Final Fantasy 14: Stormblood review diary: "I can feel the job gauge steering me into a particular playstyle"

Hello, all you freedom fighters and Warriors of Light. Today marks the launch of the Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn expansion Stormblood. MMOs like FF14 are beastly affairs, and expansions like Stormblood are no different. With a new region, dungeons, classes, and more to try out, it's going to take some time before we're ready to give a final verdict on the game.

But rather than wait until then, why not come along and enjoy the journey with me? For the next few days, I'll be adding entries to this review diary, chronicling my thoughts about Stormblood. Once I've seen enough to judge the overall product, the diary will morph into a more familiar, traditional review. So let's get to it, shall we?

Day 6:

One thing I haven't talked much about but deserves mention is how Stormblood (or, more accurately, the patch that launched alongside Stormblood) changes how classes function. For one, there's now a pool of skills to choose from that are associated with your chosen class' role. So as a DPS player, these skills are meant to aid my survivability and round out my utility. In layman's terms, they help me not die and put my enemies at a disadvantage.

Other abilities have also been streamlined, moved around, or cut entirely. So even a veteran is likely to log in with some grayed out abilities they no longer have access to and everyone is learning their new rotations (if you're not familiar with MMO terminology, "rotations" means the order in which you activate abilities to get the most damage/use out of them).

Truth be told, I already had most of the role abilities through my Ninja class, so the changes didn't impact me much. Speaking with other players in my guild however, it sounds like while DPS are having the time of their lives, healers and tanks are having a tougher go of things, particularly Warriors.

I can't speak to that myself since I've been focusing so much on my Ninja, but it's definitely a complaint I've seen echoed in the chat. Of course, this is a new system, so people may just be struggling to find their footing right now.

Another new aspect of classes are the job-specific gauges. I mentioned before how, playing as a Red Mage, I had an onscreen indicator showing me how much white magic I'd cast vs black magic. But every class has a gauge like that, helping you play to that class' strengths. Er, theoretically.

Some gauges are super simple; as a Ninja, when I cast a certain ability that makes me attack faster, I can plainly see a timer counting down until the effect wears off. I also have a gauge that fills up when I auto-attack, and flashes orange when it's ready to use.

But when I change over to my White Mage, instead of a simple bar, I have flowers on a decorative vine. The more I have, the more I reduce casting times of certain abilities. Not particularly complex, but it also makes me prioritize single-target healing instead of blasting everyone with my feel-good spells. Sometimes that's good and sometimes it's not, but either way I can feel the gauge steering me into a particular playstyle.

My guild has an Astrologian player (what's an Astrologian? Think "tarot card reader who can deal magic") and they say they have to practically count cards thanks to their new job gauge. Basically, I'm REALLY glad I lucked out and got relatively simple and unobtrusive changes made to my class of choice.

Day 5:

Dear diary, today I met a bunch of green-shelled turtle-people. They said they liked shiny things, but not as much as the red-shelled turtle-people. So me and my friends decided to break into the red turtle treasure cave and mess their stuff up so they'd have to come running back to their hideout - thus providing a distraction and allowing the samurai pirates we met to fight off Imperial invaders. Did I mention I met samurai pirates? A lot has happened, lemme tell ya…

Stormblood's plot continues to pick up speed, though I won't spoil any of the particulars any further than I already have. At this point I've settled into a (mostly) comfortable rhythm and am just experiencing the story as it comes. However, I have to give another commendation to Stormblood's group content thanks to an encounter I had with the boss monster known as Susano.

While monsters like Ifrit and Titan have sometimes been treated as summonable in previous Final Fantasy games, FFXIV treats them as god-like beings of immense power known as "primals." Susano is one such primal, and is depicted as a towering knight with a massive sword and the power of storms and the sea. It took a full party of eight players (including myself) fighting for roughly 15 minutes straight to bring him down, and damn was it exciting.

Susano is no warm-up fight. He's got all kinds of attacks to bring you and the rest of the party down, and I constantly had to keep moving in order to stay alive (which I failed at once, though I was brought back to life mid-fight by our exceptional healers). If Susano isn't just beating you into a pulp with his sword, he's throwing out small pockets of storms that you have to dodge. If he's not doing that, he's covering the battlefield in giant laser blasts. If he's not doing that, he's forcing the group to huddle together in a line no more than five feet wide. And that's just phase one.

In phase two, Susano grows to be the size of a small mountain and brings his sword down on the group. A tank class player has to catch the sword by playing a QTE or else everybody dies. No pressure. My group had to do this part a total of twice before we moved on to phase three.

Susano's final phase isn't much different than his first, except he no longer has the courtesy of giving you time between attacks. He'll start throwing out storms and lasers at the same time, then knock back the party and immediately force them to scramble into the tiny line I mentioned before. It was everything I'd already done, but I had to keep moving way, way more often.

But what I really liked about this fight wasn't the challenge (although the fight is definitely a highlight of Stormblood so far). Instead, I really liked the work that went into making Susano feel unique and entertaining. Most primals are just pissed at you for being in their way and toss out the usual "I'll crush you!" sorts of lines. But Susano didn't hate me - in fact he admired my strength and simply wanted to test my resolve. So all throughout my battle with him he was laughing and shouting about how much he loved this and how he considered our battle a form of revelry.

I hope I get more Susano moments as I continue to progress.

Day 4:

Under da sea… under da sea… Yesterday I unlocked one of Stormblood's big mechanical additions to FFXIV: the ability to swim. True, you could always treat the surface before, but now you can make legitimate dives and swim up, down, and even ride underwater mounts. I've seen people with giant plesiosaur-like creatures (jealous) and I myself have been exploring the depths on the back of a giant manta ray.

Much like the Far East port town of Kugane and, I imagine, the region of Doma (still not quite there yet), these underwater locales are very cool to see in-person. FFXIV has done the water theme before, but never quite like this. The giant coral sprouting up from the seabed, the giant crustaceans and gastropods wandering about… it's all awe-inspiring stuff, and I've enjoyed traveling off the beaten path to see what lies around the next corner.

This hasn't changed the gameplay flow, however. I'm still traveling from town to town, doing fetch quests and talking to NPCs, advancing the story when I can. It's been slightly slower than I would like, since as I mentioned in a previous day's entry, I keep getting to the next part of the story but not being high enough level to take the quest that would advance it.

Dungeons are arguably the best way to give my XP a kick in the pants, but as a DPS role, it often takes upward of 30 minutes to get into one. So I'll be having fun following the advice and helping out these turtle-people (who are also very samurai-like), marvelling at their underwater civilization, and then come to an abrupt stop where I have to grind fetch quests or other more tedious activities while I wait for a dungeon so I can continue.

I'm going to try a new strategy tonight where I just start searching for a dungeon as soon as I log in, because the current rhythm I have isn't working for me.

Day 3:

Yes! Finally, we're getting somewhere. Although dungeons still take forever to get into, such is the life of a DPS class, and I knew what I was in for - can't really blame Stormblood or Square Enix servers for that. And while I still got booted during a marathon play session last night, at least it was only once.

A few spoilers ahead for the plot, cuz I really wanna talk about it - side note, how cool is it that I want to talk about an MMO's story?: It would seem that inciting rebellion and taking back Ala Mhigo is but one step on my journey, and quite a spectacular failure of a step at that. I thought that I'd be running over the cliffs and forests of Ala Mhigo for most of the expansion, but Stormblood threw me a curveball when a scouting mission failed and the base camp for my growing rebellion was cut down by main baddie, Lord Zenos.

I audibly gasped when one of my very favorite characters in the game was seemingly killed, but she thankfully survived. My own character very nearly died in a battle against Zenos and yeah, it's a bit of a cliche by now to have the hero face off against the main villain early on and lose just to establish how big a threat said villain is, but it was still effective and fun to watch.

Licking our wounds, my rebels and I decided to try a different strategy - fight for liberation in the Far East. This would make Zenos spread his forces thin and therefore, hopefully, weaken the Empire enough that our forces could win an actual battle. On our trip across the seas, I came across Stormblood's first new dungeon: a ship graveyard haunted by sirens. (End spoilers)

FFXIV has some amazing group content, and Stormblood is off to a good start in that category too. The graveyard was as spooky as you'd hope for such a place to be, the fights were challenging (I died twice and caused my group to wipe once - sorry guys!), and the creature designs are unique. The final boss of this particular dungeon is a… ghost… plant? I don't even know. I just know she looked cool.

I haven't quite made it to the mainland of Doma yet, but I have gotten a taste of the sights and culture that await me thanks to Kugane, a small port town. It's a seriously beautiful place, and unlike anywhere else in FFXIV. Sure, it's just traditional Japanese and Chinese architecture meshed with a little magical flair, but it's still cool to see in-game.

I've met a pirate smuggler, a turtle-person who's an aspiring merchant, punched out an adorable catfish-person (don't worry, he deserved it), and avoided patrols of samurai law enforcement. Stormblood started pretty slow, but things seem to be picking up pace quickly.

Day 2:

Walk into town. "Your connection to the server has been lost." Attempt instanced quest. "Your connection to the server has been lost." Queue for 30+ minutes waiting on a dungeon, get accepted. "Your connection to the server has been lost."

I was hoping that Square Enix would have stabilized the server issues I encountered during Stormblood's early access period, but it would appear such is not the case. This morning, SE attributed the spotty service to DDOS attacks, which… yay? Kind of? At least I know I'm not the only one having problems. That will be of little comfort to my dentist when she has to work on the nubs I used to call teeth, but such is life.

My teeth aren't the only things grinding, either. I wasn't sure which class / job I wanted to main through Stormblood, so I started my journey as a Dark Knight. I completed a handful of quests while donning the intimidating black armor and wielding a monstrous blade, but since Dark Knight is a tank class and not a damage-dealing one, fights seemed to drag on.

I switched to Ninja (and in case you're just catching up to how FFXIV works, yes, one character can switch between multiple classes / jobs) but now I was behind on XP. I'm currently wandering the desert looking for XP opportunities, having completed every main scenario and side quest in the area but unable to progress the story because I'm not high enough level. This is where I'd normally jump into a dungeon for a big boost, but... well, you already know how that went.

FATEs (FFXIV's group events that randomly pop up on the map, allowing multiple players to tackle extra-hard challenges for big XP and coin) would also typically be a way to help someone in my position level up. But I can never seem to find someone to help me do them, probably because SE is spreading players across multiple instances of the map in order to lighten server load. So off I run, mindlessly slaughtering a few dozen giant grasshoppers as I watch my XP bar slowly, slowly fill.

What little I have experienced of Stormblood's plot has been… fine? I've reunited with former traveling companions, and brought Lyse (a character who's been part of FFXIV's story from the beginning, though she was pretending to be someone else) back to her home so she can inspire her fellow Ala Mhigans to rise up against an oppressive empire.

It's kind of weird to see moments of subtlety and nuance regarding resistance from the heroes' side - characters are reluctant to join up and often have good reason for not wanting to risk their lives, and at one point you have to stand by and watch a man be beaten because any heroics would just mean worse treatment for him and his family down the road - and yet have the villains be so mustache-twirlingly evil. I will say this though: the Garleans have a catchy, powerful hymn to their name. You could play it at any university or high school graduation and no one would be the wiser.

Still, I'm interested, and I want to see where the story goes. If only I could.

Day 1:

One of the first things you should know about Stormblood is what you need to do in order to play it. FF14 is a very story-intensive game, much more so than many other MMOs on the market. That hasn't changed for Stormblood - if anything, the expansion reinforces the idea that this is not the type of game you drop in for every odd expansion or so. It's a commitment.

See, you can't get to Ala Mhigo (the new region in Stormblood) without beating the story for the base game plus the first expansion, Heavensward. You also need to be level 60, though odds are if you've done the former, you'll have hit the latter. You likewise can't just pop into a new dungeon without clearing story content first.

This made playing Stormblood a bit of a headache. The expansion launches in earnest today, but I also got some time in via a special early access period this past weekend. As is often the case when MMO expansions launch, the servers became congested. Queues to log in numbered into the thousands, and even if I did manage to get in, there was always the chance I'd simply get booted from the server if I tried to talk to a busy NPC. And since I needed to talk to those NPCs to progress, FF14's reliance on story was creating a bottleneck.

Tired of getting kicked from the world, I decided to check out what Stormblood added that didn't require me to be in the same place as everyone else trying to progress: the two new jobs, Samurai and Red Mage.

I thought for sure I would prefer the Samurai, thinking back to my middle-school fascination with anime characters like Kenshin Himura (Rurouni Kenshin), Suzuka (Outlaw Star), and Sesshomaru (Inuyasha). How cool would it be to do the thing those sorts of characters do, cutting an opponent faster than the eye can see, and time seems to freeze until the sword is dramatically sheathed?

I wouldn't know, since I quickly found the Samurai not to my liking. The job requires players to accumulate what's called "Sen" and "Kenki" in order to produce different effects and abilities. I never quite got the handle on managing these resources, and felt like I was clumsily stumbling along. I also never got the sense of dramatic flair that I wanted from the class, though it's possible the really cool stuff comes later.

In any case, I decided to try out the other new job Stormblood adds, Red Mage. And let me tell you: me likey. If you're familiar with Final Fantasy (or even if you're not), you might know that White Mages cast healing magics while Black Mages cast damaging spells. Red Mages do both, and are pretty good with a sword, too. This makes them a sort of jack-of-all-trades, master of none, but damn are they cool. Look at how fancy these guys are!

Like the Samurai, I had to manage my job carefully - but the Red Mage's unique resources made much more sense to me. Every time I cast a Black Magic spell, one side of a gauge went up. Every time I cast a White Magic spell, the other side went up. If I got them both high enough, I could unleash devastating physical attacks. It was easy to see and understand, and it felt good to cleverly dance between disciplines.

Let me paint a picture of typical combat for a Red Mage: a giant monster is bearing down on me. I leap out of the way of its attack, backflipping yards away. From a distance, I fire off Black and White spells, then dash forward with my sword. I get in a few basic swipes and then blast him with a combined flurry of slashes and magical power. It's super fun to watch in action, and I love the mobility it encourages. Plus I get a hat with a feather in it. It's pretty rad.

Both of these classes start at 50, so I need a little more time to grind up to 60 if I'm going to use either as my main playstyle when I finally do start tackling Stormblood's story content. Speaking of, hopefully Square Enix has implemented enough stability measures so that I can. We'll find out!