Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

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Complete Review & Description

After the way Square Enix turned around Final Fantasy XIV with A Realm Reborn, it’s easy to have high expectations for the first proper expansion for the game, Heavensward. We’ve been promised new jobs, new zones, new dungeons, new Primal fights, a new storyline, new… pretty much everything.
In practice, Heavensward does have a lot of new content to offer, but at the same time, none of it is particularly groundbreaking. The expansion sticks closely to the Final Fantasy XIV formula, which is great – it’s a formula that works well, after all – but it seems to stumble more often than 2013’s grandiose re-release did.

A Song of Ice and Fire
Story is always going to be front and centre of a Final Fantasy game, and being an MMORPG certainly didn’t stop that being the case of Final Fantasy XIV. A Realm Reborn had one of the series’ more captivating tales of late, and it achieved this precisely by doing what other MMOs seem reluctant to do: making each player the hero of their own story, essentially telling a character-driven, singleplayer-esque through the main questline. Spacetime continuum be damned, every player gets to be the Warrior of Light, instead of just one of a faceless army of players.
This approach worked incredibly well for A Realm Reborn, and Heavensward is no different. Despite a few returning faces and ties to the previous storyline, this plot is mostly self contained: a thousand-years-long war between the holy city, Ishgard, and the dragons of Dravania is coming to a head once more, and of course, the Warrior of Light finds herself roped in. Of course, there’s more to this war than first appears – the dragons aren’t a horde of mindless monsters, and Ishgard’s lengthy history isn’t exactly spotless. So, along with companions old and new, the Warrior of Light sets off on a journey to uncover the truth and try bring about peace between Dravania and Ishgard once and for all.

It’s the kind of grandiose adventure you’d expect from a Final Fantasy game, with a cast of interesting characters keeping it down to earth. The ever-lovable Cid Garlond and Tataru Taru are as great as they’ve always been, but it’s the newcomers – specifically, Aymeric, Lord Commander of Ishgard’s Temple Knights, and the mysterious Ysayle – whom I found the most captivating. Oddly enough, despite being the poster boy for the expansion, I found the Azure Dragoon, Estinien, underwhelming and kind of annoying.
As good as most of the narrative is, it falls flat towards the end, thanks to a resolution that feels rushed and anticlimactic. While the bulk of the first to acts is dedicated to the Dragonsong War, it’s underscored by Ishgard’s own instability, resulting from a rigid class structure that’s steeped in tradition. This is really well put together, especially with various sidequests fleshing out the struggles of the Lowborn under the heel of city’s the (quite obviously) corrupt High Houses and religious leaders.
All the groundwork is there for something grand, but its actual resolution is anything but. It feels rushed and anticlimactic, with seemingly interesting characters introduced and then never seen again, a villain who is painfully uninspired (and a massive missed opportunity, considering the throwback to a particularly iconic character from a past Final Fantasy game), and a conclusion that’s very sudden and very underwhelming. “We beat the Bad Guy, now everything is all good.” There are a few threads left open to be explored with future updates, but I can’t help but feel that Heavensward’s plot itself should have just been focused on the Dragonsong War, with the Ishgardian conflict arc to be dealt with in the depth it deserves in a later update.

I Believe I Can Fly
Heavensward adds six new zones to be explored, as well as a new way to discover them – by flying. This might be my single favourite thing about the expansion; even with invisible walls occasionally halting progress (this has never been an open-world game, after all), the sense of freedom and exhilaration that comes from just flying around is wonderous.
Almost as exciting is the process for unlocking flight. You actually get your first flying mount (a Black Chocobo, naturally) very early on, but rather than that being “sweet, you can fly now”, you have to enable flight on a zone-by-zone basis, mainly by exploring on foot. In order to fly in a particular zone, you have to attune to all its Aether Currents, most of which are found simply by exploring. An Aether Compass helps you find vaguely where to go for the closest current, but actually finding and figuring out how to get there on foot is another challenge. As someone who loves the exploration element of adventure and role-playing games, I found this process of finding currents to be one of the most intrinsically rewarding things in Heavensward; unlocking flight was just icing on the cake.

The zones themselves are weirdly inconsistent. Where every region in A Realm Reborn was absolutely stunning, Heavensward’s maps are a mixture of those I love, and those I can’t stand.
On the one hand, you have some of the most interesting, beautiful places I’ve seen in an MMO. There’s the Sea of Clouds, a weird, almost alien archipelago of floating islands, connected by rickety bridges and populated with bizarre flora and wildlife. There’s the Dravanian Hinterlands, home of the recently-abandoned city of scholarship, Sharlayan, with its gorgeous Ancient Greece-esque architecture, and the nostalgic Matoya’s Cave. There’s Azys La, one of many ruins of the lost, highly advanced Allagan civilisation, with a strange, science-fiction aesthetic.
But then you have places like the Dravanian Forelands, which feels like a pastiche of the forested Black Shroud zones, only less vibrant and lush. You have the Coerthas Western Highlands, a snowy wasteland that’s bitterly bleak and oppressive – by design, to be sure, but not exactly a place you want to spend your time. And then there’s the Churning Mist

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