"Has your journey been good?" a key character asks me, in reference to all my years of adventuring. We’re a few hours into Final Fantasy XIV's latest expansion, Endwalker. "Has it been worthwhile?"
My character never really gets to answer, and many hours later, I think that's because Square Enix also directs the question to us as players: Have the last eight years of FFXIV and all those hundreds of cutscenes been worth the time? I wish I had had the chance to say so, because after Endwalker, my answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Parts of this roughly 50-hour story move a little slower than I'd have liked, but when so many games, TV shows, and movie series seem incapable of delivering a satisfactory ending, it's refreshing to see one that mostly manages to stick the landing to an arc that’s gone on for so long. For that matter, Endwalker is good enough that it removes any doubt that this reborn MMORPG deserves inclusion in any discussion of the best Final Fantasy stories ever written.
That's partly because FFXIV is now a complete tale, with this expansion marking its end to what its 2013 reboot began. Endwalker wraps up virtually every major plotline introduced within that time frame, ranging from the long struggle between the semi-deities Hydaelyn and Zodiark and the ambitions of the Ascians to the fate of the Garlean Empire. Even the new zones suggest a desire to be done with whatever came before; in Endwalker, some of the spots I visited included the South Asia-inspired island nation of Thavnair, the scholarly city-state of Sharlayan, and Garlemald itself – as though Square Enix were trying to scratch off all the places that have long been mentioned but never visited.
Anything that comes after this will be something entirely different. That's likely a good thing, as 2019's phenomenal Shadowbringers expansion showed what wonders FFXIV is capable of when it almost leaves this familiar world behind altogether. Both Shadowbringers and Endwalker remind us that much of the appeal of FFXIV's story lies not so much in the world itself, but in you and your companions, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn. Every major character gets his or her moment in the spotlight here as they rush to figure out how to destroy foreboding, H.H. Giger-esque towers that are meant to bring about the end of the world. Their adventure kicks off with an attempt to find some answers in the libraries of Sharlayan and then a jaunt to Thavnair to try to tackle one of the towers yourself. As virtually all the marketing makes clear, these exploits eventually land you on the surface of the moon. But here's one of the cool things about Endwalker: the moon isn't even the craziest of the places you'll visit.
I won't, of course, say why you go to the moon, but it's only one of the ways in which writer Natsuko Ishikawa successfully subverts our expectations for what many of us were expecting from this years-old story. To say more is to leap into a minefield of spoilers, so let's put it this way: Endwalker may ultimately be the end of FFXIV's main story, but it's better understood as a direct companion piece to Shadowbringers. Shadowbringers is a deeply personal story that explores motivations, while Endwalker zooms out to tie up loose ends and show us how our actions affect the world at large. If Shadowbringers is Avengers: Infinity War, then Endwalker is Avengers: Endgame.
Even so, Endwalker brims with emotionally stirring moments and spends much time with an endlessly endearing pair of characters I could’ve spent an entire game with. Yet it also delves into the dark side of ending every conflict when you're the world's greatest hero. Plenty of rousing speeches and occasional anime silliness pepper the journey to the new level cap of 90, but Endwalker doesn't shy from depictions of people whose distrust resists all attempts at compassion, or those whose pride keeps them from living with defeat.
It's strongest in these intimate moments, centered as they are on the personal consequences of war rather than struggles between titans. Along the same lines, Endwalker does a better job than any other expansion of showing that the bonds between the Scions go much deeper than work buddies, even if my cynical half can't help but find some moments unrealistically optimistic when compared to the real world. The struggles with the villains initially struck me as somewhat weaker, but I find they hold up better under introspection, particularly after looking up certain names and finding hints of inspiration in Greek myth. Endwalker answers many of the questions Shadowbringers left unanswered, and in the process makes the previous expansion even more remarkable.
Just make sure you're comfortable. Almost all that story is told through cutscenes that often last 15 minutes or more, and watching them all takes more time than watching a few seasons of some popular TV shows. Miraculously, most of these cutscenes feel essential, as skipping one (which you’re allowed to do) usually leads to missing a key plot point or winding up in some crazy spot with no idea of how you got there. In the best ones, I would have stood up and cheered if I were in a theater. The only ones that tend to drag are the ones with Return of the King-style moments where you meet and greet with seemingly the entire cast.
When you do need to fight, Endwalker usually gives you legitimate reasons rather than concocting ridiculous scenarios to justify killing 10 sheep or whatever in the style of many other MMORPGs (and early FFXIV itself). But Endwalker prefers to sprinkle its leveling journey with quests where no fighting happens at all. Some are better than others – lore nerds like me will relish those where NPCs follow you and offer optional chats at specific points. Less successful are the several stealth missions requiring you to trail NPCs without being noticed and end if your quarry spots you – no one liked those missions in early Assassin’s Creed games and they’re no better here. The most maddening quest in Endwalker, though, simply makes you walk around a village and find people to talk to. It sounds basic, but they’re annoyingly well hidden and I probably spent half an hour trying to track everyone down. Fortunately, these moments are mere blips in Endwalker's epic running time, and the story usually cleanses the palette with an awe-inspiring reveal or emotional moment. Even the hated village quest is quickly followed by a tearjerker cutscene that closes an arc left untouched since A Realm Reborn.
Such moments remind me, again, that Final Fantasy XIV is already eight years old (not counting the original disastrous launch), and if I look around, I can see in the distant textures that it's starting to show its age a bit. But Square Enix’s MMORPG serves as a reminder that good art direction and sound design sometimes outdo games that need a mythical GeForce RTX 3090 to run properly. The last two zones in Endwalker are visual wonders, and one scene in particular drives home the power of Masayoshi Soken's excellent and ever-present soundtrack by taking it away. The music stops. No animals make noise. And by stripping FFXIV of most NPCs and music at that moment, Square Enix reminds us how much it does with aging resources.
Final Fantasy XIV doesn't allow that sad moment to linger for long, though, and in doing so, it reminds me of an inescapable weak point in the story. We all go into Endwalker facing the end of all things, but I already knew that once I was done with the story, I'd be free to craft at my leisure in Sharlayan's plazas, join hundreds of players on boss hunts through the new zones, and participate in the new raids. Ever present in the back corners of my mind, this knowledge robbed Endwalker's tale of some of its tension.
Reaping the benefits
But that free time also leaves room to level the new Reaper and Sage jobs that start at level 70 (and unlock once you have another combat job at 70). Armed as it is with a scythe and clad in gothy cloaks, the Reaper is one of the best additions to FFXIV's DPS roster in years. Its ability rotation is shockingly simple, but so far swooshing my scythe to fill up a bar that lets me summon a wraith that boosts my damage remains endlessly exciting. It's a little too edgy for my tastes, but even so I'm having so much fun with it that it'll be the next job I level to cap.
As if offering a counterpoint, Sage presents a far greater challenge, as it's partly designed around shielding allies and healing your tank by dealing damage to foes. I still don't really have the hang of it, but I like how it combines the best parts of Scholar and White Mage into a package that more experienced healers are clearly enjoying. Seeing a talented Sage in action in dungeons is a sight to behold, and I look forward to attaining even a fraction of that skill.
Beyond that, though, Endwalker doesn't do much if anything to shake up the established rhythms of gameplay with new elements. The bosses for trials and dungeons are some of the best I’ve ever fought in Final Fantasy XIV, but the dungeons themselves still involve little more than jogging down an (often visually striking) corridor from one boss to the next. Dungeon design is one of the few things I believe World of Warcraft still does better than its ever-rising competitor, and considering some of the wild places Endwalker takes us, I'm surprised there wasn't more creativity in level design.
The good news is that Final Fantasy XIV does much to make up for the absence of new features by stuffing Endwalker with quality of life improvements. At last, a minimap now pops up when accessing a city’s fast-travel network, eliminating the need to memorize the name of the crystal you need to port to. Gathering jobs are simpler: High-quality gathered materials no longer exist – recipes now emphasize quantity instead – and the pile of abilities needed to make collectibles has been replaced by a fairly intuitive minigame. Even combat classes got some love, and revisions are generally for the better. Summoner went from being one of the most complex DPS jobs to one of the simplest, and without losing the flow and godly damage that made it so appealing in the first place. Elsewhere, my Samurai's rotation for area-of-effect abilities has been simplified, so I don't have to waste time putting up single-target damage debuffs to get the most out of my damage.
Endwalker's story hits hardest when you've been with its characters from the beginning, watching people like Alphinaud and Alisaie mature from spoiled brats to wise leaders or learning the contexts for all the folks you'll meet in some key cutscenes. (Alas, there’s no sign of Hildibrand Manderville.) What worries me, though, is that the barrier to access this part of this story for new players is now so high that, well, it practically reaches the moon. Endwalker's story alone takes around 45 to 50 hours to finish at the minimum if you watch all the cutscenes. To reach that, though, you also have to work your way through the hundreds of hours of story in A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Shadowbringers. I like to think it's worth playing through all that without paying for a story boost, but then I've been playing this game for the better part of a decade and wouldn’t have time to play through it in essentially one go if I were to start today. Clearly this isn't deterring too many people, though, considering that Final Fantasy XIV is currently so popular that would-be new players can't even buy it.
But a part of me hopes that all these resolved plot lines and definitive endings pave the way for an easier entry into the series for new players in the upcoming expansion. And whatever is on the horizon, I look forward to seeing it.