The Returner: I’ve barely started, but I already get the Shadowbringers hype

The Returner: Rediscovering Final Fantasy XIV

At last — the moment I’ve been waiting for. After several years of putting it off and never finding the time to do so, I finished Stormblood and its post-game content, and I finally made it to Shadowbringers.

I have been particularly looking forward to starting Shadowbringers because ever since that damn expansion launched, I’ve been enduring the active Final Fantasy XIV players around me carrying on about how good it is, how amazing the story is, how much it made them cry and all manner of other things. I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of — but I had so much catching up to do, it was beginning to feel like I’d never get there.

Well, now I’m there. And I’m technically only doing level 71 quests right now. But already, already I can tell that Shadowbringers is an absolutely masterful part of Final Fantasy XIV history, filled with absolutely beautiful moments, emotional narrative beats, spectacular encounters and a wonderful sense of creativity. And, even better, I am coming to the whole thing pretty much entirely blind — since despite having put this off for so long, I have somehow managed to remain almost entirely unspoiled on the exact content of Shadowbringers ever since its launch.

With that in mind, if you’re yet to experience Shadowbringers for yourself, this post will contain spoilers for the opening hours, as well as Stormblood’s post-game finale!

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers

The setup for Shadowbringers, begun towards the end of Stormblood’s patch cycle, is immensely intriguing. One by one, the members of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn — your “party”, such as it is, throughout Final Fantasy XIV’s narrative — are struck down by a mysterious otherworldly voice that causes them intense pain and then, seemingly, rips their soul out of their body. Their body remains in torpor, seemingly otherwise healthy and free of ailments, but their soul is nowhere to be seen.

If you know at least the basic setup to Shadowbringers, you probably have a good idea where those souls have gone, but I can imagine experiencing these moments while Stormblood’s patch cycle was still “current” would be rather unsettling. Still, it’s perfectly in keeping with the pattern we’ve previously described about how Final Fantasy XIV uproots you before an expansion — though in this case, it’s probably the most drastic example of this since the finale of A Realm Reborn left you wondering if everyone was dead.

The cliffhanger to Stormblood’s patch cycle is your Warrior of Light finally making reliable contact with the owner of the mysterious voice, and learning that he has left a “beacon” for them somewhere near the Crystal Tower. You leave Stormblood behind with several characters going in search of said beacon — though with the game in its current form they locate it immediately, since you can simply start the next quest and get right into Shadowbringers.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers

You locate the beacon, you get sucked into another dimension — par for the course at this point in your career — and everything’s all a bit weird. You learn that night-time in this strange other world is still as light as day, and that something is very, very wrong. There’s a deeply unsettling, constant rumbling sound wherever you go; the skies are churning with primordial Light, and everyone you meet is… well, they’re just a little off from what you might have come to expect up until this point.

Eventually, you find your way to The Crystarium, a bustling city that has sprung up around the Crystal Tower — which is seemingly in this other world as well as your own — and start to get a few answers. You’ve been summoned to “The First” of the “shards” — a concept introduced way back in Heavensward’s patch cycle during the brief Warrior of Darkness plot arc — and, it seems, your task is to do the exact opposite of what you’ve been doing up until now: drive back the Light, which has fallen so far out of balance as to obliterate most of the world save for a small region named Norvrandt.

This is actually a concept that Final Fantasy as a whole has explored numerous times in the past: while you typically play as Warriors of Light in many Final Fantasy titles, many of the games take great pains to point out that balance is important, not the absolute dominance of Light over Dark. Neither Light nor Dark are inherently “evil” as such, but either one in excess is dangerous — and never has this been more clear than in Shadowbringers.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
If you know, you know

The main threat throughout Shadowbringers is a mysterious force of angelic-looking entities known as Sin Eaters. These are spawned from the primordial Light, and, to the average person, are an unstoppable force of destruction — not only do they kill, but they bolster their own numbers by afflicting those they injure with the Light, ultimately turning them into more Sin Eaters and thereby perpetuating the cycle. Naturally, you get to witness this happening in excruciating detail at one particularly heartbreaking moment in the story.

But to keep things interesting, it is, of course, a bit more complicated than that. In the early hours of the Shadowbringers story, your task is to track down both Alphinaud and Alisaie. Because yes, The First is indeed where their souls ended up — though the game takes great pains to point out that their summoning was only partially successful, meaning they’re stuck there, whereas yours worked completely, meaning you can quite happily zip back and forth between The First and The Source at will. A flagrantly transparent attempt to ensure that players weren’t locked out of the rest of the game while going through Shadowbringers’ story, yes, but one with a solid narrative justification, at least.

Anyway, yes, you have to track down Alphinaud and Alisaie, and in the process learn a little bit more about how Norvrandt is suffering against the relentless onslaught of the Light. During Alisaie’s story, you encounter the aforementioned sequence where you witness someone falling foul of the Sin Eaters and being “turned”, and this is, for sure, an emotionally devastating moment. But Alphinaud’s story provides something altogether more sinister: an exploration of how, even in a currently occurring apocalypse, there are always people trying to snatch power for themselves.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers

During Alphinaud’s narrative, you learn of a city called Eulmore, which is regarded as a “paradise on Earth” for the rich and privileged. Not just anyone can get into Eulmore, mind; in order to be considered for admission, you need to demonstrate that you have some sort of talent that would be useful to a rich patron. Upon entering Eulmore, you become a “bonded citizen” in service to a “free citizen” — and while you are able to enjoy the pleasures of Eulmore to an extent, we once again get the opportunity to see that the descriptors of “bonded” and “free” are very much accurate.

Eulmore is a deeply unsettling place, where everyone seems to be in a slight sort of haze, unwilling to admit that something really doesn’t seem quite right about the situation. No-one seems to mind that the ruler of the city has no problem chucking bonded citizens off the balconies if they step even the slightest bit out of line — and during the dramatic climax of Alphinaud’s initial story, we witness a character being forced to perform self-harm in front of a baying crowd.

Eulmore really struck me as a fascinating, terrifying place, even before I set foot inside it as part of the narrative. Once inside, there’s a distinct “Wonderland” vibe to it all — particularly once you encounter its ruler — as well as more than a hint of Final Fantasy IX’s more… peculiar characters. While the initial narrative with Alphinaud doesn’t immediately resolve itself, it’s pretty clear that you’ll be back to “fix” things once and for all at some point — and I absolutely cannot wait to do so.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers

All of this isn’t even getting into the spectacularly emotional sidequests that have very little to do with the main scenario — but I think we’ll save those for another day. Suffice to say for now that Shadowbringers has been an incredible experience so far — and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. So you can count on some regular reports from the front in the coming weeks, for sure!

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Pete Davison
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