"Stormblood is still a good expansion in its own right, but...it doesn't quite reach the bar set by its predecessor."
Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood had the unenviable task of trying to follow up a critically acclaimed MMO expansion. 2015's Heavensward set the bar incredibly high, proving not only that A Realm Reborn wasn't a fluke but that FFXIV could excel — indeed, that it could surpass single-player RPGs entirely. It was perhaps inevitable that Stormblood didn't quite reach the same level of greatness, but it was still an overall solid expansion that gave players lots of fun new objectives and set the stage for 2019's Shadowbringers. Our review of this expansion has been a long time coming, and I'm proud to finally give Stormblood an official RPGFan verdict.
First things first. Stormblood was released over two and a half years ago. We're in the middle of a whole new expansion right now, so some of the content and changes made in Stormblood are no longer relevant. More importantly, the story, dungeons, raids, etc. have been out for a while, so none of what I say here will be new to current players. As such, I won't be doing our standard patch-by-patch review but rather looking at Stormblood as a whole. There's a lot of content to go over and I can't possibly cover it all, but I'll do my best to pick out the important parts of FFXIV's second expansion.
Starting with the story and characters, there are some good elements and memorable moments, but the yarn just isn't as strong as the tale we got in Heavensward. First, the story itself is split between liberating the Eorzean nation of Ala Mhigo and freeing the Far Eastern kingdom of Doma. Both have been conquered by the expansionist Garlean Empire, and the idea is that by helping one you can help the other. A story told on two fronts can work, but in Stormblood, the result is a lopsided plot where the story on one side of the world outshines what happens on the other side. Ala Mhigo is mostly dull and forgettable, while the events in Doma and the surrounding region are far more interesting. For the most part, this imbalance carries over into the post-expansion patches too, which is why the refocusing of the plot in 4.4 and 4.5 in preparation for Shadowbringers is much appreciated.
Second, the characters are something of a mixed bag. There are some great new additions, like the charismatic Hien and the wicked Yotsuyu, and two of your allies — Lyse and Alisaie — get some much-needed character development. Unfortunately, some characters don't really get enough screen time to make much of an impact, and others are not established particularly well. Stormblood's primary antagonist, Zenos yae Galvus, is perhaps the single most frustrating thing about the entire expansion. The crown prince of the Garlean Empire, Zenos is freakishly strong and cares about just one thing: finding an opponent who will give him a decent challenge in combat. He does serve as an interesting foil for the Warrior of Light, showing us what our hero might be like if they used their preternatural strength to satisfy a craving for blood instead of helping people. But he's sadly a very one-note character for most of the expansion, and there's very little compelling about him beyond the fact that he gives the Warrior of Light a run for their money in a few battles.
Of course, every expansion comes with a ton of new battle content to enjoy. And while Stormblood's story doesn't quite live up to the expectations set by Heavensward, I think the new dungeons, raids, and trials introduced across the 4.0 patch series easily meet (and in a lot of cases, surpass) the bar set by the previous expansion. Starting with the dungeons, there are several that stand out for various reasons. Bardam's Mettle, for instance, has a unique boss that is entirely mechanic based. Doma Castle has one of the best, most groovy accompaniments of the expansion. The Burn features a lovely Praetorium arrangement and a final boss that is actually somewhat challenging. And the final dungeon of the expansion, The Ghimlyt Dark, is basically the FFXIV version of one of those superhero movie montages where all your favorite allies get in on the action. There are a few duds, of course: the first two dungeons are pretty dull, and the extra level 70 dungeons (Kugane Castle, The Temple of the Fist, and the two hard mode dungeons) aren't terribly interesting either. But all around, the selection of dungeons in Stormblood is pretty decent.
It's very much the same for the new trials. Out of the four main scenario trials, Shinryu and Tsukuyomi are absolutely the best. Both have amazing music (Tsukuyomi's "Wayward Daughter" is one of my favorite themes in the entire game), and the extreme version of Shinryu is still the most mechanically dense and challenging trial FFXIV has ever seen. The series of side story trials this time around is called The Four Lords, and if you're at all familiar with the four beasts from Chinese mythology or the Japanese names for them, you'll probably recognize the bosses you wind up fighting. You face off against Genbu the Black Tortoise in the dungeon that unlocks the quest line, but of the three actual trial fights, Suzaku is my favorite. None of the fights are terribly difficult, even on the extreme difficulty, but the Vermillion Bird has a few unique mechanics that make her fight more interesting than the showdowns with the White Tiger (Byakko) and Azure Dragon (Seiryu). She also gets the best music of the three trials, which is always a plus in my book.
The other eight-man content you can engage in is, of course, the normal and savage raids. This time around, you're dealing with Omega, a dimension-hopping superweapon who wants to evolve by observing various lifeforms duke it out in a contest to determine the strongest warrior. The setup for the story is perhaps a little too repetitive and predictable, but the addition of Alpha, a little helper who looks just like the titular character from the Chocobo's Dungeon series, adds some heart to the proceedings, and the emotional payoff at the end provides players with one of the sweetest moments in the game. The fights are themed around different classic Final Fantasy games. Deltascape features bosses from FFV, Sigmascape pits you against FFVI baddies (including, of course, series favorite Kefka), and Alphascape is a mixture of old, reoccurring, and new fights. While there are some duds, most of these fights are a ton of fun, particularly in Sigmascape and Alphascape. There's also some great classic and original music accompanying these bouts, particularly "eScape" (featuring everyone's favorite misheard lyrics), "Heartless," and "From the Heavens."
Omega isn't the only raid series in Stormblood, though. There's also the Alliance or 24-man raids, and for fans of FFT and FFXII, it's probably the best raid series in the entire game. Titled Return to Ivalice
, this raid series has you help a troupe of thespians who are on the run from Garlemald because they are trying to prove a legend known as the Zodiac Brave Story is not fiction but history. Elements and characters from both FFT and FFXII are adapted into the story in a way that both fits into FFXIV's lore and serves as a sort of love letter for fans of the series' most unique world. More focus is given to FFT than FFXII, and outside of a certain character being the polar opposite of his namesake, I think the PS1 strategy RPG is represented quite well in this content. Sadly, FFXII kind of gets shafted character-wise, both in terms of appearances and how characters have been adapted to fit the story. Having Ba'Gamnan take over Basch's role as the disgraced Dalmascan captain is particularly jarring, and Fran's place in the story doesn't make much sense either.
The role of the FFXII characters may disappoint, but the raids themselves most certainly do not. Each excursion has you explore a well-known location from one of the Ivalice games, only to see it slowly morph into another location. The Royal City of Rabanastre and The Ridorana Lighthouse are particularly interesting because, as their names suggest, you start in locations from FFXII, but by the end of both, you wind up in areas from FFT. Bosses are also a mix of foes from both games, and some of the fights can get quite hectic. Music is pulled directly from the original releases of both FFT and FFXII (yes, sadly it's not The Zodiac Age version of the soundtrack), and while I wish Soken would have given at least some of it his signature arrangement flair, you can't really argue with a double dose of Hitoshi Sakimoto. Orbonne Monastery, the final raid, is definitely the best of the three in my opinion — mostly because a certain favorite character of mine makes an appearance and is voiced to perfection. The ending of this particular raid, and the 24-man series as a whole, is quite the emotional sendoff that should leave Ivalice fans plenty satisfied.
Of course, dungeons, trials, and raids aren't the only things for you to do in Stormblood. There are also two ultimate fights (Bahamut and Ultima Weapon) for those who crave a punishing challenge, a new Deep Dungeon called Heaven on High that tasks players with climbing 100 randomized floors in a search for treasure, a new series of relic weapon quests, a new PVP mode called Rival Wings, three new custom delivery clients for crafters and gatherers, and new beast tribes to unlock and rank up. Battle classes have access to the Ananta (snake people) and Kojin (turtle people) tribes, while crafters and gatherers can help a group of Namazu (catfish people). All three tribes feature cute, bite-sized stories that progress as you rank up the tribe's opinion of your character by doing daily quests, as well as a variety of items, mounts, and minions you can eventually purchase. Of the three, I found myself enjoying the Ananta's story the most, though it was also fun to watch the utterly hopeless Namazu flounder around in their attempts to host a grand festival.
As is standard with every expansion, Stormblood adds new jobs for players to unlock and master. Unlike Heavensward, however, which saw one new job for each of the three roles (tank, healer, and DPS), Stormblood only adds DPS jobs. 4.0 proper introduces the samurai and red mage jobs. Samurai is a katana-wielding melee DPS that performs combos to generate Sen and build Kenki, both of which can be expended on powerful strikes. Red Mage is a master of white and black magic that uses a unique dualcast mechanic to instantly cast longer spells after hardcasting shorter ones. Not only does this give the job an interesting rotation where you alternate casting shorter spells like normal with instacasting longer spells, but it also means that Red Mage has some decent party utility thanks to its Verraise spell. Patch 4.5 adds a third DPS, but it is not a normal battle class. The iconic Blue Mage is FFXIV's first limited job, so called because it is designed mostly for solo play and cannot be used for recent or high-level content. The job is certainly an interesting experiment, and tackling the various challenges at the Masked Carnivale can be fun, but the grind of gathering spells from enemies combined with the job not being allowed to participate in a lot of instanced content (at least in Stormblood) kind of limits the fun you can have with it. Shadowbringers has alleviated some of these issues with patch 5.15's Blue Mage update, but the original implementation of the job in Stormblood is pretty lackluster.
Aside from new jobs (and an increased level cap), one thing you can always expect from a new expansion is a variety of quality of life updates. Job actions are of course reworked to reduce skill bloat and tweak performance, but Stormblood also implements some much-needed changes that make adventuring easier and less tedious, especially for battle classes. Case in point, unlocking disciple of war and magic jobs is now much simpler because you no longer need to level a supplementary class. Similarly, cross-class skills are a thing of the past; instead of needing to level other classes to gain access to vitally important skills, every role now has a pool of abilities called role actions they can draw from automatically (as long as they meet the level requirements). Stormblood still requires that these abilities be assigned to slots before you can place them on your hotbar, and 4.0 sadly limits the number of slots you have to just five, which annoyingly requires swapping abilities based on the situation and the needs of your party. Thankfully, the number of slots is increased to ten in 4.4, which eliminates any need to make triage decisions.
Other quality of life changes include the addition of job gauges for battle classes (some of which are more helpful than others), a new glamour system that lets you store your fashion equipment and create multiple sets of glamours you can swap between mostly at will, and the implementation of cross-world linkshells and the world visit system. The last one in particular is a huge improvement that allows players to travel to other servers on the same data center with relatively few restrictions. If you have friends on other servers, you can now explore Eorzea with them, tackling quests, hunting dangerous marks and treasure maps, or just hanging out together at their personal or Free Company house. The divide between servers has long been a frustration of mine with FFXIV. Square Enix has slowly chipped away at it over the course of a few patches, namely with 3.5's cross-world party finder and the addition of cross-world linkshells in 4.3. But patch 4.57's world visit is the closest we've gotten (and possibly the closest we will ever get) to tearing down those walls between players. And I am absolutely here for it.
Last but not least, we come to visuals and audio. Unfortunately, the former is a bit of a disappointment. The graphical fidelity of the game hasn't really changed from Heavensward, which makes sense for an MMO that ideally needs to run on relatively similar specs for a decade or more. So evaluating Stormblood's visuals is more about level and art design, which is sadly pretty mixed overall. The trials and 24-man raids are pretty much universally great, and most of the Omega raids are cool too, but the dungeons — even the optional ones — tend to be more blah than beautiful. And then we come to the new overworld areas. Out of the expansion's six major zones, the three in Ala Mhigo are dreadfully boring to traverse and visually dull to look at. To be fair, there's only so much you can do with the arid, rocky region where Ala Mhigo is situated, but the developers just didn't make any of these zones interesting. The final area of the expansion, The Lochs, is particularly egregious in this respect; it's a wide open area with absolutely nothing that draws the eye except the city of Ala Mhigo itself, and while you can explore a small part of said city, it's not like the other city-states in the game — there is nothing to see or do except the occasional quest.
The three zones on or around the eastern continent of Othard are much better overall, and this region is also where you find Stormblood's main explorable city: Kugane. This port town may only have one decently sized area, but its many colorful, Japanese-inspired structures and brutal jump and vista challenges make it an interesting and bustling location (at least during the two years between Stormblood and Shadowbringers' launches). The Ruby Sea is the weak link of the three "Far East" locales, as it's just an ocean (that you can now swim underwater in) with a few islands and not a whole lot to see; but the Azim Steppe and Yanxia are definitely the stars of the expansion. The former is a vast plain that is quite picturesque despite being a wide open area with few structures. The latter is a mix of villages, rice fields, towering rock formations, a wide river, and other interesting things to see. Basically, the design of the new areas mirrors the development of the plot: one set is dull and boring, while the other is vibrant and interesting.
As for audio, I've mentioned some of the standout musical selections earlier in the review, and while there is plenty to enjoy over the course of Stormblood and its five major patches, the overall soundtrack just isn't as strong as Heavensward's beautiful and cohesive accompaniment. Case in point, most of the area and cutscene music is just okay, meaning that the best music is found in the dungeons, trials and raids. This isn't unusual per se, but with the rest of the music being not quite as impressive, it means the soundtrack is more uneven in terms of quality. "Revolutions," Stormblood's vocal theme song composed by Nobuo Uematsu and performed by Susan Calloway, is beautiful in its own way, but it doesn't have the melodic or lyrical power that Heavensward's "Dragonsong" did, and thus it feels inferior. Stormblood's other audio component, voice acting, is for the most part just as strong as it was in Heavensward. There are a few misses here and there, but the core cast is excellent, particularly Laura Aikman as Lyse, Andrew Koji as Hien, and Naoko Mori as Yotsuyu.
Ultimately, I found Stormblood to be something of a letdown after the brilliance of Heavensward. It's still a good expansion in its own right, and I loved the vast majority of the instanced content (particularly the trials and raids), but the uneven main story, dull new zones, and some of the lackluster music means that it doesn't quite reach the bar set by its predecessor. FFXIV fans should still definitely play through Stormblood, though; there are good times to be had, and it sets the stage for the MMO's current expansion champ, Shadowbringers, so consider it recommended content despite its flaws.