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.
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.
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.
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.