The Triumph of Shadowbringers

Since it’s re-release as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, FFXIV has largely lived in the shadow of its original form as Final Fantasy XIV Online, which launched in such a poor state that Square Enix took the unprecedented step of rebuilding the game almost from the ground up, leading to the game’s re-release in 2013. Much of that 1.0 version has left its mark on the reborn game, however, from character and gear models to much of its story and setting. Other shadows, like those of nostalgia for the Final Fantasy series as a whole—in particular the game’s MMORPG predecessor, Final Fantasy XI—have lingered on over the years, too.

Beneath these overlapping shadows, FFXIV has sometimes struggled to forge an identity that is wholly its own. With the launch of its latest expansion, Shadowbringers, however, FFXIV has taken an impressive leap forward, establishing itself not only as an MMORPG with its own identity separate from its past, but as a game fully worthy of the Final Fantasy name resting not on the laurels of series nostalgia but entirely on its own merits.

As fair warning, what follows will include major spoilers for the Main Scenario of Shadowbringers, as I’ll be discussing much of the plot in detail. If you’ve not finished the expansion’s story up through level 80, I highly recommend that you do so before coming back to read this post.

Shadowbringers tells a story that has been years in the making, taking up plot threads first planted in FFXIV’s earliest days and woven through the Main Scenarios of A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood to combine them into a rich tapestry of narrative with such care that it exceeds all expectations. It does so under the guidance of Natsuko Ishikawa, who helmed the expansion’s initial Main Scenario as its lead writer. Known in the community for fan-favorite stories like those of the Dark Knight job quests or the Azim Steppe portion of Stormblood’s initial main scenario (and others like the moving storyline for Alchemists in A Realm Reborn), Ishikawa’s writing deals often with themes of love, loss, and regret, built on some of FFXIV’s strongest character writing.

Her talents are on full display throughout the Main Scenario of Shadowbringers, which begins with the story’s protagonist (and player character), the Warrior of Light, isolated from their peers and the future uncertain. As the previous expansion, Stormblood, came to its end, each of the major Scions of the Seventh Dawn—the Warrior of the Light’s principle companions—fell comatose due to misfired attempts by a mysterious otherworldly stranger to contact the protagonist. Ultimately, his machinations finally bear fruit, though, and the Warrior of Light learns that in order to save their friends, they will have to seek out a beacon left for them at the base of the ancient Crystal Tower, not far from the Scions’ home base in Revenant’s Toll.

Shadowbringers picks up the story immediately, with the expansion’s first quest leading to the discovery of that very beacon and the activation of the magic within that sends the Warrior of Light spiraling through the rift of space and time to arrive in a strange new land, at once both familiar and unfamiliar. Ahead, in the distance, rises the spire of the Crystal Tower, but the land that surrounds it is not that of familiar Mor Dhona—rather, this world’s inhabitants call the region Lakeland. Above, an otherworldly sky made of blinding light blankets the expanse—one that the Warrior of Light is soon told has not given way to the night sky in a century. Before long, the hero learns that this world is beset by the terrifying sin eaters, light-based monsters that feast upon the aether of living things, ultimately corrupting them to create more of themselves.

From the start, the story works to take the metaphorical ground out from beneath the protagonist’s feet. While the world of Norvrandt (otherwise known as the First) that the Warrior of Light has been brought to is familiar, it is familiar only to the point that it creates a sense of unease. For the first time in years, the hero feels like a fish out of water, a feeling reinforced by the fact that next to no one in this new world knows of the player’s exploits, save for the mysterious stranger—whom the people of the Crystarium, the city at the base of the Tower, idolize as the Crystal Exarch—and your world-thrown friends, who reunite with the Warrior of Light one by one as the story progresses.

Time, which flows differently between the Source and the First, has passed in varying degrees for each of the Scions, but for all of them, it has been a year or more since they have last seen “dearest comrade,” in the words of Urianger. Each reunion with a Scion speaks of genuine friendship, and the familiarity of the Scions, both as friends and comrades, serves to ground the Warrior of Light on alien soil. The Scions are fully realized as characters with their own agency, as well.

In the time they have spent stranded on the First, each has taken up something of a new life. Thancred has devoted himself to the protection of the Oracle of Light, struggling to reconcile his grief over the loss the Minfilia he loved as family and her new form as a teenage girl. Urianger has, as ever, devoted himself to his research, intent on finding a solution to the coming Calamity of Light that threatens the First, endearing himself to and learning the ways of the capricious fae creatures of Il Mheg in the process. Y’shtola has found new purpose as the leader of the Night’s Blessed, a Darkness-devoted religious community of the Rak’tika Greatwood, having become noticeably close to a man named Runar among them.

The twins, Alphinaud and Alisaie, having perhaps the most agency through the rest of FFXIV’s Main Scenario, do what they do best. Alphinaud seeks to aid the downtrodden common folk of Eulmore, casting aside his finery to fit in better among them. Alisaie takes a more aggressive approach, taking the fight to as many sin eaters as she can to protect the people of Amh Araeng, the expanse of desert where the Light was held at bay a century ago, and where those corrupted by sin eaters go to wait out their final days without being a danger to those around them.

But for all their strength of purpose, the Scions are no match for the Lightwardens, powerful sin eaters that command their legions and whose very existence serves to keep the night sky of the First at bay, threatening a Calamity of Light. The task of slaying them must fall to the Warrior of Light (under the First-given mantle of the Warrior of Darkness), for only their Blessing of Light can contain the aether of a slain Lightwarden, preventing it from being born anew in a new body. Even in this strange world, the Warrior of Light remains the only hope, and throughout the Main Scenario, the player is given the chance to express—if they choose—a sense of weariness or reluctance at being thrust into yet another conflict for which only they are the sole answer.

That weariness is reflected, too, in the shade of Ardbert, the former Warrior of Light native to the First who—with his companions, fellow Warriors of Light—inadvertently began the Flood of Light that placed Norvrandt on the brink of destruction. Ardbert follows along for the protagonist’s journey, checking in on and supporting the story’s hero at various points throughout the Main Scenario. These moments, often in the safety of the player’s private quarters in the Crystarium, allow for periods of reflection but also camaraderie, for Ardbert understands life as a chosen hero better than the Scions ever could, and the pair bond over the shared elements of their lives as great heroes of the realm.

All of this makes the story of Shadowbringers feel more intensely personal than anything that precedes it in FFXIV. While much of the game’s Main Scenario is ostensibly about the player character’s Warrior of Light, their place in events is often as a convenient sword, the super weapon that will save the realm yet again from destruction. Much of that remains true in Shadowbringers, but here the Warrior of Light is treated as a person, complete with relationships both personal and professional, along with an internal sense of self, all of which the player can express through more frequent and more varied dialogue choices than in past expansions. This serves to give the otherwise silent protagonist a more concrete personality, allowing one of the Scenario’s central twists—that destroying the Lightwardens may in fact be killing the Warrior of Light—to fill the story with a sense of personalized dread.

The pressure builds slowly, first with Y’shtola sensing something wrong with the Warrior of Light’s aether, and later with Minfilia—newly christened as Ryne—seeing the same, only for the defeat of the very next Lightwarden to leave the hero overcome with pain as the light threatens to overtake them. Throughout this potentially self-sacrificing quest, Ardbert reflects on his part in bringing about the Flood of Light, and the new Role Quests give the Warrior of Light glimpses into the lives of Ardbert’s companions, who eventually became powerful sin eaters known as the Cardinal Virtues. Subtly, the player is left to wonder if their course is in fact the correct one, or if they aren’t somehow bringing about their own end, the end of the First, or perhaps even the end of the Source, having blindly championed the Light of Hydaelyn for so very long.

Yet the only choice is to press on, a choice encouraged even by the Main Scenario’s principle antagonist, Emet-Selch—the Ascian introduced during Stormblood as the founder of the Garlean Empire, Solus zos Galvus. Attaching himself to the Scions as an “impartial” observer early in the story, the strangely humorous Ascian provides a degree of levity in an often dark and somber tale but also serves as one of the expansion’s main sources of exposition. Through him, the Scions learn the true nature of Zodiark and Hydaelyn, summoned as they were by the world’s original inhabitants, immortal beings capable of great acts of creation through will alone.

Emet-Selch and the council of fourteen the Scions know as the Ascians summoned the primal Zodiark—the world itself given form and will—to rebuild the world in the wake of a terrible calamity; others, afraid of Zodiark’s power, summoned Hydaelyn as a check upon the first primal’s terrifying might. The battle between the two culminated in the Sundering, which shattered Zodiark into the Source and its many shards, of which the First is one. Each Rejoining of a shard to the Source and the associated Calamity brings the Ascians closer to realizing their dream: the resurrection of Zodiark and most importantly, the return of the complete world that was and all those they have lost—colleagues, friends, and lovers.

Emet-Selch’s motivation, then, is not so different from that of the Scions and the Warrior of Light, an occasional refrain that has echoed throughout the whole of FFXIV’s Main Scenario: “For those we have lost. For those we may yet save.” For the Ascians, however, only the lost remain—there are none left to save. With the Ascians who escaped the Sundering themselves few in number, they have only the memory of their lost home and its people to drive them forward. Devotion to that memory underpins Emet-Selch’s every action, and the Rejoining of the First with the Source remains his goal despite his offering of a truce with the Scions.

The Ascian knows that as the Warrior of Light takes upon themselves the tainted aether of the Lightwardens, they will become a threat to all that remains of the First. At the pivotal moment, after the defeat of the final Lightwarden, when the Crystal Exarch enacts his plan to steal away (and die somewhere in the rift of space and time) with the aether so dutifully gathered by the protagonist, Emet-Selch intervenes. Wounding and capturing the Exarch, the Ascian leaves the Warrior of Light to a terrible fate: rebirth as an unimaginably powerful sin eater, great enough to bring about the next Calamity single-handedly. Propped up by the wealth of corrupted Light now raging inside the protagonist, the blinding light of the First once again overtakes the Darkness of the night sky, and a Calamity of Light looms once more, threatening both First and Source.

But there is still time: Ryne uses her power as the Oracle of Light to temporarily calm the raging storm within the Warrior of Light, giving them the strength to make one final stand against Emet-Selch. Beneath the tempestuous sea surrounding Eulmore, the Warrior of Light and the Scions eventually find, deep in the depths where Norvrandt’s overbearing Light cannot diminish his powers of darkness, Emet-Selch’s hidden domain. Below the waves, in Emet-Selch’s loving recreation of Amaurot, the pre-Sundering, utopian city the Ascians once called home, the Warrior of Light is given the opportunity to witness firsthand something of what Emet-Selch and the other Ascians have lost.

As the hero and their companions explore the city, interacting with the shades of the Amaurotine citizens, a cryptic comment from Emet-Selch about the Warrior of Light not remembering the original world—one of many easter eggs for the player to discover in his dialogue between progression points of the Main Scenario—becomes intriguingly relevant.  In particular, Hythlodaeus, an Amaurotine inadvertently recreated with a unique amount of agency, makes note that the souls of the protagonist and Ardbert’s shade seem somehow the same, casting another of Emet-Selch’s comments—that the hero is “seven times Rejoined” and presumably Sundered, too—in a new light that foreshadows the resolution of the confrontation to come.

Before any final battle, however, Emet-Selch subjects the “vaunted hero of the Source” to one final test: to contend with the world-ending horrors that brought Amaurot low. In one of FFXIV’s most resonant dungeon experiences, the player sees the fall of Amaurot and the end of the world that led the Ascians to summon Zodiark, hauntingly narrated by Emet-Selch himself. But even triumph over the beast that ended the world does not convince the Ascian that the Warrior of Light is worthy of the legacy of his people. One by one, Emet-Selch dispatches the other Scions while the corrupted aether of the Lightwardens begins to finally overtake the Warrior of Light and prove him right: “seven times Rejoined” as they are, the hero’s soul is not strong enough to contain the power they have absorbed over the course of Shadowbringers.

Though the Warrior of Light’s end is in sight, Ardbert makes good on his promise to stop them from turning, offering up all that remains of his own soul to give them “the strength to take another step” and stop Emet-Selch once and for all. Joined with the shade of Ardbert, the Warrior of Light, for a moment, seems as a citizen of Amaurot before Emet-Selch, and the Ascian casts off his mortal guise in true JRPG fashion, revealing his true form as Hades—a fitting moniker for the being who has appointed himself the steward of the lost souls of Amaurot and is adorned with countless numbers of their masks.

With a final summoning, the wounded Crystal Exarch calls allies from across space and time, and Hades falls to the Warrior of Light (with help from the Scions to trap and destroy his soul). The Ascian, appearing once again as Emet-Selch in the guise of Solus zos Galvus, makes one final request of the Warrior of Light: to remember that the Amaurotine once lived, and—perhaps—to remember their own place in that world of long ago. In the present, however, there is cause for celebration, for with Emet-Selch defeated and the corruption purged from the Warrior of Light through Ardbert’s sacrifice, the Calamity of Light that threatened both First and Source has once again been held at bay.

Having become the “vaunted hero” not just of the Source but also of the First, the Warrior of Light returns with their companions to the Crystarium to bid a temporary farewell to Norvrandt. As ever, they are the only one who can report back to Tataru at Scion headquarters until such time as the Exarch devises a way to send the other Scions home. Though Elidibus, last of the Ascians, threatens to continue the work of Emet-Selch, and the Garleans still wage war against Eorzea on the Source, the story of Shadowbringers concludes its initial salvo with the Warrior of Light finding time for a well-earned reprieve—this time on familiar ground.

All of this, from beginning to end, is accompanied by some of the finest work the development team of FFXIV has ever put into the long-running game. The Main Scenario is paced far better than it ever has been in Shadowbringers, with those few sections where it slows down, such as in the second leg of the story centered in Amh Araeng, serving primarily to heighten the emotional resonance of scenes to come. Whole segments are devoted to world-building with a level of care the game has never before seen (including fully voiced scenes, such as a funeral ceremony of the Night’s Blessed), allowing the residents and world of Norvrandt to feel more alive than much of the Source that has been the setting of FFXIV for years now.

Even these worldbuilding scenes are worked into the story in such a way that the story never truly feels like it has lost all momentum as it sometimes has in FFXIV’s past. Each dungeon is woven tightly into the narrative, as well, with final bosses having significant plot relevance, and all three new trials are placed not where the game’s traditional expansion structures once demanded but where they are best needed to tell the story well.  Ample time is also taken for moments of reflection as the story progresses, allowing Shadowbringers to avoid the feeling of whiplash common to Stormblood, where the Warrior of Light and friends seemed to be whisked from Eorzea to Othard and back again with nary a moment to breathe in that expansion’s twin quests of liberation.

The world of Norvrandt comes alive through masterful artwork, too, helmed by Hiroshi Minagawa, who served previously as art director for beloved titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII and now for Shadowbringers. The areas of the First are full of loving detail, from the vibrant landscapes of Il Mheg to the haunting desolation of Amh Araeng, where the crystallized Flood of Light looms ever on the horizon. Throughout, Norvrandt reminds long-term players of places they have been before, with the spire of Eulmore calling to mind Limsa Lominsa, or the massive forest of the Rak’tika Greatwood conjuring an imagine of the Black Shroud left to claim the remnants of civilization for its own, untouched by the industry of the world’s peoples.

Still other touches, like the glowing stonework of the First’s once great Ronkan Empire, casts shades of Allagan metalwork, so often flooded with shimmering blue circuitry, telling almost by itself the story of an empire of similar might and technological prowess to the Allag which came to power in an age before metallurgy. The art direction tells stories in other places, too. The bright colors of Eulmore speak of the pleasure city’s decadence in contrast with the muted, landscape of Kholusia that surrounds it, while the wide expanse of the Crystarium from the beginning of Shadowbringers seems small before the towering skyscrapers of the recreated Amaurot at the expansion’s end.

Everything in Shadowbringers, from its excellent Main Scenario to its story-driven dungeons and mesmerizing landscapes, is backed by a transcendent soundtrack composed by Masayoshi Soken, who has risen to new heights as FFXIV’s sound director and principle composer. Already a master of riveting battle themes and dungeon overtures, expertly capturing a sense of danger and tension (so plainly evident in the main Shadowbringers boss theme), Soken’s work for this expansion captures mood and emotion better than he has ever managed before. From the main theme to the closing credits, the music of Shadowbringers seems perfectly tailored to its Main Scenario and setting.

Of course, Soken’s trademark leitmotifs—this time weaving in the main theme of Shadowbringers—appear throughout the expansion, too.  But where the music shines most brightly is in the field music, so much of which is infused with a with a sense of place that greatly enhances the player’s immersion in the world and story. From sound alone, Il Mheg calls to mind the whimsy of the fae, while the music of the Rak’tika Greatwood seems to hearken back to something ancient and lost, and most every field zone boasts music with similar immersive qualities. The most haunting composition, though, accompanies the streets of Amaurot: contemplative piano tones are offset by the quiet ticking of a clock that grows more prominent as the track progresses—a countdown to the doom that awaited the lost city when it was real.

Ultimately, with its well-crafted narrative, fully-realized cast of characters, beautiful landscapes, and fantastic soundtrack, Shadowbringers has risen above expectations—more than just the next installment of the current Final Fantasy MMORPG, it has claimed its place as one of the great standalone titles in the series. That alone is a stunning accomplishment for an aging game and enough to make Shadowbringers the highest-rated game of 2019 on Metacritic for both PC and PlayStation 4 as of writing, but Shadowbringers has done something most second-generation MMORPGs have struggled with for years, including FFXIV.

In the modern era, MMORPGs often take a content-first perspective, with elements like worldbuilding and immersion taking a backseat to daily and weekly tasks, instanced battles, and token grinds that keep users regularly engaged. Wherever FFXIV’s latest expansion goes from here, the initial launch of Shadowbringers proves that MMORPGs can still place things like story and immersion at the fore, however, and become all the greater for it. More so than any of FFXIV’s realms before it, Norvrandt feels like a living, breathing world, one that earnestly invites the player to experience its beautiful vistas and to learn of its people and their struggles, likely enshrining its place in the memory of FFXIV’s players for years to come.

I’m able to write longer essays like this one thanks to the support of Fashion Ninjutsu’s Patrons, with special thanks going out to current $5 patrons Adam Babloyan, Del, Fransisco Galicia, NiaYumiya, and Nomolun. If you’ve enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my retrospectives on previous expansions, and if you like, consider checking out the site’s Patreon, which also supports other things like Mog Station Reviews and the new Gear Set Galleries I’ve been putting together for Shadowbringers.

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