With the sheer amount of things to do in MMOs, particularly when there are so many classes with major differences in how they handle, it's easy for a single person to miss various aspects of the game and not necessarily get the fullest picture of it. Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood, the game's second expansion, adds a substantial amount of new content by bringing players to Doma and Ala Mhigo as well as revamping how a large number of classes play. To that end, we at RPGamer have given a selection of staff members the chance to provide their thoughts and collated them all into a single group review. Please enjoy reading our thoughts and feel free to provide your own in the comments.
Adriaan den Ouden
Despite a shaky launch week, Stormblood offers up a lot of the same elements that made Heavensward so great. I spent most of my days with either a gun or a fishing pole in my hand, exploring the Machinist class further as well as diving deep into fishing, both in the new Stormblood content and the patch content of Heavensward. I also spent some time with the Astrologian class, but the first two classes definitely saw the most significant advances.
The Machinist class received an absolutely astounding number of changes, not only with the advent of Stormblood, but also in the weeks that followed. The core playstyle philosophy of the class almost completely changed three times during my playtime, going from the Heavensward style, which involved turning the Gauss Barrel skill on and off depending on mobility requirements, to the new Stormblood style, which used the Heat Gauge to improve the power of certain shots so long as you kept it within a certain value range. At Stormblood's launch, the primary focus on the Machinist was to maintain a Heat Gauge level of 50 to 95 without letting it go over 100 into Overheat mode. However, after a few minor patches, this changed dramatically to the current mode, which encourages forcing an Overheat as often as possible in order to gain the powerful damage buff that goes along with it. While I'm extremely happy that the development team finally differentiated the class a bit more from the Bard, it's a bit disheartening that Square Enix still isn't quite sure what to do with it.
Fishing also saw major changes with the addition of a new method of gathering: spearfishing. Spearfishing works with the game's new swimming areas, and functions similarly to the other gathering classes in the game. When you reach a spearfishing node, you can begin spearfishing. When bubbles appear, signalling the arrival of a fish, you can jab your spear in to collect it. Which fish you're able to catch depends on the location of the node and the type of gig attached to your spearhead: small, medium, or large. Unlike other gathering classes, you have no control over choosing which type of fish you're trying to catch, but like fishing with a rod, there are a number of additional skills that can be utilized to improve the odds of catching what you're after. Catching enough of certain fish will cause a "swimming shadows" node to appear, which contain fish that can't be caught at any other node. Overall, while spearfishing isn't quite as complex as rod fishing, it does offer up an interesting alternative, and it's currently the best way to gain the valuable yellow gathering scrips needed for end-game bait and gear.
Stormblood continues Final Fantasy XIV's tradition of excellent storytelling, but it's quite a different sort of tale from Heavensward. While the previous expansion's story focused mostly on the Dragonsong war and the long and violent history of Ishgard and the dragons, Stormblood's war is one of rebellion against tyranny and the value of freedom. The key motivational differences between Ishgard's war and the Ala Mhigan and Doman rebellions lead to dramatically different themes, despite the common setting of a battlefield.
Still, despite being an overall strong expansion, Stormblood really doesn't rock the boat all that much. While there's plenty of new content, there isn't much in the way of new mechanics. Most of the design philosophies are identical to Heavensward, which isn't a bad thing, but it's a formula that will likely go stale if it's not added to soon. Stormblood's biggest flaw is its reluctance to try new things, relying instead on tried but true concepts.
I'm not one for blitzing through content as quickly as possible, hence why I only actually got around to finishing Stormblood's story at the beginning of September despite picking it up at launch. As with many others, the first choice to be made was which class I was going to select as my primary one. I've always been a physical DPS, starting off A Realm Reborn as a Bard before switching to Dragoon fairly quickly, as Bard wasn't really all that interesting to play. For Heavensward, I started off as a Machinist, though again that didn't last long as I went back to the trusty, jumpy Dragoon. However, with Stormblood radically revamping some of the classes but leaving Dragoon much the same as it was, I wanted to give my very first choice from A Realm Reborn another shot.
The changes to the Bard class have made it a lot more fun to play as. Though some of the old actions have been removed, there's a much greater feeling of involvement in combat, and the more direct linking of songs to attacks and other obvious effects means these are much more interesting to use. I have given Red Mage and Samurai very brief shots as well, and both looked pretty enjoyable. Samurai is one I'm looking to dive into a bit deeper when I do start leveling another combat class; I'm almost never a caster, hitting things is my usual specialty. Despite ringing the changes for certain classes, gameplay in Stormblood remains pretty much on par with A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, keeping the polish and balance without rocking the boat. It's been a welcome change to see the boss fights in Stormblood be more focused on mechanics and teamwork, rather than having to rely strictly on numbers. The one thing I perhaps would say is that I wish there were more dungeons out of the gate, though the ones that are included are great. Of course if the trend continues, post-launch patches will add plenty more over the coming year.
As is expected nowadays from the Final Fantasy XIV team, the main story is very strong, though I found the Dragonsong War from Heavensward a bit more engaging than the liberations of Ala Mhigo and Doma. One of the issues is a weaker introduction leading up to the rather sudden switch to Doma. After reaching Doma, however, things picked up well and the antagonists in both areas were memorable. I'm looking forward to seeing what direction the story goes from here, as there are so many ways it could go at this point. There are also some nice little stories to witness in the sidequests, particularly the multi-quest ones focused on particular characters that end up tying together later, though there's still a fair share of annoying ones that just make you run back and forth, albeit thankfully less than in the previous releases. Of course, all that running back and forth is a prerequisite for being able to fly in those places.
Outside of the combat class and story stuff, I've been slowly working my Fisher up. It's a class I've primarily used just to chill out a bit, usually just as something to do while paying more attention to other media. Spearfishing is a fairly interesting way to mix it up, being an odd hybrid between fishing and the other gathering classes, though so far it's been pretty easy to just ignore. Unfortunately, with all its restrictions right now, swimming just doesn't really offer much; it's somewhere to go rather than somewhere to actively do things. Hopefully, some form of sporting endeavour, perhaps involving a ball, could be made for it. I'd be all over that...
As someone who subscribes to Final Fantasy XIV for only one or two months each year, I pack as much progress as possible into each subscription. I took a week off work and spent every waking moment tearing through the Stormblood content, capping tomes and Omega drops before the second Tuesday of the sub. Astrologian and Summoner are my jobs of choice. When I'm not healing people or killing monsters, I spend most of my time crafting, and I leveled five Disciple of the Hand jobs to seventy. Downing the extreme primals is a small accomplishment I wasn't able to do consistently in Heavensward, but I got both in Stormblood and replayed them enough to get all the healer and caster gear except the Summoner weapon. Outside of the above tasks, I goofed around by trying out Red Mage, making massive piles of gil on the market, running treasure maps, slaying hunts, and upgrading Botanist gear through scrips and pentamelding even though it didn't matter.
Stormblood is the most focused and straightforward content in Final Fantasy XIV, dropping the meandering aimlessness of A Realm Reborn and Heavensward. The story sticks to the new zones around Ala Mhigo and the Far East, following a smaller ensemble of companions who develop individually throughout the tale as they attempt to liberate Doma and Ala Mhigo from the evil Garlemald Empire. The Warrior of Light travels from war-weary village to village trying to convince depleted and untrusting communities to join his cause. The storytelling does a great job blending these at times disconnected episodes with the revelations and personal growth of the protagonists. Dropping all the back-and-forth errands and asides that plagued A Realm Reborn and Heavensward is a boon. The main drawbacks are that the protagonists aren't particularly interesting and the plot is too straightforward. A major twist or some intrigue or a better focus on the vastly more captivating antagonists would have elevated the story to something great.
Dungeons and the battle system are similarly streamlined. Cross-class skills no longer require leveling multiple jobs, many abilities are gone, and for some jobs the rotations changed to be simpler, more obvious, and less flexible. For my four combat jobs, there's now no doubt on the correct way to play them. The removal of Cleric Stance drastically sinks the skill level required to be a healer. As a healer main, this makes White Mage too basic for me and I switched to Astrologian after four years as a White Mage. On the bright side, not messing with Cleric Stance makes it easy to constantly heal or attack while still keeping an eye on the Astrologian card mechanics. A new gauge clearly provides card information during battle, and the level seventy skill lets the player manipulate cards in his favor like never before. I lost my old favorite class and gained a new one, but truly prefer the challenge Cleric Stance previously brought to being an outstanding healer. For Summoner, the rotation options are narrow and there's now one correct sequence for all situations. The full rotation is a couple of minutes long, unforgiving to mistakes, and relies heavily on deciding when to execute a twenty second phase of burst damage. It doesn't do more damage than other DPS jobs to balance the risks, and it had more flexibility before Stormblood, especially when fighting groups of foes. Red Mage, conversely, has a short, basic rotation and plays like a job for beginners or gamers who aren't as skilled. While it's great that there is a range of complexity for each role, overall the job changes make combat simple and idiot-proof at the expense of the advanced play and skill that hit a peak in Heavensward.
For dungeons, the emphasis on simplification is overwhelmingly positive. They are fun, quick, and diverse. There's no Vault, 2.0 Qarn, or Dzemael Darkhold where the challenge or poor pacing could cause players to quit. This makes leveling multiple jobs from sixty to seventy much less of a chore than grinding was in past content. A balance is made between introducing inventive, new boss mechanics and maintaining a low level of difficulty. There is also a smart decision to have major story battles for liberating cities be dungeons instead of trials or duties, and the awesome magnitude of them can still be felt on replays. If there's a downside, it would be that this leaves Stormblood feeling like an entry-level expansion from start to finish. There's no mandatory content that would help newcomers improve or old experts experience a challenge until the game's final boss, which is an outstanding fight in part because of how difficult it is, but it would be a stronger expansion if the difficulty ramped up to it. Even the eight-man raid is extremely easy relative to Alexander two years ago.
Everything else is a continuation of what worked in Heavensward. Crafting, harvesting, and hunts have additions but no changes. The Palace of the Dead is still the lightning-fast way to level classes to sixty. Swimming is nothing more than flying downward through water instead of upward through air. While the Final Fantasy XIV soundtrack is the best in the history of video games, the additions in Stormblood are comparatively dull outside of a primal's music that comes out of nowhere and the ambient music in the Far East. The Far East is also the only visually interesting part of the expansion, like the designers intentionally made Ala Mhigo's zones as aesthetically boring as possible. Heavensward is the game's audiovisual pinnacle. As a gamer who prefers things to be on the complex and difficult side, overall Stormblood's tweaks are a step in the wrong direction for me; I'm not a beginner and I'd prefer not to play a safe, beginner's expansion of a game I've been playing for four years. Hopefully patches bring back the challenge I enjoyed before.
Michael A. Cunningham
After putting off Heavensward for nearly two years, I loved it when I finally got around to it earlier this year. This also meant that I was ready for Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood when it hit. My initial time with A Realm Reborn's content was spent mostly leveling the two tank jobs: Warrior and Paladin. In my lead up to Stormblood and all the way through it, I chose to move to physical melee jobs, starting with Ninja and unlocking Samurai as soon as I obtained the expansion. I'm very thankful for the way this expansion handled new jobs, not locking them behind new content, but instead making them accessible for all characters right from the start. This allowed me to level up Samurai just slightly behind Ninja as I worked through the expansion. Despite having put nearly seventy-five hours into this title over the course of three weeks, I still consider myself a casual player, mostly focusing on the main story quests. However, I did touch on all of the optional dungeons and even dove into the Omega raid just enough to complete it once, so I was able to experience more of Stormblood's content around launch than I had with A Realm Reborn or Heavensward prior. My impressions are positive, but not without some issues.
Stormblood's story is the key element at play here, as it's both the best and worst part of the expansion. It starts on a negative, as the early parts of the narrative are focused on the area of Ala Mhigo, a continuation of the final Heavensward patches. These segments are poorly paced and pale even in comparison to the final Dragonsong War sections, as there is little going on to drive the story forward and the NPCs encountered are easily forgettable. While the game does introduce a couple of interesting villains during these opening hours, it all feels a little out of place and a giant step down from the epic adventures that were just taking place in Ishgard. And that's not even going in-depth about how barren and dull the landscape is in these starter areas.
Once the focus moves away from Ala Mhigo and towards Doma, the story starts to really come alive, though this shift is a bit jarring. Quickly these new areas present more lively characters and a more interesting landscape to explore. This is also where the first dungeons begin, and those, along with the other quest lines, really help bring the world to life. The villains are a highlight of Stormblood and they do a good job of making players hate them while having understandable motives. Even when things shift back to Ala Mhigo, the development that takes place in Doma helps build that up to be more engaging than it was at the start.
As far as gameplay goes, there have been some major adjustments to the combat styles of each job, but the fundamental methods of interaction are still mostly unchanged. When not going back and forth to complete quests, players will take on the roles of tank, healer, or DPS once more. These jobs have been tweaked, but the core of exploring a dungeon, managing swarms of enemies, and strategizing how to defeat bosses remains foundationally the same. What has been improved is the variety within some of these dungeons, and this mostly involves boss fights being more mechanics-focused and less about whittling away large pools of HP. Even those that don't break from the mold drastically are still more interactive than many of the dungeons from the older content. Along with all of that, the game's final trial is the most challenging main story content to date, but even so it is still fantastic. It took a while to complete, but the feeling after doing so was well worth it, much like mastering a complicated dance would be.
While my time with Stormblood started off slow, once I got into Doma and met the characters there, things really took hold for me. What initially seemed like a dull liberation story quickly grew into a full-on, worldwide revolution with characters worth caring about. While the party interactions never match up to what was offered in Heavensward, the world building, villain motivations, and general sense of purpose for the heroes quickly took center stage and never let up. The build-up was worth the trip, especially the final boss, and all of it left me excited to see what's next.