Final Fantasy 14 is, without a doubt, one of the best MMOs available. More than just the stellar visual and audio presentation, A Realm Reborn delivers quality updates more consistently than any MMO of this decade. While attending a preview event and going hands on with the new expansion, Stormblood, I didn’t have much in the way of concerns. Beyond the host of subtle tweaks and fixes, Stormblood’s biggest draw is the two new jobs (FF14’s term for classes) along with the whole new continent of Othard, a gorgeous mosaic of aesthetics that range from Japanese to Middle-Eastern.
After the launch of the Heavensward expansion and the five major updates that followed, it’s clear that Square Enix has a tempo that works. Stormblood feels like another verse in a great song, but if you’re not feeling the melody already, I doubt there’s anything that’ll win you over—especially not the new level boost items Square Enix will be selling at launch.
Because we were playing a pre-release build of Stormblood, Square Enix stressed that everything I’ll be discussing is subject to change.
A job worth doing
Of all the things to do during the preview event, I was most eager to sit down and give Stormblood’s new jobs a spin. My only real concern was that the Samurai and Red Mage would struggle to fit into the already robust roster of jobs. Unlike World of Warcraft, which boasts a stunning variety to each class, Final Fantasy 14 is more focused on a singular identity. But I’m relieved to say that the two jobs are a ton of fun.
Of the two, the Red Mage is easily my favorite—so much so that I’m considering retiring my role as a White Mage for this expansion. As part of the combat overhaul in Stormblood, each job now has unique UI elements called a ‘job gauge’ that play a significant role in combat by feeding you information related to how your job plays, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than with the Red Mage.
At the heart of Red Mages is the idea of balance between both white and black magic as well as melee and ranged abilities. They’re the first job in FF14 to use both spells and a sword to deal damage, and knowing how to balance these four combat styles is imperative.
While they have a generic mana pool for casting spells like any other job, Red Mages’ job gauge displays a white and a black mana pool that increases when they cast spells of a corresponding nature. The trick, however, is keeping these two mana pools relatively equal. Cast too many black spells and the crystal at the top of the job gauge will turn black, making it extremely hard to accrue white mana. The same goes for casting too many white spells. When both mana pools are equal, the crystal turns red. That might seem pointless, but it quickly becomes apparent that keeping these two gauges balanced is necessary.
Once both gauges are equally full, Red Mages can leap into melee range to deliver a series of sword strikes that expend equal amounts of each type of mana. By stringing together several of these sword abilities, Red Mages can then access their most powerful spells: Verholy and Verflare. Both of these abilities do devastating damage and without completing the full combo in order to use them Red Mages are missing out on their full potential.
Juggling between white and black mana as well as melee and ranged abilities makes Red Mages feel like one of the most demanding jobs in FF14. There’s an overwhelming complexity to them at first, but it was incredibly satisfying to piece together the combos necessary to use their full toolset. Once I had a rough idea how how to chain spells and sword strikes together, their rotation of abilities felt like an intricate dance.
By comparison, the Samurai doesn’t feel as demanding, though they’re still fun to play. Wielding a two-handed katana, these melee damage-dealers string different sword strikes together in order to change the nature of their deadly Iajutsu ability. Again, Samurais have their own unique job gauge that has two components: the first is a katana-shaped ‘ken’ meter that fills up by using certain abilities and depletes using other abilities that you’ll want to use depending on the situation, like striking and then leaping backwards to avoid an area-of-effect attack.
Then there are three emblems that light up after comboing certain abilities together. With each emblem that lights up, Iajutsu transforms into a different style of attack. For example, with two emblems lit up, Iajutsu becomes Tenka Goken, which does damage to all nearby enemies. With all three emblems alight, Iajutsu becomes Midare Setsugekka, an extremely powerful single-target attack. Knowing how many emblems to light up and when to trigger these special attacks will likely be the biggest challenge Samurais face in combat.
If that sounds complicated, it’s really not. After a few minutes, I had memorized the combos I needed to light up all three emblems and had even discovered a method to use Midare Setsugekka twice in a row for absolutely insane damage. Compared to the Red Mage, however, Samurai’s don’t feel all that distinctive from other melee damage-dealing jobs. Their emphasis on sword combos and their aesthetic is still cool, but it just didn’t wow me the same way.
Journey to the East
Outside of playing with the new jobs and seeing the combat overhaul in action, the other big aspect of the Stormblood preview was getting a feel for the new continent of Othard. Unfortunately, Square Enix wasn’t showing off any of the story or major new features, so much of my time was spent flying around and getting acquainted with the new locations.
The areas I was able to explore were gorgeous if not slightly less enchanting as those in Heavensward. The Ruby Sea is a sprawling coastline bookended by a volcano in the south and a northern stone tower that reaches into the heavens like the Tower of Babel. Though Stormblood increases the minimum system requirements, there’s nothing visually that stands out as an improvement over Heavensward. Though I only glimpsed a limited slice of everything Othard has to offer, the two locations I did see felt rather muted compared to the majestic floating islands and extravagant ruins found in Heavensward. That’s not to say they weren’t beautiful, just nothing quite as awe-inspiring like the massive Allagan airship that . Hopefully Square Enix is just keeping Stormblood’s more distinctive zones closer to the chest until launch.
Aside from exploring, I did get a chance to dive into one of Stormblood’s new dungeons. Shisui of the Violet Tides (which is an amazing name) is pretty standard fare for any FF14 veteran. Despite my party having someone who had never played the game before, we had no trouble interpreting boss mechanics and defeating them with ease. That isn’t to say the dungeon was boring. After all, any fight that involves having to turn into an old lady is alright in my books.
Without the context of the story, it was hard to figure out exactly what Shisui of the Violet Tides was all about, but it was still a gorgeous dungeon that led us through luxurious Japanese-style castles and courtyards all contained in an undersea bubble. The first boss has an ability that seduces any player looking at her, pulling them towards the center of the arena so she can blast with them a near-fatal attack. To avoid this ability, each of the four party members needed to open a magical chest that turned them into an old lady for a short period. I guess the only thing that can resist the seductive gaze of a demon woman is… an old crone? I’m not sure, but it made me laugh to see my handsome white mage shamble about as an old woman for a few seconds.
It’s hard to really gauge how Stormblood’s endgame dungeons and raids will play just from this one experience alone. Shisui of the Violet Tides is meant for level 63 players, so it’s one of the first dungeons you’ll run through on your quest to level 70. As with Heavensward, the more difficult group content will likely become available later.
A boost in the wrong direction
Keeping the difficulty low—at least for the first few levels of Stormblood—is likely intentional, thanks to the introduction of level boost items that Square Enix will begin selling at launch. These items are notable because they attempt to put an end to my major problem with Final Fantasy 14: I can’t recommend anyone play it without heavy caveats.
If you think it’s a bit odd that I say FF14 is one of the best MMOs around yet don’t like to recommend it to anyone, believe me, I’m well aware. I’ve been playing since launch, and I continue to have a blast playing week after week. The problem, then, is that if you’re brand new to the game and hoping to jump into Stormblood, you’re facing a massive wall of quests you have to chew through first.
Unlike World of Warcraft, where you can quickly power level and hop right into the endgame content, Final Fantasy 14 locks everything behind an enormous chain of story quests. If you want to play Stormblood, you’re going to have to first complete all of the main story quests in A Realm Reborn, all of its post-launch story quests, then complete all of Heavensward’s story along with it’s post-launch story quests as well. If I had to guess, that’d probably take around 100 hours. That’s not exactly great news if you’re hoping to catch up to a friend who is already playing.
Similar to other MMOs, Square Enix will begin selling level boost potions that will eliminate all of those barriers—but at a very heavy price. Starting on June 16th, three new items can be purchased for real cash that’ll cut out different hurdles to playing Stormblood.
If you pay $18 USD, you can skip A Realm Reborn’s main story quests and immediately begin working on Heavenward’s story, which is definitely much smaller (and better) by comparison. Paying $25 USD, however, will let you skip both sets of story quests and jump straight into Stormblood. There’s a catch, however, as these items only skip the story, they don’t level your character to the appropriate level.
To do that, you’ll need to purchase a second item for $25 that will boost a single job to level 60 (the required level to start Stormblood). For now, only one of these level boosts can be purchased per account to limit players from splurging on several and boosting multiple jobs.
So that means if you want to get into Stormblood straight away, maybe to play along with a friend, you’re looking at spending an exorbitant amount of money. Right now, the Final Fantasy 14 bundle on Steam is $30, and then Stormblood is another $40. If you purchase the proper boosts to hop into Stormblood on day one, you’re looking at $120 total. That’s awful considering World of Warcraft offers level boosts for free with the purchase of an expansion. I’m just not certain it’s worth it to anyone on the fence who isn’t okay with spending a few dozen hours catching up first. It’s a shame too, because I adore FF14 and wish more of my friends played it.
I brought my concerns up with game director Naoki Yoshida who said that their intention is to still encourage people to play through the entire story of Final Fantasy 14 so far, rather than skip everything like they would in World of Warcraft. While I can sympathize with that intention (especially because Heavensward is excellent), the present solution does nothing to help me convert my friends over unless I decide to start a new character alongside them.
I only find that so frustrating because, after my hands on, I’m genuinely excited for Stormblood and talking about it has many of my friends interested too. It sucks to have to caveat my recommendation with the warning that they’ll either need to a hundred hours or a hundred dollars just to join me on my adventures. Hopefully Square Enix considers making some adjustments to the program in the future.
Even if my friends don’t join me, I’m still very excited to venture into Othard on June 16th. The new classes are fun as hell and I can’t wait to play through the next chapter in an already great story. At this point, Final Fantasy 14 has become that long-running TV series I look forward to each week, and my initial taste of Stormblood has counting down the days until I can—like a new season on Netflix—binge until the sun creeps over the horizon.
Stormblood will officially release on June 20, but there early access will begin for those who preordered on June 16.
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