Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail rises to a mixed reception in its opening weekend, though I don't think the sky's falling just yet

Erenville, a side character in Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail, stands proudly on a ship with the sea breeze in his hair.
(Image credit: Square Enix)

Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail released into Early Access last week, and while its servers have miraculously (bar one brief hiccup) held up, Dawntrail's reception has been decidedly divisive so far.

First off, the expansion has "Mixed" reviews on Steam. I don't think this is an indication of anything, though, since said reviews are only 600 strong, and FF14 has many, many more people playing it. The only real takeaway you can pull from this information is that, well, very few people bother to review FF14 expansions on Valve's platform.

We can see far more controversy in discussion hubs, though. The official forum is a hive of complaints, with some calling its story underwhelming and a "disaster and a waste of potential".

On the game's main subreddit, the best you can really find in favour is that it gets better after a dozen hours or so. The more critical "ffxivdiscussion" subreddit is, well, more critical, and "shitpostXIV" is on top form by being contrarian and mostly positive about the expansion, twelve bless.

Here's some context for all this hullabaloo: The game's previous expansion, Endwalker, saw the wrap-up of a 10-year-old saga, and it more-or-less nailed it. That's a pretty stunning achievement, considering that endings are classically the hardest thing to get right in fiction—but it was critically lauded, including by myself, for being one of the best long-form RPG stories out there.

Dawntrail, in contrast, is literally a new dawn for the old MMO. It has a game-changing graphics update strapped to the side, sure, but it's also a reset on the game's dramatic stakes. We went from saving quite possibly the entire universe to being a chaperone for a cat princess. Even a fresh start needs to, well, start somewhere.

Just to get my Apkallu in a row going forward—this will contain spoilers for Endwalker, and minor-to-moderate spoilers up until level 94 in Dawntrail's main scenario quest.

I, for one, have been having a grand old time. In the interest of fairness, though, I'm going to lay out the two main gripes I've seen in the most even-keel way I can—let's don our twin Viper blades and cut through some noise.

A Realm Reborn, again

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Every single Final Fantasy 14 expansion (save Shadowbringers, which is just built different) starts off very slow. Each major release has a dearth of players who forgot that Heavensward kicks off with futzing around the Sea of Clouds babysitting a flirtatious rich-kid, or that Endwalker saw us helping a fish merchant peddle his wares.

Dawntrail inherits this legacy, but also has the unfortunate task of resetting the overall narrative's stakes. There's a double-up effect going on, here: the Main Scenario Quest (MSQ) suffers from a long legacy of slow-burn worldbuilding, while also having a chronic lack of urgency. So far, this has produced something that's very saturday morning cartoon.

It's not until the second dungeon that Dawntrail's MSQ actually seems to pick up.

This is fine by me and my own personal tastes, but I do sympathise with anyone who isn't as much of a freak for side quests as I am. It's not until the second dungeon that Dawntrail's MSQ actually seems to pick up, which is, for context, over a dozen hours in—until then it's a lot of walking, talking, and riding on your mount of choice to get the job done.

Even as someone who is generally enjoying themselves, I can see where these complaints are coming from. FF14's MSQs have always been cutscene and dialogue-heavy, but you really start to feel it here—unless you're doing side quests like I am, of course, but I don't think optional content should be mandatory just to preserve a game's pacing.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

There have been one or two cutscene confrontations in particular that should have been solo duties—Wuk Lamat's post-Moblin village kidnapping, for example, would have benefitted from a bit of brawling, especially since it's preceded by two back-to-back "stealth" sections. This is genuinely a shame, since the dungeons, solo duties, and raid (singular) I've experienced so far have been bangers. Square's really dedicated itself to upping its game when it comes to its combat encounters, and it shows.

Your Warrior of Light is taking a major backfoot, too. I personally don't mind this, but I can see why it bothers people, and there have been several cutscenes where I've asked myself: "I get that I'm new here, but surely I'm justified in just kicking this guy's butt." I got to do so eventually, but in the shoes of an NPC while my dearest OC literally watched from the sidelines. I was invested enough in said NPC to have a blast, but I can see why it'd be a straw that breaks the chocobo's back for others.

Speaking of watching from the side lines, let's talk about Wuk Lamat.


(Image credit: Square Enix)

Wuk Lamat, depending on who you ask, is either the most precious creature to have tumbled out of Square Enix's collective brain trust, or an annoying whiny anime protagonist we're forced to play second fiddle to. I really like her, myself, but let's talk about why people don't, as the truth of the matter is (as always) more complicated.

Wuk Lamat is intentionally written to be insecure. Adopted by the residing king of Tural at a young age, she clearly has a love for her people, but she's also a city girl with a ton to learn, and when you start helping out in the rite of succession? Boy does it show.

Throughout the early MSQ, Wuk Lamat is generally well-intentioned but out of her depth. There's a running joke about her getting sea-sick (that's a touch overplayed), she has to catch herself up on local traditions, and she has a hard time controlling her emotions. Whether you find this endearing or not is going to be to personal taste, but if you find her grating, tough luck: You're joined to her at the hip. It's the Wuk Lamat show.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that by the time the story informs you that the rite of succession for the throne is meant to train people up—and that the King will stomp on the winner if he deems them a megalomaniac, regardless of if they win or not—players will have already made their mind up about old Wuk.

Even your Warrior of Light's assessment of Wuk Lamat is "she shows promise, but isn't quite there yet" or "she's not ready". The story knows she's unprepared, that's the entire premise, it just doesn't convey it early enough.

The story knows she's unprepared, that's the entire premise, it just doesn't convey it early enough.

I'm already starting to watch Wuk Lamat develop in some really endearing ways, but first impressions do matter—and unfortunately, I think the MSQ leans hard enough into her comic relief early on that those already tired of her will only grow more exhausted. I was still whooping and hollering when she finally grew a spine in a quest late last evening, myself.

There's also her voice actor, who has been drawing some criticism for her performance. I personally think it's been fine. I will concede that there have been some lines where the delivery's been confusing, though I've also noticed this happening with other characters as well. Which is an issue of direction, not acting—on the whole, I think Wuk Lamat's been appropriately charming, joyful, and excitable. The puss fits the boots.

The happy stay quiet

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Now we've been over the bad, here's the good so far.

I've already waxed lyrical about the graphical upgrades, but Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail's zones are such a massive step up from its predecessors it's absurd. The world feels much larger, its vistas are breathtaking, and part of my enjoyment has been simply soaking in its ambiance like a piping hot bath. It's not just a touch-up—Dawntrail's concept and environmental artists have popped off with their new toys.

The game's encounter design has been massively improved as well. For years, Creative Business Unit 3 has been using the same telegraphs over and over, and now it's actually playing with them. Dawntrail's slow, ponderous story isn't enough to showcase this right away, but I think we'll all start reaping the benefits when we hit endgame.

I will also say that my boots-on-the-ground experience hasn't been nearly as terrible as the discourse would have you believe. What I see are most people having a jolly old time—running around, doing quests, and laughing at the funny orange cat girl. Most people, when they're enjoying a game, aren't going to take to the forums to complain. Even Endwalker had its detractors early-on.

Most people, when they're enjoying a game, aren't going to take to the forums to complain.

Moreover, though, I think Dawntrail has produced a very strange phenomenon: Its MSQ is a drink best sipped, not chugged. Its slower pace benefits a more holistic approach to the expansion's content: Taking routine pit-stops to do side quests, fates, or level crafters vastly improves the entire feeling of the journey.

This means that anyone far enough in to have opinions right now is, coincidentally, the least likely to enjoy what Dawntrail's aiming for. They've spent 48 hours digging for a thrilling plot in the story mines, and their arms are sore. I don't think they're wrong to engage with the game's story in that sort of way, and I think the MSQ should be well-paced enough to stop that from happening, but Dawntrail was never going to reward that kind of industriousness like Endwalker did.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

My full opinions are still in the oven at this point, but I'm already more invested as I sink my teeth into the game's third zone. I speak for no-one but myself, but I think Wuk Lamat is delightful, and the world is gorgeous enough for me to enjoy taking some time to just smell the roses. I don't think it's a flawless execution on its premise by any means, but its low points aren't low enough to subtract much from the high.

In a way, Dawntrail mirrors the "worst" expansion, Stormblood. We're taking a back-seat to the problems and politics of other cultures, we're exploring a new and foreign landscape, and there's a central protagonist who is well-meaning but a little bone-headed—one who is in a love-or-hate relationship with the fanbase writ large.

But it's also mirroring the good of Stormblood, as well—with great visuals, textured worldbuilding, and some excellent battle content. I think people are going to grow fond of it when the expansion gold-rush fades, but who knows. Maybe Wuk Lamat'll do something unforgivable in my next six levels, but for now I'm excited to see her through her journey to the throne—even if I sometimes feel like a sidekick rather than the hero.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.