With the impending release of the Stormblood expansion, Final Fantasy XIV is receiving perhaps its most important update since A Realm Reborn rebooted the troubled title in spectacular fashion almost four years ago.
An MMORPG that has balanced the series’ single player heritage with aplomb, the Stormblood expansion is not only set to contribute another huge chunk of storytelling to the game’s sprawling narrative – this time going up against the Garlean Empire – it also aims to bring with it a range of refinements that are aimed at improving the experience for veteran players while also making it more welcoming to newcomers.
While those changes can have a huge impact to the game’s fundamentals, it’s perhaps the two new job roles that many players will be most interested in at the outset, and we were able to go hands on with both of them at a recent press event organised by Square Enix.
It’s impossible to talk about the new Samurai class without considering the new Eastern-influenced location of Kugane, and on first impressions it feels as though the narrative is going to suit the move away from the traditionally European-feeling locations found in the main game. Walking through this new city space definitely has a unique feel to it, though it retains the peace and sanctuary that can be found in nearly every city in FFXIV.
The Samurai has a potentially lethal DPS, and trying it out also meant that we had our first experience with the new Job Gauge. Each job now boasts a unique Job Gauge, which the development team have brought into the mix in an attempt to make the game’s combat more visual, rather than having players simply watching attack gauges refill the entire time. This might sound counter-intuitive, but it works.
The Samurai has the Sen Gauge, which has three different slots, which you fill by successfully performing certain combos. Setsu, Getsu and Ka are all needed to perform a powerful Iaijutsu, and depending on how many you’ve filled, it dictates which special move you have available to use.
Getting in close with the Samurai feels great, and the job’s visual feedback when you’re performing different combos is quite something, particularly when your attacks conjure a crescent moon or floating cherry blossom drifts through the air.
Overall, the team have streamlined the game’s combat systems in an effort to make things simpler, reducing the number of icons in the hot bar, with the removal of repetitious versions of abilities a key part of that. You no longer have initial actions spread across multiple classes either, but have shared abilities instead. Job roles that cover Tanking or DPS will appear naturally in your job’s levelling up path rather than requiring players to swap across to a different job in order to gain them, as well.
The Red Mage role is completely different to that of the Samurai, and is a hybrid DPS class that can utilise powerful magics before jumping in close to finish an enemy off with a rapier. They’ve really done a fantastic job translating the classic Final Fantasy role across to FFXIV, capturing the look perfectly, and you can do some absolutely ridiculous damage with the right combination of attacks. One of them even etches a Zorro-esque ‘Z’ in the air, and it feels like the kind of role that will never get old, which could be handy when you can easily spend hundreds of hours in the game. Even better is the fact that you don’t need to have made any particular story progression to be able to jump in with the Red Mage, just one other role at level 50 will unlock its starting quest.
We also had the opportunity to run through one of the expansion’s new dungeons, Shisui Of The Violent Tides, with some of the FFXIV team giving us a few pointers and egging us on. Overall it feels similar to what has gone before, at least in terms of the dungeon’s rhythm of exploration and combat as you make your way to the boss characters that are lurking for you.
The new job gauges genuinely change the way you play, and having returned to using the tried and tested Warrior class, it was very interesting how the extra feedback alters how you play. Building up the meter and then using it to perform outrageously powerful moves before trying to build it once more adds a new rhythm to the game’s combat, and once you’re in the flow of it it certainly doesn’t feel any less complicated. The changes are welcome refinements, and hopefully even the most committed players will find them enjoyable.
While we weren’t able to check this side of the game out, the FFXIV team are also making some major changes to the game’s PvP content, the first of which is to reduce the level requirement for players to take part in it, opening competitive play to more players and from a much earlier point. On top of that, there’s now a PvP specific hotbar, which also helps to streamline the whole experience for newcomers and veterans alike, all of which will hopefully see more players engaging in it once Stormblood releases.
The message is certainly one of inclusion rather than exclusion, and while some MMORPGs could descend further down the rabbit hole, with swathes of systems on top of systems, and an impenetrable narrative, Stormblood is largely heading in the other direction.
Despite the huge amount of new content, and changes to the way the game plays on a fundamental level, there’s a real sense that after four years these are the smartest ways to improve the game, which will in turn hopefully bring in a batch of new players. The fact that there are now more than six million active players, a figure that continues to grow, speaks of a game that people are still discovering, and Stormblood looks set to welcome them, and the next six million, with open arms.