In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2021, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We'll post new staff picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
Back in 2010, the thought of Final Fantasy 14 becoming one of the greatest MMOs of all time was laughable. The original release was a pitiful affair—poor quest structure, a lack of basic genre features, unnecessarily detailed flowerpots. While it may have been pretty to look at, it was borderline insufferable to play.
Square Enix did what few would dare to do: Rebuild the entire thing from scratch and integrate the original's destruction into the new game's lore. Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn launched in 2013, and a year later, I entered the world of Eorzea for the first time. I've largely been on and off with Final Fantasy 14 since then, with this year marking my first proper return since 2017.
What a return it's been, too. I came back to find myself in the post-Heavensward questline, giving me two whole expansions to explore before Endwalker's release. Stormblood's cracking dungeon design was hampered by its weak story, while Shadowbringers quickly cemented itself as my favourite Final Fantasy 14 expansion. I wasn't sure Endwalker could top it—but how wrong I was.
Endwalker is a culmination of every misstep made, every lesson learned and every small victory throughout Final Fantasy 14's development. It doesn't just feel like the closing chapter of the 11-year Hydaelyn-Zodiark narrative but also Square Enix's, too, as players appreciate it more than ever before. Final Fantasy 14 is the best it's been, and that's clear in every aspect of Endwalker's presentation.
The expansion doesn't quite start with the same bang as Shadowbringers does—it's more of a slow burn, and that's occasionally to its detriment. Yet the story had me on hooks throughout, with its peaks vastly outnumbering the valleys. It balances out the darker, more dramatic moments with light comic relief, never leaving you in despair for too long. It does rely heavily on emotional investment and knowledge of previous expansions so, if you've story-skipped, it simply won't have the same weight. I found myself reaching for the tissues in the moments when it all got a wee bit nostalgic or brought back old characters to tie up loose ends.
It's astonishing that an MMO expansion left me so emotionally vulnerable. Square Enix managed to do what so few games have ever done: It's made me give a shit about my original character. I'm so utterly enamoured with my lore-accurate miqo'te gal despite that over a decade later, the most she can muster up to her fellow Scions during an impassioned cutscene is a simple nod. Endwalker does a fantastic job of making your Warrior of Light feel like a fleshed-out character, even if a lot of that work is down to my own imagination and perception of what my catgirl would do in each situation.
Dungeon design has evolved loads since A Realm Reborn. While they used to be larger, with more branching paths to encourage exploration, Square Enix's approach has evolved to encourage a more tightly designed, linear style of play with fewer puzzles and more stuff to kill in fun ways. While Endwalker's earliest dungeons are the weakest, new mechanics and ones borrowed from old raids cement them as some of the best the game's seen. The Level 90 dungeon Smileton has quickly become a favourite with its funky music, fun bosses, and a much-needed break from the darker tone we've seen from dungeons over the past two expansions.
Trials have well and truly put me to the test as a spatially challenged white mage, throwing tons of stuff that casual players like me may have never seen before. It feels like Endwalker has boosted the difficulty of normal content and made healers flex their magic muscles a little more. I've never utilised my full kit to the extent I have with this expansion, and healing has been a more stressful affair than I anticipated. It's been a nice change from my previous comfortable Holy-spamming playstyle, and I'm hoping to further test myself by jumping into extreme trials soon—my first time doing them level-synced since Leviathan Extreme in 2014.
For me, few games deserve recognition and credit in the way Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker does. Its success this year even prior to the expansion's release has been astronomical. It's proof of how well a game and its community can thrive when the people behind its production care and engage with feedback. From expansion to expansion, Square Enix has listened to its player base—even things as small as adding a controller rumble to PlayStation 4 controllers when the player has queued into a Duty (any of the game's instances) came from someone simply asking director and producer Naoki Yoshida for its inclusion.
Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker is a master class in building your game alongside your fiercest supporters and biggest critics, not in spite of them. Games rarely come close to perfection, but Endwalker isn't far off. It's a thrilling conclusion to both a fictional and real journey filled with hardship, loss, and new beginnings. It's difficult to know just how much higher Final Fantasy 14 can soar, but I can't wait to find out.