Final Fantasy XIV’s newest expansion Shadowbringers has been running on our PCs and PS4s for quite a few days now, and many have had the time to finish its story. There is a great deal of positivity about the expansion within the community, and I believe a lot of it comes straight from the quality of the storytelling.
That being said, don’t worry: this article isn’t about spoiling any story beats for you, so if you haven’t completed Shadowbringers, you can keep reading without concern. I’m not going to talk specifically about what happens, but about how good it is.
Also, this isn’t a review, as it focuses specifically on the story. If you want to hear about gameplay and features, you should read Ed’s review.
Two years ago, I wrote (on another site, since I wasn’t at Twinfinite back then) a similarly enthusiastic article about the story of the previous expansion, Stormblood. Back then, I was wondering how the development team could ever top that.
Yet, they managed, and not by just a little: it certainly makes me wonder just how far they can go in the future.
The previous expansions, Heavensward and Stormblood, as much as the original A Realm Reborn, were pretty much about keeping the lofty promises made by 1.0 and never realized.
At first, we drove the Garlean Empire out of most of Eorzea. Then, we finally took our first steps through the gates of Ishgard. I still remember the disappointment when, on the very first day of the release of 1.0, I walked at around level 10 all the way to Coerthas (dodging hundreds of monsters that would have one-shot me), only to find the coveted fourth city-state locked and inaccessible.
With Stormblood, Square Enix kept another of those long-lost promises, driving us to liberate Ala Mhigo, healing one of the most pervasive and tragic wounds left on Eorzea by the Empire. As veteran players, some of us had been witnessing the plight of the Ala Mhigan resistance and refugees for seven long years. At long last, Stormblood allowed us to answer that call.
Yet, Shadowbringers is in a way different: while it still ties into the story initiated in 1.0 by continuing the fight against the Ascian threat, we can say that it breaks almost completely free from the narrative constraints created a decade ago by a different team, allowing the current writers to exert their full storytelling might.
Previous Final Fantasy XIV storylines had been a bit more mundane than your usual Final Fantasy fare. This isn’t to say that they weren’t epic, but they mostly dealt with worldly threats and conflicts. Shadowbringers expands the scale to the universal level, making you feel the full weight of what is at stake.
The story of the game has delved into darker and darker themes through updates and expansions, but Shadowbringers’ story is really, really dark.
It does an extremely good job in conveying the feeling of traveling a world on the brink of annihilation. While the developers have gone a bit overboard with the quantity of sidequests (I will admit that in certain points I felt like I had gone back to Heavensward’s moogle hell), most of the interaction with the many NPCs we’ll meet in Norvrandt feels meaningful and deeply connected with the situation of their world.
Going into Shadowbringers, I was actually concerned that I wouldn’t feel much of an emotional connection with the setting. After all, my Warrior of Light was not in Eorzea anymore, and I had not developed as much emotional investment into the plight of Norvrandt and its people.
Of course, we had met some of its heroes in the past, and we had lost Minfilia during that interaction, but could that really compare with nine years of fighting for Eorzea?
As it turns out, I was wrong.
Not only the connection with Eorzea remains strong, as we’re effectively fighting for the future of both worlds, but the storytelling does an amazing job in bolstering that small initial link and adding to it to create an emotional connection with Norvrandt and its people extremely quickly and effectively. By when I was done with half of the first area, I was already hooked.
The darker story and the sense of extreme discomfort it creates during some of its most intense beats act in concert with some of the best character building I’ve seen in a while from the whole gaming industry. Almost unexpectedly, the results pushed me to care deeply about almost everyone I met during my travels. The more characters I met, partaking into their troubles, their desperate struggle for survival, and even their most abhorrent flaws, the more I wanted to save them and their world.
The game makes it very clear from the start that “saving the world” is going to be harder than usual. Our Warrior of Light must become the Warrior of Darkness, and that doesn’t just mean a paradigm shift in the tone of storytelling, but also the fact that we’re taking a much less clear-cut “heroic” role.
With impending doom right at our doorstep, and many of the world’s inhabitants resigned to just wait it out, everything feels more personal and present, and it’s difficult not to perceive the building tension with every step forward. The whole story feels like a violin string ready to snap, unleashing all of its emotional baggage right into the player’s face.
In some ways, Shadowbringers feels a lot like Muv-Luv: Alternative. If you’re familiar with âge’s visual novel (which is one of the best ever written), you’ll probably detect a striking similarity in themes even if we aren’t reaching quite the same level of absolute despair.
One thing is for sure, as I played through the expansion’s story, I cried. Several times, both out of sadness and out of relief. The range of feelings Shadowbringers sparked in me is astonishing.
Of course, not everyone will be impacted by the story as strongly as I have. Having been playing Final Fantasy XIV since the first day of 1.0 in 2010 (and the beta before that), it’s only natural that the weight of nine years of adventure adds onto the power of every evolution of the story.
If you are one of those who actually stood on the field of Cartenau before the screen went black, you probably know what I mean.
That being said, I have no doubt that even relative newbies will be able to perceive most of what I did: while the story does benefit from all those years of adventure and buildup, it easily stands tall on its own.
Another element I certainly have to mention is the main villain of Shadowbringers. If you loved Ardyn in Final Fantasy XV, they appear to be made from a similar mold, but Shadowbringers expands the character in ways that place our enemy straight into the hell of the best Final Fantasy villains alongside the likes of Kefka and Sephiroth.
Without delving into spoiler territory, I’ll just tell you that your connection with him and his personal motives can reach nearly painful levels, adding even more to the massive swell of emotions created by this majestic, tragic, and uplifting story.
There is one moment, lasting just a second or two, in which I literally screamed all of these emotions out. Considering that it was 4:30 a.m. my neighbors must have not been too happy about that.
Ultimately, Shadowbringers doesn’t just feel like the climax of nine years of Final Fantasy XIV storytelling. It feels like the culmination of nearly 32 years of Final Fantasy stories.
Its dark, foreboding story tinted with just a faint glimmer of hope, its strong and interesting characters, and the engaging mix of emotional tension and relief make it what I strongly feel is the best Final Fantasy story ever written.