What is it? An Eastern-themed expansion to the already awesome Final Fantasy 14.
Reviewed On: Windows 10, i5 3570k, 16GB Ram, GTX 970
Release Date: Out now
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Multiplayer: Massively multiplayer
Link: Official website
The first time I set foot on the Azim Steppe, a sprawling grassland home to the Mongol-like Xaela, I felt a sense of adventure that I haven’t encountered in an MMO in a long time. I had come to this rural pocket of Othard, the new far-eastern continent in Final Fantasy 14: Stormblood, to find an exiled prince and convince him to take up arms against the Garlean empire. It’s a story as old as time, but Stormblood breathes new life into this familiar tale with endearing characters who I cared deeply about during my time with them. Stormblood isn’t just an expansion, it’s a Final Fantasy game in its own right—and it tells a better story than half of them.
Picking up directly where Final Fantasy 14: Heavensward’s last update left off, Stormblood is a story of oppression and rebellion. At the center of this tale is Lyse, an exiled Ala Mhigan who becomes the driving force in the movement to liberate her people from the tyrannical Garlean empire.
Lyse is one of the most endearing characters in all of Final Fantasy. Not only is she vibrant and charismatic, she’s also devoid of the melodrama that drapes most Final Fantasy leads like a wet blanket. Even in her lowest moments, Lyse finds the strength to stand on her own and I’ve come to adore her the same way many people adore Cloud, Tidus, or any other Final Fantasy leads.
In fact, few of Stormblood’s characters are the dour emo kids that the series is known for and the story is much better for it. The struggle to liberate Gyr Abania and Doma from the Garlean empire is laced with optimism embodied by courageous and confident characters such as Lord Hien, who never once falters in his conviction to liberate his homeland. When tragedy inevitably strikes, it feels poignant and painful because it strikes a hard contrast from the upbeat tone of the story. Despite being an MMO, Stormblood packs a thematic punch that rivals my favorite RPGs. The siege of Doma castle, for example, ends in a tragedy that, to me, felt just as gut-wrenching as Aeris' death in Final Fantasy 7.
My only major gripe is that Stormblood’s story is chopped up and sprinkled over the typical grind of an MMO. Compared to the main story quests, which are bursting with drama and exposition, the side quests are largely forgettable vignettes of inconsequential characters. What’s worse, they highlight just how limited Final Fantasy 14’s quest design really is.
Just about every quest involves going to a place, clicking an object, and then returning to the quest giver. The main story quests mask this problem with expert storytelling and boss fights, but side quests offer very little beyond the experience points they reward. By the time I was halfway to the new level cap of 70, I was fed up with them. Fortunately, Stormblood has diversified the ways you can level up. Running dungeons with a group or competing in PvP is so much more fun and I regret I didn’t abandon side quests sooner.
Aside from advancing the story, main quests also tour you through the new areas, and Stormblood continues Final Fantasy 14’s legacy of being the most visually stunning MMO I’ve ever played. Stepping foot in Kugane, a Japanese-style merchant city and main hub for Stormblood, I was blown away by the beautiful ornate castle and bustling cobblestone streets.
Every dungeon, every monster, every boss, and every location feels as exquisitely crafted and unique as Kugane. And Final Fantasy 14’s soundtrack, which, with the addition of new songs added in Stormblood, is one of the most eclectic and memorable videogame soundtracks I’ve ever heard.
There’s very little that I don’t love about Othard and its sweeping grasslands or pristine beaches—except the new underwater zones. Since there’s no underwater combat, there’s nothing meaningful to do on the seafloor other than some resource gathering and a few quests. Considering what a big deal Square Enix made swimming and diving out to be, the result is disappointing and entirely forgettable unless you and your friends want to roleplay a day at the beach together.
Taking up arms
I can’t imagine wanting to spend any time sitting on a beach because I’d rather be tackling Stormblood’s new group content—which is among the best I’ve played in any MMO. The new set of dungeons are all fantastic, but the primal boss fights are easily my favorite part of Stormblood.
Stormblood’s boss fights feel like they were inspired by Platinum Games. Though the combat is still the familiar MMO-style combat, these battles are a spectacle of explosive visuals, stirring music, and singular moments that are bat-shit crazy. One fight mirrors the first boss battle in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance when the primal god Susano, who towers over the party, tries to crush them with his gargantuan sword and the tank has to step forward to block the strike with a quick-time event.
The final boss is one of the most satisfying RPG boss fights I’ve ever played. I involuntarily yelled “what the fuck?” because the fight takes such a dramatic and absurd turn after a few minutes. I love that Stormblood’s primal battles each have these surprising moments that force you to step back from the fight and remember that you’re trying to kill something unimaginably powerful.
Outside of these encounters, Stormblood’s combat is much improved thanks to a sweeping overhaul to combat’s underlying rules and new ‘job gauges,’ a user interface element that feeds you visual information related to your job’s playstyle, making each one feel more distinctive and unique than before.
These gauges are best used by Stormblood’s new jobs, the Red Mage and Samurai. The Red Mage’s job gauge, for example, displays black and white mana bars that each increase according to what spells you cast. The goal is to keep the two bars balanced which causes the gem above them to glow red. Red Mages’ most devastating abilities use black and white mana in equal measure, so keeping them balanced is absolutely necessary. The Samurai, on the other hand, has three flowery emblems that ignite after completing certain ability combos. When all three are alight, the Samurai can unleash ‘Midare Setsugekka,’ a devastating sword-strike.
Even without their cool job gauges, the Red Mage and Samurai are a joy to play because of their unique role as both a melee and ranged damage-dealer. Knowing when to stand back or when to dive in for a stab, all while balancing white and black mana, is a ton of fun.
While Red Mages and Samurai are new, every other job has been overhauled to the point where, logging in for the first time, I had to reacquaint myself with their abilities. For one, you no longer have to level other jobs just to unlock abilities needed for your main one. Likewise, PvP abilities have been greatly simplified and now have their own hotbar. Along with the fact that PvP is now completely balanced around skill rather than equipment level and offers experience points, it’s one of my favorite activities in Stormblood.
The longest story
Sadly, typical to any MMO expansion launch, not all of these adjustments are favorable. As a White Mage, some of my most useful abilities have been shared with the other healing classes and the new ones I received in exchange aren’t very exciting. Players who main Scholar are likewise in despair about changes to their class. It’s enough of a letdown that I’ve resolved to retire my healing staff and pick up a new job for the rest of Stormblood.
My only other caveat is that, because Final Fantasy 14 is so story-oriented, if you want to play Stormblood as a new player you’re going to need to play through what is probably around 50-plus hours of story. You could skip it by way of the new boost potions Square Enix is offering, but it’ll cost you $50 for the necessary boost to jump into Stormblood straight away and you’ll miss all the necessary backstory that makes characters like Lyse so endearing. That said, Final Fantasy 14 has been an epic journey so far and one that I’d recommend as long as you’re prepared to spend several dozen hours playing catchup.
Despite that major caveat, it’s hard for me to feel bitter about Stormblood’s weaknesses in light of where it succeeds. If you don’t like Final Fantasy 14 for any reason, I’m not sure Stormblood is going to make you change your mind. But as someone who is heavily invested in its world and characters, it is a triumph.