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Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward
Final Fantasy XIV Review Journal
Book XVII: There's Something About Alisaie (Patch 3.4: Soul Surrender)
"Soul Surrender still brought me the full range of emotions I've come to expect from Final Fantasy XIV..."

Spoiler alert: This review covers plot points in this and previous patches, so consider this your fair warning!
Previously, on Final Fantasy XIV
Last time, I discussed Patch 3.3 and how well it wrapped up the events of The Dragonsong War that began in 3.0. In short: Very well. With Nidhogg finally laid to rest and the Warrior of Light and her companions taking questionable advice from Aymeric in the aftermath (more on that in the next review journal), we were treated to some hooks about what was coming next. Most notable among them was the re-emergence of the Warriors of Darkness, a quintet that seemed to be the antithesis of the Warrior of Light's team. Since they had been out of the spotlight for a while, I'd been wondering when they'd step back in it.

And boy, do they ever!


No Surrender
Patch 3.4 is interesting, story-wise: It comes after the conclusion of a long tale that began in Patch 2.5, and it precedes Patch 3.5, which sets up Stormblood's story. It's not entirely standalone, but it's as self-contained as I've seen yet in Final Fantasy XIV, while still including a surprising amount of developments. The goals and aspirations of the Warriors of Darkness are hard to figure out until 3.4, as they seem to be working for the Ascians (that's bad). They also fancy themselves as heroes, despite clashing with our own heroes. It all comes together in Soul Surrender, and their story is way more tragic than I was ready for. Without getting too spoiler-y, they feel they're required to fight you, out of concern that the Warrior of Light is, unintentionally, a threat to the world of Hydaelyn.

Whether they're right or wrong is answered in an interesting way, and the climactic battle that takes place is a memorable one. Not just because of the mere "life or death" nature of the conflict, but because Patch 3.4 finally — finally — brings Alisaie back into the group of heroes. At the very, very beginning of Final Fantasy XIV, we're introduced to a pair of mysterious twins: Alphinaud and his twin sister Alisaie. While the former is one of the key players in every major event in the game — with an expanded presence throughout Heavensward — Alisaie goes off on her own early on. Those who played through 2.x's raid series The Binding Coil of Bahamut know she's one of the driving forces behind Coil's story. But if you didn't play that, it would seem like she's been gone a very long time. I did clear those raids, and even I was missing her. They may be twins, but these two have very different personalities, and Alisaie's headstrong nature is quite refreshing. And her role in the battle with the Warriors of Darkness left me with no other thought except that she's fuc— er, fantastic, and a force to be reckoned with.

Aside from my rekindled love of Alisaie, the biggest takeaway from these events is that, despite how large the world of Hydaelyn is, Final Fantasy XIV's scope is staggeringly broader than I originally thought. In one fell swoop, I realized that the developers are setting the stage for what could be any number of expansions in the future. I'm completely fascinated by the implications these events could have on the future of the game world, but it's something that we may have to wait a long time to see a payoff.


The Heart Seeketh Equilibrium
If the revelations brought to bear by the Warriors of Darkness weren't enough, Soul Surrender also wraps up the three-part Alexander raid series. I'll admit, coming off the epic levels of... epic... that was the Bahamut raid, the first round of battles inside Alexander weren't the most exciting. Thankfully, the "Midas" tier was more thrilling, and with this last portion in "The Creator," we can see the full breadth of the story. And it's pretty great! The plot twists are interesting, and weaving together a complicated love story with time traveling goblins and a sentient holy-aspected robot castle (I love video games, don't you?) proves to be well worth the journey. In retrospect, the story's pacing is a little imbalanced, with so much of the development coming at the eleventh hour, but at least it came together in the end. Gameplay-wise, The Creator brings fun new battles, and we even get a look at what I call "Final Fantasy IX Alexander," complete with angelic wings.

Alexander was designed with a major difference from the Bahamut series: variable difficulties. One reason many players didn't progress through the 13 tiers of the Binding Coil was that it was hard. While raid content should challenge players, the unfortunate side effect of having key story content tied to it meant that unless you could consistently get together a group of seven friends to learn and progress, you'd miss out on said story.

With "Alex," there are two modes: The brutally-hard version remains in the form of Savage mode, for people who want a major challenge. But there's also a normal mode that's difficult, but not so much that the average player can't overcome it. I love that they did this, not only for my own sake — I found myself without a static raid group early into Alex — but for everyone like me that wants to see these battles and the story, but doesn't want to commit countless hours to hardcore raiding for it.

I'm embarrassed to admit that the new primal fight in 3.4 — with Sophia, the Goddess, part of the Warring Triad in FFVI lore — is one I've still only done a single time. It's one of those things I just haven't got back to, and I have no idea why, because the fight itself is fascinating, the Goddess and her domain are stunning in their design, and her song, "Equilibrium," is one of my favorite primal themes in the entirety of FFXIV:




Guide us, O mighty Fury
Soul Surrender's two new dungeons are notable in different ways, plus one thing that unites them. Xelphatol takes us into the mountains and is the most vertically-designed dungeon thus far. When you're not climbing a steep mountain, you're riding wooden lifts higher and higher, all to prevent an Ixal chieftain from summoning Garuda (again!). I'm always fond of outdoor dungeons, and the extreme verticality makes this one fun.

Meanwhile, The Great Gubal Library — accessed via a quest named "Let me Gubal That For You," proving the localization staff fully embraced the community's nickname for the place — gained a new hard mode, with some really fun boss encounters. The final one in particular almost exclusively uses new methods of attack that rely on text and unique visual clues for what's about to happen. I don't mind the heavy use of traditional orange "danger zone" markers, but mixing things up like this makes the encounter feel fresh, so I hope we'll continue to see new ideas in this vein moving forward.

Oh, and the brightest spot in these new dungeons? The debut of the new, post-Dragonsong War boss theme, "Revenge Twofold":



It's fantastic. Enough so that the song is composer Masayoshi Soken's favorite out of the hundreds he's composed for Final Fantasy XIV, and despite being nearly scrapped (!?), it remained in the game at the behest of another staff member. (This, and other interesting facts, are why you should read VGMO's interview with the Guinness World Record-holding composer.)


This is the way!
For the first time since Final Fantasy XIV was reborn relaunched in 2013, Patch 3.4 allows players to reach a new rank within their Grand Companies. The benefits thus far are minimal, so that in and of itself isn't terribly interesting, with one major exception: squadrons. Producer/Director Naoki Yoshida has been talking about the Squadron system for what feels like ages. If you played Final Fantasy Tactics, this system will sound familiar, and if you haven't played FFT, well, you should.

In short, now that the Warrior of Light is a long-standing officer in his or her Grand Company, they (and we, by extension) are given the option of commanding new recruits. By accomplishing goals in the game such as clearing dungeons, new recruits will arrive at the barracks, each with a basic trio of stats — physical, mental, and tactics — that determine their prowess. When you have a handful of recruits, you can send them out on increasingly more difficult missions, earning EXP and levels. Right now, building a team and unlocking the higher difficulty missions nets you helpful items, such as temporary buffs that let you earn more EXP. More importantly, after Stormblood launches, the Squadron system will expand to let you take these team members into dungeons. This should prove really interesting, to see how AI-controlled characters will fare in content designed for 4 human players.

But that's later. For now, leveling up these characters and figuring out balanced parties for missions — which require varying levels of expertise — involves some strategizing, and occasional luck. Sometimes characters return from a mission with a new "affinity" option, which includes effects like boosting everyone's stats if a party member is of a certain race or class. You quickly learn that maintaining a variety of races and classes in your barracks proves beneficial as you find groups that work well together. It's an in-depth system that's not daunting and should prove only more rewarding as the game world expands in the future.


A Place Called Home
Housing is well established in Final Fantasy XIV now, and no matter how many plots of land are added to the game, it's hard to keep up with player demand. And if there is a plot available, it can cost a whole lot of gil to secure a house. Private rooms are a more affordable option, if your Free Company owns a house. With 3.4, apartments become another option, giving you the same personal space as you'd have in a house, but without the overhead of needing to be a landowner.

You can also do what I do, and have an apartment and a private room. (My private room is for general hanging out, while the apartment has sexier mood lighting and a warmer ambiance... if you were wondering.)

Not stopping with apartments, housing options in general have been expanded with the inclusion of aquariums, and a playlist feature for the jukebox Orchestrion. The latter works like any digital music app, allowing you to assemble a custom playlist of collected songs to set the mood in your house. Aquariums are for serious fish fans, as they don't just house a generic collection of fish. Rather, you choose what fish will inhabit your aquarium, either from your own fishing exploits, or purchased on the market.

Having all of these options gives more and more players a chance to have a place called home and customize it to a deep extent, which is nothing but a good thing. But for apartment renters, no loud parties after 11pm, okay?


Regale Me, Fair Maiden, With a Wondrous... Tail?
One of the things that always impresses me with Final Fantasy XIV is how much the developers try to keep dungeons and other content of all levels viable. They don't only cater to endgame players, because they know the importance of attracting new players and giving everyone things to do. One of my favorite new systems that helps to facilitate this camaraderie debuted in Soul Surrender, with Wondrous Tails. Each week, you can pick up a book by adorable budding author Khloe Aliapoh, in which she asks you to record tales of your adventures. It's a cute narrative frame for this Wondrous Tails book, which lists 16 different dungeons or battles you can tackle for — are you sitting down? — a sticker!

These stickers are randomly placed on a grid, bingo-style, and getting full rows offers lucrative rewards. It makes more sense when you see it:

Final Fantasy XIV Wondrous Tails Screenshot


What's key here is that the potential trials are everything from low-level dungeons to high-level raids. In other words, they're things you're probably doing anyway, and if not, it's a little nudge to go help a friend get through that level 24 dungeon and benefit the both of you. It goes a little further with "Second Chance Points," which let you redo an objective on your list while marking another as complete, if you're not up for some of the harder fights in your book. You'll earn a point every time you clear a duty with a player who's new to that particular content. So the high-end player gets more flexibility in their faux bingo game, and lower-level players have an easier time finding groups for dungeon runs. It's another "everybody wins" system that helps keep people invested in the game.


It's the Little Things...
Now that we've covered all the big things, there's plenty of smaller things that would easily by missed if you casually read the monstrous patch notes. Here's a quick list of these smaller things I feel are important, but don't require a long explanation:

  • Starting in this patch, if your party gets wiped out, your action/ability timers are immediately reset, putting an end to the "wait, don't start yet!" delay when learning a difficult fight. This is a fantastic change, especially for raiders.
  • PVP gained several new features, such as the oft-requested option to have one-on-one duels, and an all-new Spectator mode, letting you observe others' battles with copious amounts of camera angles and controls.
  • While it won't remove the value of some amazing online resources in helping players determine ideal materia for their gear, one of the more oblique aspects of materia has always been what's possible: Each item has a maximum in any given stat that can be boosted, but this limit was never displayed in-game, making planning difficult. Patch 3.4 added some new UI elements that display these parameters when melding materia, so you can easily see if that body armor has more potential for increasing its Strength or Critical Hit Rate.
  • Players who use a controller gained some additional ability slots, with the W-Cross Hotbar, and if you're among those that can handle the mental juggling of bar swapping, and this interface doesn't drive you crazy, then you're in luck! I'll be sticking with my keyboard.
  • Palace of the Dead gained a ton of new floors, boosting the total from 50 to 200. The "story" ends at 100, with everything beyond that meant as a bonus challenge for skilled players. Regardless of how you play, the addition of the high-level, super sexy Kinna weapons were definitely an encouragement for me to pour a lot of time into it!
  • And finally, the last little and wholly welcome change: You can now report spammers directly from the chat window by right-clicking on their names. Praise the Twelve. Personally, I've noticed a drastic decrease in spam over the last 9 months, even a little before this was a feature. But it still exists, so I'm glad it's easy to report these people/bots now.



Wrap-Up
Despite the heavy implications of dealing with the Warriors of Darkness, and solving crazy time paradoxes, Soul Surrender was still essentially a "calm before the storm" type patch, and I really apologize for the Stormblood pun there. Ahem.

This patch wrapped up several plotlines just in time to get us ready for what's to come, and still introduced all-new elements that provide more things for people to do on their own or with others. I think the concept behind Wondrous Tails — bringing players of various skillsets together even more — is vital for the health and future of Final Fantasy XIV. Squadrons are still a wildcard: They're interesting, and their value as AI party members is unproven, but it's going to be fun to see what develops.

There's one more review journal to bring you before Stormblood hits, and while Patch 3.5 is the most important tie-in to the expansion, Soul Surrender still brought me the full range of emotions I've come to expect from Final Fantasy XIV, so it remains a noteworthy chapter in the game's history.


© 2016-2017 Square Enix. All rights reserved.




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