By Jaime Skelton (MissyS), Senior Editor
A storm of blood approaches. The rally cry in Eorzea has been sounded, and Final Fantasy XIV has released its newest expansion, Stormblood. FFXIV players have been anticipating the expansion since its announcement in late 2016, anxiously spinning theories and jumping on every rumor on reddit. Earlier this month, the expansion officially launched, and through fire and flames – or in this case, queues and DDOS – valiant players have fought to experience the hours of content available. And now, I can talk about these experiences and offer a full look at what the second official expansion of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has to offer.
Story and Setting
If there’s anything that sets Final Fantasy XIV apart from its MMO brethren, it’s the storytelling. FFXIV’s writers create stories that leave lasting emotions and memories, masterfully balanced through cutscenes and dialogue. And just as the story of Heavensward pulled at our heart, Stormblood calls forth new feelings. Despair and triumph, hatred and disgust, perseverance and patriotism – all these are just a few of the notes that strum the player to action.
Stormblood’s primary story (the main story quest or MSQ, as locals know it) focuses on the liberation of two new areas: Gyr Abania and Othard. Both territories are held under the oppressive boot of the Garlemald Empire, one of the primary villains of FFXIV, and for the first time, Eorzeans push the offensive to aid these conquered peoples. As such, the story is split between Gyr Abania, where players assist the Alliance and the Ala Mhigan Resistance forces, and Othard, where they support the Doman Liberation Front, the Xaelan tribes, and the Confederacy.
Both Gyr Abania and Othard are expansive, each with a major city and three key zones. These areas each rival the size of a Heavensward zone and carry with them distinct environments, music, enemies, and stories. Though the Fringes and the Peaks of Gyr Abania may feel somewhat homogenous at first, dusty and dry foothills, full exploration reveals more secrets to each. Othard is particularly unforgettable, between the vast ocean of the Ruby Sea, the expansive plains of the Azim Steppe, and the broken Doman homeland of Yanxia. Meanwhile, Rhalgar’s Reach in Gyr Abania serves as the Stormblood equivalent of Idyllshire, featuring scripture and tome exchanges, while Kugane in Othard serves as a single-zone version of Foundation, featuring a full market, hunt seal exchange, and inn.
Although you might think that these two areas encompass two separate and complete acts, the truth of the matter is that both liberation stories are linked together against a common antagonist: Zenos yae Galvus, son of the Garlean Emperor. Rather than divide these two battles of freedom into two sections, FFXIV unexpectedly splits them in three. Players will start in Gyr Abania, and then travel to the Far East to liberate Othard before returning to finish their battle for Ala Mhigo. Thankfully, the story is not as disjointed as it sounds. The characters experience growth, change, and loss before their ultimate victories. Zenos, and the secondary antagonist Yotsuyu, are well crafted enemies who embody the darkest part of humanity. They are detestable in action and difficult to defeat. Moreover, they make better villains than the Ascians, Nidhogg, or Thordan VII. They were not simply another villain to defeat: they were villains I wanted to defeat.
The story is not without its quirks or its troubles. For those who weren’t fond of the bromance of Heavensward, Stormblood offers what I’ve fondly called “Girlfriend Adventures.” The whiny Alphinaud finally takes a back seat as the player spends a majority of their time instead with Lyse and Alisaie. The culture of the Ala Mhigans also feels slightly less fleshed out than that of Othard’s peoples, leaving a majority of the gear and other items with a Far Eastern theme. There is also one particular point in the story in which the Warrior of Light takes on a responsibility they will have no time to properly tend to, and this fact is completely ignored, leaving what feels like a gaping hole in the plot which will have to be mended by quests in later patches if it is to be addressed at all. All the same, if you come to FFXIV for the story, the environments, or the music, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Dungeons and Trials
Stormblood, as any MMO expansion, is not without new challenges to undertake in the form of dungeons and trials. In all there are eight new dungeons and three new primal trials to face, spread out from level 61 up through level 70. Most of these are linked through the main story quest, though a couple are optional end game dungeons meant to challenge higher level players and prepare them for new trials to come.
In general, both dungeons and trials follow the more streamlined Heavensward design philosophy, reducing trash and keeping with three bosses per dungeon. There are no genuinely new or surprising mechanics: ultimately every boss fight boils down to a combination of avoidable AoE attacks, stacking to share damage, tank busters, and add management. By now, players entering Stormblood dungeons should be familiar with these dungeon tricks. Perhaps that, combined with a streamlined skill set for all classes, is why encounters have become increasingly complex, stacking more of these mechanics into a single boss fight. Victory comes not to the strongest, but the smartest and the fleetest of foot. Or at least, the ones who pay attention. These encounters are different enough that no boss feels like a clone of some distant boss, except for perhaps one boss encounter that tests your ability to remember encounters from all the previous primal fights. And as for Shinryu – well, let’s just say the boss is epic on a scale that rivals end world bosses in other MMOs.
One important change worth mentioning about dungeons: in addition to dropping more loot in general, final bosses also drop one additional piece of loot automatically for each player for their current class. This means that players will always get one drop per instance for their class, making it not only easier to gear up, but also to farm gear for glamour. Plus it’s simply more rewarding to go through an instance and know you’ll get at least one thing, if you manage to lose on the rolls for 12 other pieces of gear along the way. The only annoyance is that the notification for this happens right as the boss dies, meaning it gets quickly spammed away by the other end of instance text.
Swimming and Diving
One of the most touted new features in Stormblood is the ability to swim, both on the surface and underwater. It’s unclear why Final Fantasy XIV had yet to allow surface swimming in both its original release and in A Realm Reborn, but the addition allows a further sense of immersion in the vast world of Hydaelyn. Swimming is not unlocked in most areas in the previous A Realm Reborn and Heavensward zones, though logistically this makes sense as these zones were not designed for their water to be traversed. However, the rest of Stormblood begs for you to explore its waters. Actually, it downright demands you swim and dive your way through the zones, scattering diving quests throughout the new areas – particularly in the Ruby Sea, which is mostly water.
Swimming and diving are mechanically quite simple and straightforward, but I find two key faults with the system. Swimming itself is limited to regular run speed and sprint, as abilities like Peloton (the new version of Swiftsong) cannot be cast in the water. With Sprint’s new cooldown, swimming long distances is achingly slow. Additionally, the underwater areas feel perhaps a little too empty. While I’m glad that there is no underwater fighting (it’s never designed well), the landscapes below the water’s surface still feel empty. More coral, more underwater plant and animal life, more places to explore – all of these would breathe life into a relatively stale underwater scene.
Battle System Revisions
With Stormblood also came a major revision to the game’s battle system, aimed at streamlining each job to be more direct and efficient. These changes included removing the class requirements for job unlocks, which means no longer having to level up a second class to 15 to get access to your primary class. Cross-class actions have changed to role actions, which include the most popular cross-class and utility options such as Provoke for tanks, TP/MP regen songs for ranged physical DPS, and Protect for healers. Finally, many abilities have been removed from each job, reducing the amount of clutter on hotbars.
The result is a much more enjoyable progression, no longer requiring dragging different classes through their leveling paces to get that one ability that feels necessary to do your role in instances. It means every ability for each class is now useful, and not highly situational or replaced. It means abilities automatically upgrade to their highest level, meaning no fussing between synced and unsynced content.
It also means there are plenty of people crying wolf over the changes. To be fair, there are balance issues that will likely be addressed in upcoming patches, but discerning the actual issues from people’s perception of the changes is difficult this early on. Claims on which classes have taken the nerf bat hardest have shifted in just the past few days, and the vocal minority that chants that only certain classes are raid viable don’t help. My personal assessment, after playing several classes, discussing several more, and reading through a swamp of community feedback: things are mostly fine. What balance issues that do exist – primarily between tank and healer classes – can be mended and are not game breaking.
The Red Mage, one of Stormblood’s two new jobs, is a ranged DPS caster class that dabbles in both white and black magic. Essentially, the class functions best by keeping a balance of both white and black mana, indicated by a meter displayed on your screen. Your basic spell, Jolt, does some damage, and increases both meters slightly. However, this leads into the Red Mage’s specialty: dualcast. Any time you cast a spell that has a cast time associated with it, your next cast is instant. This is handy for the black and white mana generators Verthunder and Veraero, respectively. Both spells have a very long cast time — far longer than feasible in combat. They’re also some of your more powerful spells, so taking advantage of instant casting them is key.
Verthunder and Veraero also have a chance to allow you to cast Verfire and Verstone, respectively. These spells are a normal cast time, like Jolt, but increase their respective black or white mana more than Jolt would. Your primary rotation then becomes trying to weave as many casts of each of your higher generating mana spells as possible. You can also rush into melee and perform a stylish three-part combo consisting of Riposte, Zwercchau, and Redoublement. Just as quickly, the Red Mage can disengage from melee to once more fight from range. If your black and white mana levels are high enough, all three of the melee abilities become enchanted, doing far more damage than they otherwise would.
At max level, you’ll also have access to Verflare and Verholy, two very powerful spells that can only be cast once you’ve used the enhanced form of Redoublement. They increase your respective mana as well, and if you use flare while white mana is higher or holy when black mana is higher, you have a 100% chance to have Verfire or Verstone available right away.
Of course, Red Mage has some off global cooldown abilities to utilize as well. Fleche and Contre Sixte do instant damage to one or all enemies around the target. Acceleration guarantees the next Verthunder or Veraero spell will allow Verfire or Verstone to be cast. Red Mages even get a heal and a raise spell. Yes, this raise spell can be instant cast via Dualcast, too. One of the major benefits Red Mages bring is in the ability Embolden, which increases the user’s magic damage by 10%, and the physical damage of all party members by 10% as well. There is a fall off of 2% every four seconds, but this is still a very powerful aura for your entire group.
Finally, AoE for a Red Mage is as simple as it comes. You have one skill, Scatter, that will generate a bit of both white and black mana. You also have access to Moulinet, which is a mana spending ability (much like the three-part melee combo) that happens to hit all enemies in a cone before you. While Scatter is not very potent on its own, it is very easy to chain them quickly together thanks to Dualcast, and then you can launch into an Enchanted Moulinet attack or two (or three!) for even more AoE damage. Overall, the class is very easy to understand and play.
The second of the two new jobs available in Stormblood is Samurai, a melee DPS class that takes its role as a damage dealer to the extreme. Samurai’s attacks have the highest potency of any DPS job in the game, but in exchange, Samurai has no utility other than what it is limited to through role actions. It’s a job designed for those who want to focus only on doing one thing and doing it very well, and those who master this job will be bringing the hurt upon their enemies like no other.
Samurai features two key job mechanics. The first of these is Sen, a three-part gauge consisting of Setsu, Getsu, and Ka. These three Sen effects can be obtained during combat by completing combos, and enable the use of Iaijutsu. Iaijutsu consists of three attacks that consume all active Sen regardless of type. One Sen will execute Hinganbana, a damage over time; two will execute Tenka Goken, a frontal cone AoE; and three will execute Midare Setsugekka, an extremely high potency single target attack.
There are numerous ways to gather Sen. Each single target combination begins with Hakaze, before branching into three paths. Yukikaze completes a two-part combo that grants Setsu and reduces the target’s slashing resistance; Shifu and Kasha grant Ka and provide a 10% haste; and Jinpu and Gekko grant Getsu and increase damage dealt by 10%. As all three of these combos add buffs that improve the Samurai’s DPS, following through all three as part of a basic rotation will maximize a Samurai’s DPS before executing the powerful Midare Setsugekka. An AoE rotation, meanwhile, begins with Fuga and chains into either Mangetsu, which grants Getsu, or Oka, which grants Ka. Samurai also have access to the cooldown ability Meikyo Shisui, which allows three combo skills to be executed immediately – granting an easy way to gain all three Sen before executing Midare again.
Samurai’s second job mechanic, Kenki, adds a deep layer of complexity to the pile. Like a Warrior’s Beast Gauge, Samurai gain Kenki when completing certain attacks. Kenki can also be earned through using Hagakure, which converts all active Sen into Kenki, or through Meditate, which gradually fills the Kenki gauge but prevents all other actions and must be used in combat. Kenki is required to use Hissatsu abilities, of which there are seven. These include self-buffs, movement attacks, AoEs, and powerful attacks – all off the global cooldown. It’s up to the Samurai to collect Kenki and wisely weave these abilities in as needed during the fight, while also managing their three self-buffs through single target combos.
While Hissatsu certainly adds a depth of strategy to Samurai, it is also a job that performs well for players with lesser skill levels. Obeying the commandment of keeping each single target rotation and executing Hissatsu attacks as the player determines will always result in competent, strong DPS. As players gain skill and confidence, their performance will only increase. This makes a great job for beginners and veterans alike, but rewards veterans in job mastery in end game.
Along with all this new content comes a large bundle of miscellaneous improvements – far too much to encompass or discuss in a single review. However there are a few highlights worth touching on.
A fourth residential district has been added to the game: Shirogane. Set in the Kugane district, this district has a distinctly Japanese feel, rolling from green hills with cultivated gardens down to an expansive beach, and includes a koi pond and hot springs. While this District isn’t open yet (it will be in a later patch), housing hasn’t been forgotten with an increase to interior furnishing limits. This is a massive upgrade for home decorators across the worlds and time will reveal some remarkable rooms designed by the community.
Personal inventory space, and armory inventory space, has also been significantly increased – meaning far less fussing over inventory space for all the gatherers, crafters, and hoarders out there. While there’s still no wardrobe feature (a harsh truth, given that glamour is “true end game”), at least players have more inventory room to stash three expansions worth of gear. Mount speed, too, has gotten a boost: by completing quests in a zone, you can unlock a speed boost, and further speed boosts can be purchased by exchanging hunt seals. PvP has also seen a major overhaul, though I will pass in the explanation as I am too far inexperienced to give it a fair overview.
Finally, FATEs have seen a much beloved improvement. First, FATEs can now spawn with an experience bonus, marked by a special icon. These fates will give a significant boost of experience for completing them. In addition, sometimes FATEs will spawn an enemy called the Twist of Fate. Killing this enemy will grant all participants in the FATE a bonus buff to experience completing FATEs while in the zone!
A final note must be said about Final Fantasy XIV’s server stability at launch. While I dislike rating an expansion on network issues, as they are almost always resolved within a week of launch, it would also be foolish to play ignorance. And for Stormblood’s launch, FFXIV has had to face the ugly issue of congested worlds across their data centers: worlds they cannot seem to free from their overpopulation.
To put this in perspective, these worlds – two or three on each data center – are so overpopulated that their queues, which allow 5,000 people max, have been full. Before Stormblood’s early access period was launched, Square Enix began an incentive program to encourage players to transfer to ‘preferred’ lower population worlds. Unfortunately, not enough players are taking this bait. To compound the issue, players have found several ways to get around an automatic log-out after a half hour AFK timer.
As of the day before this review is posted, Square Enix has decided to force log out players on all realms once per day to prevent players from holding their spot indefinitely online while others actively play. While players will still be able to circumvent the automatic log-out, this helps clear the server before prime server peak times begin, and already seems to be actively helping reduce the queue times from two to three hours on these worlds to under an hour. These measures still feel light, considering the pain of the server loads, but it isn’t easy to get people to leave a server they’ve been on for years or made friends on, no matter how rich the incentive.
Expansion Rating: Great
It’s important to keep in mind that Final Fantasy XIV expansions are evolving stories, with several major content patches planned post launch to introduce more challenges, story, and areas to explore. Square Enix purposefully and carefully paces out content to allow players to maximally enjoy each patch before new content is added, which is why, for example, Beast Tribes and the Omega fight are not yet available. Thankfully, the pacing is far better than that of World of Warcraft patches, which means players will only have to wait a few more weeks for the first content drop.
That said, Stormblood is a superb expansion. The story is more compelling and enriched than that of Heavensward, and while swimming/diving can’t rival flying in terms of new transportation features, the multitude of system updates can. The combat system changes alone, despite the forecast of doom, help improve the flow of combat and progression without “dumbing down” to extreme standards. My greatest complaints come not in the mechanics, but in balancing some of the lore and aesthetics to reflect the Gyr Abania half of the expansion. While no changes are perfect, and fine tuning is surely in the cards, FFXIV feels even more enjoyable than it ever has. We can only hope that the upcoming content patches continue the truly epic feeling that is Stormblood.
FFXIV Stormblood Screenshots: