Writers note: Reviewing an MMO is no small feat and FFXIV: Heavensward has an enormous wealth of new content that I have not had the chance to fully explore just yet. I have clocked well over 1500 hours with the game since its launch as FFXIV: A Realm Reborn on PC/PS3 and this review is based on my experiences with the new expansion’s features, story and overall experience thus far.
Since its relaunch a couple of years ago, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (ARR) has become one of the most well-received MMOs on the market, both critically and financially. Director Naoki Yoshida and the Squeenix team behind the game have taken a lot of the best bits from other titles like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars and Ultima: Online and created a unique experience that was hardcore enough for veterans of the genre but also welcoming to new players.
Now, we fast forward to 2015 and after many patches, fan festivals and skyrocketing sales we have the title’s first sequel/expansion: Heavensward. The good news is that this is a fantastic addition to an already solid MMO, and has taken all the best bits from A Realm Reborn and amped it up tenfold in terms of just about everything.
The engaging and original story is one of the biggest drawcards here and the game features probably one of the most focused MMO stories ever told. It certainly doesn’t feel as scattered as some of ARR was at times. To sum up where we are at, the endgame main quest line in ARR took a pretty brutal turn with the assassination of a key character in its final act and was easily the best writing the entire game had seen since its launch. Heavensward jumps straight in where ARR left off, and does so with amazing effect. The main tale follows our warrior of light (the character you create) getting embroiled in a thousand-year old conflict: The Dragonsong War. During your new journey, you are destined to become a target for the Warrior of Darkness, all the while piecing together the puzzle to reunite your friends from the story in ARR. It is not only fantastic fantasy storytelling in its own right, it is actually one of the best Final Fantasy stories, MMO or otherwise, in many years.
If ARR was the kindling to something huge then Heavensward is the bonfire, and boy does it roar. The wealth of new content is staggering and I would almost label this a sequel as opposed to a mere expansion. Considering the current norm of nickel-and-diming practices and games being sold to us piecemeal at full retail price, Heavensward definitely gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Don’t be mistaken, Heavensward is utterly HUGE.
In terms of sheer game world size, we have at present seven new areas to discover: Coerthas Western Highlands, Chocobo Forest, Floating Continent, Churning Mists, Sea of Clouds and Dravanian Forelands/Hinterlands. Most of these are triple the size of previous maps in ARR but can be conveniently navigated by the new flying feature which is actually pretty epic to control and see. Soaring above the Lord of the Rings-esque world of the Dravanian Hinterlands or through the heavenly Sea of Clouds is something quite surreal, especially coupled with the many wonderful new beats in the title’s brilliant soundtrack. Obtaining this ability to fly initially however is a little frustrating. It isn’t simply a matter of grabbing a chocobo and telling it to fly. As the main quests of the game unfold you are eventually given access to ‘Aether currents’ and a compass to track down wind flow throughout each gigantic new zone, which will ultimately give you access to flight. On foot, I found this very tedious in certain areas (especially ones that had vertical layers of map to navigate). Whilst not keyboard-smashing infuriating, it felt like typical MMO-filler quest stuff, wasting time that I could of been spending levelling my crafters and jobs.
Speaking of levelling, Heavensward finally raises the level cap for EVERYTHING to 60, which is easily one of the biggest draws for players who may have been taking a break from the title. Not only do we see new attribute points to be added (in my case I main a bard, so DEX all the way!), but new class quests also become available for each job upon reaching level 52. These grant you new abilities all the way up to 60 and in my case I found them to be really powerful new abilities that expanded upon previous ones that provide a nice change to the rotation of attack abilities I had already mastered. Finally seeing some heavy CRIT damage bouncing around enemy heads was an awesome feeling too. The level cap makes your character genuinely feel tougher and like you are levelling a badass.
This cap increase I did find a lot slower on my crafters. I main a leatherworker (LTW) and weaver (WVR) and quite often make my in game currency from selling items made from master craft recipes. But even with EXP buffs and the challenge logs, I still found levelling these two painfully slow and am still a ways off from hitting the 60 cap. That being said however, this was also the case in ARR and as the crafters do not impact the story of the game it isn’t so much of an issue. However, if you’re selling items you make (and we will no doubt be seeing level 55+ items soon enough) for people to buy, just getting there is going to be a slog. Perhaps I’m a bit picky on the slow levelling, after all this is an MMO and taking things slow is a tried and true formula for the genre. In the end it will come down to just how much time you can invest into the game. If you’re like me and have a day job and five cats to take care of, be mindful that this game is an epic time sink.
Heavensward also features three new job classes for the Tank, Healer and DPS roles. These are Dark Knight, Astrologian and Machinist respectively. I have had a good chunk of time to play around with all three and am happy to report they are just as fleshed-out and fun to play as the majority of the other battle classes.My personal favourite was Astrologian, which offers a new and dynamic way to play a healer role that relies on the power of the stars and a card deck to turn the tide in battle. The Machinist class, while looking great, nevertheless felt a little bland to me. Perhaps this is only because I main a bard class and simply felt like I had changed my bow for a rifle. That being said, the damage from a fully-levelled machinist with the best gear has the potential to be devastating and I’m very interested to see how people master the class. As of writing though this appears to be the least popular class. The most popular new class is easily the Dark Knight (think fallen angels with massive swords), and I thoroughly enjoyed its new abilities as they look and feel great, and the damage count is off the chain (as you would expect for a tank class).
It is worth noting that once you begin the new classes you won’t be thrown back to level 1 but instead begin at level 30 with the majority of the classes’ abilities ready to go. This is at once both awesome and overwhelming. It saves you a lot of grinding but also throws a whole bunch of new things at you to learn very quickly.
I would suggest jumping online to see how other players use rotations of the new abilities, as you will have almost no heads up as to what to do in order to make effective use of them initially. I found this pretty fun though, as after so many hours with the game it was great to feel like I was getting schooled again, learning new things and knowing I have many hours ahead of mastering the new content.
Thankfully, Heavensward doesn’t hold back on giving us new dungeons, raids, beast tribe quests and primal fights. For the sake of not spoiling the story I will leave it at the fact that primal fights have you going toe-to-toe with dragons (The sons of Midgardsormr) and that we’ll also find out some very interesting details on the origins of Bahamut himself. New beast tribe quests are still grindy and fun and there are also the new Vanu Vanu and Gnath races. I maxed out my Beasty quests with the Sylphs in ARR but found the process somewhat unfulfilling with little reward (apart from a cool mount), so doubt I will be spending much time doing the same thing here in the new expansion. The new mounts are kind of sexy though. The new dungeons add some cool elements to the mix and either provide new ways to play or take what was great about the better of ARR’s dungeons and mixes them up a little. It is awesome to get new gear as you grind your way to the level cap again but I found a lot of the items from Dungeons functioned better as glamour items (changing the look of an equipped item) as opposed to wearing them as I levelled up- much like ARR you will find the items earned in these instances are great as you grind away to 60 but once you do hit the endgame, you will be buying and/or earning better levelled gear like you have in ARR through purchasing with Law Marks (a separate currency that is accepted by vendors in the game to obtain rare gear) Law is earned high level dungeons and raids.
A major issue I have with the game is the seemingly dead PvP mode. I absolutely adored the Frontlines mode in ARR. It provided an epic battle arena that had you capturing points in a huge team while fighting off other real players with a plethora of abilities available only in that mode. The true PvP aspect in ARR only launched a year in through its life but partying up with members of your free company or jumping on team speak for a fight was easily one of my favourite things to do in the game. Now after Heavensward has launched, it feels the mode and player base has all but withered away. This may be due to players getting invested in the new content or the fact that developers felt that the PvP love was not strong enough to warrant creating any substantial PvP content for Heavensward. I have not been able to get into a single PvP match since the expansion launch, not one. Although this probably isn’t the reason people traditionally have played XIV, it is disappointing that a mode with a niche and passionate audience is now seemingly pushing up daisies. You will be missed PvP.
To quell my sadness, after spending many a Fantasia (the ability to change your sex, race and appearance in game) I experimented with playing as the new dragon/human hybrid Au Ra. Both male and female models look pretty epic with the choice of rocking out with dark purple dragon horns or more angelic white ones.
With all I have covered, I have inevitably had to skip over some of the finer new details. The expansion has you continually experiencing new and exciting twists in the game system, and the amount of things to do and experiment with is simply mind-boggling. This is a testament to just how passionate Naoki Yoshida and his team are about this game, and how willing they were to make things right after the original Final Fantasy XIV MMO launch turned out to be a catastrophe. This appears to be reflected in the player base too, with ARR being one of square Enix’s highest grossing titles. I have dabbled in many MMOs over the years, but Final Fantasy XIV still remains my favourite, and the new world of Heavensward takes everything that has made the title so good over the past two years and dials it up to eleven.
If you are prepared to invest a lot of hours into a game that continually rewards you, I can’t think of anything else out there right now better deserving of your time.
Reviewed on PS4.