A long time ago, in the dark yesteryear of MMOs, I and millions of others became hopelessly addicted to World of Warcraft. I was in high-school, and a friend of a friend couldn’t afford to keep playing it, and coupled with his growing disinterest in the product, he offered to sell me his account for a few dollars, which he needed to get a poutine that particular Lunch. I accepted and began twiddling around that evening with his almost max level character, and progressed rapidly into buying my own copy of the game, for my own account; that was the beginning of a long, surprisingly expensive addiction.
My history in World of Warcraft wasn’t anything special, though I was one of those people who became ‘server famous’. I played, and when their first expansion came out, I played Burning Crusade right through to the launch of their second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. As I drew the story of Wrath to a close, I became aware of something I’d been feeling in that game for a while — MMO burnout.
By the end of my time with Wrath, I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. There was always a certain satisfaction in playing, even when I wasn’t accomplishing much. But it slowly evaporated, until it was replaced with a tired resignation. And then I slowly stopped. When I left World of Warcraft, the idea of playing any other MMO-like game caused me an almost physical illness. I felt bad even contemplating the idea, and the sheer time it would take to even stay current with what the people on my server were doing. When Burning Crusade had launched, I was one of the co-founders of the biggest PVP guild on my server. My name was recognized in game by players I’d never met before, and because of the ludicrous write-ups I’d put on their forums, I was recognized there, too. But, as my guild fell apart, as most guilds do, my tethers to the game went with it.
So I quit. And stayed quit until their next expansion, Cataclysm. I went back for that, because in the interim downtime, my account had been hacked by goldfarmers and they bought the expansion. I retook my account, bought a month of gametime, and then immediately felt that ugly, sick feeling bubbling up in me. Cataclysm, for World of Warcraft, changed things.
It just wasn’t enough. The burnout was as real as it had been when I first felt it. I left again.
Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood has the same overarching issues I felt were present in Heavensward, and as I pointed out then, they aren’t terrible. They’re issues derived from the spoiled nature of a longtime player of the game — the constant drip of surprisingly engaging content means, if a new expansion isn’t packed to the brim with new, it feels lacking. The new terrain mechanic, diving, adds depth (hah, get it?) to a series of zones, some of which heavily feature water, but upon learning how to access these zones, you quickly find out your flying mounts — the terrain mechanic of the previous expansion — just kinda… fly. Underwater. As if you were flying. With a bubble filter pasted on top.
When not mounted, there’s actual swimming animations, but as for the actual swimming? There’s.. not much to do. You can get places. There aren’t any enemies. If you like to fish, they added spearfishing to underwater zones, setting fishing up with a gathering style not dissimilar to the mining and botany jobs. That’s kind of it, as it stands. Where flight enabled you to traverse huge zones, filled with the content of the base game, the diving skill doesn’t so much do anything. It feels like more of a curiosity, rather than a necessary mechanic.
The gathering classes, too, feel weird. In what feels like an effort to avoid the ‘loot treadmill’ effect — the thing that happens when a new expansion comes out, obsoleting all the hard earned gear at the end of the leadup towards it almost immediately — the game has gone hard in the opposite direction. I don’t mean that hyperbolically, either. As I write this, I’ve gotten all three gathering classes up to the new level cap of 70, without needing to obtain a single new piece of gear. For all the new gear that’s undoubtedly been added for the new ten levels, if you were wearing the good stuff from the June 2016 content patch of Heavensward, you literally did not need to engage with the gear added in June 2017’s expansion.
I’ve not started in on getting all the crafting classes to the new level cap, yet, but word is it’s about the same. If you had the top end gear from a year ago, you’re good to the new level cap now.
Here’s where this gets tricky. As I’ve written before, XIV drip-feeds new content at steady intervals. These problems I’ve pointed out might not even exist by the end of summer. New content is guaranteed to be released, and for the crafting and gathering side of things, it will surely require an inevitable upgrade of gear. New gathering items will need higher stats. New crafting recipes will require expensive, exclusive stat manipulation via the ‘melding’ system. Diving underwater, as a whole, feels too unused to not be there in preparation for something exciting — Final Fantasy X’s Blitzball, for example, has long been talked about as being added to the game.
So, yes. I have complaints. Similar complaints to the previous expansion, even. These are complaints I’m confident will be fixed, and in the grand scheme of what Stormblood has done right, they are minor complaints at best.
Things like the new storyline quickly wash them away — a storyline which sees you travel to nearby Ala Mhigo to take an active hand in their resistance against the Garlean Empire, as well as across the sea to Japan-inspired Doma and the surrounding lands, which have been under Garlean rule for over two decades. Seeds planted in the original launch, mostly ignored during Heavensward, are finally springing to life in a surprisingly grounded tale. No weird sorta evil people from another planet-and-or-dimension. No wholly different weird sorta evil people from a wholly other planet-and-or-dimension mucking about in weird robes. Just you, your allies, and a united front against a technologically superior force of total assholes.
I think it’s inarguably the thing Final Fantasy XIV needs to, and so far has, gotten right. It’s a Final Fantasy game. It needs a good story. The MMO trappings are almost secondary, at least, to me. And, I think, it’s the thing preventing me from feeling the burnout I felt with World of Warcraft. I didn’t give a shit about that story. I’m engaged with this one. The zone-specific stories, too, feel more content heavy than ever before. Still solving problems with a neat little bow by the end of the zone-specific quest lines, the sheer amount of storytelling done feels leagues beyond what the original launch presented, and feels as if it dwarfs even Heavensward offerings.
Progressing through that story is a slightly different affair, now, though. In addition to the two new jobs, Samurai and Red Mage, the rest of the combat oriented jobs have been retooled. Cross-class skills are a thing of the past — no more needing to level up Black Mage for specific abilities far too critical to not have on White Mage. Now, jobs draw from a pool of common abilities, a system much more streamlined and hassle free. In addition, each individual job has been retooled, with new, job-specific ‘gauges’. White Mage, for example, charges up a series of lily icons through healing, which are then spent when certain abilities are used. These spent lilies offer reduced cooldowns, or bigger heals, and overall push the class toward a slightly more engaging play style. In some cases, these systems are a welcome addition. In others, the player base ranges from lukewarm to hostile. The consensus for White Mage — my main class — is a resounding ‘meh’. It’s not bad. It’s just there. It’s fine, but we mostly still just keep doing what we do.
Like Heavensward before it, Stormblood is a fine expansion to an otherwise constantly updating game, with maybe not enough fresh content at the moment. Given a little bit of time, that’s sure to change as well.
This review is based on retail code for the expansion purchased by the Editor.