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The End of Final Fantasy XIV's 'Shadowbringers' Expansion Is The Emotional Spectacle I've Been Waiting For

Illustration for article titled The End of iFinal Fantasy XIV/is Shadowbringers Expansion Is The Emotional Spectacle Ive Been Waiting For

It’s hard for any story to end well, and even harder when it’s set in the constantly changing world of an MMORPG. Lengthy questlines that require years’ worth of player investment are hard to sell. Final Fantasy XIV’s latest expansion, ‘Shadowbringers,’ makes it work with an emotionally charged climax that helps create one of the franchise’s hardest-hitting finales.

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Illustration for article titled The End of iFinal Fantasy XIV/is Shadowbringers Expansion Is The Emotional Spectacle Ive Been Waiting For

As my co-worker Mike Fahey regales Kotaku readers with his travels through ‘Shadowbringers,’ I’ve managed to play through the story and have been eagerly awaiting the chance to talk about its conclusion. Many Final Fantasy games have memorable endings, from the distant time skip at the end of Final Fantasy VII to the bittersweet conclusion of Final Fantasy X’s romance. Final Fantasy XIV has always been an odd duck within the series. Its story starts slow and takes time to get going, carefully setting up the world of Eorzea and its intricate politics. It’s only in the expansions that Final Fantasy XIV has really found its narrative chops, building on the initial framework to tell stories of warring nations and scheming gods. It’s been a long, slow burn, and ‘Shadowbringers’ is where everything explodes.

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Final Fantasy XIV’s story has involved a massive conflict between dragons and snowy theocratic nations, as well as an ongoing war between the good guys and the evil Garlean Empire. But over the course of many expansions, it’s become clear that these have all been caused by the plot of scheming, god-like beings called the Ascians. In ‘Shadowbringers,’ the player character travels to an alternate world besieged by monsters called Sin Eaters. It’s all part of an Ascian plot to cause destruction in one realm and have it snowball out to consume the rest of the universe.

For a while, the plot follows a standard role-playing game structure. You travel the world to hunt down “Lightwardens,” powerful Sin Eaters responsible for upsetting the world’s balance. You travel from location to location with your party of brave heroes, righting wrongs and defeating nasty bosses. What helps make things interesting is how you are accompanied by one of the Ascians, the snarky villain Emet-Selch. He brings a dynamic to your group of adventurers that’s both adversarial and genuinely playful. At the end of the game, after a few additional plot twists, he reveals why he and the other Ascians are causing so much destruction. They are the survivors of a long-dead civilization called Amaurot who sacrificed most of their population to birth a god in the hopes of saving their world. Eventually, fearful of this god, other survivors summoned a different god. They fought and fractured the lone world into multiple worlds. Emet-Selch and his allies want to revive all of the innocents lost in this struggle.

Emet-Selch conjures a recreated version of Amaurot. The final dungeon of ‘Shadowbringers’ (at least until patches inevitably add more) is set in an illusory version of Amaurot’s final days when horrible monsters and falling stars destroyed the world. It is sincerely one of the most powerful and visually lush experiences I’ve ever had playing a video game, particularly after playing countless hours of Final Fantasy XIV and getting invested. Warped beasts chase citizens through the smoldering streets as Emet-Selch’s voice rings out to recall the end of his people. This is underscored by Masayoshi Soken’s score, which remixes a sullen piano tune from the overworld and turns it into an orchestral piece with pounding drums and crescendoing strings. You can watch the whole thing as I play through on my White Mage in the video above. There’s a small moment we pause, because a first-timer had stopped to admire the area and express their awe in chat. That happens a lot when you run through this dungeon.

The first time I played, I found myself overwhelmed by how all of these pieces came together. The moment felt both like a triumphant dash toward a dangerous rival and a terrible lament for a doomed people. I played through with other people, and we kept pausing between tricky bosses to express our awe in chat as we moved deeper and deeper into the burning city and eventually up into the starry heavens themselves. Below us, the entire planet glowed with fire and death. I can’t think of a moment like it in all the years I’ve been playing games with others.

Illustration for article titled The End of iFinal Fantasy XIV/is Shadowbringers Expansion Is The Emotional Spectacle Ive Been Waiting For
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Watching Final Fantasy XIV bring everything together is one of those moments. Final Fantasy XIV often slips into cliche territory, But watching Amaurot burn was different. It was heartbreaking. I came to understand Emet-Selch’s anguish. When the final battle followed—where multiple players are summoned to face Emet-Selch’s true form—it was a damn good boss fight but also sad in its own right. I never felt for Sephiroth or Kefka or Seymour. I did care about Emet-Selch. That’s impressive, and discovering a moment like this in a game I’ve been playing for so long was heartening.

It’s easy to get cynical about video games, especially if you have to play them more for work than for personal enjoyment. Every now and then, you have a moment that reminds you Why You Do This Shit. The ‘Shadowbringers’ ending was one of those moments: a mixture of joy and sadness, empathy and disgust. It came paired with challenging encounters and memorable reaction from other players. I needed this shit. It was like exhaling after holding in a large breath. I won’t soon forget it, and I’m grateful for it.

Former Senior Writer and Critic at Kotaku.

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DISCUSSION

Seconded. I was wondering how they’d top Stormblood (which, for me, read as “Final Fantasy VI: The Expansion”), but god damn did they ever manage to pull it off.

***SPOILERS AHOY***

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I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve always regarded the Ascians as being the sort of hand-rubbing, mustache-twirling, Snidely-Whiplash-wannabes-in-Kingdom-Hearts-getups villains that I generally disregard for being the tropey mess they are the second I encounter them, but this expansion managed to change that gut reaction in me. Emet-Selch is, in his own way, a sympathetic villain—and while his all-encompassing need to restore his own people at any cost is the kind of cosmic-level evil Final Fantasy has always traded on, his arguments in favor of his position manage to be at least somewhat rational and emotionally resonant without ever really becoming overly compelling.

The one thing that I think put the melodrama a little over the top—for me, anyway—is the angle they’re playing with the Prince. This whole comic book/soap opera-esque “they were very obviously dead, and by every other rule in this universe, theirs was not the type of soul that can just possess another body, but now THEY’RE BACK, because dundundun” garbage is—in my personal view, anyway—just that: garbage. It’s schlocky writing that’s intended to ratchet up tension, but for me, it actually kills a lot of it.

It boils down to: “Oh look. This asshole again. I bet he’s gonna sneer, make some kind of lofty proclamation driven by hubris, and then do something incredibly violent for emphasis. Oh, look, there he goes.”

I fully understand that we can’t just have a new villain who’s even more powerful than the last every time we defeat the present big bad without running into Dragon Ball Z levels of power-inflation, but I dunno. The Prince was a great villain during his run in Stormblood , and the period in which his body was possessed by an Ascian was kinda cool—but this whole, “I’m back, muhahahaha,” angle is just so middle-school-grade-fanfiction that it feels out of place when set against all the other good work that was done in Shadowbringers.

...also, this expansion was finally the one that managed to make Urianger something other than a navel-gazing ponce. Well done.

In sum, this is easily the best of the expansions to date—and this is coming from a guy who had to learn to like Il Mheg, because I’m generally not a fan of fae tales or the whole “look at the mischievous pixie with the effective powers of a god and the mind of a child” bit. A damned fine effort. Looking forward to what they do next.

And because it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point something like this out: that Soylent Green moment was about as predictable as the rising of the sun.  I mean, it was cool, but calling it a “twist” is akin to calling anything M. Night Shyamalan has done “inventive.”