One Month Later, A Look Back At The Endwalker MSQ

There will be spoilers for Endwalker in here, albeit lightly. Be warned!

One month ago, I finished the Endwalker MSQ. At the time, I was sort of struggling with what to write, with how to sum up the experience of the game I had just played, the nearly 40 hours I spent over 3 days chasing after that finale like a madman. If it was glowing, I wanted to make sure the glow was earned. If it was down on the game, I wanted to make sure that was rooted in a fair assessment of what I felt as I had played. It was just my opinion, as is anything I write here – but I wanted it to be grounded and fair. I settled on a compromise for myself – write the feelings authentically, temper them slightly, then come back and think on again with some distance, with the standard MMO gameplay loop having defined the majority of my time now with Endwalker.

And here we are, on the week I’ve done my first current-tier Savage raiding, and I want to take that opportunity now.

One of the most interesting and poignant things the expansion did is a moment late into Elpis – as you finish the zone, you get a moment alone with Venat, the woman who would become Hydaelyn, who asks your character the question, “Has your journey been good? Has it been worthwhile?” In the story, this is a fully-framed moment of lore, as she who would become the will of the star is genuinely curious if the road that led you to the past, to her as she stood in that moment, was worth the pain and suffering it wrought. It also, cheekily, feels like the FFXIV team, peering through your monitor to ask you, the player, that very same question.

I love meta-analytical moments like these in games. Hotline Miami stuck with me for years because it is a treatise on the violence we wreak in videogames and how flimsy the justifications can be that we will leave unquestioned. But I’ve never had an MMO stare me in the face and ask how I’ve felt about the time I spent in the game, and it was…well, it kind of fucked with me, probably more than planned.

In the game, this serves well to setup the next stretch of the narrative arc of Endwalker – you get the extended universe cast all coming together for the big finale, to send you and your ragtag Scions to the edge of the universe, the literal nest of despair. The game hits you after that with a series of emotional gut punches, to continue to pose that question to you. There’s a real sense of closure, and between the final stretch of the MSQ and the Role Quest storylines, almost everything that the game has set into motion is wrapped up neatly, with loose threads that could still be played with in future storylines.

But I kept thinking about that question and the real life implications of it. Is the time I spent in FFXIV worthwhile to me? Does this journey mean something to me, enrich my life in some way?

I thought about it really hard over the last month, so much so that it is the narrative bedrock upon which this post is now built, and I think the answer is yes.

But we need to dive back into the story for a moment to answer that in more detail.

Endwalker Is (Not) Endwalker

Endwalker is worth evaluating on two levels – the first is as a standalone expansion story arc, and the second is on how it feeds the broader FFXIV story and world.

As a standalone story, I did like Endwalker quite a lot. I would place it near or very slightly above Shadowbringers, after having contemplated this question a lot. Shadowbringers was a strong standalone story, but it had to spend a lot of the beginning part establishing characters and world, building towards the finale to come. Endwalker does less of this by virtue of being set in Etheirys, but it is able to get more directly into the action as we aren’t learning about a new world in the early parts of the expansion. While Zodiark and Hydaelyn are established elements of the story before Endwalker, the expansion gives us much of the direct lore we have been missing about the two entities and thus could, if needed, stand alone.

There is fair critique of the pacing and tonal shifts of Endwalker, and I believe those are valid. The extended bits with the Loporrits after vanquishing Zodiark can feel disconnected and out of place, the level 88 return to Labyrinthos questing is somewhat poorly built with pacing that stutter-steps in fits and starts (and with use of a more frantic soundtrack piece that starts to wear over time), and upon reflection, I do think Garlemald’s inclusion was somewhat anticlimactic, as we go not to the thriving seat of the Empire but instead a withered husk ruined by civil war and the scheming of Fandaniel. I think a lot of people also have differing opinions on pacing based on how they played – the queue issues made a lot of people (myself included) do marathon sessions, playing longer than they might otherwise have played in order to savor as much as possible for the time they could get in the game.

I do think, however, in retrospect, that all of these are valid and yet don’t hurt the story that much. The section with the Loporrits is a palate-cleanser that I enjoyed when I look back on it, because it is sandwiched between two tense, dramatic parts of the MSQ. Garlemald feels like a genuine miss, and yet it captures so much of the flavor of the Garlean Empire in the brief look we do get at the remaining survivors. I personally was wrecked by the Moenbryda mourning part of Labyrinthos part 2, to an extent that the gameplay (which was, admittedly, exceptionally annoying here) kind of faded from my mind.

As a capstone to an epic tale, though, Endwalker shines because it has such a foundation to draw upon. Each expansion arc that came before has its hits and misses, and Endwalker is much the same, but where Endwalker shines is that it retroactively fits into so many gaps of the past that it enriches what came before, which is no simple feat. It can and does draw upon the characters, stories, and lore that have made up the last decade of this game, including 1.0, and it pays off most of the story artfully. If you’ve been there the whole time, playing each piece as it came out, the journey the game is capping off is yours as well, and by virtue of the way the game’s leveling structure works via the MSQ, even new players have a level of investment in that story and those characters. The leaning upon established beats is where I think the game can be hyperbolically reviewed – compared to WoW’s long-running, never-ending story where things just sort of stop instead of being wrapped up, FFXIV is a whole new world.

Having said all of that, I actually would stand by my initial assessment of the game’s story. Endwalker hit hard, and it was able to do that both on its own merits as a standalone arc and by virtue of brining closure to characters and story arcs I was introduced to as much as 7 years ago. It really does stand apart from most interactive narrative media I’ve consumed in my life, and I know that to be true in my opinion because I can watch someone else’s LP of the game, as they crack jokes and have their own reactions, and feel the connection to the story and its themes. It’s not perfect, but it is really quite good and the quality carries it through a few patches that could have been better-paced.

Speaking of themes…

Wings Of Hope

One of the things that I saw a lot of post-Endwalker, such that more cynical and shitty elements of the fandom were saying, “enough, we get it,” is how the themes of sorrow and hope in the face of it are so relatable and understandable as to be powerful.

One of the best things media can do is connect us to our inner thoughts, to give us moments of triumphant thought about the things we’ve been through, conquered, and moved on from. For me, Endwalker’s final stretch reminds me of the one time I almost killed myself in the midst of a particularly rough 72 hour stretch of my life, a lost relationship on the front end and a lost 8-year job on the back end. I remembered, playing through Endwalker, how that felt, the unlivable sorrow of it, how much it felt like not being here was the only viable solution. I remembered thinking of the taste of metal in my mouth, of how it might feel, of what people would say – and then I remembered that I am still here, and since that awful night, I’ve been around the world twice, published a book, had a year where I somehow suckered nearly a quarter of a million people into reading what I have to say about video games, got married, and how those experiences, all of them, came after what I saw as inescapable darkness. What worked for me about it is that it was a moment of thought and reflection – the game’s message isn’t that life is always amazing, but rather the opposite – that life begets suffering, and it is through suffering that our best moments are enriched and that everything is sweeter for it.

What’s especially great there is that everyone can take some moment of sorrow in their life and do the same, and the game has such a framework for its message in Endwalker that it can be fitted to just about everyone, and that is something really great. Your experience playing it was likely different than mine, not just in content but also in the introspective moments it triggers, and I think that is really special. If you’re a parent, the full arc of Fourchenault Leveilleur probably hits pretty hard, being willing to have your children hate you in order to guarantee their safety to your satisfaction. There’s a lot of heavy moments in the story, but the message that perseveres through all of it is that there is hope in the suffering and that despair cannot take the shine off the best moments of your life. Sometimes, the game is heavy-handed with this theme (at points, it outright states it through a handful of characters!), but overall, I found it poignant and well-done at this moment in our history.

In some ways, Endwalker as a narrative is a product of our current era – where our differences feel more separating than ever, where despair seems to have wrapped the world in a state of perpetual inaction, and where a little blue bird chirps all the worst things at us (I’m not sure how Japanese culture views Twitter or if they are familiar with concepts like “doomscrolling” or “the hellsite” but it does feel incredibly on-the-nose that Meteion is a literal blue bird who amplifies the negativity in us all to bring about the end). While certain pieces definitely feel like they were written well in advance, like so many works of the COVID era, there’s a certain undercurrent of our pandemic response at global scale (the city-states of Eorzea coming together with all of the allies of the Scions to solve the problem at a world-wide scale feels very much like what an ideal-state Earth would do for a pandemic, but of course now we’re veering deep into fiction hahahahaha man this sucks), and the fact that Ultima Thule even has Omega-variants named “Delta” and “Omicron” is…probably a coincidence, given the timing of Omicron news in particular, but hey, it lined up pretty well!

In that light, Endwalker is a window into a better world, a better timeline – a sadly fictional one, but again, the theme is clear and the real-world parallel fits and suits it well.

So much about Endwalker rests on its hypothesis of the world and life – that life has meaning, that despair and conquering it enhances our lives and is an inseparable part of human existence, that we all can take action together to solve unfathomably complex problems, and all of that feeds into the text as presented (the actual story we see on-screen) and the subtextual theme of it all. As someone who has had a particularly rough stretch the last couple of years, it was deeply meaningful to me for the game to come along when it did with these themes and ideas, and a big part of what left me so impressed and emotionally connected to it was that mix of where I was in life as a person and what the game had to say directly to the person I am at the moment. It reminded me of the rough patches I’ve had before, but in a positive way – and from scanning around the internet and discussions around the expansion, it seems like I was far from the only one.

The Gameplay Side – More Of The Same, For Better or Worse

The hard part in discussing Final Fantasy XIV in general, especially with an audience that largely plays or is familiar with World of Warcraft, is this – the gameplay differences can be hit or miss for people, and that is worth acknowledging.

Endwalker is, in many ways, a major shift from Square Enix in how Final Fantasy XIV presents content. It is not, however, a massive shift in gameplay. The core leveling experience on your first job remains much the same – heavily cutscene driven, lacking in combat gameplay, with more time spent watching cutscenes and having story unfold than is spent controlling your character or using your unique job toolkit. This is a formula that generally works for those already into FFXIV, or who want a more story-driven MMORPG experience – the opening stretch from logging in post- Shadowbringers to getting to the Endwalker title card has more cutscene length than a full WoW expansion. I like this experience because, in my opinion, it melds an above-average MMORPG set of systems and recurring gameplay elements to a single-player RPG level of story, worldbuilding, and narrative. It is a strength, but I recognize and acknowledge it is not for everyone.

In the gameplay aspect, everything remains much as you expect – there is a dungeon on every odd level in the new range, a level 90 story capstone dungeon, two additional level 90 Expert dungeons, a normal raid with 4 bosses set into wings where each raid is just the boss, 3 ranks of Hunt bills you can take daily, with a weekly B-rank monster to kill at level cap and the roaming world-boss style A and S ranks. There’s FATEs in each zone, and while we don’t know for sure, the patch structure is likely to be a single dungeon per patch, with 24-player Alliance raids on the odd-numbered patches and 8-player Normal/Savage raids on the even patches, with the Island Sanctuary, PvP changes, new housing in Ishgard coming later (some of those confirmed for 6.1) and a likely point at which we’ll get some new exploration zone in the same vein as Eureka or Bozja to do the Endwalker version of the Relic Weapon chain. We’ll likely see new trials starting in 6.2 (what shape they’ll be or story they’ll tell, who knows?), with an Endsinger EX in 6.1 to round out our launch experience.

Once you level your first job, what I love (genuinely) about FFXIV is the amount of choice you have to pursure your goals. You can level alt jobs with an armory bonus boost to experience, engage with the repeatable content side that every modern MMO has by running dungeons, raids, and daily objectives like The Hunt or Beast Tribe quests. For me, this is where much of my first month of Endwalker has been spent, and the results have been fun – each session sees meaningful progress towards a variety of personal goals the game helps loosely define, and I log off nightly feeling like my time was worth it, dictated on my terms with only the loosest of guidelines from the game (roulette bonuses once a day, current raid loot once per week, Hunt bills once daily per region, Beast Tribes and Custom Deliveries capped at a daily/weekly allowance). Nothing the game has offered me has felt forced, and if there is something I don’t enjoy, I can simply not do it. The weekly top-end Tomestone cap is generous enough to allow one piece of smaller gear per week and can be earned in a single gameplay session if you just go on a level 90 character through a full set of roulettes plus maybe 1-2 current raids, a task that takes maybe around 3 hours or so depending on your groups and queue times for roulettes.

The game doesn’t pressure me to do anything, and I’m free to self-direct, which is the biggest relief and joy in playing FFXIV over WoW right now. I do Hunts every day, but I don’t have to. I do my weekly raids until I get loot from all 4, but I could skip if I wanted. I capped my Astronomy tomes this week on day 1, but I could have skipped on that or done it slowly over time from a variety of sources. All of these options serve my goals – making money, gearing my character in all jobs, and experiencing the widest array of the content in the game that I can. That aspect of choice is such a huge thing for me, as one of things that pushed me away from WoW was being forced down a fixed path that was effectively mandatory to get the things I needed to do the content I wanted.

Again, however, I will state that Endwalker is still FFXIV in all its glory, and how you feel about that depends. There are perfectly valid reasons that you might not be into it, and might not want to get into it if you’ve tried it before, and those largely remain valid. For the combat side, once you get around the Stormblood level range of 60-70, the job and combat actions take the shape they stay in for most of the experience past that point in terms of pacing and flow, and if you make it there and don’t like the combat, Endwalker also doesn’t really change that much. Jobs do get new abilities and upgrades that add to them, but the pace remains fairly similar. If you’re not playing, I do think you’re missing out on a genuinely good story and game – but I can understand why it might not hit right for everyone.

Has My Journey Been Good? Has It Been Worthwhile?

And so, to close out this post, we come back to where it started.

This question from Venat, so simple on the surface, is one that really hit me. In a multi-year span where my former MMO home of WoW has been utterly disinterested in the answer to such a question or any opinions about the state of the game and is obsessed only with wasting my time in the most literal sense, FFXIV asking me that directly was a ballsy move.

Of course, if you make it to the point in the MSQ where the question is asked, surely the answer is yes, is it not? You might think that, but on reflection, it is more interesting than that. Games change, we change as people, and the things we like shift based on those changes, both within us and within our favorite media. FFXIV launched as a game few liked and almost none considered worthwhile, the despair of it threatening to take down Square Enix’s most-prized global brand, and the game went into retreat, with no new sales and new story patches for those who remained until the game could be spun into something better. And it got there, such that history is inverted and yet repeating – you cannot buy the base game now because it is too popular, too beloved. The game is too successful for the moment, and queues remain high. There are, I have joked with friends, more people waiting in-line to play FFXIV than are playing WoW right now, and while I am sure that is not actually true (and if it is, holy shit that’s bad), it feels that way sometimes. My guild is huffing fumes, and with the Legion Timewalking event ended, no one seems to actually be playing WoW right now. At most times and days, we have more people in Discord showing logged-in to FFXIV than to WoW, and the guild doesn’t have a huge contingent of FFXIV fans!

When I reflect on what the experience of FFXIV has meant to me over the years, from the MSQ to the moments of gameplay in-between, I think it has been a good journey. In times when WoW has been less-than-ideal, it gave me something else to do. In times where WoW has been good or even great, it gave me a log of stuff to catch up on. In the present moment, it has given me something to replace WoW with, a game that hits the same dopamine receptors as WoW with fewer of the negatives.

The day after I finished the Endwalker MSQ, I uninstalled WoW. That’s a point to ruminate on more in a post of its own, and it says as much about the state of WoW as it does the excellence of Endwalker in my eyes, but that was the point at which I knew there wasn’t really going to be a turning back for me.

That question posed innocently in-game as a part of the in-universe storytelling, was a broader prompt that made me consider a lot of things about my leisure time, about what I enjoy about MMOs and why I was playing WoW over FFXIV in modern times.

My journey in FFXIV has been good, if not always great. The game has given me a lot of things that I value in an media experience – reason and cause to reflect on my life, on the real things I’ve done outside the confines of a game. It has added value by giving me things to help shift my perception and consider things from new angles, and it has done that through a narrative that has an interesting take and perspective at a textual level. In gameplay terms, the game lets me choose my destiny and the rewards are consistently valuable and useful, with no artificial timers that will make them less valuable just because new things are also available. Outside of the excellence of the first playthrough of the MSQ, the recurring elements are strong and enjoyable, and while job design has grown slightly more homogenous with each expansion (mostly in the tank and healer roles), there’s enough unique flavor that I think everyone can find something to vibe with, and I enjoy each of the jobs in some way, even if I don’t frequently play all of them. I love that a fantasy game has created a cohesive world in which I can be a healer that shoots lasers or a powerful mage that draws upon fire, ice, and lightning.

And with Endwalker, the game has given me so much of value in terms of confronting the looming specter of my past, of those moments of despair, and showing how I conquered them and how that conquest was worthwhile and has made where I stand today all the better. That it did this while wrapped in a fun MMO is pretty damn cool.

So yes, Venat. My journey has been good and has been worthwhile. Even with a month to reflect on it, yep – it’s been pretty great, all told.

One thought on “One Month Later, A Look Back At The Endwalker MSQ

  1. Looking back at MSQ, Sharlayan Pt.II and Loporrits remain to be the mundane parts I’d rather blast through on my approaching alt as fast as possible (my Lalafell just entered Shadowbringers story). Garlemald was quite interesting and exciting arc on its own, except that it ruined expectations and did not let us to see the capital in its former glory.

    Alt replay is very exciting, as you know the major twists and turns, and the whole path ahead, so you can concentrate on details, on the path itself and approach to the story more level-headed and rational rather than engulfed in emotions and novelty, expectations and itch to see the ending. Besides, I’m enhancing my experience by clearing the side questlines expansion by expansion as I level alt jobs.

    Like always, I’m not in the radical camp of picking one game over another, and I haven’t given up on WoW – yet, despite my sub canceled until content updates. Although Blizzard-as-a-company state now strikes me more as people completely drowned in fight for their rights rather than development, which already suffered a lot in the first place. My primary question is: are there any developers left capable of delivering, and will they find time between strikes, walkouts and preparing for them to do so?

    Meanwhile, I’m happy in FFXIV. Queues are already reduced to pre-release state, and the game provides enough interest and content to just be there, like WoW always did before. Reliable pastime in my free time (up to a whole weekend, dawn till dusk spent in-game) with a zillion of activities and goals to pursue, investment into world and characters – what’s not to love?

    Liked by 1 person

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