Every time a new Final Fantasy XIV expansion rolls around, I find myself wondering how they might make it feel noticeably “different” from the last.
This is not a question I should really be asking myself any more, since Yoshi-P and the team made it abundantly clear with Heavensward that each expansion for Final Fantasy XIV is intended to feel notably different from the last — both in terms of setting, and in terms of overall tone and style.
Having finally made it back into Stormblood in my New Game+ run through Final Fantasy XIV as a whole, I’ve been struck with this particularly strongly recently — particularly as I just reached a distinctly tragic moment early in the story. I’m gonna put a spoiler disclaimer here for the sake of those who haven’t yet played Stormblood.
I am talking about, of course, the sacking of Rhalgr’s Reach by Stormblood’s main antagonist Zenos yae Galvus and the Imperial forces. It’s a bloodbath quite unlike anything we’ve seen in the game before — and one of the few times where, as Final Fantasy XIV’s take on the Warrior of Light, you feel completely powerless to do anything.
This is a particularly interesting narrative moment, because having made it all the way through both A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, you are quite literally someone who has, up until now, been happily punching gods in the face and obliterating ancient draconic manifestations of rage without breaking a sweat. For something to best you, it must be pretty damn serious. And Zenos most certainly bests you in your encounter with him at Rhalgr’s Reach; a marked contrast from your continual journey of heroism from the previous two parts of the story.
“Unwinnable battles” are a mainstay of Japanese role-playing games and have been since the earliest days — Final Fantasy II literally starts with one — but it’s unusual to see them in an MMO like Final Fantasy XIV. This is largely because MMOs are built around a reward structure, and dedicated — especially instanced — encounters are usually set up in such a way that the player’s victory is all but guaranteed if they do everything correctly.
Not so in Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood. Nope; you immediately know something is wrong when you whack Zenos with your implement of choice and notice that you’re doing a tenth of the damage you normally would. This isn’t the first time that Final Fantasy XIV has implemented such a system — there are a number of quests where you’re required to use an item on an enemy to remove these heavy resistances — but it is the first where there’s nothing you can do about it.
You hit Zenos for three-figure damage when four-figure damage has been your norm for quite a while; he unleashes a powerful attack that knocks all of your AI-controlled allies out of the arena; he continually blasts you with powerful attacks as you try, in vain, to make a noticeable dent in his HP bar.
The interesting thing about this encounter is that you still need to do it “properly” to a certain extent; although it doesn’t end with you reducing Zenos’ HP to zero, you still need to actually engage with the mechanics rather than just lying down and letting him kill you. This way, the game provides a real sense of at least attempting to fight back against absolutely desperate odds — and the speed at which this battle throws mechanics at you makes for a genuinely exciting fight, even though you know pretty much from the outset that you won’t win.
Once it’s all over, you’re left in an interesting position; it’s only really the second time that the Warrior of Light has “failed” to accomplish something — with the first being the notorious banquet scene at the conclusion of A Realm Reborn’s patch cycle. This time around, though, you’re not blamed for anything; any guilt you might feel is entirely from your own conscience. And perhaps a little from the game deliberately tugging at your heartstrings in the aftermath.
The musical backdrop to Rhalgr’s Reach changes while you scour it for survivors. Structures lie in flaming ruin. And, worst of all, you eventually stumble across a named character who didn’t survive the onslaught: Meffrid.
Meffrid is an interesting choice for a character to be killed off in this sequence, because he was reintroduced early in Stormblood as a direct callback to an early quest in A Realm Reborn.
You first stumble across him in the town of Quarrymill in the Black Shroud, where he has been struggling to find sanctuary; he is touched by your willingness to help him out when others have turned him and his kin away. Eventually, he helps you out with the Ala Mhigan refugees in the makeshift settlement Little Ala Mhigo in South Thanalan; upon your first visit to this place as part of A Realm Reborn’s main scenario, you learn your first details of the Empire’s occupation of Gyra Abania, and how the Ala Mhigans who fled have been left completely destitute ever since.
Meffrid is one of several “bit-part” characters who show up significantly later in the overarching cross-expansion story of Final Fantasy XIV as a complete narrative, though both the game and Meffrid acknowledge that by the time you meet him again in Rhalgr’s Reach, you might not remember him. Whether or not you do, prior to the sacking of Rhalgr’s Reach, you spend a fair amount of time with him on a mission attempting to recruit new members for the Ala Mhigan Resistance, so you get a good chance to get to know him.
As such, regardless of whether or not you remember him from your first encounter, his death actually carries real weight and meaning — particularly as you’re required to interact with his corpse in order to continue the narrative.
In some respects, this can be regarded as another example of the game attempting to “uproot” you from past connections as you move into the narrative of a new expansion — but in other ways, it’s a great example of the game’s foreshadowing that we talked about last time around.
And if nothing else, it certainly makes you want to kick some serious bottom for the rest of Stormblood. So that’s exactly what I plan on doing at the earliest opportunity!
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