When I reviewed Shadowbringers last summer, I said that it exceeded my expectations by surpassing the high bar set by 2015’s Heavensward. I meant it back then and I still do, but a part of me has been waiting for patch 5.3 to really compare the two expansions on equal footing. For the uninitiated, each expansion has five major patches after the initial mega-patch that launches the new content, but the third patch largely concludes the main story, while the fourth and fifth patches begin to set things up for the next expansion. Heavensward was amazing not just because of the initial campaign released in patch 3.0 but also because of the storyline that continued through 3.1 and 3.2 until it was concluded in spectacular fashion with 3.3. So I’ve been very keen to see how Shadowbringers’ story would get wrapped up in 5.3, particularly after two patches that were more about setup than excitement.
Let’s just say I am not disappointed.
Of course, it’s hard to say why I am not disappointed without delving into spoilers, so I’ll try to be as vague as possible. The crux of 5.3’s story is about dealing with Elidibus — the Ascian Emissary who has mysteriously been awakening new Warriors of Light throughout the First — while also finally getting the Scions back home to the Source. There is so much that I love about this part of the patch, from a cameo appearance by a beloved character to several tearful farewells and an emotional ending sequence that is absolutely perfect. But I think what I find the most interesting about 5.3 (and really Shadowbringers as a whole) is the way it sort of flips the traditional Final Fantasy narrative on its head and deconstructs what it means to be a hero or a villain — or in this case, what it means to be a Warrior of Light or a Warrior of Darkness. There’s a blurring of these roles that’s been apparent since the start of the expansion (since the moment we knew we would become Warriors of Darkness really), but the way 5.3 presents and resolves its immediate conflict brings this duality to a sharp focus and culminates in an iconic battle that fans won’t soon forget.
Accompanying the main story are a new dungeon and trial, as is to be expected. The conceit of the dungeon is a little different in that it takes you on a tour of most of Norvrandt, but mechanically it’s nothing special. My favorite things about it are the music, which is a medley of all of the area themes from Shadowbringers, and seeing the friends you’ve made throughout the First show up to help you out. There is so much I would like to say about the trial, but because it’s part of the main story it is highly spoilerific, so I’ll just say that it’s a lot of fun and I’ve been greatly enjoying the extreme version. Longtime Final Fantasy fans will almost assuredly get a big kick out of it. Also, the music for the trial is simply brilliant; it’s a combination of “Shadowbringers,” the expansion’s titular vocal theme, and “‘Neath Dark Waters,” a late-game area theme that’s among my favorites from the expansion. The somewhat relaxed beat and melancholic lyrics that I still can’t get out of my head combined with the haunting melody make for an unforgettable listening experience that is truly the musical culmination of the expansion.
Outside of the main story, 5.3 brings us the next leg of the NieR: Automata 24-man raid series. There are some surprising revelations involved with the story this time around, and having now played Automata, I’m left wondering what this could all mean. Sadly, the story is once again on the short side and answers are not forthcoming, so we will all have to speculate until the raid series concludes in 5.5. Luckily, the raid itself — called the Puppets’ Bunker — is really enjoyable, with fun boss fights and a dodging sequence that will remind Automata players of some of the shenanigans they had to deal with in that game. Oh, and if you went through 5.1’s Copied Factory wondering when Yoko Taro was going to show us something really disturbing, you’ll like the new raid’s final boss. As for music, there are several additional tracks from Automata featured, as well as a new original piece for the final boss that mixes FFXIV’s “Torn from the Heavens” with Automata’s “Dark Colossus.” Only one of the new Automata tracks is on my must-have list, however, so the pressure is on for the final raid to feature more of my favorite music!
If you’re looking for other raid content of the 8-man variety, look no further than the new Faux Hollows minigame. Similar to Khloe’s Wondrous Tails, Faux Hollows has you run specific content once a week in order to play a game where you flip tiles on a board to reveal images and earn special currency that can be traded for a few goodies, including a mount and minion. Unlike Wondrous Tails, however, the only content you can run to earn a chance to play this minigame is a new unreal trial. The moniker might sound intimidating, but unreal trials are just old extreme primals that have been souped up for level 80 play. They hit hard and require plenty of DPS to defeat, but their mechanics remain unchanged, so veteran players should have no trouble defeating them. Newer players who never ran the extreme trials when they were current might find the unreal trials more challenging than expected, however, so patience is advised when tackling these foes through party finder. I will say that the current rewards available seem kind of lackluster — there’s just not that many of them right now — but maybe that will change in future patches. Oh, and don’t worry about having to fight all the old primals again right off the bat; each major patch will feature a single unreal trial against a different primal. In 5.3, that primal is Shiva, one of the easier ARR trials. Personally, I’m not looking forward to whenever Titan gets his turn.
Speaking of trials, The Sorrow of Werlyt series continues in 5.3 with a brief but fun bridge quest. There is no 8-man trial, of course, but you do get to engage in a solo instance where you fight one of Garlemald’s Weapons in…well, it’s basically a gundam. As goofy as that might sound, it’s a pretty cool and enjoyable sequence, and it’s nice to have this little tidbit to tide us over until 5.4, when the series will continue in earnest. The quest also takes you to a small but interesting new area, which features a somber and hauntingly beautiful piano mix of “Imperial Will” and “Penitus,” two tracks heavily associated with the Empire. I may have hung out in this new area for longer than I’d care to admit because I just couldn’t get enough of this simple, poignant tune.
Other additions in this patch include a new beast tribe and a new custom deliveries client. Dwarf beast tribe quests are for crafters only and task you with aiding a ragtag group in the construction of tanks (yes, tanks) that are designed to protect and transport goods across Norvrandt. There’s some good humor to be had with these quests and some extra distractions you can engage in, including manning a bar (because dwarves love their grog) to mix drinks for some familiar NPCs. Ehll Tou, the new custom deliveries client, will be familiar to those who have participated in the Isghardian Restoration quests (which are required to unlock her), and the process of bringing her crafted or gathered items for experience and scrips is much the same as the other clients.
As with every patch, there are various quality of life changes, such as job fixes and improvements to the crafting system. Astrologian, in particular, gets some much-needed love that not only eases the busy nature of its opener but also fixes the MP management problems that have long plagued the job. Crafters get a handy reverse lookup system that lets them see what crafts a particular material is used for, and they also can now practice a craft even if they don’t have the materials for it by using trial synthesis. New Game+ mode gets additional content, this time in the form of class quests for ARR disciples of war and magic, as well as all crafters and gatherers. Possibly the best quality of life change, though, is the long-awaited revamp of ARR’s main scenario quests. Many of the quests that made ARR and the post-ARR patches a slog to get through at times have been modified or outright removed. Experience gains have been buffed, and players will receive more gear as they progress, making everything feel much more streamlined. In addition to these changes, flying in ARR zones is now possible once you clear the 2.0 main scenario quests. Players have wanted this feature in ARR zones ever since Heavensward introduced it in 2015, and now all of Final Fantasy XIV is finally united in the skies! And let me tell you, it absolutely makes a difference when you’re traveling in those old zones.
We still have two major patches before Shadowbringers is truly over, but the conclusion of the main story in patch 5.3 solidifies this expansion as the best in Final Fantasy XIV’s history. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Shadowbringers is one of the best Final Fantasies in the series, possibly even the best depending on your preferences. By this point, readers are well aware of mine, so I won’t belabor the point further. Suffice it to say, patch 5.3 is excellent, with something for new players and veterans alike.