Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood review

What's new, what's bigger, what's better? (A lot.)

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a commitment. You might say the same of most MMOs— designed as they are to drink up hours of free time with crafting, grinding, and dungeoneering— but Square Enix's absurd online epic is an outlier.

Look no further than Stormblood, the game's newest and second expansion, for proof. In order to even see 99 percent of the update's content, you'll need to have at least beaten the base game's main story quests, its post-launch plotlines, the first expansion's campaign, and that add-on's post-release story.

That's hundreds of quests and cutscenes, plus the side content you'll need to churn through to reach XIV's previous level caps, which wall off said missions even further. All of which makes Stormblood just about the least accessible expansion to any game I can think of. It's also totally worth it.

Final Fantasy XIV has my favorite main story of any game in the series. That's largely because of the dozens, if not hundreds of hours the plotline uses to slow-burn its way through crisscrossing conspiracies, heroes, villains, political schemes, tales of economic unrest, and old-fashioned adventures— rather than in spite of them.

That legacy continues with Stormblood. Speaking of slow burns, the add-on's A-plot picks up a thread that's been running since 2010's original FFXIV, prior to its A Realm Reborn relaunch: the plights of Doma and Ala Mhigo. The two city-states, and their annexations by FFXIV's omnipresent evil empire, have been referenced in the game ad nauseam by NPC allies and enemies alike. Stormblood, however, finally sends players to the once-inaccessible regions (split into six-or-so new playable zones) with the goal of liberating their oppressed peoples.

The literal years of buildup made my eventual journey to the new regions exceptionally potent. After seeing characters kill, die, and betray one another for the off-screen areas' freedom, I was ready and raring to kick the technocratic empire out of these new lands once and for all. Other MMOs obliquely reference and reveal new or "fan favorite" lands of expansions, sure. But FFXIV's heavy and mandatory focus on story makes this more than just a nod to the dedicated. It's the star of the show.

It doesn't hurt that Stormblood has the best and most intricate cast of FFXIV so far. The ever-evolving cast of regular NPCs, which take the place of a "normal" Final Fantasy game's playable party, have their own stakes in Ala Mhigo and Doma and get scads of screen time. As does the new and most love-to-hate-worthy deck of villains yet.

The principle baddie, Viceroy Zenos yae Galvus, is especially noteworthy. Picture an armored, soft-spoken version of One-Punch Man's Saitama with a "The Most Dangerous Game" streak. The other new villains each have their own sympathetic wrinkles. Zenos, on the other hand, is so flamboyantly wicked and all-powerful that he doesn't really need the extra layers to be FFXIV's best villain yet. Which is all the better to motivate you through Stormblood's 129 new main story quests, as well as accompanying dungeons and bosses.

It's not all just plot, of course. Though you'll still need to play through all of it to see most of what Stormblood has to offer, there are plenty of mechanical changes that now trickle through the entire game.

Every pre-expansion class has been reworked, for example. While FFXIV still lets you level up and switch between classes on the fly, you no longer have to grind multiple starter classes to unlock "Jobs" (FFXIV's name for advanced classes). So, despite the expansion's steep barrier to entry, Square has cut down on some significant grinding. Similar principles apply to Stormblood's two new Jobs: the Samurai and Red Mage. You can access them after reaching level 50 (the base game's level cap), without needing to reach the "main" Stormblood content by playing the story.

Short version: there's a lot less busywork overall and new, exciting skills and formulae to old classes even if you're already current on FFXIV content. The one niggling exception is if you want to change "roles"— say from a healer to a tank, or a tank to a damage-dealer— without starting from scratch.

See, the Red Mage and Samurai Jobs are both damage classes. In contrast, the last expansion, Heavensward, had one new healer, tank, and DPS class each. Players who wanted to switch career paths could do so quickly (assuming they were up-to-date on the story) since each of the Heavensward trio started at level 30. That's technically still true, since the new Jobs begin at 50, but only if you want to be a damage-dealer.  So while FFXIV's Jobs have a generally faster buildup to the level cap, it's slower for late-game players to experiment than it was in Heavensward.

The new Jobs are interesting enough in and of themselves to be worth exploring, however. The Red Mage, in particular, might be the most distinct and complicated class in the game. With a mix of offensive and healing magic at range, as well as melee combos, they rely on a little bit of almost everything. Red Mages also need to balance spending and building two unique resources— black and white mana— in addition to all the other concerns FFXIV players face.

Samurai are a bit simpler. They're a melee Job (duh) with scads of area-of-effect abilities. By executing more than your average number of combos, however, Samurai power up different runes. Depending on how many they activate at once, they can execute one of three super moves: one for damage over time, one for area-of-effect, and one for immense damage on a single target. It's not the same level of mental gymnastics Red Mages offer, but it does force you to play a sort slower, longer game than most DPSers.

Every pre-Stormblood Job now has its own unique resource or UI element, as well — similar to black and white mana, or the Samurai's runes. My beloved Dark Knight has "Blackblood." White Mages have "Lilies," and so on— although few of them feel nearly as integrated as the new Jobs' quirks. Which makes sense. Even with Stormblood's sweeping balance and ability changes, most of the classes weren't designed with facets like these in mind. And, of course, you'll need to reach the expansion's new level cap of 70 in any given Job to see their full extent.

But even that is further alleviated by Stormblood's slightly revamped "FATE" system. These timed, semi-random events are meant to unite dozens of unrelated players together to tackle group challenges. They're infinite, plentiful, and remove a lot of emphasis from coordinated play— as opposed to complex dungeons— since there are usually so many players working together that nobody's single screw-up makes much difference.

As such, they're very popular for grinding XP. Or at least they should be. Before Stormblood, there was little incentive for all players in a region to congregate around one FATE. Personally, I would always check if someone else had already started the challenge from the in-game map. That way I could choose to only participate in ones where I knew other people would be around to help. But if everyone does that, then nobody ever kicks off the challenges to begin with.

Hence Stormblood's new experience bonuses. Each region now usually has one FATE that provides bonus XP for completion. Besides which, these specially marked boss fights and kill quests might spawn rare mini-bosses that grant even more XP on beating your next FATE. The base XP bonus is just the thing to get players descending on a single event. The mini-bosses, meanwhile, encourage more spontaneous roaming gangs of FATE-clearers that were already somewhat common.

Disappointing class variety aside, I'm still tremendously excited to see the rest of what Stormblood offers. That's after beating the main story, too.

Yes, the Dark Knight's new Job-specific quest line was so good it has me jazzed to level up more classes and see where the expansion takes them. Sure, the Trials (major boss fights with unique combat and spatial puzzles) are some of the coolest and most grandiose yet. And, fine, I'm extremely curious about Stormblood's upcoming 24-player raid and just why/how it's called "Return to Ivalice."

But I'm the most excited about things I can't foresee. The FFXIV team has a reputation for meaningful, set-your-watch-by-them consistent content updates. There will be new dungeons, Trials, quest lines, and story chapters. A lot of those will look a lot like what I've seen before, but they'll still challenge me in new ways — while giving me an excuse to engage with what I'd call the best MMO on the market today.

That hyper-reliably history even has me optimistic about the most lackluster parts of Stormblood. The updates new underwater sections, for example— which I haven't mentioned up until now because there's simply almost nothing to do in them— are a prime candidate for further additions. And while Stormblood sadly lacks new tanks or healers, or meaningful incentives for more players to try out those roles, the developers have said they're coming.

I believe them. Just like I believe that Stormblood is an eye-catching new drop in the ocean of FFXIV fun and activities. The one downside is that, the more stuff that gets added, the harder it will be for new players to appreciate it. Yet whether you're dipping your toe into the game for the first time, or doing a headlong dive into the new zones, dungeons, and classes, the investment is worth it.

Verdict: Yes