Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

A lot of people who enjoy Final Fantasy XIV will admit that it’s hard to recommend. While it’s currently a phenomenal MMORPG (quite possibly the best one out there), it walked a pretty rocky road to get where it is today. In fact, the original release of Final Fantasy XIV was so bad that Square Enix was forced to basically start over after it had already launched.

The relaunched version, dubbed A Realm Reborn, was a whole lot better than the initial iteration, but it still had a lot of problems. Perhaps most notable is the fact that the main story is a slog. Sure, it has some great moments, but most of those take place late in the game, after dozens of hours of tedious quests with some very, very delayed narrative payoff.

As the game continued to expand over the years, the story eventually found its footing to become something truly memorable. In fact, the story feels more akin to a mainline Final Fantasy game than a massively multiplayer online RPG in the vein of World of Warcraft. It features enormously satisfying plot reveals, a memorable cast of characters, and some incredible music to tie it all together.

Final Fantasy XIV - Aymeric

However, the game keeps growing upward rather than outward. What I mean is that it keeps building on what came before rather than ensuring that every new expansion gives fresh players a jumping-in point. The upside to this is that it never tosses aside the old to make room for the new; Final Fantasy XIV‘s oldest content is still very much relevant in 2021. The downside, however, is that in order to experience any of the expansion content at all, you need to complete the A Realm Reborn MSQs (main scenario quests), and then the follow-up content (which is generally referred to as 2.x). To play Stormblood, you need to have completed Heavensward and 3.x. To play Shadowbringers, you need to have completed Stormblood and 4.x. And so on.

Final Fantasy XIV has some brilliant moments late in the A Realm Reborn storyline, but the point at which it truly gets good, in my opinion, is 2.5, which is well over 100 hours deep (and much, much more than this if you take your time to really explore the world and experience everything it has to offer).

What I’m getting at is that it’s hard to recommend something to your friends when you’re obligated to mention that caveat that it gets really, really good once you’re about 100 hours deep. It’s true; the game is absolutely worth playing, and if you can make it through the first 100 hours, you’ll be absolutely blown away by the experience. But that’s a pretty big if. For anyone with limited amounts of time, the initial time investment is just too much. And that’s totally fair.

Final Fantasy XIV - Midgardsormr

But for those of us who did push through A Realm Reborn, the good stuff waits just on the other side.

Now, the last time I checked in with Half-Glass Gaming readers on my Final Fantasy XIV progress, I was about halfway through the Heavensward expansion. I have since completed the main Heavensward story, and I’m probably about two-thirds of the way through Stormblood at this point.

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect upon my experience, I just have to say, “Holy smokes, Heavensward is phenomenal!”

I’ve played my fair share of MMORPGs (I even used to write for an MMO website), but I don’t ever expect to get caught up in the story or characters in an MMO. I’m usually interested in the game’s world, or its complex spiderweb of game systems. Yes, occasionally I hunger for a ludicrously overcomplicated grind. But compelling storylines? That’s for other game genres. MMOs need not apply.

Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

But Heavensward’s story is damn good. Sure, it starts off pretty slow, but once it picks up steam it becomes one of the most memorable Final Fantasy experiences out there. The basic conceit is that the people of Ishgard have been locked in a perpetual war against the dragons, believing the dragons to be the ones to initiate the conflict. Early on, however, you discover that dragons and the peoples of Dravania once lived together in harmony, and that it was the people who betrayed the dragons — in a shockingly gruesome manner — to kick off the war between their kinds.

With this piece of information, your journey becomes a bit… complicated? How do you reconcile a conflict between two groups who have been fighting each other for centuries, especially when the ones you’ve pledged your sword to are on the wrong side of history? I don’t want to spoil too much, because there are story beats that are best experienced blindly, but Heavensward bends into an emotional journey that will leave you feeling wrung out inside. I even felt my eyes getting misty toward the end of it (and I have never cried over a video game story).

Heavensward is surprisingly bleak for a Final Fantasy game. I went into Heavensward expecting bright colors and crystal-lit vistas, and what I ended up exploring was a desolate landscape of ash and ruin, filled with characters who are twisted by their long-held bitterness.

Final Fantasy XIV - Chocobo Forest

To really drive home the bleakness — and the emotional heft — is a phenomenal soundtrack. In fact, Heavensward’s music is still my favorite in the game.

When you first wander into Ishgard, you’ll be greeted with a soft piano melody. That melody becomes a refrain for the entire journey, eventually mixing with battle themes and boss fight music. You might not even notice the melody when you first hear it, but by the time you’ve completed Heavensward, that melody line will conjure up deep emotions — the joy of meeting new friends, the sadness of sacrifice, the hard-won relief of victory, the bittersweet memory of your fallen comrades.

Whenever I wander into one of the Heavensward areas and hear its environmental theme kick in, I start to feel these things, almost as if I’m experiencing them all over again. This is a masterfully composed selection of tunes, and nothing in Stormblood (the game’s second expansion) even comes close.

Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

I want to recommend Heavensward to everyone who loves narrative video games — it’s so good — but that massive timesink of a buy-in means I really can’t. Square Enix does sell a boost that will skip you past A Realm Reborn right into Heavensward, but that’s far from ideal. If you jump right in, you’ll miss the incredible twists of 2.5. You won’t get to see Alphinaud’s early character growth. You’ll completely miss the significance of the Raubahn rescue mission. When Lolorito shows up to reveal his long con, it will feel like a distraction instead of a long-anticipated plot reveal.

A Realm Reborn is the foundation that Heavensward is built on top of. If you remove ARR, Heavensward wobbles a bit. No, it won’t fall completely flat — it’s still a really, really good story — but some of Heavensward’s best narrative moments hit so hard because you’d been anticipating them for so damn long. This isn’t the best way to tell the first part of this story, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not satisfying for the folks who slog through it to get to the good stuff.

In fact, completing all of ARR and 2.x feels a bit like a rite of passage. If you actually do it, you’ll feel like someone who got their driver’s license after dozens of hours of practice, or like someone who landed a great job in the field you went to college for. When you cross that bridge into Ishgard for the first time, you know how hard you worked for this. You’ve earned it.

Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

But how do you recommend an entertainment product that requires so much work to enjoy? I love Final Fantasy XIV, and the Heavensward story is my favorite part of the journey so far. As much as I want to share that experience with my RPG-loving friends, I really can’t without forcing those friends to commit to a tedious grind through ARR.

It’s worth it. I promise you, it’s worth it in the end. But I also don’t blame anyone who simply doesn’t have the time or the endurance to experience it for themselves. Heavensward is one of the tastiest bits of this massive game, but Final Fantasy XIV in general is something of an acquired taste. While I can absolutely recommend this game to anyone looking for a massive, massive grind, anyone who’s just looking for some compelling video-game story is going to be a lot harder to convince. And for those who have limited time for gaming, you might as well forget about it.

But damn, Heavensward is good, and I wish more people would check it out.

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