After waiting through COVID-related delays, the newest patch of Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers is finally available. Reflections of Crystal has had heavy expectations placed on it, with the patch’s trailer teasing the post-Shadowbringers storyline hurtling towards a well-earned conclusion, backed by the consistently excellent writing we’ve seen since the expansion’s release last year.
But patch 5.3 brings way more to the table than just a pay-off for veteran players. Square Enix has completely revamped the base game, A Realm Reborn, to streamline the first 50 levels of gameplay and get people to the better expansions quicker. Parts of the story that dragged on and required teleporting around Eorzea to get cheese or whatever it was are now eliminated, and new players no longer need to grind or complete mundane sidequests to get through to more interesting content. You can even fly now, once you complete A Realm Reborn’s story. It makes transversal through the areas’ confusing geography much, much easier.
The Free Trial for FFXIV was also expanded, increasing the level cap from 35 to 60, and increasing the ever-excellent Heavensward storyline. Given by the time players are at the cap they’ll want to see the end of the Dragonsong War and beyond, this is a great incentive to subscribe. A word of advice to new players, though: Make sure to tell your friends when you’re running through The Vault the first time. I’m sure they’ll have some advice for you.
For returning players, there is plenty to enjoy. The main story pays off on the tension built up in the patches after Shadowbringer’s conclusion, offering an exciting and emotional climax before the MMO before it moves on to its next act. If you let your subscription lapse in the time between the expansion’s release and now, this is a perfect time to re-sub and catch up, especially since 5.1 and 5.2 won’t take long to complete.
Additionally, Reflections in Crystal offers some more difficult end-game content for those that have been waiting patiently. A new raid, modeled after NieR: Automata, will keep players entertained for weeks with new mechanics and plenty of deaths. The continuation of the Ultima Project storyline feels a bit thin, but it’s there, and won’t take too long to complete. Finally, the first of the new Unreal trials goes live with a remix of an old A Realm Reborn boss. It’s not very exciting, but it is something new to grind for rewards for, and the end-game grind is key for an MMO’s survival between expansions. So I can’t really complain!
Do you want to know more? Very well, but to go deeper would be going firmly into spoiler territory. You’ve been warned, but needless to say, this newest patch is definitely worth your time.
Tension has been building up over the story of patches 5.1 and 5.2, with old Ascian antagonist Elidibus stepping back into the spotlight in the form of fallen friend and Warrior of Light Ardbert, and awakening many of the First to Hydaelin’s voice. Everything comes to a head in Reflections of Crystal, revealing the remaining Unsundered Ascian’s motivations while neatly wrapping up everything that brought you to the world of Shadowbringers with a neat little bow. You’ll be saying goodbye to the world of the First, the alternate dimension to Eorzea the Scions and yourself were brought to unwittingly at the start of the expansion, and get a sneak peek at the newest threat looming in the background back at your homeworld.
5.3’s storyline focuses on memories. Most of the main scenario quests have you looking at the past, thinking back on older storylines and heroic deeds. It ends with you and the Scions traveling around Novarandt and saying their goodbyes, revisiting the allies you made along the way. Even the dungeon for Reflections in Crystal, The Heroes’ Gauntlet, has you running through old, familiar locales while racing to the Crystal Tower, where your final fight with Elidibus takes place. Theories hinted at in the end of Shadowbringers are proven true, and a surprise in the middle of the trial is sure to be emotional for fans of a certain antagonist.
It’s a narrative filled with bittersweet emotions and heartfelt goodbyes, but it’s also one that feels like a bit of a death march. Early in 5.3, it’s revealed that G’raha Tia’s link to the Crystal Tower is rapidly taking a toll on his health, and much of the story’s interactions with him and the mad rush to the Crystal Tower are punctuated by an oppressive feeling that you’re not going to be able to save him. It makes his scene with Lyna particularly heart wrenching and the first of many times I teared up during the story’s climax.
But while Reflections of Crystal focuses on memories of the past, it also focuses on something else—hope for the future. We have already seen the people of the First take that hope and begin to rebuild after the events of Shadowbringers, but this time around it’s more personal. Visiting each of the Scions in turn while they finish up their final business is filled with sadness and goodbyes, but also filled with positivity, as they know everyone on the First will be alright.
Additionally, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the risky soul transference method crafted in just the nick of time (of course) will fail and the Scions will die. Even when a wrinkle in the plans is revealed, no one focuses on the very real possibility of failure. Instead, everyone is filled with unwavering faith for the future, and that everything will be alright. It sounds cheesy, but with the fantastic writing of Natsuko Ishikawa, these scenes stick their emotional landing.
Reflections in Crystal concludes with the Scions waking up back in the Source, unscathed and more or less healthy despite having their souls detached from their bodies for what seemed like forever. In fact, they even come back with a new recruit:
In spite of recent interviews, Final Fantasy XIV has continued the Stormblood tradition of decidedly not killing off major characters, though in G’raha Tia’s case his survival feels earned. Everyone’s favorite crystal imbued cat boy has been through the wringer, traversing time and space to save those he cares about (namely, you) from the Eighth Umbral Calamity. While he physically dies in the First, you’re able to transfer his memories and soul in his younger body at the Source, where G’raha was slumbering within that world’s Crystal Tower. Seeing him whole and hale during Reflection in Crystal’s conclusion, ready to venture forth as a Scion with his second lease on life, feel like a just reward for is tribulations.
But just because everyone else’s time in the First is done doesn’t mean yours is. 5.3 also introduces the next NieR raid, the Puppet’s Bunker. Like any good raid, a lot of your time is filled with screams, surprising new mechanics, and most notably, dying a lot. In short, it’s a great time, and the new story beats are an appropriately Taro-flavored treat. NieR: Automata fans will not be disappointed, although they might be pining for the next raid already.
And of course, things are less than perfect at the Source, with Xenos taking the throne of the Garlean Empire and a new Ascian threat making itself known. While this isn’t touched upon until Reflection in Crystal’s final scene, some of the Empire’s disturbing developments can be glimpsed during the continuation of the Ultima Project storyline, featuring a mech fight with the Sapphire Weapon. It’s a little… strange, being a solo fight as opposed to a new Trial, but hey, it’s there if you need a break from that NieR raid!
It’s hard to see which direction Final Fantasy XIV’s story will take as it sets up for its next expansion, but one thing’s for sure—everyone’s alive and healthy. Even the Exarch.
Elizabeth Henges is a freelance writer that contributes to Kotaku, The Inventory, and more. You can find her on Twitter @gaiages.