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Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker brings less change, more comfort

Over 10 years after its disastrous launch, Final Fantasy XIV is now one of the most-talked-about MMORPGs in the world. The story, forged from the ashes of its very public meltdown, is set to come to a close in just a few weeks time with the release of the Endwalker expansion. Set to take the original denizens of Eorzea even further around the world, it’s the game’s most important launch since its 2013 revival. It has big shoes to fill, and if my diluted experience with a preview build is anything to go by, I’m sure now more than ever that what makes the game isn’t the world exploration, but those who exist within it.

Though the bizarre companionship of Emet-Selch — the latest in a long line of Ascian adversaries — throughout Shadowbringers refreshed our tolerance of the baddies we’ve repeatedly bested, the patches that came after began to pull on rusted strings. In assuring us that the Endwalker launch is just that (the end of one arc and the first steps toward another), I’m confident the team has the pacing down to a tee for this one. They could have drawn things out across another two-year patch cycle, but everything will come to a close with this launch, leaving the build-up to the next expansion to set the scene for another potential 10 years of fresh storylines — hopefully without an Ascian in sight.

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A stroll around the neighborhood

Everything in my daylong tour of Endwalker happened with zero context. This wasn’t a sneak peek at the story. It was stripped bare. Spoiler alert for those still pushing through Shadowbringers, but the end of the expansion gives us a solid reason to go knocking on the door of Old Sharlayan, a place of scholars who rarely want anything to do with the rest of the world. Logging into the university town showed a place that was unsurprisingly architecturally similar to the dilapidated ruins of the Dravanian Hinterlands, and practically just as sad to see in that moment.

I spent a good chunk of time enjoying the small stone paths and gigantic doorways, but beyond the gimmick of seeing it ahead of release, there was little reason to hang around. The NPCs were, unless we made friends with them immediately upon arrival, far too jolly; each one wished me a swift “Good day” (or something to that effect) before wandering off. It was clearly just placeholder text, but it wasn’t how I expected my first time in this part of the world to go.

Though it was certainly a delight to roam the halls that many of the best and brightest Final Fantasy XIV characters used to call home, the glaring omission of any key world-building detail in my first trip there was, admittedly, a bit of a wet towel on an otherwise exciting day with the future of the game. And the other two zones, Thavnair and Garlemald, echoed that experience. Without any sort of world-building, they’re just large, mostly empty husks that ultimately show the game’s age more than we’re often willing to admit. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel — my first taste of battle content.

Present in the preview build was the first Endwalker dungeon, The Tower of Zot. If you’ve played Final Fantasy IV, you’ll recognize that as the name of a place with very little lore behind it. Final Fantasy XIV wants to fix that. And we already know a lot about its place in this world. Standing ominously over Thavnair, this glowing ziggurat is just one of many that sprouted across Eorzea as the Shadowbringers story began to sing its swan song. It’s not the most exciting dungeon in the world, and it certainly doesn’t have the solemn air and urgency its counterpart in the past expansion did, but it offered a good taste of how taxing the level 80-to-90 experience could be.

Some will be sad to see a certain group of enemies dispatched so early into the storyline (assuming that’s the last we see of them), but they put up a good fight, weaving their abilities together for a final showdown that adheres to the game design 101 lesson of teaching before testing. Again, it’s not the most exciting place to be without proper context and without a closing cutscene, but in doing one run with my new preview buddies and another with Trusts, the game’s A.I. companions, I was fully eager to run it again with those who wanted to try out some new jobs and abilities. I just didn’t have the time.

New jobs

By far the main reason for the preview build was to test out the game’s new jobs and any new abilities and gameplay changes brought to its already enormous class offering. Having played a White Mage since the very beginning, it was my first port of call and my first source of conflicting emotions.

On paper, Endwalker isn’t bringing many major changes to what Shadowbringers brought before it. The class-specific Job Gauge will forever be the biggest example of that, and this expansion is following suit. Most classes have been lightly tweaked as opposed to being reworked, mostly to fit one or two new skills into their rotation.

The White Mage’s day-to-day workings have barely changed beyond a skill that leaves a triggerable healing field at a select location to top up distant teammates and the ability to store uses of some skills like its shield-granting Divine Benison. They’re welcome additions, but not hugely exciting. And in playing other classes like Astrologian, Scholar, and Red Mage, the same was mostly true there as well. We’ve had bigger class shake-ups and reworks in post-launch patches. If you were expecting your class to feel brand new in a few weeks’ time, you may want to curb those expectations.

What did pleasantly surprise me, however, were the two main classes: The damage-dealing Reaper and the barrier-granting Sage. The former lost me completely. It’s hard to get to grips with two-dozen new skills on a deadline. But whenever I mashed its buttons enough to max out its gauge, it became an incredibly fast, fluid, and flashy edge lord that I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of soon. As for Sage, a class in a role I more intimately understand, it did not play at all how I expected.

It took what felt like years for White Mage to get abilities to weave between spells, yet that’s all Sage is — a spell weaver rather than a slinger. Most of its kit revolves around using one skill to augment a bunch of others, then using those in precise situations to prep other sets of context-based heals, shields, and buffs. It’s incredibly mobile and very refreshing. There’s long been the disagreement between veterans and newcomers that a healer should help deal damage when able, and Sage looks to put an end to that debate with a buff that allows it to heal a select party member by actually dealing damage to the enemy.

Four characters posing at the end of the first FFXIV Endwalker dungeon "The Tower of Zot".

Looking ahead

Although my six-hour stint around the newest accessible areas of one of my all-time favorite MMOs wasn’t as captivating as I’d hoped, it did make me reconsider how the game first drew me in, and how it should have no problem doing so again in just a few weeks.

Having been developed to run on the now practically retro PlayStation 3, Final Fantasy XIV is beholden to those early design decisions. As the zones have gotten bigger, they’ve started to feel largely hollow compared to the early days. Flying mounts play a big part in that in my view, but they’re absolutely essential in a game of this size with content appearing here, there, and everywhere. But in having the preview zones be completely devoid of any lore-spouting NPCs to go down and talk to, I was left with little choice but to simply take in the scenery from the skies. And it didn’t really do much for me.

Outside of main story content, I can’t really remember the last time I genuinely enjoyed just taking the world of Final Fantasy XIV in as I did in those first few years. The main cities will always be a blast to hang out in. Especially as they get the same facilities as the endgame player hubs. But roaming around Dravania, Gyr Abania, or even Kholusia has, in hindsight, never managed to recapture the original sense of wonder and belonging that Camp Tranquil, Bronze Lake, or Vesper Bay did all those years ago.

As it stands after the preview event, I’m no more aware of how Endwalker will turn out than anyone else in the world right now. Just as I was for Shadowbringers. And if the last expansion proved anything, the game’s strengths rely less on the world and more on the story told within. Endwalker is set to be the best of both worlds:A fulfilling conclusion to a decade-long story arc at launch, and the foundation for the next 10 years.

There’s no telling what the future holds, but so long as it sticks the landing at launch, having a conclusion right around the corner makes the game’s more dated aspects less of a concern. There’s a lot to wrap up in a small space of time, and while it may end up feeling rushed, it’s sure to be a hell of a roller coaster.

Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker launches on November 23 for PlayStation 4, PS5, and PC.

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