Release Date: June 23, 2015Platform: PC/PS3/PS4Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixGenre: MMORPG (Expansion)
As a longtime Final Fantasy fan and someone who has played just about every MMORPG under the sun, I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t hold back any punches in my review of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. It was leagues better than the 1.0 release, of course, but it’s an odd MMORPG in many ways. Most gamers either love it or hate it due to the fact that it’s a mishmash of a Final Fantasy game with solid storytelling and an MMORPG akin to World of Warcraft during the Wrath of the Lich King era except with a 2.5-second GCD (global cooldown). This mixture can be good or bad, depending on who you ask.
But, enough about A Realm Reborn. There’s no denying the fact that FFXIV: ARR should be considered a success, especially in an age when new MMORPGs can’t keep a subscription model for long. Given its success, how does Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward—its first expansion—stack up? Here’s our review:
New Stuff Galore
FFXIV: Heavensward delivers a good amount of new content, especially considering the slim state of many other recent-ish expansion launches (yes, Warlords of Draenor, I’m looking at you). We’re given one new race, 10 levels, three new classes, nine new zones/maps, 8 new dungeons, 2 new primal fights, flying mounts, and free company workshops complete with airship construction.
The three new classes—Dark Knight (tank), Astrologian (healer), and Mechanist (ranged DPS)—are all pretty fun and start out at level 30 after being unlocked. Square Enix needs to do a bit of tweaking to all three classes at the moment due to balance issues (MCH needs some help, especially), but overall they’re a solid addition to the already-varied class roster in FFXIV.
Unlike many of the zones in FFXIV: ARR that suffered from extreme linearity, the new zones in Heavensward actually feel expansive. Exploring zones like Dravania Forelands and The Churning Mists has been a personal joy for me, especially given the fantastic music the expansion boasts (if there’s one thing FF always does right, it’s music). The dungeons have all been enjoyable as well, if a tad bit on the linear side. The new lore focal point on dragons is pretty awesome, but that’s to be expected. It’s a stated law that dragons are always awesome. Moogles and their adorableness also return for Heavensward and play a minor role.
The ability to fly in Heavensward zones is fairly gated. Players have to complete a bunch of side quests and find a handful of off-the-beaten-path green swirly things also known as Aether Currents in a particular zone before they can fly in it. This then has to be repeated for every zone. It’s a bit of a hassle, but not completely out of reach, especially since you’ll be wanting to complete a fair chunk of side quests anyways while leveling.
One interesting side effect of having zones that are created with flying in mind is that they suddenly become more vertical as opposed to pure horizontal. Each zone is filled with hills, peaks, and teetering paths that lead up said peaks. This makes questing a little more tedious (especially when paired with the fact that open world mobs can be fairly challenging if you fudge and pull more than one at a time), but it also makes each zone feel more atmospheric and immersive. All in all, Square Enix made some solid improvements to the game’s zone design in Heavensward.
Leveling vs. Endgame
There’s one slight problem with an MMORPG having expansive, immersive leveling zones, however. Leveling doesn’t last very long. The leveling phase of any new expansion is extremely short in comparison to the amount of time players spend at endgame twiddling their thumbs and sitting in dungeon queues for the most part. The nature of FFXIV’s class system helps mitigate this issue, but not everyone enjoys leveling alt classes and crafting/gathering.
One of the largest issues with FFXIV: ARR at launch was the fact that players had two dungeons to run at endgame, three challenging primal fights, and that was it for quite some time. There were no other paths to gain gear. In Heavensward, players have more options at least. There are three dungeons at level 60 as well as two challenging primal fights. Additionally, the duty roulette system lets players gain endgame tomes (the currency used to obtain gear) by queuing up to join a desynced dungeon/trial that varies depending on what players are queued up for once per day.
Finally, players can also farm tomes by taking out hunt mobs that are similar to FFXI’s named mob system. Hunt mobs tend to die extremely quick on most servers currently, but most communities will at least do a few shout-outs to try and give everyone time to tag the mob before it dies. The hunt mob system is akin to FATE leveling back in FFXIV: ARR—very popular, and just a wee bit faceroll with enough players around. Interestingly enough, FATES in Heavensward zones aren’t that great for EXP. It seems Square Enix realized that too much faceroll can be a bad thing.
Overall, there’s enough endgame content currently, but certainly not an overflowing amount. This coming week players should be able to dive into FFXIV: Heavensward’s first raid which is called Alexander. Alexander will have two different difficulties. These past two weeks since the expansion’s launch have been a prologue of sorts which seems fair, especially considering the fact that most players have at least one other side class they’re working on.
Story, Story, and… Did I mention Story?
One of the most interesting departures FFXIV: Heavensward takes from most MMORPGs is its required story-based gating. If you played FFXIV: ARR at launch, took a break, and purchased Heavensward thinking you’d be able to dive right in, you’re in for a rather large surprise. Players must play through all of the level 50 story content plus all of the story content that was added during every major patch after the launch of ARR before gaining access to the new content. Given FFXIV’s natural penchant for storytelling, that’s a lot of content to play through. And a decently-sized chunk of dungeons/trials to sit in queue for. And a lot of cutscenes to watch.
The worst part of this gating mechanism is the fact you can’t even enter any of the new zones or therefore learn any of the new classes until you’ve played through the last of the story in ARR. You do gain EXP for the quests, however, as long as you have the expansion purchased. Before early access started, it took me roughly 5 days of playing in the evenings (enjoying cutscenes heartily, I might add) to get caught up to expansion content. That time initially felt frustrating, but as I neared my destination I realized that the story ramps up significantly towards the end of FFXIV: ARR and becomes extremely, extremely enjoyable.
This momentum carries through to Heavensward quite nicely. The story also explains why the gates of Ishgard are open in the first place, so from that point of view the story is required to understand anything that goes on in the expansion. Despite the fact that many of the game’s original voice actors seem to have changed, the storytelling in Heavensward is top notch and rivals the best story moments in A Realm Reborn.
After seeing the story for myself, my opinion on the story’s gating has softened quite a bit, but I still feel it’s a hard pill for many MMORPG fans to swallow. Most Final Fantasy fans love deep, RPG-like storylines, but not all MMORPG fans appreciate hours of cutscenes and gated story content. At the very least it would have been smart to allow non-complete story players to at least access the new classes if they so choose.
On the bright side, Heavensward handles cutscenes in dungeons/raids much better than in A Realm Reborn. Major cutscenes now play after the dungeon/raid finishes and not during. Ain’t no one got time to sit through someone else’s 12-minute cutscenes.
Looking Toward the Sky
Heavensward, frankly, is one of the best MMORPG expansions I’ve played in a long time. It piles on all the new features you’d expect from an expansion (levels, new areas, and new class/race options), plus continues an epic storyline that only the creators of the Final Fantasy franchise could get away with (trust me—if Blizzard tried gating an expansion behind hours of cutscenes and fetch quests, WoW players would revolt).
Despite a few minor issues with Heavensward, Square Enix seems to have listened to player feedback since the launch of A Realm Reborn. The game has improved significantly with the new zone designs and the way in which endgame flows in Heavensward. If anyone out there’s on the fence about giving FFXIV another try, do yourself a favor and pick up Heavensward. Here’s your fair warning now: Cutscenes ahead!