2019’s Shadowbringers was an absolute triumph. Between 5.0 proper and 5.3, the main story solidified itself as not only the best in Final Fantasy XIV’s history, but also as one of the best in the entire series. I wrote multiple glowing reviews of the patches, but in the back of my mind, I was always worried about the next expansion. Shadowbringers was just so amazing, and it was hard to imagine that Square Enix could match it, let alone top it. However, I’m pleased to say that those fears ended up being unwarranted. Endwalker is just as good as, and in some ways even better than, its predecessor, and I found myself surprised that they not only pulled it off, but that I ever really doubted they would in the first place.
Endwalker begins with the Scions heading off to Sharlayan, a somewhat reclusive nation that may have vital information about the apocalyptic Final Days that Zenos and his Ascian companion Fandaniel seem to want to unleash on the planet. The story starts off a little slow; there is more setup to get through than usual because of the conclusory nature of this expansion. At first, it occasionally feels like things are dragging a bit, but midway through the first half of the main scenario, things start picking up, leading to an explosive — and frankly unexpected — first trial. From that point on, all bets are off, and the story repeatedly surprises you with twists and increasingly high stakes. There are a few more periods of downtime that slow the pace a bit, but the narrative otherwise moves at a good clip to the climactic conclusion.
And what a conclusion it is! There are so many emotional moments leading up to the finale, and the spectacle of the final confrontation with the primary antagonist absolutely feels appropriately epic. I cried several times, and let me stress that I don’t often cry when playing video games. That Endwalker was able to bring me to tears multiple times is a testament not only to the story but to the characters we’ve spent almost ten years forging bonds with. FFXIV would not be the same without them, and Endwalker wisely cashes in on that emotional capital to great effect. I’m not even talking about just the Scions; secondary characters from previous expansions, companions from old Alliance Raids and trial series’, and even old job quest NPCs all make appearances. The whole thing feels like a celebration of the Warrior of Light’s journey and all the people they’ve befriended along the way.
If you’re afraid that all of these cameos might result in a “power of friendship” ending, well, I won’t lie and say that trope is entirely absent. I will say, though, that it rarely feels cliché, and it ties in nicely with the expansion’s central theme. Endwalker is a story of hope versus despair, of how people keep living in the face of insurmountable sorrow and inevitable death. The message of finding joy and meaning in life despite — or because of — the pain and suffering that comes with it is powerful. It seems particularly relevant to our current pandemic reality, though whether that was intentional is anyone’s guess.
Before moving on, a brief word about the antagonists in Endwalker. Though they do not rise to the level of Shadowbringers’ Emet-Selch — and really, who could? — I was mostly satisfied with their implementation in the expansion. Fandaniel, in particular, gets some much-needed character development that fleshes him out and makes him more interesting and tragic by the end of the game. Sadly, Zenos goes nowhere for the vast majority of Endwalker, but his story ends on a high (and hype) note, so I ultimately found myself willing to forgive how the narrative lets him stagnate for so long. The true villain in Endwalker, though, is nihilism. I won’t say more than that for fear of spoilers, but it is kind of brilliant how the game gives you both corporeal and ideological opponents, and both are equally compelling.
Speaking of compelling, let’s talk about Masayoshi Soken’s music. You might wonder if Soken has rested on his laurels after being diagnosed with cancer in 2020. Well, Endwalker provides an emphatic response: absolutely not. There is some fantastic new music in this expansion, and Soken once again plays with themes and variations to create a cohesive soundtrack full of references to both new and old material. There are a few duds — most notably the new 8-man raid themes — but with the strengths of the main themes, some fantastic new battle music, and what may be the most impactful final zone theme in the game — with lyrics that reference our journeys across every expansion — there’s so much good music here. I’m not sure if it surpasses Shadowbringers, but there are some incredibly high highs that match, if not outshine, the previous expansion’s soundtrack, at least as of patch 6.05. I’m looking forward to hearing what music we’ll be graced with as part of our new adventures in 6.1 and beyond.
Visually, the good mostly outweighs the bad, but the bad is sometimes noticeable and occasionally distracting. As I mentioned in my Shadowbringers review, the FFXIV engine has been showing its age for a while, and Endwalker exacerbates the low resolution of some assets in cutscenes with intense character close-ups. Most of the new zones have interesting design elements, and a few are true knockouts, though there are some areas where I wish they had gone a little further in the level design. Thavnair, for instance, has some lovely and colorful inspirations, as seen in the concept art, but the zone itself is a little dull. The same can be said of the first few dungeons, though the spectacle of the last several makes up for it, particularly the final story dungeon.
On that note, let’s move on to gameplay. Endwalker adds the standard eight new dungeons (six from the main story and two unlocked by side quests), three story trials with two Extreme variants, and (with patches 6.01 and 6.05) the first tier of 8-man raids in normal and Savage difficulty modes. Starting with the dungeons, there are some pretty immediate callbacks to Final Fantasy IV with the Tower of Zot and Tower of Babil. However, later dungeons take you to some pretty exciting and unexpected places, and even if you never use the Trust function, I strongly recommend it for at least the level 87 dungeon.
In both dungeons and trials, bosses run the gamut from too easy to decently challenging, and there are some fan-favorite foes to look forward to along the way. I can’t talk about the trials without spoiling the story, but the fights themselves have some interesting mechanics, and even the story versions can be a little difficult for first-timers. The Extreme fights provide a decent first challenge but aren’t terribly hard to master. Finally, the Pandaemonium raid is somewhat disappointing regarding story and music — neither provide much to write home about — but the fights can be a bit tricky and require some decent party coordination, even in normal mode. From what I’ve experienced so far, Savage suggests a good challenge lies ahead, and I look forward to learning and clearing each fight.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a new expansion without new jobs. Endwalker finally adds a fourth healer, Sage, and a new melee DPS, Reaper. Both are fun to play, though I haven’t been able to level either to 90 yet. Sage is a barrier healer which sports a ton of off-global cooldowns and a basic job mechanic of DPSing to provide small heals to a chosen target. In my experience leveling the job, it can feel very smooth, even overpowered, depending on the content you’re running and the skill of the tank you are paired with, but recovery from deaths and poor tank cooldown rotations can occasionally make things a little challenging. Like Scholar, Sage’s kit centers around damage mitigation rather than brute force healing throughout, so more planning is required to make the best use of its skills. Reaper’s primary mechanic is around summoning and (eventually) being possessed by a voidsent avatar, which is an incredibly cool concept, especially for the vaunted Warrior of Light. The job has multiple gauge-spending moves as you level, but it never becomes overly complicated, making it a relatively simple but flashy choice for those who just want to slice and dice.
In addition to the new jobs, Endwalker also brings a host of changes to existing jobs. Summoner, for instance, has received a total rework that significantly simplifies its rotation. Some may say it’s too simple now, but I love it. I avoided Summoner before precisely because of its complex and lengthy rotation; with the rework it’s now my DPS job of choice. Healers get some much-needed changes, such as universal 1.5 second cast times for their DPS spells — previously a trait exclusive to Astrologian. And tanks have more self-healing potential than ever, though Dark Knight is noticeably worse than the other three at present and thus is harder to work with during big dungeon pulls.
Outside of specific job changes that maybe don’t work that well, one general criticism players might have is that it may feel like there’s not a whole lot of new changes added. White Mage, for instance, gets upgrades to its single- and multi-target AOE spells but only two new abilities. This can result in some jobs feeling the same as they did throughout Shadowbringers. To a certain extent, that’s inevitable now with 19 jobs (not including Blue Mage) to balance. I’ve only been able to sample a few jobs at 90 so far, but I will say that while I would have taken more new abilities, I do like the new skills we’ve gotten.
Shadowbringers ditched job quests in favor of role quests, which can be completed by any job in a particular role, like tank or healer. Endwalker continues this system and even improves on it by adding a fifth role questline. In the previous expansion, DPS jobs were awkwardly split between physical and magical DPS, oversaturating the former with seven jobs versus the latter’s three. Endwalker moves physical ranged DPS jobs (Bard, Machinist, and Dancer) to their own questline, better balancing the system and allowing for an additional story to be told.
The basic concept of these role quests is similar to those in Shadowbringers: you are informed of dangerous monsters, called Blasphemies, that must be hunted and destroyed to protect the land and its people. This time around, however, you’re helping out existing characters from the Source. The format for each questline is basically the same, which can make things a little predictable, but as each quest involves old faces that otherwise don’t appear in the main story, it’s a brilliant way to wrap up some lingering plot threads. For instance, the healer role quests provide some closure for Stormblood’s Arenvald and Fordola, while the caster questline deals with some of the fallout from the events in Heavensward. At present, there is no capstone questline for those who complete all five role quests, but this will likely be added at a later date.
Battle classes aren’t the only jobs in FFXIV. Crafters and gatherers also have new levels and skills to look forward to. Disciples of the Hand will notice that some existing skills have been removed and others reworked, but the biggest changes in Endwalker are for Disciples of the Land. HQ gathering is no longer possible, and all gatherer skills that previously improved your chances of collecting these have either been removed or replaced with new skills that can increase your gathering yield. This makes the gathering experience more about quantity than quality, and as someone who is more into combat jobs than crafting and gathering, I can appreciate the resulting simplicity. You no longer have to decide whether to use your GP to increase yield or HQ chances; now the name of the game is just “gather as much as possible.”
Botanist and Miner are otherwise the same, but Fisher gets a new minigame for spearfishing. When you click on a gathering point, a window pops up that shows you the fish swimming by. Using your “Gig” skill sends your spear up through the middle of the screen in a straight line, so you have to time your button presses carefully when the fish are in the right position. As time progresses and you catch fish, the aquatic denizens’ wariness level increases, and when it maxes out, the minigame is over. I really like this new approach to spearfishing because it makes Fisher more engaging, which is a quality the job has lacked up until now.
Just like the battle jobs have role quests, crafters and gatherers have Studium quests. These function effectively the same as the facet quests in Shadowbringers, and the jobs are even split up among the five quest givers in the same manner. Each questline tasks you with crafting or gathering requested materials for students and faculty at Sharlayan’s preeminent place of learning. However, unlike the facet quests, Studium quests feel more like… well, quests. Instead of simply making materials for a rotating door of clients, you help students with their research and deal with various personal issues involving their colleagues. You even have dialogue choices throughout these questlines, which also helps them feel more like other side quest stories.
On the subject of quests, Endwalker tries something new — well, new for FFXIV. In addition to standard quest objectives like going to specific locations, talking to people, and occasionally fighting monsters, you sometimes have to accompany or follow NPCs. The former can be fun because you can speak to your party members and see some optional dialogue. It can also be annoying because the pathing for your companions can sometimes fail, depending on where you go and how fast you want to get there, and if you lose track of them, you have to go back to the start and pick them back up. Following NPCs can also be frustrating because you need to be stealthy most of the time, and the game can be pretty unforgiving regarding how much of a grace period you have should the NPC turn around and look in your direction. On the one hand, it’s nice to see FFXIV trying something new with quest objectives, but Endwalker relies on them perhaps a little too much, and the design could use a little more work, so I hope future patches refine the system and add a little more balance.
Finally, Endwalker brings a host of quality of life changes to FFXIV, and while I can’t talk at length about all of them, there are a few that deserve a brief mention. First, there’s the stat squish, which has been somewhat interesting in synced older content where you wind up seeing more mechanics than you used to thanks to the rework. In new content, you tend to not notice it aside from overall lower HP and damage values. Second, Endwalker finally adds male Viera as an option for player characters, an oft-requested feature and one that will eventually be followed by female Hrothgar at a later date. Next, accessing the aethernet in any city-state now includes a map showing you the location of every possible destination and nearby quest markers. This may sound mundane, but it is a huge improvement that makes it so much easier to figure out where you need to go for various things. Lastly, Endwalker brings DualSense support to the PC version of FFXIV. I previously stated in my 5.5 review that I wasn’t a big fan of the haptic feedback in the PS5 version of the game. But, for whatever reason — whether they improved the engine or I’ve simply had more time to get used to it — I now really like the feedback. It’s a lot of fun just to feel the difference between mounts, and it’s otherwise subtle enough that it doesn’t interfere with gameplay.
Wrapping up a story is never easy, even in a single-player game. Wrapping up a near decade-long arc and meeting the high bar set by previous expansions is even more difficult, but Endwalker manages both with aplomb. Even with the promise of a new adventure on the horizon, I was still sad things were over when I reached the end credits and immediately wanted to start a replay. By my reckoning, this is the sign of an exceptional, unforgettable experience, and I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in FFXIV.