Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for Final Fantasy 14. Proceed with caution.
What is the best Final Fantasy game? This isn't a new question for a series that started all the way back in 1987. Fifteen mainline releases and countless spin-offs mean that everyone has a different answer. Over the past few years, one game has increasingly entered the conversation: Final Fantasy 14. The MMO had a rocky start, but since its A Realm Reborn update, it's gone from strength to strength.
With the Shadowbringers expansion, I think I'm ready to call it in Final Fantasy 14's favor. It's not a game that everyone will enjoy, hewing close to World of Warcraft's weird real-time combat and dropping you into a world full of other players milling about. If you can get over that though, there's a surprisingly strong story that winds its way across an entire world and to others beyond.
Working Like Peak TV
To understand why, it's actually helpful to look toward another medium. There's been a rise in premium television, starting in the early 2000s and continuing on. Starting with shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and The West Wing, it's been an era of creator-driven, long-form storytelling. Over these 20 years, television has caught up to film in terms of what it is possible from a technical standpoint. That's not to say that there aren't films that strike home in terms of theme and characterization, but television is doing a lot of leg work these days.
The major benefit of television over film is time. In a movie, you have two or three hours to introduce your characters, settings, and themes, and then pay them off in a satisfying way. It can be done, but it can also short-change some stories. The audience has joined these characters on an emotional and physical journey, one woven in and out of their day-to-day lives. Film can only do that over the short-term. They're about immediate impact, even in the slower, more dramatic films. The disappointment felt in the final season of Game of Thrones was one based on connection, the culmination of following a cast of characters for eight years. There are movies that play around in the same space though—the Harry Potter films or the Marvel Cinematic Universe are almost television, mega-budget limited series following a set of characters over years.
The difference between Final Fantasy 14 and its brethren is the same. Final Fantasy 6 is a fantastic story, but it's also a largely finite one. For 40 hours, you join Terra and her compatriots across the worlds of balance and ruin. It's an epic journey of loss, love, and evil. But it's like a movie: you come in, prepared to experience a complete story. You're meant to finish Final Fantasy 6 and move on.
Final Fantasy 14 continues on. Every expansion is a season, a new locale, a new main plot carrying your character through machinations that are arguably bigger than they are. Nations fall, people die, new heroes and villains are born. The expansions are a microcosm of the large whole that is Final Fantasy 14.
The Scions Of Third Expansion
While your player character is rarely voiced, Final Fantasy 14 does give you a supporting cast. You are the Warrior of Light, a fragment of godhood in the body of a mortal. Fighting alongside you are the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, a group of adventurers and archeologists who serves as the faces of Final Fantasy 14. It's your journey to be sure, but it's just as much theirs. Thancred, Y'shtola, Urianger, Alphinaud, and Alisaie are there with you. They move in and out of your adventures, frequently heading off toward their own journeys before intersecting with yours. They tend to return changed, with a new look, new relationships, or a new drive to their lives.
Patch 5.3 for Final Fantasy 14 brings the story of Shadowbringers to a close by centering the threat on your companions. Your Warrior of Light hails from the Source, but Shadowbringers takes place on the First, an alternate reality. While you and can hop back between both realities at will, your friends are separated: their souls are in the First, while their bodies waste away back in the Source. Shadowbringers pulls you in two directions, saving the First from an overflowing of Light, and finding a way to bring your friends' souls and bodies back together.
When you meet them again in Shadowbringers' main campaign, they've been on the First for some time. Minutes separated from their bodies in the Source become years in the First. You witness some of the biggest changes for each of them, but they're just another step on their journey.
Urianger is an Arcanist you meet in A Realm Reborn, a secretive Elezen who covers his face with goggles and a hood. Over the course of three expansions, Urianger retains his reserved nature, but he also opens up. He becomes a friend to you and the other Scions, and when you meet him in Shadowbringers, the hood and goggles are gone. It's Urianger out in the light, his surprisingly handsome face and bare shoulders give certain Warriors of Light something to pine for. And he makes jokes! If you've been beside Urianger since A Realm Reborn's launch in 2013, it's wonderful to see him open up to you and the rest of the Scions.
The same is true of others. Take Alisaie Leveilleur, one of the two twins in the Scions. You meet her and her brother, Alphinaud in the very beginning of A Realm Reborn. They're barely characters at that point, and over the course of the early part of Final Fantasy 14, Alphinaud definitely outpaces his sister in terms of character development. She's quiet and pragmatic, never really making an impact. By the time Shadowbringers rolls around though, Alisaie is a Red Mage, a flashy warrior with a rapier in one hand and a magical crystal in the other. She's forceful, one of the few Scions to truly step to the forefront and try to match the Warrior of Light. Most of all, she's actually wonderfully funny, with almost a devil may care attitude about facing the amassed forces of evil.
Speaking of "forces of evil," those characters change with the unfolding of Final Fantasy 14's story as well. Gaius van Baelsar was one of your first foes, a high-ranking soldier in the Garlean Empire. Gaius begins as a true believer, one who thinks might means right, and that the Empire has the right to dominate the world. Over the course of A Realm Reborn, Gaius seems firm in his conviction, on the road to your confrontation with Ultima Weapon. Following that encounter, the doubts planted in Gaius' mind come to a head, and he leaves the Empire.
He's not a hero per se, but he is trying to make up for his past actions and his needs sometimes align with yours. Patch 5.2 introduced the threat of further Weapons, highlighting Gaius' past actions and even threatening those he loves. You almost feel for this guy, who at one point was your primary antagonist. Final Fantasy 14 carries these characters, good and evil, forward from expansion to expansion. They're not always present, but when they do appear, it's clear they have their own lives outside of your heroic actions.
One of Us
When Patch 5.3 brings Shadowbringers to a close, it's emotional because it's not about you. It's a series of goodbyes, between the Scions and the homes they made within the First, and the other characters whose lives they touched. This was not their world, but they fought for it, and almost died for it. Your survival was assured; theirs was not. These heroes stood with you at the end of another world and they did not falter.
Shadowbringers truly ends its tale with the return of G'raha Tia to the fold. A character introduced in the first raid of Final Fantasy 14, the Crystal Tower, the end of that questline saw G'raha sealed within the tower in a moment of heroic sacrifice. You're summoned to the First by the Crystal Exarch, the regent of that world's version of the Crystal Tower. And ultimately, it's revealed to be G'raha Tia, two expansions later and a bit wiser.
He's tied to the Crystal Tower, to his title as the Crystal Exarch, and to the city of the Crystarium that has grown around the tower. But running through most of Shadowbringers is the hint of G'raha's hero worship. He wants to be there alongside the Warrior of Light. He wants to be a hero of old, with sword and stave in hand against the rising tide of evil. But he can't. Responsibilities abound, his royal bloodline calls.
Until you find a way out and he's free. Free to be a hero. And while there's an epilogue teasing treachery and villainy to come, Shadowbringers ends on a simple note. Your character and the assorted Scions rushing out to defend the people of a local town from some Hippogryphs, enemies that are so far below you. It's like killing ten rats again, having fought and defeated primals and the original stewards of all reality. And in seven years of adventures, of friends lost and gods slain, the amassed party of you and your friend head out to fight some overgrown chickens. And G'raha Tia, after thousands of years waiting in the tower… finally gets to join you.
It's such a wonderful payoff to everything that's happened to you in Final Fantasy 14, and honestly, it did make me a bit emotional. And across all the Final Fantasy games I've played, there have been highs and lows, but none have hit me as emotionally as Final Fantasy 14. Imagine seeing Locke's change in Final Fantasy 6 from thief to selfless hero unfolding over years, not hours, or spending more time with Cecil on his road from Dark Knight to Paladin. Final Fantasy 7 Remake is trading heavily on the idea of expanding and spending more time fleshing out the moments and conflicts in its characters' lives; I feel it's benefiting heavily from that expansion.
Final Fantasy 14 is that idea writ large. Even if you're new to the game, it's still hundreds of hours of play to reach the end of Shadowbringers, and that gives you time to live in the world of Eorzea and really understand the lives of its inhabitants. That expanse makes you love them all more. That, combined with loving homages to past Final Fantasy games, is why Final Fantasy 14 ultimately stands at the top. It truly is the best Final Fantasy.