How the hell do you wrap up a cohesive narrative that's been steaming ahead for over a quarter of my life? That's the monumental challenge facing the development team behind Final Fantasy 14, as the climactic Endwalker expansion looms large on the horizon next month, heralding an end to the Haedalyn and Zodiark story that's been barrelling on since 2013.
In a recent preview session, Gamesradar+ got to sample some of the brand new content Square Enix is bringing forth in Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker. An introductory presentation by long time game director Naoki Yoshida turned out to be 40 minutes in length, simply because there's just that much to unpack in Endwalker. It's the "largest expansion to date," Yoshida exclaimed, "bigger than a modern RPG." That's a lot of work for anyone, even more so a team operating under the restraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Square Enix was keen to provide a disclaimer that "this is a pre-release build that has not undergone final adjustments" and that "all content is subject to significant change."
New expansions for Final Fantasy 14 typically offer up a fresh hub area, and we were summarily dropped into Endwalker's: Old Sharlayan. The classical city almost has an Ancient Greece feeling to it, with pillars rising out of the ground and a long central walkway proceeding up from a port area to a massive foreboding building at the top of multiple elegant sets of stairs, flanked all the way by glistening white smaller buildings. It's quite the site to behold, especially as the entrance point to this preview of Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker.
In the preview build, Endwalker's peaceful areas like Old Sharlayan aren't quite complete. As director Yoshida emphasized during the introductory talk, this is still very much a work in progress, and Old Sharlayan reflects that, as scant NPCs all give off the same brief greeting before giving you the cold shoulder, and the usual vendors and quest-givers are all absent. Despite this though, Old Sharlayan is still set up as a brilliant base from which the story of Endwalker will be told, but it feels distinctly more self-contained than a sprawling area like Ishgard, for example.
Elsewhere though, more combat-centric areas like Thavnir and Garlemald are rife with enemy encounters. The former is a colorful jungle, with the usual color palette giving way to vibrant purples and glistening blues, stretching all the way from a peaceful beach area in the south, to packed trees and grassy knolls in the north, bustling with enemies. Despite being started at the generous new level cap of 90 in the preview, enemies still give you a run for your money, and Fates in particular are challenging without the backing of other players.
Garlemald, meanwhile, was the real surprise of my time with Endwalker. Journeying to the area that Final Fantasy 14 has been teasing for years, Garlemald is a wasteland, where the corpses of buildings and highways pile atop one another and demonic enemies prowl the desolate ruins. Considering this is where we glimpsed arch nemesis Zenos trying out his fancy new scythe weapon on hapless citizens at the end of Death Unto Dawn: Part Two, perhaps it's no surprise that Garlemald is already a smoking ruin by the time we arrive, with a intimidating, twisted tower just out of reach in the distance.
The Thavnir and Garlemald areas were the perfect excuse to take two new Job classes for a spin. The Sage and the Reaper make their debut in Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker, and they're classes at opposite ends of the spectrum: the former is a healer with sparse damage-based spells, primarily intended as the backbone to Raid and Dungeon groups of players, while the latter goes all in on destruction, wielding a massive new scythe to slice through enemies with elegant ease.
The Reaper is really, really fun. As Final Fantasy 14 previously revealed in a Letter From the Producer livestream, the Reaper's massive scythe is used to build up a separate meter, which can be used to summon demonic allies for massive area-based attacks. The animations for the Reaper's variously flashy combat moves are sublime, almost like someone took Nero's moveset from Devil May Cry 5 and transported it over to an MMO. The damage-dealer is an absolute joy to play, and it feels like Square Enix has really nailed the ability cooldowns of the Reaper to maintain an upbeat rhythm in the heat of combat.
The Reaper won't save your party when faced with an unstoppable opponent, as we found out to our despair in the new Tower of Zot dungeon. Positioned at the southern end of Thavnir as a daunting tower glowing with otherworldly energy, the Tower of Zot was the major PvE star of the Endwalker preview, and it didn't disappoint. Worming your way through the tower on extendable tentacle-like pathways was a weird treat, and battling daunting enemies reminiscent of soldiers in Stormblood was the perfect way to get to know the Reaper and Sage's movesets better, but it was the bosses where the Tower of Zot really stood out.
That's because it recruits the Magus Sisters, series stalwarts for a set of brutal battles. Mindy and Sandy act as the first two major boss fights in the Tower of Zot, and they're each fantastic fights in their own right, really well balanced to give players just enough chances to work out secrets to avoiding the area of effect attacks, without mopping the floor with them for missing a trick. Where things get really chaotic is when the two unite with Cindy for a final climactic showdown to end the dungeon, forcing players to take everything they've learned over the past two fights, and apply it on the fly for this final showdown. It's tough as nails, but a great way to wrap up Endwalker's debut dungeon.
Trusting your allies
A big focus for Final Fantasy 14 with Endwalker is actually overhauling the Trust system. Yoshida says that the development team for Final Fantasy 14 is upgrading the AI system of your computer comrades to make them feel more capable in supporting a sole player through any dungeon. Not only that, but every Dungeon in Endwalker can be cleared using the Trust system, and you will be able to recruit smarter versions of Thancred, Alisae, Alphinaud, and more to your party before venturing into a gauntlet.
This, Yoshida said, is all part of an effort to draw in more solo players to Final Fantasy 14. The director knows solo players feel put off but venturing into Final Fantasy 14's player-driven encounters like Dungeons and Raids, and he wants these players, who might typically stay within the confines of solo Final Fantasy games, to feel welcome with these changes to the Trust system. I actually re-ran the Tower of Zot utilizing the Trust system, and the upgrades work a treat, allowing the likes of Estinien and G'raha Tia to comfortably form a robust spine for the player with which to work in Dungeons. That's not to say they'll cover for the player in every instance – if the player character dies it's still back to square one – but this is a brilliant improvement over what came before.
These Trust upgrades feed into some large quality-of-life improvements for Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker. For example, Yoshida notes that damage attributes are getting a little out of hand with some of the higher-level enemies, and the floating text passages are getting comically long – given that Square Enix wants the MMO to stick around for another decade, it's making some much needed changes here. To remedy this issue, the studio is actually downscaling damage values and other battle calculations with Endwalker, scaling down enemy and player HP alike to make the numbers side of Final Fantasy 14 a whole lot easier to parse for newcomers and veterans alike.
Additionally, the time for leveling up between A Realm Reborn and Endwalker is being reduced. The Final Fantasy 14 dev team wants newcomers to hit the Endwalker content quicker, and to that end experience points needed between levels will be reduced, as will the difference in gear attributes between levels 50 and 80. Endwalker isn't just the end of the Haedalyn and Zodiark story arc that's been going on for nearly a decade: it's also laying the foundations for what comes next, future-proofing Final Fantasy 14 for many years to come yet.
This may have just been a tiny slice of the sprawling mass of Endwalker, but right now at least, Final Fantasy 14's climactic expansion feels like it's building towards something special. The expansion's brand new content feels brilliantly put together, as though the Reaper and Sage will effortlessly meld into existence alongside the existing Jobs, and meaningful new changes like the Trust system upgrades and downscaled damage attributes feel primed to set up Final Fantasy 14 for even more success in the years to come. Endwalker launches on November 23 for PC, PS4, and PS5, and it might just herald a new area for one of Square Enix's biggest success stories.
For Yoshida's comments on killing off characters in the climactic expansion, you can head over to our Final Fantasy 14 Endwalker interview for more.