Few games can truly capture the imagination in a way that spans nearly a decade worth of content. Final Fantasy XIV is in a unique situation where it finds itself as one of those games – a labor of love that can only be described as having earned its place in the upper echelons of the greats. The original setup might have been wrought with chaos but the payoff is everything. And that all culminates with the launch of Endwalker, the game’s latest expansion.
To understand the situation FFXIV finds itself in, we must first venture to the past when nearly ten years on, the game’s world sundered itself (through a very expansive campaign and CG cutcene) to bring forth a new beginning. A Realm Reborn opened the door for new stories to be told, furthering ideas set about in the original 1.0 version of the game. With its then success cemented, the team at Square Enix brought out expansions every two years with Heavensward and then Stormblood, followed by Shadowbringers before finally paving its way to the largest expansion yet. All throughout players have been treated with a singular saga threaded with multiple narrative pieces that have build and build upon those original foundations. This saga, following the conflict of two forces of nature, Hydaelyn and Zodiark, is now at its peak and falls on Endwalker to see it through to, well, its end.
That’s the beauty of Endwalker: it does it in spades. The story goes above and beyond and it’s because of this that even the smallest thing could be construed as a spoiler. There are just so many pieces and the story isn’t shy about having them all come about without over-indulging itself. Emotional moments are always earned and there’s ten years worth of reasons to satisfy both newcomers and players who have been here since the beginning. Everything in Endwalker’s main scenario is brought to a brilliant conclusion, but not before your character treks through new locations, friends both old and new along with lore that broadens the scope of the existing universe as well as setup for future stories to tell through hours of cutscenes – whereupon concluding a tale 11 years in the making, you would think there would be a sense of emptiness, but Final Fantasy XIV assures that there are indeed many more stories to tell. By no means does this undermine the current saga’s conclusion, but it’s just enough to keep you wondering and dreaming about where your adventure will head next. It left me with a zepyhr of excitement that too few long-running series manage to do. Years upon years of lore comprise Final Fantasy XIV, but its the emotional truths discovered through the characters that carry everything else upon its back. To put it simply: Final Fantasy XIV is a masterpiece and it has no qualms about telling you just that.
It tells you that because everything it does matter. The characters, the character-driven narrative – all of it is told with care despite a universe-ending conflict looming. Yes, those larger elements are important but they simply wouldn’t work if the characters weren’t built up as they are. They’ve been with your Warrior Light on a journey of discovery and that counts for something. It allows you, as the player, to become emotionally invested in a way that affects you deeply through both big and small moments alike. Endwalker excels the most when it’s taking you aside between its wildly varied locations and showing you the more personal moments between its ensemble cast of brilliant characters. The game savors moments big and small where the core cast and various NPCs are allowed to inch closer to your heart, and there is a great care in portraying them, even down to their mannerisms. You want to care about these characters – even if the line is blurred between what is “right” and what is “wrong”. Certainly, the themes of FFXIV run deep and Endwalker does everything to keep you invested through its subversive journey.
Endwalker brings forth several new elements that aid the storytelling, with some better than others. As you’ll be spending the bulk of your time interacting with other NPCs, the development team has seen fit to allow them to follow you through various quests in the story. It’s similar to other single player Final Fantasy games of recent times where you see your “party members” follow along behind wherever you go. In FFXIV they tend to be situational and if you go off track, you’ll certainly lose them and have to retrieve them again. Certain quests require the likes of G’raha Tia or Alphinaud, as an example, to be with you in order to progress further – which is fine. It adds a deeper element to the game that puts it ever closer to its series contemporaries, complete with optional dialogue moments that can pop up during the course of your travelings.
The other major addition comes by way of stealth elements. Your Warrior of Light will have to test their solo sneaking skills several times throughout the course of their journey for better or worse. While some of these sections are better than others (an instanced one comes to mind as one of the better outings), there are several points where you have to play a game of hide and seek and avoid getting caught by unsuspecting NPCs. It can be tedious because even the slightest misstep can have them spotting you and you’ll have to do it all over again. The silver lining is they tend to be short but it’s a questionable inclusion all the same.
These are minor complaints, however, in the face of a massive main scenario. The amount of cutscenes has been bulked up with the majority of them featuring full voice acting this time around. Performances are on point and only add to the polished presentation. Add in the usual scenario-lead dungeons, trial battles and new locations and you’ve a recipe for around 50 hours playtime to finish the story. Of course, there’s plenty of side content and new jobs to keep you busy so playtime may vary based on how much you’re willing to do beyond the main quests.
The two new jobs are Reaper and Sage. Reaper is a melee DPS featuring a scythe and an avatar that assists you during battle, while Sage is a barrier-type healer that focuses on shielding. Both jobs are markedly different from their contemporaries, offering new play styles for familiar roles. They’re the preface to a wealth of other job changes, including entire reworks to classes such as Summoner and Monk while ones like Bard and Paladin see their previous kits rounded out for smoother gameplay.
Other additions to questing and overall game loop come from the streamlining of the leveling experience. During my time from level 80 to level 90, I gathered the vast majority of the needed experience from doing the main scenario quests. I only needed a handful of roulettes and sidequests to keep pace the couple times I hit the leveling gate. This is a marked and welcome change from previous expansions because it largely eliminates the need to grind out levels. Those who simply wish to enjoy the main story can do so without much grief as FFXIV inches ever closer to a single player experience wrapped up in a MMORPG. Bringing up additional jobs feels just as easy with the amount of sidequests in each zone, and other open world content (such as FATEs) freely available.
All of this comes wrapped up in a spectacular bow that makes up the game’s soundtrack. Masayoshi Soken and the sound team has once again pulled out all the stops, delivering an audio experience unlike any other. From new town and battle themes, to the absolute bangers put together for the trial fights, Endwalker’s music just might be the best yet. There’s also a lot of care in the various arrangements including the taking of a FFXIV classic and weaving it through new and exciting renditions as well as beautiful piano tracks arranged by Keiko. Certainly, the wait for the full release will be more difficult than ever.
When talking about Final Fantasy XIV, there’s only so much that can be said in a review. Time and time again, it’s proven itself to be more than a simple online game and Endwalker is no different. It’s a game that needs to be experienced firsthand – no amount of preaching from on high about free trials and critical acclaim is enough. FFXIV is an emotional journey and Endwalker is the height of everything, everything from the past ten years brought to conclusion. It’s a vast tale that’s earned in more ways than one; it’s an emotional tale that will have you crying and weeping all the way through; it’s one of the greatest games of all time. I can’t express just how much my love for Final Fantasy XIV has grown since its troubled start, and its future has never looked brighter.
Disclaimer: PlayStation 5 review code provided by the publisher Square Enix. Also played on PC.