Playing it safe.
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward on PlayStation 4
Everything about Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward feels safe. Perhaps still feeling the need to tread carefully after the near catastrophe that was the original launch of Final Fantasy XIV, not much in Heavensward is different than anything that FFXIV: A Realm Reborn already offers. Heavensward is A Realm Reborn with a fresh coat of Gothic paint. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing depending on how you currently feel about FFXIV. One thing Heavensward is definitely not though is courageous.
Heavensward’s biggest disappointment is its progression system, which is essentially the same as it’s always been. New dungeons follow the exact same formula as before and still are the primary way of leveling up alongside FATEs, quests, and leve grinding, all of which are also functionally unchanged.
Coming up with an entirely new way to get XP might be an unreasonable request. It should fall then to the new jobs to make the experiences feel new again, and an endgame that rewards players for taking up the grind once more. Alas, both of these aspects also fall short.
Mechanically, the difference between the new jobs and the old ones are so minuscule that I can barely even notice when they slot-in. With the exception of the Machinist, the new jobs function almost exactly the same as their 2.0 counterparts with a few gimmicks thrown in.
Dark Knight’s tank abilities could have just been copy & pasted from both Warrior and Paladin with a new skin. When trying to hold hate (the fun part of being a tank), the Dark Knight functions too similarly to Warrior and Paladin. It uses the same pattern of pulling with a long ranged attack, using an AoE (area of effect) attack, and then utilizing an enmity combo. They have a unique way of keeping their DPS high through MP management with Darkside, but it isn’t a strong enough draw.
The Astrologian job is just as uninspiring. Instead of developing its own healing style, the Astrologian flips between two stances that give it perks similar to either White Mage or Scholar, the two already existing healing classes. What is supposed to set it apart is its luck based Draw card system that buffs the party in different ways such as damage and cooldown reductions, making it more of a support class than the other healers. Currently, these buffs are too underpowered and the system is too unpredictable that it could take a long time to get the right card that you want. I fully expect it to be buffed at some point, but even then, it isn’t enough to make Astrologian feel special. Too many of its other abilities are too similar to the White Mage or Scholar equivalent.
With its turrets and mix of support, debuff, and DPS abilities, the only new job that feels new is the Machinist. However, with the abundance of DPS jobs with their own unique style already, it would have been great to see the Tank and Healer paradigms get shaken up instead. And as of Heavensward’s launch, the Machinist is considered to be the weakest of the new jobs, requiring a lot of micro-management for very little payoff.
Heavensward does a better job with adding new abilities to existing jobs and classes. The jobs were pretty well balanced in begin with, each having their own strengths and weaknesses. Heavensward checks each job’s wish list, and delivers something for everyone. Some with varying degrees of intensity and success than others for sure, but by and large it was a job well done by the FFXIV dev team in this regard. For example, the Summoner job which was in desperate need of AoE attacks pre-Heavensward, is now arguably the best AoE class with new abilities that channel the power of Bahamut.
Heavensward’s endgame also falls short. Not because it isn’t functional or fun, especially if you’re a newcomer, but rather because it’s far too similar to what was already in place. The majority of people getting Heavensward are players that already have played FFXIV: A Realm Reborn and probably have reached and exhausted its endgame. Longtime FFXIV players have been waiting years for this first expansion, grinded through to 60 only to be greeted with the same dungeon roulette and tomestone grinding that they have been doing for months and years on end.
Yes, it works, so I can understand why Square Enix might be afraid to completely remove it in favor of something else. However, there should have been something brand new to supplement that or at least a dramatic restructuring of how dungeons play out. Something to replace the ole’ “running down a linear hallway, killing trash enemies until you defeat three bosses” formula that is in place. On a micro level, the new primals and the Alexander raid are fun and fresh battles, but part of a larger issue of funneling Heavensward players down the same progression path. Grind your daily roulettes until you get tomestone gear so you can be strong enough to handle the EX primals and the new raid. The routine is virtually unchanged.
Heavensward’s saving graces are its genre transcending story campaign and beautiful setting.
If the campaign wasn’t peppered with so many filler fetch quests, you might forget you’re playing an MMORPG at all. Heavensward’s story line is packed with lore, twists, turns and memorable characters. Yes, it won’t fool you into thinking you’re playing a SNES-PS1 era Final Fantasy game. That being said, it’s excellent by MMORPG standards and pretty good in its own right.
Without delving too much into spoilers (but here’s your minor to moderate spoiler warning anyway), Heavensward’s Ishgard/Dragon focused campaign and overarching Ascian plot ends on a high note, setting up the rest of the 3.X series up for some interesting story content. But the payoff for the ending of the 2.X series is disappointing. By the time you finish 3.0, the drama surrounding the end of the 2.X series is whisked away, as it is implied that all of the missing/dead Scions will magically return some way or another. Which is lame considering the FFXIV dev team doesn’t have a problem killing off characters in FFXIV, as they have done so before, and end up doing so again in Heavensward.
All of the new areas in Heavensward are gorgeous, with music that matches each zone in style and beauty. Being able to fly through these massive new areas is also a nice touch. Not only does it serve the obvious purpose of making getting around a lot easier and faster, but it’s also a treat to the eyes to be able to see Final Fantasy XIV (the new areas anyway) from a whole new perspective.
The new Heavensward areas also have a healthy mix of urban, far flung and fantasy, similar to other mainline Final Fantasy games. Ishgard is everything A Realm Reborn players would imagine it would be and stands in stark contrast to the other Eorzean city-states. Dravania and Alabathia’s Spine get more interesting and dangerous the higher up you travel, culminating in a fitting Final Fantasy style final dungeon/area Azys Lla, which pays tribute to Final Fantasy VI’s floating continent.
It’s a shame that Square Enix and the FFXIV dev team was so unadventurous with Heavensward, because they weren’t always this way. For all its failed experiments, Final Fantasy XI also had moments of genius. New jobs didn’t always work out great, but some of them did, and they all dared to be different. Same goes with its new endgame content added through expansions such as Treasures of Aht Urghan. A lot of it was hit and miss, but at least it avoided treading water.
Treading water is exactly what we have here with Heavensward. Besides ingenuity, Heavensward doesn’t necessarily fail in any regard. Everything is more or less functional and just as fun as it was in A Realm Reborn. However, the expectation of genuinely new content is a major reason why people were excited about Heavensward to begin with. Once you complete the story and get over its undeniably attractive new zones, what you’re left with is the same old Final Fantasy XIV that’s been around for nearly two years now. Heavensward proves nothing other than that Square Enix can dress up old content without breaking it, and more needs to expected from the developers in future expansions.