Endwalker is a bit like a dam. Behind it sits a decade worth of narrative and characters, each with their own backstories and baggage, while standing at its base on the other side is the player, desperately hoping for a small trickle of story and character details to be let through at a time, rather than being crushed by an overwhelming amount of information at once.
Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker thankfully nails the former role. Standing at the precipice of the unknown for Square Enix’s long-running MMO, Endwalker has the unenviable task of rounding out a story arc that began all the way back in 2010, pulling together threads that were established years ago for a satisfying and cohesive conclusion to the ongoing Haedalyn and Zodiark story.
To accomplish this, Endwalker actually starts out small. Instead of focusing on the gargantuan war that’s raging all across Eorzea between our heroes and the villainous Garlean Empire, it takes a look at the people crushed underfoot when the fighting reaches towns and cities. Endwalker could’ve started big and only kept the stakes increasing with the entire world on the edge of destruction, but it actually takes a step back to let you get to know the soldiers and people of Garlemald over the first dozen or so hours.
It’s very Grave of the Fireflies in that sense. Isao Takahata’s devastating World War Two-era movie meditated on the human cost of war, examining the citizens that governments ignore when they apparently pledge to protect their own borders and nation. The plights of adults and children alike are ignored by a ruling body that looks instead to the grand scale of warfare, and this very much sums up the role of the Garlean Empire in Endwalker. It’s not quite as bleak as Grave of the Fireflies, mind (although it comes pretty damn close), but Endwalker’s first 10 or so hours are still a brilliantly harrowing look at the human cost of what it means to declare war.
A brilliant band
Release date: Out now
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
It’s also to Endwalker’s credit that it can still introduce meaningful newcomers at the eleventh hour. New characters throughout the similarly new lands of Old Sharlayan, Thavnair, and Garlemald are only given a matter of hours to make their mark on Final Fantasy 14’s gargantuan narrative, and it’s a massive credit to scribes Natsuko Ishikawa and Banri Oda that they smash this goal, offering up a dozen or so brand new characters that all immediately make their mark on Endwalker and linger in the mind long after they’ve left the screen.
With its usual roster of characters though, Endwalker succeeds in avoiding the trap that Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King fell into all those years ago. Instead of primarily playing out as a farewell tour for the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, lingering around like a friend that doesn’t want to say goodbye for what could well be the final time, Endwalker manages to give our companions meaningful actions and developments over the course of 50 hours. There are massive narrative payoffs that’ve been years in the making for the likes of Alphinaud and Alisae, while stalwarts like Estinien and Urianger get stuck into the plot in extremely active roles.
The trouble with reviewing Endwalker is that every minor development can be conceived as a major spoiler. So long have players been with the Scions of the Seventh Dawn that reviewing Final Fantasy 14’s latest expansion feels like writing about Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s final act on the eve of its release, or standing outside a theatre shouting spoilers at a queueing crowd waiting to see Avengers: Endgame. Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker can rightly stand on its own as a fantastic accomplishment, but it’s forever intertwined with a decade of story and character developments that have come before it.
If Endwalker does have any narrative shortcomings, it’s unfortunately in its villains. 2019’s Shadowbringers offered up the fascinating Emet-Selch, a villain who we were at times reluctant even to fight, and anyone following in the Ascian’s footsteps sadly has a near-insurmountable task of standing toe-to-toe in memory with him. Zenos and Fandaniel, by comparison, are just a little too aloof throughout Endwalker, sort of acting like a means to a catastrophic end rather than being the active harbingers of doom we’ve seen before.
Nonetheless, fighting through Endwalker’s locales in pursuit of foiling Zenos and Fandaniel’s plans is a dream. Every new area in Final Fantasy 14’s latest expansion is intriguing in its own right, whether it’s venturing around the grandiose spires of Old Sharlayan’s port city, exploring the tight-knit jungles and sprawling sandy beaches of Thavnair, or stalking the barren ruins of Garlemald. Final Fantasy 14 brings its usual eclectic mix of side stories to bear throughout Endwalker’s new areas, and the result is some brilliantly memorable and populated lands that are just demanding to be explored.
There’s similarly brilliant fun to be had in Endwalker’s new Dungeons. Each is superbly built up over a few hours of narrative developments, so you feel like you’re genuinely stepping into something momentous when you enter the Tower of Zot in Thavnair, for example. The Dungeons themselves are incredibly creative (one even partly takes place on a moving train!), and each boss is a mountain to be overcome, giving away just enough information that players might at first fall victim to an onslaught, but immediately rebound and be able to swiftly identify what they did wrong and why.
Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker is a landmark achievement in narrative development. Able to pull together story threads from over a decade into one cohesive tale, wrapping up everything superbly with so much expectation and pressure on its back is nothing short of astounding on the part of Square Enix’s development team. A pair of puzzling villains don’t do too much to put a dampener on some brilliant action, with Dungeons and every new location offering fascinating combat and storytelling developments alike. Shadowbringers might have thrust Final Fantasy 14 into the limelight over two years ago, but it’s Endwalker that cements it in the argument as one of the best Final Fantasy games ever made.
Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker was reviewed on PS5, with code provided by the publisher