spent so much time getting familiar with that area in the preceding quests then they went and erected artificial walls for no reason other than to make you waste more time running a maze that you couldn’t see until you were basically standing right on top of the “walls.” I didn’t log back in until I found a map online that had the fake walls drawn in. I’m still salty about the walls in that duty. Otherwise, I rather enjoyed it.

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    1. The other issue I had was the ham-fisted use of escort/follow quests. “YOU WILL NOT MOUNT UP! Also, you will do back to back escort quests that traverse the entire zone on foot. BWU-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” Those really dragged out and had me losing interest. Tedium for tedium’s sake.

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  2. So, I am a network engineer who has experience at this scale. SE could have used Azure or AWS to deploy new servers. This is something that most large companies outside the gaming sector have been doing to handle increased demand for their applications. There are several problems with this approach for the Gaming industry:

    1) Lack of physical control of the hardware

    Yoshi-p alludes to this in his posts on the Lodestone, but SE likes to have physical access to servers for security and reliability reasons. Also, they utilize onsite teams to do server maintenance and updates (such as new content patches). Seeing as how there was a recent AWS outage, I don’t find fault in SE’s stance.

    2) Parity between physical (hosted servers) and cloud deployed (or virtual private servers, VPS) servers

    When I say “parity” here, I mean more than just the syncing of data. I am also talking about performance. With physical server hardware, you can assume that identical servers will perform within 5-10% of each other. With cloud servers, you don’t know the exact underlying hardware. So, the differences in performance between two VPSes with the same specifications (i.e. same vCPUs, RAM, storage, and graphics capabilities) could be 15-20% or more depending on several factors. In practice, the likelihood is low but not insignificant for this situation to happen. In a game that is “always on”, differences in performance would be felt by the players and it would cause problems. This is especially true of the networking aspect of physical servers and VPSes, which I will detail in a separate point.

    3) Networking is a PITA

    If you think a network datacenter going down is bad (like when NTT went down for a bit a few years ago and no one could log in), imagine the scale when AWS or Azure have issues. When AWS or Azure have an outage, it takes out an entire region of the internet. If the region your VPSes are deployed in goes down, you have no way to fix the issue because you have zero access to the VPSes (virtually or otherwise). If these VPSes house an FFXIV datacenter, then that whole datacenter can’t access anything. But the real kicker would be if SE used VPSes to handle other functions of the game, such as login and lobby servers. If they deployed all regions’ login/lobby servers into the cloud, then no one could access anything and there would be no quick way to fix the issue(think a few days or even a week long outage). Further, if the database is also deployed in the cloud then you stand the risk of losing data (unless you have a recent backup and the backup wasn’t corrupted by the outage). Lastly, you can’t expect to have dedicated bandwidth. You will be sharing a connection with other companies.

    4) The fixes for the above problems cost just as much as maintaining a hosted server in a datacenter (network terminology, not FFXIV datacenter)

    A company can dictate by contract that a certain standard set of hardware be used for the services they run. The problem is that this costs just as much as a hosted server, but you have no control over the actual hardware used or maintenance of said hardware. If a server breaks down, you are at the mercy of your contacts and support team at the cloud service company. However, you can pay extra for:

    – dedicated bandwidth
    – dedicated, specific hardware
    – 24×7 premium support (an assigned team)
    – distributed, multi-region deployment
    – distributed backups

    All of the above through a cloud service provider will cost almost as much as doing it all yourself or paying for the same services through a hosting provider (SE uses NTT).

    Considering all of the above though…

    I do think that SE should have considered this approach. Cloud deployments can offer better services to players, but it will cost SE a very shiny, pretty penny. All of the problems I mentioned also hold true for hosted servers, but usually on a smaller scale.

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    1. Also, not pooing on SE for their decision. A cloud deployment on the scale SE would need for FFXIV would take a year or two to plan, test, fix, re-plan, test, deploy, and release. Even if SE started the process back in 2019 before the panny, we would still be in the same position we are today. It is entirely possible that SE is already in the early stages of planning a cloud migration given that server hardware at the scale they need will not be available for at least the next year.

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    2. Thanks for the comment! This is one of those spaces where I am interested in the topic but know I don’t know enough to say anything other than “it feels like it could have been better,” and I’m happy to see the perspective here.

      One interesting thing I saw over the weekend was a post on the FFXIV subreddit from someone who did network traffic analysis and saw that while in queue, the game was closing and reopening the connection to the lobby server every 15 minutes, which seemed like a big problem (if you get in without a 2002 and wait patiently, it seems that the reconnection could then introduce the error and thus the problem) and so it seems like a strange decision for netcode could well be part of the issue.

      But again, I don’t know enough to have anything to say other than that I can both empathize with the team on the situation (getting a new CPU and GPU in the last year took an obsessive amount of effort for me, and that’s just one guy with a single gaming PC!) and I know that a cloud solution is not a universal, easily-applied fix for a product that hasn’t used one to date. But at the same time, it does feel like more could have been done and should have been done, especially if what player analysis of their own connections is revealing (like a 15 minute reconnect window in queue) is true. If I could wait in line without having to babysit it, I’d be 110% happy with Endwalker because the game, once in, is brilliant!

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      1. Yeah, I assume you mean this post: https://www.reddit.com/r/ffxiv/comments/redlau/ive_written_a_clientside_networking_analysis_of/

        Without having access to the packet capture, it is hard for me to make a determination either way, so what I have to say is mostly conjecture on my own part. Looking at the actual content of the packets could be useful. Taken on the surface, I agree with the OP’s analysis of the situation and the client should have a way to re-establish a rejected connection. Although, I would contend almost every game client acts the same way when the server sends a FIN packet (and for that matter, most applications). A FIN packet literally means, “nothing left to send, close connection”. The TCP protocol isn’t designed to handle reconnection attempts in the manner FFXIV would need. Further, allowing for unauthenticated reconnection attempts would be bad.

        If you question what I mean by “unauthenticated”, once your connection to the server is closed there is no way for the server to know that you are who you say you are once you reconnect (since once the TCP connection is closed, so is the SSL/TLS connection used to secure the traffic and therefore the server’s knowledge of your session is gone). So, there would need to be a mechanism for either:

        A) storing a session token on the client and server side in case the connection closes prior to login with a reasonable TTL (probably 1-5 minutes)

        B) allowing the player to re-enter their login credentials if the server disconnects the player prematurely

        C) both

        It’s not so simple as “allow reconnects”, but I do think it is a good idea. I think it important to not be reductive when talking about the FFXIV situation because the community et al. will eat up bad information and regurgitate that information even more poorly.

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      2. Oh, and just to be clear: allowing the client reconnect attempts would almost assuredly force a change in the way the servers handle client connections. So, I’d expect 2-6 months of testing before such a feature would even be feasible (if SE decided to work on it).

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  3. Fantastic write-up, thanks! One thing I was wondering about: I felt like the writers have avoided time paradoxes by going for the ‘deterministic’ theory of time travel: everything you do in Elpis was predetermined and had already happened. This is ‘proven’ by the fact that Argos recognises you when you first meet him on the moon, before you travel back in time to meet him (and when you meet him in the past, you have to spar with Venat before Argos trusts you). So actually, you don’t ‘change’ the past in any way, the writers just don’t believe in linear time, everything you do had already happened. What are your thoughts on this?

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    1. Thanks for the comment!

      The use of deterministic time travel here is interesting and would seem to fit the overall narrative they went for with Elpis – your points definitely illustrate that idea as does some of the dialogue from Elidibus on the First when we go back to Elpis, coupled with him being the (likely) main NPC we partner with for Pandaemonium. I’m almost more curious to see how the raid series makes it work, because I think revisiting Elpis and having other stories that take place there might give more fuel to that idea in some way!

      It’s also in line with how the Alexander raid series story worked with its time-travel story, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they drew some of the paradox-solutions from their own prior work on it.

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  4. Great write-up! Labyrinthos really threw me as a zone because nothing happened in the initial visit. Also, not sure if bugged, but after visiting the lala engineer my zone music got stuck on “let’s get this dooone!” music instead of the normal zone theme and it was really irritating doing that half of the zone with pumped up, repetitive music. It only righted itself after completing the final MSQ quest.

    Personally I found Elpis’ pacing enjoyable. I’m yet to see anyone complain about everything post-trial on the moon though. I found the whole burrow chain super tedious.

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    1. Thanks for the comment!

      it’s interesting, because on the point about Mare Lamentorum, I found the loporrit stuff okay. Not great or anything, but it felt like it served the purpose of an Act II starting point, where we had the constant tension of Garlemald going right into the moon and Zodiark. It was, in retrospect and with distance, a tad longer than I would have liked, but it was enjoyable enough for me. I know that the FFIV players I know LOVED it, but it is a lot of exposition delivery right after a pretty tense couple of hours of story.

      The music point in Labyrinthos is a good one – I think it didn’t phase me because I the Urianger moment kind of got me effectively enough that I didn’t notice it as much, but I do think that is the design intention of that part of the MSQ, and I agree it’s a bit strange.

      I liked Elpis a lot in the end – I think it can feel a bit long in the middle when you’re kind of just getting a lot of angles of sight into the Ancients and their lives, but that all serves to pay off what came before in Shadowbringers and what we get at the end, so as a whole, I liked it even as in the moment, it felt a bit long.

      Also, just a stray thought on Labyrinthos, I will say that navigating it was weird and I wasn’t a fan of how the zone was laid out when I was grounded on my mounts. With flying, it’s fine, but the middle patch being unused save for the basement ship pad is a bit weird!

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