Final Fantasy XIV - Lyse

Final Fantasy XIV‘s first expansion, Heavensward, was a masterpiece of MMORPG storytelling, pushing the narrative boundaries of the genre. It built upon its predecessor in a really satisfying way, and it blew a lot of folks out of the water (myself included) with its memorable characters and masterful plot reveals.

But then there’s the second expansion, Stormblood.

Admittedly, Stormblood isn’t bad, as far as MMO expansions go, but its high notes aren’t nearly as high as those of Heavensward. Where Heavensward’s slower pace gives all of its characters and locations room to breathe, Stormblood’s just perpetually feels like it’s holding us back from experiencing the parts we’re the most excited about. Its characters aren’t as rich as Heavensward’s (though there are some standouts), and the overall pacing feels a bit weak.

For me, there are a few reasons why Stormblood just doesn’t work as well as Heavensward, so let me touch on each of them.

Stormblood’s story is a bit of a bait-and-switch

Final Fantasy XIV - Griffin

You could argue that Heavensward was kind of a bait-and-switch. The main story of A Realm Reborn deals with the war between the Eorzean Alliance and the Garlean Empire. Heavensward is an entire expansion that separates itself from that conflict, tossing us instead into the Dragonsong War.

But Heavensward had so much heart, and its characters were so great that this never really mattered. Sure, it felt a little bit like a distraction, but we knew going into Heavensward that the Garlean conflict would be waiting for us on the other side of the expansion. Besides, there was a lot of resolution that needed to happen after 2.5’s incredible plot twists, and Heavensward paid off all of those slowly over the course of the expansion. Even though the expansion pulled us away from the central narrative, it drip-fed reveals throughout its runtime that kept reminding us that the Garlean conflict was still very much in play.

And then, Heavensward sort of transitions back into the major conflict in the 3.x content. So we’re finally back to doing what we set out to do in the first place, then we’re sent halfway across the world to a new area to get involved in a new conflict. While you can break the story flow a single time without hurting the pacing too much, you can’t justify doing it a second time in the exact same way. And the middle section of Stormblood is just a giant distraction from the Ala Mhigan wing of the Garlean conflict.

It’s a little jarring, honestly. Ala Mhigo is already mentioned early in A Realm Reborn, and it becomes more and more important as we learn more about the conflict in the region. But when we finally get to learn more about Ala Mhigo in Stormblood, we’re immediately ripped away and sent off to another part of the world. As interesting as the Far East storyline ultimately becomes, it suffers for feeling like it’s perpetually holding us back from our main objective.

The Ruby Sea kind of sucks

Final Fantasy XIV - Ruby Sea

Okay, so after we’re whisked off to the Far East, we’re introduced to Kugane, which is an incredibly gorgeous city that’s not really like anything else we’ve seen in the game thus far. It introduces a new visual style, which gets us all amped up for what’s next. As it turns out, though, what’s next is the Ruby Sea, which might very well be my least favorite area in the entire game.

The justification for the existence of the Ruby Sea is the introduction of the underwater mechanic. While this sounds interesting on paper, the underwater environments aren’t all that interesting, which removes a lot of the joy of exploring them. If we had lush plantlife and brightly colored coral deposits, it might be more interesting. Most of what we see, though, is just underwater mountains and valleys.

The story drags at this point too. The Confederacy feels poorly motivated and inconsistent, and the Kojin story really isn’t all that interesting. In fact, I was recently in the area and ended up chatting with another player. That person was complaining about how much the story was dragging and asked me if it gets better. It does get better, but that section of the expansion feels like a slog for a lot of folks, myself included.

Stormblood’s main villain is one-dimensional

Final Fantasy XIV - Zenos yae Galvus

I’m not the first person to complain that Zenos yae Galvus is a bit lacking in the personality department. His entire thing is that he’s super powerful (and we don’t even find out why until the very end of the expansion), and he just seems bored all the time. We don’t ever understand his motives (besides wanting power), and we’re never really given a reason to care about him within the Stormblood expansion.

Now, I’ve played a bit beyond Stormblood at this point, so I do know that we do learn more about the Zenos story later. But that doesn’t really make up for the fact that, within Stormblood, Zenos feels undercooked.

This is especially puzzling, because the expansion also contains two “lesser” villains, Yotsuyu and Fordola, who both have compelling backstories and rich, complex personalities. Yotsuyu could have carried the expansion on her own, and Fordola’s backstory is an emotional whirlwind. In comparison, Zenos feels flat and one-note.

The music just isn’t as good

Final Fantasy XIV - Yugiri

It seems like a strange criticism to knock Stormblood for its music, because the music is actually really good. But no matter how swept up you are in this score, you’ll return to Ishgard or the Churning Mists (both from the Heavensward expansion) and feel the emotions welling up inside you. Stormblood’s music seems a bit emotionally muted in comparison.

But it’s not all bad

Final Fantasy XIV - Scorpion Boss

Despite my complaints, I must reiterate my opinion that Stormblood actually isn’t bad. While it doesn’t feature as strong a batch of characters as Heavensward, it does have some great ones, like Gosetsu and Hien (on top of Yotsuyu and Fordola, who I mentioned earlier).

As a longtime Final Fantasy player, I do enjoy Final Fantasy XIV‘s fan service, and Stormblood has a fair amount of it. I was giddy to learn that the famous scorpion boss from Final Fantasy VII makes a reappearance in the Ala Mhigo dungeon. And while these next two references are both in the 4.x updates rather than Stormblood proper, I really enjoyed the Final Fantasy V and VI fights in the Omega raid series, as well as the Ivalice storyline, which draws heavily from Final Fantasy Tactics (and, to a lesser extent, Final Fantasy XII).

While I’m not particularly fond of the Ruby Sea, I do really like Yanxia, with its foreboding shock gates perpetually looming in the distance. As I mentioned earlier, I also really like Kugane. I even think Gyr Abania is pretty cool, feeling like a transition between the forested areas of the Black Shroud and the deserts of Thanalan. Even so, there’s nothing really comparable to the bizarrely gorgeous Azys Lla, and even the desolated Doma lacks that sense of dread that you feel in the Dravanian Forelands or the Churning Mists.

And that brings me to…

Stormblood’s biggest flaw is that it comes after Heavensward

Final Fantasy XIV - Midgardsormr

Stormblood would have been fine if it immediately followed A Realm Reborn, but even its best moments just can’t compete with what came before it. Heavensward is fantastic, and Stormblood feels like a step backward in a lot of ways.

Honestly, the biggest issue with Stormblood is that you can’t help but compare it against Heavensward, which sets an unbelievably high bar. When you compare Stormblood against the average MMO expansion, it definitely holds up. When you compare it against Heavensward, it doesn’t.

It almost sounds like my complaint is that Heavensward is just too good rather than that Stormblood isn’t, and I actually think that’s a fair assessment. Heavensward is too good, and Stormblood just can’t live up to the expectations it set. The fault lies more with Heavensward than with Stormblood.

That said, I can’t wait to see what lies ahead. I’m told that Shadowbringers is the best part of the story thus far, and I’m just about to break into that section of the game. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say once I finish Shadowbringers. See you on the other side!

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