Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (Playstation 4 Review)
With its second (or third, depending on how you want to look at it) expansion launching in less than two weeks, Final Fantasy XIV has made a miraculous recovery thanks to the capable hands of producer and director Naoki Yoshida. It’s now been two years since the first expansion’s release; Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward is finally finished. Having found stability after the title’s tumultuous development history, the development team are now prepared to shake things up so that they can finally advance Square Enix’ largest non-mobile moneymaker in over a decade. It’s thanks to Heavensward that they’ve reached this point.
Launching in 2015, Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward was an attempt to truly grab the reins of their resurrected beast. While Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn rebooted the MMO to great success, it was still mired in previous producer and director Hiromichi Tanaka’s mess. The expansion took to redefining its core characters while changing both its scenery and the tone. Taking place during the Dragonsong War, players enter the city of Ishgard for the first time and almost completely alone. In the opening cutscene, the desolate snow of the Coerthas Highlands reflects the sheer isolation that the heroes now face as they’re exiled to a capital locked in a thousand year war against dragons. Coupled with the absolutely fantastic soundtrack composed by Masayoshi Soken, this starting and somber scene immediately conveys what players should expect in Heavensward’s campaign. For the first and not last time, the heroic, god-slaying Warrior of Light from A Realm Reborn is vulnerable.
No longer restricted by the pre-existing narrative entities of Final Fantasy XIV’s original disastrous release, Heavensward takes its time to develop and establish its new cast and setting. The player character known as the Warrior of Light has found a new home, but its denizens fear every night for attacks from dragons. And so, together with a mix of poorly-matched companions, the player journeys to meet with the dragonic brother of Ishgard’s nemesis to rekindle peace. Hraesvelgr, who once had an intimate relationship with an Ishgardian, now lives in solitude in the skies above the lands claimed by the dragons. Despite the MMO setting, this truly feels like an adventure.
Accompanying the Warrior of Light is the young Alphinaud, whose leadership of a new faction of heroes saw the tragedy and treachery that lead to their exile. While Alphinaud struggles with the humbling reality of his actions, the stubborn Ishgardian dragoon Estinien and the fragon-sympathising rebel Ysayle continue to clash. It’s through their polarities that each character comes out stronger, and more dimensional than MMO characters have any right to be. As they grow and bond, so too does the player, which makes the reality they face so much more painful and heart-wrenching. It’s in Heavensward that the Warrior of Light finally starts to grasp agency from the player, gradually developing elements of their own character in amidst their mute protagonist state.
Following its release, Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward has seen five more content patches bringing further additions to the story and content, rivaling Heavensward’s initial release in size alone. Don’t misunderstand; Heavensward was a complete package at launch with enough content to be its own game. The additional narrative content provides an expansion to the story, while also bringing closure on the events within Heavensward’s original release. Over time, the main cast of Final Fantasy XIV have returned, but they haven’t come out unscathed. They’re new people. Of course, Heavensward also discovered that the skies are very much the limit for a game that was hastily rebooted with an apology.
Each class—or job, to borrow the franchise’s own terminology—receives a new and central mechanic that defines their own identity. While often enhancing the existing toolkit, most of them also feel tacked on. This isn’t necessarily a problem—they all play well—but some of the limitations of both the PlayStation 3’s continued support, and the pre-existing systems from the original release have most definitely taken its toll on Heavensward’s design. This is also visible in much of the content. While the developers have been skilled enough to work around these issues, it’s clear that a shake-up is needed. A Realm Reborn felt fresh and fun even despite its flaws, but Heavensward sometimes felt stifled; this also retroactively made A Realm Reborn look worse.
Despite that, it’s not like the development team haven’t tried to include new content. The first additional content patch brought Exploratory Missions, allowing players to enter content with dangerous monsters and sky islands to explore. This was interesting and exciting on paper, but ultimately suffered from the aimlessness of it. Existing to provide players with the freedom to decide how they want to tackle the new content; it was actually the lack of rules and poor loot decisions that made the content unexciting. Meanwhile, the procedurally generated Palace of the Dead, featuring up to 200 floors of varying degrees of danger, was met with a strong and positive reception.
Heavensward also brought various quality of life additions over its series of content patches and its initial release. Many of these now feel so essential that it’s hard to imagine playing A Realm Reborn again without them. Flying is actually a fun, yet small addition to the game. Meanwhile, the inclusion of three new jobs—one for each combat role—is most likely what excited fans the most prior to its release. Job balance in Final Fantasy XIV has actually always been strong, but the limiting nature of the title’s supporting systems was most easily reflected here. For the longest time, it didn’t appear that the developers knew what they wanted to do, or could do, with these new jobs. There was a lot of overlap and homogenisation. This was actually probably best represented in the high-end content, where they most need to be balanced.
Final Fantasy XIV prides itself in providing players with the ability to freely swap to any job they please—the only condition being that they also have to level those jobs up. Despite that, there’s a clear goal in mind when inspecting the content design: all jobs must be equally capable of clearing all content. The title actually achieves this very well, but it’s also an incredibly limiting goal. With Heavensward’s increased job count, no longer do encounters feature mechanics that can only be performed by specific jobs. Instead of overlapping job mechanics and boss mechanics, each is separate. Furthermore, each job would penalise players for failing to perform their mechanics correctly, rather than rewarding them for success. This in turn led to a larger disparity between skilled and unskilled players than there really should be, punishing players for teaming up with the lesser-skilled.
It’s not all bad as Heavensward and its subsequent patches also introduced some of Final Fantasy XIV’s most fun content to date. Between time-stopping powers, super sentai-style mech fights, and various gods with interesting and challenging mechanics, there’s a lot of great encounter design at play here. Representing Final Fantasy XIV’s potential the most are its Primal battles. These are encounters in which eight players will fight a single boss—more often than not some sort of deity—each featuring multiple musical tracks that also defines their individual identity with separate genres. These fights are short, calculated, and intense, often feeling as smooth and as fluid as a dance. Furthermore, the title finally settled on a very clear and concise visual language for players to quickly identify the situation, making combat incredibly intuitive. As a title, Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward is polished. It might not always get everything right, but when it does, it does it pretty damn well. It’s an example of developers finally finding their footing and taking a game to its limits. Even if those limits are the consequence of a rather shameful disaster.