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A still from Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker’s cinematic trailer Image: Square Enix

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Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker feels great when it works, but takes very few risks

The Monk and Summoner reworks are particular high points

It’s useful to think of Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker as the end of a path, especially in the process of reviewing it. After all, some of the more common uses of a game review don’t really apply here; folks who’d be inclined to pick up the game have likely already done so, and me asking if you’ve heard of the critically acclaimed MMORPG Final Fantasy 14 feels like it won’t end well for yours truly.

Rather than approach all this as “should you play this game?” I think my aim is instead to talk about… well, how the journey felt. Between Endwalker’s early access and its first few weeks in the wild, I’ve managed to power through the game’s main story quest. (For you non-FF14 types, when people talk about “MSQ,” this is what they mean: plot-focused progression quests that gate content.) At this point, I’ve seen most of the available Endwalker content.

There’ve been plenty of things I have enjoyed. Most of the game’s playable combat classes (“jobs”) have changed very minimally between the previous expansion, Shadowbringers, and now. If you watch a playlist of job-change videos from FF14 content producers — I’m partial to Larryzaur’s, myself — you’ll likely notice that in most cases, the changes are few, and largely amount to shuffling strength values or adding/removing extra benefits. Many tank abilities, for example, now give the user a self-heal or regen to aid in survival.

A still from Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker’s benchmark trailer Image: Square Enix

The exceptions — Summoner and Monk — were heavily reworked, and as someone who’s played both extensively, the changes feel great. Monk in particular was in a strange place toward the end of Shadowbringers, as the FF14 team realized that uhhhhh keeping up stacks of the all-important Greased Lightning buff was incredibly boring and thus removed it, despite it being central to the job’s design philosophy. Masterful Blitz, a new combo mechanic that turns different sequences of attacks into flashy finishers, feels like a more fitting approach to “martial artist” than maximizing buff uptime did.

Changes to Summoner are even more significant; it’s effectively a brand new job. Arcanist – the base class for both Summoner and the healing job Scholar – was the new hotness in 2.0, particularly for returning 1.0 players, as it was the only new class at the time of release. It was a damage-over-time-based pet job, similar to World of Warcraft’s Warlock, and it worked. However, it was also routinely awkward as hell. Instead of really providing the feel of a classic Final Fantasy summoner — bringing big-ass spectral beasts onto the battlefield to blast the bejeezus out of some poor sap with a huge lightning bolt, or whatever – FF14’s Summoner commanded tiny, almost cartoonish replicas of the game’s summon beasts (“primals”) that did not feel viscerally impactful.

Boy, did that change.

Summoner now, as of max level, goes right for that old school Rydia/Garnet/Yuna feeling: when you tag in Titan, that gigantic stone asshat shows up, taking up a huge amount of the screen and setting off an exploding earthquake that really does, the first few times you do it, give you that “DAMN, girl!” feeling. The damage-over-time aspect is gone in favor of the class becoming just a non-stop buzz saw of repeated elemental summonings and attacks, most of which are instant and castable on the move. This all makes the job very mobile. Considering that FF14’s boss design (and its emphasis on constant movement) has not changed a whit, this is welcome.

A still of invading enemies from Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker’s benchmark trailer Image: Square Enix

The term “class fantasy” and its ilk feel increasingly abused, but it’s a useful frame for talking about the success of the Summoner and Monk rebuilds. Playing Summoner feels like an FF-series Summoner in a way it didn’t before. This has nothing to do with ability potencies or anything of the sort; it has everything to do with audio-visual aesthetics and the general mechanical approach. The same goes for Monk, too; lining up your perfect Blitz combo and then executing it just feels real good. Is it optimal damage-wise? Who cares? I just turned into a phoenix and kicked some jackass in the jaw so hard he exploded!

Of course, with the good comes the bad, and there is more than a fair share of bad feels in Endwalker. The huge elephant in the room has got to be the game’s currently beyond-screwed login queue and capacity issues. Getting into a popular MMO during early access or an expansion’s launch week is going to be hell by default; us aging MMO veterans know this by now. Typically, however, that levels off relatively soon. In Endwalker’s case, that has not happened. I am writing this review toward the end of my first hour in a queue with 1700+ people ahead of me; two hours has not been an unusual wait, and the persistent pest of the “2002 error” means you can’t just log in and wander off to play Yahtzee for a few hours until it finishes. If you don’t watch it like a hawk, you could easily lose your place in the queue and have to start that 2+ hour wait all over again.

Much of this is not really Square-Enix’s fault. Supply chain, labor, and pandemic issues have gotten in the way, as Yoshida has said, of the hardware upgrades necessitated by the game’s sudden population explosion over the past year. Still, I hope the FF14 team can find some sort of solve or salve soon, for their sake as well as mine. Knowing much of it is beyond their control helps with being patient — but that won’t last forever if this keeps up.

A new area in Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker Image: Square Enix

Even once you get into the game, however, there are some unavoidable faults in the actual content. The standout example is the game’s reliance on “stealth/tailing” quests. Historically, each new FF14 expansion after 2.0 introduced or refocused on some quest mechanic and then beat it into the absolute ground over the course of the MSQ. If you don’t believe me, replay Stormblood and count how many times you’re asked to look at something through a telescope.

In Endwalker, this mechanic is “follow behind an NPC and don’t let them see you.” It gets deployed a lot. Like a lot, a lot. It sucks. I think so, and so do lots of people in the game’s public chat every time I am doing one, day or night. These missions offer the player too little information, and the cost of failure is universally “start over.” Given that some of these quests involve standing in one spot and waiting for the target to stop looking in your direction, this feels real bad.

Perhaps the other somewhat related issue is that the game often drags things out unnecessarily, particularly in service of the main story. A number of main story quest chains in the back half of the game’s plot seem as if they will never end; a constant series of either Wal-Mart runs to get soda and chips for some NPC, or worse, a string of “go here, right click to talk, 10 minutes of dialogue, repeat four times” situations that absolutely destroy the plot’s momentum.

I can’t even really blame that on Endwalker, however; if you’ve played the other FF14 expansions, you will find the same thing happening there, too. This, in and of itself, is another issue: FF14, since 2.0, is a game that does not take big risks with its design or structure. I did not play FF14 1.0, and that honestly makes me a little sad. For all its reported flaws — most of my FC mates were 1.0 players and they think of it fondly, but they are also glad to not be playing it anymore — I get the impression 1.0 was much more willing to make risky design choices, to introduce things that might fail and aren’t “safe” design choices.

A still of several characters from Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker’s launch trailer Image: Square Enix

By contrast, I was able to predict a lot of Endwalker’s decisions because they hewed so closely to the model that Heavensward set six years ago — you know new dungeons will pop up at [x] and [y] level ranges; that a new trial appears at level [z]; that when plot element [a] happens, then a particular range of consequences will result. I was surprised — genuinely surprised — fewer than five times over the course of the expansion. I don’t want to overvalue surprise, here; “I didn’t see it coming” doesn’t automatically mean “good content.” But I still found myself hungering, now and then, for something truly off the rails, or something that wasn’t heavily lampshaded.

Considering I powered through the MSQ in around a week, I think it’s pretty clear that I enjoyed my time with the 6.0 Endwalker release patch, which itself is only the barest beginning in terms of new content. I feel like I could write an entire second article solely about my experience with the plot, which had some genuinely incredible and emotional moments for me as a longtime player who’s built a relationship with these characters, even though that plot is also hamstrung by its Big Cosmic Focus, when FF14’s narrative strength has ever been smaller, interpersonal stories. Who knows what’s going to happen now that all this Hydaelyn/Zodiark stuff is behind us?

Endwalker hit me well enough that I am interested to find out, but it also made me acutely aware of things I want that I’m not getting right now. In short: it sure is an MMO expansion. Endwalker walks (pardon the pun) a thin line between providing more of what players already like, along with something new and different. When it works, it feels great. When it doesn’t, it’s often a reminder of the game’s frequent aversion to risk or significant change. It may be that breaking this hold is what FF14 will need in the future.

Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker was released on Dec. 7 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on Windows PC. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.