Ragar returns to the land of Eorzea to check out the expansion to Square Enix's MMO
It’s been almost two years since I wrote my review of Square Enix’s MMO, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. I was a big fan of what they’d created, especially compared to the mess that was v1.0. I even wrote a column about the game for over a year. Since that initial release, numerous patches came out, bringing with them new instances, Hard mode dungeons and Hard/Extreme trials, side-story quest chains like the Hildibrand saga, and of course the continuation of FFXIV’s excellent main story questline. Fast forward to a month ago when FFXIV releases their first expansion, Heavensward. This expansion brought with it an expanded level cap of 60, three new jobs, new zones, new instances/trials, and the continuation of that epic main story. For the last month I’ve been put in hours upon hours into the world of Eorzea and now I’m finally ready to give my opinion.
So Much Work to Catch Up…
Now I’m sure there’s some of you out there thinking “The expansion came out a month ago! Why on earth did it take you this long to write the review?” Normally for an MMO review, you’d be right to question that – usually we’ll get in for whatever the early access period, hit the game as hard as we can to push for level cap or close to it, then write the review within the first week or two after launch. Heavensward is a special case however, because I wasn’t able to touch any of the new content when the game came out.
Why’s that? Main scenario gating. As long-term players of the game will attest to, all of the main scenario content for FFXIV:ARR and its numerous patches was chained. Run quest A, unlock and run instance B, see cutscene C, all in one long linear path where all of the previous steps had to be completed to see the next. Dungeons, trials, and gameplay features were all locked behind the questing wall that had to be surmounted before I could try any of them. When I’d stopped playing the game originally, I was somewhat behind on the main story. I was primarily focused on crafting since it was just me playing at the time and I’d left off my main scenario quest chain right at The Ultimate Weapon, the final 8-man instance of the 2.0 storyline. When I agreed to write this review, I remembered being behind, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. After all this is an expansion, a chance for new and returning players to jump in and play with their veteran friends. Surely they would follow tradition and allow players to start the new content as soon as they were high enough level, right? Not so much.
You see, to see any of the Heavensward content, you need to not only have completed the original main scenario questline and its associated instances, but you need to have done so for all of the main scenario quests through every patch up to the final pre-HW 2.55 release. I’d originally hoped I could at least write about the three new jobs as an introductory article – run a couple dungeons with them, give my early impressions while giving myself time to finish the review, etc. Unfortunately those three require you to get access to the Holy See of Ishgard, Heavensward’s new main city, and doing that requires you to get through all of that old story content. Completing this content by itself, including the dungeon runs required, took me approximately 25 hours by itself, including the final cutscenes which run between 60 and 70 minutes depending on how fast you click away dialog windows. That may look like a big number, but the quality of the storytelling as well as the new instances it unlocked was excellent and prepared me to understand the story events that would unfold in Heavensward.
Now I’ll admit some of the delay was my own fault as well since I used this opportunity to switch my class. I’d previously been playing a Warrior and tanking my way through everything. Since I was going to be solo for the majority of this review and I hate solo queuing as a tank, I decided to try my hand at something different and level up Rogue/Ninja during the early access period. This step actually went fairly quickly – I went from 1 to 50 in about 20 or so hours by chain running instances. I’ve greatly enjoyed the Ninja’s playstyle and especially loved their class/job storylines (even with the indecipherable pirate-speak from my Rogue guildmates). The class feels to me somewhat like playing a Feral Druid back in World of Warcraft, but the upkeep on DoTs, buffs and debuffs was more manageable. I got the combo attacks I enjoyed from the other melee classes as well as the Ninjitsu system – a mix of different Mudras and a Ninjutsu ability that changed based on the order of Mudras I cast before it (think the Warden from Lord of the Rings Online).
Now That the Previews are Over, On With the Show!
After over a week of powerleveling Ninja and blitzing through all of the pre-Heavensward main scenario content, I was finally in the Holy See of Ishgard, former member of the Eorzean Alliance and the focal point for this expansion’s story. Ishgard is a theocracy dominated by the Orthodox Church and its leaders, Archbishop Thordan VII and his Heavens Ward. You learn of the four High Houses, including House Fortemps, home of one of post-2.0’s major story characters, Lord Haurchefant de Fortemps. Haurchefant as well as many of the other NPCs introduced in that patch content continue to make appearances as Heavensward continues right where the story from patch 2.55 left off as you’re brought into Ishgard. I won’t go into further detail than that for the sake of those planning on coming back.
My journey through Heavensward’s content took me from the Holy See of Ishgard and the rest of Coerthas to the dragon-controlled lands of Dravania to the skies themselves in the Sea of Clouds and its floating islands. I faced off against dragons of all sizes, uncovered buried secrets and conspiracies, met new beast tribes, and changed the course of history for Ishgard and its people – all in a day’s work for the Warrior of Light. The zones themselves had plenty of variety, taking me from frozen tundras to grassy plains to an entire zone filled with floating islands. Even the instances and trials I unlocked during the main scenario were quite different than those in the original game and its patches. Sure I saw some mechanics return, but the ways they were combined and modified worked quite well.
Speaking of instances, let’s talk about how many new dungeons and trials Heavensward brings to the table. For the journey from 50 to 60, you’re looking at five 4-man instances and two 8-man primal trials. Once you’ve hit 60, there’s another three 4-man instances, the new Alexander 8-man raid (and its harder Savage difficulty), and Extreme difficulty for the two leveling primal trials. While I would have preferred a few more 4-man instances, that’s still a respectable number for launch and if their track record from post-release patches continues to hold, the Hard modes for these dungeons should be spectacular.
The leveling experience was fairly standard compared to when FFXIV launched: great story and class/job quest chains, fun and somewhat challenging instanced content, and passable side quests. The side quests continue to be one of FFXIV’s weak points here in Heavensward. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them from an MMO design perspective, other than their bad habit of running you around more than necessary. It’s just that compared to how strong the main scenario quests are, you can’t help but be disappointed when you get stuck behind a main scenario quest that’s too high level for you and you’re stuck picking up kupo nuts and collecting bear parts for random NPCs until you can proceed.
Most of the players I’ve listened to who leveled to 60 in Heavensward prior to me have actually noted that there’s not really enough side quests to go around. This was an issue with the original game prior to the bump in main scenario quest experience (I remember grinding FATEs for most of 45-50), particularly for players trying to level alternate classes who had to grind FATEs and dungeons. Some of the Twitch streamers I watched were stuck chain-queuing for dungeons for much of 58 and 59 because they’d run out of quests. This wasn’t that much of an issue for me, but this was a situation where being so behind on the main scenario actually worked to my benefit. I may not have been able to try any of the Heavensward content when I first installed the game, but I was still able to benefit from all of the quest experience from each of those quests. None from the dungeons since all of the level 50 dungeons didn’t give XP for whatever reason, but between those quest rewards and my daily main scenario/trial Duty Finder queue rewards, I hit 52 in Ishgard before stepping foot into one of the new questing zones.
With more daily rewards and my seemingly-perpetual rest bonus, I was able to stay ahead of the main scenario level requirements for most of the expansion. I believe I hit a block once at 56 and once again when I was 1 million from hitting 60 and got to the quest for the final 4-man instance. Cleaning up my quest log along with that final 250-350k experience (seriously, do your daily queues!) pushed me over the edge to 60 without having to chain run dungeons or grind FATEs. I can easily see how other players who were caught up with all of the 2.55 story would have hit significant roadblocks while leveling though, and I’m not looking forward to redoing those last two levels on the next class I level since it’ll be all queues, FATEs, and guildleves.
Machinist, Dark Knight and Astrologian
Once you get to the Holy See and run through the various main scenario quests contained within the city walls, you’ll find a variety of breadcrumb quests mixed throughout the city. Many of these are miscellaneous sidequests or to unlock things like the Hunt Board or guildleves, but three of them are tied to the three new jobs. The first is the Machinist quest, found inside their guild, the Skysteel Manufactory, in the Foundation of Ishgard. The second, Astrologian, can be found in the Athenaeum Astrologicum up in Ishgard’s Pillars. The third new job, Dark Knight, also unlocks from the Pillars, but there’s no conventional guild for these guys; their breadcrumb is from a random Ishgardian Citizen near one of the temples. Each of these quests leads you through a few miscellaneous steps before you unlock the job. These new jobs, unlike the previous ones from the original game and its patches, have no associated base class. In addition, they start at level 30, giving you a variety of abilities to put you on par with other jobs at level 30 (with associated levels they were “earned” to gate abilities for low-level duty queues) as well as a few pieces of starting equipment for those folks who’ve never tried one of those roles before.
So what about the jobs themselves? We’ll start with Machinist. Wielding a Firearm in one hand, he provides ranged physical DPS as well as support through the use of summonable turrets which can attack and debuff enemies as well as buff allies. The job has a lot of similarities to the Archer/Bard, particularly when you look at Gauss Barrel/The Wanderer’s Minuet and the skills that benefit from those two. The main differences come from the pseudo skill combos and the addition of Ammunition. Two of your three basic shots have a chance of making another attack skill deal extra damage: Split Shot can buff Slug Shot, which can in turn can buff Clean Shot. By default each of those skills only has a 50% chance of procing the buff to the next skill, but Ammunition (generated by Reload/Quick Reload) mixes that up. Ammunition charges, in addition to adding 20 potency to a weapon skill when consumed will also change those two skills to have a 100% proc chance. You can only use the two Reload skills so often, even with traits, so you’ll never have 100% uptime for those buffs, but smart usage of those skills can lead to great burst potential for add phases on bosses and similar burn mechanics.
Next up is the Dark Knight, Heavensward’s new tanking job, joining the Warrior and Paladin. I have more experience with the Machinist (could reuse all that leveling Ninja gear), but I love the concept they have for the Dark Knight. While the Machinist guild had a bit more levity to what story of theirs I’ve seen, the Dark Knight had a very different feel right from the beginning. In a city dedicated to a religious order and ruled by their clergy, this job started with an NPC who pointed to the seedy underbelly that took advantage of that pious cover. Men and women taking advantage of the downtrodden, immune to judgement due to their position within both the clergy and the nobility. This job made it quite clear that you were there to strike down these villains, regardless of the fact that others would label you heretic or blasphemer and seem to tear you down. There would be no shielding yourself from these enemies of justice – all that stands to protect you is your greatsword, your inner darkness/rage and the knowledge that you fight to administer justice. From what time I’ve spent with the Dark Knight, the job looks to be a hybrid of the Warrior’s emphasis on Vitality and self-healing with the Paladin’s flipping between damage/threat generation and regenerating MP. The friend I talked into playing with me after launch has spoken nothing but high praise of the job as he leveled it to 60 and so far its tanking arsenal has been more than enough to keep threat off my Ninja, so I’ll have to put in more time with the job once I’m finished getting all of my Allagan Tomestone of Law/Esoterics gear.
Last but not least we have the Astrologian, Heavensward’s addition to the healer ranks. Wielding an Astrolabe, they wield celestial magic to heal and support their allies. Many of their abilities will seem familiar to White Mages and Scholars (Ascend vs Raise, Benefic vs Cure, etc), which is to be expected – all healers have to have a certain set of basic abilities to work from. Rather than the Conjurer/White Mage’s Cleric Stance, they have two Sect abilities that serve as different stances, Diurnal Sect (+attack speed and +Regen to some spells) and Nocturnal Sect (+healing magic potency and adds absorbing shields to some abilities). The real difference with Astrologians however lies in the main theme of the class: their divination card decks. They can Draw one of six different cards from their deck: Balance, Bole, Arrow, Spear, Ewer, and Spire. If they Draw again while targeting themselves or an ally, it will give them a 15-20s buff: MP or TP regeneration, increased attack or recast speed, increased damage dealt, or reduced damage taken. I’ve only dabbled in Astrologian at this point, so this is the extent of my experience, but reading through wikis and the help messages, the deck mechanic gets more complicated later on with more abilities. Royal Road lets you return a drawn card to the deck to boost the effect of the next card drawn, giving you the chance to throw away a less desirable buff to gamble for a boosted second buff. Spread gives you the ability to bank a card for later use, while Shuffle lets you return whatever’s currently pulled and draw another. The beginning of this job’s story quest chain is similar in levity and feel to the Machinist’s quest chain – it’s enjoyable, but not quite as interesting as the Dark Knight’s story. As for the gameplay, it’s hard to tell without more healing practice, but at a quick glance it certainly seems like an interesting class. The card draw mechanic is intriguing and does add some variety to gameplay rather than simply running through your rotation and filling health bars, though I get the feeling I’d want to find some addons if I was going to play it for long. I’d rather have an Power Auras-style indicator pop up in the middle of my screen for the card I’ve got drawn rather than having to take my eyes off the battle to look at what icon my Draw or Stream cards have changed to.
Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder… After We Attune to All the Aether
So we’ve talked about the questing, the new instances and the new jobs – there’s one more major feature of Heavensward left to talk about. Previously in FFXIV:ARR, you were landlocked – if you couldn’t teleport to it, you had to mount up and find a land route. Now in Heavensward you have the chance to take to the skies of Eorzea and free yourself from the merciless grip of gravity! Well, in the new zones at least – gravity is still your master in old world Eorzea. Of course you won’t be soaring through the air the moment you step into the new zones. Ishgard is a no-mount zone just like all of the other major cities, so you’ll have to run around on foot. As for the rest of Heavensward’s zones, while you can fly from point to point, you have to earn the right to do so. Normally when I imply you have to earn something in FFXIV, that means one thing: main scenario quest progress. Well some of those quests are involved as you do have to get to a certain point in the story to start on the path to flying as well as get your first flying mount, but there’s more to it than that. When you get to that quest and get your new flying mount, you’ll also receive a new ability, the Aether Compass. You see when you’re flying in these new zones, you’re not just flapping your wings and hoping for the best. Essentially you’re using the aether currents that flow throughout the zone to keep you aloft. Before you can do this however, you have to learn what each zone’s currents are.
To unlock flying in a zone, you need to find all of the aether currents from two sources. The first is from quest rewards. Some of these will be main story, some will be sidequest and some are buried at the end of long chains, but you’ll need to finish five of these quests to unlock five of the zone’s aether currents. The rest of the currents in the zone (except for the last zone) are all found using your Aether Compass. As you run around you’ll periodically hit that ability and get a distance and heading. Follow the compass to find the current, click on it to attune to that current, then repeat for the rest of the zone’s currents. Once all is said and done and you’ve attuned to every current in a zone, you’ll be able to fly around within that zone’s borders. At early levels flight isn’t a major issue, but you will run into roadblocks in each zone that can only be surmounted by unlocking flight, so taking the time to grab all of the currents you can reach ASAP is highly advised. It’s not always possible to unlock flight early (Sea of Clouds for example), but with how much faster flight is than your ground mounts, it’s worth trying.
It’s interesting to compare how FFXIV handles their flight gating mechanism to what WoW is trying with the Draenor Pathfinder system. They’re both obviously for the same purpose: make sure players actually experience the world and lore around them rather than flying above it all and ignoring it. I do think the Aether Compass node hunting is a bit silly, but I suppose it gets the job done. I do think that I spent more time looking at my map and the compass readings than I did my surroundings, but there’s really only so much you can do to prevent that. At least I don’t have to grind any reputations to learn flight like I do in WoW.
So after a month living in Eorzea again, what do I think of Heavensward? How does it stack up to expansions from other MMOs? I think for their first expansion, this is an excellent release. Their main selling point, the story, is just as strong now as it was at the end of patch 2.55 and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how Square Enix resolves both the hanging plot threads from that patch as well as the new ones introduced in Heavensward. The new jobs are a great fit lore-wise, and from my brief time with them, I think I’ll enjoy playing each of them. I’ve enjoyed all of the new dungeons and the duty finder queue times are low enough that I spend more time in dungeons as DPS than waiting for the queue to pop (wish I could say that in WoW).
There’s certainly room for improvement though. Five leveling dungeons and three max-level dungeons works for now, but considering how much of the endgame is farming Tomestones to gear up for raids and Extreme primals, more variety will help to prevent burnout. Additional questing options in leveling zones would help those players who ran into a wall and had to grind the rest of the way, as well as giving players with alts something to do besides FATE and dungeon grinding. My time with the gathering and crafting professions this expansion has been brief (51 Miner and 51 Goldsmith), but I would like to see a little smoother of a transition into the new content. My gear wasn’t maxed out for what a 50 could get pre-Heavensward, so leveling those two has felt more grindy than necessary due to low success percentages for new recipes and nodes. A minor issue, but still an annoyance when you’re trying to catch up to the market.
All in all though, I would say if you’ve been curious about Heavensward or Final Fantasy XIV in general, it is definitely worth coming in to give the game a shot. Even if you’ve been out of the game since 2.0 or are completely new to FFXIV, don’t worry about rushing to catch up. Enjoy the ride the story provides for you – short of The Secret World, you’re not going to find an MMO or its expansion with stronger storytelling skills than this.
Michael “Ragar” Branham