During my time gaming on PC, a game that I always wanted to get into was Final Fantasy XIV. I’d never really been a big fan of MMOs, with most of my prior experience in gaming consisting of predominantly single-player experiences. Regardless, I found myself increasingly interested in Square Enix’s MMORPG, which immediately focuses more on story but also has great endgame content to keep you hooked. I first gave the game a go back in 2017 when the starter edition of the game was on sale on Steam and, to put it plainly, I did not enjoy my time playing it. I didn’t even make it halfway through A Realm Reborn, the first chunk of content that is available in Final Fantasy XIV. Regardless, I’ve still always wanted to go back and get through it all based purely on the insane amounts of praise the game was receiving for its story and endgame content. Now felt like the right time to do so, especially having recklessly pledged to complete all the game’s raids in the WellPlayed DLC Podcast Episode 043. After putting in around 800 hours of playtime (at the time of writing), I find myself completely enamoured at what I experienced, both in terms of game design and storytelling.

First impressions are one of the most important things for a game to get right, it’s a part of why early access games are so shaky (they tarnish their first impressions with a bug-riddled launch in the hopes that the game’s potential will spur more financial investment from fans). It can be a “do or die” kind of deal for a game and Final Fantasy XIV throws its first impressions away immediately. Like a lot of MMORPGs, your choice of character determines your starting area. Where World of Warcraft has starting areas based on race, Final Fantasy XIV’s starting areas are determined by your choice in starting class. There are three areas where a new character will start, and I’ll colour code them based on their role (Tank, DPS, Healer) and their associated acronyms.

First up is Ul’dah, where you will begin if you choose Gladiator (GLD), Pugilist (PGL) or Thaumaturge (THM). The city is governed by The Syndicate, a group that represents the various important facets of Ul’dah itself. This includes the Grand Company of Ul’dah, the Immortal Flames. Next up is Limsa Lominsa, where you will begin if you choose Marauder (MRD), Rogue (ROG) or Arcanist (ACN). The pirate port is governed by The Maelstrom, which can be an absolute nightmare to navigate on your first visit (I don’t want to talk about how long I was lost in there at first), but don’t let that deter you if you want to play as any of those starting classes, especially Arcanist who actually has two advanced jobs compared to every other class, allowing you to go into DPS and/or Healer classes once you reach level 30. Last, but not least, there is Gridania; my starting area. This city is nestled within the Twelveswood, a dense forest teeming with life and cat people (seriously, so many people play the cat race). Choosing either Lancer (LNC), Archer (ARC) or Conjurer (CNJ) will see your character begin here. These are the starting areas where you undergo the laborious task of progressing through the first 50 levels in FFXIV.

Progressing in FFXIV isn’t as simple as levelling your character and wandering off in a direction to tackle content. FFXIV’s progress is directly tied to the main story, or “MSQ”. It is both the biggest strength of the game and the biggest weakness. However, during A Realm Reborn, it’s mainly a weakness. Without sugar coating it, A Realm Reborn comprises of 80% fetch quests for gameplay, terrible voice acting if you’re playing with English audio (I highly recommend playing with Japanese audio for ARR) and a story so average that I found myself more interested in catching up on Netflix shows than actually paying attention to most of it. The only times I really paid attention was when voice acting was used, because that’s often when important information was being delivered to me. After a handful of hours playtime, I found my interest in the game waning and my desire to drop it and just accept the punishment of playing through Elex (again), courtesy of Dylan from WellPlayed.

Just as I was ready to drop the game, I entered Sastasha – the first dungeon in FFXIV. I’d heard that the design for content like dungeons was good but I wasn’t expecting to have that much enjoyment out of the very first dungeon. I chose to start as a Conjurer because I’ve always enjoyed playing Healer/Support classes in other games and I was having an awful time with A Realm Reborn. The game felt slow and boring and, if it wasn’t for my initial hours invested in this character, I’d have made a new one to start as a different class.

This dungeon changed my mind. It was here that I learned how fun responsibility can be (if only this were the case for real life) and that perhaps I didn’t make such an awful choice. Learning how to balance rapidly changing targets, managing the tanks’ health as well as ensuring to keep up with DPS so encounters don’t take an ungodly amount of time was an exhilarating learning curve and one that really saved the game for me. This is without even taking into account the wildly different design and mechanics put into each dungeon. For Destiny 2 players, dungeons are the FFXIV equivalent of strikes (except that they’re mostly good). The biggest difference for me, however, is that while you queue for these matchmade activities you are still free to continue playing the game and completing quests – a big shock for someone who is used to sitting in a lobby screen for 15 minutes doing nothing until the activity loads. The fact that the dungeons would also increase in quality at a pretty consistent rate, but somehow in a way that didn’t undermine or devalue the dungeons I had played previously, was impressive. There are virtually no dungeons in the game that I dread playing, which is a stark contrast to me loathing well over half of the strikes in Destiny 2.

It’s actually quite fortunate that the dungeon design was enough to keep me interested in the game as the story during ARR was not. The game’s initial content does a very poor job at giving the player a reason to care about the characters and the overall plot. You spend half your time in the dark about what your actual place in the story is, and when you do properly understand your place, the game spends a bit too long trying to explain convoluted plot points that never really feel all that conducive to the story, let alone cohesive exposition – so I guess in that regard, it’s a proper Final Fantasy game. This remained fairly consistent all the way through to the post-game story content. I found myself quite surprised to learn that rolling the credits for ARR did not exactly mean that I was done with FFXIV’s first major chunk of content. There were an additional 100 missions which range from tying up loose ends left from ARR “story”, to setting the game up for the Heavensward expansion. It’s in this setup where the game’s story took a turn and really hooked me in. Characters become a lot stronger and more distinct from one another, which allows the player the opportunity to become invested. Without going into too much detail, there is a great balance between tension and intrigue to keep the player invested, with a surprising amount of agency for such a scripted series of events. As the content for ARR Patch 2.55 closed, I waved goodbye to A Realm Reborn — one of the more laborious pieces of content I’ve played — and welcomed a better age of writing and quest design within FFXIV.

If you had told me that the writing for Final Fantasy XIV could eventually become an incredible tale that spans across a variety of storytelling ideas, from grand adventures to rich character dramas that get you emotionally invested, I would have told you that you were smoking some form of illicit drug (or someone dropped an illicit drug into your drink and told you they hope you didn’t have anything planned tomorrow). But, that is exactly what Heavensward is. Now, I’m no stranger to Final Fantasy and its needlessly complex story writing, and so I went into Heavensward expecting a similar style. However, this is where I was wrong. Everything from the great plot points to the superb pacing is just such a step up compared to both the ARR writing as well as the Final Fantasy writing I am used to (though, in all fairness, it’s majorly due to how XIV’s improved presentation allows its plot points to be more succinct and cohesive). Regardless, I found myself continually impressed, even from the outset, with what I was experiencing.

Heavensward tells the story of a long-standing war between the people of Ishgard and the dragons that live in Dravania, driven by misplaced faith in a corrupt and archaic religious hierarchy. Ishgard’s people blindly follow the words and laws of a crazed old man who would rather uphold tradition at the cost of his people’s safety instead of realising the faults in said traditions and trying to move past them. However, it is not solely through this story that Heavensward compels you. A lot of its compelling beginning has to do with the ending of the previous chapter of main scenario quests (MSQ). It ends on such an intentional sour note that it allows for Heavensward’s strong list of characters to immediately take the stage. You have charming and endearing people like Haurchefant and Ser Aymeric, and then the compelling villains who exist in an almost moral grey area, like Ysayle and Hraesvelgar. Framing and perspective are expertly used here to challenge the ideas of what a conventional villain should be. Instead of the villain being some blood-crazed maniac, you’re instead regaled with the grand tale of how this war started and are granted both sides of the argument. This allows for the player to come to their own conclusion about which side is in the right, if there is any right side at all, while also educating said player in some incredibly rich lore and lovely storytelling. It’s in these moments that the game threw its gameplay out the window and opted to instead just tell a beautiful, harrowing story that really made me fall in love with Heavensward.

At its heart, Heavensward is a beautifully orchestrated opus of narrative ideas that can come off as convoluted at first, but clash together so impressively well that it creates one of the most cohesive and complete stories that I have ever experienced in a game, and this is just the first of three major expansions that FFXIV has received since its rework in 2013. If that doesn’t set an impressive standard, I’m not sure what does.

This is all without even mentioning the changes that came with the Heavensward expansion. For starters, three new classes were added.

The Machinist is the gunslinging engineer who uses their advanced technology to power both their weapons and their robotic assistants, who bonk anyone they see as a threat. Their toolset ranges from a giant drill to a flamethrower, and they pack a punch with their arsenal. Basically, they’re that one friend that pulls apart any device you give them and somehow turns everything into a potato cannon.

The Astrologian is that person you dated who is super into tarot readings and star signs. They harness the power of the stars to enhance the offensive capabilities of their peers, grant shields to protect against incoming attacks and moderately heal anyone in pain. One thing that makes this job hard to master is the random nature of its abilities through the Draw mechanic. Each card has a blanket effect that will work on anyone but also a specialised buff, which is where the more nuanced nature of the job comes into play.

The Dark Knight is that emo kid you always saw in the playground who would stare at you while reciting My Chemical Romance lyrics, but because you couldn’t hear what they were saying you assumed it was some form of demonic incantation to cast a curse on you and your future generations. Years of listening to music about how girls broke their heart has hardened them to the point where they use their depressive power to absorb damage from big bad bosses. Hell, they literally have an ability called The Blackest Night which pretty much makes them a depressing god that uses the gravitational pull of their sadness to absorb virtually all damage for a brief period of time.

In addition to these three new jobs, every job in ARR has its skillset widened. Some changes for these skillsets are in the form of upgrades to preexisting skills, whereas others are new skills entirely. I don’t actually have all the jobs levelled (yet) so I’m not sure how each job handled their upgrade, but the ones I have levelled seem to benefit greatly from this treatment.

The improvements in the game don’t stop there either. Heavensward features a large assortment of dungeons and trials, both mandatory and optional, and their design is just impressive. I’d already been drawn into the dungeon content of ARR, but Heavensward just blows it out of the water. The variety in environmental design for the dungeons, and the atmosphere and mechanics for the trials is just so much better, but not in a way that undermines the previous experiences. Instead, it makes you appreciate those previous experiences more. You feel a gradual progression in the complexity of the mechanics, as well as the skill checks. Every encounter asks more of the healers, the tanks and the DPS. While you can afford to make mistakes, you can tell that the game is beginning to up the ante, even at a very gradual pace. It’s this pivotal point where FFXIV’s pacing for its gameplay shifts and becomes much faster than the early game would have you believe.

Even the music is much improved, and this was an area where ARR wasn’t actually all that bad. In fact, this is a point that pretty much any Final Fantasy game nails. The series has always been known for its killer soundtracks and this is no different. Each dungeon, trial, area and even raid encounter feels unique due to the atmosphere made by the music. From fighting steampunk machinations to ascending a tower to fight a dragon, the music all fits so incredibly well.

Like ARR, there is more story than just what shipped with Heavensward. Updates 3.1 to 3.55 extended the story by a decent margin and it is here where you really get to see the impressive writing that FFXIV has. Where most games would forget certain details and plot points, as they weren’t imperative to the immediate story when they were brought up, FFXIV displays an impressive level of competence in its writing. Tying up loose ends is just the tip of the iceberg. New plot points are introduced and paced so expertly that it quite seamlessly leads into the next expansion: Stormblood.

After completing Heavensward, I was on quite the story high. I had really appreciated how masterfully placed and cleanly connected the stories were. To add to my excitement, Stormblood was taking the Warrior of Light to the eastern lands of Doma, a long-discussed area of Eorzea but never previously explored in-game. One of my favourite characters (and I’d assume she’s a favourite for anyone because shame on you if she isn’t) comes from this land and it’s through her that you really get to see the Ninja (NIN) job if you didn’t choose Rogue (ROG) as your starting job. You’re told about all the eastern traditions through her, one of the most essential plot vessels in the game. She has been reacquainted with an old friend from Doma and, after trying to help you fight against the imperial invaders in Gyr Abania, returns home.

You spend a little while making sure that the resistance in Gyr Abania is at least well-equipped enough to deal with the average imperial groups that come through, but it quickly becomes apparent that you need to upheave the empire’s foothold in the land of Doma. This is where Stormblood really shines. You stop over at Kugane and you immediately experience the olden Japan-inspired city. Kugane is a port that sits in between Aldenard (the west) and Othard (the east), from which the core plot of Stormblood begins to expand. You learn the political and economical ties that you inadvertently had, as well as the complexity and scale of the Garlean Empire’s invasion of Othard.

At its core, Stormblood’s plot is a multifaceted one consisting of various subplots that extend as far back as A Realm Reborn. You come face-to-face with some of the more compelling villains, whether it be a blood-crazed dude with a sword or just a dumb brute that does exactly what he is told (just badly), Stormblood’s cast has some of the most compelling examples of villainy that I have seen. Complex motivations exist in a moral grey area that often result in making you feel bad for acting against them in such a hostile manner (when there really is no other way). In some way, you could make the comparison to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s story, just with better writing and notably less racism (it’s still there, but it’s held by the antagonists).

The only part of Stormblood that may feel like a step down after Heavensward is its approach to storytelling. Heavensward’s story was very much about the characters, their motivations and their overall character progression. It forced groups that would normally be at odds to put aside their differences (to some degree) and work towards a common goal. They weren’t perfect in this and that is why it worked. Banding together was a big struggle for them and it took a lot of growth to move that. This theme of growth and understanding when forced to work with someone whose beliefs contradict your own stands in juxtaposition to Stormblood’s cast of heroes and allies, who are all like-minded. They are so focused on freeing Doma and the rest of Othard that the complexities of human relationship and the varying degree of personalities that can exist in a group are lacking. This is not to say that these characters don’t develop and progress, it’s more to say it doesn’t feel as significant when compared to the extremes that Heavensward’s cast had to go through during their development.

Like Heavensward, Stormblood also brought new classes with it. Unlike Heavensward, however, the added classes are not as comprehensive. Two DPS classes were added and that’s it.

The Red Mage is the DPS class if you like magic, rapiers and style. Want to do backflips like a Dragoon without having to be a melee-focused class? Red Mage is the one for you. Mastery of this class requires an adept understanding of the Dual Cast mechanics, which allows you to instantly cast every second spell. Each spell you use adds either black or white mana, and balancing these two mana pools will allow you to unleash powerful combos that utilise both quick melee combos and powerful spell finishers.

The Samurai is if you really, really like anime and want to channel your inner weeb. This melee-oriented class offers potent attacks while also tasking the player with positioning themselves correctly to ensure optimal damage and ability usage. It’s the main class that you will see the Stormblood characters use, with key characters Gosetsu and Hien both using this class. If you like big damage numbers and a positioning mine game of sorts, this is the class for you.

Dungeon design is where Stormblood is leagues ahead of its predecessors. There are a number of really fun dungeons with incredibly interesting environments. From hunting down a powerful goddess of the sea in her underwater abode to storming a castle to kick out the hostile inhabitants, Stormblood’s co-operative content has such variety and range that it’s really fun and engaging to play. It’s not even just the dungeons that are really fun either, the trials (bosses) have some brilliance in their mechanics and their design. This game continued to improve as I played more and more of it and, just at this point alone, I kicked myself for ignoring it for so long. It really had me thinking “If this is what Stormblood already has to offer, I can’t begin to imagine how good the post-game story is going to be.”

At this point, I don’t think I can really label any post-game content outside of 2.1-2.3 as average. It has all been really good, and the content in is no exception. To kick things off, I was met with plotlines that I was genuinely not expecting, and forming bonds with characters I thought unimaginable. It really felt as if the less character-focused side of Stormblood existed to lay the foundations for an incredibly smart and compelling character drama. It also houses one of my favourite encounters in the form of Castrum Fluminis. Not only do I adore the design of this fight, but the music is so captivating that I often listen to it outside of the game. As this post-game story drew closer to its end, it brought the shadow with it, and so the time came where I had to dip into Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion: Shadowbringers.

If Heavensward was an incredibly moving character drama and Stormblood was a narrative driven by large set-pieces, Shadowbringers is the culmination of Square Enix learning from the highs and lows of each expansion that came before. It takes place in an entirely separate world called The First, in a region named Norvrandt. The Light has completely overtaken the land, an unforeseen consequence of an imbalance between the Light and the Dark. The citizens of Norvrandt have formed a resistance of sorts in The Crystarium, a city built around the Crystal Tower in The First. This place is run by a mysterious character named the “Crystal Exarch”, and it was he who summoned you to this world. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Norvrandt is wildly different to Eorzea. Grassy fields that are pink, the night sky has been completely obscured by the immense light being projected above, massive but elegant monsters roaming the plains – Norvrandt is on the brink of destruction yet its beauty still manages to capture you.

Shadowbringers’ plot is one fueled by hope, passion and intrigue. The writers at Square Enix have been building the players’ connections to the various characters over the last seven years, dating all the way back to A Realm Reborn. Everyone has their personal favourites, but they also have memorable moments with each of these characters, and because of the dire predicament they find themselves in during the Shadowbringers, the stakes feel much higher. Not only is the world in danger, but these characters that you invested so much time and emotion into are in danger as well. In a way, Natsuko Ishikawa (the writer of Shadowbringers and the job quests for the Dark Knight) has cleverly used this attachment to the characters as a means of conveying plot urgency, which is something almost every open-world game gets wrong. Knowing all the random things that you can do on the side and how it can undermine the urgency of a plot, this expansion puts your favourite characters in a position that forces the player to put the plot first and other objectives and quests second. The player wants to be sure they know the fate of the characters before any of the busywork they may wish to do, it’s a stroke of brilliance. This is without even going into the proper themes and narrative ideas.

At its core, Shadowbringers allows the player to piece together the mystery of the Ascians’ motivations. One of the more powerful leaders of the Ascians, Emet-Selch, has been orchestrating many of the recent events and you spend quite a lot of time figuring out why. This is where the story shifts from a standard save the world type of deal to a clashing of ideologies that exist in such a grey area that you almost feel bad at the end of it. It really hammers home the idea that bad actions don’t necessarily equate to a bad or evil person. You question a lot of your understanding of the game’s world and you open your mind to the new possibilities and avenues that are placed in front of you.

Shadowbringers also brought with it two new classes (one of which I am thoroughly enjoying, currently):

The Gunbreaker is the new tank class that allows players to live out their Squall Leonhart fantasies. Gunbreakers use the gunblade and style to deal and absorb damage, respectively. This class acts as a great transition for DPS mains to Tank as the damage from Gunbreakers is rather high. They also have the ability to give their healers heart attacks through the use of Superbolide, an ability that drops the caster’s health to one and makes them impervious to most sources of damage for a brief period of time – healers hate when this is randomly used because they have to heal them within the eight-second timer.

The Dancer is the new DPS class and it harnesses the power of beauty and grace as damage and destruction. A good Dancer will always be able to keep up their stances, whether it be through the Standard Step or Technical Step, both of which have benefits and drawbacks. The Dancer’s weapon of choice is the chakram, like Zena: Warrior Princess. They throw these circular weapons and have them return, similar to a boomerang. These attacks flow elegantly through the use of choreography; every encounter feels like a performance rather than a fight.

As it stands now, Final Fantasy XIV is at version 5.3: Reflections in Crystal, and this latest update closes the seven-year-long story of the Ascian War. Tensions are still high as people’s understanding of the Light and Dark forces are still uncertain. There are a number of questions that players wanted answers to, while also wondering how this long-awaited conclusion will play out. Now, I’m not going into extreme detail for the sake of spoilers, but this update closes off the long-standing story quite nicely. This is not to say that absolutely every loose end has been tied up — there are still unfinished plot points that the writers intend to explore — but more to say that the immediate plot of the Ascians vs Warrior of Light has been closed. This update’s story also closes off on a very emotional note. The new characters you have grown to love are sad as their newfound friends are returning home and your old characters are finally safe and sound.

With all this story out of the way, you’d think I would have put down the game by now, but this is where the endgame kicked in and I could not be more hooked.

I’m not used to a game of this kind having both a good story as well as good endgame, usually it is one or the other. Both Destiny and Destiny 2 have rather subpar stories but relatively solid endgames. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 had a great early/midgame but the endgame didn’t do a great job at holding my attention. Warframe does have an admittedly great story but there isn’t really an endgame. As much as I love Warframe, this still rings true.

While Final Fantasy XIV has a rocky start, it’s mostly solid. The dungeons are really good, the class levelling system is great, whereby you invest in your character as a whole rather than just a specific class – you are afforded the ability to change class at your leisure. On top of this, I was surprised to find that there are a large number of raids to do, all with hard modes (savage) that are fundamentally different to their normal counterparts. Additionally, there are Alliance Raids, which is probably one of the only areas where this game really felt like an MMO. These 24-player raids vary in degree of complexity and scale, with the first few being relatively simple, while the later ones offering a much cooler, complex design. These Alliance Raids don’t have savage counterparts, but they make up for it with their length. They’re also not as finicky as something like a savage raid, since the Alliance Raids  must be able to be completed by a group of 24 random players without any form of outside communication. Regardless, these raids are always fun, it’s just a shame that I usually have to do the earlier ones as a part of the duty roulette system (something which I will touch on in a moment).

Like the raids, the dungeons also have hard modes, which may as well be entirely different dungeons. Set in the same locale, these hard modes often feature new enemies as well as a completely different path to the normal version, rather than simply making it the same activity that you have done before. Not every dungeon has a hard mode, but the few that do are generally pretty enjoyable.

There are also other facets of the endgame that I found incredibly enjoyable, like extreme trials. As you go through the stories of Final Fantasy XIV you’ll go through various Trials, which are effectively boss fights. A number of these have a higher difficulty option known as “Extreme”. These extreme trials are often used as the gear level gateway for high-tier savage raiding. Now, these aren’t the only way to gear up, but these activities often house the best gear for getting into savage raiding, as some of the other gear that is of the same level doesn’t have the same stats. These fights often have much tighter mechanics than their normal counterparts and even have mounts exclusive to the extreme version (usually). As I got more and more comfortable with the endgame I found myself branching out and becoming more interested in the extreme trials, hell I was even in the initial wave of players that did the newest extreme trial, the Seat of Sacrifice (Extreme).

Now, on to Duty Roulettes. This system here is mostly beneficial to people who are trying to level alternate classes, but it also houses a crazy amount of hours in terms of playtime. The Duty Roulettes will place you into a random activity within a given category, whether it be an Alliance Raid, Normal Raid or a dungeon. These all give bonus XP for their first completion of the day and are essential for easy levelling. There is easily a couple of hours of content each day in these dailies alone and I wouldn’t exactly blame you if you didn’t do them all each day.However, it can be quite a time-consuming process queuing for these activities and hoping that the players you are grouped with are capable of completing them within a reasonable amount of time.

As I bring this article to a close, I want to finish with a few things. Firstly, I am kicking myself for waiting until now to play this game. While there’s never really a bad time to play the game, I feel a bit silly for having missed out on it for so long due to not persevering with A Realm Reborn when I first tried it years ago. For anyone who is genuinely curious and wants to try the game now, the free trial goes all the way up to level 60 and through the core Heavensward story. While I would still completely understand if you don’t make it this far due to how average A Realm Reborn is, I would strongly encourage to still give it a go. There are a lot of great things that Square Enix has done with this game and positives easily outweigh the negatives!

A big thank you to Square Enix and Double Jump Communications for supplying me with game time codes! Also huge shoutout to my FC for putting up with my lacking ability as a player and getting me through the various raids/trials.