It’s been a long road to Stormblood. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn’s second expansion builds upon the overhauled mechanics of the original Final Fantasy XIV to remarkable effect, with a renewed outlook that seeks to streamline the experience for both new and returning players.
Alongside a raft of new content the key feature for many will be the two new job roles – Red Mage and Samurai – but if you look a little deeper, Naoki Yoshida and his team have taken the game that they’ve built over the last seven years and reworked huge swathes of it, ensuring that Stormblood is not only one of the best modern MMO experiences, it’s arguably the best Final Fantasy game of recent years.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has quietly plied its trade as the franchise’s multiplayer arm for nearly four years, and in that time has established itself as being more than capable of telling an expansive and compelling story that pays homage to the series legacy, doing so in keen and often understated ways. Stormblood’s central campaign continues that theme, and the tale, which centers around the ever-hopeful Lyse and taking the fight to the despicable Garlean Empire, is packed with enjoyable characters, action, and genuine emotion. There are many offline RPGs that don’t come close to the same standard of storytelling.
Beyond the thematic success, the structural changes work well, and after spending time with them they now feel more than essential. Each role now has a Job Gauge, which is intended to provide some more enticing visual feedback to each character’s actions. The warrior’s Beast Gauge has two uses depending on your stance, for example, so when playing defensively successful use of certain weapon skills will fill the gauge, increasing your parry rate as it goes, while the offensive side gains a steady increase to critical hit rate.
While much has been made of the streamlining of the game’s abilities and traits, in practice there’s still plenty of nuance to combat and more than enough to juggle, at least for a moderately experienced player. I’m sure that some job’s skills have been cut in detriment to a number of player’s set-ups – early feedback on the White Mage has not been particularly positive – but the need to reappraise your approach is hopefully not a torturous one, especially with the two new classes available.
Those two new classes are sure to be a hit, and the Red Mage in particular is a hell of a lot of fun. From an enjoyable opening quest that tells of the class’ origins, to its heady mix of ranged and close-quarters combat, Red Mages are capable of doling out masses of damage in a ridiculously stylish way. Once you’ve got your head around the job’s Balance Gauge, where you aim to balance your spell types so neither the dark or the light are too dominant, you’ll be absolutely smitten.
The Samurai meanwhile evokes a fantastic sense of Eastern calm, which ties into the newest areas of Doma and the beautiful city of Kugane. The Samurai’s Sen Gauge has three effects which you build via different combos, and which in turn unlock three different weapon skills depending on how many of the effects you’ve accumulated. As with the Red Mage, you can absolutely pummel your opponents once you’re up to speed on the correct rotation, and I can see plenty of players making the jump across to this style of play.
PvP may well surprise everyone following Stormblood by having become an enjoyable part of Final Fantasy XIV. I genuinely don’t know anyone who put much time into it previously, but boasting its own hot bar and simplified controls, it’s clear how much attention has been lavished on the mode. Any job over level 30 can now take part, and your actions are role based, while gear is purely visual, making it all about your own skill rather than anything else.
If you’re lucky enough to own a PlayStation 4 Pro, FFXIV now takes full advantage of the more powerful console’s abilities, offering the ability to improve performance and stability in high definition, or to push the visuals up to 4K. Doing so frees up a huge amount of real estate for your customisable HUD – and with those new gauges you may well need every inch. All in all it looks fantastic, only let down by the still-wooden animation of some of the characters. You do have to make some allowances considering that this is a world open to thousands, all of whom could be experiencing that same world at the same time, and it’s remarkable what the development team have achieved.
It would be remiss of me not to also mention the phenomenal soundtrack. Though it’s the iconic theme from Nobuo Uematsu that leads the expansion’s soundtrack, it’s Masayoshi Soken’s compositions that you’ll be listening to for the majority of your time with Stormblood. As with Final Fantasy XIV as a whole, it is Soken that has quietly become the future of this franchise and I can only hope that his work is recognised by Square Enix when they start thinking about the next mainline entry.
At this point there are still only a few negatives to jumping into Stormblood, one of which is the sheer weight of content that now exists. Alongside this release, Square Enix have also put out level boost and story skip packs – at an additional cost – but it’s safe to say that using them may feel a little like cheating. You’ll be unlikely to get any of the same enjoyment out of it as you’re thrown in at the deep end both narratively and technically. There are in-game tutorials and catch-up cutscenes to watch to bring you up to speed, but it really isn’t the same.
You may also question the overarching business model that XIV is tied into, and though the ongoing support for the game has been excellent, a monthly subscription adds yet more cost onto the player. As a newcomer who wants to jump straight into the latest content, you’re looking at an outlay of over £80, with a further £18 every sixty days. It’s certainly not a cheap gaming experience though you can at least currently play a fairly generous trial of the base game that takes you up to level 30, if you want to get a taster.
Also, despite the excellent storytelling, beautiful visuals, and more immediate combat, Final Fantasy XIV still suffers from an overall lack of variety to it’s many quests. Apart from the obvious highlights of party content when you face off against one of the spectacular and exhilarating Primals – which even then may occasionally fall into some of the same routines – there’s a lot of charging about, killing and collecting things, before returning to the quest giver to collect your experience and your reward. Anyone who’s made it this far will likely be completely unphased by that, but it’s something that newcomers should be prepared for.
The release of Stormblood only cements what some players have known for a very long time; Final Fantasy XIV is a phenomenal MMORPG. The structural changes to combat and PvP, as well as the two new classes, introduce plenty for both veterans and newcomers to sink their teeth into, while the emotionally charged central campaign is easily amongst the best the franchise has offered in years.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro