Naoki Yoshida's successful reboot of the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 into A Realm Reborn back in 2013 was a triumph, not only attracting scores of new players into the virtual world of Eorzea, but also demonstrating that a gorgeous, content-rich and regularly updated subscription-based MMORPG was still a viable prospect. With the release of Heavensward, the question is whether this new expansion can keep players invested and ensure the long-term future of Eorzea.
Heavensward picks up a couple of weeks after A Realm Reborn's dramatic Game of Thrones-style finale. It's worth noting that as a prerequisite to enjoying anything this expansion has to offer--including the three new jobs; Dark Knight, Machinist and Astrologian--you must have finished A Realm Reborn's entire story, including its five content patches. This is non-negotiable. You are prohibited from even entering Heavensward's main city, Ishgard, until the entire prior storyline has been completed.
This may be frustrating to those who enjoyed A Realm Reborn but never worked their way through the narrative. Many MMOs tend to open up expansion content immediately upon release for those at an appropriate character level, regardless of their quest progress, but Square Enix has taken a stricter approach here. However, this makes sense in the context of the game as a whole, since Final Fantasy XIV is one of the most narrative-rich MMOs on the market.
Thankfully, the prerequisite content has been adjusted and rebalanced to ensure that players can get through it and into Heavensward as painlessly as possible with minimal grinding: simply following the main A Realm Reborn quest will now see you happily outfitted in good quality gear by its conclusion, ready to begin your new adventures. (Previously, the game necessitated a certain degree of replaying old content to earn enough endgame currency to purchase this gear, but now main story quests provide you with everything you'll need to survive your first foray into Ishgard and beyond.)
"Heavensward's main story is spectacular, with a series of dramatic moments throughout that are among the series' most memorable."
Heavensward's main story is spectacular, with a series of dramatic moments throughout that are among the series' most memorable. The overall plot deals with themes such as the unquestioning adoption of religious dogma and how that can lead to societal problems such as racism--or in this case, speciesism, thanks to the conflict between the Ishgardians and the Dravanian dragons. It also captures the feel of a traditional Final Fantasy even better than A Realm Reborn had, due to some excellent writing and strong characters, presented with a delightfully theatrical tone throughout, which builds on the substantial lore introduced in the game's previous incarnations.
The writing also boasts strong characterisation, including some deep, detailed exploration of interesting yet tragically flawed characters such as Ysayle, who we only saw briefly in A Realm Reborn. Meanwhile, the ensemble of non-player characters evoke a delightful feeling of going on a grand adventure with a party, similar to that in a single-player RPG. The storytelling is supported by a beautiful soundtrack and voice acting of a considerably higher calibre than that heard in A Realm Reborn--though the decision to recast most of the main voices, in some cases with entirely different regional British accents to the characters' previous incarnations, is a little jarring at first.
Some of the environments look like they're straight out of a Roger Dean artbook, and are particularly striking from the air.
To help flesh out the game's substantial lore, Heavensward's main narrative is supported by side quests, and there are a lot of them. So many, in fact, that it's possible to level from 50 to 60 using little more than the main story and the various NPCs you come into contact with on your travels. Although grinding dungeons will probably get you to level 60 quicker, following the side quests gives you a much more arresting, varied experience, particularly if you're interested in the game world's lore.
It's practically essential to complete at least a few side quests: certain challenges unlock "aether currents" in the zone you're in, and in order to take advantage of Heavensward's new flying mounts, you have to track down all of these currents, many of which are hidden in tricky locations, making for impromptu environmental puzzles similar to Guild Wars 2's "Vista" system.
The decision to prevent you from flying in each zone until you've discovered all these aether currents has proven divisive, but ultimately it works out for the best with regard to world-building and narrative coherence. The new zones are huge in scale, and you truly come to appreciate the massive size of some of the structures and geographical features by traversing them on foot before being able to simply fly from one place to another.
Travelling on foot can lead to some exciting discoveries too. Follow the river north out of the village of Tailfeather in the Dravanian Forelands, for example, and you come across some dramatic ruins of a lost age; head out in another direction and you might find yourself pondering where the giant craters in the ground came from--that is, until the gigantic Tarasque shows up and requires at least twenty or thirty players to subdue. These discoveries lose some of their impact if you just fly in a straight line from point A to point B, so the game funnels players into seeing most of the world from ground-level before allowing them a bird's-eye view.
Somewhat more controversial at launch are the balance changes that came as a result of the three new jobs and the five new abilities that each of the existing classes have been given. The ranged-damage classes (Bard and Machinist) were both underpowered upon Heavensward's original release, even in good gear at level 60, but at the time of writing, an update has provided both classes with an increase in power to their new abilities, and they're performing much more solidly in parties as a result.
As the story progresses, realistic, believable landscapes give way to wonderfully fantastic environments floating in the clouds.
Meanwhile, the gun-wielding Machinist is now producing damage numbers that can compete even with the melee classes Monk, Dragoon and Ninja, which are traditionally the most heavy hitters. Elsewhere, Bard players are happy to finally have a damage-dealing Limit Break ability, which is a welcome addition for a class that was unofficially regarded as a support job.
New tank class Dark Knight is proving to be a solid addition to many groups, with its blend of Warrior's heavy damage-dealing and Paladin's damage mitigation providing a fun new play style. New healer Astrologian, meanwhile, provides an interesting mix of both Scholar and White Mage's strong points, with its central mechanic of drawing and shuffling cards to provide the group with various benefits making it a unique take on a support class. Both are challenging to learn if you're used to the older classes, but both are very rewarding to master.
Existing classes have had some interesting changes, too. Paladin, for example, long derided as the most boring but functional tank class, now has several different combos as well as some useful support and healing abilities. Monk continues to be the class of choice for those who enjoy a highly technical play style. Black Mages now have even more of a buff-juggling-act to keep up with. And Summoners, once regarded as one of the weaker DPS classes in A Realm Reborn, have enjoyed a considerable buff thanks to some new abilities and spells, and have become very popular as a result--though at least part of this is doubtless due to the fact that their level-three Limit Break now involves sprouting Bahamut's wings and setting fire to everything. Yes, it's as awesome as it sounds.
Crucially, with the balance adjustments brought about in the first patch, no single class feels significantly better or worse than others; pretty much any party makeup can comfortably clear everything the game has to offer at the time of writing.
"Heavensward is an essential purchase for those who have spent more hours than they'd care to admit in Eorzea."
In terms of content, Heavensward ships with a decent amount to work through. The main story, as previously noted, takes somewhere in the region of 40 to 50 hours hours or so to finish, depending on how thorough you are, and in the process you level at least one class to 60 naturally.
Beyond that, at the time of writing, level cap content includes three dungeons, one of which is officially part of the main story and can be re-challenged as often as you like. There is enough content here to even satisfy the hardcore raiders; there's the story's final boss battle, two Extreme variants on earlier boss battles against the primals Bismarck and Ravana, and the new raid dungeon Alexander, which is set to have a Savage difficulty variant added.
As with A Realm Reborn, content of all levels--not just level-cap dungeons and trials--is designed to be replayed frequently, with endgame currency that can be exchanged for high-end gear on offer for jumping into daily roulettes and helping lower-level players with earlier content as well as simply grinding level-appropriate challenges.
The dungeons are smartly designed throughout the entirety of Heavensward, featuring dynamic backdrops, surprising events, gorgeous scenery and exciting encounters that often demand a lot more of a group than simple "tank and spank"; one dungeon in particular even makes use of simplified forms of the challenging mechanics found in A Realm Reborn's raid dungeon, The Binding Coil of Bahamut. The decision to eliminate mid-dungeon cutscenes has alleviated the problem A Realm Reborn's final storyline dungeon had, where experienced players would charge ahead and start boss fights while fresh level 50s were watching cutscenes, causing the latter to get locked out. This is a change for the better; there's still story content in dungeons, but it tends to unfold either at the very beginning (when all players are unable to move until everyone is ready) or after the final boss has been defeated. In other words, those enjoying the story for the first time can do so without guilt that they're holding people up, and experienced players who are just grinding dungeons can do so without having to sit and wait for newbies.
Meanwhile, crafters and gatherers are well catered to, since all these classes can also be levelled to 60. A couple of new elements feel a little underbaked, however; the airship crafting in the new Free Company workshops simply requires a party of crafters to be present without any real interaction or cooperation required--it would have been interesting to see the equivalent of a "crafting raid", since Final Fantasy XIV's crafting system has just as much depth as its battle system, but sadly, it is not to be. Yet.
And that "yet" is an important point; A Realm Reborn enjoyed substantial content updates and mechanical adjustments at three-month intervals following its launch, and Heavensward is set to follow suit, with the first post-launch patch already released, introducing the Alexander raid and addressing some balance issues. The main story, despite coming to a spectacular (and Final Fantasy fan-baiting) conclusion, is left open for an episodic continuation in the same way as A Realm Reborn, and the game's structure is eminently friendly to new dungeons and challenges being added at regular intervals. Plus, at some point in the near future, the true masochists among us will be able to grind our way through a whole new Relic quest.
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Overall, then, Heavensward is an essential purchase for those who have spent more hours than they'd care to admit in Eorzea. While new players--or those who never beat A Realm Reborn's complete story--may feel aggravated at being locked-out of the expansion until they catch up, there's little denying that Final Fantasy XIV as a whole offers astonishing value for those willing to immerse themselves, and it will only continue to grow and expand over time.
In other words, it looks like Eorzea is unlikely to suffer another world-shattering calamity just yet, and everyone who has made it their home away from home over the last couple of years will doubtless be thankful for that.