Editor’s note: The following impressions are based upon a pre-release build that has not undergone final adjustments. All content is subject to significant change. It also contains a few spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker.
Instead of hosting an in-person event for the media tour to preview Final Fantasy XIV‘s newest expansion, Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, Square Enix allowed the media, including myself, to play an early build of the expansion virtually.
If one thing is clear from my time with Endwalker, it’s that Yoshi-P and company realized they were onto something with Shadowbringers.
And why not? Shadowbringers is amazing, and it keeps bringing new people into the fold. In a pre-recorded introduction, Yoshi-P explained that the subscriber base has increased by 50% since Shadowbringers‘ launch, moving from 16 million to roughly 24 million leading up to Endwalker‘s release. The developers have even had to implement new rules for how long people can be idle before they’re logged out and push back the planned launch of Data Center travel because of the influx of new players. There may be arguments as to whether Final Fantasy XIV is the most popular MMO available, but clearly, it’s on an upswing.
Yoshi-P wasn’t lying when he previously said that Endwalker would iterate on the design philosophy of the previous expansion. The combat, dungeon design, and all explorable areas such as combat zones and towns feel a lot like those in Shadowbringers. That isn’t to say Endwalker doesn’t bring its own flair and substance to these, but as someone who started with Shadowbringers, I felt right at home.
The media tour began with the aforementioned pre-recorded introduction on Endwalker. Yoshi-P didn’t cover much information we don’t already know. Among the things he discussed were new housing, the new Alliance Raid and high-end raids, along with lifting the cap on fast travel charges to tackle in-game inflation. He reassured us once again that the new “damage squish,” wherein character and enemy HP values will be lowered along with decreasing damage dealt, is a necessary part of the game’s development and that we won’t feel it in combat. He also reminded us that adjustments to crafting and gathering would happen, but we wouldn’t get to try them out. Yoshida did point out that the Trust System would continue into Endwalker and noted there would be some updates to the system, but he wasn’t clear about what those changes will be.
The most important new information Yoshi-P dropped was some upcoming tweaks to the leveling system. He wasn’t 100% clear on the particulars of these adjustments but seemed to indicate these would make it easier to level an alternative job after your first. Although he wasn’t too specific, I for one am excited about anything that makes it easier to experiment with other jobs.
After the address, we got a chance to go hands-on with Endwalker. We were allowed to explore three previously announced zones: the new hub town Old Sharlayan and the areas Thavnair and Garlemald. Additionally, each zone was full of FATES and hunt marks. We also had access to every combat job leveled up to 90, allowing us to see their full kit. Finally, we could run the new level 81 dungeon: The Tower of Zot! (Yes, as a Final Fantasy IV devotee, I squealed.)
Right off the bat, I noticed that my UI looked basically the same. To be consistent, there aren’t any wholesale adjustments like eliminating TP or adjusting all MP values in Endwalker. Aside from the moment I opened up my character screen and noticed that belts were gone, there wasn’t much of a difference.
That isn’t to say that other quality of life improvements aren’t here. One thing of particular note is traveling around hubs is much easier now. Previously, when you went to an Aetheryte Crystal in town, the given list of Aethernet warps lacked their actual visual location. Early in the game, even in relatively straightforward places like Gridania, this was incredibly frustrating. Now, when you access the Aethernet, the game pulls up a map of the town, showing you where every location is. As a person who still has a hard time making my way around A Realm Reborn‘s towns, let me tell you, this is a wonderful and welcome change.
That’s not the only reason navigating Old Sharlayan is going to be easier; frankly, it is the most simply laid out hub city thus far in the game. Everything feels compact and easy to access, but not as busy as Kugane. You don’t move between zones like some of the earlier hub cities, and there are no confusing staircases like the Crystarium. Most importantly, though, it’s a wonder to behold. A coastal town, clearly inspired by Greek architecture, the glistening white buildings and the enormous libraries indicate what we already knew: this is a place of learning and knowledge. I’ll admit, however, that it lacks the atmosphere and impact of the hub cities of prior expansions. It feels like it might just be too small, so it lacks the grandeur it might have otherwise. Or maybe I’m just partial to Ishgard and the Crystarium. Who knows.
The two zones we got to explore, though, might be my two new favorites in the game. Garlemald, in particular, is incredible. The entire zone is burned out and abandoned, with snow (or is it ash?) falling everywhere. Even without knowledge of the story, you can tell something has happened here as it just feels and looks so desperately lonely, with little details like an overturned train (did someone suplex it?) and empty, dilapidated structures in the city proper. Even when the sun is out, the landscape is shrouded in shadow. The lovely, lonesome piano track that plays while you explore does everything to enhance the mood of this space. There isn’t another area quite like it, and it’s splendid.
Thavnair, on the other hand, feels like an area that would be right at home in Shadowbringers. It’s a large, tropical, Mediterranean spot on the coast, with huge cliffsides and sparsely populated settlements littered throughout. During the day, the cliffsides glow purple and yellow, making Thavnair even more stunning. The variety of open plains, wooded areas, and the beautiful views off the coast make this a zone I’m going to love, and not just because there are a set of striking dummies sitting right on the coastline.
As much as I enjoyed hanging out in these areas, the best part of the hands-on was undoubtedly The Tower of Zot. Sure, I might be biased. The original has some of the best story moments and boss fights in Final Fantasy IV, and while I couldn’t necessarily tell you what the story is like in Endwalker, I can confirm that it has atmosphere. The music is pulled straight from its original iteration, and Soken’s version is as fabulous as you’d expect. The dungeon feels like a fully alive mechanical structure while still giving little nods to the original, including its bosses. The combat mechanics also felt fresh here. Sure, you’re still pulling mobs between each boss with the same general structure of a Final Fantasy XIV dungeon, but the bosses each required mechanics that I’ve not seen before. Even after running Zot no fewer than five times, there were a few I still struggled with. In a game where main story dungeons are often a little too easy for my taste, this is welcome. Zot might be my new favorite dungeon in Final Fantasy XIV, and while recency bias and nostalgia might be coloring my opinion a bit, I’m convinced almost everyone will enjoy it.
I exclusively ran through The Tower of Zot with Trusts mostly because I was curious about the changes Yoshi-P mentioned in the introduction. Honestly, I didn’t see many. Tanks still don’t pull mobs throughout the dungeon, staying with one at a time. My DPS allies still weren’t using AOEs as often as I’d like either. DPS also still use limit breaks, maybe a bit more frequently and appropriately on bosses. Nonetheless, if you liked using Trusts before, you still will in Endwalker, and if you didn’t, I can’t see any of the adjustments doing anything to change your mind.
Speaking of adjustments, let’s talk about combat changes. The first thing to get out of the way is the “damage squish.” I will admit that I was a little put off when this was first announced. I’ve never gone through a damage squish before, and there’s almost nothing I like more than seeing big numbers come up on my screen when playing Samurai. Yet, everything felt the same. Yes, my HP was ¼ of what it was in the endgame of Shadowbringers, but I spent so much time paying attention to the fight that I didn’t even notice during battle. Bosses still went down in about the time I’d expect, and so did mobs. Overall, it didn’t make any difference in how combat felt, and if this is what Yoshi-P says he needs to do to make the game go on for another ten years, then it’s a small sacrifice.
Before I start talking about jobs, I want to be clear about something: I am no expert. I only have a Dragoon, Dark Knight, and Samurai leveled to 80, and I’m in the midst of leveling a healer. If you want a more detailed look at all the adjustments, I recommend you go take a look at Mr. Happy or Mizzteq‘s YouTube channels. I’ll just be providing a general overview and a small look at the new jobs.
As Yoshi-P promised, the adjustments to jobs in Endwalker feel like an extension of Shadowbringers‘ changes. There seems to be a focus on not adding a lot of new buttons and instead simplifying abilities and finding new ways to bring complexity to jobs. For example, with Dragoon, there is only one new combat ability, but there are other notable changes. First of all, one buff and one jump have an additional charge, giving you more flexibility with how you use those particular abilities. Additionally, if you complete a full single target or AOE combo, you get access to a powered up combo starter, and using it gives you a charge for a brand new ability. With two charges, you can use it. And while Life of the Dragon will be a trait as opposed to a buff you have to maintain, Dragoon in Endwalker still feels busier, even if there aren’t many more buttons.
This same philosophy seemed to transfer over to other jobs I experimented with as well. In many cases, where a job has new abilities, they’re activated after using one skill and then replace the button prompt of that same skill temporarily. For example, with Summoner, which felt every bit as cool to play as the job actions trailer made it look, every time I pulled out a new summon, the buttons were shared between the other summons. I know some have requested that “1-2-3” combos all be on the same button, and that doesn’t seem to be what they’re doing in Endwalker, but at least for this controller player, I think they’ve done enough to maintain that playing with one is viable.
Perhaps appropriately, the two combat jobs which feel the most distinct from anything the developers have done thus far are the new ones: Reaper and Sage. They both introduce different ways of thinking about a DPS and a healer, and I think they’re going to be very popular in Endwalker.
I can’t think of a job that plays to my personal tastes more than Reaper. Not only does it look incredibly cool, but there are a ton of gauges to engage with. There is a base “1-2-3” combo, but if you’re playing right, it seems like you shouldn’t be using it much, as completing that combo unlocks more abilities. If you hit those correctly, it adds to yet another gauge, allowing you to summon a Voidsent helper that then unlocks even more moves, putting you in a burst phase. You’re constantly flipping between three different sets of abilities, and getting the hang of it generally wasn’t too hard, but optimization almost certainly will be. It feels like a blend of Samurai, Black Mage, and Dark Knight, pulling small elements from each of them together to create something wholly unique in the game, and I am here for it.
While I was fairly certain going in that I’d like Reaper, I was pleasantly surprised by Sage. I’ll admit, I have limited knowledge of healing, and I really like doing damage. Luckily, Sage helped me do both of these things. The core mechanic of Sage is that you actually heal someone else in your party by doing damage to the enemy. You select another party member to heal, and every time you hit enemies with your base damage spell, they recover some HP, similar to Dancer’s buffs. Your other skills include a couple of shields and a lot of OGCD spells for more healing. Even as an inexperienced healer, this worked for me. I managed to run through The Tower of Zot without understanding what most of my skills did, but as long as I kept hitting the boss, my tank stayed up. It felt fun and natural, and I think it will be the perfect job for people who are afraid of healing like me, but it also has the depth for experienced healers to keep them engaged.
The truth is this preview barely scratches the surface of everything I saw in my 7 hours with Endwalker. I’ve hardly even touched on how amazing Soken’s music still is (you all knew that already). I didn’t get a chance to talk about the cool hunts our group took down. But know this: if you loved Shadowbringers, I am confident you’re going to enjoy Endwalker. And if you haven’t tried Final Fantasy XIV yet? You can play through the entirety of A Realm Reborn and the award-winning Heavensward expansion up to level 60 for FREE with no restrictions on playtime! You should.
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker releases on November 23rd of this year, and goes into early access on November 19th for those who preordered the title. Be sure to check back with RPGFan for more news as we move ever closer to its release!