Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker Review – From Ends, Beginnings

    Title: Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
    Developer: Square Enix
    Release Date: December 3, 2021
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Square Enix
    Genre: MMORPG

(Reviewer’s note: This review is specifically on the topic of the Main Scenario Quest content of Endwalker. This reviewer has completed the MSQ and unlocked flying in all zones, but has not interacted with any post-game content, discussion of which will be in a separate piece.)

In case you’re somehow unfamiliar, Final Fantasy XIV has a rather complicated history to its name. Originally launching as a buggy, broken, near-unplayable mess, the entire game was scrapped less than two years after launch, and rebuilt from the ground up by Square’s 3rd Creative Development Team under the direction of Naoki Yoshida.

Over the following eight years since its launch, the newly-christened Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has managed to be possibly the greatest comeback story in the history of gaming, with each successive expansion receiving even more critical praise and commercial success. The game has rebuilt its reputation to the point that a large percentage of its fanbase was furious that its previous expansion, Shadowbringers, was largely snubbed by awards shows that year despite the opinion that it was one of the best iterations of the entire franchise.

And then, despite the pandemic causing a massive content slowdown that delayed the next expansion by six months, Final Fantasy XIV has utterly exploded in 2021. The downfall of its biggest competitor and the attention of many prominent content creators led to an enormous population spike for the game despite the development team’s inability to secure additional servers due to said pandemic and other factors, to the point where the game is now considered to be the most popular MMORPG in the world.

And then it exploded all over again with the launch of Endwalker in December, which very quickly became known for login queues of thousands of people and wait times that could last hours. This expansion was promised to conclude the story that began in A Realm Reborn, tie together all of the story threads yet unbound, and usher in the next ten years of Final Fantasy XIV. How did it do?

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Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker is, to say it upfront and briefly, a masterpiece.

Coming from such a tough act to follow and having the weight of over twice as many subscribers at launch as its predecessor expecting great things, it is simply the most well-crafted gaming experience I had this year. Endwalker knows exactly what to do with each of its story elements to maximize their effectiveness and make me ugly cry, and so I did, several times.

This story takes some inspiration from past Final Fantasy titles, and in pretty much every case it puts those inspirations to even better use. The least spoiler-y example I can give is that the destruction of Garlemald at the hands of its own ruler in order to further increase their own power is pretty clearly a parallel to the similar destruction of the Empire in Final Fantasy XV. Where that wound up being an underwhelming reveal tossed aside near the end of the game and not followed up on at all, here, we get to see the ruins of the great city and its people, still desperately clinging to their country’s pride even though the person to whom they had entrusted their safety has directly betrayed them without a care.

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I think this is going to go down as one of the most heartbreaking sequences in any Final Fantasy title, and it’s already become famous in the month since launch because it’s just so heavy. Garlemald would, in any other expansion, have been an oppressive final area where the story ends with a “to be continued” and a wait for the next patch, but Endwalker holds the pedal down so much that it is just a step along the path, less than halfway in. This story may carry the unfortunate tradition of a rather slow first act, but once it grips you, the momentum never fully lets up, and it totally drives home the idea that you are coming up on the end of a huge, epic tale.

The rest of the game keeps up, too. Final Fantasy XIV hasn’t had a particularly bad dungeon or fight in a long time, but Endwalker takes the Shadowbringers method of pushing the player to the brink and ratchets it up even further. Particularly with the rebalanced combat, the bosses in this expansion (which frequently come at the end of intense or even oppressive dungeons or sequences) will force you to pay more attention than ever, frequently being comparable to something you’d see at an Extreme or even Savage level in A Realm Reborn or Heavensward. Having made it through so many of them, the player is expected to have mastered at least the basics, and it leads to fights with perfectly-tuned difficulty that feel incredible to overcome.

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The biggest highlight of the experience, though, is the final few hours. It’s obviously impossible to go very deep here without spoiling things, but the last area as a whole is quiet, poignant, and utterly heart-wrenching. All of the themes and questions raised by the story evolve into their highest forms here, as the game asks you the same question in a thousand different ways.

Why keep going?

It’s something I’m sure every player will have had on their mind for the previous forty or more hours because almost every plot point of Endwalker ultimately ties into it. When you think you have an answer, another idea is raised to challenge it once more, and by the end, when the Warrior of Light stands alone before their final threats, it echoes over and over again. And the final showdown truly is not only an extension of this theme, but a culmination that Final Fantasy XIV has been building towards for a decade, and a moment so incredible that I wish I could experience it over and over again.

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Endwalker is not the end, but it is very definitely an end. In the game, it is the end of the tale of Hydaelyn and Zodiark, the Ascians, and the Scions of the Seventh Dawn who rose to challenge them. In our universe, it is the end of the second era of Final Fantasy XIV, a midnight that transitions into a bright and new day for the players and developers, in which anything could happen. But for now, the clock is still striking twelve, and I’m absolutely thrilled to see what will happen at 12:01.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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