What is it? A bleak and story-heavy expansion to Square Enix's great MMO.
Expect to pay: $40 + $15/mo subscription fee
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed on: Windows 10, Core i7-8700, 32GB RAM, GeForce RTX 2070
Nearly a month ago I wrote that Final Fantasy 14 was my favorite MMO that I hate to recommend. Playing it requires an enormous investment of time—at least a few hundred hours—and even though I love it, I worried that others might ultimately find that long journey boring and unsatisfying. But after beating Shadowbringers, Final Fantasy 14's latest expansion, those worries are gone.
Shadowbringers is the Avengers: Endgame of Final Fantasy 14, an emotionally stirring climax that draws on six years of character development, storytelling, and worldbuilding to weave an epic, dimension-spanning story rooted in the relationships of its chief characters.
Paint it black
If you're not familiar with Final Fantasy 14's story, it's difficult to describe Shadowbringers' premise without spoiling everything that comes before. With three expansions and hundreds of hours of story under its belt, the world of Final Fantasy 14 is so complicated and nuanced you should be able to get a degree in its history. It's intimidating to newcomers—especially because the first part of Final Fantasy 14's overarching story is a slow burn—but as a long-time player I love how rich and vast the world and its characters have become.
The gist is that, after the events of Stormblood, the world of Hydaelyn is on the precipice of an apocalyptic war orchestrated by the evil Ascians, immortal beings who want to see the world plunged into chaos as a means to revive their dark god. To help tip the first domino, the Ascians are hoping to cause an apocalypse in an alternate dimension that'll cascade into Hydaelyn itself. My companions and I have to adventure to this alternate dimension, called The First, to save it and in turn save Hydaelyn. It's exactly the sort of plot you'd expect from Brainiac, Dr. Doom, or Thanos, only wrapped up in an anime-inspired high-fantasy aesthetic.
But unlike Hydaelyn, where I'm constantly fighting the forces of darkness, The First has the opposite problem: A century earlier darkness was defeated, giving rise to an abundance of primordial light that has almost wiped out the entire planet and spawned an army of divine monsters called Sin Eaters. To save The First, I have to swap sides and become the Warrior of Darkness, a quest that explores the powers of light and darkness beyond whether they are merely good or evil.
Shadowbringers' success is, in part, owed to the way Square Enix has carefully built the world of Final Fantasy 14 over these past six years. Though previous expansions have always been a direct continuation of the main story, the scope of Shadowbringers is almost dizzying by comparison. Characters, lore, and story beats that have been left to simmer for years suddenly boil over in dramatic narrative twists and turns that make this 50-hour journey an absolute rollercoaster.
When the hero Arbert first appeared all the way back in Heavensward as a minor character, for example, I never could have imagined the pivotal role he would grow to have in Shadowbringers. It's these long and meandering character arcs that make my adventures feel MMO-sized, like if Game of Thrones was a high-fantasy anime.
Despite being an MMO, Shadowbringers does a remarkable job of emulating that golden era of JRPGs through well-written dialogue and evocative cutscenes. If you hate fetch quests in MMOs, Shadowbringers unfortunately has those in spades but I hardly cared because the context of those quests—and the cutscenes that often followed—were so enticing.
The writing and voice acting has been steadily improving since A Realm Reborn, but the bleakness of Shadowbringers casts the drama in a much more mature, and at times disturbing, new light. One early quest led me to a sanitorium full of people who had been infected with the light and, in time, would turn into Sin Eaters. Without a cure, the caretakers' only option was to delay the inevitable and then euthanize them. Elsewhere, the city Eulmore is full of upper-class elite living in excess as they wait for the impending apocalypse while, just outside the walls, the poor, sick, and starving waste away.
Shadowbringers addresses these heavy subjects well in the face of Final Fantasy's extensive melodrama, but my favorite part of the story is how much depth it adds to my cast of longtime companions. Thancred's story is especially gut-wrenching and brings a bittersweet end to one of FF14's longest character arcs.
Even better was Shadowbringers' ploy to have the MMO's grand villain, Emet Selch, tag along for most of the adventure. Few stories ever manage to make me sympathize with a villain while still retaining what makes them detestable, but Emet Selch could be the best Final Fantasy nemesis since FF6's Kekfa. He's batshit crazy but so charismatic and likeable that I wish we didn't have to be enemies.
Black in action
Though its story is the best reason to play, Shadowbringers adds a lot of other neat features. The new Gunbreaker and Dancer are both fun new jobs (FF14 parlance for classes) that each have a distinct playstyle and the new bunny-like Vi and tiger-esque Hrothgar character races are natural additions to the world (though I hate how many bikini-clad Vi I'm seeing everywhere now).
These features are less exciting only because they so closely follow the same template that Square Enix has laid out since Heavensward. Instead of overhauling core game systems with each expansion like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy 14 tends to play it safe. While that makes the addition of new jobs, raids, and other features feel somewhat predictable, I don't mind since everything is consistently good and fun—especially the new dungeons, which are some of my favorite out of any expansion so far.
The story tees up each dungeon and single-boss raid (called Trials) so well, turning each one into a climactic finale for each zone-specific questline. After spending so long in the barren, gritty deserts of Stormblood's areas, the dungeons and zones of Shadowbringers are a visual feast. Il Mheg and its accompanying dungeon of Dohn Mheg are my two favorites.
The former is an entire area stripped straight out of The Dark Crystal, an enchanting land full of playful fairies and a colony of talking dog-birds ruled over by a fairy king who also happens to be a Sin Eater. To supplant her, I had to complete the dungeon of Dohn Mheg, a vibrant underwater dreamland ruled over by a top-hat wearing frog spirit.
It's unlike anything else in Final Fantasy 14, but instead of clashing with the bleak story of Shadowbringers' other areas, it ends up being a welcome reprieve capped off with a grueling battle against the fairy king herself. Shadowbringers continues FF14's legacy for astounding music and flashy spell effects that make each boss fight memorable and thrilling.
If there's one area that Final Fantasy 14 is struggling with, it's in job balance and design, though. Shadowbringers reworked nearly every job, pruning old abilities while also adding some new ones. Most of the damage-dealing jobs are improved by these changes, but as a White Mage it's disappointing to see some of my favorite spells taken away and replaced with a new healing system that doesn't add any complexity to combat. Instead, I'm just waiting for a meter to slowly fill so I can cast the associated spell.
That isn't to say combat in Shadowbringers isn't fun. Shadowbringers' new raid bosses are still the best out of any MMO—demanding excellent team coordination while delivering an explosive spectacle that makes each fight feel tense and exciting.
Since Final Fantasy 14 relaunched six years ago, Square Enix has also kept up a good tempo of major updates every three or four months. Assuming Shadowbringers continues that template I'm excited to see where it goes next. But its main story is already so good that Shadowbringers is worth playing even if you have no intention of committing hundreds of more hours grinding raid bosses for loot drops. Final Fantasy 14 is quietly one of the best games in the series, but Shadowbringers elevates it even further by telling a bleak and heartfelt tale that generously rewards the investment made by its most hardcore fans.