With over 20 million players, Final Fantasy XIV is red hot right now, but with ten years of history, a complete redo, and three major expansions under its shiny helm, it’s also a formidable undertaking to crack into. Where do you start? And if you tried it a while ago and want to come back, how do you catch up? Here’s everything you need to know about starting and returning to Final Fantasy XIV in 2021.
Getting started with, or back into, FFXIV
If this is your first time playing and you’re a little unsure about investing in a monthly subscription, then you’re in luck: There’s an extremely generous free trial. Covering both the base game and the first expansion (Heavensward), it’s basically the equivalent of two massive JRPGs back to back. There are a couple of caveats (you can’t participate in the market system or join guilds, or Free Companies), but this is the best way to start. If you decide you want to continue then buy yourself a copy of Shadowbringers (the latest expansion) as it will include all of the expansions with it.
Returning players will need to re-subscribe and grab a copy of Shadowbringers to gain access to everything, even if you didn’t finish A Realm Reborn or Heavensward. Unfortunately you can’t go back to the free trial if you’ve already owned it at some point. You’d have to start a separate account to access the trial and start afresh.
But there are bonuses for returning if it’s been a while and you’ve forgotten everything: You’ll get access to the novice network and an EXP boost if you buddy up with a mentor. You’ll also get a little flower symbol by your name so other players are aware that you’ve been gone a while and may not be completely up-to-date yet. FFXIV also runs frequent player Callback Campaigns that let you play for free for a set amount of time. If you just want to dip your toe in for a bit, look out for those.
If you’re a newbie or a returning player, just follow the main story quest markers (they look like a flaming meteor) and you’ll be in for an amazing time. You should also look out for blue quest icons that have a little plus next to them—these are quests that unlock new side content such as dungeons and new Jobs.
How to meet other players
In player-run Free Companies you can play alongside other Warriors of Light and chat while you play. It’s pretty easy to find one and you’ll no doubt be invited to one soon enough if you hang out in any main city.
If you don’t find anyone to play with straight away, don’t panic, as there are loads of ways to find groups. FFXIV has an amazing automatic party-matching system for all main content, so all you need to do is queue and a group will be found for you. For more specific or late-game quests you can use the 'Party Finder' tool that lets you input details for what you’re looking for so the whole data center to see. You can also find Link Shells, which are group chats that people from multiple servers and Free Companies can join.
Want to play the game solo like a traditional Final Fantasy game? You can mostly do that, but you will need to be in groups to run story dungeons. That said, since the matchmaking is automatic, you don’t have to socialise with anyone if you don’t want to.
Catching up with the story, wherever you left it
Need a hand figuring out the story so far? FFXIV isn’t like other MMOs in that expansion areas are locked behind story completion, so you’ll have to complete each bit in turn. It’ll be worth it, but may need clear your calendar to prepare for Endwalker, depending on where you left off. There are spoilers ahead, so only read up to the point that’s relevant to you.
I’m about to start for the first time
The first iteration of FFXIV was famously such a disaster that they dropped a moon on the world to restart it. While not much of the previous game exists any more, there are a couple of handy world-building bits from the 'before times' that are worth knowing for context.
That dropped moon? It secretly contained Bahamut—a giant Primal and famous Final Fantasy summon—who laid waste to much of the continent as it was formally known. The citizens of Eorzea are still recovering from that event, and rather splintered. You are stepping into this wounded world as a fresh-faced adventurer.
Admittedly this ageing first chunk of the game can be a bit of a slog—even though it's since been shortened—as it goes about setting up its various story threads, but stick with it. It gets much better. You can use a story skip potion if you want, but you'll miss out on a lot of world building if you do.
I'm about to start Heavensward (the one with dragons)
This is where things really kick off. After defeating the Garlean Empire’s Ultima Weapon and discovering they were also being played by shady Ascians, the Garleans have finally been cast out of Eorzea and the three great nations (Gridania, Ul’Dah, and Limsa Lominsa) decide to band together.
But of course, it’s not that simple: Scared beast tribes started summoning their gods out of fear and manipulation, and a place called Doma in the far east has also risen up against the Garlean threat, but failed. This led to a max exodus of refugees to Eorzea. Amid the chaos you uncovered a triple-agent, were betrayed by one of your closest allies, and framed for an assassination attempt that tore your little band apart. But, hey, at least you discovered how to permanently kill Ascians.
During all this you were also approached by the nation of Ishgard from the North to help them with their Dragon and heretics problem, and making friends in the process. Broken and cast out after your group is pulled apart, you head to Ishgard.
I’m about to start Stormblood (the one with the samurais)
Turns out it was humanity’s betrayal that started the great Dragonsong war and not the Dragons, and that dastardly Pope was keeping it a secret all along in an attempt to gain god-like powers for himself. After a spectacular battle you can finally start peace talks with the Dragons and try to undo past wrongs. You also managed to save your Scion friends along the way… well, almost all of them. Minfillia is sort of one with Hydaelyn now—that giant crystal of light that spoke to you at the very start of the game.
You also discover four strangers calling themselves the Warriors of Darkness who are just as powerful as you are and are defeating Primals before you do. Turns out they’re from another dimension that’s about to be destroyed. They were so desperate to save it they were tricked into coming here. Also, there are actually 14 worlds and the Ascians are trying to destroy each one so they’ll merge together. Minfillia is released from the crystal and sent to their world to help them, but who knows how that turned out.
Meanwhile, a resistance group was rising to take back Ala Mhigo, a neighbouring country still occupied by the Garleans. Their leader, The Griffin, intends to violently provoke a war so Eorzea will be forced to take action. You unmasked him as Ilberd— the same guy who betrayed you in the Crystal Braves, but it’s too late, he’s used the eyes to transform himself into an even more powerful Dragon Primal than Bahamut. Luckily the ancient weapon Omega is lying around so you fire that at it and hope for the best. War with Garlemald is inevitable now. Oh, and it turns out your companion Yda has actually been her sister Lyse the whole time. She took up her mask to continue her legacy.
I’m about to start Shadowbringers (the one with the alternate dimension)
The fight to free Ala Mhigo gets off to a terrible start as you’re almost butchered by the new big bad Zenos. So you headed off to seek aid from Doma, but you had to liberate them first, after some fun adventures. After successfully freeing Doma from Garlean rule and becoming buddies with Lord Hien you return to Ala Mhigo to push onwards and fight Zenos again—though this time he’s also fused with the dragon, Shinryu. Hating that he’s now the weak one he slits his own throat and falls to his apparent death.
With both Doma and Ala Mhigo free of Garlean rule, the Empire is thrown into chaos. And to top it all off, an Ascian wearing Zenos’ skin appears. So does another Ascian called Emet-selch who wears the same face as the founding father of the Garlean Empire. Wait, the creation of the Empire was an Ascian plot to sow maximum chaos all along? They start experimenting with a biological weapon called Black Rose that can kill people instantly.
Helpfully the Scions all start hearing a strange voice and collapsing into comas at inconvenient times. You manage to fight off the Empire and the possessed Zenos long enough for both sides to enter a stalemate. Now you have some time to figure out how to bring your friends back and where this mysterious voice has been coming from...
What's coming in the future?
That’s a lot of FFXIV already, but once you’re finally up to date, you’ll no doubt be eagerly anticipating the next chapter. Luckily the next major expansion, Endwalker, is due this Autumn and will be taking us to face the Garleans directly. It will also be the last chapter in this arc, but don’t panic: The game will be starting a new one after that. Until then we’ve got a few patches to look forward to to prime us before Endwalker arrives that will continue the story and add the final chapter of the Nier tie-in raid series.
Other things you need to know (smaller, but still important, tips)
Re-allocate retired actions
If it’s been a while since you last played, it’s likely that the battle system has changed slightly since you left and some of the actions on your hotbars will be greyed out. A lot of old actions have been cut over the years to prevent bloat, so you might need to allocate them again. To do so go to the character drop down menu and look for 'Actions and Traits—you’ll find all of your actions there. While you’re at it be sure to add the 'Limit Break' action to your hotbar. It’s hidden under the 'General' tab in Actions and Traits.
Playing with a controller is perfectly feasible
If you want to sit back and relax a bit, you can totally fit everything onto a controller by playing with your hotbars. Go to System > Character Configuration > Hotbar settings > Custom and then select 'Enable customization when weapon is sheathed' and 'Enable customisation when weapon is drawn' so you don’t have to faff around with too many hotbars in the middle of a fight.