Final Fantasy 14 is a game that's tumbling through the air, and it really needs to stick the next landing. With its main competitor World of Warcraft being decent again, it can't coast on an updraft of 'Shadowlands refugees' anymore.
Endwalker's main story quest was a triumph, yet as far as the 'MMORPG' part of the experience goes, its post-launch vibes have been tepid. As our features producer Mollie rightly pointed out in December last year, "It's hard to feel like there hasn't been an ever-growing exhaustion with the formula Square Enix has stuck so stalwartly to for the last several years."
This is partly due to a feeling that Square Enix's Creative Business Unit III (CBU3) doesn't feel like a flexible dev team, at least from the outside. Playing through Endwalker's patches, I had this distinct sensation that when the studio had an idea it would see it through to its end, for better or for worse.
Experimenting is fine. Good, even. But if the result of those experiments defines the next two years of your game, then one might consider brewing smaller batches of elixir the next time you need to do weird science. Let's walk through, step-by-step, what I think put FF14 into this position headed into 2024.
Patch 6.1 was an absolute banger
While revisiting 6.1-6.15's website page to write this, it struck me how frontloaded Endwalker's patches were. Newfound Adventure (which I'll be calling 6.1x) rode high on Endwalker's initial hype—borne from a genuinely incredible main story quest—and sold itself as a new beginning. We'd get to let our hair down, go do some exploring, and enjoy a world free of apocalyptic threats.
I've already talked about my feelings on the story overall, but as far as Newfound Adventure goes—it was a ton of fun. 6.1x also brought some other major additions: Aglaia, which still stands as my favourite alliance raid from this expansion, and Dragonsong's Reprise, an Ultimate that revisited Heavensward and subverted it in a way that had non-raiders interested in the storyline of a completely optional, non-canon fight.
There were also new custom deliveries, side quests, a massive PvP revamp, adventure plates, and complete reworks of A Realm Reborn's ancient dungeons. I played a ton during patch 6.1, and I honestly think that's due to how fresh everything felt. We were all excited, and the festive, musical tone of everything matched our hype.
But something changed as time wore on. Endwalker's patches began to feel… thin. Not leaner when it came to features or content, but rather—a patch would come out, you'd spend a couple of days catching up, and then you were pretty much done if you weren't a raider.
The self-imposed content droughts of 6.x
Endwalker catered to extremes. If you were a raider with a static (group) of buddies, you were served well—and if you only had an hour or two a day to play, you were also fine. As someone who likes a challenge, but who sadly lacked a static? I was damned thirsty.
Variant dungeons came along with patch 6.25, and their reception was mostly positive. If you're unfamiliar, a variant dungeon is a dungeon for 1-4 players with branching paths. Do all the paths and you get a mount, alongside some other fun cosmetic rewards. There are also harder versions of them called Criterion dungeons.
The issue? You could solo the dungeon, and there was no reason to do it more than 12 times (one for each path). What's more, CBU3 fumbled the bag when it came to the Criterion version and its reward—you could grab a special mount (which you can also buy/sell on the market board) and that's about it.
Nothing to help you gear up in preparation for the next savage tier beyond materia you could just buy, no unique weapons for bragging rights, that's all. People complained about it, but the second dungeon in patch 6.45 did the exact same thing again. Remember that flexibility problem I mentioned? Yeah.
Meanwhile, Island Sanctuary was a fun distraction at first, but as Mollie aptly wrote it "quickly descended into a 'set it and forget it' spreadsheet simulator." While you can invite your mates over to your Island and decorate it with furniture, actually progressing the island is a solitary activity. You collect resources, organise your workshop, and order monuments built all on your own.
Then we have the Manderville relic weapons. In expansions past, these grinds nudged you out into the world to do specific content or raids, and into massive group zones called 'field operations'. In Endwalker, you just had to pay tomestones, which you get from doing all the stuff you usually do—typically four-person dungeon runs where you can just turn your brain off.
These three things combined—relic weapons that asked for zero unique behaviour, the isolation of Island Sanctuary, and the soloable one-and-done variant dungeons—created a weird content drought. Stuff was there, you could just knock it out in a couple of weekends, and there was no reason to keep grinding.
FF14 felt particularly lonely for its solo and midcore players. If the content wasn't hard enough to require a premade group (or simple enough to ignore other players entirely) it was something you did alone. That being said, if you were a raider—there was plenty to like.
A great expansion for the raiding crowd
Endwalker was a great expansion—if you had a solid group of friends to tackle its harder content with.
CBU3 released two whole Ultimates—20-minutes-long boss gauntlets that can take months to learn and defeat. There were your usual raiding tiers which were broadly received well, though I still have nightmares about that goddamn fire bird and its orange-on-red telegraph nightmare. The game's Extreme trials were all solid, too—my personal favourite being the Storm's Crown, which quickly devolves into genuine bullet hell.
There were also some challenges for smaller groups. Eureka Orthos, a 100-floor deep dungeon in the vein of Palace of the Dead that requires a party of four to finish (you can attempt it solo if you're a masochist, too) and Criterion dungeons, even if the rewards were lacklustre.
Between Extremes, Savage, Ultimate, Criterion, and Eureka Orthos, there was plenty to keep ambitious, group-oriented players busy. It's just a shame that solo players were mostly left with nothing to keep them occupied. You might ask yourself "but it's a MMORPG, who cares about solo players?"—but they're actually a big part of the ecosystem in these games.
WoW understands this with its focus on world quests and drop-in group content: It's nice to have things to do that put you in the vicinity of other players in the wider game world, without forcing you to socialise with them. The zerg rushes of Shadowbringers' Bozja and Zadnor zones helped preserve a sense of low-stress community while giving you something optional to grind.
Despite it all, it's still a great idea to get into FF14
With all of those complaints, you might think I don't recommend FF14—on the contrary. If you're a new player, none of those issues will apply to you for hundreds of hours. In fact because of Endwalker's patches, there's never been a better time to get stuck in.
CBU3 has revitalised a bunch of older content over the course of Endwalker's updates. A Realm Reborn's pivotal, story-related dungeons have been completely modernised, with some earlier dungeons receiving complete redesigns. You can also go through much of the game with a group of NPC allies—which lets you soak in the atmosphere without trying to keep up with wall-to-wall pulls.
FF14 still has the best free trial in MMORPG history. While you can't do the usual stuff like using the market board, you can play through the (say it with me) critically acclaimed expansion Heavensward—as well as Stormblood, which is still wild to me. If we include the base game, that's three very good RPG stories for the low price of absolutely nothing. It's 100+ hours of game for zilch—it's basically charity at this point.
Even if you somehow churn through the base game and four whole expansions before Dawntrail comes out, you still aren't going to suffer. You'll have a massive backlog to work through, and when it's not been drip-fed over two whole years of monthly sub? Endwalker actually has a lot to do—more than enough to keep you busy until Dawntrail arrives in the summer.
But that's the question, isn't it—will CBU3 repeat those same mistakes? We've been promised the triumphant return of field operations, alongside adjusted variant dungeon rewards. But if the problems with Endwalker rear their ugly head again, I worry I'll be writing this exact same article in two years—just with a bigger air of gloom and doom. Which sucks, because I like this game. It has my favourite catboy in it.
Loving a game, warts and all
Despite all of these complaints—ones echoed by more discussion-focused communities such as the game's more critical subreddit, people still love the snot out of this game, and so do I. FF14 is homogenised, it's predictable, but it's also become a home for its players.
The filtering down of job identity and the lack of long-lasting content walks hand-in-hand with players making life-sized bronze statues of their characters and gathering 200 musicians together for covers of its soundtrack. Community dramas have largely revolved around paid cosmetics, players being banned for mod usage in raiding, the death of GShade, and yes—billboards.
Even I hesitate to waltz in and say that I've had a bad time playing FF14 through Endwalker. I've definitely played it less, but I've still kept up my sub to dip in for patches, the occasional roulette, and roleplay. Maybe the game's patches fell flat, but if Dawntrail can pull FF14 back from the ledge of its MMO design woes then I doubt any of us are going anywhere. For good or for ill, 'till shutdown do us part.