As Final Fantasy XIV’s first major expansion, Heavensward had a lot to live up to, and carried a pretty heavy burden, as far as solidifying the game’s foundation for the future goes, and now that it’s nearly over, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the expansion did well and what it didn’t. Sporadically over the next couple of months I’m going to collect some of my thoughts on various legs of the game. So far, I’ve talked about Anima Weapons and the Diadem; today I’m going to look at the Main Scenario in Heavensward. Naturally, there are going to be spoilers in this post, though I’m going to try to avoid going into a lot of specifics.
The Main Scenario is probably one of FFXIV’s most defining features, providing a central narrative as the backbone of gameplay in a way that many other MMOs don’t. The MSQ provides for a very structured leveling experience for one’s first class and job, and goes on to serve as the foundation for a large portion of the game’s content past the level cap, in contrast to games like World of Warcraft, where the overall progression of the story tends to mostly happen sort of in the background—the setting/context is still there, but most of it happens without any real player involvement, with questing focused generally on more zone-local stories.
For players looking for more narrative meat to chew on in their MMO, FFXIV’s MSQ is probably a welcome feature, but it’s not been without its problems over the last several years. In A Realm Reborn, the Main Scenario suffered from absolutely horrendous pacing issues—snippets of story were broken up with grueling segments of parcel delivery fetch quests, inconsequential conversations, and time consuming running back and forth. Pressing narrative issues (such as the imminent threat of Garuda) would be put off for hours of gameplay to dabble in local politics, taking the story’s potential impact right out from under its figurative feet. Things only got worse after level 50, with the 2.1-2.5 story being full to the brim with mind-numbing tedium.
As far as gameplay goes, the Main Scenario in Heavensward has mostly avoided most of these prior missteps. The development team has wisely realized that the Main Scenario should mostly be a narrative delivery system, rather than someplace for them to pad out gameplay time. They didn’t learn their lesson entirely, but none of the Heavensward Main Scenario really sticks out as bad in terms of tedium. Instead, Main Scenario chapters come in more densely packed packages, with the larger share of quests generally having narrative significance that makes progressing through the MSQ for the sake of the narrative a more rewarding experience.
As a result, the general thrust of Heavensward’s narrative is better told and better structured (though there’s still meddlesome politics here and there, given the story’s actual focus on Ishgard, it feels less out of place than it did back in Coerthas Western Highlands). From level 50 up through patch 3.3’s Main Scenario Quests, the story is largely focused on Ishgard and the centuries long Dragonsong War, culminating in a final, powerful confrontation with Nidhogg in Final Steps of Faith. Rightly so this time, the game’s greater narrative which focuses on the Ascians, the primal threat, and the Garleans, generally takes a back seat in Heavensward, which allows for the Ishgardian elements to stay front and center.
For the game as a whole, though, that’s left the Main Scenario in a pretty strange place. Now that the Heavensward Main Scenario is officially complete, we now more or less know that, just like the 35-44 stretch in the Realm Reborn Main Scenario, almost the whole of Heavensward’s story has been a detour. Most of the Realm Reborn story, up through 2.3 or so, alternates between the Ascian/Primal storylines and the Garleans, and then the story takes a turn to focus more on Ishgard for awhile. When we leave that story, the Garleans are threatening to invade Eorzea at any moment, and the Ascians are still doing mysterious generically evil things in the background.
And after the whole of Heavensward, we’ve more or less ended up at exactly the same point. The Garlean and Primal/Ascian threads of the story converge in spectacular fashion in the two parts of the 3.5 story in Baelsar’s Wall, with the summoning of a new devastating primal by Ilberd and in the midst of of a maniacal plan all but guaranteed to convince the Garleans to invade Eorzea. The end of Balesar’s Wall even hearkens back to the end of the original FFXIV storyline, with Papalymo sealing the primal in the same manner that Louisoix originally sealed Bahamut.
And where does the whole Ishgardian/Dragonsong War narrative fit in? In essence, the connection comes down to a single point: the eyes of Nidhogg. We’ve spent almost the past two years of story content on an extended detour that more or less feels like filler content now that it’s done in order to actually get back to the story proper. The connections between Heavensward’s story and the larger one could have been much stronger, though—decent chunks of the Heavensward story from 50-60 deal directly with the primals, which are threats to Ishgard in their own way, with the Ascians having conscripted the Warriors of Darkness to sow chaos in service to the will of Zodiark.
But those two lines never really come together. The Warriors of Darkness are abruptly removed from the storyline in 3.4 as if they weren’t ever really important to anything in the first place, despite huge chunks of the narrative being devoted to them. Considering how important all of the story up to that point made them seem, it’s downright strange how little they had to actually had to do with things in the end. While they’re the ones to retrieve Nidhogg’s eyes after 3.3, it’s the Ascians who turn them over to Ilberd, robbing the story of an antagonist that could have served as a thread weaved all through Heavensward and further on into Stormblood.
And by and large, I can’t for the life of me figure out what the narrative intent was with Heavensward’s Main Scenario. Even at the end, the summoning of Shinryu is apparently dealt with, with that device seemingly meant only to set up the presence of Omega Weapon as the main raid content in Stormblood. So nothing from Heavensward proper is even going to carry forward into expansion’s Main Scenario. The Dragonsong War and Nidhogg’s death, the restructuring of Ishgardian society, and the Warriors of Darkness…it’s all little more than a series of footnotes, distracting us from the true main story, which more than ever seems to focus on the Garleans.
For me, at least, that’s left me feeling rather uninterested in the game’s storyline. I’ve had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that Heavensward was never really meant to be the game’s first expansion. With a lot of Heavensward seemingly having been somewhat rushed (from new classes to content design), I’ve wondered if the team was pressured in some way to get out an expansion far sooner than they were ready to, and so they took what was meant to be a transitional story at the end of A Realm Reborn leading into the Stormblood storyline (which more or less picks up all the threads left dangling at the end of ARR’s 2.3 story) and did their best to turn it into a full expansion (with middling results at best).
With Heavensward’s overall relevance to the story of Final Fantasy XIV coming down to the footnote of Nidhogg’s eyes, that nagging feeling has more or less been cemented, and because of it, I’m not particularly excited about the story going into Stormblood. I found the Dragonsong War to be pretty engaging (and much better told than most of ARR’s MSQ), and since I’m a sucker for “the hero but evil” tropes, I was additionally pretty invested in the Warriors of Darkness story thread, too, especially since they were seemingly set up to be a focal point of the Ascian/Primal portions of the story, which is the other leg of the story I’ve generally been following with interest.
While I’m excited for Stormblood for a host of other reasons, and overjoyed that we’re getting to go to Othard and Doma far earlier than I imagined we would, I think Heavensward’s Main Scenario was ultimately just not put together well. The narrative elements have been scattered, with long segments spent on what amount to detours and footnotes, and I think the story has had the wind taken out of its sails. Had the many disparate threads been brought together in a more satisfying way before Heavensward’s conclusion, I think that could have been avoided. But in the long term, it feels like the scenario writers haven’t quite learned all of the lessons they should have learned from A Realm Reborn’s scenario, even if they’ve made some progress at least on the gameplay elements of the MSQ.
I hope by the end of Stormblood I can look back on Heavensward’s story and think of it as more than just a footnote, but with all the loose ends tied up, I can’t think of any non-contrived way for that to even happen. Thankfully, I’m excited to be going to Doma for far more than the Main Scenario, but I do think presently that the MSQ, which should be one of the game’s strongest points, isn’t shaping up to be all that it could be.