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. For the past couple months leading up to Stormblood, I’ve been thinking a lot about what Heavensward did well and what it didn’t. I’ve talked about Anima Weapons, the Diadem, the Main Scenario (spoilers!), the expansion’s dungeons, the expansion’s endgame, glamour in Heavensward, and most of the expansion’s peripheral content. There are only a few more days until Stormblood’s Early Access period begins, so the only thing left to do is bring it all together.
As I mentioned when I talked about the state of glamour in the expansion, it’s probably fair to say that my overall impression of Heavensward has been somewhat negative—or at the least, far from glowingly positive. That was probably inevitable, following the against-all-odds success of A Realm Reborn, which brought an all but dead game back to life and to a level of success I don’t think Square Enix truly anticipated. As successful as the game became, it was relatively narrow in focus at launch, with expansions of its core content coming slowly (with the two major additions of A Realm Reborn being the Zodiac Weapon Saga and the Hunt, neither of which added much breadth).
That was all well and good, of course—most new MMOs don’t launch with their full suite of features. In the lead-up to Heavensward, we were told (by Yoshi-P himself, no less) that with A Realm Reborn having established the game’s core features, it would be up to Heavensward to really expand on them. It was an exciting time: I was in love with the game’s core and absolutely enthusiastic about the possibilities that lay in the future. As we near Stormblood, I’m not excited in nearly the same way (though I’m plenty eager, don’t get me wrong!) and that’s largely because Heavensward didn’t quite didn’t deliver.
I’ve already talked about the reasons for that feeling at length, so I won’t tread that ground all over, but with fewer dungeons per patch and the content we got to replace the missing one often poorly filling that void, Heavensward hardly feels expanded when compared to A Realm Reborn‘s patch cycle. Crafting and Gathering saw an attempt at an endgame overhaul that mostly went poorly, and we got new, hastily balanced jobs, (neither of which I didn’t get around to covering on the site much), leading to a major reset button half-way through the expansion to restore things to the way they were in A Realm Reborn. Most other content types from A Realm Reborn saw some streamlining and minor improvements, but as the game’s core, they were probably never going to change that much. It fell to the new content types to really change things, and as implemented, none of them have really added much to the game, in the grand scheme of things.
Square Enix has always been a cautious developer, and after several years of playing Final Fantasy XI, I’m not especially surprised that the development team was too afraid to really shake things up. I am, however, disappointed that they were. It’s my hope that they realize there needs to be some change moving forward if they want the game to stay strong, but they’ve been a lot more tight-lipped about the actual content coming in Stormblood this time, so it’s hard to have a real sense of what kind of future we’re looking at for Final Fantasy XIV. Looking back on what the team managed with Heavensward, though, I don’t see much foundation for hope when it comes to new content additions like Eureka or the new Deep Dungeon. The future will tell, but I think there is reason to keep our expectations tempered for Stormblood.
That isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed my time in Heavensward, of course. I greatly enjoyed following the unfolding of the Dragonsong War, even if everything following its conclusion in the Main Scenario left me mostly uninterested in the story (let’s hope that Stormblood can reignite that interest!). Structural changes to Beast Tribes and the Anima questline (compared to the Zodiac one, of course), better-designed dungeons thanks to several years of iterative design, and the Deep Dungeon (which is probably the best new addition from Heavensward) meant I still had plenty to do even if things hadn’t changed a lot since A Realm Reborn.
Of course, the existence of this website should also say plenty about how much I enjoyed myself: if Heavensward really did expand anything, it really gave us a lot more to work with for glamours. At this point, I don’t think it’s strange to say that glamour is a pretty big part of the game (it even shows up somewhat prominently on the game’s main promotional site), and so broadened gear styles and general improvements to the glamour system were very welcome. If there’s one area where I feel Heavensward really improved the game, it would be on the glamour front, without question.
But even if I enjoyed myself, and if some things got better, the truth is that most of the good things about Heavensward could have happened without any need for an expansion at all. Streamlined reward systems, more story, improvements to glamour, better dungeon design: all of these things probably would have happened over time whether we got an expansion in 2015 or not. The rest—the things we could say belong to Heavensward proper—were not terrible, but most of them were definitely safe, as if the development team was afraid that even the tiniest changes could upset some house of cards they had built, collapsing the game to Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 levels of ruin. Only the original Diadem tried to really expand the level-capped endgame, an experiment that got shut down due to community outcry and replaced by a watered-down, safe version over a year later.
And so I’m left with an overall impression that Heavensward was safe, and expansions aren’t necessarily a good time to play it safe, especially for a game that was desperately in need of some real growth. Heavensward didn’t actively make things worse, by any stretch of the imagination, and it did make the incremental improvements in various ways, but did it truly expand Final Fantasy XIV? For the most part, I think the answer is no.
I debated long and hard about whether I would give the expansion any sort of numerical score—after all, this retrospective isn’t going to be very useful for anyone considering taking the plunge. Heavensward is over, and if anyone’s diving into Final Fantasy XIV now, they’re probably doing so on the basis of Stormblood. In the end, though, I decided, if nothing else, when we’re at the same point in Stormblood’s life cycle, I’ll want a point of reference to use when comparing the 4.x patch cycle to the 3.x one.
The Score: 7/10 (Average)
This score is, of course, subjective, but all such things are. For scale, I’m thinking in terms of a 0-100 range, with a 7/10 being something like a grade school C. Heavensward certainly wasn’t bad, but there wasn’t much exceptional about it, either, outside of it being the follow up to a game whose continued existence is somewhat miraculous given the failure of Final Fantasy XIV 1.0. The design ethos for Heavensward seems to have been to stay the course, and to its credit, the expansion didn’t make the game worse—it just, at the same time, didn’t make it better in significant ways, either.
And that concludes my look back on the expansion. I have one more planned post before the beginning of Early Access for Stormblood, and I’m considering the possibility of posting on Tuesday and Thursday this week as well (so I don’t feel so bad about skipping Friday, which I’m probably going to do, to allow myself to really enjoy that first day of the new expansion). I’m cautiously optimistic for Stormblood, and I’m hoping that somehow, it manages to blow me away in a way that Heavensward never quite managed.