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. So far, I’ve talked about Anima Weapons, the Diadem, the Main Scenario (spoilers!), the expansion’s dungeons, the expansion’s endgame, and glamour in Heavensward. For the penultimate post in the series, I’ll be talking about most of the content I haven’t talked about so far.
This look back is going to be all over the place, I have to admit. Back when I started this series of retrospectives, I drafted a list of topics I wanted to cover, but for some of them, I wasn’t sure I could really get a full post in (at least not of length comparable to the rest in the series). Heavensward had a lot of content that wasn’t particularly central to the expansion itself (some of which has already come up in my thoughts on the level 60 endgame), and it’s most of that stuff I’m talking about today. With that rambling preamble out of the way, I want to just dive right in.
Alexander really tried to accomplish a lot—far more than Binding Coil of Bahamut did. With the new normal mode of the raid being tuned for a more casual audience and the Savage difficulty taking the place once held by the single difficulty of Coil (outside of Second Coil which did have a Savage mode as a sort of challenge mode), Alexander was attempting to appeal to a much wider range of players than its predecessor. The team’s success there was mixed. Gordias and Midas Savage modes saw the raiding population shrink, and the normal modes have struggled to remain relevant, making queue times for those trying to catch up dreadful.
The overall storyline had some interesting themes, but seemed to be somewhat at odds with itself. The overall comedic tone of the Illuminati often clashed with the more somber reflections on timeless love on the Alexander/Mide side of the scale. Even the musical direction often seemed at odds with the gravity one might expect from the expansion’s central raid, with admittedly catchy electro-steampunk tunes frequently coming across as jarring. I also never felt the threat of Alexander. That work wasn’t necessary for Bahamut because of the Calamity itself. In the Alexander storyline, we got vague pronouncements that Alexander was draining the land of its aether, but we never really saw any effects of that, which felt like a glaring omission.
With its struggle to establish a proper difficulty curve and also just poor execution on the story end of things, I honestly feel like Alexander has proven to be one of the expansion’s largest missteps. From what little the team has said of the new Stormblood raid, Omega, I have some hope they’ve learned from the troubles that Alexander had, but I have to admit this is one area that I am very skeptical of moving forward.
The Shadow of Mhach
Like Alexander, the Shadow of Mhach Alliance Raids struggled a bit regarding difficulty tuning. The first raid, Void Ark, was almost laughably easy, with almost none of the encounters featuring mechanics of any real significance. Weeping City was probably over-tuned in a sort of knee-jerk response to how easy Void Ark was—its fights are some of my favorite of the expansion’s, but they can be frustrating given the difficulty of coordinating large groups of randomly matched players. Dun Scaith seems to have found a better balance between difficulty and accessibility, though it can really drag on at times due to the general length of the fights.
I found the story in the Alliance Raids to be a lot more engaging than the one for Alexander—perhaps because it drew on one of Eorzea’s older civilizations much as Coil from A Realm Reborn had a lot to do with the Allagans. That focus gave the story a certain gravity that seemed to be missing from Alexander, even when the Redbills and Cait Sith provided an avenue for some humor to lighten the otherwise serious mood. The threat of Diabolos and the Voidsent felt present at all times, aided by leaning on characters like Diabolos himself and Ferdiad that we had seen in the Amdapori dungeons from 2.x.
If I have one complaint about Heavensward’s Alliance Raids, it’s that they really lack a concrete sense of place. We access all three of them by way of airship, and of the three, only the Void Ark can be seen while in the game world itself (visible in the skies of Abalathia’s Spine). That makes Weeping City and Dun Scaith feel like they could literally be anywhere and sort of divorced from Eorzea itself. That’s one problem that’s very likely going to recur with the Return to Ivalice raids in Stormblood, since we’ll probably be accessing them through some sort of Grimoire (as in the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games).
The Palace of the Dead
I talked about the addition of the Deep Dungeon at length in my initial impressions, so I won’t rehash all of that here, other than to say that my general opinion of the content hasn’t changed. It’s probably the most successful Heavensward addition to the game’s range of content and provides a good way for veteran players and newcomers to play together (which I think the game needs more of).
Since those initial impressions, we’ve seen the Palace of the Dead expanded to include 100 challenge-difficulty floors, and while I haven’t cleared all the way through them (I’m hoping to make an attempt on that before Stormblood), I’ve definitely enjoyed my time in the post-100 floors. They capture something of the feeling of content from Final Fantasy XI or other older-generation MMOs, which is something I often miss in FFXIV‘s dungeons. We also say Palace of the Dead weapons maintain parity with Sophia weapons, but then (somewhat strangely to me) not do so with Zurvan weapons. I’m not sure if that’s indicative of a change in design direction or if the team felt they wouldn’t be necessary with the Coven weapons from Diadem, but I hope that Stormblood‘s Deep Dungeon will continue to give non-core players an avenue for weapons outside of the lengthy Relic/Anima grind or Extreme primals.
The Warring Triad
In Heavensward, the primal threat took a back seat to the raging Dragonsong War, so the story of the Warring Triad (drawing on inspiration from Final Fantasy VI) had to take a back seat, too. I actually think that’s a shame, as the story here is probably one of the most interesting in all of Heavensward, containing one of the best new characters in the expansion, Regula van Hydrus. Given the return in focus toward the Garlean Empire in Stormblood, I actually think placing the Warring Triad as side content was a bit of a mistake.
Especially through Regula van Hydrus, the Warring Triad storyline gives us something of a new perspective on the Empire, one that could color the events of Stormblood in interesting ways. Since the quest line isn’t likely to be required to understand Stormblood‘s Main Scenario, though, I suspect this otherwise interesting narrative will largely be forgotten in the greater context of FFXIV’s continuing story, which is just plain unfortunate.
The three primals themselves also expand our understanding of primal entities themselves. Up until these three, the primal threat has largely come from the Beast Tribes (with only Shiva hinting at the possibility of primals coming from other sources). While Sephirot and Zurvan arose from a tree-like and centaur-like race respectively, Sophia arose from the faith of all the races of Meracydia. In that regard I really feel like they should have been a part of the Main Scenario proper (and from what we’ve seen so far it seems like primals will once again have a more direct part in things in Stormblood, so I’m excited for that).
Beast Tribe Quests
Beast Tribe Quests in A Realm Reborn were an exercise in patience—patience that I definitely did not possess. Reputation gains were slow, which made story progression slow, and the quests themselves were often nothing short of annoying. Of all of them, I only managed to complete the Ixal quests (in part because they were so valuable for end-game crafting). Heavensward brought many welcome changes to the overall structure, though, and I’m happy to say I completed all three of the expansion’s Beast Tribe quest lines.
Beast Tribe quests in Heavensward are quick, mostly smooth affairs (minus occasional need to ride around on special quest mounts), and you could achieve maximum reputation gain for all three tribes at once if you were progressing them at the same time (as opposed to the ARR tribes, where you could spend all of your alliances on a single tribe if you were of high enough rank). Reputation gains are also far more steady, and with the tribes all contributing to the expansion’s Anima questline regardless of rank, the quests are worth doing even if you come to them late.
The individual stories were also fun and enjoyable—I was particularly fond of the Vath, both for learning about the Vath and the Gnath, but also because establishing a new Adventurer’s Guild just felt like something the Warrior of Light should have a hand in. If I have any complaint at all with the Beast Tribes in Heavensward, it’s that I wanted another one, preferably a set for the goblins of Idyllshire (who are different enough from the Illuminati to really benefit from being fleshed out on their own).
Further Hildibrand Adventures & The Scholasticate
I’m taking these two together because through both story lines, I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that the Scholasticate was originally meant to be a much longer quest chain, comparable to the length of the Hildibrand quests from A Realm Reborn. Both stories have their moments, but I don’t think either one ever really truly catches its stride in the way the original Hildibrand quests did.
Narrative developments in both seem to proceed a bit quickly, with the Scholasticate quests in particular feeling like they were originally plotted to last the whole of Heavensward, filling the role that the original Hildibrand quests did. Fan demand for more Hildibrand seems to have resulted in two shorter story lines using development time originally meant for a single tale.
In revisiting cutscenes for both of them for screenshots, I did have to admit I definitely enjoyed both of them, though. Both quest lines have memorable characters, and the benefit of the shorter stories is that neither one of them ever feels like they’re over staying their welcomes. If anything, I would have liked to see the individual characters in the Scholasticate quests given more development, but what is there is good.
I don’t have a great deal to say about the Aquapolis, but I do think it’s worth touching on. One of Heavensward‘s smallest new content additions, the Aquapolis is probably actually my favorite of the bunch, which makes me all the more sad that I almost never do it anymore. With just enough variation in the range of encounters and the ability for rare spawns to show up to keep things interesting, the Aquapolis always felt fresh to me when running it with my old Diabolos FC.
It’s fun, laid-back content that was sufficiently rewarding in an economic sense, making it great to do with small groups of friends. The random elements of the portals and doors opening seem to be pretty well-tuned, in that I never particularly felt shunted by them—just as often as I was disappointed to not get to the next room, I’d be excited to make it to the next one. The rare spawns are also generally exciting, and the cyclops in particular can even feel dangerous in smaller groups thanks to the item level sync inside.
I just wish there had been more reason to really do the Aquapolis. Since all of its rewards are either gil-related or cosmetic, there’s not much drawing players who don’t need or have interest in those things. Buried treasure maps have more or less always had the same problem, and Aquapolis could have been a way to make them a larger part of gameplay at the cap. I think it’s been said we’ll have similar content in Stormblood, and I hope we can see the rewards broadened somewhat in the expansion.
Overall, outside of my disappointment with Alexander, Heavensward had a lot of side content and stories that I enjoyed. If I had to pick one content line that was undoubtedly my favorite out of everything in the expansion, it would be the Shadow of Mhach raids (which is high praise since I was not especially fond of the Alliance Raids in A Realm Reborn), and we got some good story content with the Beast Tribes and other side story quests.
Content-wise, I think both the Deep Dungeon and Aquapolis added some much-needed expansion, but neither of them goes as far as I think they should have to really broadening things. Hopefully we’ll see both of them grow in the expansion, and hopefully the Full Party raids will have more lasting appeal, better story telling, and more properly tuned difficulty levels.