Final Fantasy 14 Stormblood gives me hope that Square Enix hasn’t completely forgotten about what makes the series tick.
When Final Fantasy XIV first launched to overwhelmingly negative reception back in 2010, no one could have guessed that Square Enix would manage to turn it around the way they have. With A Realm Reborn, they turned a massively disappointing game into a legitimately good MMORPG, and with the Heavensward expansion, they were able to build upon everything that made the base game so good in truly meaningful ways. With Stormblood, though, Square Enix have delivered something that not only makes Final Fantasy XIV a contender for the best MMO out there, but also what is, perhaps, one of the greatest Final Fantasy experiences of the last few years.
Final Fantasy XIV has often been called the true heir to the franchise’s storied legacy, and Stormblood doubles down on that in every way imagineable. For fans of the series who were disappointed with Final Fantasy XV’s fractured and disappointing narrative and storytelling, and for those who miss fantasy, medieval stories this series used to tell, Stormblood is an absolute treat. And it’s not just a treat because it does what old-school Final Fantasy games used to do- but also because it does it all incredibly well. In a lot of ways, this feels more like a true mainline Final Fantasy sequel than Final Fantasy XV ever did (this is coming from someone who absolutely adores Final Fantasy XV).
"In a lot of ways, this feels more like a true mainline Final Fantasy sequel than Final Fantasy XV ever did."
Stormblood really does have one of the most engrossing, most well-written stories you will ever see in a game. It doesn’t feel the need to employ storytelling gimmicks or hijinks to grab your attention, and tells its story in fairly simple ways, which means it’s easy to follow (maybe a little less so if you’re not all too familiar with everything else that’s happened in the MMO’s tale so far). Conversely, the story itself is one that tackles many interesting themes and explores a varied and wonderful cast of characters. From learning about the effects the ongoing war has had on the people you run into to meeting flawed and complex protagonists, Stormblood does everything a good story should ideally do.
What helps is that the voice acting of the game is top-notch, especially when it comes to the more major characters. Rarely do I come across MMOs (or games in general) that have voice acting that is strong enough to do justice to their writing, but Stormblood definitely falls into that category. This story has a singular focus on telling a dour and compelling narrative, and that is something that bleeds into its writing and voice acting as well. From soldiers who’ve witnessed and committed some truly horrifying things during the war to deeply conflicted characters, the writing and voice work are, for the most part, spot on in conveying what they wish to convey.
Similarly, the cutscenes in Stormblood are absolutely beautiful. Final Fantasy has always been known for having some of the flashiest, most well-directed cutscenes in the industry, even for games such as Final Fantasy 15 which don’t necessarily have that much of a focus on storytelling, and that’s just as true with this expansion pack as it has ever been, if not even more so. The story being told here is one that works on several levels- as a sweeping and epic tale about a massive war, and as a collection of personal, more intimate stories about several characters. And the cutscenes that tell the bulk of this story never fail to have an impact, no matter what kind of juncture you’re at in the story.
"The story being told here is one that works on several levels- as a sweeping and epic tale about a massive war, and as a collection of personal, more intimate stories about several characters."
From a game design perspective, Stormblood is a little more inconsistent. It’s bogged down by some issues, most of which you will be familiar with if you’ve ever played an MMO before. There’s a lot of grinding to be done here, since most of the story missions are level gated, and the side quest design is, quite frankly, unimaginative and boring- about what you’d expect from an MMO. These quests mostly devolve into becoming fetch quests or kill quests, and they don’t even give out much XP as a reward, so it’s not even like they’re worth the time or effort it takes to be done with them. Sure, the game lets you earn XP much faster thanks to PVP and other methods, but that doesn’t excuse just how bland the side quest design is here.
The underwater sections in Stormblood are also a little disappointing. They are, admittedly, beautiful to look at, and the first impression they made on me was quite strong, to be completely frank, but it eventually turned out that they don’t do much to stand out from the rest of the game. Square had an opportunity here to create entire sections of the game with a distinct flavour and personality of their own, and while they did manage to do that purely in terms of visual aesthetic, they didn’t really go beyond that. The underwater sections will impress you initially, but after the surprise and awe wears off, you’ll quickly realize there isn’t much else to them.
Onto the positives now, of which there are plenty. In Stormblood, you’ll be visiting the region of Gyr Abania, as well as the continent of Othard, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call these some of the most beautiful and vividly imaginative places Square Enix has ever created for a Final Fantasy game. Certainly, these are the best areas I’ve seen in the MMO so far. Rather than being based on medieval European kingdoms like we’ve been used to seeing from the series, areas in Stormblood have a much more Eastern style and architecture. The cities you visit are beautiful, and the landscapes even more so, almost begging the player to be explored. Don’t get me wrong, this is no Breath of the Wild or Horizon: Zero Dawn, but this is still a fantastic, beautifully rendered game world.
"The cities you visit are beautiful, and the landscapes even more so, almost begging the player to be explored."
The dungeons, too, are excellent, with some of the best design I’ve seen in a Final Fantasy game in recent years, while the boss fights are also suitably excellent (pleasantly enough, many of them actually provide a bit of a challenge, and in today’s day and age, that seems to be an invaluable trait). But even if Stormblood didn’t go above and beyond in these areas the way it does and simply gave us more of what we’ve already seen from A Realm Reborn and Heavensward (all of which is pretty damn good itself, by the way), it’d still be a joy to play through, more so than anything else because of its two new classes, Samurai and Red Mage. Tinkering with them and discovering their strengths and weaknesses is about as much fun as you’d want it to be, and though I personally like the Samurai class more, there’s a lot to love in both these classes for all players.
Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood gives me hope that Square Enix hasn’t completely forgotten about what makes Final Fantasy tick. There’s a great story here, carried by excellent characters, backed by strong writing and voice work. Outside of the narrative, the world and dungeon design is top notch, combat is elevated to another level with the introduction of the two new classes, while boss fights are also really good. Bland side quests and disappointing underwater sections let the game down a little, admittedly, but they’re not enough to tarnish what is otherwise an outstanding game.