Note: The following impressions are based upon a pre-release build that has not undergone final adjustments. All content is subject to significant change.
Amidst gothic candelabra and velvet curtains dimly illuminated in hues of purple, the venue for the North American leg of the 2019 Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers media tour set a dour mood not unlike the gloomy San Francisco skies beyond its austere walls. It was just over a week ago that a handful of journalists like myself convened in this melancholy space for a world-first opportunity to go hands-on with the latest expansion to popular MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV. My extensive experience left me more enthusiastic than ever to explore the latest addition to the world of FFXIV—well, an entirely new world unto itself, if we're splitting Hrothgar hairs, and we are—and I took away some impressions from the avalanche of information we received on how FFXIV's core gameplay systems are going to change when the expansion launches in early July.
The media tour kicked off with a morning address, wherein game producer Naoki Yoshida took to the stage to recap everything Square Enix has revealed about Shadowbringers thus far. The latest entry in the Final Fantasy XIV saga sees the player shedding the mantle of "Warrior of Light" and embracing the power of Darkness to save another world called "the First" from a flood of annihilating luminescence. In practical terms, the advancement of the Final Fantasy XIV story ushers in a host of gameplay adjustments to match the increased level cap of 80, including two new playable jobs (Gunbreaker and Dancer), a rework of every existing job, the elimination of the TP (Technical Point) resource, and a huge number of other tweaks to combat. Yoshida and his development team have never shown anything but a fierce attention to detail that results in consistent quality-of-life upgrades to the Final Fantasy XIV experience, and Shadowbringers is no different.
In this new expansion, FATEs—"Full Active Time Events," or semi-random skirmishes that appear in overworld areas with unique foes to slay—receive an unexpected overhaul. Previously, FATEs only granted experience points, gil, and an underutilized currency called Grand Company Seals. FATEs in Shadowbringers areas will award a new type of token that can be exchanged for unique rewards, such as Orchestrion (jukebox) rolls, riding maps, furnishings, crafting items, minions, and so on. Fans have long called for a rework of the FATE system, as participation drastically drops once most players hit a given expansion's level cap, so perhaps this new system will encourage more foot traffic in FFXIV's beautiful yet occasionally desolate open-world areas.
Another seemingly small but meaningful change comes to the side quest system; in Shadowbringers, side quests will employ a level sync system that matches enemy strength to the player's, allowing them to earn experience points for, say, a second job once they've seen their first to level 80. Also on the docket are new "Role Quests." Divided into four different sets—one for physical DPS, magical DPS, tank, and healer, respectively—these questlines retrace the journeys of the First's fallen heroes, delving into the lore and history of Shadowbringers' new world while allowing players an opportunity to flex their martial muscles. Or...heal other warriors' martial muscles? There are muscles involved, I'm sure.
Crafters and gatherers can look forward to two new initiatives in Shadowbringers. The first, a reconstruction effort for the city-state of Ishgard, is a known quantity to players already, and I unfortunately don't have any new details to report on it following the media tour. The second new activity, however, is a bit clearer in purpose. The First's last bastion for humanity, the Crystarium, is home to a collective of artisans at the Crystalline Mean seeking to restore their world to its former glory. By gathering, creating, and contributing goods to one of five "Facets"—Forging, Crafting, Nourishment, Gathering, and Fishing—players can hone their skills while learning more about the plight facing the First. The items and recipes required to participate in the crafting end of this initiative are provided by the relevant NPCs, so players won't have to worry about competing with one another to secure what they need to progress through this activity.
We've known for a time about the Trust system, which allows players to team up with major characters from the Final Fantasy XIV storyline to complete select dungeons solo. Yoshida revealed at the media tour that the AI for Trust characters has been carefully developed to not only be intelligent, but to be uniquely reactive depending on the NPC, situation, and team composition. For example, both Alphinaud (a Scholar) and Urianger (an Astrologian) can fill the Healer role in a party, but each will behave differently during combat encounters, making re-running dungeons with different combinations of Trust characters an intriguing prospect. Yoshida says that the team has emphasized the "human-like" quality of the AI so that players can feel each character's personality shine through in the way they approach combat. Of course, completing dungeons alongside other player characters is both faster and easier, so both methods remain viable for their own reasons.
Final Fantasy XIV's user interface will see some long-awaited updates in Shadowbringers, not the least of which is a new light theme for all UI elements. The implementation of this theme also comes with a foundation upon which the team intends to build more UI skins in future patches, but Yoshida warns us to not expect them too often. Other tweaks include an expansion of cross-world linkshells (up to 8), a function to preview furniture appearance before purchase, a display for enemy HP down to a tenth of a percent, party list display adjustments, visual notation of heal barriers on the HP display, and more.
I began to speak upon them earlier, but the most substantial alterations embedded in Shadowbringers concern the game's battle system. New to Final Fantasy XIV is a "charged action" mechanic for certain abilities to encourage more versatility in battle strategy; players will accumulate one charge of each of these actions every time their cooldown timer cycles (typically up to a cap of 2-3, from what I saw). With this system, the development team hopes to alleviate the issue of forcing a strict adherence to perfect execution of each job's skill rotation in order to maximize DPS. Also new is a "casting interruption system" that marks enemies' interruptible attacks with a glowing outline and displays a clear visual notification whenever an attack is successfully stopped. This system isn't entirely new or unique, but its enhanced visibility is a welcome update in a game where combat can quickly become visually overwhelming.
In Stormblood, players gained access to Role Actions, which varied based on...well, role (as opposed to job). Initially, players had to pick and choose which of these they wanted to use, but eventually the development team elected to make all of them usable at once. To combat the skill bar bloat caused by these abilities, the team is scaling back the number of Role Actions, as well as their functions. The aforementioned interruption skills are among these Actions, and will be given to tanks and ranged DPS characters.
Possibly more contentious will be a new universal MP cap of 10,000 across the board. With this update, the idea is that players will now have a clearer idea of how many times they can cast a given spell at a glance. The piety attribute, which currently affects maximum MP, will be adjusted to affect the amount of MP passively recovered during combat. The team is also removing the ability to meld primary attribute materia (including piety) to armor, so the rebalanced weight of these stats will have ripples throughout the raiding meta.
On the subject of magic, the team is making an enormous change to how summoned pets function—no longer will they be targetable whatsoever, either by friend or foe, and all of their abilities have been removed from the pet hotbar and reworked into player abilities. Summoner is my main job, so I was especially eager to see how this worked in practice. Because summons no longer have a cast time, it's possible to rapidly switch between each Egi in combat depending on the situation; their abilities are now consolidated into two actions called "Egi Assault I" and "Egi Assault II," which utilize the aforementioned charge system and activate each Egi's unique abilities. Because Titan-Egi can physically no longer fulfill a tank role, its Earthen Ward ability has been changed to bestow the player with a shield that absorbs 20% of their maximum health. Titan-Egi in particular has long gone underutilized, so Summoner is likely to feel substantially different in play than ever before—and that's to say nothing of its new abilities at level 80.
I'll stop beating around the bush and get right to addressing what most players want to hear: how does every job evolve on the path to level 80? If you're a Final Fantasy XIV devotee, you've likely already seen the new Shadowbringers Job Action trailer that debuted with the May 23rd Letter from the Producer live. Dragoons invoke the wrath of Nidhogg-Estinien, Paladins call forth giant spectral swords from beneath the earth, White Mages don a pair of gossamer wings to enhance their healing abilities, Summoners channel the cleansing fire of Phoenix...to touch upon every job's nuances here would be folly, mostly for the sake of my wrists, but also because it's much more sensible to peruse Square Enix's official documentation for the most detailed breakdown possible.
In my hands-on time with Shadowbringers, I explored three areas and spent some time playing with every single job at 80. First—geez, that's a hard word to stop using when its proper noun equivalent is also relevant here—I must take a moment to recognize the sheer visual splendor Final Fantasy XIV continues to bring to the table. Shadowbringers' areas once again demonstrate a master-class effort in visual design that transcends not only its MMORPG trappings, but stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its more graphically robust contemporaries. Even at six years old, Final Fantasy XIV is a gloriously beautiful game. Shadowbringers welcomes players to its new hub town of Crystarium with deep purples and radiant blues, its flora as otherworldly as the fauna beyond its walls. Crystarium is more vertically-inclined and compact than Stormblood's Kugane, which should facilitate easier traversal. Shades of indigo and violet dominate much of the Lakeland landscape at its periphery, standing in sharp contrast to the vibrant colours of Il Mheg, an idyllic valley of floral meadows and crystalline peaks where Pixies dance amongst prismatic hues. Underwater, city ruins blanketed in green sleep beneath placid waves. So long as there exist worthwhile activities across each of these zones, they will be a joy to return to again and again.
My combat experience with Shadowbringers was just as exciting and mystifying as the areas I fought in. I cannot claim to be an expert on the inner workings of every single job, only having leveled Summoner and Warrior to 70 myself, but I did at least give all of the new abilities a fair shake as I tousled with foes upon the crags of Lakeland. As a Summoner main, I was immediately struck by how much more quickly its skill rotation seems to move; Demi-Bahamut can be up and running within a few seconds at level 80. The removal of Aetherflow as an active ability and reduction of maximum Aetherflow charges to two, plus the re-categorization of pet abilities as player actives, mean Summoner is more focused on dealing damage rather than building up to it. Demi-Phoenix is the job's shiny new toy at level 80, and while I'm intrigued to see what its new AoE heal ability brings to raid utility, I must admit I'm a little disappointed the job continues to pull from the Binding Coil of Bahamut's well-worn lorespring. I would've liked to see some new standard summons, or perhaps an evolution in a less predictable direction, but I remain excited to explore the job's new potential nonetheless. Finally, I would be remiss to not share my impressions of the new Dancer and Gunbreaker jobs. Of the two, Gunbreaker initially commanded more of my interest, but by the end of my session, I was swept away in the joy of playing Dancer.
From what I could tell, Gunbreaker brings two unique mechanics to tanking: one, the job has a handful of shielding "bullets" that can be fired upon other party members to protect them from enemy attacks. Such defensive abilities are not rare among tanks, but Gunbreaker's take encourages this sort of precise shielding of specific teammates more than I'm accustomed to from playing Warrior. Gunbreaker can also bank "cartridges" by using certain abilities and then spend them to execute several special attacks, including one interesting series of attacks that require rapid button presses via quick-cycling statuses called "Ready to Rip," "Ready to Tear," and "Ready to Gouge." The rapid-fire nature of these attacks actually feels a bit like running through the bullets of a revolver, which suits the job from a visual perspective, if nothing else.
Dancer, on the other hand, emphasizes team synergy more than any job in the game to this point. Aside from from the long-range throwing weapon attacks they specialize in, they also have a number of buffs that may be familiar to Final Fantasy XI veterans, like "Fan Dance," "Saber Dance," "Steps," and a "Flourish." There are two different types of steps, and upon beginning a dance, the player must hit a (random?) sequence of buttons in order to successfully execute the dance, after which they can "Flourish." By using a certain move, Dancers can also designate a "dancing partner" to share their buffs with, rewarding their performative finesse twofold. I found Dancer to be satisfying in terms of both aesthetics and function, delighted by its elaborate movements and excited by the potential it will bring to future raids.
Among the existing jobs, two stood out as most remarkable during my hands-on experience. Dark Knight is the poster child for the Shadowbringers expansion, so it's sensible that it received considerable attention in the realm of job adjustments. The melodrama of forcibly extracting the darkness within to create an autonomous shadow clone that fights alongside you is a spectacle to behold. I can hardly estimate how "strong" every job will be relative to one another this early in the game, but Dark Knight's new abilities felt satisfyingly potent to wield in the demo I played, if nothing else. More impressive still is the complete rework of the Machinist, which feels like an entirely new job in Shadowbringers. No longer a glorified gunner, Machinist now wields an entire arsenal of tools not unlike Edgar's from Final Fantasy VI: an auto-crossbow, a drill, an "air anchor," a bio blaster, and more stand at the ready to unleash upon the forces of Light. Best of all, Machinist can now summon a fearsome Automaton Queen to fight alongside them at level 80, complete with a suite of automated attacks and a Pile Bunker that can be activated for a burst of damage. "Bob, do somethin'!" indeed.
I've not even begun to scratch the surface of all the gameplay adjustments that are in store for Shadowbringers. Suffice it to say that Yoshida and the team are looking at every aspect of Final Fantasy XIV's combat, including considerations related to party composition and the roles therein. I've not even mentioned anything about the Viera or the Hrothgar, Shadowbringers' two new playable races with their own quirks. (Contrary to some early grumbling over these races' unique heads blocking the display of most headgear, dedicated members of the development team worked overtime to ensure that many pieces of headgear ARE reflected on both, not just glasses--though larger helmets are almost universally a no-go. Viera feature more customization options, with separate hair, face, and ear selections; Hrothgar faces come part and parcel with their hairstyles, but feature a number of chest fur patterns with separate color selection options.) For as superficial as many of Shadowbringers' additions may seem to be, they come with the benefit of enriching the Final Fantasy XIV world with an increasingly diverse player base wielding ever more visually impressive tools of destruction.
With a mere month left until the commencement of early access for Shadowbringers, it won't be long until players across the globe can experience the world of the First for themselves. If what I experienced at this year's media tour is any indication, Shadowbringers is on track to deliver another chapter in an enduring game that remains as mechanically inventive, narratively engaging, and audiovisually impressive as ever. A true Final Fantasy this is indeed.
Throw wide the gates to the First. I shall meet thee hence, fellow adventurers.
(For more Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers 2019 media tour coverage, please see our accompanying interview with game director Naoki Yoshida.)
Disclaimer: Square Enix provided travel and accommodations to attend this event.