I rolled credits on A Realm Reborn a couple of days ago, ushering in the new Seventh Astral Era, and yet I feel kinda hollow. Compared to my gut-wrenching experience toward the middle of my journey, the end of A Realm Reborn’s storyline feels like a huge-ass letdown.
I’ve said before how I love when gameplay elements reinforce storytelling—like how I sometimes have to use emotes to soothe a raging beast or inspire a frightened comrade. My experience in the game’s final dungeons had the opposite effect—in which gameplay negatively impacted my enjoyment of the story.
Light spoilers for the end to ARR ahead.
Ever since those imperial bastards killed my friends, I’ve been out for blood. More than Lahabrea or Gaius van Baelsar—ARR’s primary antagonists—I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on Livia sas Junius, the woman directly responsible for killing poor little Noraxia. I was excited by the prospect of a grand showdown, of standing over her body as I loosed one last arrow (or fire spell) into her. Yet the final confrontation you have with her was so bewildering and unenjoyable that it considerably smothered my enthusiasm for a game that I had otherwise been absolutely wild about.
Peppered throughout the main story quest line of Final Fantasy XIV are instances where you’re required to complete a dungeon in order to progress the story. Since I played (mostly) alone, I’d use the Duty Finder to match with a group of people with whom I’d go through my chosen dungeon. More often than not, I matched with people already at max level who were using the Duty Finder’s roulette system to earn max level rewards like special currency or crafting materials. It made the experience almost mindless for me, propelled forward by a group of people who’d seen the content before and were so overpowered, even with their levels artificially lowered to match whatever the level cap of the dungeon is, that everything died before I had the chance to cast a full rotation of damage attacks.
Up until the very end of ARR, dungeons were mostly inconsequential footnotes to the game’s overarching story—”Oh no! Pirates are attacking the citizens,” or “Help, my former mistress is Elizabeth Bathory-ing the smallfolk.” So it was fine being essentially carried through the lot of them. I wasn’t missing anything good and I didn’t have to worry about spending too much time learning a dungeon’s layout and mechanics. However, at the very end of A Realm Reborn, the nature of the dungeons changes—they are now very important to the story—while the method by which you go through them (i.e. being dragged from fight to fight by people infinitely better geared than you) does not. And the dungeons themselves have gotten bigger and more complex. Now I’m playing with eight people instead of four, getting lost, missing key item pick-ups, and dying constantly, all while trying to figure out what the hell is going on as my screen is damn near unreadable from all the splashy particle effects.
To the game’s credit, cutscenes in the final ARR dungeons, Castrum Meridianum and The Praetorium, cannot be skipped. So I’m not missing the story beats the game intended for me to see, but the bewildering experience in between the story moments negatively impacted what I thought I’d feel when I faced Livia again. I killed her, but I didn’t enjoy it.
It’s not the game’s fault. I understand that the Duty Finder roulette is necessary, otherwise no one would do the old dungeons—dungeons that are six years old by this point—leaving newbies like me stuck for want of a party. But I also struggle with the notion of putting big story content in dungeon encounters like this in the first place. World of Warcraft does this too, with the critical difference being these dungeons are not part of a mandatory set of quests. My beef with this in WoW is there are so many casual players who don’t raid who miss out on the big damn hero moments because they’re locked behind a big wall that requires at least 10 players, good gear, and a fair bit more competence than required for normal dungeons. In my decades-long experience with WoW, you can usually assemble at least two of those conditions but never all three.
The other side of that coin is making those kinds of big dungeons a requirement to progress into the next set of content—as they are in Final Fantasy XIV. That’s a big mess for reasons I’ve already mentioned. I get that end-game content needs to feel big and exciting and a culmination of all the experiences that led up to that moment, but the way those moments have been implemented in both these MMOs just hasn’t worked for me.
There were end-game moments I appreciated. I will forever love the trope of the heroes uniting to use their power of friendship to beat the boss. When the Scions arrived to help me take down Lahabrea for good and all, I loved that. I also loved the hopeful moment at the end where the three leaders of the city-states unite to celebrate their victory over the evil empire. Everything after that moment, however, has been a slog. I think my honeymoon period with FF14 is over. I’m now mired in the long stretch of quests between the end of ARR and the beginning of Heavensward and it’s been rough, slow, and boring. From what everyone’s told me these interstitial quests are laying the groundwork for the “oh shit” moments destined to happen later, but my goodness I wish they’d hurry up already. I can see Ishgard taunting me from behind that enormous gate in Coerthas, it’s right there. Let me in already.