Square Enix has officially launched Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward, the first expansion to their popular MMORPG. Heavensward puts players into the midst of the Thousand Year War, a long-stretching conflict between the inhabitants of Ishgard and the dragons of Dravania. It introduced a variety of changes, including adding an additional playable race (the Au Ra), providing access to flying mounts, raising the level cap from 50 to 60, and allowing players to choose from three new classes. Of course, the additional content also comes with a list of new dungeons, raids, and Primal fights, spread across the new continent.
With the ending events of A Realm Reborn, many of the major NPCs that players interacted with in the main story are removed, requiring them to be replaced with new companions during the journey into Ishgard. The new members provide a different dynamic than that of A Realm Reborn, making the pressure and intensity of the events feel a bit more close at hand. Part of this may also be the fact that the cut scenes in Heavensward are consistently higher quality than those from the original game, showing that Square Enix really came out swinging. The story progresses into deeper, darker territories than it had previously traversed, and the cut scenes have a greater intensity to match that; the cut scenes in Final Fantasy XIV have never been sub-par, but they’ve reached another level entirely in the expansion.
Overall, the story arch within Heavensward is expertly crafted. Characters are brought back from previous interactions and altercations, but the nature of their presence and their relationship to player characters change and grow. By not getting stuck in static presentations in the personalities of the NPCs, Square Enix makes the world and the story come alive. They also play to their strengths and keep a political edge tied into the main events in the expansion, working within the structure of the world they’ve created to add dimension to it.
Three new classes make an appearance in Heavensward: Dark Knight (tank), Astrologian (healer), and Machinist (DPS). The Dark Knight and the Astrologian are truly exceptional additions to their respective roles, providing new playing styles to the essential and necessary portions of a group. Astrologians provide an array of new mechanics that make them not only potent healers, but also powerful supports, able to grant status buffs to members of their party to effectively handle the challenges in different encounters. Dark Knights streamline some of the challenges of tanking, giving players straightforward but useful ways to mitigate their damage taken and maximize their enmity generation, while also challenging them to manage and utilize their MP effectively. The third class that was added, the Machinist, is a less impressive addition to the DPS lineup, although still an enjoyable one. It provides a second option for ranged DPS players who aren’t interested in playing a mage, and utilizes a broad array of damage dealing and status inflicting skills to handle enemies, including its unique ability to summon turrets. One of the reasons it fails to stand out as much as Dark Knight and Astrologian may also be that it has much more to be compared against, however; where only two tanking classes and two healing classes previously existed, there were already six DPS classes. The progression that previous classes go through in Heavensward is slightly less impressive, however. Those who play as Ninjas have professed particular annoyance with some of their new moves, as they’ve gained moves to manage enmity rather than deal damage, unlike every other DPS class.
The new dungeons and Primal fights present in Heavensward are fantastic additions to the previous encounters. Square Enix really went out of their way to play with new mechanics and make the expansion feel different from the content of A Realm Reborn. And it’s a move that paid off. Boss fights are complicated by placement requirements, new types of AOE effects are introduced, interactive items alter how fights progress, and they are working to make things fresh and new and exciting. Although not perfect, the new additions in Heavensward are far above average.
New environments are introduced in Heavensward that are absolutely beautiful. Comments about such are present in the chat logs of just about every new zone, remarking on the detail that has been put in on small bits and pieces of different areas. A consistent theme has been players being impressed by how dedicated the new areas remain to the theme of fantasy; each zone has an identity and a feel that is its own, and that remains consistent throughout the entire area. This is particularly noticeable in the areas comprised mostly of various floating islands, some connected with little land bridges stretched between them and others floating entirely alone. One small detail that stands out with the introduction of the flying mounts is shadows, which are actually cast on the ground as you soar through the skies.
While overall impressive, there are two small areas where the visual presentation of Heavensward begin to break down. One is in the cut scenes, where close up looks at various characters show off well-detailed faces but unnatural-looking hair. From a distance, the various hairstyles in the game look wonderful, but up close they become distinct, flat layers that show individual pixels. The second is in the color palette and formation of certain structures in some of the new zones (particularly in The Churning Mists), which at times makes it difficult to navigate the area, or to find NPCs within the area.
As is the Final Fantasy legacy, the music of Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward is breathtaking. Some players have compared certain themes to music they would expect to hear in games like Golden Sun, which would largely be considered high praise. But without fail, the music you encounter as you journey through Ishgard is fitting. Sometimes you encounter light, lively orchestral music as you journey through sunny areas, and other times you’re treated to deep, heavy-hitting battle themes that pull you into the encounter. The range is far greater than I would have expected going into this expansion, which was truly a present surprise.
Launching an expansion to an MMORPG is never a perfect process. There are always bugs, issues, outages, and any number of different problems that will arise. It’s not unheard of (or even uncommon) for servers to crash and go offline for hours at a time, or the game to be virtually unplayable for days after launch. Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward managed to avoid just about all of the typical issues. That is not to say that it was without issue, but it was easily the smoothest launch and transition for any MMORPG that I’ve ever seen or heard of. There were some in-game issues that came about, but for the most part, these bugs were simply glitched enemies that were found floating in midair. One more serious error that some players encountered involved not being teleported to a new area after completion of a dungeon, but even this was able to be fixed by finding and talking to an NPC who could transport players to this area.
The biggest issue that came about on the server side of things was the occasional outage of one data server, which houses the highest population worlds in the game. But even with that, Square Enix took steps to alleviate the in-game pressure, spawning multiple instances of different zones within the same world to avoid overloading any particular area as players ventured into the new content. Short of splitting the most-populated Data Center in two to reduce the strain on those particular servers, Square Enix did an outstanding job of taking steps to ensure that the in-game experience was not compromised.
In the end, while there are issues present in Heavensward, it is a very strong showing from Square Enix. The new content that they’ve provided is engaging, exciting, and refreshing, showing that they’re dedicated to innovation and change rather than just rehashing the same mechanics over and over again. They’ve developed Heavensward while staying focused on the players, providing improvements to areas that needed it and always increasing the variety of options available in every aspect of the game. The very movement from old content to new was so smooth, not immediately casting aside anything from gear to emotional investment in the story and NPCs. This is a very bright note for the future of Final Fantasy XIV, and one that stays true to the message that Square Enix has been conveying since the beginning: players matter.
Having developed such a good history of listening to player feedback and providing major content updates throughout the life of Final Fantasy XIV, I can’t wait to see them continue that support in Heavensward. And with the expansion ringing in at a meager $39.99 for the standard edition, it punches well above its weight in terms of value. They’re even providing a special offer that they call The Complete Experience, allowing new players to get A Realm Reborn and Heavensward combined for only $59.99. Check out the official launch trailer below and see what awaits you in Heavensward![embed width=”560″ height=”315″]https://www.youtube.com/embed/TGFZ6RJqTWY[/embed]