The long-awaited beginning of the Shadowbringers “relic” quest is now finally here in the form of the Save the Queen: Blades of Gunnhildr quest line (which has been referred to in a few different ways by the developers—I’m going with Blades of Gunnhildr just to settle on one). Picking up in terms of story from where we left Stormblood‘s Doma arc and tying in with the last expansion’s Return to Ivalice quests as well, the premise this time is the recreation of the legendary arms of the Blades of Gunnhildr as standards of inspiration for the displaced people of Bozja Citadel in their fight for liberation against the Garlean Empire. This first chapter of the questline is short by the standards of previous expansions’ relic quests, but not altogether unprecedented—there are shades of the original A Relic Reborn quest from A Realm Reborn here.
As ever, the familiar pair of Gerolt and Rowena reprise their roles in bringing these recreated legends to fruition, but the narrative that unfolds crosses path not only with Mikoto from the Return to Ivalice quests but also former staples of the Main Scenario, Hien and Cid. As a result, the Blades of Gunnhildr series already feels intertwined with the greater stories of FFXIV than any legendary weapon series before it, which I found to be a very welcome change after the story-light Anima weapons of Heavensward and the clear side story of Stormblood‘s Eureka (where indeed the weapons themselves felt almost like an afterthought—the carrot on the content’s proverbial stick).
As of writing, I’ve done enough to achieve three of the eponymous Blades of Gunnhildr (for Dark Knight, Ninja, and Monk), with a fourth not far away. From that alone it’s probably obvious that this first leg of the journey is much shorter than what we’re used to, especially compared to the initial leg of Stormblood‘s relic in Eureka Anemos. In exchange for the overall length of the grind (and thus the current shelf life of the content) being shorter, the introduction to the Blades of Gunnhildr is far more story rich than any relic quest before it—in my view, a very welcome change that helps better place the weapons themselves and the quest series in the greater scope of FFXIV itself.
I won’t delve into spoilers here, but I’ll definitely say that I much enjoyed what we’ve seen so far. The story accomplishes a number of things, building on the former relationship between Gerolt and Rowena that previous story lines had only had kept confined to implication while also fleshing out the lore of the Allagans and the Echo, working to better establish the FFXIV version of Ivalice within the game proper, and even hinting at a potential new healer job to come (presumably in the game’s next expansion). Many of the NPCs have extensive dialogue trees if spoken to outside of cutscenes, offering more lore tidbits for those interested (while not bogging down folks who just want their weapon with too much exposition), with one of them even throwing a much-deserved bone to a fan favorite character from A Realm Reborn.
As far as the actual battle content goes, this first section of the Blades of Gunnhildr is light on that front, but what it does offer is top notch. Your first weapon comes as a reward primarily for completing a special solo instance, one far more extravagant than the average solo experience in FFXIV. Within, a major tidbit of backstory once implied in A Realm Reborn is made explicit, and one major throwback during the instance had me stopping me in my tracks just to bask in the moment in the same way I once did before facing down Nidhogg in the climax of Heavensward.
The solo instance is impressive enough that it’s the sort of content I’d love to be able to revisit, but unfortunately, that’s not possible (outside of a second character, at any rate) for the time being. Like other relic quests before it, the Blades of Gunnhildr story is not available either in the Unending Journey or the recently added New Game Plus system, and subsequent weapons come not from repeating the instance but from a moderate grind for Tomestones of Poetics. The grind, moderate as it is, is quite welcome in my view, however, as it actually provides something to put Poetics toward that Stormblood in particular lacked with its relic quest being entirely confined to Eureka.
On the whole, I’ve been very impressed with this start for the Blades of Gunnhildr series, but there is one area I should mention that’s quite frustrating. Alongside the relic weapons, each expansion has also, in some form or another, offered a way for players to obtain dyeable versions of that era’s job-specific Artifact Armor (AF), and that continues to be the same in Shadowbringers. However, things are markedly different this time: where dyeable AF in previous expansions was always acquirable through lower-difficulty content, for Shadowbringers that reward is earned through the completion of a new Extreme trial version of the final boss of this first chapter’s solo instance.
Players like myself, who tend to avoid Extreme and Savage difficulty content, are suddenly roadblocked from obtaining what have always before been rewards that were reasonably achievable by the whole of FFXIV‘s player-base in some way or another (with the exception of Heavensward‘s 3.0 patch, which tied the initial acquisition of dyeable AF to raid progression, though only until 3.1 when it was made available through casual content, too). Were there still Hard Mode difficulty encounters (as FFXIV once had for its original trio of Extremes in patch 2.1) to bridge the gap in difficulty between FFXIV‘s baseline dungeons and Duty Finder trials to battles of greater mechanical complexity and demand, this might not be such a wall, but no such bridge has existed in FFXIV for many years now.
As a player focused on two primary things in FFXIV—glamour and relics—this leaves me frustrated. I know the demands of higher-difficulty content (especially in the environment of the game’s often hostile Party Finder environment) will result in enough stress that the reward would probably not be worth it for me (especially since I generally prefer to collect multiple sets, with it taking perhaps a hundred or more clears to earn the sets for every current job). For Shadowbringers, which has some of the most striking AF sets in the game’s history, having the true, dyeable versions locked behind content generally not designed for the largest swath of the player base leaves me greatly disappointed, especially since I’ve been looking forward to the dyeable sets since expansion launch last year.
With the general way the community approaches Extreme content, it’s likely that this placement of the dyeable AF will, in the long term, result in only a small number of players having access to the gear at all. Most of the time, because the community is so eager for new content, Extreme trials have a window of a few weeks at most where learning parties are common, and then some number of weeks further beyond that where farming parties are the norm, generally kept going by the promise of the exclusive “Primal mounts” of each expansion in addition to the normal weapon rewards. This one has only the dyeable AF on offer, however (which is of dubious value in terms of gear strength compared to other options), so it seems likely that as time goes on it will be more difficult to field the full groups necessary to partake in the trial.
While I still hope to try my hand at the fight at least once, I have no plans to push through it for dyeable AF if I don’t find the content fun. I’ve long been a proponent of the idea that players shouldn’t do content they don’t find enjoyable just because they feel they “have” to have whatever reward it has on offer (which has been a common phenomenon when it comes to relic grinds, most especially with Eureka), and as much as I want the dyeable AF sets, they ultimately won’t be worth it if I’m not enjoying the new Extreme trial. With some luck, I’ll find myself pleasantly able to both enjoy and readily clear the fight, but if not I’ll be left crossing my fingers that the development team decides to offer dyeable versions of the gear through some other method in the future.
Outside of that, I look forward to future installments of the Blades of Gunnhildr. We know that the next installment should be coming in patch 5.35 (which is likely to face some degree of delay, as recently announced by Yoshi-P) and will feature some sort of “exploration content” in the style of Eureka or Diadem, assured to have been designed with the myriad feedback on Eureka in mind. According to developer plans, there will also be a second path that won’t involve whatever that new content is, most likely more resembling the Zodiac and Anima quest lines of FFXIV‘s past than Eureka. With any luck, that idea of two paths will also apply to this expansion’s dyeable Artifact Armor, but we won’t know for some time yet, with Patch 5.3 most likely around three months away and 5.35 dropping at least a month after that.