A knight lives to serve…
FINAL FANTASY XIV: Heavensward
Reviewed on PC
Developed and Published by Square Enix
To say that this review is late to the game is a grave understatement. FINAL FANTASY XIV‘s first expansion pack Heavensward released in June 2015 and did so right before I fell out of playing the game for many months. But now that I’ve returned to Eorzea I made sure to play through everything that was there on offer. And it’s a lot. It’s a whole lot.
Warning, spoilers for the Main Scenario of A Realm Reborn are incoming.
The story of Heavensward picks up where the Patch 2.5 Before The Fall ended, with the Warrior of Light (you, the player) having lost the power of the Echo at the hands of Midgardsormr and having been framed for the murder of Sultana Nanamo Ul Namo of Ul’dah. Almost everyone from the Scions of the Seventh Dawn are either dead or missing with the last glimmers of hope leading Warrior of Light, Alphinaud Leveilleur and Tataru Taru to Camp Dragonhead in Coerthas, home of Lord Haurchefant Greystone of House Fortemps.
As the narrative picks back up you’re set to make your way through the Gates of Judgment and enter the Holy See of Ishgard, the city state currently at war with both a heretic cult and the the Dravanian wyrm, Nidhogg. Though backed by House Fortemps, the Warrior of Light is neither welcome or wanted in their only safe haven, and must work to earn the trust of Ishgard should they hope to clear their name, and doing so means taking on the Holy See’s banners in the Dragonsong War and go after Nidhogg himself.
That’s the basic set-up for the story of Heavensward, and it’s a strong and solid foundation that manages to mix unfamilliar ground for the FINAL FANTASY series while still marrying it to a style known and loved. The twists and turns throughout the 60 hours it takes to play through the Main Scenario campaign (prior to content patches) are for the most part well manages as well, even when you can spot them from miles away. The big exception relates specifically to the handling of the content outside of the Dragonsong War.
Various times in the story you will leave Coerthas and Dravania in favour of unfolding more of the story behind the Warrior of Light being framed for murder in Ul’dah, and while that’s appreciated, it’s not given the time it deserves and need to properly work. Every bit of story in these parts of the game feels rushed and cut short and the result is that it feels like any twists or developments are just pushed on you without any realistic narrative flow. The actual events themselves are fine, but the way they’re told leaves a lot to be desired and leaves you feeling like much of the buildup of that story was just brushed aside as soon as they had the Dragonsong War to deal with.
Other than that the writing has only improved upon its last iteration with dialogue feeling more natural and virtually every character having a well developed personality and reason to take part in the events going on. While there’s mostly new faces in Heavensward, the few characters that do return do so to great effect. If A Realm Reborn suffered from having to reset the status quo and rebuild the world of Eorzea for a new cast of players, Heavensward is where you can tell that the team feel like they’ve hit home and can do what they want without needing to hold back.
And that’s just the Main Scenario, there’s so much more on offer in the expansion pack, such as the Alexander raid which succeeds in being much more fun than Binding Coil of Bahamut, the A Realm Reborn equivalent, ever was. That’s not to say that everything is better however, as a lot of the dungeons in Heavensward do feel somewhat dull and linear compared to earlier ones. But the exceptions to that rule shines through with some of the best dungeons in the game to date, such as The Great Gubal Library, which is a delight from start to finish.
All jobs from A Realm Reborn and its content patches have received new extended quest scenarios alongside the new level cap of 60, with every second level offering you a new quest and action for your job(s) of choice. But the focus was naturally placed on the three new jobs in the expansion, Dark Knight, Machinist and Astrologian. While I’ve not gotten any of them to 60, I have briefly played around with them and they’re certainly different from the previous offered jobs.
Dark Knight is the new tank, wielding magic and a two handed sword to unleash massive hatred-induced attacks that can make you feel like you’re coming straight from an angsty teenager’s deviantArt account circa. 2006. But the ridiculous grit aside, it’s a entertaining job that I could see myself getting into more if I enjoyed tanking as much as I did DPS. Speaking of DPS, there’s Machinist whom specializes in guns and trinkets, basically becoming a deadly inventor gunman. And finally there’s Astrologian who is an RNG based healer, which is as strange as it sounds. They draw cards from a magical deck to give out buffs to party members. While interesting in theory, they tend to not be reliable enough to actually serve a function that can’t better be done by a White Mage or Scholar.
These jobs aren’t available to start a new character as however, as you will need to enter Ishgard through the Main Scenario to access any part of Heavensward‘s content. This has been somewhat of a controversial move, as some players coming from other MMORPGs feel that non-story content shouldn’t be bound by story completion. While I can see their point, so much of FINAL FANTASY XIV hinges on its world building and story that suggesting that you shouldn’t play the story firsthand is a bit like suggesting to not play the game at all.
It’s a double edged sword, for certain, which is why it’s worth noting that whenever the next expansion pack is set to arrive it won’t require Heavensward‘s Main Scenario to be completed to access, but simply rely on A Realm Reborn‘s completion once again. This is probably the best middleground in the long run, as it doesn’t remove the story that’s crucial to the experience but shouldn’t force an extra 60 hours of expansion story just to let you get to the latest content.
The one thing you can access from the start of a new character is the new playable race, the Au Ra. The Au Ra are dragon-like people who hail from the far eastern realm of Doma, which was invaded by the Garlean Empire during the original game’s story. They’re quite a neat looking race, sporting horns, tails and scales over their body. Depending on what clan your Au Ra will stem from, you’ll either have light or dark scales, apart from that it’s the race that has the most varied possible skin tones in the game, being able to go beyond human colours and also beyond the dark blue skin of certain Miqo’te. So if you’re into customization the Au Ra should make you quite happy.
In terms of gameplay, not much has changed since the FINAL FANTASY XIV that existed before Heavensward, with a few exceptions. Flying mounts are a thing now in all the new areas of the world, which manages to both be a blessing and a curse. All of Heavensward‘s areas are massive, far larger than anything seen in A Realm Reborn and sometimes rivalling the ridiculously huge areas of the original 2010 release of the game, as such flying is the fastest way to travel as it increases your speed and saves you navigating up and down paths and hills. However, flying is locked in every new area you arrive to until you collect all the aethercurrents for that area.
What are aethercurrents? Well, they’re basically collectables that you find either hidden around the map by using a compass or clearing certain quests in said area. It’s a good thing in theory, since the game wants you to learn the area before you start just skipping about. The problem is that it takes far too long to unlock flying in each area due to the fact that there will always be one quest-locked aethercurrent that is tied to the Main Scenario, making you finish up in an area and get ready to leave just as you get the ability to fly in said area.
This wouldn’t be too bad if collecting the hidden currents didn’t take forever due to the massive size of the map. Your character travels at a very slow pace, even on Chocobo, and there’s few or no Aetherites to warp to in order to save time when you tend to do this. As such you spend a lot of your time just running back and forth an enviroment that you likely don’t even have much to do in at the moment in order to unlock the way to get back and forth without it being tiresome. It’s honestly quite a mess and I hope they find a better middleground for future areas.
But while we’re on the topic of getting stuck wasting time, let’s talk about leveling. As with A Realm Reborn, the quests around Heavensward is locked by level requirements. Nothing odd about that, except that in order to do the Main Scenario you’re gonna have to do a lot of extra grinding inbetween quests. This was a thing in A Realm Reborn as well of course, but the level of grinding required to go from one level to the next as you clear the Main Scenario quests are on a ridiculous level, especially when you consider the narrative context.
Without spoiling the events of the game, the very last quest of the Main Scenario has a massive build up with a glorious cutscene ending just as you’re about to do a major thing, which then stops midway to tell you to grind up another level, at which you likely have more than plenty left on your experience bar left to fill. Not that the game asking you to play more of its content is bad, not at all, but the Main Scenario shouldn’t be something you have to work had to earn when the Main Scenario is already what dictates what other content you can get to. A higher experience reward for Main Scenario quests should be a given for future expansion packs in my honest opinion, because it just got tedious after a while to have to spend more time doing countless side quests and replaying duties in order to earn my next bit of story.
As of writing this there have been two major patches for Heavensward, expanding the story and general content of the game. Patch 3.1 As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness and Patch 3.2 The Gears of Change both offer a lot of fun things including the new raid Void Ark, which features a boss I personally missed from A Realm Reborn‘s Crystal Tower raid, and the continuation of the Alexander raid which has some of the most fun boss battles in the entire game thus far. The story also grows even more interesting with the introduction of characters and elements both entirely new and grounded in classic FINAL FANTASY territory. I’d go so far as to say that The Gears of Change possibly might be the best content patch for the game so far, which is not something I say lightly after the incredible additions made to A Realm Reborn over the years.
There’s been a replacement of voice cast in Heavensward with varying results. While some are fine or better than the English cast from the initial release, some are just plain odd. For example, Ilberd suddenly has a thick almost Cockney-esque accent which he didn’t sport in cutscenes a mere 5-10 hours earlier in the story. It’s worth mentioning here that we unfortunately lost the talented actress Syan Blake who was murdered late last year. She did a tremendous job as Lady Yugiri in Heavensward and she will be missed going forward. Square Enix hasn’t made a statement regarding future appearance of Yugiri at this time as far as I’m aware.
The soundtrack for Heavensward is once again handled by Masayoshi Soken who has outdone himself when it comes to creating an amazing and unique sounding series of tracks that is easily among the best the series has heard. Veteran composer Nobou Uematsu returned with Susan Calloway once more to record a new song for the game, Dragonsong, which ties in beautifully to the narrative of the game. If looked at as one massive piece of musical work from 2010 to today, FINAL FANTASY XIV might be the finest the franchise has ever seen.
Visually the game is gorgeous, giving each area of the game its own unique look and art direction. From the low-saturated streets of Ishgard’s Foundation to the beautiful colourful Dravanian Forelands, no place feels the same, but it all feels part of one world. The graphics are also impressive on the technical side, updating the already gorgeous lighting to even higher standards and giving the game far more detailed textures and models. While it’s far from the prettiest game in the world, it’s without doubt one of the most consistantly beautiful ones.
While there are problems here and there in the package Heavensward offers, the experience all makes up for it. Rarely does a day pass where I don’t want to log on and play either with friends or even on my own. There’s so much to do that even when you’ve technically “done everything” you’ll gladly do a lot of it over and over again because it’s just so much fun to play the game. I think now is as great as time as any to get into FINAL FANTASY XIV thanks in part to Heavensward and the content patches that followed.
It’s truly a game that goes beyond what it needs to do in order to be acceptable, and reaches for what it can do in order to be incredible.