Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker Review

I do not envy anyone who is tasked with ending a long-running, immensely popular story. Franchises that have gone on for years – decades even. It’s an almost impossible task to put a bow on a story spanning hundreds of hours, doubly so when that story is a videogame, where players have devoted that time to growing their characters, and directly immersing themselves in its world. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker was never guaranteed to stick the landing, which makes its ultimate success all the more worthy of praise.

It’s hard to decide where to start first. For as much of Endwalker’s success is it's own doing, you can’t exactly decouple what makes the expansion so genuinely special from the rest of the game that has come before it. It’s not even like the case of a sequel coming out to a game, and tying up loose ends; one of Final Fantasy XIV’s strengths as an MMO is how it allows its story to directly pull from the works and deeds that each player has accomplished. So without delving into spoilers, the best way to describe how Endwalker gets the job done is by how it remembers and respects all that the player has done up to this point – the jobs that they’ve leveled, the Raid and Trial stories that they’ve done, and so on. It manages that careful balance of reminding the player of everything that has come before it, while not banging it into your head so hard that it feels overbearing. Every time the expansion calls back to the past, it feels natural and earned.

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Much of this will, and likely should, be attributed to writer Natsuko Ishikawa. She was the lead writer for the highly acclaimed Shadowbringers expansion and has reprised her role with Endwalker. Much as with last time around, the Main Scenario is filled with heartwrenching, genuine moments that manage to bring the heart and soul of each member of the cast to the forefront, both in longer, more drawn-out scenes, as well as in quick moments where you can see how she clearly understands how to use the characters that she’s been given to craft her tale. This is all incredibly vague, I know – but so much of Endwalker subverts expectations. Not in the sense that the way the plot develops feels like a cop-out, but rather as a turn of events that players might not have seen coming, but somehow makes perfect sense once it gets the ball rolling. I wouldn’t dream to ruin anyone’s first impressions of the plot, especially when so many players have yet to have the chance to see it for themselves, thanks to incredibly long login queues.

I can’t ignore that elephant in the room – Endwalker’s launch has been messy. I don’t want this to influence my score, since the devteam has been nothing if not utterly transparent about the whole ordeal. Besides, as I write this review the login queues have already begun to dwindle. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that many players have functionally been unable to play the game due to incredibly long waits to get into the game proper. To make matters even worse, for the first few weeks of launch players have been set by 2002 Error Codes which would kick players from the line – while you could generally regain your place if you got back into the queue quick enough, it meant that it was never “only” a several hours wait; you also had to constantly keep your eye on the line, unless you wanted to chance to have to start over from the beginning.

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On the plus side, once you’ve managed to actually get playing the game, the rest of the experience has been smooth sailing. While there have been a handful of bugs here and there – a floating NPC or two, a low poly grape or three – it appears that the extra few weeks’ delay was put to good use.

I already said as much during my preview, but there’s remarkably little to say about the combat job changes other than what I’ve already written – Endwalker was always poised to be more of a refinement of the current state of affairs rather than a reinvention, and that about checks out. Monk has seen its customary retooling, and Summoner might as well be a new class entirely, but beyond that, there have only been a generally small number of changes to each of the game’s many jobs. I didn’t even have to change anything about my Paladin’s hotbars starting the game up after maintenance – I just logged in, with everything more-or-less as I left it. Almost everything else about the expansion’s content at launch falls to the same standard that players would have grown to expect since the MMO’s launch, too – 6 new zones, 8 new dungeons at launch, and 3 trials. Hunts and FATEs for players to grind; plenty of new mounts and minions to collect.

Final Fantasy XIV’s content has long since reached a steady progression, with only a handful of experiments entering the game during each patch cycle. I could sit here and complain about the dev team getting complacent, but the simple truth is that what they continue to deliver is more than fine from where I and many other players stand, and it’s clear that the majority of players are mostly into the game for the story. Raids, Crafting, and all those other side activities? They’re great, sure, but it’s not what makes XIV so unique – that’s the story. Naturally, it’s these very story moments where Endwalker introduces its most radical changes.

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Shadowbringers introduced the Trust system, allowing players to delve into dungeons alone, with a party of NPCs comprising your fellow Scions of the Seventh Dawn – Endwalker continues to focus on efforts to make the main scenario feel more like a solo jRPG. During several instances, players will have certain NPCs follow their trek from one area of a map to another. While you could just run directly to the objective, there are always numerous areas highlighted on the map for you to stop and had a quick chat with those along for the ride. Solo duties have gotten weirder – offering gameplay you won’t be finding anywhere else in the game.

I think everyone’s first thoughts upon seeing patch 5.3’s ending cutscene was a hope that 6.0’s cutscenes would take cues from its noticeably improved production values. More unique animations, props that actually react from what’s done to them in a scene – without merely resorting to cuts and odd camera angles – and a massive improvement for character expression. While it can’t be said that every cutscene Endwalker includes reaches the same heights that 5.3’s finale did, it’s fair to say that the devteam has delivered on that hope and then some. This is especially welcome, considering that Endwalker features many more cutscenes than previous expansions.

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Really, almost every aspect of Endwalker’s presentation has seen a boost; I don’t think there’s a single dungeon that the expansion has added to the game that I dislike, and the aesthetics of them all certainly help. XIV has almost always been great at having dungeons help sell the story that the game is trying to tell, and Endwalker’s sell the scope of the world greater than any of the other expansions to date. One interesting wrinkle that the game has added to both dungeons and Trials that helps make things feel more dynamic are attacks that can exist outside of the bounds of the arena – forcing players to consider what is happening around the fight, and not just what’s happening directly in front of them. Both dungeons, and especially Trials, make great use of this change to develop fights that feel different from anything else that has come before.

It’s hard to put into words exactly how comforting it is to know that Endwalker has stuck the landing where it counts. It almost feels like everyone was bracing themselves for a step down from Shadowbringers, much like – in many ways – Stormblood was a step down from Heavensward. Yet, that’s not the case. Final Fantasy XIV was already a must-play if you were into Final Fantasy, but with Endwalker, it feels like it has become even more of an essential pick. There simply is no other game that delivers on its promises in much the same way, and with the same scope. Even if you’re not into MMOs, you owe it to yourself to see Final Fantasy XIV to its conclusion.

Square Enix provided game time for this review.

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