Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood
The pantheon of Final Fantasy heroes is largely dominated by spiky-haired boys with piercing gazes and chilly demeanours. By contrast, Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood’s new heroine, Lyse, is like a warm summer breeze. She’s affable and vibrant, and her struggle to liberate her homeland from the evil Garlean empire is fraught with tension and drama. Stormblood is more than just an expansion to Final Fantasy XIV. It’s also among the finest Final Fantasy stories ever told.
Following the events of the previous expansion, Heavensward, Stormblood sees you, the Warrior Of Light, and your cadre of fellow heroes off to free the provinces of Ala Mhigo and Doma from Garlean rule. Like much of Final Fantasy XIV, it’s a throwback to the golden era of the series, a story about a grand adventure with good friends. While Lyse is easily the most likeable, the cast of Final Fantasy XIV has grown into an eclectic bunch, each with their own backstories and motivations.
Things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows, however. Stormblood’s story is laced with optimism, making the tragedies that unfold throughout the 50-hour campaign more poignant. During the siege of Doma castle, an exciting victory turns bitter after a major villain exacts some last-minute revenge. Voice acting and writing, thankfully, have been much improved.
Of course, what is Final Fantasy without a good villain pulling all the strings? Again, Stormblood exceeds expectations by introducing Zenos Yae Galvus, the amoral and intimidating crown prince of the Garlean empire who lives only to chase the thrill of a good fight like a drug. Zenos might never command the adoration of classic villains like Sephiroth, but he’s just as detestable. His calm, yet deranged, personality is oddly magnetic, and he steals the scene every chance he gets.
Whether you agree, however, will largely depend on if you still enjoy MMOs. Stormblood does little to change the genre’s central formula of questing and grinding. Its main story is chopped up and gated off behind level requirements in a manner that is frequently frustrating. Where other MMOs such as World Of Warcraft have vastly improved the diversity of their quests over the years, Stormblood’s are, on their own, thoroughly boring. The main story arc hides this problem behind dramatic cutscenes and exciting boss battles, but the sidequests necessary to level up have no such crutch to lean on.
Worse yet, because Final Fantasy XIV’s story is one long arc that carries over from base game to its two expansions, you’ll have to play through everything before reaching Stormblood. That’s a 60-hour gig. Square Enix now sells items for real money that will let you skip the story, but it’s a catch-22. Characters like Lyse are so endearing precisely because we’ve spent so much time adventuring with them; we’ve been watching her story evolve for almost four years now. If you’re coming to Stormblood as a new player and want to appreciate it in its best light, you must be prepared for a long, wearying trudge before stepping foot in Ala Mhigo.
Instead of fixing the genre’s weaknesses, Final Fantasy XIV succeeds by buffing its strengths into a glorious shine – no other MMORPG can rival its often breathtaking audiovisual direction. The new, Asianinspired continent of Othard is gorgeous. Simply exploring this new land is a delight, except for the new underwater zones which, while pretty, don’t contain an awful lot that’s worth doing. The new group dungeons and their respective boss fights are inventive and a joy to play. In Kugane Castle, for example, the final boss is a hired samurai who only fights in exchange for money. Throughout the fight, his employer hurls piles of gold into the arena that players must collect before the samurai does, in order to weaken his attacks.
It is in primal boss battles, however, that Stormblood truly shines. Each has a singular standout moment or mechanic, such as having to complete a quick-time event to parry a blow from a sword-wielding demigod several hundred times your size. These fights are effective because Stormblood does a wonderful job of setting the stakes in its story, and then delivering on them with exhilarating battles that are both challenging and thematically rewarding.
For long-time players of Final Fantasy XIV, Stormblood also introduces sweeping changes to the combat, making it more streamlined and, barring a few early balancing issues with individual classes, a lot more enjoyable. One of the better changes is that you no longer have to level other classes to unlock skills necessary for your main class.
New job gauges further enhance the combat by providing flashy user-interface elements unique to each class. These are best utilised by Stormblood’s two new classes, the Red Mage and Samurai, which feel built from the ground up with the new system in mind. The Red Mage’s gauge, for example, displays two mana bars that slowly fill in response to the types of spells they cast. The goal is to always keep those two bars relatively even, because the character’s most devastating attacks spend those types of mana in equal measure. It’s a delicate balancing act that is satisfying to master.
For those already playing Final Fantasy XIV, Stormblood is a beautiful, essential expansion. New players, however, will only see it if they are patient enough to first play through the inferior main game and its earlier expansion Heavensward. Stick with it, however, and Stormblood will be a worthy reward. It’s not only a great expansion to a much-improved MMO. It’s also, in story terms at least, a game that stands tall among the best Final Fantasy has to offer.
Characters like Lyse are endearing because we’ve spent so much time adventuring with them