By Jason Parker (Ragachak)
It’s Not the Past-Tense of “Sword”
An actual conversation that happened with my Bottom Tier partner, who is once again as hyped as me for Final Fantasy XIV: What is Heavensward? It’s likely “Heavens Ward,” a ward for heaven, not a past tense of the word “sword.” Regardless of what it is or what it means, there is one thing that is assuredly a fact: Heavensward, like the rest of Final Fantasy XIV, is absolutely gorgeous. It’s easily the most beautiful MMO I’ve ever played, and I’ve been playing them since all we had were MUDs, MUCKS, and games like Ultima/EQ. It was also easily the most fluid and smooth release for an MMO I’ve been a part of. The early access was plagued with connectivity issues, because so many people were coming back, but the actual release only had one or two overnight hotfixes, which might suck if you only play overnight, but to the majority of the players, it was probably not even noticed. And I’d like to take the time to thank my Free Company, Gilgamesh’s “Honeybee Inn” for helping me get back into the habit of slaying monsters, and all around being terrific.
Heavensward takes us to Ishgard, in the Coerthas Highlands. Now I did fear that it would just all be ice, snow and cloudiness, since that’s pretty much what the majority of Coerthas is, but I was glad to be wrong. Each zone is different and stunning, visually. From the Moghome, to Davinia, the game offers tons of new content that will not simply be crushed through in one day. I am pleased to still be as excited for XIV as I was when the failed 1.0 arrived on my doorstep. It’s not all perfect, though; there are definitely drawbacks, but the game is solid, the community is still as friendly as I remember, and the story is enthralling. I can’t help but push to the next story quest to see what happens next! This is definitely XIV’s year.
Does It “Feel” Like Final Fantasy?
The answer is a resounding “Yes.” The main story is something you generally work on alone, but in each cutscene you have a group of NPCs that have been travelling with you, experiencing victory and defeat, treachery and sadness with. But there are parts of it that, like in the vanilla product, you must do with a group. The game ultimately focuses on group play in some manner or another, from Fates to the Primals, and dungeons, but the game doesn’t force you to constantly group like in XI. But the story is what draws most players in, and from the outset I’m seeing a very medieval split of culture in Ishgard: The Pillars, where the most powerful men and women reside, and after the [Disaster Redacted] occurred, they suffered little. Down in the Foundations, there’s trouble and frustration, as people are reduced to beggars and wish simply to stay warm.
Lots of new encounters, npcs, and adventures are waiting, but depending on how long you’ve been away, the wait might take a while. After the regular storyline (pre-patches), I stopped playing for a few months, and missed four patches or so of storyline, which results in a great many quests. I started playing on Friday for Early Access, and that’s when I found out that since I had not done all the main story currently on offer, I could not experience Heavensward. So that’s one thing that’s going to bother level 50s that stopped for a while or didn’t really focus on patch storylines: You must do them! Luckily there are lots of people still doing those Primals and dungeons, so the waits won’t be all that long. But it’s definitely a concern, and something for players coming back to the game to think about. Depending on how long you’ve been away, there’s some work to do. But the story between the main storyline and the expansion was in no way bad; it was just frustrating and took several days of non-stop questing just to catch up. This is by no means a negative, but I do feel like players ought to be aware that if you stopped doing story quests, or took a break from the game, you will have a little catching up to do.
However, while I do love the High-Fantasy style of game that Square Enix produced, there is one little gripe I have. The dialogue is normally really quite fine, but some of the word choices really make it feel like they are trying to force it to be in the Western Fantasy Genre’, to make it more European. An example of this would be in a cutscene early in the expansion. ‘Upon an airship conceived within the fecund mind of Cid Garlond, renegade prodigy of Garlemald who had come to call Eorzea home. . .’; the flowery language is quite welcome to me, but there are points where I feel it is terribly exaggerated. Some of the NPC names look like they came out of a Scrabble bag, but this is again not a detriment to gameplay at all. It might make some NPC names hard to remember or pronounce, at the worst. It feels as though it were written in a similar manner to Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions.
Class and Current (Aether)
Three new jobs were dropped on us in Heavensward, and at least you do not have to level two more sets of classes for each of them. Once you finally arrive in Ishgard, you can do quests to unlock these jobs: Dark Knight (DRK, Tank), Machinist (MCH, Ranged Phys Dps), and Astrologian (AST, Heal). Each one is quite different from everything else that we’ve seen so far, which is great being that there are several jobs already in the game. I was admittedly sad that Dark Knight was not a dps, because I hate tanking in any MMO, but the class has such a cool concept that I had to at least try it out. Machinist is a lot of fun, another Dex class, with pistols and a turret that floats around with you. This may feel similar to the bard, but Machinist packs quite a bit of unique utility skills.
But I’m a White Mage main, so I was looking hard at Astrologian, which has Tarot cards in addition to heals, damage, and a variety of other skills. You get to use tarot cards to bring different effects to your team and to individuals, and as they progress you can combine cards and release even greater powers. Completing the quest will put the job at level 30, like all other jobs are, but without the tedious 30 of X and 15 of Y in two other classes. This is yet another serious improvement coming out of this expansion. From what I understand, for those of you levelling new characters, there’s an alternate way to unlock them now, but I haven’t done any research on that quite yet.
Flying is a thing in Ishgard! You receive a Black Chocobo during the storyline that can fly in Ishgard zones (but not the old world, sadly). Eventually you can have a flying dragon, and a variety of other flying mounts will also join those ranks, but there’s a catch: You have to earn it. Unlike WoW, where you just dropped a ton of gold (until WoD that is), you have to attune to Aether Points on each zone map. Collecting them all will let you fly in the zone, but alas, you won’t really have flying until the end of each zone. Not all of them are gained by exploration, but most are; the remainder are quest rewards that are not in the main story, so you will find yourself having an excuse to quest a zone out completely before progressing, though I think the story will keep you there anyway. One other thing that flying does in this game that I have not seen in many MMOs: When you dismount, the mount will slowly land on the ground and let you dismount proper, instead of simply throwing you to your doom (looking at you, WoW. . .)
Excitement among the Sky Islands
Lots of really exciting things are happening in Heavensward, and it’s difficult to confine it all to one review. One example are the Airships. Free Companies can have up to four model types, and send them out to gather rare items among the clouds. There’s a lot of talk about what could happen with these, such as Air Raids, or using them to get to and do battle with various Notorious Monsters. I imagine they will be quite expensive and require a great deal of teamwork to put together, as I haven’t come across any in my play session yet. But I’ve been seeing personal airships regularly as of this writing, so it appears the personal airships acquired through the story aren’t so terrifyingly difficult to obtain.
We have a new race, the Au Ra (and everyone who has saved their Phial of Fantasia has probably race changed by now!). They have horns and tails and are very draconic, which makes sense because beyond Coerthas lie many many dragons, that will no doubt play into the overarching storyline.
ALEXANDER. One of my favorite Primals/Summons/Aeons/Whatever, the Holy Castle itself is going to be the first raid as of 3.0. It will have an Easy Mode and Hard Mode, and I’m just really excited to be going “into” the great castle Alexander, and likely upon it. I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to fight it, or if we’re saving it from some evil powers. There are new primals as well, in Ravana and Bismark. Though I have not done battle with Bismark yet, I have encountered Ravana and it’s pretty intense. Another big point of news that should be mentioned is that “specializations” are coming to crafting, so that one player won’t simply be able to create everything. I really like this idea, where I can focus on just the things that matter to me, or perhaps the things I think will make the most money. And like many expansions, there was a level cap increase, to 60. Every 2 levels you can go to perform a quest to learn a new skill, and there are lots of new ones to see, and new cross-class skills to go around for everyone.
The Crystals Gleam
Overall Rating: Excellent
This has been the smoothest, and possibly best expansion launch of an MMO I’ve seen, as I stated earlier. This expansion was incredibly important, because lots of people were keeping an close eye on Square to see if they could produce another Realm Reborn, or if we would see 1.0 all over again. While I was frustrated that I had to do so much story to catch up (especially with my boss’ deadline on my article!), this is a story driven game, and so it makes sense to have to complete it all in order. This is at its core a Final Fantasy game that everyone can experience and enjoy together, and I’ve not been this excited in quite a long time for an MMO. Though not perfect by any means, it’s definitely a welcome addition to the Final Fantasy Universe. For anyone who enjoys a deep fantasy story, this is the game for them.
Much as I said in my last FFXIV article, the game is stunning. Every single portion of this game is beautiful, from the waterfalls, to the creature models, the slowly moving clouds, and the unique weather systems. There is no portion of this expansion that does not look visually appealing, without looking like a rip-off of the vanilla game. The cutscenes are the same graphics you see in game, so it’s not teasing you with something that does not exist. For this I was grateful.
Personally, I prefer playing this with a controller, though I play on PC. The keyboard controls are well and good, but I found that combat movement felt more immersive with a controller. I enjoyed having the option and not feeling like I would be punished in a dungeon for using a controller to heal; it worked just fine. Though the PS4 controller does not have native support on a PC, there is a workaround. All told, the controls are fairly solid, and responsive.
From the Gold Saucer, to PVP, Primals, Dungeons and Raids, FFXIV has it all. Though the raid is not out yet, it will be before too long. In the meantime there are tons of quests to do, jobs to try out, and new ways to play the game. You can train your personal chocobo, change its colors, and work together with friends to enjoy this game in the manner that you want to.
The music is worthy of an entry in the Final Fantasy series; from the “Chocobo Samba” when mounting one, to the Final Fantasy VI main theme while riding the Magitek Armor, this game has its own unique and pulse-pounding music, while taking some time to remind us of the roots of this series. The game is not entirely classical though, since the Primals have really unique music for each of those encounters. Most MMOs leave me muting the sound to listen to something else, but I can’t bear to do so here.