The Final Days are upon us.
As meteors rain down from a blazing orange sky, ordinary people are transformed into monsters, devouring their friends in an instant. Elsewhere, a formerly unstoppable empire is reduced to ash, leaving its subjects fighting for survival. Meanwhile, a powerful isolationist nation bides its time, fixating on a secret plan of its own. It’s a lot to take in.
But you, Warrior of Light, have seen it all before.
Final Fantasy XIV has no shortage of near-apocalyptic events in its 10-year history, but in the newly released Endwalker expansion, the stakes feel bigger than ever as you fight to prevent the world-ending cataclysm known as the Final Days. Developer/publisher Square Enix has also made it clear that this expansion ends the ongoing 10-year story arc. Even for a team as accomplished as this one, that’s a monumental task, but aside from some pacing issues and a few blown payoffs, Endwalker delivers a conclusion worthy of the thousands of hours fans have poured into the game so far and plants the seeds for more adventures to come.
Hear, feel, think
How do you end a game’s story when the game isn’t ending?
If you’re Square Enix, you do it by doubling down on what made the story sing in the first place: larger-than-life threats, overwhelming emotion, and likable characters to enjoy it all with. Endwalker starts with the most focused introduction of any expansion so far. Previous storylines begin with you being whisked away to another land or deciding whether to intervene in a foreign war. Here, things are simple, as Endwalker’s antagonists basically dare you to stop them from ending the world. You and your companions head to Sharlayan, a reclusive nation run by stuffy college professors, only to find they’ve got better things to do than preventing the apocalypse.
Your mission to avert the Final Days takes you to some of the most interesting locations ever in Final Fantasy XIV. Garlemald is an icy field dotted with ruined buildings, the perfect illustration of the decaying empire that once called it home. Thavnair and its capital Radz-at-Han burst with color, inspired by South Asian art. The art team is clearly flexing in some late-game dungeons, which feature the most daring designs in Final Fantasy XIV’s history. Boss designs are equally inspired, with a few notable instances that feel like living concept art from Yoshitaka Amano.
Final Fantasy XIV is known for its incredible score, and nothing is held back for Endwalker. Location themes all sound distinct and set the tone for each of the game’s locales while stirring boss themes elevate already dramatic encounters to a new level. Even with no context, you’d feel the weight of the world in the game’s final encounters through the music alone.
For an MMO to work, it needs to introduce new locations, factions, and storylines that will keep players coming back months later. Endwalker does all that while keeping its story on track better than any previous expansion but still suffers from pacing issues, with tension-deflating digressions occasionally spoiling the momentum of major story beats. One minute you’re defending a nation’s capital from rampaging monsters, and the next you’re helping a band of rabbits build houses.
Evolution, not revolution
Endwalker doesn’t reinvent Final Fantasy 14’s combat. If you’ve made it this far, you generally know what to expect, even as bosses pull out clever new mechanics or remix old ones. Even without a complete reinvention, the dungeons and trials introduced in Endwalker are uniformly excellent, and repeated runs through them haven’t dulled my enjoyment.
Outside of instanced fights, Endwalker does shake up gameplay, for better or worse. One new mission type has you escort allies, and along the way, you stop at designated locations to fight or chat about your surroundings. It’s not the most action-packed way for a quest to play out but does a great job of making NPCs feel like your compatriots rather than simple quest givers. On the other hand, there are a few too many stealth missions that end instantly if you’re spotted. A huge number of quests are basically story delivery vehicles, which work because the story itself is excellent — but that also means you can go long stretches without any real action.
Like previous expansions, Endwalker adds two new Jobs to Final Fantasy XIV: The scythe-wielding edgelord Reaper is an extremely flashy but surprisingly simple damage-dealing class that currently makes up about half of the player base. The healer Sage uses shields and healing spells to keep allies alive, while a skill that heals a teammate of your choice when you damage an enemy rewards you for pulling your weight in terms of DPS. Both are fun to play and should have a clear role in any party even after their novelty wears off.
The end of the beginning
The first half of Endwalker propels you from one conflict to another without losing sight of your goals (unless you choose to do side quests that have you carting luggage and slaughtering wildlife, but that’s on you). The action isn’t always thrilling, but it is always meaningful. By the time the Final Days truly arrive, things get considerably messier.
From the beginning of Final Fantasy XIV, a conflict has been raging between the godlike beings Hydaelyn and Zodiark and their respective followers. The game will continue past Endwalker, but this is where that story ends, and for me, it doesn’t entirely stick the landing. Some of it feels anticlimactic, especially when a pair of dull antagonists steal the spotlight from more interesting developments — both those introduced in Endwalker and those that have been simmering for years.
On the other hand, a different set of characters provide Endwalker’s best story beats. The Scions of the Seventh Dawn, your character’s plucky adventuring party, have often felt more like cordial coworkers than friends. Endwalker makes it crystal clear their bond runs much deeper, showing their friendship and dedication in genuinely moving ways. A handful of new characters prove just as important, lending emotional weight to the current predicament while recontextualizing previous events in powerful ways. The conclusion to Hydaelyn and Zodiark’s war left me a bit cold, but emotional moments with characters new and old are absolutely worth the journey.
Endwalker may not outdo the previous expansion, Shadowbringers — a high point for the entire Final Fantasy series — but it ultimately has very different aims. Even as it ends the game’s first story arc, it has me looking forward to what’s next. For all its lofty ambitions, this operatic conclusion to a decade-long story peaks when focusing on how its core characters keep each other standing, even as the world falls down around them.
Inverse reviewed Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker on PC.
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