As I write this, I’ve finally finished my New Game+ runthrough of Final Fantasy XIV’s original A Realm Reborn storyline. Since I’m playing it alongside a bunch of other things, it took a little longer than anticipated — but I greatly enjoyed it.
One thing which struck me as the 2.X patch cycle’s narrative came to its conclusion is how cleverly Final Fantasy XIV systematically “uproots” its players as they come to the end of one expansion’s story content and prepare for the next.
Some spoilers for A Realm Reborn ahead.
The convention for Final Fantasy XIV so far has been for the base game and each of the expansions to have its own self-contained story which concludes with a “final boss” and an end credits sequence. The next three major patches — which traditionally have come at about three-month intervals — tend to offer an aftermath to this story across several distinct episodes, while the two major patches (the latter of which is often split into two distinct parts) after that typically kick off what will become the main story of the next expansion.
This means that those who have committed to playing Final Fantasy XIV in the long term are invested in the story enough to follow through to the expansion, while those who wish to stop playing at a neat, natural break can do so. It’s a very clever way of doing things.
In the case of A Realm Reborn, its “finale” leads neatly into the narrative setup for Heavensward, with the introduction of the Ishgardians’ conflict against the draconian Dravanian Horde. Our role as the Warrior of Light in scoring a major victory against the Horde — depicted in the “Steps of Faith” trial — is an important part of the historically reclusive Ishgard opening its gates to outsiders for the first time in a very long while.
But why should you go help Ishgard? Sure, several characters quite rightly point out that if Ishgard falls there will be nothing stopping the Garlean Empire from claiming the Coerthas region for itself, giving them their firmest foothold in Eorzea yet. But still; for the most part Ishgardians have been a bit dickish towards you and yours up until this point.
There have been exceptions, of course — Ser Aymeric, who shows up in the latter episodes of A Realm Reborn’s patch cycle and continues to be an important character is Heavensward, is a reasonable chap, for example, and Haurchefant Greystone is a popular character among the Final Fantasy XIV fandom with very good reason. But for the most part, you might find yourself wondering if Ishgard really deserves the Warrior of Light’s support.
That’s why Final Fantasy XIV gives you an incentive to move on that is less a gentle nudge and more a violent shove off a cliff. Specifically, it frames you for the regicide of Sultana Nanamo Ul-Namo from Ul’Dah and leaves your erstwhile companions in the Scions of the Seventh Dawn to an unknown fate — possibly death.
In other words, from a narrative perspective it makes it exceedingly clear that Warrior of Light or no, you are no longer welcome in Eorzea proper and should probably flee somewhere until everything is sorted out nicely. By the way, the game reminds you, had you heard Ishgard had opened its gates recently? Perhaps they could do with a hand, it continues, those dragons really are nasty pieces of work.
Back before Heavensward released, this finale to A Realm Reborn’s patch cycle was incredibly stunning and ballsy. You were left with a genuine sense of discomfort about your place in the game world, and although it was still possible to go about your business as normal for the most part, it always felt a tad uneasy going back to places you had previously thought of as “friendly” locations.
This is entirely deliberate, and sets up Heavensward’s rather different narrative structure nicely. While A Realm Reborn’s story was very much “hub-based”, with you typically returning to the headquarters of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn between every major set of story missions, Heavensward’s narrative unfolds much more like a “journey”.
In many senses, Heavensward’s narrative feels a lot more like what you’d expect from a typical single-player RPG than an MMO in that you end up with a party of companions who accompany you for story sequences — and very occasionally in instanced combat scenarios. Rather than being given missions from the Scions of the Seventh Dawn to go to a particular place and investigate upcoming threats there, you’re proceeding on a journey across the lands of Ishgard — and beyond — to uncover the truth behind the Dragonsong War.
The switch in narrative structure was an absolute masterstroke for Heavensward, and is a big part of why it was such a well-received expansion for Final Fantasy XIV when it first released. It meant that the new expansion felt like something genuinely new, different and exciting rather than just more of the same in different environments, and it gave a good sense of progression to the game rather than just expanding its boundaries outwards.
In other words, while you sometimes have reason to revisit places in Eorzea throughout Heavensward, for the most part you’ll be pushing deeper and deeper into the lands from Ishgard onwards, discovering many strange and wonderful sights beyond. And Heavensward is full of some truly amazing vistas to admire, with several areas primarily consisting of islands floating in the Sea of Clouds rather than politely sitting on the ground as Eorzea proper does.
My Final Fantasy XIV character is well past the accusations of regicide in her “current” state, but revisiting these dramatic scenes in my New Game+ run reminded me just what a genuine surprise they were when they first rolled around. Knowing how they end up getting resolved later didn’t lessen their impact at all, and they’ve very much got me in the mood to replay Heavensward’s narrative now.
So that’s what’s next on the agenda! Bring on the dragons; I’ve got some shiny samurai steel to stick into their squishy bits…
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