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Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers: The Kotaku Review

Shadowbringers, the latest expansion to Final Fantasy XIV, released two months ago, and I cannot begin to fathom the amount of time I have spent in the worlds of Eorzea and Norvrandt. Shadowbringers is one of Final Fantasy’s finest stories, buoyed by powerful music and sweeping gameplay changes that make job classes sleek and enjoyable. If you’re gonna expand a massive role-playing game, this is how you do it.

Final Fantasy XIV is a slow burn, having had one of the strangest redemption arcs in recent memory. Initially released in 2010, it was met with disastrous response as clumsy and slow systems failed to grab player attention. It was a ponderous beast in the vein of its predecessor Final Fantasy XI, which released eight years prior into a very different ecosystem. After World of Warcraft’s release in 2004, the pace of online role-playing games moved to something faster. Final Fantasy XIV couldn’t keep up and so, under the direction of former Dragon Quest team member Naoki Yoshida, Final Fantasy XIV was rebranded into Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Even that took time to find itself, slowly establishing an identity through its first two expansions, Heavensward and Stormblood. With the release of Shadowbringers, that growth is arguably complete. This is one of the most well-made, confident, and enjoyable Final Fantasy experiences that can be had today.

Shadowbringers takes players away from the world they’ve previously known, Eorzea. The player character is pulled into a parallel world called Norvrandt. Also called the First, Norvrandt is one of the many “reflections” of Eorzea. It takes familiar features and remixes them into a more mystical and fantastic form. Ravaged by a cataclysmic “Flood of Light” nearly a century ago, it is a world of perpetual day where creatures called Sin Eaters wander the land to feast upon the populace. The player is drawn to this world by a mysterious ally in order to slay the Sin Eaters and, in solving the plight of Norvrandt, prevent a cosmological catastrophe that threatens the multiverse. Doing so sends them on a quest to reassemble their scattered allies and face powerful beings called Lightwardens. All the while, a scheming villain accompanies them, providing insight into a grand and tragic history, the revelation of which shatters all previous beliefs about how the world of Final Fantasy XIV worked.

Thanks to the supervision and writing of scenario lead Natsuko Ishikawa, Shadowbringers is one of the most enthralling Final Fantasy stories written. Within its sweeping framework, Shadowbringers manages to tackle themes of parenthood, death, apocalypse, and more. Shadowbringers is a concept of a world after the end. Scattered pockets of civilization fight to restore life to normal. Meanwhile, the decadent city of Eulmore employs a caste system that rigidly holds on to wealth and plutocracy. It is a nation of hoarders locked behind guarded walls, led by a petulant child of a man. And while Shadowbringers stumbles with Eulmore, veering into unflattering commentaries about fat bodies as an all-too-reductive shorthand for greed, its baseline social critique remains evocative. Even after the end, the wealthy will seek to continue their comfort. Or consider the late-game revelation of a time before known history where a utopian republic of mages once ruled, crafting marvels with a powerful creation magic until the day that a strange natural force warped their creative impulses into an uncontrollable deluge of beasts and fire. In these moments, Shadowbringers’ story rises to capture very real and powerful sentiments.

From time to time, Shadowbringers’ story loses track of itself. For example, wading through the dull relationships of a mining town or spending multiple hours constructing a massive golem were painful. This padding is the narrative’s one significant flaw. The story takes place over the course of the 70-80 level range and offers a variety of dungeons and boss fights. These high-quality challenges help offset the moments where the narrative comes to a screeching halt, making it far easier to push through to the game’s spectacular finale. In those final moments, I watched strangers pause in the middle of awe-inspiring dungeons and felt my heart race as we faced the final boss before anyone knew what the fight mechanics were.

The expansion brings new systems and job classes that enrich the experience. Chief among these is the Trust System, which allows players to enter story dungeons alongside computer-controlled companions instead of other players. Your companions have unique dialogue and behaviors that bring charm to encounters, and their availability throughout the main campaign means that even solo players are able to engage with content more easily. The system falls apart in the post-game, resetting your companions’ levels and forcing you to grind out dungeons in order to power them up, but for the duration of the main story, it does exactly what it sets out to do.

The Trust System comes alongside sweeping changes to job classes that removed skills and reworked how many classes function for simplicity’s sake. The overly complex Summoner class, whose attack “rotation” took minutes to summon their most powerful minions, can bring out the big guns faster and now summon a powerful Phoenix to light foes ablaze. The White Mage, whose unique “lilly gauge” previously did little more than allow them to cast spells faster, can now be used for powerful healing and attack spells. As a result, many classes are more enjoyable to play and easier for new players to learn.

It’s not all good news, though. In removing complexity, there’s been some loss of job identity. In particular, tank classes—defensive roles focused on absorbing damage from enemies—lack some of what made each unique. The Astrologian class, whose magical cards once gave a variety of effects, now use them exclusively to increase their team’s attack power. Shadowbringers’ changes have made things easier to understand and play, but not without some sacrifices.

Breathing additional life into the play experience are the expansion’s two exclusive job classes: the Dancer and the Gunbreaker. Dancers are damage dealers who can also buff their allies with a variety of defense- and attack-boosting spells. It is a complicated class whose nuances take some time to master. Attacks trigger random “procs” that allow Dancers to execute attack combos. These combos, in turn, have a chance to grant a resource that can be spent on additional attacks. All the while, it is possible to dance and trigger a sort of rhythm game where hitting the right buttons increases the potency of your buffs. The Dancer brings a welcome complexity to Final Fantasy XIV, even if it sometimes feels at odds with Shadowbringers’ beginner-friendly mindset. It is dynamic, asking players to pay close attention, but its randomness holds it back from time to time.

Gunbreakers are a tank class. Wielding iconic gunblades, they have a furious playstyle that revolves around lengthy combo sequences. At lower levels, Gunbreakers feel woefully inadequate. They do not have the powerful healing spells of their Paladin peers or the exciting defensive mechanics of gritty Dark Knight comrades in arms. As they level, gaining access to more attacks, the class start to find itself. Playing as a Gunbreaker is a fun and aggressive process later on, but the aggression comes at a cost. This class cannot hold ground for too long, relying on healers. In spite of this, Gunbreaker is consistently exciting to play. Like Dancer, its flaws add more charm than difficulty.

Shadowbringers’ endgame content is limited at the moment, but what exists ranks among some of the most interesting encounters you can have. The expansion introduces the Eden raid tier. With four fights currently available, a team of eight players can face off against tough enemies for the highest-quality loot. The monsters are designed by Final Fantasy veteran Tetsuya Nomura, taking inspiration from Final Fantasy VIII’s various summons while also offering hardcore remixes of old Final Fantasy XIV bosses. The Eden raid fights have a playful sense of difficulty, enough to challenge skilled players and dazzle with spellbinding attacks. In addition to these raids, the dubiously named “savage” variants of story bosses bring never-before-seen mechanics and culminate in a terrific challenge that only the most organized groups will pass. Their luster has worn as the weeks have passed, but Eden started strong and will continue to grow with new fights. A larger, 24-player series of raids influenced by Nier: Automata and created in cooperation with director Yoko Taro will be arriving within the next month.

Under all of this—the story, the revamped gameplay, the difficult endgame challenges—is Shadowbringers’ secret weapon: its music. Composer Masayoshi Soken’s pieces have always run the gamut from traditional fantasy marches to intense industrial rock. Grand battles against ice gods started with powerful piano laments before breaking into pop rock. Muted battle marches exploded into operatic triumph. Shadowbringers continues this tradition but ups the ante considerably. Soken’s score is a lightning strike, bold and beautiful throughout. Releasing yesterday on iTunes, the soundtrack surpassed artists like Lana Del Rey on the popularity charts. There’s good reason for this; Soken has come into his own to stand proudly besides series composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu. Shadowbringers’ highest highs and dramatic lows would not be the same without Soken’s powerful scores.

Shadowbringers is a fantastic experience by any metric. That it triumphs within the complicated frame of an online RPG feels almost miraculous. I spent weeks of my life immersed in Eorzea before Shadowbringers and gladly continued after its launch. I have made fantastic friends and formed connections with some of the most important people I’ve known. I’ve embarked on countless adventures, learned the intricacies of numerous jobs. I found a community, a world of vibrancy that brought renewed color to my life. Shadowbringers’ story is triumphant, the artistry inspiring. There are rough patches—pacing woes and overzealous changes to beloved jobs—but Shadowbringers rises above those stumblings. It cements Final Fantasy XIV’s place within the series alongside cherished titles like Final Fantasy VII, and it marks the absolute redemption of an initially troubled game.

Source: Kotaku.com

Preparing For Final Fantasy XIV’s Upcoming Expansion Has Killed Me

Final Fantasy XIV’s next expansion, Shadowbringers, is available for early access next Friday. In the short time left from now to then, I’ve been furiously sprinting to level characters and blaze through story content so that I can have everything perfectly in place for the launch. It’s a process that’s pushed me to my limits, as I grind jobs and characters into tip-top condition.

For some players, getting ready for an expansion is easy. If they only have one character, for example, they can just play through the story until they’re at the end. From there, they level gear or jobs however they want and hop into the new content when it launches. My situation is a little different. I play on a server known for roleplaying, which means that there’s just as much in-character improvisational acting as high-end boss battles. Instead of having one character with which I do everything, I have a stable of characters to use for storytelling purposes, all of whom have their own jobs and gear.

Alts aren’t uncommon in online games, but Final Fantasy XIV makes it easy to stick to one character if you want. Except I don’t want that. I want a kind conjurer to help heal folks, I want a snooty Dragoon to bump into folks on the street, I need villains for multi-event storylines. But this also means that getting ready for an expansion is tricky. The last week or so has been a mad, tiring rush to level classes. I think it might be killing me.

The biggest tasks have been completing the story quest for so many characters and getting their main jobs to the maximum level. Some of this process has been interesting, since it’s pushed me into job roles that I’d largely ignored until now. Leveling Dark Knight was fun; going from healing to tanking was an anxious but exciting experience. But leveling Dragoon, which involved powering up my second Samurai? That’s more like work. It means sitting the hell down and playing dungeon after dungeon. It means running through quests I’ve seen multiple times over, unlocking locations I’ve already been to on other characters, and praying that I get good loot along the way. (Unlike many people on my server, I’m not some type of bajillionaire who can just buy gear.)

Leveling can be a tiresome process, particularly since the wait times for dungeons are long for damage dealing classes. If you’re playing a tank or healer? That’ll actually go well, because you’re never going to be waiting more than five minutes, except if you’re picky about the content you’re playing. But if you’re playing as a DPS character? Grab a book or do something else while you wait. There’s a solution for this, a piece of content where you queue up in an instant. But this particular piece of content also involves one of the most mind-numbing ways to level up: Palace of the Dead and Heaven on High. These are two semi-random dungeons with multiple floors that run with whatever teammates are available. Completing floors is relatively quick at 10-20 minutes per run and the payoff of experience points is good. It’s also repetitive, simple, and exhausting.

In leveling my final classes, I’ve run through a truly unknowable number of Heaven of High floors. I queue up, hop in, fight the same monsters and the same boss, hop out, reset, and do it again. In the last 48 hours alone, I venture that I’ve done at least 80 runs. At first, it was a great escape from all the hectic online chatter after E3. Now? My body is sore and I think I’m dying. Like, I mean that. I think I’m getting sick. I woke up with a terrible headache and completely sapped energy, and while I’m sure most of that is just germs from subway poles and my own bad luck, I also might have pushed myself to the breaking point. I started leveling my second Samurai from level 50 on Saturday. I reached just shy of the max level of 70 last night, stopping only as I felt sickness start to ravage my senses.

My only break from this process was the hard work of covering E3, and a quick turnaround of a review for the fabulous Cadence of Hyrule. For better or worse, most of my characters are ready for Shadowbringers, with multiple jobs finished and most within spitting distance of finishing the story. I still need to finish up a few things, but I’ve basically done it. (I still need to finish up a long roleplaying plot in the next few days.) Yet, as I sit in bed today, head throbbing and hearing various Final Fantasy musical cues dance through the back of my mind, I ask: was my suffering worth it? I have no idea, but I guess we’ll find out once Shadowbringers launches.

Source: Kotaku.com

‘We Took A Bold Step This Time’: Final Fantasy XIV Director Addresses The Game’s Sweeping New Changes

Last week, I spent over six hours picking apart Final Fantasy XIV’s new expansion “Shadowbringers” in a lavishly adorned theater space. I played a new dungeon, sampled the new job classes, and examined all the little changes coming to the game. I also had the chance to sit down with producer Naoki Yoshida for a one-on-one interview.

Tired after a media tour stop in London, nursing a cold, and worn out by another day of questions, Yoshida had snuck off for an extended cigarette break. He returned, smelling slightly of smoke, and sunk into the couch in front of me. We had a frank discussion about game design, player expectations, and gender expression in multiplayer games.

Heather Alexandra, Kotaku: Before I start, I want to let you know that I met my girlfriend playing this game, so I wanted to say thank you.

Naoki Yoshida: Congrats! That’s awesome! It’s always nice to hear stories like that. There are people who come up to me and mention how they met in Final Fantasy XIV and they’ve all gotten married and had children. There’s one family that comes to a lot of our events. They have three children, so they’re a bit more than a “light party” at this point. It’s really nice.

Breaking down the new classes:

Alexandra: When I talk to developers who have distinct characters or classes in their games, I like to ask them to describe them in one word. “Shadowbringers” has two new classes, the Dancer and Gunbreaker. What is the one word you’d use to describe each?

Yoshida: For Gunbreaker: trigger-action. The gunblade in the Final Fantasy series is interesting. When you strike with a gunblade, you pull the trigger to enhance your attack. It’s this really unique idea for a weapon. We wanted to recreate that feeling of pulling the trigger and that feeling of impact in Final Fantasy XIV. That was the concept we had for the design from the start.

For Dancer: steps. When you hear the word dancer or dance, I’m sure people have different interpretations of what it entails. They might imagine different dances from around the world. With our dancer, it’s about having dance steps. The player isn’t literally dancing to a beat, but we wanted to recreate the feeling of sensing a tempo and having a certain pace.

On simplifying classes in “Shadowbringers”:

Alexandra: A lot of classes have had the number of steps required to perform key actions reduced. For instance, the standard Summoner attack rotation—which formerly took minutes to perform—has been simplified. How do you find the balance between making something approachable but deep. Do you worry about hardcore players who might feel classes are being simplified?

Yoshida: In terms of simplifying things, that’s very subjective. The majority of team members working on Final Fantasy XIV are also players, so sometimes it boils down to if we think something feels fun to play. The dichotomy of simplicity and complexity…Those things aren’t always what makes a job fun or not. In order for someone to enjoy a system and find it interesting, they need to have an understanding of how those actions work.

With Final Fantasy XIV, which has a pretty long history now, job mechanics have been complex and tangled into each other. We wanted to make sure that we were untangling that. We were looking at it, and it was hard to identify if particular jobs were even fun or interesting to pay, because it had become so complex…If we were to keep everything tangled while also adding more to the jobs, it would accelerate the issue and make it really hard to see what makes each job unique and interesting.

We took a bold step this time. We mustered up a lot of courage and decided to revisit and really clean things up…It’s a matter of asking, “Is this comfortable? Is this still fun for us to play?”

On deciding what new skills to give classes:

Alexandra: As the level cap increases in “Shadowbringers,” there’s potential to add variety to job abilities. Obviously, you want jobs to have distinct identities, but sometimes there are cases where certain jobs are more desired. When you were adjusting jobs like Samurai, were you ever tempted to round out job utility or expand them beyond the roles the community already know?

Yoshida: To be honest, no. We always want to make sure the gameplay for each job is different. With that Samurai example, they have their iaijutsu skills, and those require casting some skills before executing them. That’s unique to them. For Ninja, they have their ninjutsu. It’s important to have different actions for each job. They should feel distinct.

And, really, we find that what players want is for their class to be the best class. They want to contribute to the party, they want to do the most DPS. They want everything! But if we take that feedback and literally apply it, we’d end up with jobs that look really similar. We don’t want that. We want a variety of experiences while still having a balance.

It wouldn’t be good for the game to give too many things to all classes. It drives home the point about wanting gameplay experiences to be unique.

The one thing Yoshida wants players to know:

Alexandra: It’s been a long day. You’re traveled far, you’re under the weather, and you’re answering tons of questions. Probably answered the same questions over and over.

Yoshida: Mhmm.

Alexandra: What’s something you haven’t been asked about but want to tell players?

Yoshida: We’ve covered so much through all these interviews. One thing I hear as a worry in the community is the question: “Is Yoshida going to be moving away Final Fantasy XIV?” but that’s not going to happen. I want to reassure people of that.

I do want to have some personal time to go snowboarding more…

I want players to play “Shadowbringers” as soon as possible. I wonder, sometimes, if providing information can take away from some of the fun that’s to be had. I really can’t wait for players to get their hands on “Shadowbringers” and enjoy it for themselves.

Addressing demand for player houses heading into “Shadowbringers”:

Alexandra: Players gave me a lot of questions to ask you, but the thing I heard the most was that they want to know if there will be a new housing area and if the team was looking into new ways to purchase homes.

On my own server, I know groups that organize to help players get houses, but they often lose out to players who might be using bots or other tactics. How is the team approaching this situation heading into the expansion?

Yoshida: World Visits should provide more access to different areas, and we still see that there’s many plots of land available if you look at the data centers as a whole.

We do start to see a bias of less land available if we look at certain servers. For instance, if players are demanding more housing on Balmung, it’s going to be more challenging to fulfill the demand for that server. But if we were to simply increase the number of plots available in the game, servers without as many players will have areas that are very sparse.

For bots, we’ve been making changes to prevent plots of land being purchased by bots, so in many cases it’s probably players stalking and being very meticulous. That being said, the situation isn’t permanent. We want to respond to the concerns and we understand the demand for housing is there. Once we’re able to expand, we’ll make sure to let players know.

On glamours, gender restrictions, and social issues:

Alexandra: The other issue players pushed me to ask about is glamours and expression. Two questions, since we’re almost out of time.

First: Would you ever considered removing job restrictions from glamours like the lock-style system in Final Fantasy XI? Beyond that, are there plans to lessen or remove the amount of gender restrictions on clothing? Things that are not exclusively male or female? I know there’s gameplay reasons for restrictions, but are there chances for expression with less restriction?

Yoshida: It might be a quick question but the answers are definitely not short!

First, to answer about removing the job restrictions, unfortunately, we don’t intend to remove them. The reason is simple. For players who have played other Final Fantasy titles, they’ll easily recognize these gear designs as a way to identify a particular job…You wouldn’t want to see someone carrying an axe casting black magic. You’d wonder: What the hell kind of game is this?

To touch on the second part of your question about gender restrictions, first and foremost, I think there should be freedom in your values when it comes to the different genders. We don’t want to restrict attire and clothing that you wear based on characters’ gender or sex.

There’s two issues for accommodating that freedom. The first is a cost issue. Say you had a dress and it’s originally restricted to female-only and we were considering making it so male characters could wear it. We need to go in and make sure we’re adjusting the design on a male character model and make sure it makes sense on that form. The opposite applies for male only outfits, for instance Hien’s attire. we’d need to make adjustments for the female silhouette…We’d need to adjust for lalafells…If we’re making adjustments to one or two items, that’s easy. But we need to consider just how many items there are, and addressing all of them is not a quick task.

In terms of values and our players, it’s a time when there’s a lot of changes in perspectives, but we can’t ignore the people who refuse to make changes in their values. There may be players who do not want to see male players wear attire that’s traditionally worn on females…We do want to respect freedom of self expression and that people want to dress the same way, but we do need to consider and be mindful of those who look at people dressed in a certain way and manage how they perceive things.

Let me give an example: I was heading to the office on a Saturday and I saw a situation that made me very sad. I was trying to go into the office and I was waiting at a red light. I saw a high schooler coming from the other side of the road in their school uniform. It seemed that they were biologically male at birth but they were wearing a sailor fuku, which is traditionally female attire. In Japanese high schools, there’s more and more schools that are accommodating for freedom of not being restricted to a specific gender for your uniform…That person probably wanted to present the gender they identified with in their heart…On the other side of the road was a mother and a daughter. The daughter was perhaps 5 years old. As soon as the mother saw the high schooler, she shielded her daughter as if she didn’t want her daughter to see. The high schooler must have been very hurt. Situations like these still happen and there’s areas where there’s not as much understanding.

We need to see more change in the values people have, and we need to consider for Final Fantasy XIV how we push forward in-game and how we represent it.

That being said, we want to address this, and I think it will be gradual…For instance, for the Ceremony of Eternal Bonding, we’ve already started to make adjustments. Once we officially release this, you won’t have gender restrictions. If you both wanted to wear a dress, that’s perfectly fine. If you want to both wear the tuxedo, that would also be fine…That’s not available in game yet, but we have done the preparations for it.

You may be familiar with the [Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade] where we had a Final Fantasy XIV float participate. After that event, players in the Korean regions were very uncomfortable with it and people made complaints about now wanting to see that. “This is disgusting!” Things like that. It’s been very tough.

Change is happening. People are becoming more aware and understanding. Values do shift, but I think the pace…is very different depending on individuals. It’s a difficult and delicate situation. It requires us to understand and know how things are around the world.

Alexandra: One thing before I go: What brand of cigarettes?

Yoshida: [Laughs.] Lucky Strike.

Source: Kotaku.com