Patch 5.3 First Impressions

From the start of 5.0, I’ve been apprehensive that the rest of Shadowbringers couldn’t live up to the bar set by its phenomenal opening salvo. With more time than usual between the start and the “end” of this latest expansion, I had a lot of time to think about the way things might go wrong, but both Patch 5.1 and Patch 5.2 kept me hopeful that at the very least we would be getting updates at the same level of quality that we’ve long been used to for FFXIV. Neither one was as impressive as the expansion’s initial launch, but they kept expectations middling to high.

And then a global pandemic began, greatly limiting the development team’s ability to work on the next big patch. Much time was lost setting up work stations at developer homes, and a delay was necessary, leaving one big question: could the team knock it out of the park for 5.3 under such conditions and live up to the expectations set by the explosive opening of Shadowbringers? I’m happy to say that, in my view, at least, they absolutely managed just that. Not only is Patch 5.3 full of the usual polish we’ve come to expect from FFXIV in each of its many facets, the Main Scenario in particular exceeded just about all of my expectations.

So let’s talk a bit about how they managed that! For assurance, I won’t be directly spoiling anything in the Main Scenario here (though if you follow me on Twitter and are familiar with some of my thoughts on directions the story might go, there may be some indirect spoilers). With that out of the way, then, I want to really focus on the Main Scenario this time, since it was undoubtedly the marquis feature of this latest patch, and where most of the expectations I had were centered. What reactions I’ve seen to this latest chapter have been highly positive, and I largely share that assessment.

Each patch of Shadowbringers so far set up a lot of plot threads and unanswered questions (with the vast majority of them naturally being in the initial launch patch), and the Main Scenario of 5.3 was absolutely massive, easily twice or thrice as large as a normal chapter update for FFXIV. Even in non-ideal conditions, the team really pulled out their all: voice acting and direction are phenomenal, and the animation team really pulled out all the stops, showing characters in ways more expressive than we’ve seen since the game’s relaunch. The writing is top-notch, too, with Miss Ishikawa’s handiwork clearly on display here.

How individual story beats hit will vary according to one’s own tastes—I’m beyond happy with many of them and less enthused about others, myself. But the finale is crafted with such care and attention to detail, with all of the expansion’s major threads tied up in a greatly satisfying conclusion both tragic and hopeful at the same time. Those loose ends that remain give ample setup for future story developments, and new revelations have inspired so many enthusiastic new ones. For my own part, I got almost everything I had hoped for, but with wonderful twists that managed to surprise me even when so much of the story seemed like it was tailored to me perfectly.

Much of the new content is also great, both within and outside of the Main Scenario. The MSQ-accompanying dungeon and trial are gorgeous and impressive, featuring callbacks to beloved characters, that familiar level of polish and spectacle we’ve all come to expect from the FFXIV team. The dungeon even has at least one fun little easter egg that may hint at fan-favorite content to come (though it seems to be pretty rare—I only heard about it through Twitter’s grapevine).

Like all of this expansion’s Beast Tribe Quests, the dwarf quests are better tied into the main story—and in new ways we had only hints of before with the context of this patch’s Main Scenario, too. While I’ve obviously not yet had time to complete the full quest line, what’s here has been really fun so far (not to mention a welcome way to get my last few crafting classes to the level cap!). While the dwarf quests are not as somber as either the Pixie or Qitari quests, their lighter tone is honestly very welcome with how heavy the rest of Shadowbringers has been.

Similarly, the new chapter for the Sorrow of Werlyt is a welcome palette cleanser, full of that over those top anime-inspired visuals and situations so common when FFXIV spends a bit of time not taking itself so seriously. While there’s no new trial in this chapter (following on from the normal trend of the X.3 patch’s trial being MSQ-focused), there’s a fun solo instance involving a Garlond-designed mecha that featured heavily in the patch’s promotional materials. If I had to guess, we’ll be seeing it again in the future, as the team seems to have put a lot of work into it!

If there’s one area of the main new content that falls short, it’d unfortunately have to be the new raid for YoRHa Dark Apocalypse, the Puppets’ Bunker. Both the story and the raid left me feeling underwhelmed overall. The actual story content is incredibly short, barely even moving the story forward from the last chapter. While that’s not necessarily unexpected for Yoko Taro, who likes to keep things subtle and mysterious, it’s a poor fit to the overall patch cycle of FFXIV since we aren’t going to get any real plot movement until at least six months from now—which stings strongly when the chapter’s end is a very abrupt cliffhanger.

The raid content also felt simply…tired. While the Copied Factory was a bombastic start to the overall collaboration (even if its bosses were unfortunately massive HP sponges), Puppet’s Bunker hits all of the normal mechanical expectations of an Alliance raid while almost feeling devoid of enthusiasm on the part of the developers. Mechanical density is greater here—to a fault, in my opinion, since far too many of the fight mechanics are poorly communicated in terms of visual design—which results in more engaging fights on that level. Nothing really rises to the level of spectacle as Engels or 9S in Copied Factory, however—perhaps a consequence of the locations on offer, which are bland and mechanical throughout.

Where Puppets’ Bunker does shine is in the gear sets on offer, however. While Copied Factory frustrated with wildly divergent gender-morphing, Puppets’ Bunker keeps that to a minimum while offering up some seriously stylish pieces for every role. We’ve got long, Matrix-esque trenchcoats and shorter more gothic pieces, all with that characteristic design flair from NieR: Automata. The new tank coat in particular is perhaps my favorite piece of tank gear in the entire game now, to the point that I farmed it to the exclusion of all else after finishing the Main Scenario. New gear in the rest of the patch is also great, with plenty of new models on offer (and new palette swaps of a bunch of older sets to round out dungeons from ARR, too!).

Overall I am beyond satisfied with Patch 5.3, and in some ways I think the longer break between patches has allowed this one to shine all the brighter. It feels great to have new content to play and be enthused about, and we have a lot more to look forward to, as well. While I’m still not a fan of the way content is parceled out in stages for each new patch these days, this one still has a lot to look forward to: further development of the Ishgard Restoration and the Bozjan Southern Front continuation of the excellent-so-far Blades of Gunnhildr story. So in that respect, you won’t hear me complaining too much!

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