Stormblood Retrospective: Final Thoughts

My Warrior of Light, Alahra, contemplates what is to come before the Crystal Tower.

We’re mere days away from the release of Final Fantasy XIV’s third expansion, Shadowbringers, and we’ve reached the end of its second, Stormblood, with the recently released launch trailer shifting all the community’s energy toward the next expansion. As I did at the end of Heavensward, I’ve been taking this time before Shadowbringers to look back at Stormblood, with emphasis on the ways Stormblood built (or didn’t build) on the foundation provided by Heavensward. So far, I’ve covered Eureka (in twoparts), examined the Main Scenario, mused about glamour in Stormblood, and took a more thorough look at the expansion’s Beast Tribe Quests. With the expansion right around the corner now, I want to wrap up this series of retrospectives, touching on some of the things that didn’t warrant full individual posts and my final thoughts on Stormblood as an expansion.

At the end of its second expansion, FFXIV is as much the same game as it ever was, which can be both a blessing and a curse for a long-running MMORPG. Compared to Heavensward, which introduced normal raids, exploration content, deep dungeons, and added a dungeon element to treasure maps, Stormblood did less to expand FFXIV’s range of gameplay, instead largely focusing on refining existing content models. As such, the overall scope of the game at the level cap looks much like it did in Heavensward on the surface. In many ways Stormblood’s refinement and re-focusing of development resources has left the world of FFXIV feeling somewhat smaller than before, though. Like Heavensward before it, Stormblood again reduced the number of new dungeons. It also scaled back its deep dungeon, Heaven-on-High, going from the 200 floors in Palace of the Dead to just 70, and dramatically reduced the scope of the expansion’s legendary weapon quest by folding it into its exploration content, Eureka.

Just as with Heavensward, though, refocusing development resources in this way created possibilities for new battle content in FFXIV’s second expansion. In particular for Stormblood, this allowed for Eureka to play out across four zones (compared to Diadem’s one), including one with a special high-difficulty public dungeon, the addition of a pair of Ultimate difficulty raid encounters for the game’s highest tier raiders, and the development of special challenges—the Masked Carnivale—for FFXIV’s first Limited Job, Blue Mage. Eureka and Ultimate raids were largely met with a positive reception, with Eureka remaining active far longer into the expansion than Diadem ever did and plenty of disappointment when Yoshida announced that the team had cancelled the originally planned third Ultimate raid. Blue Mage’s Masked Carnivale, on the other hand, had only a brief time in the sun for the wider playerbase, though at present there are still plans to expand the Limited Job over the course of Shadowbringers. Outside of the Masked Carnivale, however, these new additions were built on foundations established in Heavensward rather than wholly new, meaning that FFXIV’s core gameplay in Stormblood never truly expanded, as one could reasonably expect of an expansion for a MMORPG.

The Royal City of Rabanastre, from the Return to Ivalice raid series.

Instead of innovating through new types of content, Stormblood aimed to shake up FFXIV’s formula in other ways, inviting for the first time a special guest creator—Yasumi Matsuno, the mind behind the beloved Ivalice setting from Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, and Vagrant Story—to collaborate on the creation of the expansion’s Alliance raids, Return to Ivalice. Drawing heavily on FFT and FFXII, the three raids feature locations, characters, and gear designs familiar to fans of Matsuno’s other games. The story, which places FFT’s Ivalice directly on Hydaelyn, even seems to offer something a conclusion to FFT’s originally ambiguous ending, though whether this is canonical to FFT proper is left up to the player to decide. Much like Heavensward’s Shadow of Mhach raids, however, each raid exists completely outside of the traversable game world, seen only through cutscenes and on the instance server. The raids of Return to Ivalice, pulled from another setting as they are, never truly feel like a part of FFXIV’s world as a result. Shadowbringers may rectify this somewhat through the addition of the Viera as a playable race (if they see more initial development than the Au Ra did in Heavensward), but for now, FFXIV’s Ivalician imports feel foreign and out of place in the larger context of the game.

Something similar happens with Stormblood’s series of Omega Full Party raids, which take place in the Interdimensional Rift, a computerized dimension created by the raid’s titular adversary. Although the Rift is grounded in the Fringes of Gyr Abania, what we see of it from the outside amounts to little more than a vast glowing pit, a far cry from the massive shards of Dalamud that housed the Binding Coil of Bahamut or the omni-present  structure of Alexander which slowly rose from a lake in Idyllshire as its raid story progressed over the course of Heavensward. Even on the inside, the Omega raid battles lack the grandeur of previous raids, with each one consisting of no more than a single room to house the Omega-conjured adversary of that raid floor. Like the Return to Ivalice raids, the Omega ones rely heavily on nostalgia. The first two tiers port over foes from Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI, respectively, not even re-imagining them as part of FFXIV’s world and relying instead on the bare minimum justification of Omega drawing on stories from Hydaelyn’s past. Only the final tier seeks to really place the context of Omega in FFXIV’s own lore in a concrete way, featuring an encounter with a simulated Midgardsormr and two with Omega itself in various forms.

As a result, neither the Return to Ivalice nor the Omega raids feel like they expand FFXIV’s setting, but one other area where Stormblood tracks in nostalgia territory does. The Four Lords story, the home of most of the expansion’s post-launch trial battles, both fleshes some areas of Othardian lore in the game setting while also re-imagining the “sky gods” of Final Fantasy XI (themselves drawn from eastern mythology originating in China) in a new context. The resulting quest line and trial battles feel far more grounded in FFXIV proper than either of Stormblood’s raid stories and still offer some nostalgia for veterans of FFXI (even including a piece of music—Iroha—from the previous Final Fantasy MMO). This softer form of reference—which is often more common in FFXIV—serves the game better overall, allowing FFXIV’s own world and identity to shine through more readily in a way that it could not in Stormblood’s central raid stories.

The Four Lords, the Warrior of Light, and Tataru, in the hidden Reijin Temple.

Of course, FFXIV is a Final Fantasy title in its own right, and its intrinsic elements—characters, locations, and stories—naturally take center stage in much of the expansion’s story-focused content. Several of Stormblood’s job and class quests, like White Mage and Monk, bring back familiar characters to resolve or continue story threads left dangling from A Realm Reborn, and others, such as Astrologian and Warrior, work to flesh out job lore for other cultures of Hydaelyn. Dark Knight’s quests, as ever, seem almost tailor made for an introspective Warrior of Light heading into Shadowbringers. One of Stormblood’s unique additions to the game—the Doman Reconstruction—takes the form of story content, too, offering up a small, earnest storyline that provides a nice juxtaposition against the heavier themes of the expansion itself (though it is not without its own issues, including clumsy analogues to real-world Japanese imperialism, a point of concern in other areas of Stormblood).

But these smaller gems never manage, by themselves, to make FFXIV feel truly expanded in the era of Stormblood. Where the game’s second expansion focuses on incremental improvements, it does so very well, but the game’s developers showed caution in the ways they tried to build on both A Realm Reborn and Heavensward for Stormblood. As we look ahead to the next expansion, though, it seems that all the refinement in Stormblood may ultimately serve an important purpose for the future of FFXIV. Heavensward’s attempts to expand FFXIV were sometimes shaky, and it took the whole of both that expansion and the next one to refine new additions like exploration content. With most of FFXIV’s content styles now finely polished, the development team seems ready to explore new avenues in Shadowbringers, which will introduce a new FATE system, the NPC Trust system for story dungeons, New Game Plus, and a crafting- and gathering-focused Ishgardian Reconstruction that looks like it will provide a wholly new type of endgame for FFXIV’s more labor-oriented classes. Where Stormblood played it safe compared to Heavensward, it may have laid the best foundation possible for moving into Shadowbringers, which enters Early Access in just over a week!

When it comes to my overall rating of Stormblood, I’ve been torn. On the one hand, I found myself yearning for the days of Heavensward throughout this expansion, dissatisfied by things like a delayed relic quest that felt like an afterthought by the time it launched and what I felt were uninspiring new glamour additions. On the other, Stormblood delivered some of my favorite Main Scenario moments, some of the game’s best music, and a level of polish in content design (and swift reaction to issues like Eureka Pagos) that shows the development team has learned a lot over the last several years. Although my overall impression of Stormblood was negative when I sat down to begin this series of retrospectives on FFXIV’s second expansion, as I wrap up this last installment, I find myself thinking more fondly on it than anything else. While Stormblood may not have expanded FFXIV’s gameplay to the same degree that Heavensward tried to, so much of what is there is well-refined, and I can’t in good conscience think of Stormblood as decidedly worse than either Heavensward or A Realm Reborn. Though Stormblood was not without its faults, it has made FFXIV a better game today, and that has to count for something.

Final Score: 8/10

Thanks to the support of Fashion Ninjutsu’s patrons, I’ve been able to put more time into this expansion retrospective, with special thanks going to current $5 patrons Del, Francisco Galicia, NiaYumiya, and Nomolun. If you’ve enjoyed this retrospective and would like to support future ones or other content like Mog Station Reviews, you can offer support of your own on Fashion Ninjutsu’s Patreon.

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