We’re now nearing four years into the second lifespan of Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn — four years since its re-release following an utterly disastrous initial launch in 2010. Square Enix did the impossible, relaunching a failed MMO to great and continued success. The game’s player base has hit six million worldwide, and we’re mere weeks away from the launch of its second expansion pack, Stormblood.
Earlier this month, we got to spend several hours playing Stormblood and speaking with Final Fantasy 14’s fan-favorite director, Naoki Yoshida. Here are five of our biggest takeaways from our time with the add-on so far.
Both new job classes are complicated damage dealers
Stormblood introduces two new classes, bringing the game’s growing list of job choices up to a whopping 15. However, if you choose to test out a samurai or a red mage, you’ll have a slight leg up in getting them to the new level cap of 70. Both new classes begin at level 50, though you’ll need to have completed the main scenario quests up to that point (or purchased a new item that lets you skip them).
We got to spend the most time with the samurai, as you can see in the video above. This swift swordsman class is able to dish out huge chunks of damage by building up power. Different abilities in the samurai’s rotation will activate three different runes, while also building up a special form of energy. Both the runes and the energy can be spent on more powerful attacks, devastating an enemy’s life bar.
The red mage is an even more interesting and complex job. Despite the “mage” title, this isn’t your typical backline spellcaster. The red mage begins battle by building up power with a succession of spells. Then it actually pulls itself into close range and delivers a flurry of sword slashes, including a Zorro-esque signature, before pushing itself away and jumping to a distance again.
While we didn’t have much time to test the red mage, the way in which it blends melee and ranged combat feels refreshing, as does its level of fluid movement throughout battle. It’s a class that seems like it will be really tough to master — especially in high-stress group encounters — but one where you’re going to feel like a total bad ass when you pull it off.
You can now explore underwater, but it doesn’t seem that fun
Of the three new zones we explored in our test run of Stormblood, one of them — the Ruby Sea — featured a whole lot of water. This was ideal to show off one of the expansion’s additions to the world gameplay: the ability to jump into and explore the water. Prior to this, players have never really been able to go underwater.
Based on our (admittedly, extremely limited) time with this new feature, it seems a little half-baked. Explorable water zones are completely separated from the on-foot areas. When you dip underwater or enter a specifically marked underwater entrance, there’s even a tiny load masked by water flooding your screen.
These breaks are minor — no more than a few seconds on the computer hardware at the event — but they really breaks up the seamlessness of FF14’s zones. While it technically makes these new zones bigger, they somehow feel less vast, and the disruption, however temporary, really discouraged exploration.
There’s also the problem that, for as cool as it might seem to explore underwater, there doesn’t seem to be much to actually do there. This might change once we get into the expansion proper, as we’re given quest objectives and the like, but combat is strictly prohibited and there didn’t appear to be any cool collectibles or vistas that we saw. As such, underwater travel seems to present little more than a fancier way of walking or riding from one end of a zone to another.
The new zones are beautiful and varied
Stormblood sees players journeying out of the frozen wastes of Heavensward’s Ishgard and into the much warmer regions of Ala Mhigo and Doma. These areas have a little more variety than Ishgard, ranging from deserts and mountains to lush, tropical forests.
The expansion’s new primary city zone is bustling port town called Kugane. This area shows off Stormblood’s Far East aesthetic. The churches, castles and towers of the last expansion have been replaced with temples, pagodas and dojos. It’s a stimulating change of pace that makes this area feel truly different from anything we’ve seen in Final Fantasy 14 up to this point.
The aforementioned Ruby Sea area also features some memorable locales, despite our concerns about the underwater travel. Split into a bunch of tiny islands, we can already see the potential for exciting tiny quest arcs spread across each bit of land. There’s a volcanic island filled with lava crabs. There’s even an underwater society of turtle creatures. We can’t wait to discover what else is waiting for us.
Finally, we got to look at The Peaks, a mountainous zone that’s the most generic of the batch we saw but also the one we got to see the least of — only the northernmost tip of the zone was available for exploration during this preview event. The Peaks begins in a small city that’s actually built into the cliffside. Leaving that area, we discovered plenty of oversized enemies to fight but and a strange set of ruins called “The Ziggurat.”
The most exciting parts of the Peaks, however, were our brief glimpses at the horizon. Deeper into the zone, we could see towering structures and bizarre floating rock formations. What we explored wasn’t the most intriguing zone design, but we’re excited to go deeper soon.
This expansion will continue the trend of frequent, dependable updates
If there’s one thing that Final Fantasy 14 has become known and respected for among MMO fans, its the consistency of its update cycle. Since the A Realm Reborn relaunch in 2013, the game has received a major content patch every three to four months, with smaller patches hitting in between.
While many players have praised the steady drip of content, others have complained about the pattern the game has become locked into — where each major update contains approximately the same number of new quests, dungeons and so on. However, Yoshida says that cycle isn’t going anywhere.
“Of course, there are pros and cons to our approach,” Yoshida told Polygon. “To be honest, if we were only creating new content all the time, we wouldn’t be able to update on such a regular schedule. Because we have a pattern, so to speak, or a set form, we are able to be regular with our updates.”
Yoshida went on to say that the reliableness of big Final Fantasy 14 patches and the sheer amount of content added was more important to him than making sure every patch has completely unique or surprising additions. This helps the development team to avoid dreaded delays as well.
“If our patch schedule is delayed in any way, a lot of players feel it,” he said. “For example, when we used to add three instanced dungeons per update, and we pared it down to two, people took notice. Something that makes FF14 attractive is the fact that we have such a variety of content, and a lot of it available.”
You won’t need to play non-stop to enjoy Stormblood
During our interview, Yoshida expressed profound pleasure with the huge, passionate base of players that has built up around Final Fantasy 14. The frequency of updates is, in many ways, targeted at those players, with the intention of keeping them happy.
However, Yoshida also made it clear that his team at Square Enix wants to continue working hard to take care of more casual players as well.
“We don’t want Final Fantasy 14 to become a game that you have to log in every day, and you’re required to play it every day,” he said. “Being able to decide for yourself if you want to take a break and having that option is important. I want to continue being mindful of that.”
Part of those efforts include allowing players to skip some content by purchasing items. When Stormblood comes out, Square Enix will begin selling digital items that allow players to raise a single job’s level to 60. Likewise, another item will allow a character to skip all of the main story quest content from the beginning of the game through Heavensward, allowing them to jump directly into the new stuff.
These items will be spendy, however: Both the level boosts and the story skip items will sell for $25 each. An item that only skips the A Realm Reborn story and not quests from the first expansion will be available for a slightly reduced $18.
While we can’t speak to the overall difficulty level of Stormblood as a whole, we were able to run through a single level 63 dungeon, titled Shisui of the Violet Tides. As with most normal difficulty dungeons in the game, this experience was extremely forgiving. We were able to make it through on our first try with a group that didn’t know each other with zero party wipes — even when we forgot to change into the proper tanking stance until halfway through the dungeon.
And despite that approachability, the dungeon still held our attention. One boss fight pitted us against a scantily clad princess who would attempt to seduce our party, drawing us in and then doing massive damage. We had to run to special chests and drink a potion that turned us into sexless crones to avoid it.
The final battle of the dungeon saw us facing off with a horrifying tentacled creature — the titular Shisui. This boss had the ability to disappear underwater and then pop back up, shaving off healthy portions of our HP bar if we weren’t careful. None of these encounters were terribly difficult, especially for a party of players who had mostly been with the game since launch, but they were fun.
We’ll be checking out much more of Final Fantasy 14: Stormblood when it launches for Windows PC, Mac and PlayStation 4 on June 20. Stormblood will be the first expansion for FF14 that does not have PlayStation 3 support, although owners of the PS3 version of the game will be able to upgrade to the PS4 version for no additional fee.