In Shadowbringers, fans will find a blend between everything that makes Final Fantasy XIV brilliant already with some deft strokes of narrative and gameplay innovation that solidify it as the best MMORPG on the market today.
While Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is still ostensibly about saving the world - just not yours - it also hits much closer to home than the traditional MMORPG expansion typically aims for. That's true of other genre stalwarts and Final Fantasy XIV itself, which has often asked players to interrogate big ideologies that involve entire nations as the crucial fixture of new content. In Stormblood, it was colonization and the politics behind it, and in Heavensward, corruption and religion were the name of the game. All of these ideas are at play in Shadowbringers, too, but they're more closely connected to a personal story of growth, tragedy, and relationships - the latter of which shine brighter than the entire light-infused region of Norvrandt, by the time the story comes to a close.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is the third expansion for the franchise, and it's something of a turning point. Square Enix's incredible and frankly improbable resuscitation of a game that launched as one of the worst major MMORPG attempts of all-time is already well-known, but it's time we move past that. Final Fantasy XIV is, like some of the more cynical characters would remind you in the new expansion, no longer in need of being saved. Unlike Norvrandt, though, that's because it's already been rescued. Now, the 16 million subscriber title has to grapple with a new challenge - the spotlight and the expectations that come with being recognized as an already great game. Luckily, in Shadowbringers, fans will find a blend between everything that makes Final Fantasy XIV brilliant already with some deft strokes of narrative and gameplay innovation that solidify it as the best MMORPG on the market today.
Players will reprise their role as the Warrior of Light as they are hurtled into the new region - and world - of Norvrandt, a place that at first glance might be considered paradise for followers of Hydaelyn, the Goddess of Light. Yet under the never-ending daylight of Norvrandt lurks the sinister knowledge that all is not well, and hasn't been for a long time. This is one of the first and most compelling narrative beats in Shadowbringers, setting the tone for all that is to come. The Warrior of Light won, in this world, across time and space and mostly removed from the Source. The dark was pushed back and as a result, an apocalypse of divinity ravaged the land, upending all but the tiniest slivers of civilization that now must fight for their survival against "holy" beings known as sin-eaters.
So, yeah. Religion, corruption, and right and wrong remain central to the plot of Shadowbringers. The change is that the story develops around a tight-knit group of friends and allies who all grow and develop their own personal narratives throughout the tale. At times, Shadowbringers feels less like an MMORPG and more like a new single-player entry in the Final Fantasy franchise. Returning characters anchor the ambitious story and lend it the emotion that will draw players in, while new additions have a depth that extends well beyond average execution. Emet-Selch, in particular, is one of the best-written characters we've seen in quite some time, but it's not an award he wins easily - there are many in Shadowbringers alone, old and new, that contend for that title with each revelation. It would be well worth it to play Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers for the story alone, a quality that could become something of a tradition in Final Fantasy XIV after Heavensward and Stormblood possessed similarly engrossing journeys.
Shadowbringers does more than just spin a great yarn, though. The addition of Gunbreakers and Dancers adds new depth to the franchise though, admittedly, would it have killed Square Enix to finally include another healer class? It's one of the very few complaints we have about the expansion - queues take ages as the game currently faces a shortage of those willing to lend parties crumbs of Cure, and that's in part due to the fact that it's been nearly four years since we last got a new healer role. Lack of variety for that role notwithstanding, though, the new jobs are intelligently designed and increase the depth for tank and damage-dealing roles well.
If there's a winner between the two in the early days of Shadowbringers, though, it's the Gunbreaker. The job is best-suited for an off-tank role, as it tends to deal damage that surpasses usual tanking expectations but is also a little more difficult to keep alive. There's also an interesting tension between Superbolide, which drops a Gunbreaker's health to 1 while preventing incoming damage, and a healer needing to know if an emergency heal is needed or if they can wait it out and just gradually bring the tank back up. It adds a dynamic to dungeons and trials that is fascinating to watch, even if, once again, it feels a little unfair that tanks got an entirely new toy while healers got something new to keep track of during already frenetic combat.
The Dancer, on the other hand, will likely need a bit of tweaking, although it's still an interesting and fun job as it stands now. Late game, however, it's damage-dealing leaves players wanting, and single-target buffs will take some getting used to now that Bards have had their party-wide arsenal removed. When the Dancer is given time to establish their routine and begin transitioning through the rhythmic execution of their rotations, however, the class is something to behold, visually and statistically. As it stands now, with lengthy fights a staple of the end-game content in design, it appears Square Enix remains committed to letting the job have a chance to breathe. In earlier dungeons, though, the Dancer doesn't really get a chance to get going, not necessarily in damage but rather in design. That can obviously hamper a player's fun with it, and it's something that will retroactively need to be addressed, although it's hardly a concern with all the shiny new content that Shadowbringers introduces to the fold.
The addition of Viera and Hrothgar as races has also effectively taken over Final Fantasy XIV, as it's hard to walk more than a few steps without tripping over a bunny woman. The Hrothgar have been surprisingly popular too, however, and both races have helped increase the diversity of aesthetics and party appearance in-game, something that's always welcome. The Viera's settlement is also a nice standout in the story, a zone that gets breezed through during the Main Scenario Quest and is well-worth a player's time to retread once all is said and done.
One of the most important additions in terms of accessibility comes to Shadowbringers in the form of the Trust system. It lets players choose a full party of NPCs - importantly, the ones they've come to care deeply about over the course of past expansions and Shadowbringers especially - and tackle story dungeons with them. For DPS jobs, this is a godsend, as lengthy queues have long been the strike against embracing that role, especially in between expansions when queue times begin to get a little longer. It's also a boon for players who don't enjoy the company of strangers, or who have grown sick of people executing mechanics poorly during dungeons. From what we can tell, the Trust system brings NPCs that are always competent and won't wipe unless the player themselves does something wrong. It might take a little longer - the goal of the Trust system is not to offer the perfect party, which would eliminate the need to queue with real people altogether - but it's the kind of addition that only strengthens the overall Final Fantasy XIV offering. We tested the Trust system in the first and last dungeon it was offered in Shadowbringers, and both times it felt smooth, easy, and actually an excellent way to learn mechanics yourself if required. The NPCs will show players how to avoid attacks or where to stand, which can also be a helpful learning tool for those who want to party with others but don't want to be a burden initially.
The dungeons themselves are a highlight of the expansion and another continuation of the sublime design that Stormblood was so famous for. Shadowbringers dungeons - in particular, its trials - are flat-out exciting. Each one features mechanics that will keep player co-ordination at the forefront, but with careful execution can be surmounted with relative ease. It's a good blend, saving the hair-pulling and keyboard-throwing for hard modes only. The best part of the dungeons might just be their soundtrack, though, which is better than it has ever been. Music in Final Fantasy XIV is always a strength, but the composition in Shadowbringers is captivating. It's the kind of soundtrack that many who experience it will seek out and play during downtime in their own personal lives, and that's a high compliment for a video game OST.
If there's a complaint to be had with Shadowbringers, it's the same one that plagues every MMORPG - balance needs addressing, at least to some extent. There are still jobs that feel far and away superior to others, although that gap has shrunk considerably since the early days. There are also minor hiccups in terms of the pacing at the end of the Main Scenario Quests - including a puzzling level requirement gate that feels like it's implemented backwards.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is the best MMORPG expansion in recent memory - perhaps of all-time. Its exceptionally few warts are the kind that will be removed with a few patches of tweaking, and what's left is skin so unblemished it rivals the sheen of a crystal. Shadowbringers tells the best story that Final Fantasy XIV has ever told, sets up an equally intriguing story to follow after, and does it while introducing us to some of the most awe-inspiring environments and battles we've ever seen in the genre. If there was still a debate, let it end now. Final Fantasy XIV is the game for MMORPG enthusiasts and newcomers alike, and Shadowbringers is the expansion that proves it.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is available now for PC and PlayStation 4. A digital copy of the expansion on PC was provided to Screen Rant for the purposes of this review.