"If you haven't played Final Fantasy XIV yet, this is the time to check it out."
By now you know of Final Fantasy XIV's sordid history: Released in 2010 essentially unfinished and broken, the game would get a chance to live again in 2013, thanks to new producer Naoki Yoshida and his team, with 2.0 — A Realm Reborn. While ARR was a triumph, forever earning "Yoshi-P" the respect of many (myself included), it was also largely built upon a world already established in that failed original. So while it was great to see this new development team make the lands of Eorzea interesting, it was also a precursor to seeing what these folks could create without being burdened by the past.
Enter Heavensward. Less than two years after its relaunch, Final Fantasy XIV's first expansion brings us to the northern kingdom of Ishgard (and lands beyond), a place which has been visible since 1.0 as a background piece, but never accessible. Ishgard is referenced often in A Realm Reborn: It's where mankind learned to tame chocobos as riding and battle companions, and where one of Final Fantasy's mainstay classes, the Dragoon, hails from. And boy, are there a lot of Dragoons in Ishgard. These are all nice "lore" things to have references to, but Yoshi-P's team didn't skimp on their integration. Playing both the main and side quests, you'll learn much about these vital pieces of Ishgardian culture. Besides the new locales, Heavensward brings with it other expected trappings of an expansion: a new level cap of 60 (upped from 50), new classes, dungeons, quests, and raid content.
Of course, this kind of thing only matters once you get to Ishgard, something that requires one to finish the main scenario of A Realm Reborn. If you're new to FFXIV, I won't bore you with ARR talk here; there's plenty of review journals on the site, and the short version of all of them is this: It's a great game, play it. What is noteworthy for this review is that Square Enix rebalanced ARR's entire main scenario when Heavensward was released, to help new players access the expansion's content. Now, you can reach the original level cap of 50 entirely by doing the main story quests; previously, this needed to be augmented with optional dungeons and side quests. You'll likely want to do the other content as well, but it's nice that it's not required. Additionally, the main story quests offer better equipment rewards now, so you can get your character in good shape by the end without feeling like you need to grind dungeons for gear or currency. I think this is a great adjustment that not only puts Heavensward more within reach of new players, but enables them to focus on the main story of A Realm Reborn, easily one of its strongest aspects.
Heavensward consists of seven all-new, massive areas, each between 50-100% larger than a typical ARR zone. Designed very differently from the "old world," they've been deliberately laid out with plans for future game updates. There's innumerable "things" on every new map that are interesting, but don't seem to be there for any reason yet. Interesting little landmarks, alcoves, or abandoned constructs just begging to be explored in future updates. The visual design of each land is something to behold as well: With players now able to fly around most maps (more on that in a minute), there's much more verticality in Heavensward's world design. Uneven terrain, sheer cliffs, massive towers, floating air fortresses, and much more contribute to making exploration exponentially more interesting in Heavensward. It's clear that Yoshi-P's team had fun designing lands that didn't need to accommodate travel on foot only.
Each area is very distinct now in terms of exploration: It's not a matter of running across a field of sand, or grass, or rock. The Sea of Clouds is entirely comprised of floating landmasses interconnected with impossibly-winding pathways, while the Dravanian Forelands feature everything from a forest of bizarre trees to the hive-like homes of both the insectoid Gnath tribe and the tower of Anyx Trine where dragons live. Churning Mists is also made of floating islands, but sets itself apart by being littered with ancient castles and structures in various states of decay. And when I gained access to Azys Lla, the final zone, I literally flew around it for a solid half hour just looking at stuff. It's almost sensory overload with the amount of interesting sights that are crammed into this area, and the music made sure I was in no hurry to leave, either. Oh, and the center of all of these places is, of course, Ishgard, which quickly became my favorite of the game's four city-states.
Flight isn't available right away; instead, the main quests in a zone will eventually guide you across most of an area, and you can gradually find "aether currents," a gameplay element that allows your character to "understand" the wind currents in the area, and therefore fly amongst them. As a former World of Warcraft player, I know the same thing Yoshi-P's team did &emdash flying over zones can completely kill any sense of adventure and exploration. It's certainly convenient, but you miss out on the world design, and the sense of danger that comes from seeing a Thunder Dragon blocking your path, knowing that you probably will die if he spots you. So here, in Heavensward, you need to get to know the lay of the land on foot (or chocobo, or a stable of elemental-infused ponies, etc.), and after finishing a key story element, you'll be able to not only fly freely around that area, but have access to new areas, quests, and more. I think this two-tiered approach works well, as you're able to explore each land and experience the story as the developers carefully planned it, and then
earn the freedom to explore at will, and return to areas to complete higher-level quests.
So how do the quests in Heavensward compare to A Realm Reborn? In short, they don't, but in a good way. I really enjoyed the main scenario of ARR. By patch 2.5 — the last major pre-expansion addition — I was enthralled with the story in a way that I never expected. So for Heavensward's main story to completely blow it out of the water says a lot. Everything is better: It's better paced, it's filled with intensely fascinating characters, and with several of those characters joining you on your quests, it feels more like a traditional Final Fantasy title at points. For various reasons, many of ARR's supporting cast take a backseat in Heavensward, but this was intentional. Like the world itself, these characters existed before FFXIV was reborn, which meant they had an established past and story arc. By focusing on newly-created characters, the current dev team was given a ton of freedom in shaping their personalities and stories, and the difference in character development and exposition is not a small one. There are so many great moments that evoke inspiration, sadness, intrigue, humor, and everything in between. As much as I want to see more from the characters I spent almost two years with, I know this was a needed and welcome shift. I always felt one of ARR's strongest aspects was its main story — classic FF storytelling in an MMO setting was not what I expected back in 2013. Yoshi-P's team doubled down on this in Heavensward, giving us a story with an immensely satisfying conclusion that still leaves plenty of questions open for future updates.
I'll remain as light on details as possible, but the basic foundation of the story centers on the Dragonsong War, a battle that's been raging between Ishgard's Holy See and the dragons of neighboring Dravania for a thousand years. While we've seen dragons in Eorzea before, it's nothing like this. Dragons aren't just enemies or things to fight, but many are key story characters, with personalities and backstories. Learning the history of the dragons and their relationship with mankind is a fascinating journey. Even outside of the main story, there are events in the world — like the FATE event seen in the first screenshot to your right — that showcase battles between other key dragons that you can participate in. That particular FATE is a multi-part battle event that occurs every so often, with various scaled combatants and dialogue. It's worth seeking it out for the epic feel of aiding your dragon ally in battle alone, but the bonus is that it also yields a gargantuan amount of EXP, possibly the most you can gain from a single event at that level.
If there's a flaw in HW's quest design, it's at the mid-point of level 55 while you're venturing through The Churning Mists. Now, I love moogles as much as the next guy, and the idea of doing a bunch of quests with the little puffballs sounds great. And it is!... the first time. For whatever reason, the developers went insane with the amount of quests the moogles offer, padding out the content by focusing on quantity. The worst offense? Repeat quests. One quest has a moogle ask you to slay a certain beast so he can train himself by watching how you fight. You kill some of these lizards, come back... and he wasn't paying attention so he asks you to do it again. Repeat this process a few times, and you realize it's just poor quest design. There are simply so many
of these quests asking you to not only do inane tasks, but do literally the same task over and over that it's just obnoxious. It's problematic enough that Yoshi-P himself has addressed it, apologized, and said his team will keep a closer eye on this kind of thing in the future. Personally, I did so much side content and earned EXP in other ways that I didn't need
to do every last moogle quest to progress, so this didn't bother me terribly. But I've since leveled a second class through 55 and still haven't exhausted all the moogle quests, there's so many. Luckily, this is the only zone that really suffers from the quantity over quality issue, and once you've moved on, things get better.
Fundamentally, Heavensward's gameplay is similar to what came before. Combat is reliant on a host of skills and abilities that must be used strategically by each party member to overcome challenges, and every job has five new abilities to earn between levels 50-60. These new abilities were carefully designed to hone in on each job's main function, but give them new kinds of capability. For instance, White Mage gets a new spell reminiscent of the shielding bubble Scholars can cast, only this one regenerates the health of those inside it instead of reducing the damage they take. Paladin has the strongest defenses, and therefore gets new skills to defend others, like a shield that deploys on all nearby party members when the Paladin is healed, as well as a powerful new healing ability. Both tank classes — Paladin and Warrior — gain new abilities to boost their effectiveness in situations where there's a main tank and off tank. Not all changes have been well-received by players though, especially those for Bard. A ranged class known for its ability to do battle in motion, Bard gained a new ability to boost damage, but with the requirement that the player stands still — a notable shift in function/gameplay for the class. Still, for the most part, the new functions offered enable players to utilize most of their classes in a new way, so it's a refreshing change.
While they aren't available until players reach Ishgard, the expansion brings three new jobs to the table, one for each main role: Dark Knight (tank), Astrologian (healer), and Machinist (DPS). While it's true that none of these new jobs are drastically different from others in their role — a fact some players lament — each offers some key differentiating factors. Dark Knight is the only tank reliant on MP to be played effectively, making it the only class outside of magic users and ranged fighters that has to watch this stat. Three classes in ARR featured 'pets' to either augment healing abilities or to otherwise assist in battle; Machinist can, fittingly, deploy robotic helpers in battle for support. Finally, Astrologian is the third healer class, and even though some of our group likes to joke that it's simply "a prettier White Mage with starry magic," its key difference is Draw. Part of the job's unique Star Globe weapon is a host of tarot-like cards, which can be drawn in battle to offer different effects such as boosted damage, extra defense, or faster cast times. Cards are random, but can also be "held" to use at a later time or returned to the deck to enhance a future card's effect. This unique mechanic, combined with "traditional" healing spells, makes playing Astrologian both more complex and rewarding than other classes. And did I mention the pretty spell effects?
Heavensward brings a multitude of new dungeons and challenges to FFXIV. As a longtime player, I'm tempted to say they're the best dungeons in the game, though part of that could also be fatigue after seeing the older dungeons a dozen times each. I still have a soft spot for many of the old dungeons, but I feel most of the new ones are better designed, with more interesting battles and sights to see. The Aery is a moody floating fortress bathed in purple light and crystals that I never tire of venturing though. The Vault is an interesting place due to its spoilery setting, but the ornate details and shafts of light streaming in through the windows make it a gorgeous backdrop to some of the most challenging dungeon bosses in the game. The stars of the show though, are no doubt two of the last dungeons: One is part of the main story, and one can be accessed afterwards. Part of my love for them is because I'm a sucker for the Tron-like aesthetics of the Allagans (an ancient technologically-advanced race) who built these dungeons, but I'm sure I'm not alone.
ARR's high-end raid content focused on legendary Final Fantasy character/summon Bahamut. Heavensward offers up a new raid experience, this time centered on the fortress-like machine Alexander. A cross between a robot and a castle, 'Alex' has long been a holy-aspected summoned creature, along with being a key story character in Final Fantasy IX. In Eorzea, a faction of goblins have summoned the machine from the depths and plan to use it to create some ideal society, which always goes well. Due to its sheer size, taking down Alex means adventuring through the mechanical beast from the inside. Each "phase" of the raid will be implemented in future updates; right now, you're able to travel up the arm to Alex's core. Along the way are challenging boss battles, and cutscenes of exposition on this Illuminati goblin group that are responsible for waking up Alexander.
New to Heavensward is a two-tiered structure for raiding: a normal "story" mode that offers a challenge to those new to raiding, but isn't insurmountable; and a tough-as-nails "savage" mode. This structure came from feedback the dev team had received from players who wanted to experience the story of the Bahamut trials, but weren't able to get a strong enough team together to clear them. It left many people out of the loop of what was arguably a key story in ARR as a result. Now, just about anyone can access the story and experience Alex, without needing a team of the best players. And for the hardcore, savage mode offers much harder battles and better rewards. But they key is this: Story content is no longer blocked off by difficulty, a change I wholeheartedly support.
Along with standard battle classes, there's a host of crafting classes (carpenter, blacksmith, etc). Crafting is totally optional, but it gives one the ability to make money and help your friends and other players in several ways. That said, crafting has always been, at its core, a solo endeavor. This changes drastically in Heavensward with the long-discussed addition of the Company Workshop: a basement area that can be added onto your Free Company's house to build various things as a group. It's large-scale crafting that is essentially the equivalent to four-man dungeons and boss battles. As a group, you can build houses and airships, and then send off said airships on adventures to gain EXP and unique items. (In the upcoming 3.1 patch, even more big additions are coming in this area.) By making crafting something that can be done as a group, the game encourages more people to try it out. Just in the circle of people I play with, several of them who had never touched crafting really got into it because of this team aspect. There's a snowball effect too: The more people get intrigued by it, the easier it becomes to progress and build great things together. If you're new to crafting, or never really bothered getting into it, it's worth another look for the Company Workshop.
I will inevitably go on for pages about my love for the official soundtrack, whenever it is released, but Heavensward's music still warrants mention here. Outside of a few carryover tracks from 1.0, Masayoshi Soken composed the entirety of ARR's amazingly varied soundtrack. In Heavensward, longtime Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu composed one track: the title, and main theme, Dragonsong. It's a haunting and gorgeous song with lyrics about Ishgard and the long-running Dragonsong War, brought to life by vocalist Susan Calloway (who also sung ARR's main theme, Answers). This song is proof that Uematsu is still a master at his craft, but it goes deeper than that: the main melody of Dragonsong finds its way into several of Soken's tracks throughout the game. I often talked to Stephen (who runs our Music section) while playing, and the word he used that best describes Soken's work is "cohesive." Most motifs are heard in multiple places, in varying forms, and the music as a whole is so tightly connected, that it really helps bring the world together more than ever. ARR has amazing music too, but this cohesiveness in Heavensward is something you can't help but feel in key dungeons and several story cutscenes. Every other piece is just a joy to listen to: Ishgard, being split into two zones, actually has four different pieces of music (each zone has its own day and night track), all beautiful. The Fractal Continuum dungeon and Azys Lla feature big, dramatic sounds that are the perfect backdrop for these locations. The primal battles (think summoned monsters) in FFXIV often have standout music, a tradition that continues in Heavensward; Bismarck has a bass-heavy piece suited to a battle in the skies with a flying whale, while the insect-like Ravana has possibly the most divisive song in the expansion. It's a vocal theme that is... unexpected when you hear it. I was a little put off at first, in fact, but the more I listened to it, the more I realized the "war cry" and incredibly deep voice was fitting of Ravana as a character.
My favorite song though? A throwback to a very early game in the Final Fantasy series, that in fact plays in an area pulled right from that game. I won't give away what it is, but it's one of the best nods to a classic FF I've yet seen in FFXIV, to say nothing of a surprising FFVI reference late in the game.
Heavensward is not drastically different from A Realm Reborn fundamentally, but it shouldn't be: It adds to, and builds upon, the strengths of what came before, with a tight focus on story and adventure, and with visuals and audio that make the journey a joy to experience. If you haven't played Final Fantasy XIV yet, this is the time to check it out. Now that ARR has been streamlined to allow you to focus on the main story, you can easily experience the best parts of 2.0 and dive into 3.0, where all new adventures await.