I can't believe I had to go back to regular crusty Final Fantasy 14 after witnessing Dawntrail's stunning graphical overhaul first-hand

Screenshots taken of a preview build during the Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail media tour.
(Image credit: Square Enix)

As I sat in a (mercifully) conditioned room within Potsdam's Biosphäre rainforest, checking out a snippet of Final Fantasy 14's upcoming expansion Dawntrail, I experienced a weird dichotomy between intense familiarity and a palpable excitement for a brand-new start. It may be the game's fifth(!) expansion, but it's sort of a second volume. A part two if you will, or I suppose part three if you count pre-A Realm Reborn.

The major narrative arc that has defined the last 10 years of Final Fantasy 14 is done and dusted, which means an entirely new adventure for our Warriors of Light. We've still got some of the same old faces along for the ride, but we're finally departing Eorzea and heading west to the new continent, Tural. Though I wasn't able to play any of the story parts of Dawntrail—multiple NPCs had been hidden from me to avoid anything spoilery getting out there—I was able to check out the expansion's first dungeon, explore city hub Tulliyolal and its adjacent areas, give new classes Viper and Pictomancer a try, and bask in what is a surprisingly stellar graphical update.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

I say surprisingly because when it was revealed, the system requirements barely budged. They went up, sure, but not enough in a way that I thought would lead to any meaningful optimisations. We've already seen glimpses of it across various livestreams, but being smack-bang in the middle of the plush jungle zone Kozama'uka really allowed the changes to shine. Flowers and grass appeared more crisp, less like a mushy block of green. The changes to lighting worked wonders too, as it's now more reactive to the world and the character models, rather than inherently baked in, which could make for some awkward shadows on players and the environment pre 7.0.

It's worth noting that the build I played hadn't implemented the changes to character models and lighting that were bundled in with the new benchmark earlier this week, but I was able to take a look at how some of the new job gear looked and I was pleasantly surprised. The translucent sleeves on Dancer's dress had me way too excited to throw the outfit on my bunny girl ASAP, while the velvety appearance of Astrologian's robe was giving off the ethereal, witchy vibes I've come to expect from the tarot-wielding healer. 

It didn't really hit me how much better things looked until I landed home and jumped straight on the game with all its original lighting, textures and shaders. It's the small subtle tweaks across the board that have really elevated the game's visual appearance, and I'm looking forward to seeing how those changes ripple out across older pre-Dawntrail areas, too.

Jungle cruise

After spending entirely too long going googly-eyed over bushes and sunsets, I thought I may as well appreciate the new graphics in Dawntrail's first dungeon, Ihuykatumu. It's pretty standard fare in terms of Final Fantasy 14 dungeons: It takes a leaf out of Lapis Manalis' book and starts me off on a boat barreling down a river as trash mobs come leaping over. Once those are cleared, the actual dungeon can start.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Much like Kozama'uka, the jungle vibes are strong here as I navigate through foliage, caves and climb up ladders to dash from boss to boss. There are some neat new mob types here, like mimic slimes that take on the form of me and my party members. Feels kinda mean having to kill a slimey version of me, but hey ho. 

The bosses are great to fight, though there aren't really any new mechanics being utilised throughout this dungeon. Some lesser-used telegraphing does make an appearance though, such as the star-shaped AOE that's previously made an appearance in the Titania trial and one of the Nier raids. Dungeons have slowly been layering on more and more mechanics to keep track of during these boss fights, and I found Ihuykatumu to be the perfect level of chaos to ease me into the expansion. I do hope that we get to see some new mechanics in later dungeons though, lest things get a little same-y.

I was tackling the dungeon as Pictomancer, the class I've been the most interested in out of the two newcomers. It's an artsy-fartsy casting class, where I smack enemies with colours of the rainbow before being able to paint one of three canvases. I can whip up a painting of a moogle, opt for a weapon and render a hammer instead, or even slap together a starry landscape with the press of a button (or whip of a paintbrush). 

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Once I've painted my masterpieces, I can turn them into unique abilities. The hammer painting, for example, grants me a giant toy mallet, giving me three instant-cast attacks accompanied by some incredibly dramatic animations. Painting a landscape gives myself and the party a small buff, while I can slowly paint different creatures to get increasingly powerful attacks.

It took a little time to get to grips with juggling different gauges and remembering to actually paint my damn images (listen, I main Dancer and White Mage, I don't know what a rotation is), but I was having a fantastic time with it. Seeing bursts of colour with each ability, waving a giant paintbrush around, and flinging splotches of paint makes Pictomancer a bombastic class visually. It's not too overwhelming button-wise either, as part of the rotation has been crammed onto a single action slot. 

I also spent a little time with Viper, though as someone who traditionally steers away from melee classes, I was considerably more lost with it. It shares Pictomancer's penchant for some slick and stylish animations though, as I hit abilities to switch from a dual-blade stance to a single spear-like weapon that can unleash some big-ass damage. Honestly, I'm just happy to see my boy Zidane represented weapon-wise, and I may actually have to try and get good at a melee class this expansion.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

For returning classes, director and producer Naoki Yoshida noted to us that there had been some significant adjustments to the following jobs: Dragoon, Monk, Ninja, Black Mage and Astrologian. Regrettably I am woefully useless with all of these, but it is interesting to note that all of the pre-Stormblood melee classes have received some sort of significant change. We were already expecting Dragoon and Astrologian overhauls too—these were, uh, actually supposed to be implemented two years ago—but I was surprised to see an extra three jobs on the list.

Time to dye

It's not just jobs and graphics that are being changed in Dawntrail. One of the more minor changes landing in the expansion is an increase in the number of dye channels on armour. After 10 years of only having one dyeable part of an outfit, Dawntrail will introduce two dye channels. I was only able to experiment with dying the different job gear, but I came out of it feeling a little disappointed. The dye system still suffers from picking out bizarre outfit details to be colour changed—it picks from materials rather than colours, which means my desire to dye the ombre cloth on my Dancer dress was dashed, only being able to dye one colour of it and then dye the metal accents instead. Granted, it's nice to have the option, but it still doesn't work quite in the way I would like it to.

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Ultimately, that is a minor snag in what ended up being a really enjoyable few hours with the expansion. I even found a little bit of time to dive into an elite mark hunt with my fellow journalists and content creators, which turned out to be the toughest enemy I tackled all day. It bombarded us with mechanic after mechanic, throwing out a point-blank AOE before immediately hypnotising anyone stood in front of it, causing them to do a merry little jig before being cleaved to death. I'm embarrassed to admit how many times I died while we tackled it, but gathering as a group to fell a powerful enemy made me all kinds of giddy for the inevitable 100-person hunt trains that'll be all over Tural during Dawntrail's launch.

The expansion may be a new adventure, but Dawntrail still feels distinctly Final Fantasy 14. Maybe it's because I've taken a bit of an extended break over the last few Endwalker patches, but I really enjoyed being back in familiar territory. With the new expansion promising better rewards and a deeper focus on the MMO and multiplayer aspects, I can't wait to see what Square Enix pulls out of the bag later this month.

Note: This preview is based on my time with an in-development build of Final Fantasy 14: Dawntrail. Content in the final version is subject to change.

Mollie Taylor
Features Producer

Mollie spent her early childhood deeply invested in games like Killer Instinct, Toontown and Audition Online, which continue to form the pillars of her personality today. She joined PC Gamer in 2020 as a news writer and now lends her expertise to write a wealth of features, guides and reviews with a dash of chaos. She can often be found causing mischief in Final Fantasy 14, using those experiences to write neat things about her favourite MMO. When she's not staring at her bunny girl she can be found sweating out rhythm games, pretending to be good at fighting games or spending far too much money at her local arcade.