Okay, since last I wrote here, Smudge and I have caught up with the story in Final Fantasy XIV, bringing us to a place we’ve never been before. This includes the latest major patch, 5.1, which I’ll get into another time. Right now, I’m just talking about the latest expansion, Shadowbringers.

First off, I have to say it’s excellent. FF XIV has gone from a ‘recommend, but remember it needs a subscription’ to ‘recommend, but the best parts are late in the game’, to ‘it doesn’t matter, you should see this’, and it’s all because the writing has gotten better each time.

I… was nervous about this expansion when it was announced. I don’t like ‘darker and grittier’, I don’t like anti-heroes, and didn’t want to be put in the role of one. Thankfully, that’s not what’s going on. In fact, it comes down to a semantic shuffling that ends up equating Astral aether/magic with darkness (instead of the assumed ‘light’ or ‘good’) and Umbral with light. (Urianger, I’m going to need that explanation again.) So the flood of light that got talked about waaay back in Patch 3.4, is Umbral in nature, and is a tendency to shut down all activity, producing stasis.

(Um, yes, I’m headed deep into spoiler territory from here on, keep reading, or even looking at the pretty pictures at your own risk! I’ll also note that Shadowbringers is much better without spoilers! Previous story didn’t have nearly as big events going on.)

A few other things get firmed up during discussions in this expansion. There are fourteen worlds in all (hmm…), and six of them are gone due to the umbral calamities. The ‘Thirteenth’ (shard; it’s really world number 14) still exists because it’s “rejoining” was improperly done, leaving a chaotic, umbral-aspected ‘void’ in its wake. The ‘First’ nearly fell to a similar imbalance of astral aether, but this was stopped back in 3.4 by Minfilia; differences in the flow of time mean that it’s been a century for that world while just, oh, about three years on the ‘Source’ (Hydaelyn; world number 1, or really #0).

So, this expansion presents an entirely new world, keeping them from having to work out any more of the map of Hydaelyn. It has some obvious geographical similarities, but they do a really good job of getting you some hints of past history outside of the main quests. And inside of that, there’s a lot of exploration of the history of the group we saw in 3.4. It’s a world still on the brink of destruction, where umbral-aspected creatures roam the countryside, and being wounded by one can cause you to become one of these ‘sin eaters’. Normally, a person’s aether would re-balance naturally, keeping this from happening, but there’s so much umbral aether in the world that the they sky is constantly lit up with the radiance of that aether (and there’s a kind of chiming hum that can be really disturbing after a while), and an umbral imbalance only gets worse with time instead of better.

You get brought to this new world by a mysterious robed figure in charge of the Crystal Tower, brought over from from the Source… somehow. (Wait, it’s still just outside Mor Dhona? How does that work….) It’s the centerpoint of a new city that’s grown up since the Flood of Light, and one of two places that have any real influence over the world at large. The other Scions are here ahead of you, and have gone their separate ways, and part of the first half is checking up on everyone and seeing what they have found. But the Crystarium is the new ‘central city’ for the expansion, and is even bigger and more sprawling than Kugane from Stormblood.

The Crystal Exarch (our mystery person) has a plan for pulling this world from the brink. The top of the sin eater pecking order are five ‘lightwardens’, powerful umbral creatures that are powering the current slide towards catastrophe. Defeating one causes the aether to spill from it, often corrupting the slayer to into a new lightwarden; if not, then it still causes the lighwarden to reappear elsewhere.

However, the Warrior of Light’s aetherpool is far vaster than almost anyone else’s, and as it turns out, larger than a lightwarden’s. Absorbing that much light aether isn’t a real problem.

The dungeons for Shadowbringers are all well done. I certainly enjoyed the initial one quite a lot, and the others along the way are about as good design wise. Along with story, this is one of the things that FF XIV keeps getting better about. And, this was the first real surprise for me and Smudge: We figured bringing the night back to Novrant would be the climax of the story, when it actually happens when you’re about level 71, and still getting started:

And from there the story picks up some predictability, with this only working for one ‘zone’, and the obvious pattern is going through and defeating each zone’s lightwarden, and returning the night there too. It’s obvious there’s something more going on, but at this point you start stumbling around, trying to figure just what the problem is.

Of course, there’s our mysterious ruler of the Crysterium, but he certainly seems to on the level, and trying to prevent the coming of the Eight Umbral Calamity…. There’s Vauthry, the leader of Eulmore, the other remaining city in the world. And certainly Eulmore becomes a bigger and bigger problem. And then there’s this man:

Emet-Selch (which turns out to be a title, rather than name), one of the Ascian pain-in-the-necks, turns out to be one of the very last surviving persons from before the Sundering (one of two surviving ‘Ancients’). And he follows you around for much of the story. This turns into a major source of lore, that confirmed most of what Smudge suspected, and upended my thoughts, because I thought the sequence of events was different.

And… just what does he want? He professes to just want to help… but as always the nature of the help is up to question. Along the way, we find out about a glorious civilization that faced a crisis… and created the first primal. Then, a second primal was created to fight that… and the Sundering happened, splitting the world into fourteen pieces… and almost all the people as well. There’s a common source of souls to recycle, and in each world, that soul is one-fourteenth of what it once was. The common humans of today are as nothing compared to what/who once was, and the goal of the Asicans to to bring about a rejoining, where all can be made whole again. Never mind how much death and destruction is involved in this process.

So, supposedly, this is all for our own, and certainly the universe’s, own good. It certainly explains how they can recruit new members, the goal is understandable. But it’s caused untold death and suffering already (having wiped out eight worlds… and the calamities on the Source were no picnic either), with another six rejoinings to go. From the viewpoint of an unsundered soul, what is left are lives barely worth living, maybe even barely and alive and aware at all.

Now, the Ascians push one of the shards in a particular aetherial direction, towards dark, or fire, or whatever works for that world. That echoes in the Source, until the Ascians push the crisis strong enough that the shard collapses, and the aether from that shard flows into the Source, rejoining the two worlds. That implies that the souls on the Source should be… one-half power? Even if it was getting spread out across the other shards as well, that implies everyone has about twice the soul as right after the Sundering. But there’s no sign that people on the Source have gotten any more powerful (with possible exceptions for the Warrior of Light), or long-lived over the ages, which means the Ascian plan… isn’t working.

Or, that it will take ages (millenia) for the fragmented souls to ‘heal’ and rejoin, even after everything’s done. Maybe it can only really happen if all the pieces are available… which leaves the Thirteenth as a big problem for the plan.

Emet’s actions show that ‘the plan’ is his fallback position. He reverts to it at the end after his main scheme fails. And that seems to be a test of how powerful the Warrior of Light is. Because, as you find out partway through, all that light-aether is not flowing through you into the Aetherial Sea, but is staying with you, and every lightwarden adds to a growing imbalance. If you can handle five lightwarden’s worth of aether, take on the entire imbalance the Ascians built up, then your soul is on a level approaching an Ascian’s, and for the first time in however many millennia it’s been, Emet-Selch has someone new on his level to talk to.

And, maybe, it means the fractured souls are healing, and the entire plan can work, even if it should need to be shepherded along one soul at at time. A failure to achieve even such a limited goal (by Ancient standards)… might well mean that all this effort is wasted, and what was once broken cannot be made whole again.

I also have questions about what caused the entire original crisis as well. Emet-Selch’s views are inevitably biased, and the nature of the problem as it originally manifested is not made entirely clear. However, the Ancients are known to have relied heavily on creation magic, and a passing reference makes me wonder if it got too easy for them, and started calling forth creatures of the id (see Forbidden Planet).

…And after all that, I’m not even going to touch on a lot of what else goes into this plotline. But the fact that I can do that, and barely touch much of what actually goes on, is why this expansion is so good. There’s so much going on now, that they can easily layer in all sorts of things.

Mechanically, I do have to say, things are a lot more mixed. As usually happens, Shadowbringers has seen some major changes in a number of classes (and mere tweaks elsewhere). The general thrust of these changes is the right idea. All classes have been a bit simplified, making the game easier to play, when every expansion adds things and makes it harder to play…. Unfortunately, the big loser this time is Scholar/Summoner. ‘Pets’ have been generally taken out of the game, so that they aren’t even targetable, and are just a secondary automatic action for that pair of classes (along with some abilities that aren’t automatic).

This is okay for Scholar, but at the same time the damage-dealing part of the class got simplified down that soloing with it is… extremely boring. That’s not really what the class is for, so that’s not awful, but it’s also difficult to get any time in with the class outside of dungeons and the like.

On the other hand, this leaves the Summon class over-simplified, and without any ability to have a pet/tank, which is always a neat bit extra utility. Since the pet is no longer a true target, it can’t tank for the Scholar, or off-tank in a small party. Past that, there’s still problems with making the class work.

But that’s the low point. Other classes didn’t change as much, and generally feel better. The new Level 80 Bard ability is great because it doesn’t need to be done often, but gives a reason to do the lower-level abilities. So its a reward for playing better.

The main thing… and it has taken me a while to realize this: Over the course of… I have no idea how many hours of play, I have followed the main plot, I have journeyed along with the various NPCs, I’ve had a fair amount of lore thrown at me. Life, the universe, and everything has ridden on my shoulders.

And that’s been good. It’s an enjoyable story, decently done characters, who have grown into to some really good ones. But this time… I’m invested. I came out of this, no I went through this, caring a lot more. FF XIV has really grabbed me this time, and I’m going to be here for the rest of the ride….