As the latest expansion for the best MMORPG to be released in a very long time, Stormblood is the continuing story of the Warrior of Light. It’s also one of the best Final Fantasy games, period. While previous Final Fantasy XIV (FF14) episodes and stories have shoved your character, the aforementioned Warrior of Light, onto center-stage, for once the story isn’t really about you. Instead, Stormblood is about a menagerie of characters confronting what they believe about freedom and servitude. Across two distinct nations–Ala Mhigo and Doma, both occupied by the conquesting Garlean Empire–characters grapple with their troubles, ponder how much the troubles of others matter, and either kneel to fate or stand up to change it.
One woman, in particular, steals the show. Lyse is often the star; boiled down to its essence, Stormblood is about Lyse’s journey to gather the strength needed to reclaim her homeland of Ala Mhigo from Zenos and his Garlean legions. The story’s beats–the climactic moments Lyse and party encounter–echo Final Fantasy XII in a major way, as well as the redemptive, rebellious arcs of stories like Star Wars. This type of story isn’t exactly new territory for Final Fantasy, but it’s told to tremendous effect. Lyse and the cast of characters around her (instant fan favorites, the lot of them) gain rich personalities developed in plentiful cutscenes. With dialogue, Square Enix is absolutely on top of its game, masterfully cutting through distinct cultures, histories, and beliefs to convincingly portray tension, joy, suspicion, and everything in-between. And for many FF14 players, Stormblood’s liberation of Ala Mhigo marks the culmination of thousands of hours of gameplay. The sheer history behind these characters–all the memories we have with them–makes the story and characters feel larger than life.
For his part, Zenos is a fantastic villain, looming in the dark like a sinister commander but unafraid to step forward and get his hands dirty on the battlefield. Furthermore, his sociopathic, psychopathic tendencies echo the all-time greats–he’ll chuckle at the bravery of a commoner defending his ravaged family, or whine that none of the dozens of slain rebels before him were challenging “prey.” He’s one of my favorite Final Fantasy villains of all time and delightfully easy to hate–especially during certain story battles with frustrating mechanics. But other characters stand out with equally large personalities. You will earnestly love, like, or hate each of them before credits roll on Stormblood’s 50-hour campaign, which is also buoyed by near-perfect pacing. It’s an MMO, so don’t be surprised to find quests that ask you to collect three mammoth hides or talk to somebody one town over and return, but there is very little filler between dedicated story missions. Throughout the campaign, it feels like something is always happening; in some way, large or small, the story is always moving forward. The side quests, for their part, also harbor some good stories. Not everything is ground-breaking, but there’s plenty of interesting lore and stories between the fetch quests, all helping develop the visually rich environments of Doma and Ala Mhigo.
Alongside an incredible story, Stormblood introduces a wealth of new content. The level cap has increased, with all jobs now being able to reach level 70. This comes alongside the introduction of new moves for every job and rather sweeping changes to the battle system. For example, no longer is a combat job (say, Paladin) locked behind leveling up two subclasses (Gladiator and Conjurer). Now, merely leveling Gladiator to 30 will open up the advanced Paladin, while Samurai and Red Mage can be unlocked as jobs if any jobs have reached 50. Role Actions also shift the game toward more useful, meaningful choices. Rather than snagging actions from other classes (FF14’s former “Cross-Class Skills”), you now select from several Role Actions that are shared with similar jobs. For example, as magical ranged DPS, Black Mages, Red Mages, and Summoners share several Role Actions alongside the bevy of unique abilities that make them feel iconic. Not only does this streamline the leveling process by removing any need to level classes you aren’t interested in, but it also forces interesting choices. All or most of the Role Actions shared by a role are useful in some manner, and while clear winners shine in group content or solo content, the choice between others comes down to personal preference.
Finally, all jobs have received a visual gauge to symbolize the job and make tracking important status effects easier. This change may feel awkward to longtime players, who are accustomed to watching stacks and small buff icons, and the gauges make more sense for some jobs than others. The Astrologian’s gauge, for example, stylishly informs you of the card you’ve just drawn, the one you’ve held waiting for the right moment, and any buff a previous card has applied to your currently drawn card. At the opposite end, the Warrior’s “Beast Gauge” just feels like a different way of counting pre-Stormblood’s Wrath stacks, and one gets the sense various Warrior abilities were changed to accommodate the gauge’s existence.
Stormblood’s two new jobs, Samurai and Red Mage, feel like they were designed hand-in-hand with the new gauges. Both are fun and rewarding to play. The Samurai is a melee DPS built around combo attacks whose finishers’ add “Sen” symbols to your gauge. The types of Sen you’ve accrued can be detonated with different high-damage attacks, so much of proper Samurai play is about using the right combos for the situation (a large group of trash mobs? A single, stationary boss?) and detonating the appropriate high-damage attack. It’s also incredibly stylish, with vivid slashing effects and gorgeous armor befitting a long-awaited job.
Red Mage was similarly long-awaited, and doesn’t disappoint. An all-around caster specialist, the Red Mage casts certain kinds of black magic and white magic to fill two meters, keeping a relative balance between them. With a high, relatively equal amount of both, the Red Mage spends the built-up energy on devastating sword slashes. A few quirks have the Red Mage bringing lots of utility to a group situation. Dualcast plus Raise can bring up two party members in an instant, while having Cure means some healing assistance in a tight spot. Like Samurai, Red Mage is incredibly stylish, with a variety of well-animated rapier slashes and a backflip retreat alongside its spell-casting.
Whether playing as your longtime main job or one of the new additions, you’ll find astonishing locales to explore in Stormblood. The main story doesn’t keep you in the desert expanses of Ala Mhigo for long, but within awaits the incredible settlement of Rhalgr’s Reach, a bustling player hub with plenty to see and perhaps your first encounter with swimming. New to Stormblood, swimming allows you to explore above and below water in certain areas. One place in particular, the Ruby Sea, features tons of diving with a couple underwater cities and locations to explore. However, the only true “content” to enjoy underwater, besides traversal, is gathering or fishing. Because this doesn’t apply to every player, the feature can feel a bit tacked on after the initial wonder wears off. While the developer has confirmed that underwater fighting will never feature in the game, one wishes for an underwater puzzle in a dungeon, or something like it.
Before long, the rocky reaches of Ala Mhigo give way to the far eastern lands of Doma. Here, the art and environments teams of FF14 truly outdo themselves. Each of Doma’s distinct zones feel rich with color, history, and small details, establishing a wonderful sense of place. They’re also very large (one wonders if dropping PS3 support was a blessing to the game’s ambition), but still packed with players. With plenty of NPCs about (especially in Kugane, Doma’s vibrant hub city), the world feels busy whether you’re surrounded by people or exploring solo.
In other respects, Stormblood isn’t so far removed from Heavensward or the base game (A Realm Reborn) before it. The leveling process from 60 to 70 is dominated by dungeons, side quests, and FATEs (open world events). The dungeons here are among the best in the entire game, with no standout weaklings among the bunch. Even better, most of them are closely tied to the story–so much so that even naming them could be a spoiler. This makes playing them are the more epic and meaningful, as you fight alongside NPC comrades or work to make progress in your liberation of Ala Mhigo and Doma. A couple more appear after level 70, but like Heavensward, Stormblood’s end-game is a bit light at launch. If you’re coming back to the game after an extended absence, you’re bound to feel positively overwhelmed by all the content added by patches over the months, but diehard players only have a few dungeons, two (somewhat easy) extreme-mode Primals, and a new raid series after completing the main story. More content is coming, as it always does, in the 4.x patch series, including a large-scale exploration mode called Eureka, 24-man casual raids based on FF12’s Ivalice, and Blitzball, FFX’s fan-favorite underwater sport.
As mentioned, FATEs return in Stormblood. These are active events out in the world where players gather together to fight several monsters or one massive monster. These award major experience points now, making them a premier attraction while leveling up or looking for aether currents to unlock flying. A couple minor changes add excitement to FATEs. For starters, a FATE might randomly possess an EXP bonus when it begins (marked on the map for easy viewing). Furthermore, FATEs have a low chance of granting “Twist of Fate”, a buff that grants +50% EXP on your next FATE. These bonuses can stack for truly massive EXP gains. On top of that, some FATEs now occur in storyline-driven chains of several FATEs. These chains are always a hot attraction. Coupled with the hefty, random EXP bonuses, there’s genuine excitement around this longtime content and players flock to them in droves.
Stormblood’s last major improvement comes in PvP, an oft-maligned part of FF14 that finally gets its due. Square Enix has side-stepped the inherent balancing challenges of PvP classes that also exist in a PvE space by designing an entirely different set of job actions exclusive to PvP. While this means that a Samurai in PvP might not play exactly like it does in the game at large, the change allows Square Enix to balance the two halves of the game to perfection without negatively affecting the other. The result is a PvP engine that feels far more skill-based, as every job starts with equal HP and role-specific stats. Furthermore, the actual doing has been simplified. A job’s combos now exist on one button or hotbar slot, with the button’s function changing to accommodate each step of the combo. This allows you to easily fit all of your job’s actions on one hotbar in PvP. It’s a move toward simplification should make PvP far more accessible to newcomers (to say nothing of its opening at Lvl 30 or the hefty PvE EXP you get from completing a match) without sacrificing the skill element that keeps veterans coming back.
While Stormblood doesn’t strike away from Heavensward or other modern MMOs in terms of quest design and content, almost everything it does is exceptional. Its story stands among the very best in the Final Fantasy series, the new jobs and gameplay changes feel smooth and rewarding, and all the new content–from gorgeous, detailed worlds to exciting dungeons–echoes a development team on its A game. Diving feels a little empty right now, a couple story battles frustrate, and Stormblood doesn’t change much about the FF14 content formula. But with story and gameplay this excellent, it scarcely needs to.