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Review: Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker

24 Dec 2021

When Square Enix launched the original version of Final Fantasy XIV in 2010, it was deemed a massive failure by both critics and players alike. Since then, the game has been successfully relaunched seen an increasingly growing playerbase and has just released its fourth expansion- Endwalker.

Its previous expansion, Shadowbringers, was highly regarded by all as a masterpiece of storytelling, and so, needless to say, all of us have been eagerly awaiting to see how Square Enix could try and reach, let alone further raise the bar they had set for themselves.

Read on for our spoiler-free review of Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker.

For this review, our 4-member podcast team each shared their thoughts and we’ve broken it down by section. The final score is a reflection of the average scoring of those 4 members.

As an additional note- the issues caused by server congestion were not factored into our final score.

Tales of Loss and Fire and Faith

Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker signals the end of the Hydaelyn and Zodiark saga- a story that has been around for more than a decade. Ultimately however, the story presented in Endwalker feels more like a sequel and finale to its previous expansion Shadowbringers rather than any kind of conclusion to the last ten years of storytelling. Sure, there are moments where ten years of questing and character interactions pay off, but the main narrative to me felt unfocused at times and ultimately left me unfulfilled.

Going more in depth is difficult without naming names, but what I will say is that Endwalker’s line up of antagonists, to me, is the most disappointing of Final Fantasy XIV to date. I had been wondering if the team would be able to take characters like Fandaniel or Zenos and make them interesting to the point where they could rival Emet-Selch’s incredible narrative from the previous expansion. After completing the story and giving myself some time to reflect on it however, it’s clear they couldn’t meet that high bar that they set with Shadowbringers.

Admittedly, some of the issues that I faced during my run through the story were the result of expectations and desires that I myself placed on it. After all, it’s almost impossible not to have these thoughts after playing the game since version 1.0. My expectations were placed neatly on top of a table, and the FFXIV team decided to take that table, and flip it over, seemingly, for the sake of simply doing so to subvert the expectations of people like me.

Many scenes stirred some feelings in me, I even teared up a bit on occasion, but ultimately, only one scene got me to tear up during my playthrough. On the other side of that, there were some scenes that felt like they were aimed at wanting to elicit a strong emotion from players, but to me personally, felt so transparent and/or predictable that I simply couldn’t be bothered to invest the strong emotional reaction the writers were trying to get out of me.

It’s also worth noting that, as displeased as I was with the narrative of the main scenario, I will say that the two role quests I’ve completed thus far were much more in line with my narrative expectations. While not required this time around, I would highly encourage everyone to check them out.

It’s not often that a long running story leaves me feeling as fulfilled as Endwalker did. There were times when I knew exactly where the story’s plot was going, but the journey to that point was always such a delight and ended up delivering more than I expected. I love a story that makes me feel things and Endwalker did not disappoint in that regard. Knowing that Endwalker would likely cause some tears, I joked that we ought to do a tear counter, but I ended up sticking with the idea. The total number of times this story tugged on my heart strings, whether through joy, sorrow, and everything in between, came out to 70 times!

All of that said, there was one glaring detail at the end of the story that I would cut off, put through a shredder, and burn the remains of. With the way it was left, I’m hoping they still intend to wrap that part up… differently in the patches to come. I would have liked to have seen that particular thread handled in another way.

Still, it doesn’t change how strongly I feel about the story as a whole! So what if the icing is vanilla and I wanted chocolate? The cake is still delicious!

I can’t stop thinking about this ending. From the first moment to the last, Endwalker surprised and delighted me. It is stuffed with callbacks from ten years of lore, new interesting characters to see the world through, and huge philosophical questions. One of my favorite feelings that a story can evoke is that “backfilling” of information. When you are told something, and later it is told in a different way, or with a little more context and that unlocks a new understanding in the viewer. Endwalker did this for just about every topic of the lore. It is a fine line to walk between “retcon” and “expanded understanding” and for me, they walked it masterfully.

That isn’t to say it is perfect of course. I would have liked more time with some of the new characters. A common complaint is that they were introduced too quickly, and while I am just on the other side of that argument, I definitely understand it. A few bits of the late story felt like pandering to the audience, showing us a lot of fun “getting the team together” in a rapid fire cutscene that didn’t really hit for me. There are also sections that I could do without, maybe a quest or two. But even during those doldrums the pace and pressure of the narrative push you along.

Telling the end of a saga spanning ten years is an impossible task that few creative teams have ever attempted, let alone succeeded at. Telling a story in a MMO makes that story a living experience, akin to the campaign of a roleplaying game. It is collaborative, whether or not the developers or even the players realize it. That combination of factors makes this success even more unbelievable. It takes a special development team to understand how to weave a story that can grip the player even through all of the MMO trope nonsense that would normally get in the way. It won’t land with everyone, everywhere- There are a lot of Warriors of Light with their own sensibilities about story and lore. But what I experienced was a masterful combination of themes, character moments and revelations that only added to my love of this game.

I found myself profoundly touched by a narrative that dove into clinging to light despite the darkest of times. The nuanced reflections on grief, despair, joy, and hope struck a resonant chord with me. Likewise, the incredible power that literal years of storytelling in an MMORPG can hold to mirror our own lives hit me with every interaction and duty. Endwalker reminds us that all those around us, be they NPCs, fellow players, or real life figures, can affect and shape our lifetimes in monumental ways- if only we have the courage to reach out to them.

Even given my own experience, I truly believe that Endwalker will likely be one of the most divisive expansions in the game’s history. The narrative sports incredible high points for those who will resonate with it, but also a myriad of low points and controversial moments that have already sparked more than a few impassioned conversations. 

For example, portions of the story feel less fleshed out than others, including some fairly monumental conflicts and story beats that try to usurp expectations, but fail to do so in an entirely satisfying way. Other sections cause a lag in pacing that can be enjoyable when filled with comedic beats and endearing side characters, but that ultimately still weigh down a narrative that wanted to race at a speed befitting the final days of existence.

The areas in which the expansion excels far surpass any stumbling blocks though. This was particularly true in regards to the uniquely tender characterization written by lead scenario designer Natsuko Ishikawa who continues to shine as one of XIV’s greatest talents. I won’t be forgetting my time in Endwalker anytime soon and I consider it a brave attempt to communicate a powerful message and a rare expansion that ranks amidst some of my favorite games of all time.

Forge Ahead

I’m constantly amazed at how the battle team is able to come up with new mechanics in dungeons and trials, and Endwalker is no different. From a narrative standpoint, the dungeons in Endwalker are the best they’ve ever been. I also found the new trials with their mechanics to be enjoyable- fun to figure out, and also not necessarily brain dead to execute on repeated attempts.

Playing around with my Miner a bit, the removal of high quality items from gathering felt fine, and using Studium Deliveries as a way to level up is just as great as it was with its Shadowbringers’ counterpart.

There’s a nice variety to the dungeon formula that shook things up from the norm just enough for me to take notice. A few of them are quite striking visually as well. The level 85 dungeon is probably my favorite for both of these reasons, as well as really punching you in the feelings.

Trials in this game are almost always a grand spectacle, and the three this time around were no slouches. The enemies you fight are epic and beautiful in their own ways, and the mechanics they throw at you are fun, with a few that are challenging enough to give your average party something to look out for without feeling overwhelmed. The extreme version of the level 83 trial ups the stakes of the geometry dance present in the standard version in a similarly fun, but more engaging way. The second trial, I’ll admit, was less fun for me, simply because of how many times we’ve seen some of its core mechanics presented in such a similar way already. I’m excited for when we get the extreme version of the final trial, though! I look forward to what they do with what I consider to be the primary mechanic of that battle.

These dungeons and trials are absolutely amazing. Mechanically, there are some wild ideas that I will not spoil. But, I think you can see this as the expansion that adds a lot more battlefield interactions. Visually, the best of them can keep up with the spectacle of previous dungeons and of course the music is amazing. The Extreme trials we can access right now are a great step up from the originals. Not too difficult which is great due to everyone dealing with a new rotation. They aren’t pushovers though, as one in particular has an enrage that will catch you after a couple of deaths.

There are also a couple of new quest types for the MSQ and Side Quests. One is a “Escort” style of quest but one that feels more relaxed. Getting to walk NPCs to their destination while having a few pit stops for dialogue along the way is a great addition. It helps to give them a new tool to stitch the quests and cutscenes together with. The other addition though… Is basically a stealth follow mission type. You tail a NPC through the world on foot and have to hide behind objects when they turn around. These weren’t difficult, just a pace change that I didn’t appreciate. Especially those where the NPC is constantly looking around (you know who you are).

The variety of content in the expansion feels varied and full of depth. From dungeons and trials, to duty instances, job quests, and lore-relevant side quests, all of the gameplay reflects or enhances the context of the world’s plight in memorable ways. While nods to other Final Fantasy titles were rolled into content, I was particularly happy that FFXIV’s own creativity and design were showcased in the trials. The designs were a beautiful nod to Yoshitaka Amano’s art style and lived up to everything I would have hoped.

In particular, the two bonus dungeons following the completion of the main story quests were real standouts. With the story itself being so much longer than previous portions of the game, I could have used a bit more content in the early portions of the narrative, perhaps culminating either of the branching first zones in a trial, dungeon, or duty instance, but regardless, what we did get was well designed and memorable.

I enjoyed the new quest type where NPCs follow you and converse along the way, though when this was reversed into a stealth-follow mission for you to complete, the experience felt flat. Very little dialogue in those instances was worthwhile and if an NPC’s deceptively short visual cone just happened to see you, then starting over felt like a monumental waste of time.

Another less than optimal note is that leveling armor sets in zones and all but two of the new dungeons unfortunately reuse gear sets from previous portions of the game. Still, given the overall exciting content and memorable fights, it’s a minor complaint.

Forged in Fury, Tempered in Ice

The FFXIV team has said several times that the job changes that came with Endwalker were simply a continuation of what were included with the previous expansion, and… that checks out. The additions to the Jobs that I’ve played so far feel like a great addition to the abilities that were already present and the rotations feel even smoother than they did before.

As I write this review, I’ve gotten the new Reaper Job up to level 85 and I’m absolutely loving the variety of things that the job can do. It can dash back, it can dash forward, it can boost attack for the party, it can give a low regen to the party… I’m usually more fond of more selfish DPS classes, but I love that I can still do a bunch of damage while also helping out the party.

Nobody’s perfect, as they say, but we’re only at the beginning of the expansion and I have faith they’ll make adjustments as best they can. It seems like the new job Reaper is the melee DPS king for now, sweeping in in much the same way Samurai originally did in Stormblood. Bard with its slight changes and Summoner with its more significant changes, both seem to not quite be living up to their potential, but they are fun to play! For Monk, I’ve heard both good and bad about, but it seems to be doing well even if some players find it clunky. I’m also finding it super cute to watch old school players be unable to stop doing their positional attacks even if they don’t need to! Sage seems really fun and I’m somehow clicking with it better than I ever did with Scholar. I’m thinking that might have to do with the compacted hotbars, though. Speaking of Scholar, it’s sounding like people were panicking over nothing. I do still think it could use some of the love Summoner got, but no delay on fairy abilities sounds like smooth, smooth butter to me!

For my own job, Dancer, I found it clunky to start, but once I got into the rhythm, it still plays very similarly. Things don’t seem to line up as smoothly as they did before, but that, again, could just be my own growing pains. I also have to get used to having an AoE that’s not just flailing damage around me in a circle. I’m glad for the changes made to Improvisation. Now, when I ask people to stand in it, they’re generally more willing since it’s both a shield and a regen, rather than a help to healers and an esprit boost for me. Switching between AoE and single target chakram attacks doesn’t work quite like I thought it would, and, noting the change in potencies, I’m not sure it’s even an improvement for later procs unless you have to get out of range, but I’ll live! I quite like throwing blue birds that sound like eagles every minute. Ca-caw!

I wrote so many words about these after the media tour. I promise not to turn this into another thesis, so I’ll be brief with some of the standouts for good, or for ill.

Starting with the new Jobs. Sage is a strong healer. It might not feel that way at first, especially if you are in a dungeon and Living Dead has been popped… But I have seen some incredible mitigation stacking from them in larger group content. Reaper is too strong, but that is just a numbers problem. It plays incredibly well, with a fun rotation and real opportunities for optimization in harder content.

Monk is divisive. Some Monks hate the loss of more positional requirements, while others welcome it. I think they all welcome the damage they can output now, but once again that will ebb and flow with patches. It still has a weird rotational flow that needs to be ironed out as well. Dark Knights are a little upset with the lack of changes, especially because some of them had already been shown to work for other Jobs. Scholar seems to be fine. We’ve yet to see the real effect of the new Pure/Barrier healer split, but it can be felt at low gear levels. Thankfully the pet changes and the cast speed/shield application enhancements have felt amazing.

Summoner. Summoner always changes. As a Summoner main, I can say that it feels… Easier. Is that better? I don’t know. I do know that it plays really well, the changes to Egis/Primals are thematically great, and the damage sucks. Numbers are numbers and they will change, but it does make me wonder if with the loss of some difficulty in execution, will there be a loss of potential damage?

The Job Adjustments before Savage raiding starts will answer these, but also give a little more insight to where they think Jobs should be now and I can’t wait.

In all honesty, I think most of the job changes have been well received and done very little to usurp the fairly strong balance between classes that was present in Shadowbringers. Of course there have always been and will always be certain areas in which classes can be tweaked, but most of our jobs are in a solid place and can perform alongside any others in a wide variety of content.

Sage and Reaper bring strong new visuals and engaging gameplay. The sound design and actual mechanical flow works incredibly well for both of them, though Sage does take a bit of experience and puzzling through to perform reliably with. Reaper swoops, teleports, and AoE cleaves down foes with absolute abandon, making it an incredibly strong new addition to the game.

Healers are in a satisfying position following the split to shield and pure healers. While pairings like Sage and a Dark Knight’s Living Dead ability can sometimes lead to a difficult no-win scenario at certain levels, overall, the distinctive playstyle and strengths of either category feel incredibly well tailored. I’ve especially enjoyed running my pure healer with a shield healer in Extreme content and look forward to experimenting more with that synergy of proactive and reactive healing in Savage raid content.

Otherwise, Summoner’s rework has engaged an entirely new audience and thematically brings the job in line with the perception players have who fell in love with it through other Final Fantasy titles. While its intuitive flow and reduced abilities make it feel slightly too easy for some, I still feel it’s an incredibly strong base to build from. In contrast, Monk still seems to be finding its bearings in its redesign and has a promising start but a more hotly debated execution in its current lineup of skills.

Many other classes saw fantastic quality of life tweaks or a new capstone ability that, while not revolutionizing the class, is a welcome addition to the arsenal.

The Land is Alive, so Believe

Fusionx: It should come as no surprise that Endwalker continues its streak of wonderful music by Masayoshi Soken. The themes of Endwalker are beautifully arranged and sprinkled throughout the story, helping to audibly connect the narrative together. This audio also does a great job at accompanying what is some fantastic area design such as the city of Radz-at-Han.

While the designs of the areas are some of the better ones introduced to the game, the game once again shows its struggle with scale. The long highway in Garlemald seems almost laughable when the explorable city itself is rather small. Additionally, when getting up close with some of the textures in Endwalker, you can start to see the age of the engine the game is running on. Hopefully, issues like this can be remedied by upgraded textures- something which Square Enix has said they are looking into. And truthfully, they look fine at a distance. It was only after starting to level some of my gathering classes and getting up close to some of these things that I noticed their quality.

These new areas are gorgeous! I have to give Shadowbringers a little break, I suppose since those areas had been all but swallowed up by light, but the details in Endwalker’s areas really are something in comparison sometimes. I really think it’s in the details. There’s only so much you can do with a repeating ground texture; I don’t fault them, every video game does it, it’s optimization, etc. But I notice them far less than I ever have in this game. There are other things I want to look at, other things simply there to break up the copy/paste ground pattern.

As always, Soken is amazing, and of course we had that original Uematsu track come back in full force. I felt like the music this time was heavily all remixed from “Answers” and “Footfalls,” but I didn’t really mind it. It felt sort of right at the culmination of a story like this. I certainly felt better about the battle track than last time. Additionally, I always love hearing previous Final Fantasy tracks make an appearance in FFXIV. The ones this time really warmed my heart. I won’t say too much about the music in the last zone, but I think that I enjoyed the first portion of it the most.

The new gear was lovely and fitting for the areas they came from, and a lot of the Artifact Armor was quite nice, as well. This has been the best Bard AF we’ve seen in a while, in my opinion, though it does sort of look like it selectively took the best pieces from the old sets and cobbled them together. It’s unfortunately that it didn’t take the hat from the first set- a piece I still consider to be the best. What I really love about the AF, though, is how they present it to you.

This is a beautiful expansion. The zones? Gorgeous. Even the zones I thought I’d dislike from the media tour preview ended up imparting a vast sense of scale and wonder. The enemies within were diverse and interesting to fight, though there felt like there were fewer “kill x enemy” quests so a lot of those are only seen while doing FATES or side quests. As a note here, even the detail in naming sub-zones and areas is worth a look. The dev team hides all sorts of callbacks, lore and real-life references there and It kept surprising me somehow.

When talking about audio… You know Soken and the team do not miss. There is a wide variety of influences for the music of this expansion and they all land for me. I can’t stop listening to the final zone’s music. All of the songs in Endwalker with lyrics are beautiful musically, and then you get into the messaging and themes and they hit another level. The story had us recontextualizing information we already knew via text, but this bled over into the music as well. I won’t go into detail, but a few songs hit differently after seeing everything we’ve seen now.

From a technical standpoint, this expansion has striven for greater heights than any other to date. Character animations show a new range of expressions, including hand holding and enthusiastic burger eating. Within the first ten minutes of the expansion, multiple new musical pieces by Masayoshi Soken set the precedent for an emotional expansion with an OST that reflects every mood, beat, and nuance.

As someone who has also loved the track “Answers” by Nobuo Uematsu with all my heart since the very beginning of this game, I was also pleased to hear old favorites make returns from all eras of the game. In particular, the last zone’s musical building, design and overall character, struck me deeply as to the creative potential of every element of an MMO’s storytelling.

The zone design of Endwalker is also a testament to the development team’s artistry and years of experience. Areas such as Old Sharlayan and Radz-at-Han are peppered with lovingly crafted lore references and real world inspiration. It’s a genuine delight to see a portion of India’s history and culture realized in Thavnair as an inspiration for a fantasy setting and one that is done ridiculously well at that.

Thou Must Live, Die, and Know

It’s obvious that Endwalker is going to be a favorite of many Final Fantasy XIV, while for others, it might not have hit that high bar that was raised with Shadowbringers. Regardless, Endwalker is still a fantastic addition to a game that was originally one of the worst received in the series. It truly is the comeback story of video gaming.

Naoki Yoshida and his team should be commended for the incredible amount of world building and story telling that they’ve been able to pull off for, now, over ten years. Final Fantasy XIV continues to be a game that we would recommend everyone experiences. That is, as soon as the game stops being so popular that it’s able to resumes sales.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Images courtesy of Square Enix.