Final Fantasy 14 is a strange beast. Its original launch was so odious, so loathed, that Square suspended subscriptions until its relaunch as Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn. With streamlined controls and a new tale to tell, ARR was a shot in the arm for Square-Enix's MMORPG. And now, just as the base game and its Heavensward expansion were starting to feel stale, here comes the Stormblood expansion, and suddenly everything old is new again. It's positively cyclical.
Stormblood adds a wealth of content to FF14, including a new region to explore, two new classes to play as (though the game refers to them as 'jobs'), new dungeons and trials to tackle with a group of fellow adventurers, and perhaps most importantly, a new story to tell.
It's the story that is both Stormblood's biggest asset and its biggest stumble. Final Fantasy 14 wants you to care about its story, arguably moreso than any other MMO on the market. The way Square Enix has accomplished this is to gate content behind story progress, and story progress behind levels. You have to level up to complete the story, and you have to complete the story in order to unlock dungeons, trials, and new regions. That means to get to the beginning of Stormblood, you'll need to have completed the whole story up to that point, from the base game through Heavensward.
That's a lot of content to chew through, and unless you're willing to shell out an extra $50 ($25 for a level boost, $25 for a story boost) on top of the expansion itself and the monthly subscription, you should be prepared to be in this for the long haul. There's no 'MMO tourism' where you buy an expansion and head straight for the new content before ultimately quitting again within a month. Not without some extra cash to smooth the transition, anyway.
In short, FF14 rewards veteran players while offering very little for the more casual crowd. That's not necessarily a bad thing - the level of commitment means the game may be harder to pick up and put down, but it also means it's just plain harder to put down. But if you stopped playing years ago and think Stormblood is a good excuse to jump back in and immediately experience all the new, fun content… well, it's not. You're gonna have to work for it.
A story so good it could be its own game
Stormblood's tale is FF14 at the top of its storytelling game. The plot, centered on you reigniting a failed resistance against the oppressive Garlean Empire, is engaging and filled with wonderful little moments of drama between great heroes and even greater villains.
One of the main baddies, Lord Zenos, is so blatantly meant to be FF14's version of Sephiroth that it feels like Square Enix could sue itself for copyright infringement. Decked out in ostentatious armor and wielding a giant… I don't even know how to describe it other than a mechanized golf caddy but for swords… Zenos is your standard cold, calculating, anime bad dude to a T.
Then there's Yotsuyu, the acting viceroy currently holding the country of Doma in her sadistic, iron grip. And don't forget Fordola, a traitor in the eyes of her people who struggles to find her destiny in light of the Imperial occupation - she's conflicted, but still a backstabbing pain in the ass. All in all, I'm not sure I've ever hated a group of villains so much before. And I mean that in a good way.
The voice actors all give their best, and you never feel like you're far from the next significant chunk of progress. And this excitement to progress, somewhat ironically, is what causes the game to stumble.
Stormblood doesn't give players enough experience to level up at the same rate as they experience the main story. So every dozen quests or so, you'll have to put the freedom fighting aside as you go grind out XP via dungeons, monster hunting, or sidequests.
Grinding is a staple of the MMORPG genre, but FF14 leans a little too heavy into it with this expansion, to the point that even when I did start running around doing sidequests, I eventually cleared the entire map and was still behind. And that's with XP-boosting guild and food buffs.
It's frustrating to get yanked out of the main story just as things are getting good over and over, and it feels like the game is punishing you for not doing enough between levels. If the sidequests were more interesting or held better rewards, there would be more 'pull' to Stormblood's designs - as it stands, it's mostly 'push'. And being pushed is so much less interesting than being pulled by the lure of enticing content.
Red Mage, Red Mage, send bad guys away
While Stormblood may not execute its story flawlessly, nearly every other feature added in the expansion is superbly crafted and enjoyable. The new region of Doma shows off a Japanese-inspired culture completely different from anything seen thus far in the game, filled with beautiful architecture and highly screenshot-able landscapes.
There are also plenty of new creatures that live here, and they range the gamut from "oh my god it's so adorable I need 20 of them" to "the ocean is a realm of nightmares and I'm never setting foot in it again." For the former, see Stormblood's 'Odder Otter' companion. For the latter, see the final boss from the Shisui of the Violet Tides dungeon.
The dungeons are challenging and make you feel accomplished when you complete them. The fight against Susano, a giant turtle god in knight's armor that laughs as he wails on you, should be studied by every designer in the MMO space as an example of how to make a boss fight engaging, entertaining, and challenging. The final trial is a harrowing test of all that you've learned and your ability to coordinate on the fly.
The new swimming feature is… okay, swimming is pretty useless, but it's still fun to see the world of Eorzea from beneath the waves.
Arguably most exciting are the two new classes, the Samurai and Red Mage. These fresh additions mean new power fantasies to live out and roleplay, with the Samurai focused on stances and strict discipline while the Red Mage dances about the battlefield as an elegant and flashy fencer.
Personally, I found a lot to love about the latter, backflipping away from a giant monster's attack before firing off Black Magic and White Magic spells, then dashing in to finish it off with a flurry of slashes from my sword and a burst of magical power. It's super fun to watch in action, and it encourages mobility, keeping me on my toes. Plus: fancy coat and hat with a feather. What's not to like?
Well, except the grind to level it up, of course.