Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker Is a Heartfelt Way to Tackle an Impossible Challenge

Games Features Final Fantasy XIV
Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker Is a Heartfelt Way to Tackle an Impossible Challenge

Going into Endwalker, I wasn’t sure I even liked Final Fantasy XIV, that maybe I was completely burnt out on MMOs, and that I never actually imprinted on this one. Between the fans who refused to acknowledge fair criticisms of the game, and the outright haters who mistakenly believed I was ever in their camp, and having to explain myself to the non-MMO normies who couldn’t understand why anyone would “take on a second, third, forth, etc. job,” I was coasting into Endwalker on fumes with the taste of a bad gas station burrito in my mouth. But I had to know. I’ve been here since the beginning, since the game was ended once already in the cataclysmic collision of a giant red, god-bearing, artificial moon, and a knock-off elven Tellah summoning a bunch of gods with an entire continent’s prayers until he became a god himself in a massive blast of magical energy and turned into Phoenix. It’s been a weird fucking journey, Final Fantasy XIV’s been on. And in order to talk about Endwalker, we need to go back to where it all started.

Final Fantasy XIV launched on Sept. 30, 2010. For every bit that it was beautiful and weird, it was also a frustrating mess. 1.0, as we now colloquially call it, for as forward-looking as it was, was steeped in ideas of what MMOs were, and not the shape they had been taking on. Where it innovated in terms of class being tied to the weapon or tool in your hand, it confused by having separate job and character levels, and a chaotic paper doll character sheet. For all the beauty and depth in the world, it was bought at the cost of devastatingly high hardware demands (which caused even high end machines to struggle). If you know anything about XIV’s early incarnation, you probably recall a story about a single potted plant having as many polygons as a character model. It’s true. The pop-up server events called Hamlet Defense brought together players as warriors and mages, as well as, and gatherers and crafters. But even these moments of brilliance were undercut for many by how many grind-focused, story-less hours players were required to spend in the original vision of Eorzea.

The creators of Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 looked forward as much as they looked backward. But for the most part, 1.0 was actually an exercise in self-indulgence. Artists focused exclusively on how beautiful they could make each individual element they crafted for themselves. There was an internal logic to systems and UI that could be understood by others, but only truly made sense to their creators-and, I guess, me.

See the thing is…I actually loved Final Fantasy XIV version 1.0. I loved the weirdness leading up to it in the open beta periods, and the stories I’d been hearing from friends and colleagues and reporters who had experienced or heard about the even earlier, weirder phases. I loved the world and its maps. Of course, if you think about me for more than a moment this entirely makes sense. I love the possibility space of the tavern in Wizardry. Final Fantasy (1987)’s Marsh Cave requiring multiple delves (and a boss fight) to fully accomplish, each with a treacherous overland slog to and from Elfheim to recover is one of my favorite design decisions in game history. And I’m never happier in an MMO than when gathering and crafting stuff for my friends actually matters in an MMO. Look, I’m not going to say I didn’t identify with Lisbeth in Sword Art Online.

And for a time, Final Fantasy XIV gave me that.

I think it also gave that to the original developers too. But I recognize we’re outliers here. Final Fantasy XI worked in spite of itself. Players didn’t know better. And in the decade since it appeared, Warcraft also rose to prominence, developed, imposed, and continued to refine a style of gameplay that would lead to what the modern MMO player wants and needs. Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 was never going to work in that world, it couldn’t, and it didn’t.

It had to end. I’ll say this much for the man who would take over the helm of XIV and steward it into cataclysm and then rebirth: He gave me a year and as gentle a glidepath out of the game I loved as possible. It was a task that I don’t know any human being should have to undertake, or lead an entire team of developers through—guiding and developing one MMO (1.0) to a graceful, logical end that would reflect and honor the achievements of players in the original game, maintain continuity as it shepherded them to the new one, while simultaneously making a fundamentally new and separate game that allowed for both existing and brand new players to share mindspace.

Take a moment to even think about that. Sit with what a ludicrous decision that is. Because making one MMO is already a batshit endeavor. When World of Warcraft hit its stride, the forum posts were endless. People wrote entire books on “So you want to make an MMO?” and every one of them—every reply, every forum post, every newsgroup, book, zine, AIM conversation—said the same thing, “this is a colossal undertaking that requires dozens if not hundreds of specialized people at the top of their game AND an unthinkable amount of money and time—maybe go plug away at an existing MUD codebase and write some rooms instead?”

It didn’t stop dozens of budding CS majors from starting up and flaming out in their quest to make an MMO. Videogames are massively laborious undertakings. Sure, we have lots of tools now that allow just about anyone to make quick, fun, and sometimes complex games much more easily and quickly than ever before. RPG Maker is one such thing, and even that isn’t remotely the easiest toolbox. But it’s amazing that any videogame at all makes it from green light to gold master. When an MMO exists, heaven and earth have been moved in some fashion. Which is why I’m reluctant to come down too heavily on the problems that beleaguered XIV 1.0 even while I draw multiple, bright red, indelible lines underneath my point about how immense and frankly ridiculous the decision to unmake and then remake Final Fantasy XIV is.

I think about this every time an NPC tells the Warrior of Light to go take a break, a vacation, or even just a nap. I hope it’s more of a statement of intent and less a desperate plea for help from the developers. Respecting the amount of labor that saving the world takes is something the characters of Final Fantasy never let the player skirt around.

But saving the world is exactly what Naoki Yoshida’s team did. Eorzea was going to get binned if he failed. Instead the team made A Realm Reborn and secured their status as heroes of Square-Enix (at least outside of the company; let’s hope inside as well).

I’ve been at odds with A Realm Reborn since its launch. I was there, day one, ready to be dazzled or dismayed. And instead I found myself in a world that looked much like the one I had left when Peepaw Louisoix saved the world by pulling a Resurrecting Tinkerbell / Ending of Earthbound on the Giant Formerly Incarcerated Space Dragon before self-ethering. The UI was cleaner, my character sheet made more sense, but it was weird enough that I immediately deleted my account and started a new one. Who I left behind in 1.0 was not who I would be in the new game.

Final Fantasy XIV is in some ways a terrible brain poison. It can’t not be. For the players, we create an avatar, a self that we invest literally hundreds of hours and dollars into. Whether you’re a bend-over bunny boy, a head-scritches-for-gil cat girl, or like me, a digital self that amounts to “what if I was thin, racked, and conventionally hot?” MMOs require an investment of the self. If they didn’t provide for that, no one would care. People don’t spend hundreds of dollars on their Warcraft OCs because they simply can’t think of a better use of the money, after all. We invest in these games. Heavily. And when that investment pays out, and the game rewards us by letting us have adventures or decorate a house or wreck the shit out of a neoclassical idealization of Lucifer as an anime god twink with the help of his bitchy ex-boyfriend’s ghost? We love it. It’s reifying of the self and our investment in it. The consequences of this joy is often a toxic loyalty beyond reason. Not only an inability to see the flaws and cracks in the systems and narratives, but an overestimation of it all. Every small criticism isn’t about the product that we are paying for, but ourselves. The knock on effects of our enmeshed identities with the virtual spaces and selves are tremendous in MMOs. We don’t just inhabit these worlds, we falsely take ownership of them—and all too frequently we think this of the people who create them as well.

I don’t envy the task “Yoshi-P” had in creating this game—balancing a demanding playerbase of a broken and terminal game, while building a new one. I remember his early times on the official forums. Quick to assume blame, and while gracious about it, just as quick to redirect praise. Still, it’s hard not to think about the toll a project like A Realm Reborn had on the director and his team. The labor for a 40 hour AAA game is massive, unthinkable. The labor required of an MMO on this scale? Probably unconscionable if we’re really honest with ourselves.

The team that did this would go on to do it four more times. In Heavensward, Stormblood, Shadowbringers, and now, Endwalker.

With the exception of this most recent one, no expansion has been more than two years apart. And unlike games that get released and largely cut loose, XIV requires constant maintenance, tinkering, and major content patches throughout the time between expansions. To repeat, this is a genre that is ludicrous and arguably bordering on the inhumane. In a field where these issues are often already such a problem, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games are monuments to the absurdity of this industry. Endwalker, the latest expansion, was made during a multi-year global pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly five and a half million people.

It’s no wonder that the central thrust of this expansion is how we grapple with the relentlessness of despair.

Writing a review for an expansion like Endwalker is a tricky thing. If you’re subscribed to XIV and playing it, odds are you’ve already purchased, downloaded, and beaten the entire thing. If you haven’t already done that, well, this is the next thing. Whether you unlock this content or not, you’ve already received the changes to jobs and world mechanics that apply universally. What you’re missing out on is the expanded level cap, the new storyline and zones, and the new classes. You’re either enjoying the game or you’re not, and that will determine whether you’re interested in another 100+ hour mostly-single-player JRPG experience. Are you still enjoying the virtual isekai after the literal isekai expansion? You might as well see this one through.

If you’re still working through A Realm Reborn or an earlier expansion, you have to ask yourself how invested you want to be. Simply getting through to Endwalker will take at least 200 hours. Minimum. Probably a lot more. To finish Endwalker you’re looking at somewhere between 300 and 400 hours. If you stop and smell the roses and do sidequests, it can be closer to 700. Creating this game and bringing it to the state it is now was a colossal undertaking, and playing through all of it mirrors in a very small part the massiveness of that labor. I say this not to dissuade you entirely, but be realistic about what your goals and enjoyment is. There’s no need to pull the trigger on Endwalker until you’re close to level 80, unless you want to unlock the new classes, then you’ll only need to be level 70.

Similarly, if you’ve never picked up XIV and you’re interested because you’ve heard about it from articles and friends and the meme about how you can jump in for free… Like I said, it’s a 200-700 hour commitment before you’re even ready to do Endwalker. Go see if you even want what the game is selling first. And in a few months when you’ve cleared all that content, maybe it’ll be available for purchase again.

Endwalker brings with it a lot of changes that I like. For starters, it finally remembers that the hallmark of Final Fantasy is walking around town and talking to dudes. Where previous expansions had questlines that involved an unconscionable amount of teleporting from one location to another, or frantically searching giant orange rings in the middle of a field for one point of interest to click on hiding behind a rock, Endwalker cuts this back. Storylines are smaller and more intimate, the fetch quests and hide and seeks are fewer and far-between. It’s absolutely rare that you’ll be asked to kill y in x quantity or for z items. And in the times you do, it’ll be part of an involved storyline where a child or small rabbit person is having a crisis of the self.

A frustrating trait of XIV fans is declaring an expansion “where the story gets good” and usually this becomes a goalpost that pushes ever outward with successive expansions. In a way it’s a sales pitch to try and bring others into the fold; we want you to understand the game the way we do, and we can’t if you don’t invest hundreds of hours into it as we have. But the sales pitch is flawed. XIV’s problem has never been in its story. A Realm Reborn is a basic Evil Technological Empire vs the Granola and Magic Confederacy story that Final Fantasy has dealt with for ages. Heavensward was a war between dragons and man that had a corrupt theocratic monarchy propelling the war onward. Stormblood was about revolutions. Shadowbringers was a post-post-apocalyptic isekai. And they’re all tied together by ancient, largely immortal space phantoms from when the multiverse was whole.

The stories have been good, if comfortable and expected. The flaws have always been in how they’re told.

Quest design in XIV has always been a mess. Too many, too gated, and done in frustrating manners. Endwalker cuts that shit out. It recognizes that zone size and pacing were problems. That quests need to connect to the overarching narrative even when they’re outside of it. That space becomes place through engagement and connection with the player and their avatar. It understands that the dude standing next to the dude you’re talking to has to be more important to the quest than a dude five zones away, because they are already connected. And with maybe two brief exceptions, Endwalker better understands that I never want to not be playing as me in an MMO. So it makes sure that the two major times you have to play as not you are brief and mostly poignant—one is a miserable stealth mission as Thancred, and the other is a miserable survival stealth mission that openly steals from the Square-Enix survival stealth game disaster Left Alive.

I appreciate the developers trying to do new things with the limited mechanical palette an MMO gives them, but also god I wish they wouldn’t apply themselves so damn much sometimes. Still, Endwalker builds on Shadowbringers’ strengths, curtails some of its weaknesses, and introduces all new points of consternation in an attempt to try new things.

A year ago, I hadn’t thought about coming back to Final Fantasy. I was sitting in a hospital bed and googling the statistics for my diagnosis. When I’d ask my doctors they&’d say things like “Well, you’re very young for this…” and “Tests will tell us more…” and when pressed “It’s a very serious diagnosis and it’s fortunate you made it in here.“

This time last year I was trying not to cry audibly as I chewed the best crushed ice and nursed the occasional mediocre diet ginger ale I was allowed in between testing and surgical days.

I spent two weeks in a hospital bed being tested and operated on and recovering. When I could, I’d text with my partner. I tried to keep my parents updated, but didn’t really want to engage with them about it. Every four hours someone would come by and siphon off a few tubes of blood and ask me how many milliliters I had peed. It took no less than six people to image my arteries. Even more to implant the little robot that controls my heart rate and will zap it back into rhythm should I suddenly go into cardiac arrest. It pokes out in the scar just above my left breast, always reminding me that it’s there, that my heart is more likely to suddenly stop than those of my peers.

Shortly after getting out of the hospital, I wanted to go back to Final Fantasy XIV. To see Stormblood and Shadowbringers, where, people were telling me, “Final Fantasy gets good.” And my partner expressed a similar interest. We’d taken to playing together the past few years on and off, but had been on an extended hiatus. And when I got out of the hospital, I wanted to go back.

Endwalker is a story of despair and the struggle to survive. In this, it’s nothing new. There are plenty of games about grief and the indignities of life. Yoko Taro has made himself a legend asking the question “what if it was all bad even for the sexy androids, dads, twinks, and the weird little dudes and their transgender BFFs?” Modern prestige media is built around the premise that every main character can and will suffer prolonged misery and then die. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting.

Endwalker posits a different way out. That even though there is suffering and sacrifice, what if there can still be hope and happy endings, no matter how “for a time” they may be. Yes, it’s hokey. Yes, it’s the same old interplay of dualities. But it works. And in the middle of a global pandemic, maybe we need a story about the epic power of friendship and community? That through working together, upholding each other, and forging bonds even in the darkest of places that nothing is truly impossible and we can even smack the hell out of the literal embodiment of Despair? Is this anything new? Not for anime or JRPGs or any of the building blocks that Endwalker draws from, but that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be novel. Teamwork and Friendship are evergreen.

Statistically, I had a 22% chance of not surviving to this anniversary. A 22% chance that before finishing this review I simply would have dropped dead. But I made it. It’s the day after my diagnosis date, and I’m still alive. I’m not going to say it’s because of my loved ones, but they certainly helped. Having a partner and friends and family that are there for you, a squad of health care professionals you can depend on? Teamwork and friendship make survival a lot easier. They make weathering the despair much more mangable. They make impossibilities much more possible.

Naoki Yoshida took the reins of an impossible project over a decade ago. Kill the MMO, Save the World. His team set about unpacking and dismantling a world that I loved and believed in. And in the process they made something new. With Endwalker the storyline I signed up for has concluded. I could walk away here satisfied with the conclusion it’s drawn for me—the coda on 20 years spent playing a genre that defies all reason. Whether I keep playing or not at this point (and I likely still will, for a little while longer) doesn’t matter. I like walking through these streets and seeing people enjoying themselves in the game. I’m not sure I care much for progression raiding or even knowing where the next story goes. Something I loved ended, and for all my criticisms of it, the new thing has brought meaning and delight to others, who are finding their own spaces and ways of interacting inside of it. For as much as Endwalker is an ending for me, it’s a beginning for so many other players. This is their game, their genre now. This is an absurdity that shouldn’t exist, and yet Endwalker stands as a titanic achievement. Endings are tough, but Endwalker managed to provide me with a beautiful one if I want it.

Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker was developed and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.

Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.

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