Naoki Yoshida is the man who saved Final Fantasy XIV. The producer took over the MMO in a state of disrepair and delivered an ambitious plan to patch the game while simultaneously developing an entirely new version of the game. The project came to fruition with the release of A Realm Reborn in 2013. But this was just the beginning of Yoshida’s plan. A Realm Reborn was successful because it made FFXIV mechanical sound, and fun for players to spend time in. The story of ARR is nothing to write home about; It was just passable enough that players could get through it to reach the true endgame (dressing up in cool outfits). This allowed Yoshida and the development team to set their eyes on a brighter future.
A Realm Reborn may have saved FFXIV from disaster, but its first expansion Heavensward set the tone for the incredible storytelling that makes the MMO perhaps the best Final Fantasy game of all time — certainly the best this century.
War, what is it good for?
Heavensward brought players to the city-state of Ishgard, a place rising out of a deep canyon nestled between the snow-covered mountains of Coerthas. Players had long heard of Ishgard, a theocracy under the rule of Archbishop Thordan VII. The Ishgardians have been in a thousand-year conflict called the Dragonsong War with the Dravanian Horde led by the great wyrm Nidhogg.
This ages-long conflict is the backdrop for Final Fantasy XIV’s most human story. Over the course of the roughly 70-hour campaign, Heavensward looks at both sides of this war and interrogates the motivations of each, as well as revealing new truths about its origin.
Deep into the expansion, it is revealed that the entire Dragonsong War is built on a lie. The Church of Ishgard has lied for centuries about the beginning of the war, creating a story in which Nidhogg murdered the founder of Ishgard, King Thordan, for no reason. It is revealed that dragons and men lived in peace for some time until a power-hungry Thordan killed Nidhogg’s sister to obtain her eyes which provided great power.
This ages-long deceit had led to both Ishgard and the Dravanian horde to be locked in a battle so long that the cultures and identities of Ishgardians and dragons have been shaped with war as their one constant. They are bred to hate each other.
Cold as ice
One stretch of Heavensward sees the Warrior of Light trek across Coerthas to uncover these truths. Two of your companions act as a distillation of the expansion's themes on war and its effect on people. The Ishgardian soldier Estinien acts as a representative of the Holy See. Estinien is the Azure Dragoon, a soldier whose only purpose is to kill dragons and hunt down Nidhogg. Ysayle is branded as a heretic by Ishgard for allying with the dragons in hopes of ending the Holy See’s rule.
Both see each other as mortal enemies, with no course to peace. Through the intervention of the Warrior of Light, the two eventually attempt to work together and bring about a peaceful resolution to the war.
Ysayle encapsulates the way Heavensward interrogates the way in which people seek to escape cycles of violence. In an early meeting with the Warrior of Light, Ysayle helps allow the Dravanian Horde to attack Ishgard, leading to numerous innocent deaths. She reveals to the Warrior of Light that this loss of life eats away at her, and she worries she is turning into a monster to stop what she sees as unnecessary violence.
While other characters like Estinien grapple with the false pretense of the War, Ysayle is confronted with a lie about her own identity. The dragon Hraesvelgr reveals that she is not the reincarnation of Saint Shiva, who before the Dragonsong War lived in peace with the dragons. Instead, due to her own trauma from seeing her loved ones die, she prayed so much that she willed herself into a Primal in the image of Shiva. In many ways, this reveal is akin to a similar crisis of identity in Final Fantasy 7.
Ysayle must grapple with the truths she holds dear, realizing that to justify her goals and to cope with the trauma that endless war has caused she built a story that helped her survive. By the end of Heavensward, the Warrior of Light can bring an end to the Dragonsong War. Sadly, Ysayle sacrifices herself to make this happen, laying down her life yet one more causality in a meaningless war.
Just the beginning
Where many stories about war would end at this resolution, Heavensward sits in the uneasy aftermath. Ysayle is not the only ally lost, and the story makes the player grapple with these losses. It does not reduce the sacrifice of any of them as necessary, but as a tragic inevitability for these people who were shaped for centuries to live and breathe this war.
In addition to the main story, side content like the new Dark Knight job quests demonstrate an increase in the quality of the writing. The questline was written by Natsuko Ishikawa, who would go on to be the main scenario writer for the Shadowbringers expansion.
But of course, all this storytelling only works in an MMO if the gameplay is equally as good, and it is. Heavensward added three new jobs to FFXIV with Dark Knight, Machinist, and Astrologian. Each of these offered a new variation on the tank, DPS, and healer formula, respectively. Astrologian remains one of the most complex and satisfying jobs to master in the MMO.
Endgame content for Heavensward improved even more on the melding between incredible gameplay and well-written stories with the Alexander raid series. It became clear that Heavensward was just the start of what Yoshida and his team could do with Final Fantasy XIV when not held back by the original’s failure.
In the seven years since Heavensward was released, each expansion has continued to deliver the quality content fans have grown to expect. Stormblood, Shadowbringers, and Endwalker all tackle complex topics with sophistication and intelligence while continuing to improve the online experience of playing with others.
It continues to be, simply put, the best Final Fantasy game.
If you already own Final Fantasy XIV and have been away for a while now is the perfect time to return. The free login campaign is running until June 30, 2022, and offers four days of free play time to players who have over 30 days of inactivity on their accounts. You could play all the award-winning Heavensward expansions in that time!
So go Warriors of Light and remember — a smile better suits a hero.