Over the years, expansions have continually infused new life into Final Fantasy XIV, helping it become the best modern Final Fantasy experience. Shadowbringers continues the trend, and while it suffers with strict adherence to old-school MMORPG structure, it soars to new heights with a package that pulls the player in to a massive questline that’s worth the price of admission alone, even if you never engage with endgame progression or even other players. In an unexpected twist, Shadowbringers excels at offering players an almost completely single-player journey through a brilliant new world.
As you explore, you become immersed in new environments that sell classic tales in beautiful packages. A shantytown of the have-nots resting beneath an opulent palace of the haves. An undersea adventure accessed on the back of Bismarck (there are of course, tons of nostalgia nods to the franchise that evoke joy for franchise adherents). A faerie realm with a sword-wielding frog. A classic tale of sacrifice and a few critical twists in this world are enough to make you forgive, if not completely forget, the fact that you’re bumbling around between main beats collecting bear meat and helping merchants find iron.
“The grind” is an antiquated MMORPG component that’s pervasive in Shadowbringers, filled with stale objectives that send you from point A to point B killing a few critters here and emoting at NPCs there. However, these are blemishes on an otherwise enthralling main story path. The dungeon backdrops and bosses are especially inspired; in your first battle with a lightwarden in this new realm, you may lose the fight because you’re simply so captivated by the absurd sensory overload of powerful abilities firing off in a grand arena awash with the incredible soundtrack. Words cannot do justice to Masayoshi Soken’s score, and you may find yourself listening to it long after battles have been completed and you’re back in reality.
The feeling that these multiple aspects of sound and scenery convey during legendary encounters makes you oblivious to the fact that all you’re doing is mashing buttons and standing out of telegraphed circles. Even if combat can almost always be distilled down to standing in the right place at the right time, every boss encounter made me feel like part of a life-or-death scenario with the fate of the world at stake.
One of the new elements in Shadowbringers is that you can play through the many, many hours of the campaign almost completely by yourself. While you still must do four-person dungeon content at times, you can now use key story NPCs as your allies, called a Trust. The NPCs are smart and do a great job of teaching you boss mechanics, as they always know where to stand and how the fights work. This is ideal for players that might be called away during a dungeon, as you can go at your own pace without worrying about slowing a group down.
Utilizing the Trust also allows players that might have to wait a long time for a group queue to get into dungeons instantly. The trek from level 60 (new dancer!) to 80 took me about 70 hours, and during that time, Shadowbringers only has a few instances where you have to engage with other players, but this can even be done without uttering a single word to them. While this may rub classic MMORPG purists the wrong way, you can make the case that Shadowbringers is a full-fledged single-player Final Fantasy title – and it’s great at being just that.
Technically, you won’t need any prior knowledge of FF XIV to get through the main quest, but I’d advise you to do your homework and research what’s happened so far to enjoy what’s going on. The tale continues from the base game and previous expansions, so it’s not meant as a standalone experience. You can purchase items (with real money) to catch you up to the beginning of Shadowbringers, but completing the back content is the best way to engage with the tale.
Shadowbringers is the best expansion yet for Square Enix’s MMORPG, a world that comes alive in the player’s hands, with weight and gravitas moving you through every whimsical corner. Old-fashioned quest design and color-dodging combat add a dull tinge to a truly magical landscape, but those imperfections can’t keep down the scale and scope of excellent environments, grandiose bosses, and majestic music.
Fantastic attention to detail, wondrous environments, big bosses, and magnificent music make this one of the best Final Fantasy offerings.
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