To keep a game alive and well for more than a decade is a feat only a few developers have been able to manage. When World of Warcraft opened the doors, Blizzard had no idea what it would become as time passed, just as we're sure that the good people over at Square Enix weren't fully aware of what they would end up building and creating with Final Fantasy XIV.
It's the second entry in the series (FFXI tried before it) to ditch the more traditional foundations of the genre and make a daring incursion into the uncharted, dangerous territory of the MMORPG. In fact, it didn't start well for the fourteenth numbered Final Fantasy, which suffered more than it succeeded when it originally released in 2010. After those early struggles, it was later resurrected in 2013 as A Realm Reborn, embracing a new platform as part of its resurrection. And with time, it has risen to become one of the best in a genre where there seemed to be a king no-one could ever even hope to dethrone.
We found ourselves recollecting, looking back at that rebirth six years ago, as we were flying to London to get our hands on Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, the upcoming expansion created by Naoki Yoshida and his team.
With the experience of so many years feeding a continuously-growing community, which has attracted more than 16 million players to date, and as explained to us by Yoshida-san himself, Square-Enix has decided to flip the table in order to find a completely fresh approach, something that seems crucial for such a long-running title. The first change comes with the players themselves; after so many years being the so-called Warriors of Light, our new journey to The First alters things completely, even inverting our own name.
You see, we're now the Warriors of Darkness and our mission is to save a world on the brink of destruction due to an excess of light. Ironic, isn't it? After our gameplay session, Yoshida-san told us that this particular decision was made for three reasons. First of all, to break with the cliché of darkness being negative. Secondly, to be a breath of fresh air for players. And finally, as we were told, it's because being a Warrior of Darkness just sounds cool.
You can agree or disagree with those motivations, but what is very clear here is that it means so much change that the community will now be forced to rethink their strategies and to once again analyse how FFXIV and its classes work, as well as their roles on the battlefield. 80 is the new level cap, there are new abilities for all the jobs in the expanded level stretch, tanks with fewer stances, healers with different ability bars, and heavily modified jobs. As such, the synergies have been broken up so that there's no standard set of jobs to tackle each and every mission so we shouldn't see the very same groups with repeated classes taking the same roles.
Naturally, you (we) will need some time to become accustomed to everything that's coming to Shadowbringers, but at the same time, it's a weight that will fall upon a legion of players that have already proven that they can rapidly adapt to all the changes that have been implemented through the years.
The changing world itself is, of course, the most obvious alteration, although there's also the addition of the new classes to bear in mind. This expansion introduces two new races: the Hrothgar and the Viera. The former is only available to masculine avatars, whereas the latter can only be chosen by female characters. These are meant to widen the range of options available to players, and at the same time, it's a little reference to Ivalice from FFXII.
There are two new jobs coming with Shadowbringers: Gunbreaker and Dancer. The first works nicely as a tank, while the second is intended to offer DPS at a distance. We actually had the opportunity to play as both, to check out how they perform in combat, and even though Gunbreakers are more eye-catching and pay clear tribute to Gunblades from FFVIII, we have to confess the Dancers became our favourite almost immediately.
The bearer of the shooting swords comes equipped with a bunch of abilities tempting you to take advantage of its characteristic weapon, and at the same time is meant to absorb as many hits as necessary while the rest of the team dwindles enemy health bars. It's a dynamic warrior, despite having more of a passive role, and we have to admit it's quite spectacular on screen.
However, we reckon that those who have been playing FFXIV for longer and who like to be at the centre of the action without risking too much - yeah, we're that type - will just love the Dancer class. This one's very agile, with perfect abilities to both defend the team while delivering buffs and chaining powerful combos while attacking opponents. We think it ends up being very appealing thanks to its versatility, even for less experienced players.
Thus, our Dancer Hrothgar was the character we spent the most time with exploring The First, across land, sea, and air. Every expansion, from Heavensward to Stormblood, has always brought new locations to the MMORPG, and that's the case here so we took a good look around, contemplating and discovering the scenery that will keep us immersed for many more hours.
We walked through the streets of Crystarium, the magical town that dazzled us in Shadowbringers' trailer, which is ruled by those crystals that have been so important to the series' storyline. Bustling, but without too many NPCs to interact with (it wasn't the final version that we played), it'll act as the hub to return to every now and then in this expansion.
We also explored, and mostly battled, around Lakeland territory, a massive map covered in cherry trees and naturally reminding us of a typical Japanese postcard scene. We looked around Il Mheg too, which might well turn out to be one of the most charming locations of the region, with its expansive meadows and an almost oniric lagoon.
Despite the new world, the elements and events you've come to expect from Final Fantasy XIV remain there, such as side quests to get new items and some Gil, public events (FATE), and dungeons to put your teamwork to test. We might have left Eorzea to visit somewhere strange, but some things never change.
Yoshida-san told us that they also tweaked the FATE events so that they gain importance. The goal is for them to feel more satisfying when completed thanks to the rewards they offer - and we can attest to that - but at the same time, they're now more useful when it comes to better understanding The First's history and the story of all the heroes who fell before us.
We were also invited to enter one of the dungeons that are coming as part of this new expansion: Dohn Mheg. It was both a teaser of what's to come with Shadowbringers story-wise and it was a good way to further test the new classes.
We had to collect one of four keys to open Lyhe Ghiah gates, and it wasn't meant to be a walk in the park. The Fuath was waiting for us after a series of challenges we wanted to tackle alone as, yes, you can now complete dungeons together with AI-controlled characters thanks to the Trust system.
We moved through the environment, which was at least in part inspired by Alice in Wonderland, until we ended up at a castle to face the third and final boss in the dungeon. It wasn't that tricky in the end, save for the turtle-like dino-monster that showed up during the second section of the mission, at least until we found out the key to defeating it (which we won't spoil here).
And even though the real heart of FFXIV is sharing the experience with other players, the CPU companions performed more than competently, and we think this is a nice, interesting option for those not willing or able to wait, or even for those looking for a more traditional solo approach.
These AI-controlled companions act logically, attack, heal and support when needed, and even interrupt rival attacks and use the new charged actions, chaining together abilities without cooling down. And it's rather easy, via the Dyty Finder menu, to choose accompanying classes for the dungeon at hand. We had our Warriors of Darkness party built in about four seconds.
In conclusion, what we've seen so far in Shadowbringers looks like the tip of the iceberg. We're more than happy with the things we've tested so far, and we're looking forward to discovering more. It looks so good, we even asked Yoshida-san if he sees himself able to turn this into an everlasting game. His answer: "We have not set a date to end Final Fantasy XIV, and we have no intention for it to end anytime soon. Nobody has to be worried about the end of Final Fantasy XIV".
With the same conviction as the Japanese game director, we dare to say that this expansion will shake the MMORPG's foundations. We'll hear the call of Shadowbringers on June 28 to get back to The First and to get lost in it, and then we'll find out if it delivers on its considerable promise.