Depth of field and custom lighting lets you compose great custom stills.
"You say you lost a big-ass coffin? I hate to break it to you, ma'am, but there's been some damage."
I really can't recall which member of Organization XIII this is.
Okay, I guess Khloe has competition in the "most adorable" department, now that we have Zhloe.
Gee, I wonder if this place is important...
The new cross-world Party Finder is a vital addition to FFXIV.
I know what you're thinking, but this scene is perfectly normal when you're involved with Hildibrand.
"I always say that an engrossing story is one of the things Final Fantasy XIV really delivers on, and this continues to be true here."
Typical spoiler warning: While I do my best to avoid major plot points, some spoilers are unavoidable in order to properly discuss the changes in each FFXIV patch. So if you're not caught up, be careful reading onward.
Patch 3.5: The Far Edge of Fate, the last pre-expansion patch, actually rolled out as six distinct updates between January and April 2017, with four of those bringing at least one major development to the table. In no particular order, let's take a look at some of these.
The Real Endgame
Every MMORPG player knows that making your avatar look awesome is the real endgame we strive for. All those battles with giant dragons and robots are just a means to a stylish end. And once you're looking fab, you need the proper screenshot tools to capture the moment. FFXIV offers two custom camera modes, with an idling camera that makes for a great screensaver, and "group pose," which lets you frame yourself and others for that perfect shot. The latest updates in 3.5 bring a bevy of new options to these cameras, such as the ability to set up to three custom light sources, a wide- or narrow-angle zoom, special effects, and photo frames.
Combined with the existing functions of being able to freeze poses, add depth of field effects, filters, and more, there is a lot you can do with screenshots now. My first screenshot in this review is the result of multiple carefully placed lights, a specific sitting pose, and the right time of day. And that's just me — there are far more numerous examples in the XIV community that really make the most of these features in creative ways.
Carbuncle, I Choose You!
Putting aside the importance of looking good, among the smaller changes in this patch series are some neat additions:
Egi Glamours! Oft-requested and long-promised, Summoners can finally alter the appearance of their companions. For now, this allows them to take on the guise of an Emerald, Topaz, or Ruby Carbuncle. But with the system now in place, many are hoping for other appearances, such as some of the game's other primals. Heck, a mini-Leviathan Egi might actually tempt me to try Summoner!
One great little change is seeing Duty Finder status right on your screen, instead of a separate window. Checking your queue number is helpful for planning what you're doing in-game or, let's be honest, knowing if you have time for that restroom break.
One new type of furnishing for houses is available, but it's a neat one: picture frames. Available in various sizes, there are a multitude of paintings of areas across Eorzea to hang in your room. The best part is that these aren't just screenshots, but uniquely created pieces of art made for this exact purpose.
A surprising addition in this patch is custom hotbar layouts. Players have always come up with interesting UI setups using the standard 1x12 row of icons, but there are copious new options now, allowing you to change the layout of any bar to any other configuration of 12: 6x2, 4x3, and so on. This allows for even more UI customization, which is a welcome addition.
Much like the Odin battle made its debut at the 2014 FFXIV Fan Fest and later found its way into the game, the Proto Ultima battle featured at 2016's event has been integrated for all to play in Patch 3.5. And it is included in a way that people should actually want to fight it, unlike poor neglected Odin. It's not the hardest battle in the game, but it's fun and flashy as hell, so I'm happy that it's there. And any excuse to hear this song again on a regular basis is fine by me:
In A Realm Reborn, the central hub for high-level players was the outpost of Revenant's Toll, which saw drastic changes over the years, growing from a tiny outpost to a full-fledged fortress. It was one of my favorite touches of 2.x, as I loved watching our characters' headquarters grow over time. In Heavensward, our new central hub became the goblin town of Idyllshire, which had similarly humble beginnings. Thankfully, there's a fantastic video I found that documents the growth of the town from mid-2015 to today:
Watching Idyllshire grow from literally rubble to a triumph of architecture and landscaping over the last 2 years has been fascinating. For us lore fans who get into the story, it borders on heartwarming, seeing what goblins and bands of adventurers have been able to build from the wreckage. It's one of the best examples of how Yoshi-P and his team keep FFXIV feeling alive and evolving, and I hope this trend continues with a new settlement in Stormblood.
Eternity, Loyalty, Honesty
In both 2.x and 3.x, there are beast tribes that you can assist to gain reputation and rewards. Heavensward included three such tribes over its lifetime: the bipedal avian Vanu Vanu, the insectoid Vath, and a tribe of crafty Moogles. Each tribe lives differently and has its own storyline that's unique to their race and locale. By reaching maximum reputation with all three, Patch 3.5 introduces a series of "epilogue" quests in which key members of all three tribes must join forces against a common foe. Some of the events are a little silly, but overall, these quests tell a great short story about embracing the differences of others, and how everyone's own talents are useful, even if you can't understand them: The Vanu Vanu's main weapon that saves the day is epic dance powers, for instance. It's a fun story, and a life lesson on par with the best of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic's own lessons on friendship.
Of Gentlemen and Mammets
I haven't talked much, if at all, about Hildibrand's story in Heavensward, but that's because I wanted the plot to conclude before covering it. By far the side content that takes itself the least serious, Hildibrand's adventures defy logic and physics alike. This latest story unfolded across most of 3.x, and wrapped up with 3.5 in surprisingly poignant fashion. This time around, we met new characters — seriously, could Cyr look any more like Ramza? — and the nods to Final Fantasy IX with the adorable automaton Gigi made for a cute side story. While it was no less silly than the inspector's adventures in 2.x, I was taken aback at how heartfelt this story became, as it deals largely with the concepts of family and legacy.
There was talk that Hildibrand wasn't going to come to Heavensward, but fan feedback helped make it happen, and I look forward to more (mis)adventures with Hildy in the future.
Another series of side quests that covered a few of 3.x's patches centered on students of Ishgard's Saint Endalim Scholasticate. This storyline was interesting to watch unfold, as it dealt with the aftermath of the events of the Dragonsong War; and while the war may have ended, the haves and have-nots in the city didn't suddenly see eye-to-eye. Instead of epic battles of man versus dragon, we're treated to a tale of intrigue, kidnapping, and conspiracy, with some people fighting to maintain their status, and others keeping secrets that could have dire consequences if revealed to the citizens. It proved to be a deeply personal tale, and it was refreshing to see a heretofore unexplored aspect of Ishgard's populace.
Pineapple Pudding Tails
Over the years, enough different systems, dungeons, and content have been added that there are now approximately 9000 ways to gear up battle classes. Since Heavensward launched, there has been essentially one system for endgame crafters and gatherers, and that's to craft/gather "collectables." Each day, a different lineup of goods can be turned in for a unique currency known as scrips to gear up. But sometimes this can be slow going, depending on your existing gear and how much time you want to pour into it.
And then there's Custom Deliveries, a new system where NPCs will request a short list of collectable items each week. As of now, you can turn in up to 6 items — your choice of any combination of crafting or gathering turn-ins — and while the process is the same as the main collectable system, the rewards are far more lucrative: For example, a hard-to-make craft may earn you 20 or so red scrips, but making a Delivery request can net you up to 80 per item. This makes for a far faster method of collecting scrips, as even if it's limited to 6 items, it's low stress progress.
The other neat facet to Custom Deliveries is that they will be an ongoing addition to FFXIV moving forward, and each character asking you for items will have their own story. It isn't simply a menu listing requests and rewards (though that exists too). For now, deliveries are made to the exceedingly adorable Zhloe Aliapoh, a Miqo'te girl who's desperate to build up an orphanage for children who have lost their parents to war and other tragedies. Helping her helps you, but also the kids, and it's a heartwarming little tale to watch Zhloe go from starving herself to make ends meet, to being able to provide for the kids. By the end, she no longer has to live on expired pudding!
The only thing that could make the gathering life better would be a new area that lets you gather a ton of collectables...
Go Forward and Back, Then Put One Foot Forward
One of Heavensward's all-new features was The Diadem, a special area where — in theory — battle classes and gatherers could come together and, via their own methods, reach a common goal. It didn't work out so well, and getting in and around Diadem was sometimes a hassle. Plus, if you wanted to go in and fight, but half your party preferred to gather, it made life tough.
Yoshi-P's team decided that instead of continually trying to fix what wasn't working, they would remove access to Diadem entirely for many weeks, in preparation to roll out a rebuilt version. The result is a new area that feels similar, but works so much better. Diadem is completely split into one version meant for battle classes, and one specifically for gatherers. You can switch to a gathering class in the former, but only after the main missions are completed. As a result, groups are less chaotic, as everyone knows what they're getting into. Rewards are better, the landscape is gorgeous as ever, and you no longer have to re-earn the ability to fly every single time. In short, Diadem is more player-friendly now, and it's better for it.
Patch 3.5 brings a handful of new battle content, as usual: A new Hard mode of Sohm Al is fun, with a deceptively tricky boss. The other dungeon is covered towards the end of this review. The Warring Triad series of primal battles also concludes with Zurvan, the Demon. Fighting the red menace itself is fun, if ultimately a little more forgettable than some other primals, and the fight isn't nearly as stylish as Sophia. There are some really surprising story moments that come to light in this chapter, though, so it is still worth the journey.
The meat of battle content is of course Dun Scaith. The final chapter in the Mhach trilogy, this 24-man raid currently stands as the toughest content below the Savage and Extreme modes of Alexander and Zurvan respectively, and it requires more attention and focus than any other alliance raid. While I might think the best fight in the series is still Weeping City's Ozma, there are some enjoyably challenging battles in Dun Scaith, and it's all set in an abandoned city that at points feels like a gloomy version of something out of both Alice in Wonderland and Kingdom Hearts. Oh, and the opening battle being straight out of Final Fantasy VI might have something to do with my love for the place, too. The final boss — whose identity is obvious if you've followed the events leading up to the fight — is thrilling to finally take down, as we've crossed paths with him several times in the game over the years. Finally, the story of the sky pirates that frames the narrative of the entire Mhachi questline comes to a satisfying conclusion, if you ignore the fact that it just makes me want my Skies of Arcadia sequel all over again.
Come Together, Right Now
The Party Finder system gets a major update in Patch 3.5, and yes, I consider it major enough to nearly save for the end. Not because the UI looks nicer and has great new configuration and filtering options (both true), but for the first time, we can assemble parties of players from other servers, which is a huge deal. It's always been tricky when trying to select a home server for an MMO if you have friends on multiple servers, a problem that is nearly completely solved — at least in terms of recruiting for instanced content like dungeons — by this change. Granted, you can only recruit from your Data Center — so North American players can't cross-world-invite players from European servers — but it's still a big leap forward in integrating the communities.
An earlier patch allowed cross-server Triple Triad matches, and while I have no confirmation of this being the case, I feel it's very likely that this was a test to see how much strain it put on the game's infrastructure. Yoshi-P has already said that more changes are coming: Right now, you can build a cross-world party, but next up is going to be cross-world friends lists, and the ability to send messages to players on other servers.
The more the FFXIV dev team is able to expand these functions, the more it lowers barriers to playing with others, regardless of server or location, and that's both exciting and good for the health of the community.
The Finest Pupil
In preparation for Heavensward in 2015, the giant-sized Patch 2.5 delivered one major plot development after another. It shook the foundation of our in-game allies, the Scions, and nothing has been the same since. Two years later, the team has mostly been re-assembled, though all have gone through one significant change or another. With the disassembly of the Scions still fresh in my mind, Patch 3.5 had to deliver something major if it was going to compete with the gravity of those events. And while the resulting plot line has moments that are depressing as hell, the story does not disappoint in its impact.
In addition to advancing the stories already in progress, it was also important to explain how our adventures will take us to Ala Mhigo and Doma, since this patch is a lead-in to Stormblood. The arrival of a mysterious figure known as The Griffin, whose mission is to liberate Ala Mhigo from the Empire's rule, not only gives our team the motivation to venture east, it even ties into those Patch 2.5 events from two years ago. There's really nothing like getting closure on a plot thread after all that time, even if the resulting consequences are deadly. These events culminate in the final story-based dungeon of 3.x, Baelsar's Wall, an Empire stronghold that divides the forest nation of Gridania and Ala Mhigo. With most of Heavensward pitting us against dragons, primals, and corrupted religious zealots, it's been a while since we really crossed blades with the Empire. As a result, this dungeon and a later battle feel like throwbacks to 2.x events, while still offering forward momentum. Oh yeah, and we get to pilot a Magitek Reaper in combat; I need more of that, right now.
In the midst and wake of these events, there are some character developments that really turn things on their head, and serve to give some key characters their first fresh start since the failed FFXIV 1.0. I can't really comment on one of the tragedies in this portion of the story without major spoilers — something that the developers were sadly not thinking of when they awarded an in-game title that gives away exactly what happens (this was thankfully fixed in a subsequent patch). I'll just say that I was super sad, despite the beauty with which the events were presented: Great dialogue, use of both music and a lack of music, and great cinematography really helped with the emotional impact of these events. I always say that an engrossing story is one of the things Final Fantasy XIV really delivers on, and this continues to be true here.
But there's more going on than familiar faces in new situations: We also meet Gosetsu, a roegadyn from the Far East Kingdom of Doma, which is under the control of the Garlean Empire, just like Ala Mhigo. Gosetsu is a hulking wall of a man, and the best way I can describe his actions and voice acting is as a boisterous, excitable, and headstrong Liam Neeson. He's a powerful warrior, dedicated to his homeland, and is so apt at speaking his mind that he's simply a joyous addition to the cast. I expect we'll be seeing a lot of him in Stormblood, and that makes me happy. Yugiri, a ninja from Doma, has been with the team for awhile now, but she hasn't been in the spotlight lately; I'm likewise excited to see her play a more prominent role.
A Dawn of Liberation
The Far Edge of Fate didn't really have to deliver as much as it did. With an expansion coming, the most important thing it needed to accomplish was to serve as a proper story lead-in to Stormblood. It succeeds handily, but does so on top of standard Patch additions, like new dungeons, PVP adjustments, and side story content. Then the devs took it a step further, by gutting and overhauling Diadem, admitting they initially had it wrong. Zhloe and the Custom Deliveries system is a great addition, offering up new story content to gathering and crafting classes, a welcome respite to sometimes-monotonous tasks. The cross-world features that continue to be added are leading towards more and more collaboration and communication, regardless of a player's home server, which is an important forward-thinking change.
Looking back on Heavensward in its entirety, it was a wholly worthwhile experience that gave Yoshi-P's team a chance to shine. No longer were they rebuilding and fixing the original game; instead, they got to deliver their own ideas from the ground up. Two years and 22 major and minor patches later, virtually every aspect of the game has been refined or touched upon in some way. And to think, this is all before the major battle ability changes coming our way.
Even with these giant patch notes every 3 months, the scope of updates is hard to wrap one's head around. Final Fantasy XIV was a solid MMORPG that catered to many player types in 2013-2014, but it pales in comparison to the game it is now, after one expansion. I can't wait to see where the game takes us over the next two years.